The Good: Funny, Most episodes get better with repeated viewings, Incredibly good writing
The Bad: Erratic animation, No real character development/mostly episodic
The Basics: Invader Zim is an animated science fiction comedy that was well ahead of its time and is a rare show that gets better over the course of multiple viewings!
Around the time I was married the first time, I thought my younger brother-in-law to be was a really funny, incredibly quirky guy. He said so many hilarious and weird things with the oddest inflections I had ever heard. The sad truth, which I am only learning now, years later, is that he was just a big fan of Invader Zim and he was quoting from that. Man, he quoted from that a ton! Now, my new wife, as it turns out, is a huge fan of Invader Zim and it was one of the few complete series’ that she was really eager to acquire and share with me.
And, at first, I hated it. The first time I watched the episodes, I was utterly unimpressed. But then, I watched it again with her and then I watched the entire series twice on my own. The thing is, when I loathe something, I will not give it a second chance; if I cannot see the merit in a work, I will not pretend that it is worthwhile and waste my time on it. I want to move forward; there is always something else out there that someone has recommended to me for me to look forward to seeing. So what I came to realize about Invader Zim was that I was enjoying it and eager to see the episodes more and more.
I am often wary about reviewing things after I have watched them (or in the cases of c.d.s, listened to them) over and over. I know from my music reviews that familiarity dulls contempt (as I realized when reviewing the Britney Spears album Femme Fatale - that’s here! – after listening to it thirty times) and I was concerned that my sudden appreciation of Invader Zim was merely because the series had worn me down based on repetition. But, the more I considered and the more I watched it, the more I realized that Invader Zim is just that clever, fun, and well-executed.
Invader Zim is an animated science fiction/satire that has erratic animation quality and nonlinear storytelling (much like Aeon Flux where the protagonist died in every episode and her appearance in the subsequent episodes was never explained). Once one understands that and that it is written by what is almost certainly one of the most creative misanthropes of all time, Invader Zim becomes a delightful animated comedy that relies upon remarkably few conceits for a “children’s show.” In fact, one has to suspect that the enduring success (and original market failure) of Invader Zim was that it was mismarketed as a children’s show. It is not.
In Invader Zim, human children are filthy, ridiculous, moronic beings who are cruel to one another and easily manipulated by the trappings of industry (Gaz, for example, seems to be an original gothic little girl, but she is a slave to her Game Slave handheld video game system and a sucker for the advertising surrounding Bloatie’s Pizza Hog). The adults are paranoid, cruel or neglectful; Jhonen Vasquez has no problem exploring the underbelly of humanity and presenting it to young people as a dark interpretation of modern life.
That does not mean that Invader Zim is at all unpleasant. The story, which centers around the idiotic attempts of the disgraced would-be invader, Zim!, to prepare Earth for colonization by the Irken Empire, is a great deal of fun, especially for adults. The writing on Invader Zim is sharp and pokes fun at the usual conceits of science fiction – like Dib talking to himself to present necessary plot exposition and Dib’s constant frustration with how none of his peers realize that Zim is an alien – and creates memorable characters – Zim (the alien invader), Dib (the paranoid paranormal investigator), Gir (the robot sidekick of Zim, who consistently disguises himself as a dog), Gaz (Dib’s sister and a great video game player), Professor Membrane (Dib and Gaz’s scientist father who is seldom available to them), and Ms. Bitters (the phantom teacher in Zim and Dib’s school, er, Skool).
Part of what sets Invader Zim apart and makes the series so funny is the voice acting. Much of the humor in the show comes from the inflections used by the characters, especially Gir. In explaining why one of his functions is not working, Gir explains, “I had to make room for the tuna!” and the excited, matter-of-fact delivery (as if this were obvious) is what makes it laugh out loud funny. Similarly, when Zim returns from the bathroom and declares “My business . . .is done! (in “A Room With A Moose”), it is hard not to laugh. The list goes on and Invader Zim fans have innumerable favorite lines of their own they can spout off to one another – “I was the turkey all along! Me!” is my favorite – but it is the deliveries added to the quirky writing that makes the show so delightful.
The series is made up of episodes, most of which are only 12 minutes long, that do not necessarily fit together in a linear fashion. The show consists of:
In “The Nightmare Begins,” Zim inserts himself into Operation Impending Doom 2 and is given the defective robot, Gir, by the Almighty Tallest. He is sent to Earth by the Irken Empire to prepare it for conquering. To learn the mannerisms of humans, Zim (poorly) disguises himself as a human child and enrolls in school. On Earth, Dib, an elementary school student in Zim’s class, comes to believe that Zim is an alien and, having heard transmissions from the Irken Empire, he knows Zim is malevolent. Dib’s first attack on Zim is to use an alien revealing device he created.
