I grew up in the nineties, and for us nineties kids, Nickelodeon was the place for TV. I already talked about some of my earliest memories of the network. Today, we're going in depth with some of their live action TV shows.
The first time I really became aware of Nickelodeon as a brand was due to a specific primetime block. it started with Doug, followed by Rugrats, and capped off with Clarissa Explains it All. This little trio came at a time when I was getting old enough to understand a little more about how things work. I can't say for sure exactly when this was. My research says that all three of them got their start in 1991. That would have put me around two years old. There's no way I was watching them at that age, but I remember discussing them with friends in as early as first grade (95-96 for me) so I was still pretty young.
To this day, Clarissa Explains it All is pretty fondly remembered. It starred Melissa Joan Hart as the titular teenager. She was a kind of hip, radical nineties teen who dealt with regular teenage problems, especially being the cool kid in a family of conservative squares. She listened to rock while they played classical, she was in jean jackets and neon leggings while surrounded by sweater vests. She was the lady in red when everybody else was wearing tan. Helping her cope with all this was her equally cool best friend Sam. Sam always entered the scene the same way: Clarissa would be sitting in her room, a ladder would get raised up against her open window, she'd say "Hey Sam," and he'd enter to surf-rock sounding guitar chord. Sam was a cool dude.
The actual plots weren't anything out of the ordinary. She would get a crush on a boy, or would need to get money, or her parents would ask her babysit and she didn't want to, that kind of thing. The show very rarely left the set of their house, so a lot of development came from Clarissa explaining it to the audience. Indeed multiple times during the episode, Clarissa would turn to the camera and start speaking to the viewers like we were her friends.
There were a couple things she had that I thought was awesome. For one, she had a phone in her room. Yeah! Her OWN PHONE! IN HER BEDROOM! But that was nothing compared to her COMPUTER! Clarissa had her very own computer in her bedroom. That seems ridiculous by todays standards. Even younger kids hav etheir own cell phones now, and most of those are pretty much computers anyway. Keep in mind, though, this was in the early nineties. Clarissa predated even WIndows 95. PC's were just starting to become more common. At the time, they were still a bit of luxury, and my family wouldn't get one for several more years. So the fact that Clarissa owned a computer at all blew my mind, let alone having her own personal one in her bedroom. That she could make video games on.
So Clarissa Explains it All tried to be cool, and for a little kid, it was. They even used the word "hell" once in a while, which was unheard of on a kids' show. Truth be told, its edginess was a tad contrived compared to the actual plots. All of the "cool" stuff basically came from the producers trying way too hard to make it such, but the attitude of Melissa's Clarissa sold it for us and made us think we were watching something that was more mature than it actually was. It earned its little niche in our hearts at the time. Melissa Joan Hart would go on to play another teenager, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, which practically made her a household name later in the decade.
Clarissa was one of my first favorite live action Nickelodeon shows. It was by no means the first or most historically significant, though. That honor may very well go to You Can't Do That on Television. Apparently you can, because they did. It's not a porn or anything like that. It was just a sketch comedy show. I've never actually seen it myself, though many people seem nostalgic for it in talking about old school Nick shows. My research shows that it was also pretty influential in what would come later.
You Can't Do That on Television, also known as YCDTOTV (even the acronym is a mouthful) predates every other show I have or will talk about here by a pretty significant margin. It debuted in 1979. It was a Canadian sketch comedy show in the same vein as Saturday Night Live. It got picked up by Nick after a couple seasons, who carried it all through the eighties and into the mid-nineties, when it was replaced by their original shows.
Despite not being one of Nick's original programs, it was highly influential in crafting the network's branding. For starters, YCDTOTV was one of the first major sketch comedy shows aimed at children. It paved the way for Roundhouse and All That (more on those later.) It was a very popular show and likely drew viewers to Nickelodeon. It also introduced the dirty, messy, gross-out theme that would become prevalent on Nick in the years to follow. The show frequently used the old pie-in-the-face gag, but more importantly, it also invented slime. Green slime was a staple of 90's Nick. Their game shows constantly had contestants getting it dumped on them. It was a recurring theme and frequently referenced all across the network, even getting it's own devoted TV show (Slime Time Live) in 2000.
The whole slime schtick got its start right here, as a recurring gag on You Can't Do That on Television. So whether you watched it or not, there is no denying the influence this show had on the network in the years to come.
