This episode of the podcast made me feel like a grouch.
Revisiting Doug and Rugrats, a nagging question kept coming to mind: “Why am I watching this?” I’m generally down to watch anything for the podcast — often, I watch too much — because I find that even bad entertainment tends to enlighten about the topic at hand, and the era it was made in.
I didn’t find that particularly true of the Nicktoons. You can find some Simpsons influences in Doug and Rugrats — the strangely hued characters in the former, or the depictions of middle class domestic life in the latter — but neither feels particularly rooted in the 1990s. Doug, in particular, feels awfully retro with its good-hearted protagonist, who is about as far from Bart Simpson as you can get. As my co-hosts pointed out, Doug feels more akin to Leave It To Beaver or The Wonder Years than other notable animated series from the 90s. Some of its longest-running gags are a parody of the Beatles and Doug’s hippy-dippy beatnik sister Judy. Doug wears its Peanuts influence on its sweater-vested sleeve, which makes it timeless — perhaps to the point of irrelevance.
Rugrats feels a little more modern, by which I mean that it is more reminiscent of the 1970s than the 1950s. Stu and Didi Pickles’ laissez-faire approach to parenting makes more sense if you assume that all the adults are off at key parties while their babies are having adventures. Dr. Lipschitz, the child-rearing guru, is clearly inspired by the bygone era of Dr. Spock. Both Doug and Rugrats have plenty of pop culture-influenced gags, but these, too, are rather timeless, rarely if ever directly topical to the 90s. There’s something refreshing about this series’ lack of interest in being hip or cutting edge. But it also made them less interesting for me to return to. Neither Doug nor Rugrats holds a particularly momentous place in the zeitgeist, outside of the 90s kid nostalgia bubble, and neither was particularly influential on other children’s TV series, as far as I can tell. They served as passable entertainment when I was a certain age, but couldn’t quite serve the same purpose for me as an adult. My biggest revelation from this episode of the podcast was, Wow, what a surprise — I’m too old for Nickelodeon.
Oops… did I forget Ren & Stimpy?
Nothing I said about Doug or Rugrats pertains to Ren & Stimpy, which feels very 90s, very culturally significant, and very, very influential on subsequent animated programming. I never liked Ren & Stimpy and I still don’t. I can only watch about four minutes before I must turn it off to preserve my sanity. But its fingerprints are all over SpongeBob SquarePants, Adult Swim, and virtually every other animated series that adults devour as ravenously as kids.
I admire these Nicktoons for carving out their own space in children’s entertainment. That’s not easy to do in the shadow of Disney. Nickelodeon made a brand that kids loved for all the reasons I generally don’t enjoy children’s entertainment, and good for them, and good for the kids who enjoyed it. I sort of did, briefly, and then I grew up, and now that I’ve revisited it once, I probably never will again.
Though I will happily listen to the Doug theme song any day of the week. That is seriously one of the best TV jingles of all time.