“Bestest Friend” has Zim worried because he overhears that he is standing out in his class because he does not yet have any friends. After testing three candidates for absorbency, electrical conductivity, and a test that leaves the others burned, Zim ends up with Keef. Zim soon finds having Keef as a best friend is exhausting as Keef is clingy. Faced with the threat of a party that might expose him, Zim takes drastic measures against Keef.
“Nanozim” finds Dib invading Zim’s house as a ninja and getting a picture of Zim’s futuristic technology. When Dib wants to submit the photographs he took to Mysterious Mysteries Of Strange Mysteries, Zim miniaturizes himself and invades Dib’s body to stop him, by taking control of his arms and then parts of his brain!
In “Parent Teacher Night,” Dib hopes to expose Zim when the school’s annual parent teacher night forces Zim to bring his Roboparents out. Unfortunately for Zim, when he assigns Gir to reprogram the Roboparents to be sociable, through television, he does his usual poor job.
“Walk Of Doom” finds Zim repairing Gir’s guidance chip, when he decides to test it by having Gir turn it off and getting them lost in the city until he turns the chip back on. Disguised (poorly) as an old man, Zim finds himself lost in the city when Gir leaves them stranded (having replaced his chip with a cupcake). They must rely on Zim’s wits to find their way home.
After ordering a pair of goggles that allow him to see microscopic organisms everywhere, Zim becomes obsessed with “Germs!” Crazy over the multitude of germs he sees everywhere, he coats himself in McMeaty’s (not really) meat.
“Dark Harvest” has Zim hurt on the playground, which reveals to Dib that Zim does not have internal organs like humans. After a pigeon lands on his head, Zim is given the explosive hall pass and sent to the nurse. To prevent the nurse from discovering his squealysplooge, Zim starts replacing student’s organs with inanimate objects and stuffing the purloined organs into his own body!
In “Attack Of The Saucer Morons,” Zim loses his shuttle when it is attacked by a bee. Leaving the cruiser in the park, it is discovered by humans who build a ridiculous cult around it, which complicates Zim’s recovery of the small ship. Zim must rely upon Gir to rescue him from the cult.
“The Wettening” finds Dib with an advantage over Zim when he discovers water is caustic to Zim’s skin. After challenging him to a water balloon fight, Zim coats himself in a protective sealant and attacks Dib with the biggest water balloon of all time.
“Career Day” finds the students at the Skool taking a test to find the career for which they are most suited. Dib is paired with a paranormal investigator, while Zim is stuck in food service. When an eclipse causes Zim to molt – a phenomenon Dib believes will occur – Dib desperately tries to get his sham of a paranormal investigator to investigate the phenomenon and expose Zim once and for all!
Dib is given the opportunity to present his evidence of Zim’s alien nature to the Swollen Eyeball Society in “Battle-Dib,” but they require him to have a signed permission slip before he can get to the meeting. Dib attempts to visit his father, Professor Membrane on the set of his television show, but is thwarted by studio guards. Gaz, upset that Dib stole his pizza, vows revenge for the rest of the day. She maneuvers Dib into a battle royale in his attempt to become part of the studio audience to get close enough to Professor Membrane to get the permission slip signed.
The Earth is stolen by the “Planet Jackers” in the episode by the same name. As soon as Zim realizes Earth has been ensnared in their giant sphere and that they will destroy Earth before the Irken can conquer it, Zim is put in the unlikely position of trying to save the planet!
“Rise Of Zitboy” may be the most disgusting minutes of animated television of all time. After stopping Dib, who invaded Zim’s home, Zim cleans with soap Gir made that had bacon in it. The result is Zim gets a monsterous zit that only grows when he tries to use Acne Blast on it. Drawing a face on the zit, Zim names it Pustulio and by vibrating the zit, he is able to hypnotize his peers. He sets out to use Pustulio to enchant Dib to reveal to him what the flaw in his home’s defenses is.
In “Invasion Of The Idiot Dog Brain,” Gir’s mind becomes integrated with the house’s computer. As a result, Zim’s house runs amuck.
Time travel is explored in “Bad, Bad Rubber Piggy” when Zim makes a temporal object replacement device. Zim activates it and throws one of Gir’s rubber piggies back through the machine. When the pig – and subsequent rubber pigs – are tossed in the machine, Dib is wounded in his past time and time again until he is no longer a threat to Zim and his invading plans. But the claw hands and tubes in his neck and breathing apparatus are soon replaced with an exoskeleton that makes it possible for Dib to defeat Zim, so he has to undo his own temporal meddling.
Zim finally gets his revenge on his classmates in “Room With A Moose,” wherein he sends his peers on a bus into a wormhole to a horrible fate. After Dib learns of the potential eternity they will spend in a room with a moose, he works to thwart Zim.
