Truly, truly, truly outrageous: Explaining ‘Jem and the Holograms’ to someone born in the 90s

One Saturday afternoon several months ago, I was sitting on the living room floor, eating soup and watching my favorite 80s cartoon show Jem and the Holograms (as you do when you’re a childless woman in your 30s) when one of my roommates walked in and asked, “What in the hell is this?” I was aghast to learn that he’d never heard of Jem and the Holograms! Then I remembered that he was born in 1991 and I felt sad for him.

So I tried to explain.

“Well, the basic premise is that after this girl Jerrica Benton loses her father (like dead lost, not lost lost) she inherits his struggling record company – Starlight Music, his foster home for girls – Starlight House, and an abandoned drive-in movie theater which houses a super computer he built named Synergy which (by using the power of holographic technology) turns Jerrica, her younger sister Kimber and two of their orphan friends into a rock band called Jem and the Holograms.  She also has a pair of magic earrings, well actually they’re remote micro projectors but…”

I could tell my roommie just wasn’t getting it so I didn’t bother trying to stop him as he slowly backed out of the room. His reaction did get me thinking though.

Up until this point, I had only the vaguest recollections about the impossibly cool all-girl rock group that was my childhood obsession; a few snatches of synthesized pop tunes, funky hair colors, weird make-up and oh, the fashions! But after watching several episodes and really paying attention to what was going on, adult me began to realize that this show has had a profound effect on my worldview in some potentially alarming ways.

Let’s start at ‘The Beginning’ with some plot analysis of the conveniently titled pilot episode.

Cold open on a glitzy red carpet event in what is probably Los Angeles.

[I’m not sure if they ever come out and say where the show takes place but it’s clearly a city that’s almost always sunny, there are lots of palm trees, it’s near the coast, no one ever wears a jacket except for Kimber and Rio oddly, and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a record producer, movie executive, music video director, tv personality…you get the idea. In fact, the only thing that makes me think it might not be LA is that apparently it only takes three minutes to drive anywhere because there are never any other cars on the road. Ever.]

Wherever they are, there are throngs of adoring fans lining the red carpet (in some truly bizarre outfits) chanting the names of the band members: Asha, Shayna, Kimber and of course, Jem, as they emerge from what can only be described as a fancy clown car that couldn’t possibly fit four adult women plus a driver and still abide by the laws of physics.

While her three band mates make it through the crowd relatively unscathed, Jem is inundated by the press with hard-hitting questions like, ‘How does it feel to be famous?’ to which her inner monologue replies, ‘I remember how it all began…’

Cue flashback!

[Side note: Since they never manage to flash forward again, adult me has a hard time accepting  the use of this particular literary device. I mean, come on people, it’s just sloppy story telling.]

Fade in on a rainy cemetery where a group of crazy-haired, black-clad weirdos mourners are huddled around a grave. Jerrica’s magical omniscient narrator voice (another story-telling technique never utilized again) explains about her dad’s death and the inheritance he left her. The narration is interrupted when a tall, dark, handsome and slightly surly man by the name of Eric Raymond (co-owner of Starlight Music) offers his rather menacing condolences. Jerrica’s purple-haired boyfriend Rio doesn’t appreciate this at all and whisks her away under his umbrella…ella…ella…eh…eh…eh. Sorry.

Then the scene changes to Starlight House – Home for Foster Girls, where a rag-tag group of orphans and their wannabe punk rocker guardians are trying to fix up their decrepit old house. In the opening montage we learn that Jerrica is a horrible plumber, Rio is a terrible electrician and Kimber plays the guitar – the only hint that any of these people might have a shred of musical knowledge or talent whatsoever.

As the group bemoans the fact that they no longer have electricity or running water, their housekeeper(?) Mrs. Bailey (who disappears after the second episode so it doesn’t really matter who she is) suggests that Jerrica use some of the income generated by Starlight Music to pay for the repairs to the house. Jer thinks this a great idea, so she puts on her stripiest outfit and heads right out to talk to Eric Raymond.

