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.