Monday, August 22, 2011

Rocko's Modern Life

When I was a kid, there were a number of different options for what channel to watch cartoons on, but my most frequent pick was the shows on Nickelodeon. I didn't like all of them, but I sure watched them all a lot. My favorite was pretty easily Rocko's Modern Life, which had some of the racier material of something like The Ren & Stimpy Show (I missed some dirty stuff but still enjoyed images like a commercial causing the TV to sprout arms and literally wash the characters' brains with soap) but still followed more traditional comedy beats that were palatable ton eight year old's brain. I was excited to find out the whole series (minus one episode that got lost somewhere) was streaming on Netflix Instant, and even happier to realize that the show totally holds up.

Actually watching the episodes in the basic order they originally aired, it's interesting to see the show change a bit over time. Initially, they stick very closely to the suggestion of the title, of a show about the silliness of the modern American lifestyle. There's hardly a subject the show didn't touch on, from garbage day in the pilot to grocery shopping, television, camping, shopping malls, road trips, public transportation, corporations, and everything in between. There's an amazingly cynical undertone to the show, especially early on, something I didn't really pick up on as a kid but is completely visible now. There are lots of instances of the show using metaphor to disguise commentary too, like an episode where Rocko's angry next door neighbor Ed Bighead hides the fact that he likes being a clown, a story that is very transparently actually about closeted homosexuals. Many early episodes consist of little more than Rocko banging his head against an inconvenience or banality of living in the 90s, and it's pretty interesting from an older perspective.

I always liked the show more as it went on though, and that stayed true on this rewatch. The series really starts clicking when Filburt graduates from the background to a major character, as it causes a nice dynamic to emerge between him, Rocko, and Heffer, Rocko's best friend. The three characters all have their own quirks and catchphrases, and the show gets a ton of mileage out of throwing them into any situation they can think of and letting them bounce off each other. Plus there's just the fun, odd visual of a friendly wallaby, nervous turtle, and gluttonous steer pal around. Unfortunately only 52 episodes were produced (resulting in about a hundred stories, as most episodes had two), which seems about standard for any kid's show that wasn't a massive breakout success, but there's so much good stuff in that time that it's hard to complain. Very few missteps, and even those aren't really terrible like some shows can get. I'm sure a big part of the fun I had seeing the show again was just nostalgia, but I genuinely think that either way, Rocko's Modern Life is one of the funniest and smartest series ever made for kids. The only question is whether it would even culturally make sense to children now, or farther down the line.

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