In Western animation, most shows are episodic. This is logical, because the target audience is kids, who aren’t exactly known for their ability to keep up with long, intricate plots. Hence, there were very few sagas that require paying attention to them from beginning to end. Even shows I quite enjoy and have mentioned here, like Mighty Max and Conan the Adventurer (which I like even more than Dave does) have a meta-plot that pops up sometimes, but most of the episodes have a small core cast and are perfectly easy to follow one to the next. This brings me to Exo-Squad, which has none of that. It is a 52-episode saga, with an ongoing story, a large cast, and a definitive beginning, middle, and ending. It was ballsy to make such a show, but the result was something unique and enjoyable.
Exo-Squad is a series that takes place in the 22nd century, after humanity has colonized Venus and Mars. Through genetic engineering, humanity has also created a servant race called Neo-Sapiens, who are stronger, tougher, and more intelligent than humans. Naturally, treating a race with all these advantages as slaves led to an uprising, and though it was put down, the Neo-Sapiens were eventually granted their independence, though were still generally treated as second-class citizens. The military of the core worlds, known as Exo-Fleet, keep the peace, and use personal mechs called E-Frames (you guessed it, the toys!). It is neither a particularly optimistic or pessimistic future, with a fair share of good and bad traits.
This all changes when the majority of Exo-Fleet is called away on a grand mission to wipe out pirate clans who live in the outer worlds of the solar system. Phaeton, governor of the Neo-Sapiens on Mars, using ships and E-Frames he had been building in secret, stages a massive coup and conquers Earth and Venus. Phaeton and his generals reduce humans to slaves as payback for their mistreatment. Exo-Fleet, marooned in space and facing three planets with entrenched Neo-Sapien armadas, are forced to find a way to retake their homeworlds.
The point of view from which we see this is Able Squad, a group of E-Frame pilots often sent on the most dangerous and important missions of the war. The entire squad is fleshed out and filled with likeable characters, including their leader J.T. Marsh, a philosopher and strategist, and Marsala, a Neo-Sapien who is highly conflicted about fighting his own people, but loyal to his human friends nonetheless. The war was said by the creators to have been modeled on World War II, and we follow the moves and countermoves of Exo-Fleet and the Neo-Sapien Order from beginning to end. Despite being a cartoon, Exo-Squad portrays war realistically, and people die quite frequently. The show deals with themes of war, loss, and prejudice in a way that is not ham-handed. While we want the humans to win, it is easy to sympathize with the Neo-Sapiens, who were horribly mistreated and harbor understandable resentment. Indeed, while Phaeton and most of his inner circle are ruthless and power-hungry, not all the Neo-Sapiens, perhaps not even most, are evil. Phaeton himself is a fascinating character. He is charismatic and brilliant, and probably would have been easy to like before he became a supreme dictator. As time goes on, his sanity wanes and he becomes extremely paranoid and irrational. It seems likely the series creators based him on Hitler, and perhaps other dictators of similar stature.
The series had a few small missteps, particularly when new breeds of Neo-Sapiens began to appear. The Neo-Warriors were inexplicably immune to blaster fire, which makes one wonder why they didn’t build ships, E-Frames, or at the very least armor out of the material used for their skin, and why this immunity seemed to vanish later on in the war. There is also the sad fact that the series ended with an apparent presumption that there would be another season, and as such, a massive cliffhanger. Much to my chagrin at least, that season never came, and what was to come will likely never be known.
Still, for all that, Exo-Squad is an amazing series, with lots of combat, strategy, characterization, science fiction, humor, and thought-provoking drama. The first 13 episodes are available on DVD, but sadly, the rest does not seem to be. Luckily, the show is available in its entirety on Hulu, so if you’ve never seen this underrated classic, go there and watch it now!