This is the plot summary for episode 14 of Jem, season 2.
A young girl named Laura comes to live at Starlight Mansion after her parents are killed in a car crash. She’s extremely withdrawn, moody and consumed with low self-esteem despite her obvious musical talent. I and the Holograms try to draw her out by asking her to write and perform a song with them. This backfires spectacularly when Laura becomes hooked on drugs in order to ease her anxiety over the upcoming concert.
Pretty heavy stuff for a kids cartoon, right? I’ve been reliving my youth over the last few weeks as I churn through the entire series once again. I distinctly remember waking up early on Saturday mornings with my sister. We would head over to the living room, bleary eyed and would turn on the TV with bated breath for the opening theme song: “Jem, Jem is excitement. Oooooh Jem. Jem is adventure… Glamour and glitter, fashion and fame.”
Back in the 80s it was pretty common to have public service announcements at the end of a children’s cartoon. You could find them at the end of Jem, G.I. Joe, Teddy Ruxpin, and plenty of others. Jem is the hallmark example of a show that went further then just the occasional announcement at the end of an episode. Woven into many episodes, young girls and boys learned many life lessons as topics of friendship, jealousy, the perils of celebrity, depression, abandonment, illiteracy, and drug abuse were covered.
As I haven’t finished the series yet, I can’t say for certain episode 14 is the best, however it’s by far the strongest thus far. My ex-girlfriend battled depression and it was crippling at times and exceedingly difficult for the both of us. I empathized with Laura and felt the writers did a tremendous job of depicting depression. After the closing credits I felt both a sense of dread and elation as I was taken through the emotional rollercoaster of Laura’s drug addiction, near death experience, and eventual rehabilitation. The animators went to great lengths to gradually show how drugs can take their toll on the appearance of someone so young (she looks increasingly haggard as the episode progresses). There’s even a shocking scene where she hallucinates and the furniture becomes alive.
Over the last 30 years there’s been a dearth of children’s programming that deal with real-life issues. The closest example I can point to is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Whilst MLP isn’t nearly as dark as Jem, it does a good job of covering similar topics with respect to friendship, jealously, and doing the right thing.