Why the youngsters love Generator Rex and Ben 10: Ultimate Alien.
I know what boys like. I know what guys want. Boys like stuff blowing up; freaky, giant beasts; freaky, giant beasts blowing stuff up; growling bad guys; smirking good guys; babes in knee-high boots, for reasons they're not sure of; and heroes they can relate to. On this last count, and in the case of younger boys these days, that means teenage heroes young enough to project themselves onto and not so old that they resemble authority figures.
Or at least that is the case on the Cartoon Network, recently heard crowing about the ratings success of the new shows Generator Rex (Fridays at 8 p.m. ET) and Ben 10: Ultimate Alien (Fridays at 8:30 p.m. ET). I have here a press release announcing that these shows are big hits in their time slots. Feeling aghast at those demographic slices that involve innocent children never gets old, so it's with a familiar shudder that I note Generator Rex's particular success among kids aged 2 to 11. We have yet to settle on a name for the generation to which those kids belong, Bill Gates' "Generation I" being wholly unconvincing. In any case, there can be no doubt that the title of Generator Rex will be absolutely meaningless to them unless it is the case that a few 2-year-olds, early readers, have been digging into Chuck Klosterman.
Generator Rex is set in relatively mellow post-apocalypse: The skies are bright, governments still function, skatepunks still loiter by half-pipes, and yet there's trouble every day. Earth is suffering a viral plague, its atmosphere teeming with "nanites," which are microscopic space cooties that can turn regular Joes into giant, freaky beasts called EVOs—animated, 40-foot-tall, needle-shooting cacti, just for instance.
Rex, a 15-year-old hero sporting a jacket from the Gap's Speed Racer collection, has himself been infected with nanites, but he somehow remains a good guy. He uses his powers for the forces of good as an agent of Providence, that being a secret organization dedicated to the elimination of some freaky giant beasts and the rehabilitation of others. The kid is entirely weaponized: His hands can become core drills, his lower legs turbine-powered jet boots, his whole lower half an ATV. His mission is to save the world by blowing stuff up. He is a Michael Bay version of Inspector Gadget.
His handler is a man named Six, who wears a slim green suit, a Reservoir Dogs tie, and a soul patch like a spearhead. When not handing a futuristic samurai sword in each hand, he does a great job of sarcastic clapping. His sidekick is a gruff chimpanzee wearing a piratical eye patch and an organ-grinder's fez. His Q is a woman named Dr. Holiday, and her duties include expressing compassion for his plight as an amnesiac orphan with a limited social life. Also, she keeps track of Rex's biometric readings, so that she can urgently say things like, "His biometric readings are bottoming out!" and so that Rex, asking her out to dinner, can too-cutely say things like, "My bios spike every time I see you, Dr. Holiday!" Who can blame him? He is a hormone-ridden teenager who cannot even practice self-abuse because he shares a room with a monkey, and she is drawn so that her lab coat is form-fitting even when unbuttoned. And, in the post-apocalypse, where do teenagers take a date for a nice dinner, anyway? Is the Olive Garden still around?
But, no—romance is not part of the deal here, just explosions, cool monsters, and some minor emo-emoting. Rex does tend to sulk, and you'd think that Holiday could write him a prescription for something to fix that, but then he wouldn't have the quantum mass of problems with authority to qualify as an attractive rebel.
Moving from the rather brooding to slightly geeky, we have Ben 10: Ultimate Alien. The idea here is that Ben Tennyson, now 16, owns a wristwatch that allows him to transform into a variety of freaky beasts, enabling him to do God's work. These include Nanomech (a Captain Atom type), Cannonball (whose go-to move is the "spin attack" and who resembles a feral Pokémon), the self-explanatory Humungousaur (from the Greek saurus, meaning lizard, and the Californian humongous, meaning ginormous), and Big Chill (a new beverage available only at Arby's). I am unfamiliar with the programs to which Ultimate Alien is a sequel, and its producers have not done the novice viewer the courtesy of catching us up, so most of the show's first two episodes went over my head. In any event, it's tough these days to get a read on what a kid like Ben Tennyson is talking about when he's talking about blowing stuff up. On the subject of Tennyson, I can only say this: "The old order changeth, yielding place to new."
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Ben 10: Ultimate Alien copyright 2010 Cartoon Network.