When people talk about the history of Cartoon Network programming, there’s two terms you’ll hear quite a bit: the Golden Age and the Revival. The former refers to the era of the Cartoon Cartoons, and runs from about 1996 to 2004. The latter began in 2010 with a rebranding (new logo, new slogan) and the premieres of Adventure Time and Regular Show. It’s not clear yet if that era is over or not, but at the very least it’s considered to include The Amazing World of Gumball, which is on indefinite hiatus, and Steven Universe, which ended in 2019.
Despite those two eras’ names, time between them isn’t generally thought of as a malaise period, but more of a lull in impactful content1. And that’s understandable: My Gym Partner’s a Monkey, for instance, is charming, but ultimately a bit derivative and somewhat forgettable. There were, however, plenty of shows worth the time—Total Drama, for instance, remained on the air for years into the “Revival” and was, at least at first, pretty well-received with audiences. But I’m here to talk about another show: Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.
Today Foster’s is mostly remembered for its nostalgia factor and for the unsettling amount of porn and fetish art featuring characters, specifically Frankie Foster2. It just hasn’t had the cultural impact of The Powerpuff Girls, creator Craig McCracken’s prior hit. But Foster’s deserves more: aside from a few dud episodes, it’s got a wonderfully build world with characters you really care about and stories that make it eminently rewatchable.
If you’re not familiar with the show, I’ll give a basic rundown: In the show’s world, imaginary friends are real beings, the “imaginary” referring to the fact that they originate from children’s imaginations. 8-year-old Mac lives with an abusive older brother and a mother who’s almost never home, constantly working. One day Mac’s mom tells him he’s too old for his imaginary friend, Bloo, and says that he needs to give him up. Because Bloo is Mac’s closest, and, well, only friend, this isn’t right; luckily they find Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, which is similar to a shelter, and where Bloo is allowed to stay without being up for adoption on the condition that Mac visit every day.
The concept might sound a bit out-there, but once you’ve seen an episode or two, it’s hard to not get attached to the characters. They each have their own distinct personalities, and the main cast have backstories complex enough that it would be too much to recount here. Even if you don’t particularly care for Mac or Bloo, you could easily get roped in by another character. Some people, for instance, can’t stand Bloo, as he’s often very selfish and inconsiderate, but watch the show for Wilt, who’s helpful and caring to a fault. There’s something for almost everyone.
For me personally, it’s Mac and Bloo, and their dynamic, that make the show3. Bloo is the things that Mac isn’t. The two butt heads quite often, since Bloo is impulsive and childish, while Mac is responsible and mature. Yet the two are inseparable: in the corniest way of saying it, he “completes” Mac.
Putting it more analytically, the show illustrates through them the power of creativity and the desire—and ability—to hold on to childhood as you grow up. Mac has, as a result of his situation in life, had to mature faster than some kids. He’s had to cope with physical abuse from Terrence (his brother) for years, as well his single parent being mostly absent. It’s for these reasons that Bloo exists. Bloo brings out the childishness Mac’s always repressed, and protects him from Terrence4. The emotional aspect of the relationship, sometimes easy to forget because of Bloo’s borderline-narcissistic demeanor, is reflected in Bloo’s origin. Although it isn’t mentioned in the show itself, it’s explained in multiple official sources that Mac imagined Bloo when he was 3, after he had to get rid of his favorite blanket5.
Even if you haven’t been through the same troubles as Mac—I haven’t—it’s pretty easy for certain types of people to relate to him. As a kid, I had a very active imagination, always coming up with characters and stories, even making up plots and (admittedly bad) character designs for fictional TV shows. I still think about stories and character concepts all the time, and it’s part of why I latch on to certain media. Modern society in its anti-humanism makes living in this world of imagination impractical, but at the same time, if you’re this type of person, you know that it’s unavoidable. Things imagined often become part of your life, not in the sense that you think they’re real, but that this world is something you return to, and in some cases even works as a way of interpreting real life. In Foster’s, this takes a real-world form for Mac: Bloo. When he’s told he’s too old for Bloo is relatable: you’re too old to have such imagination, and it’s time to “grow up”. Mac finds his way around this at Foster’s.
