Thanks to advents in DVR technology, it’s been a long time since I watched a full programming block when it actually airs. At least, it had been a long time. Since TeenNick started its nightly “The ‘90s Are All That” broadcasts, I now feel compelled to watch two hours' worth of Nickelodeon classics—All That, Kenan & Kel, Clarissa Explains It All, and Doug—each night. The nostalgia factor is simply too high to ignore.
But how do these shows hold up? After a few weeks of regular viewing, I feel qualified to weigh in.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: No, the show's not really very funny. I don’t think I’ve laughed once while re-watching All That, which I remember being riotously entertaining as a kid. That’s okay, though—revisiting the sketches that delighted me in elementary school is pleasurable enough to keep me tuning in. I also love All That’s mere existence; it was basically Saturday Night Live for young people, complete with recurring characters, musical guests, and the occasional political jab.
My favorite All That sketches are its most absurd, because those seem to really tap into the childish mentality that made the series unique. A librarian who yells at everyone to be quiet while making a lot of noise herself? Meh. But two self-professed chefs who bathe in chocolate? I will watch that. I will watch that so hard. It’s also worth noting that Lori Beth Denberg’s pithy Vital Information for Your Everyday Life segment was basically proto-Twitter. Think about it!
Like All That, Kenan & Kel doesn’t hold up quite as well as I’d hoped. However, it’s nice to see Kenan Thompson featured so prominently long before he joined the cast of—and we’re coming full circle here—Saturday Night Live. While the episodes aren’t particularly fresh or funny, the nostalgia factor is high. Credit goes to Kenan & Kel’s trademark repetition. You hear “I dropped the screw in the tuna” enough and it sticks in your brain for life.
It’s also interesting to realize how closely Kenan & Kel modeled itself after zany ‘80s sitcoms. Each story is broad and over-the-top. There is often a case of mistaken identity or a serious misunderstanding. Things quickly spiral out of control. Kenan and Kel don’t really act like teenagers, but they act like classic sitcom characters, and there is something refreshing about that. The show also gets bonus points for rarely solving a conflict by the end of an episode. It’s surprisingly dark!
At last, a show that is actually as good as I remember! Or perhaps my lifelong devotion to Clarissa Explains It All is just too much to overcome. Regardless of whether I’m being rational, I love re-watching this show, which—in my mind—captures the life of a teenager better than most of the programming on today. Unlike Kenan and Kel's, Clarissa’s problems were grounded in reality: blind dates, sibling rivalry, and your best friend moving away because his mom is retiring from the roller derby circuit. (Okay, mostly grounded in reality.)
Maybe I’m just getting old, but man, Clarissa was cool in a way today’s TV teens aren’t. She wasn’t an outcast, but she wasn’t part of the “in crowd” either. She just didn’t care. Like iCarly, Clarissa breaks the fourth wall. Our hero isn't talking to an audience of adoring fans, though—she’s just explaining it all to us. For those who didn't host a popular web show growing up (cough, cough, Carly), Clarissa remains a highly relatable character, sharing the details of her sometimes quirky, often mundane life.
Oh, Doug. I didn’t realize the affection I have for this series until I started watching it again. Despite his fanciful imagination and penchant for creating (much cooler) versions of himself, Doug is aggressively average. He is even more grounded than Clarissa, living the kind of drab, vaguely angsty life that most of us experienced in middle school. Doug is tame and colorful enough to appeal to young people, but it has tremendous re-watch value because it feels like such an honest depiction of tween life.
Plus, this was a time before the concept of “tween” existed. There is an innocence to Doug that you can’t find anymore, precisely because no one gave a crap about 11-year-olds when the series aired—they weren’t being marketed to, and they certainly didn’t exert much control over contemporary trends. Doug is so self-contained: the town, the music, the movies—it’s all fiction. And it’s a comforting world to slip back into after all these years.
Have you been re-watching any of these shows? How do YOU think they hold up?