Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our new feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
This article originally published October 21, 2020.
There are a number of shows that only ran for a few episodes yet inspired devoted fans to never shut up about them. Shows that continue to tantalize the imagination about what could’ve been. Pushing Daisies. Freaks and Geeks. Personally, I’m a member of Clone High’s cult. Those of us that pepper in the odd “Say whaaaaaat?” or an “I-er-uh” into our conversations are downright evangelical about the short-lived, 13-episode MTV animated series about a high school populated by amusing genetic copies of historical figures. But what stings the most isn’t the show’s premature cancelation (driven by its depiction of Gandhi as a party dude)—we got plenty more Clone High-style jokes thanks to the gigantic comedy careers of co-creators Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and Bill Lawrence. What lingers is that the series ends on its own jab at cliffhanger storytelling: the “J-Cle.”
“J-Cle”—not an abbreviation of the Cats “Jellicle” but a combination of protagonist Abe Lincoln’s two love interests, Joan (of Arc) and Cleopatra—is a joke phrase designed as the kind of plot bait dangled by teen shows and “will they/won’t they” dramas everywhere. A close-up of Abe’s face whispering the hard-to-spell tease to an off-screen recipient is shown at the end of “Makeover, Makeover, Makeover: The Makeover Episode,” to throw an element of uncertainty into Abe’s already vague prom-posal.
Is he (atop a pyramid of tigers, who are riding a unicycling whale) asking Cleo, his crush? Or Joan, his BFF who’s been nursing a devastating crush on him? “I’m gonna ask you to the prom by saying, ‘Will you go to the prom with me,’ followed by your name,” Abe says. Then we get the “J-Cle.” But, more importantly, we get it again in a crushingly ironic reprise during the finale. What would otherwise be a very funny callback gag, where the season ends on a totally ridiculous “J-Cle” just because, becomes a tragedy for the one-season wonder. It’s a “from hell’s heart I stab at thee” moment for the show, satirizing its subject matter even as it’s being cut short.
Let’s set the stage for the perfectly named “Changes: The Big Prom: The Sex Romp: The Season Finale:” As a mortally wounded John Stamos is carried by Principal Scudsworth, leading a diversionary conga line of clones into the flash freezer, Abe discovers that Joan has slept with his rival and all-around cool guy of school, John F. Kennedy. Oof. Right after Abe has his love epiphany towards Joan, too. I mean, serves Abe right for taking Cleo to prom, but still. Then they all get literally frozen in that moment—like us getting stuck with this scene as the series finale—when Stamos activates the freezer.
While doing the iconic palm raise (and being frozen solid), Abe says, “But Joan, I love…” Then the show zooms in on Abe’s lips, enhancing the “The Makeover Episode” bit to an even more ridiculous extreme, to give us a choice “J-Cle” before hard-cutting to black and reveling in the irony with an excruciatingly punctuated final card: “To be continued…?!”
It’s the teen drama parody version of the cops coming in to break up a Monty Python sketch. It’s the most cliffhangery cliffhanger, where there’s not just a freeze frame but a literal freeze that frames the whole cast—and its central relationship question. It’s not like everyone’s dying to know who Abe’s really wanting to date or anything. OK, maybe there is a component of that to the mix, seeing as the (Joan of) story arc will always feel off without a final confrontation that kicks Abe’s oblivious self right in the heart-gut. But the real pain is its symbolism of unachieved potential.
As a summation of a series’ place in pop culture, the frozen “J-Cle” is a hilariously on-the-nose nod to unfulfillment. A cult show that many (like me!) watched on bootleg websites already knowing its ultimate fate, Clone High had a lame duck finale and put all its eggs into one hilariously doomed basket. Sure, we might be getting more Clone High, but even if it picks up directly where the original series left off—thawing the clones in the modern day, with them picking up their lives as if nothing has happened—it’ll be a bittersweet prize, simply because there are so few TV endings that simultaneously leave us wanting more while laughing at an unfortunately serendipitous punchline.
Am I mad Clone High ended with a jab that seemed extra personal after it got thrown into the dumpster alongside the series’ in-universe version of Mandy Moore? A little. Mostly, I just can’t get it out of my head. As far as endings go, it’s one that’ll always hurt because it promised a future that wasn’t to be and promised it in such a silly, quintessentially Clone High way that you just knew they’d be able to pull it off. All TV shows act as time capsules, but Clone High’s finale seemed to know it was going to be buried. It’s so prescient and sarcastically self-referential about its own abrupt ending that its existence and possible revision are both frustrating and exciting. For now, at least, we’ll always have our beloved clones, frozen forever in time, perfectly preserved in gut-busting purgatory, midway through a “J-Cle.”
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Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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