If Clone High premiered today, it could probably run for years. Instead, it premiered in 2003 on MTV, where it quietly fizzled out. It’s not that cartoons with adult themes weren’t finding success. By the time Clone High premiered, The Simpsons already had thirteen years under its belt, and King of the Hill was already a couple successful seasons deep. Beavis and Butt-head had been a bonafide hit for MTV, even inspiring the equally sharp spinoff Daria. Maybe MTV hoped the end of Daria’s high school career could prepare people to transition into Clone High, which premiered the same year Daria ended.
Somehow, though, Clone High didn’t grab the same misfit viewers that Beavis and Butt-head and Daria had. Canadian network Teletoon had already aired the entirety of the series, but Clone High’s run on MTV was so unsuccessful that the network didn’t even bother to show the last five episodes—out of a grand total of thirteen.
Nowadays, the three Clone High co-creators are doing just fine. Bill Lawrence’s Scrubs took off as Clone High died on the vine, to the point that Lawrence now has his hands in half a dozen shows at any given time. Meanwhile, his Clone High cohorts Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are making names for themselves with the wildly successful Lego Movie, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, and 21 Jump Street. Fittingly enough, these were all surprises in a very Clone High way. Both The Lego Movie and Cloudy With a Chance Of Meatballs are rapid-fire animated delights packed with sharp jokes and heart, while the hyperactive 21 Jump Street takes glee in dismantling high school stereotypes only to put them back together with equal parts wit and filth. Still, it’s easy to imagine an alternate universe in which Clone High premiered ten years later on Adult Swim, where it could join the current late-night stoner roster to great acclaim and many a Tumblr gifset. Even Lord and Miller agree. They have often expressed interest in making a Clone High movie, but admit that years of contracts and swapping rights have created a legal nightmare.
On this great big Internet of ours, though, there’s almost nothing more beloved than a television show that never got its due. Shows like Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, and Firefly all found a second life on the Internet, whether it was through Reddit forums or on Netflix streaming. Clone High is easily accessible on YouTube. So even while fans bemoan the time lost with Clone High’s ragtag group of genetic misfits, there’s something special about rallying around a star that shone too bright, too soon.
And yes, Clone High is something special. It has one of those rare concepts that makes you do a double-take even as you’re already laughing—teenage clones of revered historical figures go to high school together, and fuck up just as much as any normal teenager would. It was astonishingly confident coming from an untested writing team, with a sharp comedic voice that shone through the show’s loud graphics.
The most startling thing about Clone High, though, is that underneath the cutting wit and pithy asides, there’s actually just a good show about high school. Sure, these students are actually clones living in the shadows of their legendary genetic predecessors, but it’s not much different than every teenage high-schooler that lives in the shadows of their parents, or their older siblings, or whoever it is that’s making them feel uncomfortable in their own skins that week. And this is just one example of how Clone High made the brilliant choice to use the history to play up high school archetypes. We have our whiny white boy protagonist with Abe (Will Forte). He knows the first Lincoln was a relentless do-gooder, but Abe’s just grown a foot and can barely function what with all his hormones. His best friends are Gandhi (Michael McDonald), who realized he could never live up to the original’s saintly example and so would rather party, and Joan of Arc (Nicole Sullivan), who provides the moody Daria-esque disdain and nurses a fierce crush on Abe. Rounding out the main cast are the two clones who hew the closest to their genetic reputations. JFK (co-creator Christoper Miller) is the popular pretty-boy who is an incorrigible flirt, while Cleopatra (Christa Miller) is that too-good-to-be-true babe everyone in high school loves and hates in equal measure.
There’s plenty of humor that comes out of their being clones. JFK leans especially hard on his likeness with an exaggerated Newport accent, and cameos from classmates like Genghis Khan and a depressed Vincent Van Gogh pop up throughout the series. For the most part, though, Clone High is best when it just lets the clones be their awkward teenaged selves. This holds true even for the animation. Each character’s design corresponds right to their personalities. Insecure Abe is a thin reed of a man who cowers in the face of conflict and low-hanging branches. Lothario JFK draws constant attention to the rounded bulges in his pants. Party animal Gandhi moves at a constant, jerky clip. Temptress Cleo is all curves while deadpan Joan is all angles, even down to her flat head and pointed breasts. Much credit for the character development also belongs to the talented voice cast, which nails the scripts’ quick pace and offhand wit. Will Forte’s Abe is a particular joy in the pilot episode. Abe trips over his gangly new body over and over again, but he manages to trip over his own words even more. When Cleopatra shows an interest in him, Abe can’t even squeak out a “hello” until well after she’s already left. He’s so stunned by Cleo’s sensual beauty that he can’t process the fact that Joan is always standing right there, pining for him and trying not to collapse in on herself.
Still, Clone High is not your average high school show. It pokes fun at the histrionics of high school drama, especially at how the smallest things become world-altering nightmares inside the mind of a hormonal teen. It then subverts the expected resolutions to the conflicts that would get tied up in a neat, unrealistic bow on something like Dawson’s Creek. Abe gets the girl, but he doesn’t get to keep her. For a teenager, making out with a crush is a monumental occasion only rivaled by birth, and so it rings true when Abe kisses Cleo and declares, “I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of this, but we’re gonna be together forever.” Yeah, no. Then there’s poor Joan, whose unrequited crush reaches a fever pitch in the pilot when she rushes to tell Abe how she feels, and instead sees Abe and Cleo making out. We then get a close-up of her shocked face as the soundtrack smash cuts to Dashboard Confessional, the crying soundtrack of choice for many a 2002-era teen (the reviewer wrote not at all autobiographically):
This moment, as with so many others on Clone High, is the perfect blend of irreverent and affectionate. It pokes fun at the do or die nature of a high school crush while also letting Joan have a truly heartbreaking moment. It’s absurd, soul-crushing, melodramatic, and ultimately, hilarious—like living through high school all over again.
- Welcome to TV Club Classic’s Clone High reviews! I’m thrilled to go back to high school with you all, but who invited Van Gogh?
- I will never not laugh at Abe running into trees. It’s just physically impossible.
- JFK, being the worst: “Are you drunk enough to sleep with me?”
Joan, being the best: (SMACK)
JFK, being himself: “....answer the question!”
- Next week, on a very special Clone High: Abe runs against JFK for student body president, Gandhi comes down with A.D.D., and Marilyn Manson makes me spit out my wine (true).