Jul 122012

Penguin’s probably my favorite character from Polar Bear Cafe. He doesn’t have the seemingly mysterious past like Polar Bear, the gruff attitude of Grizzly Bear, or Panda’s fetish for vacuum cleaners, but he’s a pretty fascinating character since he’s the one animal that seems to be overcompensating for the fact that he’s an animal in a human society.

In the first half of this week’s episode, Penguin insists that the Cafe crew and regulars trim the grass growing around the place. Everyone pitches in to “help” in their own way. Llama eats the grass and gets full rather quickly. Panda lazes about and says he’ll come help “after his nap.” Polar Bear stays in the shade because he’s used to cool temperatures. Koala can’t eat the grass like Llama because he can only eat Eucalyptus. Sloth just sorta sits there and futilely hacks away at a single blade all afternoon.

Basically, the only people doing any real work (Until Grizzly comes along and does it all himself.) are Penguin and Sasako: the responsible, normal humans.

Except Penguin ain’t a human, but based on his behavior he may as well be human.

Of all of the animals who hang out at the Cafe, Penguin is the one least equipped to deal with “integrating” into human society. He only has flippers and doesn’t have an appendage that allows for the levels of manipulation that a paw or a long tongue allow. He’s short but he doesn’t have the dexterity to climb around like the various monkeys and other smaller animals at the Cafe.

Penguins are at a greater disadvantage compared to the other animals we see in the series, and I think Penguin knows this. He seems to overcompensate for this by being the “normal” one in the group. While Panda acts like a zoo panda even when he’s at home, doing nothing but eat bamboo and slack off, Penguin does his best to behave in a manner similar to that of a human. Penguin’s concerned about keeping up appearances and gets embarrassed easily. Of all of the animals, he’s the only one who seems capable of feeling shame. He’s also the one playing the straight man role, pointing out when someone deviates from the norm or does something outrageous. He even finds Sasako’s antics at odds with the norm, like when she’s digging up strange artifacts in the Cafe’s yard.

Penguin wants to be human because penguins can’t acclimate to human society with the ease of the other animals, but he goes too far and he stands out even more so than some of the other animals.

At the same time, he seems to be losing some of his base instincts. In the second half of this week’s episode, he can’t tell the difference between the seven different female penguins who work at the local bakery (Loved that bit, by the way. The perfect way to end Penguin’s stalker-like love affair with “Penko.”). Every day he asks out “Penko,” not realizing that he’s asked seven different penguins for a date. This leads to one of those hilariously disastrous sitcom misunderstanding moments: All of the lady penguins arrive for the date at the same time and gang up on poor Penguin as revenge for his unintentional womanizing.

It makes sense for the viewer to not tell the difference between the seven female penguins. They’re all drawn exactly the same to set up the joke. And it’d make sense for other characters in the series to not tell the difference, since they’re just as “species blind” as anyone else. But Penguin should have the instincts to tell the difference between members of his own species. That sort of thing is built into animal genetics.

In the process of trying to become the normal guy in the group, maybe Penguin’s becoming less of a penguin along the way. Soon he’ll be a pariah amongst his own species if this keeps up. And considering that he’ll never really be a human, he’s destined to be something of an outcast all of his life.

Poor dude.

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