How a show ends is usually in the hands of a network, and rarely do the creators of said franchises get to end the series the way they want to. A lot of shows with stories or lore often end up getting cancelled before they can complete their run, but there are some exceptions to this rule. One such example are web-cartoons, which don’t have to abide by network standards and are usually at the creative control of the person making them.
Of course, this doesn’t mean web-cartoons are immune to cancellation. Web-cartoons are often self-funded projects and are bound by the limitations of the animators and the amount of funds they have on hand. A good example of this was Matt Wilson’s “Bonus Stage”, a forgotten web cartoon from the early 2000s.
Bonus Stage originally started as a web-cartoon called “High Score”. High Score revolved around two protagonists: A mad-scientist and inventor named Joel, and his rather normal in comparison friend Phil. Joel’s crazy inventions often dragged Phil and his other friends into trouble, but they were only the tip of the iceberg. Phil and Joel had to deal with plenty of other threats, such as strange creatures invading, or maniacal super-villains. All the while, our heroes would crack wise at the situation and make video-game references.
The series was created by Matt in an attempt to compete with the biggest flash cartoon series at the time: Homestarrunner. It was hard to top that series, as most flash animation at the time was pretty basic and trivial. While High Score possessed a more detailed art-style, it’s awkward animation made it much less appealing than the series Matt was trying to compete with.
Eventually, Matt wanted to create a companion series for High Score, one that he could do as a side project. He wanted to craft a web-cartoon that could be updated on a weekly basis, one that also used a simpler animation style to speed up production. Thus, Bonus Stage was born! In a way, Bonus Stage was kind of a genius idea. While High Score was a decent series, it felt too derivative of most video-game web-comics out at the time.
Bonus Stage was actually fairly different, in that a lot of its humor was more rapid-fire and random than High Score’s had been. Characters would spew out catchphrases left and right, and very little made sense. High Score was pretty nonsensical too, though not to the same extent as Bonus Stage was.
Still, Bonus Stage was a very fun series. Jokes were paced well, the soundtrack was solid, and the characters (despite an ever expanding cast) were pretty good overall. Over time, Matt Wilson found himself starting to like Bonus Stage. What started as just a way to update faster and on a weekly basis eventually began to overtake the main series.
High Score ended up getting cancelled after just 4 episodes, with the 5th episode never being made, and the 6th episode being incorporated into the 25th episode of Bonus Stage. As a result, Bonus Stage ended up outliving High Score by quite a large margin. The show continued on for quite a while, but eventually Matt’s interest in the series died.
The primary reason why this happened was due to the fan-base Matt’s series had attracted. Flash cartoons were extremely popular at the time, but not everyone had the talent or the knowledge required to create animations. As a result, some fans would develop a creepy obsession with Matt, due to their infatuation with his series and his skills. According to Matt, he was stalked in real-life, harassed, and threatened by hard-core fans.
On top of this, Bonus Stage became increasingly expensive to make. New music had to be made for later seasons, and Matt had to pay the 2 voice actors as well. As a result, Bonus Stage became ever more pricey to produce. With a fan-base that is over-obsessive, and an ever-growing price-tag for his animation, Matt eventually decided to call it quits.
Now, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about what High Score and Bonus Stage were, but not what the ending entailed. To keep a long story short, Phil had grown increasingly annoyed with Joel’s antics. Eventually, Phil travels back in time, accidentally erases himself from existence, and Joel takes his own life out of complete boredom. Yes, that all actually happened.
Phil travelling back in time was unique concept, and allowed for Matt to insert modern Phil into older episodes. However, what followed after Phil destroying the timeline was something rather… Freaky. You see, death in Bonus Stage had been pretty inconsequential at that point. Pretty much every time a character died, they would come back to life in the very next episode. The characters were pretty much immortal.
However, Phil traveled back in time to a point when Joel hadn’t created the device to give everyone immortality, at least within the virtual world in which Bonus Stage takes place. As a result, Phil and Joel dying in the past had extreme alterations on the future. As a result, pretty much everything was erased. I mean this quite literally, as all the episode links became broken after this event.
Each link lead you to an empty black screen, complete with creepy music playing in the background. Eventually, a group of secondary characters managed to travel back in time using a time machine dropped by Phil when he traveled back in time to episode 25. They present Joel from offing himself, and convince him to create a device to restore reality. Yes, it’s very confusing and weird.
Of course, Joel ends up putting a button on the device that would end Bonus Stage in an “overtly happy and non-canon” way. After creating the device, Joel takes his own life again regardless and then the series just ends. The final episode after this seems to be the result of the button being pressed, as it resolves nothing and is just an overtly happy non-canon epilogue.
Bonus Stage ended on a bit of a downer, followed by a rather unsatisfying attempt to lighten things up. The thing is, I can’t really blame Matt for doing it. He had to deal with an obsessive and demanding fan-base, despite being only one man. Sure, there are plenty of content creators who do their work solo and without anyone’s help, yet are able to manage their fan-bases just fine.
Thing is, it’s not the same when you’re an animator in the early-to-mid 2000s. Youtube hasn’t taken off yet, and social media hadn’t reached the point of being a necessity for most people yet. As a result, there were very few ways Matt could interact with his fan-base. When he did interact with them, he always got the blunt end of the worst parts of his fandom.
Stalked, harassed, and cyber-bullied for just making a silly cartoon is where most people would draw the line. Matt Wilson’s story can relate to a lot of people, as fame often comes with a large series of downsides. Even when Matt did end his series, he never gave up on making cartoons. He still makes new shows, but they don’t garner the same kind of interest as Bonus Stage did.
Sadly, Matt Wilson will forever be the “Bonus Stage” guy. He’ll be the guy who made a great web-series, but had to ditch it because of insane fans and increasingly high production values. I still think Bonus Stage is great, even after all these years. Is it weird, insane, dark, and random? It is, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a show that had a twisted ending, but was enjoyable throughout.