Revisiting the 1980s G.I. Joe Cartoon
For viewers young and old, the U.S. special-forces team still delivers the goods.

A still from G.I. Joe


The G.I. Joe cartoon that aired from 1983 to 1986 recently became “instantly playable” on Netflix. For readers unfamiliar with G.I. Joe, it’s a fictitious U.S. special-forces team featured in comic books, toys, video games, cartoons, and, recently, a live-action movie series, all owned by Hasbro. The “Joes” spend most of their time fighting against Cobra, a power-hungry terrorist organization.

When I saw that the show was available to watch, my eyes lit up — my brother and I had taken to videotaping it when it was relegated to early-morning syndication in the late 1980s. But life intervened, and even though it’s long been available on DVD, I haven’t seen the show in years.

But it’s a kids’ show, right? Nothing for a 35-year-old to get too excited about? Still, I was curious to see how the show held up. Nor is this an idle concern: With five kids of my own now, age 7 and younger, I am constantly looking for wholesome entertainment for those times when we let the kids in front of the TV.

Let me assure the reader, the show is worth a gander. It is indeed meant for children — there’s no blood or sex, and the plots are simplified. But it also emphasizes key virtues such as duty, honor, and patriotism. On the technical side, the animation is dated, but the voice acting is top-notch, the art is serviceable, and the music has a catchy martial quality that tends to capture the mood well, from tense to stirring.

G.I. Joe also features strong male role models, at a time when many Hollywood action stars are female, such as Angelina Jolie in lots of movies or Merida in Disney-Pixar’s just-released Brave.

That doesn’t mean G.I. Joe doesn’t have strong female leads; two in particular form the show’s core cast. In fact, the show is unquestionably “liberal” in its depiction of women in combat alongside men. In retrospect, this is no surprise; perhaps this Eighties show was leading a female-warrior trend. After all, a majority of 2012 Republican-presidential-primary candidates favored an increase in women’s participation in military-combat operations.

The show also offers tantalizing hints of genres for more mature viewers: the political potboiler, the sci-fi odyssey, and the military thriller. My brother and I, aged 7 and 10, feasted on these nuggets as we tried to understand them and would stay up late talking them over and building them into our own make-believe adventures.

“The Great Alaskan Land Rush” (season 1, episode 62) is essentially a Tom Clancy novel boiled down to 22 minutes. It features a land dispute that starts with the original 1867 deal by Secretary of State William H. Seward to buy Alaska from imperial Russia; a three-way tug of war ensues in 1985 between the U.S., the USSR, and Cobra. Following a sneak attack by Red October (the Joe team’s Soviet counterpart), one of the Joes comments: “When I get my hands on those Red October whackos, I’ll make ’em wish Karl Marx was Groucho’s brother.”