Animation fans across the internet bid a sad goodbye to OK K.O: Let’s Be Heroes! earlier this month, the plucky Cartoon Network show created by Steven Universe alum Ian Jones-Quartey. Cancelled after three seasons and a comparatively short 111 episode run, the series creators did everything they could to pack their intended overarching story into the final eighteen episodes of season three. The result was necessarily more compressed than the oddball character comedy was suited for but still managed to wrench more than a few hearts, not least because of the crew’s outpouring of love for the show they’d worked on together and for their fans on Twitter as the finale rolled.
As the farewell party trended on both Twitter and Tumblr, it made it all the more bittersweet that many only discovered the series after the unexpected announcement of its cancellation back in August. It’s easy to see why – as with Steven Universe, Cartoon Network dumped many of the show’s second and third season episodes onto its less-than-stellar app far ahead of their TV air date, effectively cannibalizing its ratings. Likewise, the fact that the series is made for a slightly younger audiences (6-11, just like its protagonist KO) means it has a slightly more manic tone and more stand-alone episodes than cult hits like Gravity Falls. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still plenty of reasons to binge this gem in its entirety, from a guest appearance by Sonic to some choice queer representation.
1. The Guest Stars
The cast of OK K.O. is a who’s who of voice acting, with names from modern hits like She-Ra and Life is Strange, the world of anime dubbing, and classic 90s cartoons. In fact, the team’s love of the medium comes across almost giddily – what animation nerd wouldn’t be giddy that they’d gotten Jim Cummings to voice their Robotnik parody, Lord Boxman?
But even if you can’t tell Keith David from David Hayter, the show still draws amazing energy not just from its talented regulars but some well-chosen and downright (delightfully) bizarre guest spots. SungWon Cho AKA ProZD bringing hellish life to a Yu-Gi-Oh parody? Wrestler Kurt Angle as a beefed-up, empty-headed superhero? Podcaster Justin McElroy as a supervillain made of smug-looking gold? They’ve got you covered.
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2. The Homage
Fans of fellow cancelled-too-soon children’s cartoon Wander Over Yonder will know that children’s animation is one of the best places to find tributes to the history of the medium. The animators of OK K.O. are 90s kids at heart, and it shows. The visual elements of the show, including that omnipresent “cool s” and a bucket of Naruto references, are goofy but also still deeply affectionate, which creates a look bathed in the “rad” aesthetic of the 1990s and the all-extra-all-the-time heart of the anime boom.
The fact that the show is board-driven (meaning that episodes are loosely plotted and planned visually rather than working from a full script) means that individual episodes can take endless flights of fancy, from time-traveling sentai fights to some amazingly nightmarish play with 3D rendering. But a special shoutout has to be reserved for the crossovers.
OK K.O. is no stranger to Very Special Episodes, so it’s only fitting that they landed the avatar of weird 90s kids activism and made a whole episode with Captain Planet, who has grown an extra ab or twelve in the decades since we saw him last. It absolutely aches with sincerity in a way that’s difficult not to respect.
Not every crossover event hits – the Cartoon Network extravaganza packs in more characters than it knows how to effectively showcase and has to nerf Raven for the plot to work – but the successes definitely outweigh the failures. And the biggest feather in the show’s crossover cap is of course Sonic the Hedgehog, in an appearance that’s easily the most delightful thing the blue hedgehog’s done in years. It’s only an eleven-minute short, but it’s packed to the gills with nods to the franchise, some especially stunning animation for the running segments, and a story that both plays well within the time constraints and invites in fans who might not have played a Sonic game since the Genesis.
These episodes encapsulate the drawn-in-your-notebook sensibility embodied by the show’s character designs, which have a flatness seemingly born of the same “make it easy for kids to draw” mentality that influenced Phineas and Ferb – with an extra emphasis on visual diversity. And speaking of…
3. The Representation
Roughly 20% of OK K.O.’s audience started watching the show because of the single dad evil scientists who fall in love. That number is probably in fact astonishingly conservative, but I’m going to stick by it for now – this is, after all, a relationship in which one character was redesigned from generic old creep to hot shoujo-sparkle man so that his future husband’s initial flustered motivations would make sense, and where Team Rocket was a clear and overwhelming influence on their overall family aesthetic.
But in all seriousness, the feeling of “nobody is straight” floated around the show from its early days. Once the show received notice that it was ending, it developed a serious case of what I like to call “the Cancellation Gays,” where a crew that had been trying to work in coded representation officially throws subtlety to the wind with middle fingers raised. It’s why you have so many queer couples, from Korra and Asami to Marceline and Princess Bubblegum, confirmed as close to the last minute as possible. While background couples have made their way into several kids’ shows, confirming members of the main cast are queer appears to remain a dicey proposition.
What is particularly interesting about OK K.O.’s couples is how the transparently obvious coding of the early seasons is underlined by the explicitness of the final season and the crew’s willingness to specifically name LGBTQ+ identities for the cast when asked by fans. Of course the episode where laidback ninja Enid takes a romantic drive with cool rebel Red Action, whom she’s been swooning over incessantly, is their first date. Of course an episode about those villainous single dads lamenting that their “minions” are having trouble as a blended family (while holding hands, no less) takes place as the two are feeling out their relationship.
It’s almost laughable to think that those scenes could’ve been seen any other way, and yet fans tied themselves in knots wondering if those couples counted as “canon,” highlighting the double standards to which queer content is held. Heteronormativity retains such an iron grip on children’s animation that when the final episode included a brief next-generation shot of palette-swapped versions of main characters Enid and Rad there was speculation that it meant the two had had children, despite the two having been on one date in middle school, the episode in question resolving on a firmly platonic note, and the same finale episode also showing Enid and Red Action settling down together.
Children’s animation has a long, long way to go to dismantle the history of normative coding that’s been built into it, and OK K.O. takes a decisive step in that direction, giving the world queer characters of color and one of the few prominent examples of a loving relationship between men in the medium.
4. The Feels
With the knowledge of cancellation looming on the horizon, the final season of OK K.O. was forced to zero in on its overarching plot threads to make sure its loose ends would be tied up. This led to a fair bit of praise for its more serious tone and drew in those looking for a more plot-driven story, but it would be a mistake to discount the strong emotional underpinnings the show had going as early as season one.
While Steven Universe is a series about traits like empathy and communication which are typically associated with femininity, OK K.O. turns its lens on all things masculine. The premise of the show is about doing a punch better than the other people trying to do a punch, the cast is stacked to the nines in abs, and it takes more than one peculiar shot at “nerd stuff” in its early episodes despite drowning in anime references itself. But while the nuances of the show’s relationship to masculinity are an article all their own, it’s clear that the show wants to critique toxic masculinity (mostly using the secretly soft bro alien Rad, voiced by Jones-Quartey himself) and help its young viewers develop a healthier relationship with the kinds of behaviors embodied by action shows. Come for the fight scenes, stay for the continuous emphasis on those same themes of communication, empathy, and why it’s okay to ask others for help.
More than anything, OK K.O. clearly loves its characters. From the series regulars to odd one-hit wonders, its world feels vibrant and vital. That love is what lets the series transition so well into more serious stories, ending in a poignant final episode about growing up that shows off the height of the creative team’s talent. Not every job can be your dream job, but every time the credits rolled I was left with the sense that this series was many of theirs.