When she arrives at Starlight Music, she notices that Eric has made several changes to the company. Most notably, he wants to sign some ‘edgier’ bands in order to make Starlight Music the ‘most powerful recording company in the country!’ Seriously. That is a direct quote. He explains (in a really patronizing manner) that a record company isn’t a charity and since she’s just a kid she should shut up when a grownup is talking.

Then Eric introduces the new band he wants to represent – The Misfits!

[From left: Roxy, Pizzazz and Stormer]

Not to be confused with…

[There have been so many members of this band, I have no idea who these people are.]

Cue antagonistic foil to Jem!

The rivalry between the Holograms and the Mifits starts right off the bat – even though Jem and Holograms don’t even exist yet. And though it pains me to admit it, it’s kinda Jerrica’s fault. Just because the Misfits come barreling into her late father’s office riding motorcycles shaped like giant guitars, Jerrica calls them a ‘monstrosity’ and refers to them as ‘trash.’ Not smart, Jerrica, not smart.

I’m personally willing to give her a pass on this one since she just lost her father, is now the sole legal guardian of a dozen orphan girls and has a lot of emotions to process, but The Misfits are somewhat less charitable and they launch into an inexplicable music video called ‘Get outta my way.’ [These video cutaways (which are only tenuously tied to the plot) became a major staple on the show.]

Then, in typical Bond-villain fashion, Eric and The Misfits outline their plan for a rigged Battle of the Bands concert in the park the following day where The Misfits are guaranteed to win and gain some much-needed publicity…or something. Then Jerrica storms out of the office swearing revenge for some reason.

It’s all very dramatic.  And I haven’t even gotten to the good part yet!

When Jerrica gets home she fills her friends in on their new rivalry with The Misfits and the fact that Eric Raymond is now public enemy number one. While trying to formulate a plan to stop Eric and The Misfits, her sister points out a package that someone left for her while she was out. Inside, she finds a pair of earrings and promptly puts them on.

.

This is the part where the lines between science and magic really start to get blurry.

The moment Jerrica touches the earrings, the wind starts to blow, their oil lamps flicker (cause they don’t have electricity anymore, remember?) and a blue ghost-type thingie appears out of nowhere saying, ‘Jerrica Benton, I have come for you’ and tells her to follow the instructions in the earring box in a way that is both enigmatic and creepy.

Quick! To the Starlight Music van!

The instructions must have told them to drive to the abandoned Starlight Drive-in Movie Theater because that’s what they do. [Btw – is anyone else getting sick of the name Starlight? I know the show was meant for kids, but kids have great memories and there are other names. I digress…] Synergy (the weird blue ghost of Christmas past thingie) tells them to drive through the wall of the cement slab under the movie screen. Asha, the band’s usual driver, doesn’t want to do it, but Jerrica has ‘a hunch’ and Asha totally caves in to peer pressure and crashes the van into the wall.  Well, she is Asian…  Just kidding!  They pass directly through the wall as if it were some sort of hologram…

Then we get to see Synergy in all her glowing, flashing, synergistic glory.

Synergy explains that Jerrica’s father invented her and that she has the power to create holographic images of anyone or anything. She demonstrates this ability by making each of the girls look like one of the other girls. Personally, I would have found it more impressive if she had turned at least one of them into a dog or Hitler or something, but never mind. She tells Jerrica how the earrings work and that she can use them to remotely create a hologram wherever and whenever she wants. Lastly she reveals another, secret inheritance with even more awesome stuff – a room full of designer clothes, enough gear to form a dozen rock bands and this car –  The Rockin’ Roadster:

I need to pause for a moment to address two important issues.

1) Kimber totally gets the shaft in this show. I mean, she lost her father too! But no one seems to care about her feelings and she totally gets screwed by the terms of the will. She’s lucky Jerrica seems to like her because it appears as though Jer has the power to boot Kimber’s ass out of the house whenever she wants.

