Review by KC Carlson
Probably best known for its earwig of a theme song (“It’s truly, truly, truly outrageous!”), Jem and the Holograms holds a unique place in animation history, is of interest to comic book historians, and has a truly dedicated fanbase — how many other long-defunct cartoon shows have their own annual convention? It’s also an incredibly influential show, having ties to both music and fashion, an extremely collectible toy line, and most likely inspired a generation of young viewers into creative careers like animation, illustration, writing, music, fashion, or possibly even philanthropy.
First airing in syndication in 1985, and eventually running for three seasons (65 episodes), Jem and the Holograms — after several false starts — is now totally available on DVD in an 11-disc collector’s set as Jem and the Holograms: The Truly Outrageous Complete Series — as well as a four-disc set of the complete First Season, both from Shout! Factory. Just look for the shiny, glittery box!
What Exactly Is Jem?
It was an animated series jointly produced by the Hasbro toy company, Sunbow Entertainment animation studio, and Marvel Productions, associated with Marvel Comics. The same three companies had previously teamed to produce the very successful G.I. Joe and Transformers animated series, and Jem benefited by having some of the same creative people involved with those series. The animation was by Toei Animation (then Toei Doga).
The show itself is an incredible combination of genres: Basically a fantasy/adventure program, it also includes romance and melodrama as well as drama and action (virtually every commercial break is a cliffhanger), plus a certain amount of humor. Music plays a huge part in the show — it stars two feuding rock bands — and much original music is spotlighted in every episode. The large cast of characters leads to a lot of soap opera elements. It’s very visually interesting, encompassing super-science/magic, fantasy, frequent flashbacks, and occasionally time travel. Because it’s set in the entertainment industry and features a primarily female cast, fashion is also an important element to the show.
Most of the action focuses on the rock band The Holograms, which includes sisters Jerrica and Kimber Benton, Aja Leith, and Shana Elmsford. The four have known each other since childhood, as the latter two were foster children under the care of Starlight House, a home for girls run by Jerrica and Kimber’s father. As the series opens, the father has passed away. Jerrica has inherited Starlight House and half of Starlight Music. The other half went to Eric Raymond, a greedy and manipulative music exec who was running Starlight Music at the time of Benton’s death.
Raymond is the villain of the series, and much of the early action involves his attempts to wrest full ownership of Starlight Music away from Jerrica. To this end, he creates a rival band, the quasi-punk Misfits — leader Pizzazz, Roxy, and Stormer — to take on the Holograms in a Battle of the Bands.
In the meantime, Jerrica discovers the existence of a hi-tech computer called Synergy that (among other things) can create holograms. So, using Synergy, Jerrica becomes Jem, who becomes the leader of the Holograms and also a media sensation. But there’s a problem, in that Jerrica and Jem can’t be in two places at once, so Jerrica’s long-time boyfriend Rio — also the Hologram’s road manager and engineer — gets suspicious whenever Jem’s around and Jerrica isn’t. Rio has trust issues (which are never fully explained), so Jerrica feels that she cannot tell Rio her secret — although the rest of the Holograms know. Eventually, Rio develops a crush on Jem, setting up a classic love triangle. (To make things even more complicated, Pizzazz also has designs on Rio.)
Many of the episodes revolve around Jerrica’s efforts to keep her two identities separate (occasionally she gets jealous of herself!), or the need to keep Synergy safe, as Eric Raymond eventually discovers its existence (but not the computer’s mysterious origins). Many storylines revolve around the foster girls at Starlight House under Jerrica’s protection. There are 12 girls in all, but only a few get developed enough for big storylines. Starlight House accidentally burns down very early in the series, which ups the ante for the Battle of the Bands. One of the girls, Ba Nee, becomes a very important supporting character. Her storyline extends throughout the entire series and is a focal point of the series finale, which actually wraps up many long-standing plot threads — a rarity for many animated series.
All in all, Jem and the Holograms is rich in characterization, and many of the main characters develop interesting storylines and relationships outside of the musical framework. Many of the characters are the focus of episodes which feature both surprising backstories as well as intriguing relationships with other characters. New characters — including new band members — are constantly added thoughout the series. Most notably, the third season adds a third band, The Stingers, with a male lead, Riot, and two females, Rapture and Minx (whose singing voices are provided by the late Vicki Sue Robinson of “Turn The Beat Around” fame).
Comic Book Connections
Many of the creative people involved with Jem also have ties to comics. Former (and current) creators include Christy Marx (Sisterhood of Steel, Red Sonja) and Roger Slifer (former Marvel editor, co-creator of Lobo). They were both Story Editors for the show as well as the two primary writers. (Marx wrote 23 of the 65 episodes, Slifer wrote 6.)
