Pop Capsule: A Look Back at Nicktoons

TV Pop Culture News

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Welcome to the first installment of Pop Capsule. What is Pop Capsule you ask? Well, Pop Capsule is where we look at events, television, and so on from Pop Culture, and bathe in the nostalgia, both good and bad. Whether it’s a video game, sitcom, drama, or award show, there is always something in Pop Culture that sticks in our mind. Careers are made by moments, and moments are defined by their depth and meaning. Consider this a celebration of entertainment, and join us as we look back and bask in all of the glory that is Pop Culture. Before you take that first step, keep in mind that what you are about to read are my own personal opinions, and just a perspective of one viewer.

Back in my childhood, I remember waking up and turning on the television to see what cartoon was coming up next. There were the classics, such as Scooby Doo, The Flintstones, and The Jetsons that flooded syndication in the States on nearly every channel, and there were the new ideas that at the time trying to take kids in a different direction, producing meaningful television moments out of goofy looking characters that adults never understood. I have grew up a lot I guess, as I feel this generation is all about random comedy. There is no substance – replaced with a quick laugh so merchandise can be sold and kids could remember “Hey mom! That guy on that toy made me laugh! Buy it for me NOW!!”.

I am officially “that old guy” at 27, I suppose.

We have fallen a long way in terms of quality, so I think now is a good of time as any than to look back at what made those older cartoons so great, starting at the place where a kid was in paradise.

Nicktoons, I am speaking about you here.

They’re not just cartoons, they’re NICKTOONS! That was the marketing gimmick that Nickelodeon used to capture an entire generation. It was true though, as the first decade of Nicktoons came with writing that was sharp as a tack, yet still kept kids involved long enough to get through two twelve minute sequences of story. Why is it that Nickelodeon made several attempts to weed out this generation though? If you have noticed, Nick has brought back a lot of blocks to appease the older crowd who miss their favorite TV shows, but on the main network, once giants in the animation industry have disappeared completely without much fanfare. Now we get these odd and out of place spin-offs of Dreamworks films such as The Penguins of Madagascar. Its definitely a sad turn of events, but things change – even if it happens to be for the worse.

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But we’re not dwelling on the bad though, we are focusing on the good that made these shows fantastic. If you even mention the 90’s cartoons, no other name stands in the minds more of the public than Rugrats. It doesn’t matter what kind of television show or genre you’re in, if there is an ensemble that play off each other’s chemistry, its going to work. This also goes for babies. Tommy Pickles was the main baby, Chuckie Finster filled the role of his best friend, and also had a personality that was completely opposite of Tommy. While Tommy was brave and loved adventure, Chuckie was terrified of the world. Phil and Lil came in as the two neutral parties for the group, and just tagged along, occasionally pulling the main focus away to give the audience something different to relate to. Angelica was the bully or antagonist, if you will – invoking fear and even some innocent fear from the four infants – while Susie served as a more gentle child of the same age, acting as the voice of reason.
That may sound like a deep analysis, but truthfully, Rugrats was a lot deeper than most might remember. At its best, Rugrats took the most common situations and made them entertaining.

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Remember Tommy’s first trip to an ATM, where he thought M&M’s would pour out of the machine? How about when the babies went to their first movie, or when Chuckie got his first haircut. Rugrats at its core wasn’t about babies, it was about discovery. During the first few seasons, the show was truly interesting as it gave kids a new perspective of situations they had already went through. It was innocence in its purest form, where the vulnerability of a small cast played a huge role in making us care for even the most mundane of situations. That wasn’t the only reason to be captivated by this little show, however. The adults were almost as fun to watch as the kids. Imagine you are in your late-twenties to early thirties and have neighbors going through the same thing you are, as you all have kids in the same age range. Stu Pickles, Tommy’s dad, was the most interesting of this lot as he played a dad that still had a dream. Stu wanted to be an inventor but made sure his family was taken care of first, and not having a job because of this dream often was a background plot of a lot of the earlier episodes. Drew, Stu’s brother had already settled down with his wife, but good ol’ Didi and Stu refused to, with Didi focusing on further education and setting up a future and Stu constantly making toys to appease his ideals that you don’t have to grow up – even if life tells you to. Of course these two were more miserable than the rest, but that hardship was overshadowed by the joy they had of simply having a son.

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As a comedic twist, the other adults came off as stereotypical faces of society. Betty DeVille was tough as nails and had a husband Howard that was weak as a sheet of paper. And then you had Charles Finster. About a year before the show started, Charles lost his wife and had to raise his son alone. Take away the silly hair and constant geekiness of this man, and you have someone who was in a lot of pain, relying on moving forward to keep going. Charles idolized Chuckie and the feeling was mutual, leading to a lot of touching moments for the two. Rugrats taught me about life, discovery, death, and that adults do not have to cave into the ideal image of adults to make it. You can be “growed-up” without having a plan, and if its in the cards, you can have someone to go through the ride with you. I have trouble watching the latter episodes however, as just as quick as it arrived, Rugrats lost its luster later on. No, it wasn’t Dil, as the movie was perfectly fine and the stories still remained loyal to the original concept. It was that the focus left the adults and focused on imagination instead of reality.

