In reading and hearing about all the fuss in recent weeks over the game Pokémon Go that is bringing players outside into the real world where they get to interact with other people and explore territory in their own neighborhoods, I was somewhat dismayed that there was virtually no mention of the Pokémon animated TV show, which is now in its 19th season and still airs new episodes once a week on the Cartoon Network. I should know because I watch the show every week and still consider it one of the finest animated series for children ever made. I was first introduced to the show in 1999, not long after it began airing on a local broadcast station and appearing in VHS volumes on video store shelves. I was doing freelance reviewing for a website designed as a consumer guide for children’s videos and since I was the resident anime expert among the site’s stable of reviewers, I was assigned the new anime shows then popping up, including the new phenomenon, Pokémon.
The series had a crude charm back then, as it focused on its trio of young protagonists, aspiring Pokémon trainers Ash Ketchum and Misty and Pokémon breeder Brock, as they traveled on foot from town to town to meet other budding Pokémon experts and stage battle matches between their Pokémon. Ash was a scrappy, cocky kid back then, eager to prove himself, somewhat reckless and given to various blunders, and quick to stand up for himself against rivals, going so far as to throw punches when he was mad enough. Misty was a somewhat older adolescent girl who got along with Ash but was also in constant competition with him and was not happy when he upstaged her. Brock was the serious, gentle, studious one in the group, except when he entered the orbits of attractive young women, be they Nurse Joy, a fixture at each Pokémon Center; Officer Jenny, the local law enforcer in every town they visit; or other Pokémon trainers and caretakers encountered during their travels, at which point he became a typical lovestruck teenage male, requiring a disdainful Misty to grab him by the ear and pull him away.
Over the seasons, Ash has gone through an assortment of other traveling companions and matured along the way, developing qualities of compassion, empathy, sincerity and an unwavering sense of right and wrong, particularly in the way one treats one’s Pokémon. He also has a greater sense of responsibility regarding his companions and the younger trainers and Pokémon aspirants they encounter on their journey and is very respectful towards adults.
Also, the series has gotten more visually sophisticated over the last decade, replacing the simple, water color-style backgrounds of the early seasons with rich, lush natural scenery in more recent shows and more intricate street and building designs in the various cities and towns they travel through. Here are some contrasting images, three from the first season and four from the last two seasons:
(The annual Pokémon movies offer even more intricate design and imagery.)
In the last two seasons, Pokémon the Series: XY and Pokémon the Series: XYZ, Ash has acquired three new companions, seen in the shot above. Serena (on the right) is a girl about Ash’s age whose ambition is to train Pokémon to perform in an event called the Pokémon Showcase, in which a trainer directs her Pokémon to put on choreographed displays incorporating dance and props and the individual powers of each Pokémon. Clemont (far left) is an adolescent boy who is focused on science and technology and continually develops new inventions to make things easier for Pokémon and their trainers. Bonnie (in between Clemont and Ash) is Clemont’s much younger sister and tags along attaching herself to the cutest and most adorable Pokémon they meet and giving them such names as “Squishy” and imploring every young woman she meets to become Clemont’s mate and take care of him, much to Clemont’s embarrassment.
The greatest thing about these seasons is the development of the relationship between Ash and Serena. When she first meets him, she knows him by reputation and already has extraordinary admiration and respect for him. Unlike Misty and some of Ash’s other female traveling companions (most notably Iris from Pokémon Black and White), Serena is unfailingly polite with Ash and is not out to compete with him. She gives him encouragement and is grateful whenever he praises her. She has her own talents and specialties and a number of the episodes focus specifically on her rehearsals and performances for various showcase events. She gets to dress up in a lot of different costumes, dresses and gowns, complete with assorted accessories and is clearly very attuned to fashion. She makes Pokémon videos for a YouTube-type entity called Pokévision. She loves to bake and regularly makes goodies for Ash and company and their Pokémon. She cares for Ash when he’s sick. She is clearly a perfect match for him, even if he’s not quite ready to recognize it.
The episodes focusing on Serena give the series a break from the constant battling between Pokémon, an aspect of the series that has never failed to exasperate me. For all Ash’s talk about friendship and bonding with his Pokémon and all the displays of concern for them and their feelings, he still likes nothing better than pitting them against a rival trainer’s Pokémon for a pitched battle that usually leaves one of the Pokémon battered and dazed, requiring a quick recuperative trip to the nearest Pokémon Center and the tender care of the local Nurse Joy. If you love your Pokémon so much, why do you constantly have them fight for you? Serena dominates one of the battle episodes when she has to dress up as Ash while he’s laid low by fever and replace him in a battle with a raucous challenger.
During the course of Serena’s performing adventures, she gets to meet and bond with other girls doing the same thing and makes a lot of friends, even rivals like Aria, the reigning Kalos Queen, whom Serena competes with in one story arc this past season. One friend she makes, the coquettish little Miette, has her eye on Ash and correctly surmises that Serena secretly likes him and makes it clear that if Serena doesn’t make her move, Miette will. This embarrasses Serena no end.
We get to see Serena interact with lots of other girls, including the heroes’ constant nemesis, Jessie of the villainous Team Rocket, who fancies herself a star Pokémon performer and competes in Showcase events also, but in disguise as Jessalia, whom they never recognize as Jessie. (The inability of the protagonists to see through Team Rocket’s frequent flimsy disguises is another source of constant exasperation.)