While we're on the topic, I might as well touch on Roundhouse. That's another sketch comedy show that I see a lot of people talking about but never actually saw myself. In fact, I barely knew it existed. That kind of perplexes me, as it aired from 92-96, so I should have at least been aware of it. Reading up on the show for this blog, I can see why it didn't last. I apologize to anybody who liked it, but it seems like it sucked pretty hard. It was a minimalist sketch comedy show with very few props and a lot of music and dancing. It had a plot that centered around a family, and while there were jokes, there was also lessons to be had. Don't do drugs, love your family, that kind of happy-go-lucky glurge that we didn't like. Add to that, halfway through its run, Nick started airing All That. There was no way the corny, prop-less, unfunny Roundhouse could compete with it, so I think it's no surprise that it got overshadowed and forgotten pretty quickly.
Not every Nick show to come out of the era was something I liked. I watched pretty much every Nick show at one point or another depending on what else was on (YCDTOTV and Roundhouse being exceptions) but not all of them were quite so legendary in my mind. In the recent news about all this Nick stuff, one name I see getting tossed around a lot is Hey Dude.
Hey Dude was a live action sitcom/drama that actually predates Clarissa (I apologize for jumping around in chronology) about a bunch of teenagers that go to work on a dude ranch. Darma and hijinx ensue. Like many of these old shows, the thing I remember the most is the opening title. It began with a guy with a really low voice going "heeeeeey duuuuude," and the rest of the sequence was a big spinning horseshoe that showed the actors in the middle of it. I barely watched it, because I didn't like it. I'm sure there was humor in there, but it tried to be a little more mature and have some drama in there as well, appealing to the Saved by the Bell demographic. The one episode I remember the most is one where three of the characters were trapped in a well or a cave or something and had to ration the water in their only canteen. It tried to be tense and dramatic. Maybe it's because it was meant for tweens and teens at a time when I was barely in elementary school, maybe it was the "western" theme that didn't really have any real westen excitement, maybe it was the lack of comedy. For whatever reason, I always thought it was bland as balls.
Hey Dude's partner in terms of fan demand is Salute Your Shorts, a significant improvement over the former. Salute your shorts took place at summer camp, following a bunch of teenagers as they cause mischief, to the chagrin of their try-hard camp counselor. The counselor's name was Ug, and the most memorable of the campers was Budnick. As a kid I thought it was Buttnick. He was the bully of the group, the smart alec, he was pretty much the leader despite being a manipulative jerk. I don't remember the other characters' names, though each one had some kind of cliched personality quirk (the tom girl, the dumb guy, the hippie, etc.) Plots involved them doing stuff. Despite the nature of the show, their exploits rarely had anything to do with camping. They often had a lot to do with hijinx, however. The tone and characters are pretty well summed up in the opening, which is pretty awesome actually:
The tone was my primary complaint with the show. I did like it, it was enjoyable to watch, but I always felt kind of morally conflicted about it. To put it bluntly, these kids were assholes. Buttnick was the worst but by no means the only, and I think he sums up my feelings toward the show as a whole. He was my favorite character and was really cool, but in real life I would have been terrified of him. The show tried to make Ug, whose status as the authority made him the antagonist, into an uptight prick so that we would hate him. It kind of worked, but not well enough. Even as a kid I recognized that he was just trying to keep a bunch of troublemakers in line while they blatantly disregarded the rules and acted like total jackasses.
The kids had a "prank" that they would pull called the Awful Waffle. Basically, they pinned the victim to a table, lifted up his shirt, and poured chocolate syrup all over his belly. I remember one episode where they did it to some poor kid who was just a nameless background character. I was actually disgusted by that. A couple of the episodes I remember involve the campers trying to win a trivia contest and the only person who knew the answer to the question was Ug, so he held it over their head for being such jerks to him. (I think the question was "what color is a giraffe's tongue?" or something.) Another involved a little girl coming to camp as a guest and being a total prick, but playing up the "cute little girl" card to get away with it. It got the point where even Buttnick tried to tell her to lay off.
It seemed to rely too heavily on the idea that breaking rules is cool, and pushed it too far. I still liked it despite being crude, even if it made me feel a little dirty for doing so. I would later recognize Buttnick's actor as playing John Connor's friend at the beginning of Terminator 2. I also found out just now that he did the voice of Montana Max in Tiny Toons. Then there's the children's program at my church, which runs a branch of a program called Awana. I enjoy volunteering there, but every time somebody mentions the name, I can't help singing to myself, "Camp Anawana, we hold you in our hearts..."