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Rugrats went from being endearing to a marketing tool, and was drained of charm when the ideas were gone. I guess you could say it grew up before the audience could have a chance to, with the parents all finding success and settling in one spot to become the very cogs of society that they were originally against. That and Taffy. No one wants to see Amanda Bynes shoehorned into a show just because she was the then face of the network. Stick to the first five or six seasons of this classic show if you want a good watch, and leave the rest (including that terrible “All Grown Up” spin-off) alone.

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Rugrats was not the only great show on the network, as Doug was just as special. Doug came mildly before Rugrats and stands as the first ever Nicktoon. Doug was an 11 year old that went through stuff. I really cannot sum it up in any better way. Doug had a dog, he wasn’t rich, he wasn’t popular. He was plain, and that made him easy to relate to for the general audience of kids. Doug wants a pair of shoes. Doug has a crush. Doug is nervous about getting a haircut. Much like Rugrats, Doug was all about discovery, but through the eyes of someone who was getting ready to be an adult. I would say the best way to describe this show is watching someone find creative ways to obtain their goals. I actually followed the same path as this cartoon when I got to Doug’s age several times. If I wanted to go to the movies, I would take a rake and go door to door trying to offer my services. Looking back, I think I did a terrible job, but I earned my money and remember feeling really proud of anything I obtained through by my own means.

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Unlike Rugrats, Doug did not focus at all on the adults, as there was no reason. We were in a complete middle ground here with a cast of 11 to 12 year olds, all trying to find ways to kill time. There is even an episode about video game addiction of sorts in this series that I find very ironic as it shows just how much we miss out on life and maintaining relationships when we are distracted by something outside of reality. I am not disrespecting any of my fellow gamers out there as I do it too, but think about the last time you went out with friends and everyone just stayed on their cell phones as if they were a shield, far too distracted to carry on any kind of meaningful conversation. Doug was life at its cruelest and slapped viewers in the face with what they were in store for as they became older. Life doesn’t always go your way so sometimes you have to make your own solution, and while Doug usually was a bit of a downer to watch, his visions of his own greatness made us want Quail-Man to save the day or Smash Adams to pass an intimidating exam. The lesson of the day? You don’t always get what you want, but you’re always allowed to dream. Doug was fantastic because it relished in being over-the-top with ordinary life.

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Aaahh!!! Real Monsters came off as the black sheep of Nickelodeon’s first cartoon line-up. People are going to want me to mention the other cartoon – Ren & Stimpy, as some animated series that was ahead of its time because it was perverse. Sorry reader, Ren & Stimpy was stupid television and has not held up well because of it. You can only show cartoon ass-crack for so long before it loses its edge and while I am sure many were entertained, I have never and will never be a fan of the dog and cat who defined what boogers were in the 90’s. Continuing on, let’s move back to the monsters, shall we? This was a brilliant cartoon, featuring three young monsters who were going to a school to learn how to scare humans. Every episode usually involved one scare and the monsters getting caught up in a bad situation before coming up with a scheme to get out of danger and back in their seats at class in time. After that harsh criticism of Ren & Stimpy and me now trying to put over such an odd universe here, I can understand why some could argue that this too was a brainless, gross-out comedy for kids, but in fact, it wasn’t.

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Real Monsters had Ickis as the main, more relatable (if that can be possible) of the trio, who was living in the shadow of his father who happened to be a legend in their little world in the city dump. Oblina was the best at scaring, and was born with a silver spoon – but would always hang out with the lower card of the lot as she simply did not want to be defined by her parent’s human toenails (which were cash to monsters) and wanted to make her own way into the history books. Krumm smelled. Yep, not a lot to say there, as this monster was usually just happy being mediocre, and this trait honestly made him the most endearing as his confidence was still on point despite being below average. The Gromble was the puzzle piece that made the show work, as this cross-dressing, sophisticated. and equally temperamental adviser was the only adult that truly mattered in the program, playing the role of leader and antagonist at the same time. The monsters would do anything to earn respect of The Gromble, and would eventually become a trustworthy group to run errands for the headmaster, with quite a bit of growth seen during the series run.

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Sure, the show had humor and the characters definitely evolved over time, proving itself as an entertaining show, but there was a lot more reasons why this cartoon was so cutting edge. Aaahh!!! Real Monsters was another species’ perspective of all of us, as humans. There were very few humans who became more than one-note characters on this show, but each little outing displayed us at our absolute worse, showing this little race that we were mostly too selfish and stupid to actually be worthy of any meaningful interaction. There is one clever piece of dialogue that sticks in my head from my last viewing of the series as a whole, and it comes from The Gromble, summing up this series perfectly:

The Gromble: Do you know what we call those who are afraid of that which they don’t understand?!

