There’s a certain point in a television series when the writers realize there might be more to certain character combination of characters than they had previously imagined. Since most shows only ever get to see a first episode, the relationships that exist in the pilot are the ones that shows will stick to before other possibilities come out of the writing’s natural progression. One of the things I originally loved about Community was how it so badly wanted Jeff and Britta to be the intriguing main pairing, but it also had no problem abandoning the pair as a romantic couple when it became clear after a few episodes that they just didn’t have the kind of chemistry the show needed from them. So it moved on, and found a more suitable way to have them interact. That kind of flexibility is crucial to a show’s success. Without a willingness to adapt, a show’s stubbornness to stick to the original plan can crush it.
“A Room of One’s Clone” pits pairings of characters against each other to varied success. Scudworth and Mr. Butlertron are a pair that have been together since day one, but even their relationship has changed since. Sure, Scudworth is just as madcap as he always was, but Mr. Butlertron has taken a distinct turn towards the ornery since “Sleep of Faith: La Rue D’Awakening” (still the best title of this series). There’s something just delightful about this sweet little robot in his dapper sweater vest dishing out serious attitude when he gets pissed off. In an episode that’s a little lighter on the jokes than usual, I had no bigger laugh than when Mr. B’s claws flailed furiously as he spit at Scudworth, “at least I’m not a giant pompous china doll whose evil plans suck the devil’s ass.”
The pairing that feels like it should have happened much earlier is JFK and Gandhi, the show’s resident party jerks. I hadn’t noticed that we hadn’t seen Gandhi and Abe in a storyline together for a long while, but throwing Gandhi in with JFK makes that clearer. Abe has been so caught up with Cleo drama that he’s had no time to hang with his best bro forever (and really, where is there to go from a friendship makeout?). So while Abe’s been desperately trying to get to some sort of base with Cleo, Gandhi’s been drifting in side plots that are more vehicles for farce than anything substantial. And no, Gandhi sharing a peeping tom spot with JFK isn’t exactly “substantial,” but it does feel right. It even works that they don’t understand that they’re equally gross right away. JFK is the ladies man quarterback while Gandhi has always been the irrepressible and overeager try-hard. JFK would naturally be wary of accepting that this loser Gandhi is anything like himself. He’ll even put his fists up in a hilarious approximation of ye olde bar fightes to prove his masculine worth:
But at the end of the day JFK and Gandhi are still teenage boys, so all is forgiven and forgotten the second they get to see the objects of their drooling in their underwear.
Said objects also get to have a rare, extended interaction in this episode. Joan and Cleo have never liked each other—Joan because Abe loves Cleo, and Cleo because Joan is totally weird—but they’ve never really had to interact much besides snipes outside lockers or glares over Abe’s oblivious shoulder. I will also never argue against an episode twist that gives Joan’s blind foster dad Toots more to do, so the idea of him getting together with “Cleo’s drunk foster mom” is just fine by me. (Bonus points for their thriving kink life.) I can take or leave the final food fight, but otherwise, Joan and Cleo’s bedroom standoff is some of the most fun either of them have throughout the series. Joan is so often stuck in pining mode that she rarely gets to explore her pent-up rage, while Cleo is apparently so determined to present a bombshell front that she forces Joan sign a nondisclosure agreement to ensure that her “pre-makeup face” and “afternoon bowel movement” remain her own shameful secrets. Their eventual descent into primal fury is a treat for both the characters and their voice actors. Nicole Sullivan embraces Joan’s naked wrath, while Christa Miller adds a tinge of terror into Cleo’s usually inscrutable purr.
It looks like they’re going to put aside their differences by the time they stumble into that immortal fantasy of women pillow fighting in their underwear to a Benny Hill-esque theme, but it’s so much more satisfying when we discover that they still hate each other’s guts. After all, it’s so much more fun that way.
Musical episodes are tricky. Adopting such a different form for a single episode is an ambitious feat, not just because of the extra pressure songwriting adds, but also because the songs have to feel at least somewhat organic. The singing still has to feel like the characters would do it, the songs can’t be too cute, and it can’t come off like a pure gimmick. If you’re going to do a musical episode, you have to make sure it’s worth taking the leap into a new and precarious format.
“Raisin the Stakes” doesn’t care about any of that. It’s here to have a good time, and it never wants to explain why or how people are singing because that would get in the way of the jokes. And it’s right. That’s exactly how Clone High as it came to be should have done a musical episode. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Scrubs took care to give their musical episodes a real root, but as a parody, Clone High has no such responsibility. Every episode is a Very Special one; this one just happens to be the Very Special Drug episode, which just so happens to be a Very Special Musical.
