The Golden Age of Television is upon us. Creators can demand – and win – the right to invert, subvert, or downright ignore formerly de riguer storytelling tropes that a few years ago would have stunted character and plot development. If you remember the time before this fabled Golden Age, you remember that it wasn’t always like this. You remember canned laughter and tedious plot twists and watching anyway because what else was on? You remember good, wholesome, utterly stultifying entertainment. If you remember the decidedly Un-Golden Age of Television, you know that your favorite cheerfully subversive shows stand not on the shoulders of giants but on the cumulative pilings of a thousand tiny transgressions, the sly pokes at network censorship that carved out whole spaces for new genres to live. And one genre where those transgressions took place with brief but uproarious regularity was – believe it or not – children’s animation.
The commercial success of The Simpsons created a sweet spot in the 1990s and early 2000s. Network executives hired relative unknowns and signed off on unconventional art styles, characters, and storylines, scrambling for a piece of a pie they only nebulously understood defied safe TV conventions. Emboldened by how much The Simpsons was getting away with (in prime time, no less), creators smuggled adult jokes into kids’ shows and execs…let them. Even though the results fall well short of unapologetically adult animation like Archer or The Venture Bros., many of their punches still land today. Because – who are we kidding? – jokes about paying rent, escaping cults, and spanking the monkey never get old.
And that, my friends, is why Rocko’s Modern Life is coming back to us for one last hurrah, to tie up all the loose ends left after it was taken from Nicktoons a touch too soon in 1996.
If you missed it the first time around, Rocko’s Modern Life was an animated sitcom about an Australian wallaby trying his luck in the US. He lives in O-Town, a company town named after its largest employer (Conglom-O: We own you). Rocko is good-natured if somewhat naïve, but he has everything you need to get through your early twenties: a TV, a coffee pot, and like-minded friends (rapacious steer Heffer and neurotic turtle Filburt). In between working mind-numbing jobs, navigating awkward mating rituals, and avoiding Rocko’s bickering neighbors, these three crazy not-kids stumble into assorted (mis)adventures which are animated and voiced with infectious aplomb. They discover hip coffeehouses (spoiler: the coffee is overrated), game shows, singles mixers, The Devil’s Crevice, and how to impress the local kids (spoiler: belching). Rocko also has a dog and a crappy job and an unreliable car, and if you’re an adult you may be beginning to see the surprising continuing appeal of this apparent kids’ show: Rocko has responsibilities, and the show shines when it pokes fun at the absurdities of adult life.
Rocko’s Modern Life gives voice to the small sane child inside us watching us tootle off to wearying jobs to pay our bills on time asking “Why? Why is your life like this? Why do you do this to yourself?” And the absurdities of adulthood very much lend themselves to the wackiness of Rocko’s aesthetic, which reveled in the bent and downright bizarre. Why would anyone fall for the siren song of a bratwurst cult only to pervert the Holy Bratwurst’s teachings to justify hurling bowling balls at apostates? Why does the DMV kick you through Kafka-esque hoops just because a fugitive stole your gas cap? Why do your neighbors suck you into their All-In-The-Family-esque drama, and why do you let them? Why did your friend have to have a near-death experience before it occurred to them to pick up the check? Why is your hypochondriac friend dating the dentist who set a mutant tooth loose on a rampage through town?
The answer, of course, is that there are no answers, and life goes on for Rocko and company in O-Town as it does in O-Towns all over America. And at the end of the day, that’s what it means to be a grownup more than anything else: Shit happens. Sometimes really weird shit happens. Sometimes your friends help you out, and sometimes they…don’t help, exactly. But life goes on, and you wake up the next day and whack the snooze button and then get out of bed anyway because the shower will drown out your neighbors’ bickering, and you go to work and meet your friends at the chicken joint and tune in to the one TV show that lightens the cockles of your not-yet-shriveled heart and try not to think too much about the bizarre and terrifying adventure that is independence.
The ways our perspective shifts as we get older can make it tedious or downright embarrassing to revisit the media we consumed as children. But once you get old enough, you can see past Rocko’s hilari-gross gags to appreciate its comedic core about the banality and absurdity of adulthood. (Another symptom you’ve gotten old enough: You really, really, really appreciate the opening credits gag in which Rocko is utterly clobbered by Time.) So even though I don’t say this often, I’m all in for this reboot. Rocko’s Modern Life was way ahead of its time, and it will be nice to see time catch up.
HOW TO WATCH: The series is available for purchase on Amazon Streaming, and also on DVD.
MUST WATCH: “I Have No Son,” a touching and canny take on entertainment and family ties, and “Future Shlock,” the episode from which “Static Cling” will pick up.
FAVORITE LINES: “I don’t wanna be an adult! I’ve heard horrible stories about bran and strange undergarments.”
“I feel so strange. Everything itches, even my teeth!”
“Automobile: means for transportation or life-threatening speed casket?”
“Your teacher’s full of snot.”
“Where’s the pain? Where is it?”
“More pain, sure! Absolutely!”
“Conglom-O. We own you!”
“You have to go to Holl-o-wood and find him. Here’s 3 bucks, bring him back to us!”
“Avast! Well, butter me scones, it’s him!”
“You think I wanna slouch around with a bunch of sandal-wearing Santa Clauses?!”
“Hello? I found a banana in the driveway?”
PAIR WITH: Only the finest fried chicken.
LISTEN FOR: Tom Kenny (who went on to voice SpongeBob and Squanchy) Carlos Alazraqui (perhaps best known as the Taco Bell chihuahua and Deputy James Garcia on Reno 911), and Charlie Adler (Buster Bunny for you fellow olds and Starscream for you kids).
AFTERWARDS: For more delightfully strange animation, rewatch The Tick animated series while you wait for the 2018 special, “Static Cling,” to air later this year. Or you can check out show creator Joe Murray’s site here.