In “Hamstergeddon,” Ms. Bitters’s class is given a small hamster named Peepi. Zim alters Peepi to be a giant killing machine which stops obeying him, attacks a nuclear reactor and gets immense, and goes on a rampage.
“Plague Of Babies” finds Zim fighting aliens who look remarkably like babies. Having been stranded on Earth, their leader observes Zim returning home in the Voot cruiser and rallies his stranded comrades to take the small ship from Zim.
Gaz is the focus of “Bloaty’s Pizza Hog.” On the one day a year Professor Membrane has dinner with her and Dib, she gets to choose the restaurant and she chooses Bloaty’s Pizza Hog. This comes on the same night as Dib decides to infiltrate Zim’s headquarters. Unwilling to go without both his children, Professor Membrane lets Gaz know that she must find him or they cannot go to her restaurant. Gaz, therefore, must infiltrate Zim’s house as well.
The kids in Ms. Bitters’ class are compelled to sell candy in “Door To Door,” which leaves Zim obsessed over winning a mystery prize for selling the most, which he accomplishes using mind control.
In “F.B.I. Warning,” Zim comes to believe that the F.B.I. is monitoring him through a late video rental. He goes on a quest to get the video back to the store before it is overdue, which leaves him trapped by mall security in the mall’s zombie-infested subterranean prison.
Zim and Dib slowly transform into giant bologna in “Bolognius Maximus.” This comes after Dib throws bologna on Zim and it melts his green skin. In vengeance, Zim uses a tack as a delivery system for a biotoxin that slowly transforms Dib into meat. His plan is going well until Dib turns the tables on Zim and infects Zim with the same virus!
Gaz gets her own episode again with “Game Slave 2.” On the night the new Game Slave videogame system is released, Dib delays her from getting in line, resulting in her waiting all night in front of Iggins, a manic video game player who will not shut up. When Iggins gets the last console, Gaz hunts him around town to get it back.
“Battle Of The Planets” has Zim discovering that Mars is actually a giant weapon, which he commandeers to use to attack Earth as a final conquering of the planet. Dib, through a conspiracy theory-loving janitor, is clued in to the idea that Mercury is also a weaponship and he takes command of that planet to repel Zim’s attack!
In “Halloween Spectacular Of Spooky Doom,” Dib, researching Halloween, inadvertently creates a universe based upon his own imagination. He struggles to escape it and survive, especially when many of the denizens of his universe want to drill through his head to escape!
“Mysterious Mysteries” plays with the standard narrative technique by presenting various perspectives on Dib’s quest to reveal Zim as an alien. Culling from the massive file of “evidence” that Dib has sent in, Mysterious Mysteries Of Strange Mysteries takes a tape that Dib sent in exposing Zim as an alien. He presents his perspective, followed by Zim trying to debunk it. Gaz and Gir also give their variations on what happened that night, while the narrator becomes convinced that the show will be cancelled.
When Professor Membrane prepares to unleash a new power source, Zim capitalizes on the opportunity to try to destroy the world and Dib meets “Future Dib.” Sent back from the past, Future Dib tries to convince his younger self to stop Zim from sabotaging the generator and save the world. The alternate Dib quickly turns out to be a robot, manipulated by Zim to get the alien into the secure facility to cause the destruction he claims to be there to prevent!
The Almighty Tallest create the “Megadoomer” stealth mech to help Invader Tenn conquer Meekrob. While on their tour of their facility, they also discover a group of malfunctioning Sir units, which they decide to send to Zim. The postal alien reverses the orders in an act of revolution, so Zim gets the Megadoomer, which he unleashes poorly on Earth.
The Skool is infested with “Lice” which Ms. Bitters and Zim are immune to. A demented scientist takes the school under her command to study the problem, develop a cure, and find the mythical Lice Queen. When the Lice Queen is exposed, Zim’s flesh may serve as the way to (very grossly) thwart her!
“Abducted” has Earth visited by even dumber aliens than the Irken. The poorly-disguised insectoid aliens abduct Zim as their specimen of a human and Gir as their ideal Earth dog. Zim tries to convince them that he is not human and Gir is not a dog. Zim tries to escape after the less than hideous experiments upon him begin.
Dib gets a chance to debunk one of the hoaxes in “The Sad, Sad Tale Of Chickenfoot.” Discovering that the mythical Chickenfoot is just a guy stuck in a fast food restaurant’s mascot costume, he tries to convince people that there is a difference between legitimate supernatural mysteries and the hoaxes.
In “Gir Goes Crazy And Stuff,” Zim reprograms Gir after Gir botches a mission. Locked into duty mode, Gir soon sees Zim as a threat to their mission and turns against him, taking over the local library to assimilate the sum of human knowledge. Zim is only aided by a police officer whose brain he swapped with the brain of a squid.
