Nicktoons, which began two decades ago today, represented a new kind of kids' TV
Forget nostalgia. The real contribution of Nickelodeon's new, chatter-causing block of programming from the '90s isn't that it provides 20-and-30-somethings a chance to wallow in childhood memories. Rather, we should revisit grunge-era Nick programming because grunge-era Nick programming was good. And it mattered.
Twenty years ago today, the first Nicktoons premiered with kick-off episodes of Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show. Pilot "Doug Bags a Neematoad" was the first of the bunch, and stands as perhaps the clearest example of the new Nickelodeon order. In it, the world met Doug Funnie, whose family had relocated to the town of Bluffington, where Doug knew no one. He encountered a tediously wacky new neighbor, fell for the pretty girl at the burger shop, and struck up a friendship with the first friendly kid he met. The conflict came when the neighborhood bully roped him into a humiliating, impossible dare. "Man, the things a guy has to go through to keep from being a loser," Doug remarked. It was a universal sentiment; Doug, we had learned, was painfully normal.
That's significant. Think on the popular TV cartoons of the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Series like Transformers, G.I. Joe, Scooby Doo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles each, in their own ways, used fantasy to portray achievement. The descendents of pulp novels, comic books, and cinema in the genre of, respectively, sci-fi, war narratives, mysteries, and crime-fighting, these were not shows in which the people watching were supposed to identify with the people on screen. Rather, they provided classic escapism. Whatever animated kid-age characters did show up were usually equipped with special powers or thrown into extraordinary situations, a la the adventuring Jonny Quest. It's a form of entertainment as old as anything; it'll never go away.
The Nicktoons were different. It's possible that Doug's faithful imaging of an 11-year-old boy's unglamorous life took cues from the late-'80s successes of live-action, youth-centered shows like Saved By The Bell or The Wonder Years. Certainly it owed a lot to cartoons that made their name outside of TV, like Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts (and not just because they feature mischievous, human-like animals as confidantes for the main character). The idea was to portray kids that kids could recognize. Doug the character even consumed the same kind of children's entertainment that Doug the show rebelled against. He daydreamed about transforming into superhero persona "Quailman," and imagined himself winning middle-school glory as a mystery-solving detective, or a secret agent, or a rock star. But Doug's alter egos were entirely in his head, and his reveries were often ended by the intrusion of reality—whether via bully or older sister or classroom teacher.
The other Nicktoons that entered the world on the same day as Doug bucked the Saturday-morning-cartoons zeitgeist as well. Certainly, the feeble but capable toddlers of Rugrats were a far cry from crime-fighting superheros. To an even greater extent than Doug, that show was about the world kids actually inhabit: Dwarfed by things they don't understand, building fantasy worlds and microcosmic societies with their equally clueless peers. Ren & Stimpy, meanwhile, brought in a new golden era of cartoon Dadaism, where animation was used for its potential to satirize and shock—Rocko's Modern Life, Rejected, and all of Adult Swim owe it a debt.
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And all three shows deserve credit for reclaiming the Looney Toons project of introducing adult culture to kids while also sending it up. In the case of Doug and Rugrats, the grown-up characters caricatured real-life frivolities, from Doug neighbor Bud Dink's infatuation with his "very expensive" household electronics to Rugrats' stylized depictions of the world outside the Pickles household: In one episode, main baby Tommy goes with his family to a fancy restaurant called "Chez Ennui." Ren & Stimpy meanwhile openly parodied the medium of TV itself, most memorably with interstitial commercials for products like "Log" (which was a log).
Today, though, Doug stands as the purest distillation of Nickelodeon's simple, soulful interest in the inner lives of kids. Like the rest of his generation, Doug Funnie wanted to be different but wasn't. He wished his massive nose was smaller. He wished he could dance. He wished he were smarter. The show constantly portrayed the false relationship between becoming a better person and becoming a different person; it grappled again and again with the devastating epiphany of adolescence that there are things about you that you can't change. Did its message stick? Maybe. Consider the often-noticed but often-misunderstood self-empowerment theme pervading the today's pop culture. Then imagine what today's pop stars were likely watched as kids. It's not hard to see a connection: Twenty years ago, Doug was coming to terms with being Born This Way.