In reading up for this post, I stumbled on another show that I used to watch that I never even realized was on Nick. It was a sitcom called My Brother and Me, and apparently not many people remember it. I actually remember it quite well, and really enjoyed it, so I have no idea why I forgot it was from Nick. It was a typical kids sitcom, starring a tween boy named Alfie and his best friend Goo. Alfie had an annoying younger brother named Deedee who he frequently came into conflict with. There was also an older sister named Melanie that Goo had a crush on, and the parents who were always mildly embarassing but had a good lesson to teach. In a lot of ways, the cast, chemistry, and character dynamics characters reminds me a lot of a later nineties sitcom, Disney's Smart Guy.
The show tried to be more urban than its contemporaries, with an almost entirely black cast, and music that sounded like the beats from rap songs. That was pretty much where it ended, though, The plots were all pretty much standard far, Alfie and Goo trying to be cool while dealing with the family. The whole tone gets summed up pretty well in the opening credits. It's the characters playing around in front of white background while interacting with the graphics and names. If that sounds familiar, it's because it's basically a hip-hop version of Clarissa's opening. Actually, now that I think about it, that's also the same set-up for Doug's opening sequence. I guess somebody at Nick really liked that.
A couple other things that stand out about the show: Alfie had a Game Gear. That was awesome. It wasn't unheard of to see video game products in a show at the time, but they were almost universally Nintendo related. (Not that I'm complaining, I love Nintendo). I also had a Game Gear, though, a sadly overlooked handheld, and loved seeing it on TV. It wasn't prominently featured, but you'd occasionally see Alfie pick it up for a couple seconds. I always wondered what game he was playing. Comparing it to my own games, it had to be Sonic, as that was the only game I could think of that could be enjoyed in such a short time but was still popular enough to be owned. He probably wasn't playing anything.
You know that cheerleading-type chant that goes "U-G-L-Y, you ain't got no alibi, you ugly"? My Brother and Me was the first time I ever heard that. It was from a gag where the sister and her friend are practicing it in the living room. The sister leaves, and there's a knock at the door, so the friend goes to answer. It's Goo, and she immediately repeats the chant at him. I thought that was hillarious.
The episode I remember most was one where the guys try out for the school play of Robin Hood. Alfie gets the lead role but it becomes a whole dramatic thing when Alfie has to wear tights because of his costume. Something very similar happened in an episode of Doug, so that's two things the shows had in common. Or maybe somebody on Nickelodeon's writing staff had a tights fetish. Not that there's anything wrong with that ;-)
In the middle of the decade, Nick decided to boost their catalogue of comedy, game shows, and cartoons with a few high-concept genre shows. These were often more serious in nature, and most of them were named after the main character and their predicament. I also hardly watched any of them. The show to kick it off was 1994's The Secret World of Alex Mack. That was a very well recieved show that maintains a cult following to this day. It's not hard to see why when you look at it.
Alex Mack was a girl who always wore a hat. She went to school, had an older sister that she didn't always get along with, a couple rivals at school, and generally lived her life as any normal teenage girl would. Except for the fact that she was in an accident where she was given super powers from a mysterious chemical and was now in hiding from the government or the company that made it or something. I don't know the extent of her powers but the ones they showed off the most were telekinesis or her ability to turn into a puddle like the bad buy from Terminator 2. That's the second T2 reference I've made in three paragraphs.
I can't say a whole lot about Alex Mack because I only ever saw a couple episodes of the show, despite it being pretty popular and getting a lot of play on Nickelodeon. This might be where I saw I didn't like it, but honestly, I have no idea why I didn't watch it more often. It was pretty well done by most accounts and the premise was somethign right up my alley. You'd think I would hav eaten it up. Researching and writing about it now has me legitimately curious, and I want to check it out now. Maybe it will get some air time on The Splat and I'll be able to rediscover something I missed out on the first time around.
Chronologically speaking, the next big sci-fi show to come was Space Cases. It was created by Peter David (Star Trek New Frontier author) and Bill Mumy (Will Robinson from Lost in Space) and thus the show shared a lot of similarities with creators' opi. It involved a group of space kids from space school who snuck onto a spaceship and blasted off into space thus getting them lost in space, and now they had to journey through space to get home from space. That's a lot of space, but there was an even bigger space where the budget was. The show was so cheaply produced that they often resorted to recylcing props from other shows, especially Are You Afraid of the Dark?