“Dib’s Wonderful Life Of Doom” has Dib and the students at Skool watching Zim try to eat cafeteria food. Frustrated, Dib throws a muffin at Zim and this sets him on a lifetime trajectory to defeat Zim and gain celebrity as a paranormal investigator. Enhanced by aliens who are at war with the Irken Empire, Dib is empowered to defeat Zim on Earth.
One of the most relevant episodes to the serialized story in Invader Zim, “Tak: The Hideous New Girl” gives Dib an ally and Zim a new enemy. On Valentine’s Day, the students in Ms. Bitters’ class exchange the traditional Valentine’s meat when a new student, Tak, joins the class. Tak and Dib hit it off immediately after she arrives and announces herself to be the daughter of the owner of the Delicious Wiener Company and attacks Zim with barbecued ribs. Misinterpreting her anger for affection, Zim is humiliated and hurt by Tak. Tak reveals herself to be an Irken who Zim once wronged . . . who is now bent on revenge! Working with Dib and Gaz, Zim invades Tak’s weenie stand to learn her nefarious plan and thwart it!
“Hobo 13” has Zim sent to invader training after his latest misadventure. On Hobo 13, the Almighty Tallest hope that Zim will get killed, but he quickly declares himself the leader of his training squad and betrays them all to his own benefit.
On Probing Day, the Almighty Tallest want to overlook Zim in “Walk For Your Life.” However, he has created a presentation using a time stasis field just for them. The destruction of the device, with Dib inside, creates an exceptionally slow-moving explosion, which Zim tries to get a safe distance away from his headquarters. Against all logic and advice from others Zim seeks to use Dib to accelerate the explosion so it will disappear.
In “Backseat Drivers From Beyond The Stars,” Zim tries to get the Almighty Tallest to visit Earth on the eve of releasing a brain parasite. While Dib works to gain information from Tak’s ship, the Resistance (uncleverly calling themselves the Resistees) wage an attack on the Massive (the Almighty Tallest’s ship) to get their snacks to feed the enemies of the Irken Empire! Both Dib and Zim begin remote controlling the Massive, which forces Zim to divide his attentions.
Dib is focused on in “Mortos Der Soulstealer” when Dib tries to use a mythical beast to destroy Zim, but discovers the creature is less impressive than he had hoped.
In “Zim Eats Waffles,” Dib’s implanted camera that promises to reveal to him Zim’s next evil plan instead only seems to capture mundane activities, like Zim eating waffles, when Dib tries to expose the alien to the Swollen Eyeballs.
"The Girl Who Cried Gnome" finds a girl trapped on Zim's property, with her foot stuck in a tunnel Zim's gopher created. Moofi draws unwanted attention, including a visit from the President, which both Dib and Zim try to exploit to their own gain.
Dib gets Tak's ship up and running in "Dibship Rising." He installs his own personality into the ship, which has the unintended consequence of the Irken ship thinking it is Dib!
"Vindicated!" finds Zim exposed when Dib's bludgeonball balls knock out Zim's contact lens. Dib is sent to work with the school counselor, who seems to believe him. The guidance counselor, Mr. Dwicky, joins Dib with the hope of getting Dib to open up about what might actually be wrong.
"Voting Of The Doomed" has Zim running for school class president and Dib advising his opponent.
Dib uses a spell on Gaz in "Gaz, Taster Of Pork." The spell makes it so she can only taste pork and everything she eats tastes like pork. This drives Gaz close to mad and puts her under the care of Professor Membrane and the scientific community, while Dib searches for a more supernatural response.
The main plotline of the series ends with "The Frycook What Came From All That Space," which revisits a single line from the pilot episode. Zim is re-sentenced to Foodcourtia to work as a frycook. He struggles to escape before the Great Foodening, up against Sizz-Lorr!, his mortal enemy,
The final episode is actually "The Most Horrible Christmas Ever!" This has Zim, Gir, and Minimoose trying to take over the planet by impersonating Santa to enslave the human race.
On DVD, Invader Zim comes in a collectible and super-expensive set (if you can even find it) modeled after Zim’s house/fortress. The bonus disc is chock full of intriguing extras that will keep fans engaged for hours and justify the set’s expense for the fans. The collector’s edition in the house also includes an exclusive Gir figure and because he is a fan favorite, finding the set intact with the Gir is exceptionally difficult.
The real surprise of Invader Zim is not that it went off the air; it was too smart for a young audience or the usual target demographic of Nickelodeon. The surprise is that the show has not been bought up by Cartoon Network to have new episodes produced. Invader Zim is a rightful cult classic and its creator Jhonen Vasquez may have a clear, deep dislike of humans and society, but one can only hope he overcomes it to keep creating television as smart, funny, and worthwhile as Invader Zim.
For other shows with a cult following, be sure to check out my my reviews of:
For other television reviews, be sure to check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the television shows I have reviewed!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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