By 1989, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was an unavoidable pop phenomenon. Originally an attempt to raise awareness for the Playmates toy line, the show had taken on a life and fan base of its own. Merchandising became omnipresent, as well as hugely successful arcade game and a major motion motion picture.
As we enter the third season of TMNT, we continue to explore what strange alchemy was in this show that captured the imagination of the youth of the world. How were characters expanded and differentiated over time? Did an increased production schedule significantly impact the quality of individual episodes? Would the world accept a Michelangelo without nunchucks? The only way to answer all these questions and more is to document and study every corner of this bizarre, seemingly endless well of pizza-centric martial arts excitement. I hope you will join me. It is scary out here alone
The stated mission statement of this iis to explore the Ninja Turtles as a popular culture phenomenon. The funny thing about pop culture is that often by the very nature of being part of the culture in part reflects it backwards. You see this frequently in cartoons, with many Looney Tunes in turn being references to other aspects of the entertainment world that are lost without that context. You require a deciphering key.
Today’s episode is one of those times for the Turtles, when an aspect of the show is reflecting something from the world outside of the show’s universe to make some degree of sense. Or not; the episode explains its premise fairly well, but there is an extremely specific cultural touchstone that this episode is tapping into. And it’s this guy.
This is Morton Downey Jr., the titular host of his own television talk show that premiered in 1987. The format of the show wasn’t all that groundbreaking, as talk shows have been in existence since literally the dawn of mass media. But the tone of the show was worth noting: mean, aggressive, intentional antagonistic towards both its guest and its own audience.
Downey’s show was also unapologetically political, serving as a blaring warning siren against the rise of new liberal voices that were on the rise in the waning years of the Reagan-Bush decade. He would refer to “pablum puking liberals” and act outwardly antagonistic towards anyone with an opinion counter to his own, most significantly women.
The tone of the show, and others like it from this period, led the coining of the term “trash TV”. An identity and persona that Downey himself never shied away from. He even appeared at Wrestlemania 5, antagonizing popular wrestler Roddy Piper and ending his appearance with a face full of fire extinguisher to massive cheers from the audience. He was a cartoon villain, and as such wasn’t afraid to lean into that perception. It was his entire brand after all, and what made him famous. Or at least infamous.
Considering all of this, there is no doubt in my mind that Downey is the inspiration for at least a portion of this episode from Michael Reaves. The idea of the Turtles having to face down the real world supervillain of TV talk shows is a premise with promise. But as with most Reaves scripts, it is just on good idea that is colliding with two to three other ones.
The episode opens with the Turtles sitting around the TV to watch their favorite pro wrestling program. Michelangelo rushes in however and tells them that he has something even more gnarly to watch: On Trial hosted by Clayton Kellerman. The other turtles object, comparing Kellerman to pondscum. But Michelangelo insists it is even more “radical than wrestling”.
Also, slight quibble but it bothers me throughout this episode, this is the logo for the show On Trial.
I see from a design perspective that the noose is meant to be an O, but there is a pretty serious gaf when the actual “n” is missing, making the whole thing read as “O Trial”.
Anyway, Kellerman opens his show talking about the “nutcases” trying to “sabotage our way of life”, but reveals there is one group that people should really be concerned about: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He is able to whip up his audience into an angry mob, which for obvious reason gets the Turtles a bit nervous. Channel 6 employee and human-friend April O’Neil informs them that it isn’t personal, Kellerman just hates everybody. Also, she brought them some severed heads.
Actually, they’re latex masks that are meant to help the Turtles blend in when they go topside. This is an acknowledgment that the whole trenchcoats and fedoras look wouldn’t actually fool anyone, but also introduces nightmareish latex masks into a show that has no short supply of weirdness already. Also precisely why having four identical Uncle Festers walking around would draw less attention is a bit of a mystery.
Down at the Technodrome, Krang and Shredder are being even more catty with each other than usual, thanks to the Technodrome’s refrigeration unit being on the fritz. I appreciate that this shows world-domination-focused villains are just like me when the AC isn’t working properly.
