I can’t honestly articulate what drove me to watch Ruby Gloom, a nearly decade-old cartoon made for preteen goth girls. I mean, superficially, it didn’t sound very enticing. It’s a Flash (or maybe Toon Boom) animated show from Canada, and those are usually murder (think Johnny Test, Total Drama or Scaredy Squirrel). Also, it was based off a merchandising mascot for the company Mighty Fine (imagine if Toucan Sam or the Pep Boys got their own cartoon shows). I think I watched it because of the overwhelming chorus of voices encouraging, “It’s good! Really!” and I tend to do whatever voices tell me to do.
But yeah, Ruby Gloom was cute, charming, clever and other c-words. I was genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed the thing.
Ruby Gloom is a character-driven show, so the premise will sound pretty thin. Basically, Ruby (Sarah Gadon) lives in a mansion in Gloomsville with a bunch of her weird friends who look great on t-shirts when accompanied by catchphrases. There’s Skull Boy (Scott McCord), a skeleton with a new identity every week, Iris (Stacey Depass), a hyperactive cyclops who lusts for adventure, Misery (Emily Hampshire), a melancholy and disaster-prone girl, Scaredy Bat (Peter Keleghan), a neurotic bat that’s afraid of everything, and Frank and Len (David Berni and Jeremy Harris), conjoined twin guitar players with only a brain cell to share between them. Together, stuff sort of just… happens to them, ranging from mundane science fairs to murderous Germans.
Like I said, this is a character-driven show, so there’s no overarching plot or conflict to give the series direction. It’s entirely slice of life and each plot is instigated by one of the show’s colorful personalities. The cast is considerably larger than I described in the summary (I didn’t mention Poe, Doom Kitty, Booboo, the Whites, Mr. Buns, Venus, or Squig), yet no one ever seems shorted when it comes to purpose or energy.
What’s more impressive is that there are no unlikeable characters in the cast. They’re all friends and they all like each other so there’s rarely any friction between them. No one character is designated the “jerk” and while everyone has their foibles and occasionally step on somebody else’s toes, no one is mean-spirited about anything.
I know that sounds bland as all getout, and I’m not really doing an outstanding job of selling the cartoon (that got cancelled seven years ago), but showrunner Carolyn Hay makes it work. The strength comes from the personalities of the characters, both in terms of the writing and the voice acting. Watching them react to the misfortunes or trials foisted upon them is what’s fun.
And the writing is solid. It never feels like it’s talking down to the viewer, which is why I think the show wound up appealing to an adult audience almost as much as its target demographic. There’s complex vocabulary and plenty of esoteric references that I’d never expect any kid to understand, but the humor can always be divined via context. When Misery is going on a long tangent about the morbid deaths of her ancestors, referencing real diseases or historical calamities, you can tell kids won’t know what she’s talking about, but it’s funny anyway. Typhoid remissions and the London Fire of 1666 are always funny.
The cast is great, too. Right off the bat there’s a sort of chemistry between them that you can hear (the actors have probably all worked together a lot) and it lends extra sincerity to the idea that these are all good friends. Scott McCord probably got to have the most fun, as Skull Boy’s gimmick (trying to trace his genealogical ancestry to different countries) allowed him to go nuts with different accents and occupations in each story. Another standout is Peter Keleghan as Scaredy Bat. He plays him with an Indian accent and its one of those voices that’s just fun to listen to; the humor doesn’t always come from what he’s saying but how he says it.
Sarah Gadon plays Ruby as the perpetual optimist, which you think would make her the bland central character, but she actually shines as bright as her more eccentric co-stars. Ruby’s always cheerful, but she isn’t immune to mistakes, pratfalls, exasperation or the occasional lightning bolt. Her level-headedness doesn’t make her better than her peers, either. In fact, when she sees one of the characters going into a shtick, she’s quick to join in with them and play along. She never takes on a high and mighty “what on earth are you DOING?” attitude and it makes her as fallible but also as likeable as everyone else.
Misery seems to be everyone’s favorite character and, yeah, she gets all the best lines (“Hello, 911, did you get my messages…?”). I think she exists to sober the show up whenever it gets too cute or hokey. If everybody’s smiling too much, in walks Misery with a lecture about the Bubonic Plague or a few stray lightning bolts to put everyone on edge. Emily Hampshire plays her with a deep voice that has lots of little nuances capable of turning something as simple as “ow” into a catchphrase.
It’s all the little touches that make this show. Take Doom Kitty, for instance. She’s a silent character who can only communicate via Scooby-Doo style pantomime (frantically trying to describe a situation through vague charades that no one can understand). Rather than make cat noises, all her body language is emphasized with violin sounds. It’s very strange, but also the first thing you’ll remember when you think about the character.
The animation, too, is something I wasn’t expecting. It doesn’t suffer from the stiffness you typically see in Flash or Toon Boom animated shows. While they do recycle assets and expressions, there isn’t that lousy “puppetry” look to the movements of the characters. Everyone can emote large or small and be seen at numerous angles and postures. Nothing looks too terribly static. Take Iris, for example. Since her whole deal is how she’s a fountain of kinetic energy and constantly in motion, the animators actually take the time to have her hair flop and whoosh around whenever she moves.
In addition to the animation is the aesthetic of the series. The dark Addam’s Family vibe counterbalances the cuteness of the world and the characters. Played straight, this show might be tooth-rottingly saccharine, but cloaking it all in cobwebs and dungeons takes the edge off.
Although it does make you wonder why a bunch of kids are living unsupervised in a mansion in the middle of some nightmarish netherworld. Are they all dead? Are they trapped in limbo and just trying to make the best of it?
And hey, the music’s pretty nice, too! Ray Parker and Tom Szczesniak compose some lively and memorable beats with a lot of blaring organ music. They show excellent range and hit a bunch of different genres, but it always feels tailored to the slightly macabre world the show takes place in. I think my only complaint about the music is that there weren’t enough compositions and so you tend to hear the same jams over and over again. Take the recurring Jazz band the Skele-Tunes, for instance. They appear in about three or four episodes, but they always play the same song. It’s a catchy song, but you’d think they’d know more than one.
From what I can surmise, Ruby Gloom never aired in the United States (or if it did, it came and went without much notice). That’s probably why I hadn’t heard of the thing until recently. The show also didn’t last very long, accumulating only 40 episodes before cancellation.
That’s a shame, too, because the series really seemed to be finding its rhythm in the last half. While it started out strong, Ruby Gloom was nevertheless guilty of resorting to tired cartoon plots about telephone game-style misunderstandings or “the one where a cute animal pet joins the cast but it’s really evil and only one characters knows it but nobody will believe them until it’s too late”. Jeez, you know the one.
But the show began to get more ambitious towards the end, employing two-parters, musicals and illustrating a greater degree of imagination in their plots. The most bizarre episode was probably “Ubergloom”, which saw a duo of paranoid German children visit the mansion. They come to the conclusion that the cast is trying to murder them so they take a “we must get them before they get us” attitude. The remaining 20 minutes consists of everyone trying to kill each other (or thinking that everyone’s trying to kill each other).
Ruby Gloom is a strong show, but a short one. I think it hit that perfect storm of a great cast, animation, writing, music and visual aesthetic you rarely see.