Every time the public hears about an entertainer who has troubling habits the blogosphere lights up with think pieces about whether we can enjoy someone's art even if they are a bad person. Death to Smoochy isn't asking that. No, it's asking that question's very cynical corollary: is art made by squeaky clean people any better?
Death to Smoochy starts off with the downfall of Rainbow Randolph, a petty, angry children's show host who gets caught taking bribes by the FBI. Randolph is swiftly replaced by Smoochy, a straight arrow moralist in a bright pink rhino suit. But Smoochy might be too noble: his moral code is so rigid that his coworkers find him insufferable to work with. Even worse: his high ethical standards represent a real problem for the people who see kid-friendly entertainment as a chance to rake in big dollars from undiscriminating consumers. After all the network isn't putting on the show because they want to turn today’s unruly toddlers into tomorrow’s productive citizens, they are doing so because sugary sodas don't sell themselves. It's hard to make a profit off of nobility, and profit is the highest law of the land.
Although eventually Randolph and Smoochy team up in a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” type of situation, they are always put in contrast with each other. The audience's natural impulse should be to root for Randolph over Smoochy. It is gross that Randolph is profiting off of something that should be a labor of love, and he is hard to like as a person because he is a sadistic drunk. Furthermore, it's a bit hard to swallow that he's better at his job just because he was better at selling out.
But Death to Smoochy doesn't always let Smoochy have a clear moral victory over Randolph. Smoochy might be a better person on some level, but he is also naive and uptight in ways that keep him from doing his job well. When Randolph endorsed crappy products, he gave kids toys that they had fun playing with, and he gave his corporate overlords a nice paycheck. With Smoochy all you get is preaching - and if you don't subscribe to his views, you're left out in the cold. And given how extreme Smoochy’s all-vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free views are, there are a lot of people that are going to be left in the cold - including the kids who actually like sodas.
Is that cynical? Well, yes, but it's also realistic. One of the biggest morals I learned in my early twenties was that it's not enough to be right - you also have to be right in the right way. A valid point will be immediately disregarded if it's expressed in a passive aggressive way, and an angry over-reaction to a slight will immediately justify that slight. Once you have that lesson in mind, the binary between Randolph and Smoochy isn't so clear-cut: Smoochy is right, but he's right in the wrong way, while Rainbow is wrong, but he's wrong in the right way. Honestly, who would you rather work with - the ticking time bomb who pays you well, or the humorless scold who won't make the business deals that would get you a better Christmas bonus? The correct answer is "neither of them" - which tells you more about the squeaky clean Smoochy than it does the disgusting Randolph.
When Death to Smoochy first came out it was criticized for its overwhelming bitterness. This is a movie that mocks everyone with a pulse, whether they are a vindictive asshole, or a sweet fool, or a kid who is too young to realize just how un-heroic their heroes are - so it is undeniably a misanthropic bit of work. But while Death To Smoochy looks like it is a mere piss take on cloying kids television – “wouldn’t it be funny if it turned out Mr. Rogers was a raging asshole? Wouldn’t you like to see Barney get caught on stage at a Nazi rally?” – it is actually doing something deeper than that. Realistically, what this movie is doing is indicting the entire capitalist system.
If that sounds a bit strong consider this: the ethical debate we have about creators with criminal pasts can be applied to just about any product you can think of. It is easy to wonder about whether or not we should enjoy Roman Polanski and R. Kelly’s works because their outrageous predilections make the news – but we use a lot of ethically dubious products every day without giving it a second thought. It is not always as obvious if the clothes we are wearing have been made in sweatshops, or if the food we’re eating has been picked by migrant workers who are functionally slaves. We use too many products every day for us to wonder about where they all came from, and whether they were made in fair conditions. There are a lot of sick jokes in Death to Smoochy, but the sickest joke is that the kids don’t seem to care one way or another about whether it’s Randolph or Smoochy on their television or in their coloring book – how they don't care how their toy gets into their hands, they just care about getting to play with it. And honestly, are we that much different from them?
Rainbow Randolph is a sick guy. He’s abusive, he’s bitter, he’s unstable. Smoochy is his polar opposite. He’s an eternal optimist, he’s a do-gooder, he’s unflappable. There’s some level on which it matters who gets the television show, because one is going to funnel the profits into their own pocket and the other is going to funnel them into charities. But at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter if the show is hosted by one of those two extremes or someone who is more in the middle. Either way there is going to be some television show on the air one and most of the profits from that show are going to go to a media conglomeration, and that media conglomeration is going to be so big with so many fingers in so many pies that it is impossible to definitively label it as being either "good" or "bad." When we buy our goods, we hope they are made by Smoochys and we fear that they are made by Randolphs - but the truth is that it doesn't matter, because they're actually made by little hands in China; Smoochy and Randolph are just the interchangeable faces on the product. To paraphrase an old saying about royalty: Death to Smoochy, Long live Smoochy.