So anyway, the kids went on a quest to travel home, and along the way, they stopped at different planets and had adventures with alien races and stuff. Like Star Trek and Lost in Space. The thing that made me take notice of the show early on was that it featured actor Walter Emanuel Jones, aka Zack Taylor, aka the Black Power Ranger. That was awesome. Too bad it wasn't enough to hold my attention. I really couldn't get into Space Cases and never really liked it. The big wigs at Nick must have agreed, because it was cancelled halfway through its second season. It still has a fanbase, though, and reading through what some of the devoted watchers had to say, maybe it deserved a little more credit. Here's somebody who has an entire LiveJournal about the show, including this post which is a nice picture guide to the show. It does it way more credit than I ever could so if you're interested, read that instead of this. Apparently they also tried to feature the death of a main character at the end of the first season, but the producers put a stop to it because they didn't think kids could handle it. That's bullcrap.
Getting back to our "The Show Plot of Character's Name" genre-fiction shows, let's talk about The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo. As you might expect, this one was a mystery series. I watched it quite a bit and was rather fond of it. Shelby was a bright teen who was an intern at a police station. Or or janitor. Or maybe it was some kind of job shadowing program? I don't know. For some reason, she worked at a police station despite still being in high school. Her boss was a detective, and she was frequently nosing around and trying to help out with his cases despite frequent warnings to back off, and the fact that she was often put in danger. She had two best friends who helped her out, and her grandfather was Pat Morita. This was the first major role I had seen him in. I still identify him with it. While most people might say "hey, that guy's the trainer from karate kid!" my mind still goes to "hey, he's Shelby Woo's grandfather!"
One day I was watching Snick (the Saturday night programming block) when a weird advertisement popped up. It started like any other commercial for a Nick show, one I'd seen a million times, when part way through, some kind of apce thing would fly across the screen and a voiceover would say "something strange is coming." I thought that was a really creative way to advertise. The "strange" thing ended up being a new show: The Journey of Allen Strange. If Space Cases was Nickelodeon's Star Trek, then Allen Strange was Nick's ET. It was about an alien child who got stranded on Earth when his ship visited our planet. He got taken in by a small town middle class American family, transformed himself into a black kid, and spent his days trying to fit in like a normal teenager while keeping his powers secret and trying to hide from the government.
It was generally a lighter show that tried to inject some serious stuff once in a while. Your mileage may vary on how well that succeeded. I was excited for the show when it first came out but lost interest relatively quickly, still watching it when nothing else was on but really I could just take it or leave it. The thing that stays with me the most was a sub-plot involving a mannequin. At one point, there's an episode where Allen's teacher needs to have a meeting with his father, but of course said father doesn't exist. You know the set-up from a million other shows. So to get Allen a dad, the cast gets a mannequin and Allen uses his powers to bring it life. Mannequin-dad then became a recurring character. The big moment for me was in a later episode (it might have even been the series finale) when Allen thinks he's going to get to go home. There is a scene where Allen says goodbye to his "dad," still in mannequin form. After he walks away, the shot lingers on the mannequin as a single tear rolls down its cheek. In retrospect, that was pretty corny. At the time, it freaked me out. If you've read one of my blogs in the past, you may know that I had a phobia of the supernatural as a kid, spurred on by shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings. As luck would have it, I had recently watched a show about crying statues. Like, Virgin Maries with tears of blood and whatnot. That shot of the crying mannequin scared me senseless.
That's not all of the live action shows that Nickelodeon brought to us as kids. Along with their game shows and toons, they delivered a lot of potential entertainment to us kids. Some of it wasn't quite so good, some of it was awesome. The effort, though, is unquestionable. Some of them have stayed with me, some haven't. Either way, all these years later, I'm grateful to Nick for...
Aren't I missing something here?
Why actually, yes, yes I am. If you're familiar with nineties Nick, then there is a obviously a gaping whole in this article. There are four shows in particular that everyone remembers. They were the possibly the best and Nick had to offer, and made a huge impact on anyone who was a fan of the network in those years. Nickelodeon's Elite Four, so to speak. The reason I haven't named them here is because I have so much to say about each of them that I could write an entire post on each one individually. This articles has already rambled on enough as is. So I'm saving them for there own. Tune in next time when I'll be looking at the big four of Nickelodeon's live action shows.