Shredder reaches his limits of being chewed out by a brain with a mouth and tells Krang if he thinks it is so easy to defeat the Turtles he should try on his own. Krang actually can’t find fault in this argument, so he decides to form his own plan on how to beat the Turtles once and for all, blah blah, we’ve been here before.
We then cut April and the Turtles in their new very inconspicuous masks, which it is demonstrated to worry not they can eat pizza though. Unfortunately, to illustrate this point without question, the animators decided to show big gaps of green lips very visible beneath the mask, rendering them both unsettling and useless.
Another reason they’re useless? Because the moment the Turtles get sight of trouble (this time, a jewelry store robbery across the street), they do what they always do: immediately disrobe out of their costumes, and run into danger. They are able to make pretty short work of the robbers and recover the stolen loot. But before they know it, an angry crowd has gathered around, telling the Turtles off because Kellerman said so and the TV never lies.
The Turtles make a swift retreat, to the sewer and grouse about the treatment they got from Kellerman. They ask April if she would be able to get them an appearance on Kellerman’s show, to which she says that her boss Mr. Thompson would do just about anything if it meant ratings. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the format of a show like On Trial: it isn’t meant to give people a fair shot at being hurt, it is meant to whip up anger and fervor. But Leonardo as always remains idealistic.
Back at the Technodrome, things are still hot as Krang is plotting his big move against the Turtles. Rocksteady and Bebop ask if they can be part of Krang’s plan, only for him to remind them they are the actual worst and they should go away. Dejected, Rocksteady and Bebop go off to watch their favorite TV program, “The Slurps”, because they are mentally children. Also, more pop culture reflecting pop culture.
A commercial comes on the screen, announcing that the Ninja Turtles are going to be appearing on that night’s episode of On Trial. Krang is delighted at the concept of doing rid of the Turtles are part of a live television broadcast and becomes more motivated to find the perfect weapon to do the job. He starts to scan through different military prototypes, trying to decide which one to steal.
The scene then shifts to the Channel 6 offices, where plans are being made for the Turtles appearance on Kellerman’s show. Namely that the Turtle’s would feel safer appearing remotely from the basement of the studio rather than in front of the live crowd. We learn that Thompson is indeed solely ratings motivated, while Kellerman just wants a chance to embarrass the Turtles. Also Irma is there and seems to have a crush on the Turtles. Irma is a weird beard.
April goes to help prep the Turtles for their TV debut, getting them on route to the show. There is a brief moment where we learn that Michelangelo suffers from stage fright, which comes up a few more times but mostly feels like a subplotline that ended up not really going anywhere.
Shredder checks in on Krang, throws some shade and generally is an ass. Basically ignoring Shredder’s shittiness, Krang notes that he plans to steal a military prototype that looks like a tricked out ED209. It will allow him to take the necessary element to fix the AC, give him a machine to kill the Turtles and show Shredder how utterly useless he is. The reveal of this device itself earns a commercial break.
Coming back from break, Shredder is legit whining that he isn’t part of Krang’s plan, when he originally told Krang to make the plan without him. Presumably both to shut Shredder up and also to keep him away from the important part of the plans, Krang assigns him to create a diversion while Krang steals the prototype. We also get a first look at Krang in his bubble walker, a look that is occasionally used when his robot body is too awkward.
Shredder, along with Rocksteady and Bebop, take one of the drill capsule up to the surface, coming out in the natural history museum. This indeed draws the attention of the Turtles, who rush to rescue the museum. They discover Shredder and the Goons trashing the amphibian exhibit which really upsets Donatello, which is weird because he’s a reptile. Not going to let this one go.
