- Fillmore was an interesting show, to say the least. For those who may have forgotten or who weren't around at the time, action-comedy cartoons were absolutely everywhere in the early to mid 2000s and Fillmore has always been a weird chapter in the history of that era. It's absolutely bizarre premise, that being "CSI for Kids", instantly sets it apart already, but as I rewatched the show I found out that this wasn't where it's unique traits end. Fillmore is more than just a set of oblique 80s Cop Show references that even I don't get, it was about a lot more. And the way it handled what it was about was done with care and precision. That's what I'd like to talk about today...
- So, what made Fillmore different? Well, the most important thing would have to be the tone - how the show carried itself. Fillmore, while being a show about ostensibly normal kids, takes this opportunity to make it a show about people. About its characters. "Why do people do bad things?" is a question brought up frequently and the show makes it very clear that it's not always as simple as 'good and evil'. The criminals of the week in Fillmore are almost always portrayed as sympathetic, or, at the very least, victims of an unfair system. One episode deals with a cabal of scooter thieves who do what they do solely to pay for their teacher's dog's hip operation. Characters in Fillmore don't have to deal with saving the world and this shift from a macro to a micro setting brings into focus the kinds of problems that cause crime, even in the real world. The problems the characters are dealing with are things like relationships, anxiety, loneliness, regret; the things real people deal with all the time. While Fillmore knows when levity is important and the show's sense of humour is absolutely top notch, it handles its serious moments with finesse and care. In a way, this attention to humanizing a criminal frequently puts Fillmore above actual police procedural. While I can't say that I frequently sit down to watch Law & Order or its ilk, I can think of more than a few episodes I've seen that are more cartoon-y than anything I've seen on Fillmore.
- The other half of the thematic structure of the show is reform. Fillmore and Third are both ex-delinquents and the show makes its stance on this very clear; people are more than the sum of their past actions. Most episodes involve the perpetrator seeing the error of their ways. While there are plenty of episodes with strong villains who you enjoy seeing get bested, these are almost always highlighting systemic problems or giving extra insight into the characters - usually both. There are a bunch of episodes dealing with this topic directly, but a personal favourite of mine is one is early on in the show in an episode titled "A Wurm in Our Midst". The episode deals with a large scale book heist as its main plot, with the prime suspect being a habitual petty theft and extortionist named Tony Clementina, played deftly by Frankie Muniz of all people. The subplot of the episode deals with Fillmore's reluctance to believe that someone can change, even if they've made mistakes in the past - the idea of a "lost cause". The episode contrasts this with Fillmore's past delinquency and how he managed to pull himself out of it. By the end, Fillmore understands that sometimes the key to reformation is to always be willing to extend a hand to someone and that no one is truly lost. Much like in the real world, reformative justice tends to be much more effective than punitive justice. It feels counter-intuitive but it's ultimately the right choice, and the show makes the argument for it with intellect and honesty.
- One of the things that really helps carry the tone of the show, of any show, is the voice acting. Fillmore sets itself apart from its contemporaries by its comparatively earthy and grounded voice work. Now, of course, there's nothing wrong with having a childish or cartoon-y voice in a children's cartoon, but it sets a certain mood when such a sizable portion of your cast are basically using their normal speaking voices. Even the one-off characters are presented with tact and a keen eye for tone. Overall, I'd say the voice acting in the show is definitely a cut above its contemporaries, full-stop. Partly because of the strong attention to tone but mostly because of the genuine quality of these performances. Tara Strong is Tara Strong and doesn't really need much explaining but Orlando Brown isn't really someone you associate with voice acting. But, I gotta hand it to him, he does an absolutely excellent job bringing Fillmore to life.
- I can't stress enough how important the voice acting is in carrying the tone of the show and how good a job the voice actors do in making it all work. When Fillmore gives an impassioned speech about the dangers of a prejudiced mindset, hearing those words sound like just a regular person gives it a layer of authenticity that it wouldn't have otherwise. Despite how cartoony Fillmore may feel during its action scenes or the absurdity of the average plot, the core of the show is 100% authentic. It ends up being that the show is one of the most grounded of its period, second only to Hey Arnold!.
- As intelligent and high-brow as I'm making the show sound, it would be fairly dishonest of me to not talk about the more lighthearted aspects it. Because the show is about normal Middle Schoolers, it has to get really creative with its action scenes. The action scenes are almost always chases and it's tough to actually describe how inventive and hilarious the average one is in this show. Anything is fair game for a chase: a frozen ice sculpture garden, a human organ exhibit, miniature trains. The tongue and cheek presentation of these scenes goes well to contrast the sometimes bleak backdrop of the stories. Levity is important and this is still a kids show. But it's always something to look forward to because you really can never tell how these scenes are gonna go down.
- Generally, I'd say the show is probably one of the most cohesive of its time. There aren't really any superfluous characters, the other members of the X Middle School Safety Patrol are all there to make it clear Fillmore and Third aren't the only ones there, but don't hog any more screen time than they absolutely need to. There's also a lot of attention to detail in things like continuity. Fillmore's pet goldfish, Thelonious, dies in one episode and is replaced by a black one, Miles which you see on his desk for all subsequent episodes. Also, those pets are named after legendary Jazz musicians Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. I'm sorry, I just feel like it would be wrong to not mention that. But the point I'm trying to make here is that this show feels incredibly focused. Perhaps a consequence of the serialized shows it's riffing on, but every episode of the show is a tightly made package, sharply structured with care. Every time. Start off with a parody of a real crime - kidnapping, gambling, whatever - ask why someone would commit such a crime, throw in a few red herrings and a chase or two, then wrap it up with a serious and sombre message about how society can push vulnerable people to do bad things.
- So, I think that mostly wraps up everything that really helps make this show what it is. I'll be perfectly honest when I say that it isn't quite at the absolute peak of its genre and not every episode is created equal, but the show's unique qualities more than make up for that. There really aren't many shows willing to be as personable as Fillmore!, or as cleverly written, or as fully dedicated to what its trying to be. It's a show with an identity like no other, a show that stands by itself with almost none of its contemporaries being able to even approach its style. The idea of a show this good being the result of a pitch that basically sounds like a joke is a testament to what strong writing and a solid vision can do. Whether you remember the show or not, I strongly recommend you go back and give Fillmore! another look. You might just be surprised at what you find. Hopefully, we'll even get an HD digital release of the show someday. Maybe the show was made in Widescreen and broadcast in 4:3, like a few of its contemporaries were (Teen Titans, Kim Possible, Duck Dodgers). And with that, I leave you with the greatest closing sting in cartoon history...
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