2) If Jerrica’s father could afford high-tech computer crap, designer clothes, band equipment and a friggin’ roadster, why doesn’t his house have heat or properly functioning indoor plumbing? Was he taking in all those foster kids just to get another government check every month and then spending that money on toys for his real kid? Whatever the reason, it’s super sketchy. That’s not so much a plot hole, but a giant plot chasm.

Shortly after the discovery of her fabulous bequest, Jerrica says, ‘Hey, I bet we could sell all this stuff and make more than enough money to renovate Starlight House!’

Except no she doesn’t, because that would make sense.

Instead she says, ‘I know to stop Eric Raymond!’

Cut to the public park where the Battle of the Bands is already in full swing. Apparently The Misfits have already played because Eric is about to announce the winner, but before he can finish we hear the mellifluous tones of a sugary pop song coming from the other side of the park. It’s Jem and Holograms!  [Btw – everyone on the show pronounces it ‘whole-o-grams’ instead of ‘hall-uh-grams’ and it makes me nuts.]

Cue psychedelic music video.

The crowd flocks to them and generally starts going bananas, which royally pisses off Eric and The Misfits.  Eric tries to tell them that this event is by invitation only, but Jem is ready for him.  Using her magic earrings, she creates a hologram of Jerrica and says that Jerrica invited them to the Battle of Bands.

Eric decides that he needs to speak with Jerrica, so Jem runs behind a tree, touches the magic earring and says the magic words, ‘Show’s over, Synergy,’ and she turns back into Jerrica.  Including wearing the same clothes that holographic Jerrica was just wearing a few moments ago.  Then she runs out from behind the tree and says, ‘Looking for me?’ all dramatic and menacing-like.

While this may seem like another plot hole, it actually sets up a major plot device for the rest of the series and the double life of Jerrica/Jem, but that’s later.

Back in the park, Eric throws down and challenges Jerrica (as manager of Jem and the Holograms) to another Battle of the Bands in six months.  If Jem wins, she gets to keep Starlight Music, but if The Misfits win, ‘Starlight music is mine.’ [There should be an evil laugh here, but there isn’t.]

You’d think that would be the climax of the story and they would leave it there until next time, but you would be wrong.  After Jerrica accepts Eric’s challenge, a film producer named Howard Sands and two other guys with sunglasses come out from under a bush or something and sweeten the deal by offering not only a movie contract, but also a mansion to the winner of the Battle of the Bands cause you know…it was the 80s…and that’s how they did things and…oh, shut up and watch the show!

During this little negotiation, The Misfits who are still totally miffed about being upstaged, steal all of the Holograms’ gear.  Naturally, this is followed by a car chase.  The Misfits start throwing guitars and keyboards and stuff out of the back of their van, causing the Holograms to swerve off the road! Luckily, they stop just short of a cliff, but if they try to get out of the car, they’ll plummet to their deaths, presumably.

Just then, Jerrica remembers that Rio will be headed their way any moment and with the help of Synergy, she creates a hologram of Jem and projects it out onto the middle of the road in order to get his attention. It works and he saves them.  Apparently he doesn’t notice that Jem has somehow disappeared in all the hubbub, but whatever.

You’re thinking, surely this must be the end of the episode, right? – but no!  There’s more!

Cut to Eric’s office at Starlight Music.  He’s reading an article in the newspaper about the accident and the heroic rescue of Jem.  Then he reprimands The Misfits for unknowingly giving the Holograms a ton of free publicity.  They respond by launching into another music video, ‘Winning is Everything.’ [An important message for impressionable young girls to learn.]

Ok, so then we go back to Starlight House (remember the orphanage?) where the orphans are all pooling their money to buy a new refrigerator for a house that no longer has electricity, but never mind.  Rio tries to fix it, but he fails.  Because he is a failure.

Back at the office, Eric arranges for a meathead with roid rage named Zipper to break into Starlight House, in order to scare Jerrica out of working in the music business. Yeah, I know, just bear with me. We’re almost done.

