“Showtime, Synergy”: Looking back at the legacy (and marketing) of Jem

“Showtime, Synergy”: Looking back at the legacy (and marketing) of Jem

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys; YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros; countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and video games whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory WipeThe A.V. Club takes a look at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

When news hit last month that a Jem movie was in the works, the show’s truly outrageous and truly long-term fans hit the net in full force. Some were cautiously optimistic, reasoning that any Jem movie is better than no Jem movie, while others dismissed the movie on the basis of its all-male production team and the absence of Christy Marx, the show’s creator and longtime head writer. What fans and non-fans alike weren’t talking about, though, was whether Jem was any good to begin with.

Hitting the television airwaves almost 30 years ago, Jem was a joint collaboration between Marvel Productions, Sunbow Productions, and the toy company Hasbro. It’s the same team that launched G.I. Joe and Transformers, both of which had become intensely successful brands. Marx was hired to build the show around a line of dolls Hasbro was creating, a concept that, while not unusual for the time, does seem slightly sleazy. The production team wanted to use Jem to appeal (read: sell) to girls the way G.I. Joe and Transformers appealed to boys.

And thus Jem was born, an emblematic ’80s animated series now streaming in its entirety on Netflix. The show told the story of Jerrica Benton, a young woman whose father dies right before the show’s first episode—probably struck down for naming his daughter “Jerrica.” Mr. Benton leaves his daughter in charge of both his home for foster girls, Starlight House, and his record label, Starlight Music, which he owns with the evil Eric Raymond. Raymond is all sugar and sweetness to Jerrica at the funeral, but shortly thereafter runs her out of the business more or less because he’s an evil dude. He’s backing a new all-girl band called The Misfits, who are rude, crude, and totally lewd, and he’ll bankrupt Starlight Music if it means making The Misfits popular.

Here’s where things get hinky. After Jerrica tries to get money from Eric for the floundering Starlight House, she receives a mysterious pair of earrings in the mail. She puts them on and, suddenly, an eyeless, holographic woman appears. It’s Synergy, who the elder Benton created as part of “the ultimate audio-visual entertainment synthesizer.” Jerrica, her sister Kimber, and friends Aja and Shana follow Synergy’s instructions and head down to the Starlight Drive-In, where the late Mr. Benton stored Synergy’s components, as well as a ton of band equipment, fashionable clothing, and a pink-and-yellow Rockin’ Roadster meant for his daughter. (Jerrica, not Kimber, because apparently Emmett Benton was a jerk.) Synergy, as it turns out, can project holograms using Jerrica’s earrings, and the girls decide to use this to their advantage. They transform into Jem And The Holograms, crash the rigged battle of the bands where The Misfits are playing, and garner some fans. They claim they’re friends and clients of Jerrica’s, and Eric Raymond offers her a deal: Jem And The Holograms have six months to become more popular than The Misfits. If they can’t do it, Jerrica will forfeit all claims to Starlight Music. And because there’s a random movie producer in the audience, a movie deal gets thrown in—as well as a gigantic mansion. Thus the rivalry and story is launched.

As far as a plot setup goes, it’s fairly standard, especially for toy-driven cartoons of the era. The Misfits are to Jem what Cobra was to G.I. Joe or what the Decepticons were to the Transformers. They’re out to destroy Jem and her goody-goody friends for no real reason, claiming that all they’re really about is winning, stealing, and never taking no for an answer. If Jem And The Holograms are Gallant, The Misfits are an equally exaggerated Goofus.

All that’s made clear right from the first episode, “The Beginning,” where The Misfits perform one of their big singles, “Winning Is Everything.” Decked out in harsh makeup and zebra print, Roxy, Stormer, and Pizzazz, a.k.a. The Misfits, sing lines like “If you wanna reach the top, don’t let anybody stop you.” It’s not entirely dissimilar from another song, “Outta My Way,” they sing in the same episode. Jem And The Holograms respond with some pure, sweet material in “Only The Beginning,” because, well, it’s only the beginning for this angelic quartet.

Songs are, of course, one of the things that sets Jem apart from its cartoon counterparts. Inspired by MTV, which had only just started to break into the mass market, the show included three “music videos” in each episode, though most were only about a minute or so long. Lyrics for all songs were written by Barry Harman, and though The Misfits’ songs were slightly edgier than The Holograms’, the tracks are almost indistinguishable other than by their lyrics. Jem tracks are about helping friends, being in love, and about the glory of the world as a whole. Misfit tracks are about, well, what The Misfits were about: pushing, shoving, and riding motorcycles that looked like electric guitars right over your heart. All told, Harman wrote 151 different songs for Jem’s 65 episodes, and 187 “music videos” of those 151 tracks were produced.

As with any cartoon or with any hidden-identity story, there is a suspension of disbelief that has to be applied to Jem. First of all, no one seems to notice that Jem and Jerrica are never really in the same place at the same time. Or that both Jem and Jerrica wear the same fairly distinctive earrings. Also, Jerrica’s boyfriend, Rio Pacheco, basically cheats on her with Jem, never realizing that they’re the same person. This doesn’t seem to bother anyone in the band because they’re in on the secret, but as both Jerrica and Jem are in the public eye and seen with Rio publicly, shouldn’t someone point out that Rio’s being a bit of a dog? And how dumb is he, really? The only person who ever really figures out Jem’s alternate identity is a private detective in the show’s fourth and fifth episodes, and even that doesn’t really go anywhere.