Will Meugniot was a producer and storyboard artist for the show; he also co-created and drew The DNAgents for Eclipse. Larry Houston (Charlton Bullseye) and Mike Vosberg (Lori Lovecraft) both worked in comics before entering animation. Other comic book writers who wrote for Jem include Mary Skrenes (Omega the Unknown), Marv Wolfman (The New Teen Titans), Buzz Dixon (Destroyer Duck), Paul Dini (Jingle Belle), Cary Bates (Superman), and Greg Weisman (Gargoyles).
Back to the Box
True fans will want the Complete Series box for its Special Bonus Disc, featuring hours of special features! By far the best is “Showtime Synergy! The Truly Outrageous Creation of an 80s Icon”, a nearly hour-long look at the creation of the show, as told by the people that created it, including Christy Marx (Head Story Editor), Joe Bacal and Tom Griffin (Executive Producers), Roger Slifer (Story Editor), Will Meugniot (Storyboard Director), Barry Harman (Lyricist), Britta Phillips (singing voice of Jem), and others. Without giving away too much, here are some of the more interesting tidbits:
• The basics of the the show were dreamed up by Hasbro for a potential toy line. Initially the show was to be about a boy band that turned into superheroes.
• They switched to a girl band when it was decided to create a “doll that would rival Barbie” — but was more contemporary and with “attitude”.
• Many of the creators talked about the series aiming to attract lots of girls “without driving the boys away”. Thus, the early emphasis on action/adventure and cliffhangers at commercial breaks. Jem first appeared on Super Saturday (or Super Sunday, depending on when your local station aired it) as the middle segment between two traditionally boy-oriented features: Inhumanoids and Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines.
• Production of the show was a bi-coastal affair, necessitating the production of scripts on computer and getting approvals on then-nascent BBS computer systems (as suggested by Steve Gerber, according to Christy Marx). Many creators were learning both computer systems and animation while producing Jem.
• Will Meugniot was primarily responsible for producing the musical sequences on the show. He reveals that the show was also heavily anime-influenced (especially the opening sequences of the Urusei Yatsura series), as well as by music video (specifically The Cars’ “You Might Think”).
Other special features include a 24-minute featurette reuniting some of the voice cast, including Samantha Newark (speaking voice of Jem/Jerrica Benton), Patricia Albrecht (speaking voice of Pizzazz), Michael Sheehan (Rio), and Britta Phillips (singing voice of Jem). Interesting trivia: Phillips’ audition featured her singing the now-famous theme song — while sick — and that was the take they used for the finished Opening Sequence. Albrecht was cast specifically to match the singing voice of Pizzazz. And the cast recorded each episode as an ensemble — a rarity for many animated projects.
“Jem Girls (and Boys!) Remember” is a 27-minute featurette focusing on Jem fandom, discussing the show, the toys, and the annual JemCon convention. Also included are about a dozen original TV commercials for the toys and animated storyboards for an unused version of the Opening Sequence, the regular Closing Sequence, and three musical sequences. Very cool.
The bonus disc also includes a DVD-ROM area featuring licensing kits and catalogs for the show and toy line, as well as the six-page Rock Rap Magazine, featuring an exclusive interview with Jem herself. But the real treat is the 27-page Jem Bible for the series, written by Christy Marx. It details all the characters, relationships, settings, guides for the “music videos”, and everything you would need to script an episode of Jem!
Speaking of the “music videos”, they’re a key part of the Jem experience. Each episode usually has two or three music sequences which play like mini-videos — often emphasizing important story points but usually presented like experimental mini-movies, just like the clips on MTV which were at the height of their popularity at the time Jem was airing. One of the coolest special features of the Jem DVDs is the Video Jukebox. You can either watch a specific music clip from the episodes on that disc, or just hit PLAY ALL to show them ALL in order — without having to search through the episodes! Now that’s truly outrageous! I’m especially glad to see this feature, as it was the music sequences that got me interested in watching Jem in the first place, all those years ago.
Show’s Over, Synergy — Or Is It?
If you’d like to sample the show, it’s currently running on The Hub. (The channel is a joint venture between Hasbro and Discovery.)
There’s a lot of mystery about a possible future for Jem. Many of the creators would be interested in doing some sort of revival — especially Christy Marx — but long-standing rights issues have prevented that from happening. Since I’m now watching a brand-new Jem and the Holograms: The Truly Outrageous Complete Series boxset, I’m assuming some of those rights problems have seemingly cleared up. Is there a Jem live-action or animated movie in our future? I have no idea, but Hasbro is at the New York Comic Con this weekend. What a great time/place for an announcement! That would be truly, truly, truly outrageous!
(A review copy was provided by Shout! Factory.)