May 25, 2013
The wisdom of Nickelodeon (circa 1991-96)
I was working on a film shoot a couple weeks ago, and standing around on a break one day, somehow I got to talking with our costume designer and the 12-year-old member of our cast about how much better Nickelodeon shows were in my childhood than they are now. While I was a little embarrassed to have almost no idea what is even on Nickelodeon these days, he was a connoisseur of vintage Nickelodeon, and we wound up talking about shows like Clarissa Explains It All, Doug, Rugrats, Salute Your Shorts, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, You Can’t Do That On Television, and The Adventures of Pete and Pete.
And one of the things we realized, in trying to figure out why those shows were so cool, and felt so good to watch, even though they were in some ways ridiculously wholesome, was that they managed to make you feel like they were always firmly on your side as a kid.
Although almost wholly non-objectionable in any way, they weren’t family shows. They were kids’ shows. They weren’t so much trying to teach any lessons, or make your parents happy, as they were dealing with the world the way that kids actually have to deal with the world, with all of its petty injustice, anxiety, and ludicrousness. There was lightness in the situations, but there wasn’t trivialization or mockery of kids’ problems. Adults were not always ultimately right, or even good or well-intentioned like they were in other network family shows.
And as I thought more about it, I realized something else that day. Those shows weren’t just on the side of kids…they were practically always, as far as I can remember, on the side of vulnerable kids, underdogs, and oddballs.
Compare, for instance, the way Sponge is portrayed in Salute Your Shorts compared to Screech in Saved By The Bell. When Sponge is called names and pushed around and valued only for his huge memory for random facts, it is actually wrong. Or Sam the weird neighbor in Clarissa and Skeeter the weird sidekick in Doug compared to Kimmy the weird neighbor in Full House. The bullies and jerks were the bad guys in those shows, and while you’re still supposed to have compassion for those characters in their own way, they are the actual antagonists of those worlds and you are not supposed to approve of their behavior and join in laughing at their victims. There weren’t characters who were there to be ridiculed.
Heroes and protagonists of Nickelodeon shows felt dorky and inferior…and it was okay.
And I was thinking about it some more as I was going through an old journal this week (which I almost never do), and re-reading an entry about realizing that the things I’ve tended to really love–music or books or TV shows–were things that made me feel like a person. Things that I liked okay were things that at least let me feel like a person.
Things that I could never manage to like much at all, even when everyone else around me loved them, tended to leave me feeling like I couldn’t laugh at the characters I was supposed to be laughing at.
Nickelodeon shows never did that. And while I was warned all too often that the amount of TV I watched as a kid was going to rot my brain, I’m starting to suspect that the more subtle lessons of those shows may actually have been among the most quietly but deeply impactful sources of strength to follow me into adulthood.
(And then there was this. How many things in life have you really been more afraid of than that? The top comment reads “This is why we 90’s kids are so intact”…and I think she may not be wrong.)