More than anything, though, the suspension of disbelief has to come around the show’s episodic stories. In almost every episode, one member of the band is in some sort of danger. Stuff is constantly falling near or around The Holograms, with the band almost being crushed by a gargoyle while shooting a music video in Paris. In the first five episodes alone, The Misfits do hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage, endangering lives left and right. Eric Raymond even has his henchman, Zipper, plant a bomb in the Starlight Mansion, threatening the lives of not only the Holograms but of all the Starlight Foundation’s foster girls. (In fact, this is the second Starlight Mansion. The first one burned down in the second episode after an incident with an oil-burning lantern.)

The Misfits are clearly out to get The Holograms, but no one group of gals could undergo that much drama. And while the storylines make sense in the first season, the drama goes off the rails in the show’s second and third seasons when, having run out of realistic situations, plot devices like time machines, mind control, and an evil band from West Germany are introduced. Fans have detailed some of Jem’s more insane episodes online, but suffice it to say that if the forthcoming movie hopes to have any sense of grit or realism, the writers might want to either stick with the show’s first five episodes—toned down, of course—or just write an alternate and “updated” version of the show’s over-the-top antics.

There are other somewhat icky aspects to Jem as well. While Jerrica and her friends are clearly strong enough women, they’re constantly shoved aside by men, seemingly with no recourse. After Jem beats out The Misfits in the battle of the bands, Jerrica returns to Starlight Records to find it basically bankrupt, Eric having paid none of the bills. Other times, Eric outright smacks her in anger, leaving her standing there awkwardly. And while Jem and her gang always use their smarts to get out of scrapes, a lot of fans remember the series not for its positive representation of strong women, but for its “glamour and glitter, fashion and fame.” Marx may have written the show with solid messages in mind, but the way the show is animated and the dolls were created—always wearing high heels, always with long hair, usually wearing skirts—suggests an adherence to a certain type of femininity, whether those sisters are out there doing it for themselves or not. Jem And The Holograms are ladies with pastel hair and pink accessories, whereas The Misfits are deviants, with their harsh neon hair and angular makeup. They might seem like the more punk act, but it’s clear to viewers that no one wants to be The Misfits. It’s better to be sweet and nice than to rock zebra print 24/7.

More than anything, Jem is a franchise. It’s a series birthed in part by a toy company in an effort to sell more product. The dolls existed before the show’s first episode aired, and while they were more expensive and bigger than Barbies, they sold. Hasbro kept churning out more dolls, too, producing modified versions of the signature characters as the second season launched and expanding into the foster girls from in the Starlight Foundation, The Misfits, and other ancillary characters as the show went on. New members of each band were introduced—Jetta, a British girl, joined The Misfits, and Raya, who was Hispanic, joined The Holograms—and even the band’s hangers-on like cousins Clash and Video Montgomery got their own plastic representations. Jem fans also had the option to purchase not one but two versions of the Rockin’ Roadster, as well as various play sets and outfits. After all, if Jem changed clothes in every episode, shouldn’t your Jem doll’s wardrobe change fairly often as well?

One aspect of the show Hasbro failed to market was its music. While Jem dolls came with tapes featuring one or two of the songs from the show, a comprehensive soundtrack was never issued. That’ll no doubt change with the Jem And The Holograms movie, especially given producers have already cast Nashville star Aubrey Peeples as its titular crooner. Like Josie And The Pussycats before it, the Jem movie will probably be built around custom songs repeated ad nauseum throughout, thus forcing viewers out of the theaters and onto iTunes.

Jem fans have a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the movie, especially if they’re into pretty, flirty singing and dancing with a touch of calculated grit. What they probably won’t find—and what the show never really had—was any touch of realism. Jerrica Benton was a rich girl fighting other rich girls over control of the music world. It’s something the Jem And The Holograms filmmakers might not even choose to attempt, given that the Ryan Landels-penned script “centers on an orphaned teenage girl who becomes an online recording sensation,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. (That Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, is also one of the film’s producers should come as no surprise.) The movie reimagines the series “for a whole new generation with themes of being true to who you are in a multitasking, hyperlinked social media age.” (Barf. Also, please note neither earrings nor holograms are mentioned in that summary.) In short, Jem is most likely being used as a framework for a movie about a cool young girl. If producers had to pick an established property and give her pink hair to get butts in seats, well then, so be it.

Moreover, because producers have picked Jem, it gives them an opportunity to expand the show’s world. Should it succeed, the movie could turn into a live-action television show that could birth track after track of recorded music, à la Nashville. Hell, dolls could even be made based on the movie characters, something that’s not too far fetched considering Integrity Toys currently makes updated versions of the original Jem toys. The movie could turn into a marketing juggernaut, and while that might sound like blasphemy to fans of the original show, it’s not, really.

It’s easy to forget, 30-odd years later and clouded by memories of wistful youth spent messing around with Rainbow Brite and My Little Pony, that a good deal of children’s television wasn’t born out of a person’s or company’s desire to make something good and educational that kids could enjoy. In fact, most of it wasn’t. American Greetings invented the Care Bears to—duh—sell bears, figurines, cards, etc. Bernard Loomis became a marketing mastermind in the ’60s when, asked to sell Hot Wheels toys, he introduced the cars via a 30-minute show that would air on Saturday morning TV. He went on to do that for the Six Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman, and Strawberry Shortcake, all of which launched before Jem was even a glint in Hasbro’s eye.

It’s comforting to think that the nostalgia surrounding pieces of culture like Jem could override consumer interests, but it’s not likely. In fact, a Jem And The Holograms movie birthed of corporate interests, social media, and an all-male production team could easily be a more accurate homage to the show’s creation and production, despite what the show has seemingly become to fans on the Internet since airing. Jem might be fun, a little glamorous, and relatively outrageous, but if the movie’s ever going to achieve the “fashion and fame” that the TV show had, it’s going to need to sell out just as hard.


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