Serena even attracts the attention of an older woman, a potential mentor, Ms. Palermo, who drives around in a chauffeured limo constantly on the lookout for potential stars of the Pokémon Showcase circuit.
In the early episodes featuring Serena, we also got to meet her mother, a key influence on her and a noted Pokémon trainer in her own right. The mom makes cameo appearances in subsequent episodes. (Ash’s mother used to pop up a lot, but I can’t recall seeing her in quite some time.)
In POKÉMON MOVIE #17: DIANCIE AND THE COCOON OF DESTRUCTION (2014), there’s a charming scene where Serena and Bonnie show Diancie, a diminutive jewel Pokémon, around a shopping mall and play dress-up in one of the shops. It’s moments like this, where characters take a break from the action to have fun and enjoy each other’s company, that give the whole Pokémon series its enduring appeal, at least for me.
I would argue that Serena is the most rounded and multifaceted supporting character yet seen in the entire run of the Pokémon TV series. I wish more people knew about her, which is why I’m writing this. I hope she sticks around for future seasons.
Here’s a guide to episodes from the last two seasons that I felt were worth singling out, chiefly for their emphasis, in most cases, on Serena. I include the comments I wrote after seeing them and a few pictures from each.
Season 18/ #12: “A Showcase Debut!”
Serena makes her showcase debut in a styling competition, but when Fennekin trips on its ribbon mid-show, all the accessories come off and she loses. Later, Serena goes off by herself to a dock with Fennekin and Pancham and cries. Very touching scene. She then cuts her hair short and changes her outfit! This shocks the others when they see her in the morning, but Ash likes it (smart boy!) and recognizes that she’s wearing the ribbon he gave her (doubly smart!). We meet Palermo—an older woman (Meryl Streep-like) in a limo who observes everything—what’s her agenda?
Season 18/ #16 “Battling with Elegance and a Big Smile!”
Serena runs off to be alone after the rehearsal with Fennekin and Pancham goes wrong. She hooks up with “Ariana,” who’s secretly Aria, the Kalos queen of Pokémon Performers, and they bond through shopping, eating and hanging out and then in the evening they have a two-on-two Pokémon battle.
Season 18/ #25 “A Fashionable Battle!”
Fashion/runway theme as Serena and Bonnie link up with a gym leader who incorporates fashion show elements into her battles. Pretty interesting in light of the “China Through the Looking Glass” exhibit recently at the Met. I would actually have liked more of it, but the story veers off into Ash and Sawyer having their battle outside the fashion show. Japanese design is used for the buildings and interiors.
Season 18/ #31 “Performing with Fiery Charm!”
Serena wins the Showcase competition in this one, cooking Poké-puffs and performing. The competition includes Miette, the one who likes Ash, and Jessalia (Jessie).
Season 18/ #40 “A Frolicking Find in the Flowers!”
Serena meets a dancing Eevee. a shy and elusive Pokémon, and gradually charms her into joining the act she directs with Braixen and Pancham. Eventually, Eevee agrees to enter the Poké-ball without first battling or being conquered in some way. She wants to go with Serena.
Season 18/ #41 “Lights! Camera! Pika!”
Frank, a Pikachu fanatic, makes a movie with dozens of Pikachus and makes Ash’s Pikachu the star. No Team Rocket (Yaaay!). And he shoots on 35mm film! More Pikachus than you can shake a stick at. What’s not to love?
Season 19/ #12 “Party Dancecapades!”
Pierre, the French Pokémon Showcase host, invites all the performers to a ball, but they have to bring a date with them, even the Pokémon. At Bonnie’s suggestion, Serena asks Clemont. This enables Miette, Serena’s rival, to ask Ash, who accepts, which makes Serena very jealous. They wear 18th century French costumes, Marie Antoinette-style, and dance the minuet and waltz, although the music isn’t at all right for that. Serena freaks when she winds up with Ash as a partner and the dance ends just before their hands touch. Ash seems pretty awkward in this setting, but Serena and Miette both like him in costume.
Season 19/ #19 “Master Class Is in Session!”
Serena competes for the title of Kalos Queen, making it into the final round, in which she’ll compete with Aria, the reigning Kalos Queen.
Season 19/ #22 “Battling at Full Volume!”
They meet a rocker named Jimmy, in full face makeup, with a Pikachu named Spike, who challenges Ash and Pikachu at the instigation of Team Rocket. But Ash is in a tent sick with fever so Serena dresses up as Ash and battles in his stead until Team Rocket decides to abduct both Pikachus. Team R does a parody of Japanese singers.
ADDENDUM (January 24, 2017): The season’s 47th episode, “Till We Compete Again,” which ran on the Cartoon Network on January 21, 2017, was the series’ farewell episode (although not the final show of the season). Ash and his friends split up to go their separate ways after three years together. It was quite sad. Serena gives Ash a special goodbye, saying to him, “Next time we meet, you’re gonna like the kind of person I’ve become,” before going up to him and evidently giving him a kiss, surely a series first, even though it’s off-camera and we only see their feet. But he’s clearly pleased with it. The new season, “Pokémon the Series: Sun & Moon,” goes off wildly in a new direction and is done in a simpler, less-satisfying animation style. I’ve seen two episodes so far and the jury’s still out. It will be running on a different channel, Disney XD. Here are shots from “Till We Compete Again”: