G.I. Joe revisited

I binge-watched a bunch of episodes from one of my favorite childhood cartoons recently, and to my surprise, they’ve held up extremely well.

The show came into existence for the purpose of promoting a toy line, sure. So did Masters of the Universe and Transformers. They could’ve thrown together a bunch of crap and called it a day, but the creative minds tasked with bringing those toys to the screen chose to go above and beyond with compelling storylines, detailed backstories on all the characters, and even multi-episode story arcs. It’s often said that creativity thrives under constraint, and this is a perfect example of that.

They already had the blueprint for the show from the Marvel comic that preceded it, but clearly it had to be toned down for television. In the comic, people got shot and died. Everybody missed on the show, and everyone always parachuted to safety. I barely noticed, and the series certainly didn’t suffer from it. I understood, as a kid both reading the comics and watching the show, that comics allowed for more explicit content than TV did, but somehow in my head it all existed in the same universe.

Yeah, some of the episodes were silly, and the show jumped the shark a bit by the time Serpentor was introduced, and Sergeant Slaughter became a member of G.I. Joe, but those first few seasons are chock full of gems.

Worlds Without End, from season 3, for example, in which the Joes are transported to an alternate dimension in which Cobra rules the world. There’s a truly eerie scene where one of them discovers his own corpse and freaks out.

Also, the Dreadnoks are cops, and that’s fun.

Here’s what really strikes me, though, watching from a 2020 perspective: G.I. Joe was the most diverse show of its time. Multiple ethnicities are represented in G.I. Joe’s ranks, and those characters are integral to the show and the toy line. I’m fairly certain this was by design, and yet where’s the credit? Why no accolades for Ron Friedman?

I guess that aspect of it is overshadowed by its supposed perpetuation of nationalism and the military-industrial complex or something. Whatever. Or maybe people feel that the representations are stereotypes. I guess a case could be made for that with spirit, but I was raised in Oklahoma and there were native kids all over the place who loved G.I. Joe. We all did. It was a huge thing that I remember white, black, Hispanic, native and Asian kids all being into back in the ’80s. Living next to an army base, the population was extremely diverse and I grew up around all kinds of people and so I guess GI Joe’s diversity just seemed normal to me. It depicted people of many races and backgrounds coming together to defeat evil, and they always won.

The female characters are all badasses and integral to the show as well. Lady Jay was always my favorite.

And Cobra had so many great villains, didn’t they?

If you grew up watching G.I. Joe or want to check it out for the first time, I found the entire series streaming on the free Tubi app on my TV.



  1. It’s really interesting to look back on because all of the characters get their own episodes that dig deep into their backstories, so they’re more complex and not one-dimensional like most animated shows of the time. Lot of substance amidst the cheese.

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