The main seven of the Clone High reboot, on MAX.

The Most Interesting Thing About the ‘Clone High’ Revival Is How It Navigates Its Identity Crisis

Before Max’s Clone High revival was released last month, picking up where its original 2002 season left off, I remember seeing clips of it floating around the internet, namely memes about one of its main characters, JFK. As I was too young to watch the show when it initially aired, I learned about it by osmosis through these clips, where it was made clear to me that it was very much a product of its time. The choppy animation, lackadaisical humor, and of course, grungy guitar soundtrack (which was partially a parody in and of itself) all belonged to that early 2000s culture that I still vaguely remembered, watching my cousins’ favorite programs on MTV.

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So, when I decided to give the revival a shot, I went into it without any personal fervor, despite its cult status. I was just curious how they were going to breathe life into a show that, by all standards, was a cult-favorite show, niche enough that many people had never even heard of it while it was still running, ending on a cliffhanger after just one season, but beloved enough that the fans who did want it were very vocal about it. Along with other shows getting reboots and revivals, it certainly fit that nostalgia-grabbing niche that everyone’s trying to capitalize on.

Yet the show’s core subject matter—cloning historical figures and sending them to high school together so they can be “groomed” to become puppet leaders for the government—was always going to be an awkward thing to traverse in the modern age, because that kind of humor isn’t “with the times” anymore. They did address this in the first episode, and honestly, I think they did the absolute best they could. I laughed.

But, mostly, I was left wondering, once I was all caught up: Did this revival need to happen? Who is it for? Is it even capable of fitting into the modern TV culture—and if it does, how?

2023 Jump Street

Clone High always went to great pains to show how their cast only bore a passing resemblance to their “clonefathers and clonemothers.” Obviously, the real Abe Lincoln wasn’t a hapless dweeb, and the real Joan of Arc wasn’t an atheist goth with a penchant for hapless dweebs. This show was always meant to be built on a gimmick that would give the creators artistic liberties, as a means of parodying popular teen shows at the time while standing out in its own way.

Inevitably though, if you’re gonna make a parody out of real historical people, you’re gonna upset real modern people. Case in point was the character Gandhi, who was Abe’s best friend and the show’s most consistent source of comic relief as a party animal with ADD. I mean, damn, in this supercut, the very first thing he says is, “I like my humping like I like my martinis: dry.” It should therefore come as no surprise that the Indian Parliament, almost immediately after the show’s initial release in 2003, protested this show into the ground—literally.

So now, in 2023, the clones are all unfrozen from cryogenic stasis after a prom gone wrong, except for Gandhi, who’s been left in the freezer indefinitely. This is a recurring gag in the revival: Someone will offhandedly wonder where Gandhi is, the view will cut to him frozen in the prom fridge, and then the show will move on. In an interview with Polygon, co-showrunner Erica Rivinoja said that this was their way of saying, “We hear you,” to avoid yet another cancellation—both figuratively and literally.

And indeed, the entire first episode goes to great lengths to convey to the audience that the show is not going to be what it once was. During the time that the old clones were frozen, a new batch was born and raised, including Harriet Tubman and Frida Kahlo, who are a star-student-and-artsy-rebel pair of best friends. They’re also two of the most popular students, who have set the social stage for the newcomers: Just like in 21 Jump Street, being socially conscious is the new normal, and all the crude norms of the past are liable to make you a social outcast.

Cagey student Topher Bus explains this to Abe, informally outing himself as the poster child of inherently problematic people. He is, after all, Christopher Columbus; the name-change was his only way of securing any kind of social life. With great agony, he continues to correct Abe, who is constantly making blunder after blunder (i.e. still in the habit of pejoratively calling things “gay”), much to the chagrin of Joan, whose social awareness now automatically makes her one of the cool kids.

With all of this alone, there’s a lot to unpack. For one, it’s our knee-jerk response to narrow our eyes at such carefree depictions of Harriet Tubman and Frida Kahlo. And yet, the show, by design, gives itself a pass under the basis of “anyone and everyone gets the same treatment.” Moreover, by making these girls popular, they largely avoid the kinds of offensive jokes we’d be anticipating. The most eye-narrowing thing about them is whether or not we “should” even portray such important historical women of color with such easygoing creativity, and that … is a discussion that merits more than one single article.

If anything, in execution, I was most on the fence about Confucius, as the lone Asian cast member (sans frozen Gandhi). On the one hand, I loved him: his personality, his character design, his friendship with JFK—he was always a delight onscreen. On the other hand, I had to roll my eyes, because of course they’d make the Chinese character a tech-obsessed e-boy. On top of that, he was voiced by the same person who led the TV adaptation of American Born Chinese, which I already had some problems with due to a favoring of “Asian” tropes that sell.

But in writing all of this out, it almost feels ridiculous to comment on, because this coalescing of “back then” versus “right now” is just inherently awkward to traverse, and compared to some other series, Clone High does it fairly well. They acknowledged that times have changed and you can’t make jokes with slurs anymore, that being non-white isn’t automatically a sticking point for jokes, and that women can, in fact, be friends. This then leaves room for the show to examine other plot points, which co-showrunner Erik Durbin expands on:

“Those shows back then were sort of like teens being into their feelings, and able to express themselves in that way, [which] was sort of a new thing. So [in the original] it’s like, OK, you could just do that,” Durbin tells Polygon. “Now you have to add so many layers, because […] the idea of being into feelings and all of that, everyone’s vocabulary for it at a young age is just, like, exploded; it’s off the charts now.

“I think, in general, that’s good for this show. Because it’s so much more of a kind of mainstream, it’s more well understood. And I think that’s a testament to why you can go off and make it in space, like in the dystopian world, or whatever. You can genre build it, because it’s just such a part of the vocabulary for everyone now being this way.”

And that’s all well and good. So we’ve squared away the “Is Clone High deliberately obtuse?” question. This only leaves us with one other question: Is it good? At the very least, good enough to justify a revival? And either way, does that even matter?

Where does that leave us?

While the show is still ongoing at the time of this article’s publication, I will say that, from what I’ve seen, it’s perfectly fine. It falls into the realm of a lot of “adult” cartoons these days: perfectly fine, no more, no less. In some ways, it excels, and in others, it’s just so-so. The episode where they force Joan to resolve her issues with Cleo is fun and interesting; the episode about teen anxiety feels like it came straight from Big Mouth.

So, from my perspective, Clone High has become yet another decent-enough animated show, as well as another decent-enough show about teenagers, with perhaps the most interesting thing about it being how it navigates its identity crisis. I say this with no disrespect to the writers; they still made it fun and punchy enough to keep my interest.

I suppose, considering all the striking and negotiating going on, I just feel as though any team’s creative talents and passions would be better spent on original projects. Networks are prioritizing reboots and revivals because they know they’ll bring in a certain percentage of guaranteed views, but at this point, we’re just so inundated with them that even the best ones lose a bit of traction in the midst of the overload. In the end though, I suppose that’s what the networks want: guaranteed views over something new.

In that sense, Clone High is right where it needs to be. And I guess we should, at the very least, celebrate its ability transcend its source material without making an ass of itself.

(featured image: MAX)

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Image of Madeline Carpou
Madeline Carpou
Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).