As Teen Dramas Die Off on TV, ‘Clone High’ Keeps Their Spirit Alive
For its return last spring, Clone High had a lot of tasks to accomplish. It had to acclimate brand-new viewers who didn’t know the show existed when it premiered two full decades earlier. It had to take clone characters who were old millennials when we first met them and then flash-frozen for 20 years, and socially integrate them with their new peers at the tail end of Gen Z, and portray all the clashes of sensibility inherent in the process. And, it had to deliver a finale that gave equal play both to its teen drama spoofery and its dystopic sci-fi themes.
Check, check and double check with that season finale: The students are ordered to secure their admission to Clone High College by surviving a death maze; the Board of Shadowy Figures spectates, with an eye as to which clones have the instincts (or sociopathy) to become the kind of leaders the Board can count on to advance their own nefarious goals. Lots of shows come and go without getting one genre right; as the new season proves, Clone High nails two.
In the new season — the third overall, but officially the second since Max infuriatingly treats “Clone High (2002)” as a whole separate show — the stakes are higher. Principal Scudworth’s ongoing efforts to skim money from the school’s budget gives him the idea of avoiding taxes by turning Clone High into a religious school, and the kids’ newfound interest in worship reminds celibacy-curious JFK (Christopher Miller) there’s more to his legacy than we’ve seen so far: “Kennedys aren’t just horny sex machines; we’re also super-devout Catholics!” Abe Lincoln (Will Forte) finally gets a girlfriend, Mary (D’Arcy Carden), and discovers how far he’s willing to go to lose his virginity. And with college looming, nearly everyone could use an edge getting in, which is how Frida Kahlo (Vicci Martinez) ends up pursuing a scholarship in Competitive Snorkeling.
Through it all, the teen drama stays dramatic. Joan of Arc (Nicole Sullivan) became the death maze’s savage victor by dominating all her friends, but now that they’ve all survived, they’re ostracizing her. So when Scudworth leaves the school in yet another embezzlement scheme — this one burrito-related — Principal for a Day Joan throws an on-campus rager to try to win everyone back over. Harriet Tubman (Ayo Edebiri) has been dating Confucius (Kelvin Yu) since last season, but can’t quite resist her new classmate, Toussaint Louverture (Jermaine Fowler). Going on the school’s ski week makes Cleopatra (Mitra Jouhari) wonder if she and her girlfriend Frida really have that much in common. Any of these storylines could be mined from an existing teen drama or comedy. When Confucius pays Joan $2,000 to fake-date him to make someone else jealous, calling the episode “Money Can Buy Me Love: Stupid Is As Cupid Does” explicitly tips its inspiration. These stories just happen to feature the adolescent clones of well-known historical figures!
But other than the fact of the student characters’ origins, the show’s sci-fi “mytharc” elements are woven through more sparingly. The reason Scudworth keeps trying to squirrel money away is that, since the show’s first first season, his long-term goal has been to make his clones the starring attractions at his theme park — called, what else, Cloney Island. This season, we learn more about how Scudworth’s obsession was born, who abetted him in it, and how far he’s willing to go to make it happen. And, okay, yes, one of the show’s most important characters is Mr. Butlertron (Christopher Miller), a vice-principal/butler/robot, but in that he’s one of the most humane characters to work at the titular school, it’s easy to forget he’s not actually human (particularly when he takes off his sweater vest to reveal hex nuts for nipples).
The season does offer a few frustrations. The death maze finale also included the assassination of the Board of Shadowy Figures, who from the start had both directed and constrained Scudworth’s activities at the school, including by installing Candide Sampson (Christa Miller) to manage him at the start of last season. With the Board gone, it’s unclear who, if anyone, she reports to and why Scudworth still accedes to her authority. There are also stories where the show overreaches, as when Cleo confides in Frida about her home life: We’ve known Cleo’s drunk foster mom since the aughts, when she was little more than a tipsy sight gag, and trying to excavate Cleo’s psychological reality is beyond the scope of what we need the show to do. And sometimes the writers pass up the chance to follow through with a great idea, as in “Money Can Buy Me Love”: Joan has had a film accepted at a Wes Anderson film festival (and enters into her arrangement with Confucius so she can pay the entry fee), but we don’t get to see her movie? Has everyone forgotten The Truth Wears Sideburns?
That said, missed opportunities aside, this is by far the best adult-animation show about historical figures who were revived under shady circumstances and are now navigating their teen years as awkwardly as any of us did, and that’s plenty.