In the annals of imaginary planetary invasions, few were more watchably weird than Invader Zim. In the tradition of the best 90s cartoons, the show is charming and chilling by turns, satirizing the dystopian absurdities of childhood, adult responsibility, and world domination. Ostensibly the story of a boy and his dog – in this case, little green ones on a mission to subdue the planet – Invader Zim delivered bizarre plots, juvenile gags, and occasional social commentary neatly wrapped up in a dark, hilarious, cartoony package.
The show’s titular hero is a member of the Irken race, whose raison d’être is the invasion, domination, and assimilation of other planets. (They’re basically the Borg, but with an invaders’ training academy instead of a hive mind.) The Irkens’ MO is pretty straightforward: arrive incognito, gather intel while camouflaged as a local, and then WHAMMO! instant global takeover! Unfortunately, although Zim shares his compatriots’ zeal for invasion, he rather lacks their aptitude. After he jumps the gun (er, mecha-destroyer) and accidentally invades his own planet, Zim’s superiors bust him down to a planet far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy armed with only a standard invader ship and a half-heartedly programmed android helper named GIR.
After their noisy arrival to a decrepit Earth goes unnoticed by its dispirited and inattentive populace, Zim transforms his ship into a (very approximate) facsimile of an Earthling’s residence and fits GIR and himself with Earth-appropriate disguises. Now an unassuming (if somewhat green) Earth-child, Zim enrolls in the local school and begins reconnaissance for a mission he imagines will be a quick and spectacular trip back into his superiors’ good graces.
However, Zim has no sooner embarked on the preliminaries than he discovers Earth has more protective mechanisms than he bargained for – perhaps even more than planets sufficiently plugged into galactic politics to expect an Irken invasion. Humanity’s first line of defense is an aspiring paranormal investigator named Dib, a classmate of Zim’s who twigs immediately to the gaps in Zim’s half-assed attempts to pass as a local. However, Dib is no better at convincing his fellow humans than Zim is at conquering them, and the two lock horns repeatedly in an ongoing and improbably overlooked battle for the future of Earth. The planet’s second line of defense is its natives’ obliviousness; absent the sense to flee in terror from an invading Irken, most humans shrug and go about their lives with an indifference that alternately enables and thwarts Zim’s plans. The third and most hilarious thing standing between Zim and a successful invasion is his wingbot, GIR, Invader Zim’s secret star. Less interested in conquering Earth than in consuming its finest junk food and TV shows, GIR is my favorite character by far (and not just because he looks and acts like an impossibly cuddly, dopey, green stuffed canine). With his bottomless appetite and manic antics, GIR makes you wonder whether the delightful creatures we call dogs aren’t just joyful alien eating machines who grew into their costumes after misplacing their talking modules.
It’s hard to say what made Invader Zim such a cult favorite – that is, it’s hard to identify a single element as the source of the show’s appeal – but after GIR and his antics, my personal favorites were the space battles and the winks at the powerlessness of childhood and the drudgery of adult life. One moment Zim is learning to navigate mundane rituals like riding the bus (“You expect me to pay to ride this filthy machine? Have you the brain worms?!”) and Parent-Teacher Night (“Oh, I will bring my ‘parents’, and they shall be the greatest, most parental parents EVER!”) and the next he’s battling another race for control of the planet (“But *I* was here first!!!”). The juxtaposition of meticulously choreographed dogfights and cutting observations like “Take a good look, children. It will prepare you for your adult lives in our nightmarish corporate system” made for a cocktail irresistible to age groups within and well beyond Nickelodeon’s intended audience.
This broad appeal may have contributed to the show’s demise. Invader Zim ran for about a year before the network cancelled it in the middle of its second season. Speculation around the reasons for the premature cancellation is spirited and wide-ranging, but the most plausible theories place Invader Zim, like many of the shows featured in this column, at the fatal intersection of ratings that couldn’t justify production’s budgetary demands. On top of that, it’s arguable that Nickelodeon and Jhonen Vasquez were poorly matched from the beginning: The aesthetic of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac was never going to square with the demands of innocuous kiddie TV.
More than a decade later, however, it seems Nickelodeon has finally taken notice of Invader Zim’s faithful cult following and set out to rectify their initial mistake. In April they announced that the gang – including Vasquez and the original voice cast – was getting back together for an animated movie. Fans can look forward to at least one more account of Zim’s exploits, and even if he fails yet again to conquer Earth, Zim will finally get his due.
HOW TO WATCH: The complete show, including previously unreleased episodes, is available on DVD, Xbox Live Marketplace, Zune Marketplace, and PlayStation Store, and streaming on Hulu Plus.
MUST WATCH: “Career Day,” which skewers childhood dreams, and “Hamstergeddon,” which basically predicts cute animals taking over the Internet. (TWEPcaster Kris Randazzo is partial to “The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever.”)
FAVORITE LINES: “Invader’s blood marches through my veins like giant radioactive rubber pants! The pants command me! Do not ignore my veins!”
“I miss my cupcake.”
“There’s a pigeon on your head. You’ve got head-pigeons. Get to the nurse before they spread to the other children.”
“Clean, lemony fresh victory is mine!”
“Shut your noise tube, Taco Human!”
“The lesson here is that dreams inevitably lead to hideous implosions.”
“What does identifying blotches have to do with our future careers?”
“Oh, you poor doomed child.”
PAIR WITH: Pizza, tacos, and the occasional maniacal laugh.
LISTEN FOR: Phil LaMarr, John de Lancie (best known as Q on Star Trek), Billy West, Ted Raimi, Kevin McDonald (of Kids in the Hall), Adam Baldwin (Jayne on Firefly), Frank Conniff (of MST3K fame), and Wally Wingert (who voices The Riddler in the Arkham games).