Anyway, this all leads to an actually pretty long and well paced fight sequence. These are surprisingly few and far between for this show; there is typically a lot of anticipation for a fight sequence but then a short actual confrontation, or several smaller, inexplicable action sequences. Reaves actually has a habit of writing the latter, preferring to pepper the action throughout rather than drawing it all together. Intercut with action elsewhere (while Shredder and his lackies battle the Hero Turtles, we cut back and forth to Krang, who is able to steal the prototype he was looking for), this whole thing takes up about four minutes of the episode, has a good mix of comedy and legitimate action sequences, including a personal favorite moment of Shredder grabbing and using a medieval crossbow. It even ties into the larger narrative of the Turtles’ appearance on the show later, as news coverage of the scuffle unfortunately only catches the Turtles, making it appear they are solely responsible. This is good stuff, and almost distracts from the fact it completely derails from the A and B plot. Which is a bit of an irony seeing how it was literally meant to be a distraction in plot.
In the end, the Turtles and the Baddies fight to a stand still until Shredder finally takes April O’Neil hostage, forcing the Turtles to give up their weapons. Having the drop on them, Shredder finally has the chance to defeat his arch-enemies, only for Krang to remind him that they agreed that it was Krang’s right to finish the Turtles. Shredder has what is becoming a trademark tantrum, but eventually stands down. The Baddies run off, and then the Turtles start to give chase before remembering they have a date on TV. Putting that on the back burner, they rush to the Channel 6 building.
The Turtles eventually get their television debut, but almost instantly choke. Between being nervous about the large audience On Trail draws, and not being prepared for Kellerman’s abrasive behavior, they either stutter through their answers or immediately grow defensive. Leonardo does the best, but mostly because he doesn’t have the self-awareness to be self-conscious. He just kind of is himself, and himself is fairly easy to mock.
Their interview is eventually disrupted when Krang finally attacks. The Turtles run to the action, and discover Krang’s massive machine. The Turtles do go out of their way to save Kellerman’s life, but the prototype quickly makes the Turtles feel overwhelmed and outgunned. The Turtles get an usual helping hand.
That’s right, Shredder who expressly comes up to watch Krang fail in defeating the Turtles, directly impacts Krang’s ability to defeat the turtles. That isn’t even narrative irony, that is hellbent karma. Anyway, the Turtles use the momentary distraction. Michelangelo does a full-on AT-AT maneuver to tie up the legs of the prototype. Leonardo follows that up by stabbing it in the chest because Leonardo hates machines more than anything.
The baddies get away with their tail tucked between their legs and the Turtles are left with a grateful Kellerman. The Turtles ask him to spread the truth about them, and in most shows this would be the part where the heroes get what they want and walk away victorious. Except oops Kellerman is a scumbag and openly tells them he has a reputation of being a public monster to keep up. Worse, April loses footage of the Turtles fighting Shredder, meaning they have no evidence to clear their name in the museum fight.
So yes, the Turtles stop Krang and Shredder in the end, but they also still feared by the city. The central plot of this episode is the Turtles attempting to clear their name from the lies told on On Trial, and in that they fail. The episode ends with them walking off, down the street, shoulders slumped. The final lines of the episode are Raphael “There are some days it just doesn’t pay to come out of your shell,” bemused grin on his face.
I love this ending. I love that Shredder inadvertently saves the Turtles, I love that Kellerman sticks to his guns, and expressly does so to keep his brand in tact. And I love that the Turtles actually have a moment of defeat. It all feels so out of tone for this show, where episodes end in literal pizza parties. This is a deflated victory, and this show rarely allows itself to go there.
One final note: like many of Reaves’ secondary antagonists, Kellerman never shows up again. Unlike others, there is a bit of a reason why. You see, likely when Reaves wrote this episode, the controversy around Morton Downey Jr. had reaches a fever pitch, and the trashfire aspect of the show was less appealing over time. The last episode of the Morton Downey Jr. show aired on September 15, 1989; “Turtles on Trial” premiered on September 27, 1989. Sometimes pop culture reflects the culture surrounding it, but sometimes culture moves too fast to keep up. Downey eventually died in 2001 with complications with lung cancer, and showed remorse for his previous television persona.
As for the Turtles…well, there is a long road ahead.
Next Time: Irma plays a big part in the next one. A real big part.