Totally Spies: Seasons 1-3 (DVD)

Here we go!

The original plans for Totally Spies were a lot more ambitious than what ended up on screen when the show debuted in 2001. It was going to be a reality series, in which young women would compete to be part of a tween-friendly all-girl pop band, which would then release an album and go on tour, with an animated series based on their adventures. The cartoon is the only part that came to any real fruition. The first three seasons are now on this intimidating twelve-disc set.

Sam (Jennifer Hale, Green Lantern: The Animated Series), Clover (Andrea Baker, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within), and Alex (Katie Leigh, Despicable Me) are ordinary teen girls living in Beverly Hills, except that they’re also international spies.

As the three girls deal with various teen crises, they’re often swept away to the spy headquarters at W.O.O.H.P., where they’re assigned to various cases, going undercover, confronting outrageous villains, and saving the day.

After anime exploded into popularity in a big way in the late 1990s/early 2000s, animators outside Japan were quick to take note, and so the airwaves were bombarded with animation meant to cash in on anime style, some more deliberate than others. It’s easy to cast a cynical eye on Totally Spies and view it as created merely to cash in on anime, but there’s more going on here. Although flighty and often style-over-substance, the show has its positive points as well.

Each episode more or less follows the same formula. We join the girls at school or hanging out, where we’re introduced the subplot of the week. Then, a trap door opens up beneath them, taking them to W.O.O.H.P. headquarters. There, their handler Jerry (Jess Harnell, Animaniacs) fills them in on the crisis of the week, and they’re off to some remote locale. Cases often have the girls working undercover, or sneaking around a high-tech enemy base, that sort of thing. There are chases, scrapes, escapes, and so on, with the girls saving the day with crazy gadgets and their own ingenuity. It ends back at home where, using what the learned in their mission, the girls resolve the subplot for the big happy ending.

If the Beverly Hills setting didn’t already clue you in, know that this is a fantasy version of teen life. Expect lots of jokes about fashion, shopping, hair, and so on. The idea is to contrast this girly girly stuff with action-movie spy stuff. This is most evident in the spy gadgets, with stuff like lipstick, hair dryers, and jewelry disguising high-tech spy devices. The running gag of the W.O.O.H.P. trap doors always opening up under the girls at unexpected moments is a good one, making for fun and fast-paced transitions from scene to scene. In the second season, we meet the girls’ moms and other family members, which adds to their character development.

While all three girls are of a type, there are enough differences to make each stand out. Sam is the smart one, the de facto leader of the team. When things get a little too crazy, Sam is the one to remind everyone the seriousness of the mission. Clover is the most stereotypically California teen girl, all clothes happy and boy crazy. Clover’s antics might be too much for some viewers, but I felt she never crossed the line into full-on annoyingness. Alex doesn’t have as much character development as the others, especially during the first season. As episodes progress, there are some references to her klutziness, but that’s about it.

Don’t expect a lot of world building or comic book continuity. It’s never made clear just who W.O.O.H.P. is working for. Jerry is seen palling around with both the U.S. President and the Queen of England. A few episodes deal with a rival spy agency, so W.O.O.H.P. is privatized somehow. I have no idea. The closest thing the spies have to an arch enemy is Tim Scam, a former W.O.O.H.P. agent gone bad, but only because he’s one of the few villains who comes back. Most of the baddies are one-offs, never reappearing after their one episode. The set concludes with a bang, in a three-part finale for the third season, which introduces another major villain who returns in later seasons.

This twelve-disc set contains all seventy-eight (!) episodes of the show’s first three seasons. Picture and audio are good, with bright and colorful visuals, clean and smooth animation, and sound without any major defects. There are no extras.

The twenty-sixth episode of the first season, “A Spy Is Born,” ends with a huge cliffhanger, with one of the spies abducted by an enemy. The second part, however, isn’t until the twenty-sixth episode of the second season, “A Spy Is Born II.” I was about to decry the DVD producers for putting the episodes out of order, but it turns out this is how the two-parter originally aired, a year apart with a whole year of unrelated episodes in between.

Totally Spies is turn-your-brain-off television, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. It’s like a cherry-flavored soda—syrupy and sweet and without a lot of substance, but still enjoyable.

The Verdict

Guilty, but a pleasure.

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