‘Clone High’ Finally Returns With An Appropriately Smart and Stupid Second Season

‘Clone High’ Finally Returns With An Appropriately Smart and Stupid Second Season

When Clone High premiered in the U.S. in January 2003, co-creator Bill Lawrence was best known for having previously created Scrubs and Spin City. His fellow co-creators, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, essentially had no previous credits to their names. Teen shows still dominated The WB, and thus were ripe for spoofing. Clone High could run on MTV, which still aired scripted shows. 

But although the stars aligned long enough for one fairly successful executive producer and a couple of nobodies to get a high-concept animated show on the air, it wasn’t lucky for long. Both Teletoon (the Canadian cable network that originally premiered it in the fall of 2002) and MTV aired episodes out of order; per Wikipedia, four remained unaired in the U.S. until 2016. And when 100 people in India went on a hunger strike over its portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi as a hyperactive party animal, MTV canceled the show. 

A lot can change in 20 years, though — like, for instance, the proliferation of streaming services willing to take risks on shows for small but passionate niche audiences, not to mention all three creators becoming wildly successful and powerful, with projects including Ted Lasso, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and the Lego Movie series between them — and on May 23rd, the show will return for its long-awaited second season.

“Wait, why and how does this show portray Gandhi at all?” Well, as the show’s expository theme song tells it: Sometime in the 1980s, “secret government employees” cloned noteworthy historical figures. The Board of Shadowy Figures placed the clones in foster homes in the town of Exclamation!, U.S.A., and at the time of the show’s first season, they were old enough to attend the titular institution and have typical teen adventures: Abe Lincoln (voice of Will Forte) is laser-focused on the most popular girl in school, Cleopatra (Christa Miller), and thus oblivious that his longtime platonic friend Joan of Arc (Nicole Sullivan) is in love with him. JFK (Chris Miller) is a horny jock constantly fooling around with the likes of Catherine the Great or all three Brontë sisters, while Gandhi (Michael McDonald — from MadTV, not the singer) rocks out on the dance team, tries to launch a career as a rapper and loudly proclaims his love of dry humping. Meanwhile, Principal Cinnamon J. Scudworth (Lord) tries to pacify his Board of Shadowy Figures overlords while secretly pursuing his own secret plan — to make the clones the central attraction at a theme park called Cloney Island; he is abetted, often reluctantly, by his robot vice principal/butler, Mr. Butlertron (Chris Miller). 

When the Board’s plans and Scudworth’s clash in the Season One finale, the clones and the Board are flash-frozen in a meat locker, leaving the audience in multi-decade suspense as to how their various love triangles would resolve — until now!

Clone High isn’t the only show this year to return, after a very long break, into a starkly different comedy environment: The Season Three premiere of Party Down meta-acknowledged that edgelord gags viewers wouldn’t blanch at half a generation ago don’t fly now, and found one of the core characters losing out on a huge career opportunity in his acting career due to a boneheaded stunt that was an on-camera plot point in a previous season. Clone High’s Season Two premiere similarly situates viewers in the comedy landscape of 2023. Implicitly, we see this in the makeup of the new characters. We’re told the new students were created four years after the original clones, which is how, when the old ones get thawed, they’re all the same age; most of them are people of color: Confucius (Kelvin Yu), Frida Kahlo (Vicci Martinez), Harriet Tubman (Ayo Edebiri), and “Topher Bus” (Neil Casey playing a post-cancellation Christopher Columbus as an obnoxious lefty who can’t quite keep up the pretense and occasionally has reveals his incel grievance). 

Cleopatra is now voiced not by a white woman, but by Iranian-American comic and actor Mitra Jouhari; Christa Miller remains in the cast as Candide Simpson, a Board of Shadowy Figures operative sent to the school to run a secret op Scudworth doesn’t know about. (The new Board has also admitted women and people of color, though one would think deep state conspiracy-mongering would be among the last fields to diversify.) 

Some nods are more explicit. The most obvious is that Gandhi is pointedly not thawed out. But when, in the premiere, the new student council tries to acclimate the old clones with a Unity Week, Abe is dismayed to find out that some slang terms that were entirely acceptable in his day are now considered ableist or homophobic; he learns from Topher what it means to be canceled, and soon finds himself consigned to the cafeteria’s Canceled Corner with Marilyn Manson (who voiced himself in the first season) and Professor Sheepman (a Season One teacher voiced by Andy Dick). Joan feels much more at home in a Clone High where she’s not the only student with a social conscience, and looks back with regret at her lack of female friendships; Cleo can’t get used to a social hierarchy that has someone like Frida at the top instead of a more traditionally attractive queen bee like herself. If this culture clash sounds familiar, it may be that you’re remembering the 21 Jump Street movie, which was directed by Lord and Miller. 

Anyway, while there’s almost nothing less interesting to me than comedy writers or performers complaining that audiences’ sensibilities have changed and left them with fewer “safe” subjects to joke about, it would be impossible to proceed with a season set in the present day without having the characters address it, so I’m happy to report that “cancellation” doesn’t really come up past the premiere.

One motif that does carry over from the first season to the second is wildly over-the-top cartoon violence. I guess it goes without saying that a show about teen clones isn’t exactly grounded, but you might not be prepared for how much they get blown up with dynamite, suffer compound fractures and get absolutely bathed in blood. Bodily harm also comes, quite frequently, to animal characters, which was jarring until I went back and rewatched the first season and was reminded that a competing team’s “mascot” is genetically engineered with a zipper, which Gandhi unzips to spill his guts; Abe, while sponsored by a dubious sports drink, explodes out of a live bear; and a blue whale is savaged by the half dozen tigers with which it co-stars in an elaborate promposal. Those just weren’t the gags my brain chose to remember! Better for this to be the last vestige of early aughts humor the creators can’t let go than having Joan and Cleo call each other sluts all the time.

In terms of execution, the new characters are a mixed bag. Confucius makes sense as a dopey rich kid who’s as obsessed with social media as he is bad at creating it. Frida is even more effective embodying effortless teen cool; a runner about her unibrow having sentience is expected but judiciously deployed. “Topher” is noxious, but then, that’s the point, and Casey’s voice performance captures both the character’s conflicted sides. 

Harriet, on the other hand, seems to be a grade-grubber primarily because the cast needed someone to fill that archetype; the characterization of her values is inconsistent (particularly in a midseason sleepover story), but Edebiri is as charming here as she has been as Missy in the more recent seasons of Big Mouth. (Note for eagle-eyed viewers: Yes, you did see clones of both Frida Kahlo and Harriet Tubman on the fringes of some late first-season episodes, but the design on both is completely different now, and we’re probably not supposed to remember they were ever around.) I’m not sure why Candide has been added to the mix other than to bring Christa Miller back into the fold; Scudworth has never needed help foiling his own plans, and even a crush plot between them kind of goes nowhere. 

But the old characters still seem like themselves, and it’s fun to see them playing TV teen dramatics inspired both by the shows of our present day and the past. However, the ultimate standout in the cast isn’t any of the clones: As in Season One, Mr. Butlertron has a 100 percent hit rate, and without spoiling future episodes, anyone who wasn’t a fan of his before will be won over by a few particularly great late-season moments.

A show this specific isn’t going to be for everyone. Undoubtedly, there’s going to be a schism between the old-school viewers who think it’s changed too much and those who think it hasn’t changed enough. But this is a show where Joan of Arc is in a love triangle with the clones of two assassinated U.S. presidents; it’s not that deep — it can’t be! 

Clone High is smart, and Clone High is stupid. If it’s not for you, you’re going to know well before the premiere’s first graphically rendered paper cut.

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