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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Is the Rare Show That Gets Better With Every Reboot

Andrew Farago, author of 'TMNT: The Ultimate Visual History,' on the franchise's evolution and what parents can watch for with kids.

One of the great joys of parenthood is introducing your kids to your favorite shows. Of course, just because you loved it, doesn’t mean your kid will. Fortunately, every series has superfans, scholars, and experts who can help parents find a way in. And with Hulu’s expansive TV library, you can get up to speed together in between your summer outings.   

When the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first emerged from the sewers in 1984, the comic books were unexpected and improbable. Fans–and there were plenty of early adopters–were astonished by the originality of the vision, but if you had told them the turtle would still be a pop culture phenomenon over 30 years later you’d have gotten laughed out of the room. But all those cartoons, action figures, live action films, video games, breakfast cereals, and Halloween costumes later, Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo, and Michelangelo still have staying power and an appetite for pizza. Today, kids watch new turtle adventures (online) just like their parents did back in the nineties. Everything changes; nothing changes.

On its face, the TMNT premise is ridiculous: four teenage, anthropomorphic turtle brothers named for Italian Renaissance artists live in New York City’s sewers, train in the art of ninjitsu under a learned rat sensei, and emerge to protect the city from criminals, aliens, and evil overlords. After a job well done (and before and during–they’re a little obsessed) they crush pizza and say “Cowabunga,” a mispronunciation of a Native American exclamation.

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Even the show’s creators acknowledge its absurdity. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird originally sketched a bipedal turtle holding weapons as a joke. One wrote the title “Ninja Turtles.” The other added “Teenage Mutant.” They thought it was hilarious. Indeed, that’s a spicy word salad if there ever was one. But it’s a good thing they didn’t laugh off their idea. Because while the franchise has many elements that draw viewers into the turtles’ world, it’s the name that initially hooks them.

So surmises Andrew Farago, the superfan and author behind TMNT: The Ultimate Visual History, the first book to chronicle the art and stories behind every iteration of TMNT. “That title is unlike anything else,” he says. “It’s a perfect combination of the right words in the right order, like a magic spell. It just reaches out and grabs you.”

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As children of the 80s, Farago and his younger brother saw the first commercials for the original cartoon prior to its debut in December of 1987. “We knew we were going to watch it,” he recalls.

From there, the show’s catchy theme song, colorful characters, and surprisingly relatable themes entranced the Farago brothers and millions of other kids. “On top of [the name], the way the characters came together was compelling,” he recalls. “They were just four brothers goofing around and getting the job done.”

Farago, who today works at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, says he jumped at the opportunity to write a comprehensive book on the art and business of the Turtles. The two-year project gave Farago the chance to talk to every person who ever worked on TMNT, including Eastman, Laird, and the showrunners behind the current series, which he still watches.

“When it was first announced I thought, ‘It’s computer animated. It’s going to be so different.’ But I was won over quickly. The head producer, Ciro Nieli, is a huge, huge fan. He had been reading the comics from the very beginning in 1984. He knew he could bring elements from every [previous incarnation] to please every fan. They’ve done an amazing job.”

This will come as no surprise to anyone who ever tried to buy flea market nunchucks behind their parents’ back, but the turtle brothers are still ninja crime fighters. They still use weapons and their fists quite often. But it’s not a mindless, violent boys’ cartoon. The lead characters are childlike but must practice great discipline to hone their abilities. And they always obey their father-figure, Master Splinter. Well, almost always. Mutant turtle kids these days, AM I RIGHT?

“It’s really a show about teaching kids valuable lessons. It’s about having action, adventure, and characters you can relate to but still learning lessons on how to be a better friend, brother, person, or turtle,” jokes Farago. “Nickelodeon has done a great job being entertaining but imparting great lessons as well.”

In the grand TMNT tradition, the Nickelodeon series’ current season will be its last; a new 2D animated series, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, arrives next fall. Yet rather than watering down the source material, Farago says the franchise’s relentless rebootability is what keeps the Turtles kicking three decades on. From cartoons giving PSAs about the environment to men in animatronic suits made by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to CGI 8-foot characters blowing stuff up for Michael Bay, no two versions of the Turtles are alike. Which means parents can get their kids hooked from any starting point.

“It’s endlessly adaptable. You have four lead characters with distinctive personalities and everyone has a favorite one. No one ever says I love all four equally,” says Farago, offering parents an out for both the “Favorite Turtle” and “Favorite kid” conundrums. “I feel silly saying it, but the best way to describe TMNT is that they’re evergreen.”

Turtle fans slingin’ dad jokes. Definitely didn’t see that coming in ‘87.