Oh God, Invader Zim! If you remember this show you probably remember that it was one of the darkest and most cynical kids shows out there. I started re-watching this show thanks to the miracle of a Hulu Plus subscription and each episode promoted me to say both “We showed this to children?” and “I can’t wait to watch this with my future kids.” Invader Zim premiered in 2001, but was canceled in 2002 due to declining ratings and other budgetary issues, leaving some episodes of Season 2 unaired. It moved to Nicktoons and ended a second time in 2006, but this time did air all of Season 2. There are some rumors that the show ended due to issues between creator Jhonen C. Vasquez and Nickelodeon, but I don’t believe those rumors have ever been verified. Despite being canceled, the show did receive critical acclaim, winning several awards, and it is definitely a show you should check out if you haven’t already.
Invader Zim is unique in that it’s one of the few kids’ shows where working your hardest and wanting something really badly doesn’t get our characters anywhere. It’s also one of the few kids’ shows that seems to claim that most of society is stupid and warns viewers not to trust authorities or the media. How the heck do messages like that get translated into a kids’ show, you ask? Through the form of an alien invader called Zim who’s trying to take over the world, who, despite failing constantly and horribly, still thinks he’s awesome nevertheless.
The series focuses primarily on Zim, an alien from the imperialistic Irken Empire, who have a system of government based on height instead of intelligence, skill, or any other good leadership quality. The Irken Empire is ruled by two leaders called the Almighty Tallest who only rule together because they are the same height. This is the first time we see the show assert how flawed our authority figures are. The Tallest never know what they are doing and are now just conquering planets for the sake of conquering them and for their own amusement, not because they actually need the resources on these planets. Our main character, Zim, was banished to the planet Foodcourtia after being overzealous and idiotic during the first invasion, Impending Doom I, where Zim blindly attacked his own people and their ships. Zim, however, is in deep, deep denial about his failures and still thinks of himself as some great hero of Impending Doom I. When Zim learns that the Tallest are starting the second invasion called “Impending Doom II”, he rushes to the Great Assigning despite his banishment so that he can be assigned a planet to conquer. But because of Zim’s past and the fact that he is the shortest invader, the Tallest just want to get rid of him. So they tell Zim that they are giving him a mysterious planet in the far reaches of the galaxy, that no one has ever heard of, to conquer. This planet, of course, turns out to be Earth.
Each of the invaders are gifted with a robot sidekick from the Tallest to help aid them in conquering planets. These Standard Issue Information Retrieval units are also called SIR, but not wanting to give Zim one of the new good robots, the Tallest gift Zim with a defective one that calls itself GIR. When Zim asks what the “G” stands for, GIR just says, “I don’t know” and then starts beating itself in the head and bouncing around. GIR is probably one of the funniest characters on the show. The robot’s behavior is erratic and adorable, as he tries to assist Zim but ends up being easily distracted by a TV show or a cute squirrel he just saw.
When Zim arrives on Earth, he disguises himself as an Earth kid and starts attending school (which is spelled skool in the show). There Zim meets Dib, a human boy who is obsessed with the supernatural and paranormal. He immediately recognizes Zim as an alien and is determined to expose him for what he is. Through Dib we also meet Gaz, our only main female character, and my favorite. Gaz is Dib’s cynical sister who is almost constantly playing video games and attempting to ignore her brother. Gaz also knows that Zim is an alien, but simply doesn’t care. She deems Zim too stupid to actually succeed in conquering Earth and thinks her brother is silly for caring so much.
While I probably find GIR the funniest, I straight up hope I have a daughter like Gaz. There is no other way to describe her than badass. Despite being a young kid, she acts much more like a teenager. She is very cynical, aloof, and is only really concerned about beating her various video games. She hates Dib, her older brother, whom she finds annoying, but still occasionally rescues him from either Zim or his own stupidity. My all-time favorite episode starring Gaz is called “Game Slave 2”, where she’s waiting in line to get the new hand held gaming console with the new Vampire Piggy Hunter game. She ends up being late because Dib insists on watching his paranormal mysteries show first instead of taking her. When she finally gets there she is last in line except for a boy behind her named Iggins, who spends the whole time chattering about what a great gamer he is to a silent Gaz. When Gaz and the boy finally get to the front of the line, it is revealed there is only one left that’s reserved for another person. If that person doesn’t show up, Gaz, being the next in line, would get the game. But Iggins lies and claims he is the person who reserved the game. Gaz, feeling cheated, chases him down relentlessly until he gives her the game. The whole time Iggins keeps saying that Gaz doesn’t deserve the console because he is clearly the better player, even though literally the only thing he knows about Gaz is that she is a girl. Gaz offers to be reasonable and even pay Iggins for the console, but he just keeps asserting he deserves the game more than her, prompting Gaz to unleash her full fury on Iggins and terrifying him until he gives in. That’s my favorite Gaz moment, but not the only one. Gaz also easily defeats Zim any time she gets involved and is actually better at dealing with the paranormal than Dib. Again, Gaz is badass!
The main reason that I adore this show is largely because of how cynical it is. Every authority figure is almost always unintelligent and achieved their position through either sheer luck or manipulation. The Almighty Tallest become leaders simply because they are tall and have no idea how to run their Empire other than to conquer more planets they don’t need. The only authority figure who is shown as even remotely intelligent is the teacher Ms. Bitters, who as her name suggests is bitter about the state of the world and her life. She barely teaches the class and when she does, she largely teaches about how awful the world is.
The other thing I find interesting about this show is how it portrays the media’s effect on everyone. Every character, no matter how intelligent or unintelligent they are, is easily affected by the commercials, TV shows, and movies. GIR is perpetually addicted to TV, Zim watches a movie where humans defeat aliens by infecting them with their germs and becomes obsessed with staying germ free. And even Gaz, who is arguably the smartest character on the show, becomes obsessed with going to a pizza place after seeing a commercial for it. While some shows have kind of addressed this issue, none have taken it up as one of their main themes the way Invader Zim did. It also sends an important message about being critical towards our media, while still realizing that, no matter what, our pop culture will affect us and how we perceive the world.
I do have a few criticisms of Invader Zim, though. First off, despite being created by Jhonen C. Vasquez, who is a person of color, there are few to no people of color in the show. And certainly none who have a leading role in any episode. I’m not sure if this was simply an oversight on Vasquez’s part or if there were other factors involved, but it is certainly an issue. My only other major complaint is a lack of female characters. Gaz is basically my hero and could practically be the patron saint of Gamer Girls everywhere, but she still plays second fiddle to Zim and Dib, though she does get to star in a few of the episodes. There are a few other interesting female characters that pop up but other than Gaz, none are really recurring characters. Though it is unclear if the show would have eventually incorporated more female characters and people of color if it hadn’t been canceled.
So while Invader Zim doesn’t necessarily live up to our intersectional feminist ideals, it is still an excellent and hilarious show. If you haven’t watched this show before you should definitely give it a try.