So first, let’s talk drugs. Jack Black plays Larry Hardcore, a supposedly reformed drug addict and musician who comes to Clone High to say, “don’t do drugs and especially don’t smoke raisins.” Maybe the smartest thing about “Raisin the Stakes” is that it hinges on teenagers’ tendency to do exactly what they’re told not to, and how once something becomes much less appealing the second it’s no longer forbidden. There’s also that undeniable part of D.A.R.E.-style campaigns in which they accidentally raise awareness of things its audience had never thought about before. I, for example, never knew cough syrup could get me high until middle school health told me. The second Larry Hardcore suggests that raisins could get them high, the clones blink back, confused—and then intrigued. It’s like Julius Caesar (Neil Flynn) says: “I’ve always enjoyed ingesting raisins, but I never thought about smoking them. Now I have, and I want to do it!”
And so the clones descend into raisin smoking, fringed vest-wearing hippie delinquents, and the soundtrack goes down into peace, love, and tight harmonies with them. Gandhi goes on a psychedelic journey inside his own subconscious to free a dragon princess. Cleo and Abe change their names to “Rain Melon” and “Captain Lavender” and get common-law married in tunics and flower crowns. Everyone grows beards. The obvious aesthetic influence is Hair (full name: The American Tribal-Love Rock Musical), but the music itself is more Hair by way of The Who’s Tommy. See Tommy’s Acid Queen, featuring Tina Turner’s caped villain and a trip through an underground hellscape of reds and satins:
Then look to Clone High’s “I’m the Pusher,” featuring Jack Black’s caped villain and a trip through a vibrant hellscape of reds and purples. It uses the same rollicking guitar licks and surreal cuts, and follows “The Acid Queen”’s example of letting the repetition drive the song to its dizzying heights (“I’m the Pusher!” “I’m the Acid Queen!”):
The best thing about this episode, though, is that it doesn’t depend on the musical numbers. The songs are accents to an episode that’s already stacked with jokes. “Raisin the Stakes” is also the first episode that’s credited to creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller since “Episode 2: Election Blu Galoo,” and it shows. Where other episodes have hesitated to get too absurd, Lord and Miller let all hell loose in “Raisin the Stakes” with a palpable glee. And if it seems familiar…well, it should:
Lord and Miller have admitted that they’ve lifted jokes from Clone High for their subsequent projects, but it wasn’t until “Raisin the Stakes” that I realized just how much 21 Jump Street owes this show. “Raisin the Stakes” feels Lord and Miller sketching out what a weird new drug might do to kids before they dove in with 21 Jump Street. If MTV would have let Gandhi say, “fuck you, science!” to a room of bewildered classmates, I have no doubt Lord and Miller would have done so then.
At the very least, I’m thrilled Lord and Miller got to work through their earliest stabs at surreal comedy with Will Forte, who knows a thing or a thousand about being a grade-A weirdo. I say this with all the love in my heart: Forte is weird, and he’s game for anything. His performance as Abe is consistently good, but between the singing, tantrums, and starry-eyed reverence for his new friends the raisins, Forte brings it to a new level in this episode. As we learned with 21 Jump Street and even The Lego Movie, there’s something about Lord and Miller’s writing lets actors know it’s time to play. Forte relishes that opportunity. He doesn’t slack off on a single line.
Whenever people bemoan the cancellation of Clone High, they inevitably point to “Raisin the Stakes.” It makes sense. It’s quick, unapologetic, and deeply, deeply strange. Sure, the episode is atypical in form, but when you break it down, it’s clear that it’s a joyful collision of everything that makes Clone High worthwhile.
- Note: Though “Raisin the Stakes” aired before “Room of One’s Clone” on MTV, I put these episodes in the order they originally aired in on Teletoon because the ending “next time on” voiceover indicates that the Teletoon order was indeed the correct one.
- High School Commiseration Corner: I was 100% Joan when it came to drinking/drugs/off-color fun in high school. “Why didn’t you tell them that you’re high on your mother’s love?!” is probably a thing I said at some point. I’m pretty sure I even froze my dad’s cigars.
- Hey, it’s 2002!: I…got nothing. Maybe you do, in the comments?
- I usually can’t even take a reference to The Shining (freaks me out, man), but Gandhi hallucinating the twins as Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen handing him Dave Coulier’s amulet is pretty perfect.
- Also, was anyone else rooting for Gandhi to actually call and thrice lay the dragon princess that lived in his subconscious? Just me? Okay, cool.
- The high school raising money to rebuild Joan’s house with a “Pity for Joan” rally is a nice touch. Joan and Toots actually living under the bleachers after Cleo teased her about it is a great one.
- “The quote unquote civilized world just doesn’t understand us and our self-importance.”
- “My fellow Americans, as we try to weave the fabric of this great nation back together, I say to you…try the churros.”