Meanwhile, there’s drama at the orphanage when one of the girls gets caught stealing the refrigerator  money out of the ‘honor jar.’  Rather than kick her out, Jerrica passes the buck and decides to let the rest of the twelve-year-old girls in the house decide what to do about her. [This is why musicians should never be in charge of things.  We are awful at this sort of crap.]  Anyway, the girls decide that she can stay, but as punishment she needs to raise the rest of the refrigerator money by herself – a whopping thirty dollars.

Later that night, Zipper breaks into the house, but Jerrica and the Holograms wake up and try to stop him.  In his haste to escape, Zipper knocks over an oil lamp and sets fire to the house.

[To Be Continued…]

Finally!

It may seem outrageous, but that’s pretty much the template for every episode:  brief exposition, set up of conflict, music video, major catastrophe, repeat.

And those catastrophes get crazier and crazier as the show goes on.  For instance, in episode two when the Holograms get to live in the mansion of the wealthy movie producer, Howard Sands, just by asking nicely, the Misfits show up at the house, steal a bulldozer (which is inexplicably sitting in the guy’s yard) and almost run over a bunch of people before crashing it into the pool.  Then later, they come back with Zipper and attempt to blow the place up, but they only manage to destroy one wing so Jerrica/Jem, the Holograms and all of the orphans decided to keep living there anyway.

Or what about the time when Jem and the girls get invited to a yacht party by some shmancy fashion designer and The Misfits crash the party in addition to the yacht?  Then, like three minutes later, after the near-tragic accident, the yacht owner, Danielle something-or-other, shrugs and suggests that Jem and the Holograms go to Paris to film an all-expenses paid music video with the director they just met twenty minutes ago who is now Shayna’s boyfriend. [Be thankful I spared you the details of that little exchange – it ends with the words, ‘Don’t worry beautiful, we’ll figure it out.’] Howard Sands, who is also at the party, offers them the use of his private jet and Kimber (the little sister) is all like, ‘Outrageous! Let’s go tomorrow!’ and Jem says, ‘Whoa, slow down Kimber, we need to record our album tomorrow. We’ll go to Paris the next day.’ And they do.  No mention of the fact that they all almost just died.  Nope.  Not one.

There are skiing accidents, motorcycle accidents, parasailing accidents, explosions, kidnappings, carjackings, I think a gargoyle almost falls on Jem’s head at one point….  In addition to almost dying at least once per episode, Jem and the Holograms are also constantly saving people.  They pay for orphans without health insurance who need surgery, they feed the hungry, they raise money for an entirely different foster home from the one they’re already running…  However, the fact that these sorts of things happen in every single episode isn’t even the most disturbing aspect of the show.

The thing that really gets me is that, aside from the Holograms, no one ever figures out that Jem and Jerrica are the same person.  Not even their boyfriend, Rio.  That’s right, he’s dating both of them and Jerrica is constantly getting jealous – of herself! But she won’t tell him because she’s afraid he’ll be mad at her for lying or some bullshit.  Basically, she can’t tell him cause it would ruin the show.  I think that’s why they have to have car wrecks and terrorist attacks everyday, because when you’re driving over a cliff or being held up at gun point, you don’t really have time to talk about your relationship.  But you do have time to pound the pavement and go looking for a bunch of dipshit runaway orphans who decide it’s a good idea to follow some creepy dude into his equally creepy van. There’s always time for that – with just enough time to spare to make it to their concert on time.

Seriously?  Who thinks of this shit?  What drugs were they taking?  And why do I still love it so much?

To an adult, it becomes clear that an appreciation of this show requires an immense amount of suspension of disbelief. Fortunately, for my five-year-old self, before our little brains could process any of these blatant plot inconsistencies or would-be terrifying scenarios, Jem would segue into an inexplicable music video and we’d all get distracted by her sparkly outfits and synthesized pop tunes.

Truly outrageous 🙂

One thought on “Truly, truly, truly outrageous: Explaining ‘Jem and the Holograms’ to someone born in the 90s

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