Proving that Nickelodeon knows how to “cross-platform” promote like a 21st century hybrid of PT Barnum and the Tasmanian Devil, lending the premiere of a new episode of a cartoon series about a walking-talking sanitation utensil with the pitched fervor of a Beatles reunion, last Friday night’s half-hour special episode of SpongeBob SquarePants “Where’s Gary” proved the highest-rated program on all of cable with kids 2-11 for 2005.
“Where’s Gary” was the highest-rated episode of SpongeBob ever with kids 6-11, and was the third-placed program for the year on all of TV for kids 2-11, behind only the SuperBowl and SuperBowl kick-off broadcasts, which they weren’t paying any attention to anyway. Almost 8 million total viewers tuned in to watch SpongeBob in his angsty adventure to find his beloved lost snail.
Regarding the cross-platform extravaganza, in addtion to almost endless on-air promos, which for the final day or so seemed to be on the Nick screen more than the shows they were interrupting, for the five days leading up to the “Where’s Gary” premiere, kids were told to log on Nick.com to enter the SpongeBob SquarePants “Where’s Gary?” Sweepstakes. Every night on the air, Patchy the Pirate (Tom Kenny) and guests searched locations across the globe for Gary. On Nick.com — which also featured sneak previews of the show and a “Trail of the Snail” Flash game — kids entered Patchy’s search locations in order to be eligible to win the sweepstakes.
Obviously it all paid off.
Unfortunately, the episode itself is rather wan and slack, notably lacking in the air of giddy zaniness that millions of men, women and, um, children so happily cleave to. All the ingredients are there: SpongeBob (Kenny) forgets to feed his pet snail for several days while attempting to meet the “Dirty Bubble Challenge” paddle-ball record. Gary, the meowing snail, becomes disillusioned and runs away from home. While living on the rough streets of downtown Bikini Bottom, the wayward mollusk is taken in by a strange but kindly old woman (SNL’s Amy Poehler) who mistakes him for one of her other pets.
When SpongeBob realizes he has forgotten to care for Gary who is now missing, he sets out on a flyer-flining frenzy to find his beloved gastropod and return him home. Meanwhile, as Gary is wrapped in comfy blankets and indulged in an endless assortment of snacks and soothing patter, he makes a horrifying discovery in a closet of his new benefactor.
Except it doesn’t really click: it’s not bad — it’s even grown on me a bit after three or four subsequent viewings forced on me by my children — but it doesn’t flow with the funhouse logic of the classic series’ best eps either. Perhaps the series, which first aired in 1999, has run out of steam, an especially pointed question now that creator Steve Hillenburg is no longer working on the show – but I’m not counting it out yet either.