The Surprising and Forgotten Diversity of 'Extreme Ghostbusters'

A look into how the 1997 animated cartoon did diversity the right way.

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May 9 2017, 4:57pm

Source: wikimedia

It was the fall of 1997 when I saw the TV ad, which absolutely reeked of 90s propaganda. The "dangerous" electric-guitar music, that edgy-sounding vocalist who pronounced the word "extreme" with too much effort, and of course the challenge, "Extreme Ghostbusters—can you handle it?"

My young mind screamed back, Yes, I can! It was a dark time, where brands force-fed "cool" like it was in short supply (see every 90s Mountain Dew ad ever). And most of us ate those corny campaigns all the way up.

I was also an easy target. The token kid who felt decidedly "uncool" and in need of something "extreme" in my diet. I wanted to know what "radical" looked like, apart from my good ol' image of a shy kid that built yellow tinted 486s (hundreds of times slower than your smartphone) during his spare time.

Despite Ghostbusters itself being an iconic film series and having a surprisingly decent late-80s cartoon spin-off, you'd be forgiven if you never heard of the Extreme Ghostbusters, which aired on September 1, 1997. It managed an OK 40-episode stint and from the start positioned itself as a darker "canon" where four original Ghostbusters from the 1980s were replaced with four student outcasts—providing credence to a course in the occult and the kind of weirdos who would take it on. And Egon, an OG Ghostbuster and the nerdiest of the paranormally obsessed nerds, naturally served as their teacher.

Something about that gloomy tone spoke to me, though. It wasn't the "it's the 90s and we're cool" marketing that did it, but the end to that 80s joy—that campy kumbaya shit that continually seeped into the era. (A cartoon about C.O.P.S without a single accidental death.) Some of us longed for realism—for scary relatable shit that we didn't know was possible in a children's show. Take the Extreme Ghostbusters episode, "The True Face of a Monster", a segment that took the leap of combining giant golems, anti-Semitism, and racism in a single episode. These segments often dealt with legit fears and real death, delivered weekly in PG-friendly form.

And beyond that, it was also the handling of characters that gave it that shine. Never stereotypical like it could have been by the obvious appearance of diversity.

Let me paint the picture.

You had Roland Jackson, our black character with the certifiably clean fade—a practical engineer and complete egghead.

Roland Jackson. Via Wikimedia

I completely identified with Jackson's non-stereotypical nerdiness. He knew who he was but chose not to wear it on his sleeve. It's not like I personally had a Twitter feed instructing me on what it meant to be black back then, so you either felt like you owned the "how to be black" manual for the culture or not. What I knew at the very least was that the term "nerd" rarely stood in its headline, deck, or footnote.

Then there was the thrill-seeking Garrett Miller—a wheelchair bound, wisecracking jock with a brain. He was never viewed as broken or in need of fixing like many disabled characters often are. The man completely owned who he was.

The Latino member of the crew was Eduardo Rivera. A smart and a natural cynic, lacking all the ugly caricature that normally followed South American characters. And last there was Kylie Griffin, the gifted goth girl, whose black lipstick and eyeshadow stood different from some other leads of the 90s—Lydia from Beetlejuice being the rare exception.

Kylie Griffin. Via Wikimedia

You're can't tell me that what I just described wasn't inclusion 101. This was pretty decent for the 90s given the racially charged decade that it was. I grew up watching the Rodney King Riots, O.J. Simpson murder case, and heard about the OKC bombing by a white supremacist. Diversity within television could never have been mistaken as a high-priority topic during this period. Given the source material, the show had absolutely no pressure to go down the route that it did.

Yes, the Ghostbusters of 1984 was an iconic classic as I mentioned, but, oh, that casting—a very Hollywood 80s sort of bullshit. Somehow the masses were OK with three smart white guys being followed by a lone non-academic black dude, played by Winston Zeddemore. The stupidness was repeated in the 2016 version criticism, though not at the fault of Leslie Jones. I say again, Extreme Ghostbusters came out of the damn 90s. It had enough sense to squash that myth of people of color being less intelligent than white people years prior to a scientist in 2007 that claimed that very same thing.

To back my argument, I wanted to track down the series co-creator Jeff Kline (a white guy) because I didn't want to give him or anyone involved too much credit right away. I wanted to know what the actual direction was going into the show; was diversity intentional or a fluke?

"Diversity was absolutely the focus from the beginning. If we were going to throw four teenagers together and create a forced family situation, different backgrounds, and life experiences only made sense. We wanted insecurities and personality flaws because that stuff is universal," Kline told me. "For instance, with Garrett Miller, I wanted an adrenaline junkie, but we needed a reason for him to be a social outcast. So we hit on the idea of putting him in a wheelchair and against expectations, and made his disability almost a non-issue."

You want different struggles? You introduce different people and cultures—a crazy concept. Even if solely for plot reasons, I wouldn't hate the answer. It's how I've grown to view the word myself. That it really should be an unstated thing since the term rarely translates well. We've seen the tired disingenuous use of "diversity" in the name of the public image and government funding—real-life wise. And we've seen the results of that in media with the token black, disabled, or Latino characters, all "shuckin n' jivin" in the name of visible diversity.

Take the paraplegic Chip Chase from Transformers of the 1980s. Stereotypical nerdy helper with those big frames. The complete embodiment of the smart-guy trope that can't do shit else. Or the Oblongs, a mutated, disabled, and overly exaggerated group that rubbed me the wrong way in appearance. Whether the oval shaped, feetless/legless Bob or the conjoined three assed Biff and Chip. It was more about comedy through mockery. And let's also not forget the Latino and disabled folks that spread across shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and once again, this gem.

The many hows and whys as to why this show was the one and only Ghostbusters that gave a shit about perception are too much for one article. But my love for it is also selfish. I was just a nerdy black kid that easily identified with its characters and plots. As a grown man, I've come to appreciate what it did, compared to so many other shows that didn't bother.

"I saw the series as a way to tell Twilight Zone or Outer Limit–type stories with a premise of humor," Kline told me. "There's something really gratifying about getting the opportunity to extend the life of a story that resonates with characters that a variety of people like you can identify with. I'm grateful for that"

Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.

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