It’s important to note that the staff at Foster’s are skeptical at first that Mac will return to visit Bloo. The pilot episode partly revolves around Mac proving them wrong, which is what leads to their special arrangement. Mac isn’t kidding himself about what’s going on, and is one of the rare few who really does want to keep his imaginary friend. Similarly, in our world people initially hesitant to “grow up” eventually turn on that and decide childish things aren’t cool6. There’s actually something important to observe here: what Mac is going through (and what those who relate to him go through) isn’t truly a matter of not wanting to grow up, but of wanting to hold on to aspects of the childhood consciousness. He’s already mature for his age, and it’s not like he’s continuing to read cardboard books for preschoolers. What he’s looking for in continuing to be best friends with Bloo is for his whole self—one that depends on his imaginary friend. If you want to make things dark—and I’ve seen people argue this—you could contend that their relationship is toxic and parasitic. This is unequivocally wrong, though: Mac imagined Bloo to serve certain roles, and in a sense, Bloo is an extension of Mac. Other friends can be adopted out because the roles they serve, while important, are temporary, are things you grow out out of—but Mac and Bloo have a unique relationship: they’re intrinsically tied, and Foster’s and its staff are, ultimately, there to support them. (Well, most of them–Mr. Herriman is…a bit of a stick in the mud.)
There’s no real-life place to preserve your imagination, of course, but there’s an analogous way of being: allow yourself to indulge your fantasies. Write, draw, make fan fiction, play your favorite games, watch your favorite shows, read your favorite books: don’t be scared to let your imagination out.
Unfortunately though, this isn’t, as I mentioned, encouraged by the way people need to live just to get by. And Foster’s touches on this, too. “Squeeze the Day” is one of the most well-known and beloved episodes, and at the end really shows this. To sum it up without spoiling too much, Bloo and Mac have a day to themselves at Foster’s but fail to do anything that really satisfies their expectations given the amount of freedom they have. The rest of the house are out at the beach, and when they arrive home, Frankie is exhausted from having to take care of everyone. Frankie tells Mac to savor every moment of being a child—the irony being he and Bloo’s dissatisfaction at the moment. What that suggests, it seems to me, is that even getting what you want might not be enough to feel satisfying, but you should take what you can get.
With all this depth behind it, Foster’s should really appeal to people prone to fandom. But the community is small. If you think about it, though, there’s some clear reasons why. Firstly, it didn’t have the same broad appeal as shows like The Powerpuff Girls; much of what makes it “great” rather than merely “very good” depends on your personality, where PPG (etc) entertains equally to pretty much all types of people. Secondly, it came out into a different environment. At the time, fandom communities existed on forums and, eventually, sites like DeviantArt. When Adventure Time came out, for example (a show that I think could have an overlapping fandom), Web 2.0 was around its peak, and between big sites like Tumblr and smaller ones like Fanpop (as well as the still-strong DeviantArt), fandom communities grew larger and more quickly. If it came out in 2010, I think Foster’s might have garnered a large and loyal fanbase, rather than just being featured on popular merch at Hot Topic for a few years.
If you haven’t watched Foster’s before, or if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, I highly recommend you check it out now. It’s available on Hulu, and I believe on HBO Max as well.
Okay, the very end was a bit of a malaise era: CN Real (2009) was a desperate attempt to be more dynamic and largely failed. ↩
Granted, this isn’t unique to Foster’s; many shows from the 90s and 2000s that featured strong and/or assertive female characters get lewded way more than they should, which really would be “none at all”. ↩
I don’t mention it in this piece, but I’ll say here that Bloo is one of my all-time favorite characters. He’s adorable and hilarious, and even when he’s a jerk, you can’t help but love him. (Or at least I can’t.) And he and Mac together are so happy-making. There’s too many great scenes for me to even list. ↩
The origin is particularly touching for me, because I still have my blanket from when I was very little, and which had essentially been my imaginary friend—I’d given her a voice and everything. Losing the blanket was one of my biggest fears.
Incidentally, I went through a phase when I was about 10 where I wanted to be an adult and tried to not watch “kids’ shows”. That didn’t last long—maybe a month or so. Then I went back to being obsessed with cartoons and video games. ↩