By season 4, the Powerpuff Girls formula was wearing a little thin and getting a bit dull. I fully expected to see an episode in this season where I could go, ‘Yup, that’s where it jumped the shark’, but in fact the show-writers managed to rather exceed my expectations and as a matter of fact, I’d say that moment doesn’t come until the season 6 episode ‘A Made Up Story’, which given how close it was to the show’s end isn’t a bad stretch. Even the clips episode here is quickly subverted so that it’s quickly apparent that the flashbacks are actually all-new and often rather nonsensical snippets.
By this point, the bulk of the writers and episode directors on Powerpuff Girls are the people who will go on to write most of the episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, though Amy Keating Rogers had yet to contribute. Lauren Faust is established enough to really be taking a back seat here, but Chris Savino has his first work in this season and helps define it, while Cindy Morrow also joins to put in some small-scale episodes in her recognisable style.
Two things, I feel, kept this season from becoming tired – one, the use of an ace long kept up a sleeve in that finally, after being in every intro sequence yet not actually having been in any episodes since their first appearance in the first ever full-length episode back in season 1, the Rowdyruff Boys make their return, coming back for a full-length episode and then later for two more half-episodes. They are an interesting counterpoint to the girls and their return is welcome, making for some very enjoyable episodes, especially when poor Bubbles has to pretend to be one of them.
The second strength is that the show falls back on its old successes of imitating other shows and styles, but picks some very unusual things to imitate. One full half-episode parodying Rocky and Bullwinkle is so-so at best, but there’s a really lovely episode that imitates both silent movies and that era’s cartoons at once, the excellent episode about judging by appearances ‘Substitute Creature’ has some brilliant pastiches of pulp comic panels, and Chris Savino makes up for the slight misfire of the Rocky and Bullwinkle episode with a cracking rock opera tribute, ‘See Me, Feel Me, Gnomey’. While of course taking its cues mostly from The Who, it also has hints of The Wall and War of the Worlds, and it is a rather bewildering and dark tale about the girls taking a wish from a sinister little gnome to rid the town of all its evil in exchange for their powers, only for the gnome to then assume the role of saviour and force have everyone suppressed and lacking individuality. The girls and their father/creator decide this is not real peace and rebel. It’s a story confusingly-told, morally ambivalent and even rather disturbing when the girls drive the little man from a branch and to his death, and never aired in the States – rumour has it because the story hinted too heavily at weighing up communism and democracy, though I find this dubious – but who cares when it has wonderful 70s synths and guitar solos and a full-on Jack Black impression from Wakko Warner voice actor Jess Harnell? It’s not quite ‘Meet the Beat-Alls’, but it’s bolder overall and another, lesser-known highlight.
Otherwise, things are largely unambitious, often just poking at the boundaries of cartoon humour without taking many risks. There’s an episode where Bubbles hears a naughty word and everyone is shocked to hear the girls saying it – so soon they fight a giant potty mouth. There’s a swipe at the far Left when the girls are prevented from stopping Mojo Jojo’s crimes because an animal protection lobby group get self-righteous and force them to stop.
The Mayor’s stupidity is played upon – and he sounds more and more like the Ice King – with him taking over Monster Isle and being turned into a rampaging monster himself when Chemical X makes him huge. And Cindy Morrow turns in bland but entertaining episodes about bet-wetting, some adorable fluffy animals turning master criminals but nobody except the girls wanting to prosecute them on account of being so cute, and an annoying passive-aggressive dog being looked after by the girls as they try to protect him and persuade him to tell them about a crime he witnessed. The mixture of full-on weirdness, small-scale drama, repetition of old ideas and attempts to get the girls into different scenarios – including seeing caveman equivalents of them – retains the fun.
So yes, while I genuinely expected this to be quite the disappointment as a season, it actually turned out to be pretty good.