Spongebob Squarepants is one of my favourite childhood TV shows. My sister and I first started watching the show around its fourth or fifth season, shortly after the the departure of producer Stephen Hillenburg, and the release of the 2004 film – which is fantastic, by the way. This period is noted for being the start of a perceived decline in quality for the show. Even at the time, we noticed a shift to more gross-out, immature humour compared to the comparative wit of Spongebob’s first three seasons, which we were still able to watch through early morning re-runs before school. These earlier seasons are widely regarded as the best, and most of the show’s greatest memes hail from this era. Of course, with such an incredible track record of episodes across these three seasons, the question is obviously raised as to which is the best.
The anxiety-inducing ‘Rock Bottom’, deliciously eerie ‘Graveyard Shift’, and satirical ‘Chocolate with Nuts’ certainly all pack their fair share of memorable moments. But it is Season 2’s ‘Band Geeks’ that takes the cake for me. In this episode, Squidward lies to his high school rival about being the leader of a band. After realising that he doesn’t actually have one, Squidward recruits various Bikini Bottomites and must form them into a successful marching troupe before their performance at the Bubble Bowl in a few days time. SpongeBob’s voice actor Tom Kenny considers ‘Band Geeks’ one of his favourite episodes; Nancy Basile of About.com described ‘Band Geeks’ as having “so many of the best elements of SpongeBob, crafted into a story whose rhythm flows smoothly and quickly to reach a poignant end;” it even won the award for Best Sound Editing in Television – Animation at the 2002 Golden Reel Awards. It’s clearly a cut above the rest of what Spongebob has to offer, but what has lead to the episode garnering so much acclaim?
First of all, ‘Band Geeks’ serves as a great introductory episode for those new to Spongebob Squarepants. Each of the show’s main players gets their own moment to shine: Patrick is as witless as ever, and Mr. Krabs will do anything he can to get something for nothing. It should also be noted that the story doesn’t plod along like some episodes, it flows quickly and naturally from scene to scene, interspersed with great jokes that show off Spongebob’s sense of humour. It’s no coincidence that the show’s best-regarded episodes are also its funniest. Although ‘Shanghaied’ and ‘Pizza Delivery’ perhaps include funnier individual moments, no other episode so efficiently compresses as many consistently funny gags into its brief runtime as ‘Band Geeks’. It includes some of the show’s most enduring and memorable jokes, including the iconic “Is mayonnaise an instrument?” and “the ba-ba-ba”.
Aside from the corporate pastiche, ‘Krusty Krab Training Video’, ‘Band Geeks’ is probably the closest thing Spongebob has to an out-of-genre episode. Most instalments of the show are pretty basic in premise, following the misadventures of Spongebob and Patrick around Bikini Bottom, but ‘Band Geeks’ turns this formula on its head: it makes Squidward the protagonist. Squidward has probably the third most prominent role in the show, and much of his appeal lies in the fact that he’s the perfect foil to Spongebob’s selflessness, humility, and optimism. He’s not the show’s villain, rather the sole realist in a surreal world, and as I grow up, I find it easier to identify with Squidward’s frustration at Spongebob and Patrick’s childish high jinks. In many ways, he’s the character that parents are supposed to identify with. As Allegra Frank notes, “to be a Squidward isn’t a compliment, exactly, but it’s not a stigma.” While it’s easy to feel his annoyance at Spongebob’s immature antics (see: ‘Pizza Delivery’ or ‘The Idiot Box’), Squidward often acts as a ‘soft’ antagonist – the opposing pessimistic force to Spongebob and Patricks light-heared antics. We don’t always want him to succeed.
‘Band Geeks’ changes this. Squidward becomes the character we’re supposed to empathise with, beginning with the masterstroke introduction of a character even more self-serving than he: Squilliam Fancyson. We all know an arrogant so-and-so we’d love to stick it to, and Squidward is no different. Even if we don’t agree with his actions, we can understand why Squidward behaves in the way he does. Like many struggling artists, he aspires to prove he is worth something more than his drab existence suggests. We see this through his hubristic band posters, proclaiming it to be “the greatest musical sensation ever to hit Bikini Bottom!” Nonetheless, things consistently go wrong for Squidward from the outset: he crawls into the fetal position after his flag-twirlers die in an explosive marching accident, and expresses suicidal tendencies after a near-death experience at the hand of flying bass mallets. Squidward’s inner nihilism is on full display, as years of inadequacy and self-loathing clash with a desire to feel valuable. This crescendos with a heartfelt monologue from Squidward after his band descends into anarchy and violence on the eve of their performance. We’ve seen through his phone call with Squilliam that he wants this more than anything else, so to see it destroyed is soul-crushing.
That’s why the episode’s closing moments are so memorable and satisfying. ‘Band Geeks’ has a more positive ending than the punch-down closers of certain other episodes, such as ‘Squidville’ or ‘I Was A Teenage Gary’ – which is actually downright creepy. The former of these, to illustrate, ends with Squidward flying away on a leaf blower with no explanation or resolution of his fate. To make matters worse, the episode spends most of its runtime endearing Squidward to us, only to crack the final gag at his expense. It’s the anti-‘Band Geeks’ in many ways: it’s funny, but it’s not exactly fulfilling. ‘Band Geeks’ ends with Squidward arriving at the Bubble Bowl, prepared to admit defeat before Squilliam only to be surprised at the arrival of the band, ready to perform after a long night’s work. Given the troupe’s performance so far, both character and audience anticipate a poor display comparable to those earlier in the episode. On the contrary however, Spongebob and the rest of the gang come together to pull off an epic rendition of David Glen Eisley’s rock ballad ‘Sweet Victory’. The ending gleefully parodies classic underdog stories like Rocky or Remember the Titans, with Squilliam fainting in awe and Squidward ditching his conductor’s baton to embrace his short-lived triumph. To see Squidward’s dreams fulfilled for once, to the chagrin of his rival, is thoroughly heartwarming. That a 15-minute episode of a kids’ cartoon can conjure such emotion is surely a testament to its enduring quality.