Oblina: Humans.

That exchange says a lot right there, as if we actually did take the time to educate ourselves about our fears, maybe we would be better for it. In terms of originality, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters was one of the finest cartoons Nickelodeon has ever featured, full to wit, humor, and sarcasm. It also help that unlike Doug and Rugrats, Real Monsters knew when it was done and ended at 50 episodes.

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Years moved on, and so did the selection of Nicktoons that kids were offered. With Doug now on Disney, Craig Bartlett introduced viewers to a boy by the name of Arnold who lived in a big city, and appreciated everything that the other kids took for granted. I remember when I first saw Hey Arnold, and I was not impressed. The characters compared to Doug looked funky and while colorful, the world seemed to be unappealing. It took some time, but this little toon wound up being my absolute favorite from the network, and one that I will quickly take up for during any debate of the greatest of all time.

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Arnold was your typical oddball kid, who didn’t have a mom or a dad, and lived at with his grandparents at a boarding house in the middle of the city. The boarders were made up of a motley crew as well, with Oscar being the jobless low-life who was married to a miserable wife, a small, cheerful little man who was into demolition, a Vietnamese guy named Mr. Nguyen that was a lonely man in America, and a ton of animals. It was one of the first shows made for kids that didn’t focus on imagination and hope, but instead treated the viewers to life and making the most of it. Sort of anyway, I certainly don’t want to make it out like these characters were inspirational, as most were actually terrible people. But they were REAL. Take a second to remember this one with me. Helga was in love with Arnold but was the cruelest kid on the show to Arnold – who was as good as gold when it came to “doing the right thing”. Her mom was an alcoholic (and this would even be obvious to most kids) while her dad was an asshole businessman who compared a nine year old’s life to her more successful older sister. When you watched this show as a kid you think “man, she is a bitch”, but after living life and getting older, can’t you look at this series now and point out how many of you were or knew of a Helga?

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Hey Arnold was reality in an animated form. It was about kids who were in an environment that was not kid-friendly, but they still managed to be kids in the process. This was a show that displayed heroes walking off sets and crushing their fans hearts to pieces. It was a show where every adult seemingly gave up but kept going due to one kid’s aspirations for greatness. Sure, it was a funny show to watch for kids as the large cast were relatable, but if you go back and watch it as an adult you quickly see it from a new perspective.

Arnold was the centerpiece of the show and constantly would proclaim “we can make it happen” (not in those words every time, mind you) when met with an obstacle of some sort – despite the lack of resources and funds for him and his group of friends. The show didn’t just follow Arnold though, as every one of the main ensemble got multiple dedicated episodes, such as Phoebe, who got to meet her favorite pop-star Ronnie Matthews only to be let down that he was a fake goof, or Rhonda Wellington Llyod, who was rich and into material things – once losing it all and having to live in poverty in Arnold’s very boarding house. These characters were rich and if you didn’t know one by watching one 12 minute story, you would come to a full understanding of their identity – kids or not – by the end of the 100th and final episode.

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There has been only one cartoon ever to make me tear up as an adult, and that is this show due to its Christmas episode.

17 Year Old Spoiler Warning, I guess?

This tale featured Helga wanting and begging her parents consistently for a pair of hard to get snow boots, coveting every kid on the street instead of showing generosity during the holiday season. Over at the boarding house, the often shy and somewhat grouchy Mr. Nguyen became mysteriously silent, only for Arnold to find out that he had to give away his child years prior so she would not be a victim of the Vietnam War. You see, when Mr. Nguyen finally got to America, his child had been adopted already and was impossible to find, leaving this lonely soul with only a sliver of hope that he would ever see his daughter’s face again. Arnold then makes it his mission for Christmas to do everything in his power to find Mr. Nguyen’s daughter and reunite them for at least the day, with the episode following Arnold and Gerald trying to earn money to pay for a private investigator who will only do a search if his trade of a completed bill of Christmas Shopping can be completed on Christmas Eve (he should have started in July). The catch? A pair of those hard to get and sold out snow boots are on the list, and without getting that present, the private investigator will not even blink at the concept of fulfillment of the favor for the duo. Helga opens her gift on Christmas Eve and gets what she always wanted, remembering an encounter from Arnold that occured earlier in the day (while she gawked in store windows), when he was trying to get everything on his list. Helga then does some debating before the scene of Arnold waking up absolutely crushed plays out, watching Mr. Nguyen stare outside in sorrow. Then the door opens, and in walks his now-grown daughter. Everyone in the room is crying from happiness, including Mr. Nguyen and Helga, who is watching from the outside, wiping away a tear as she softly states “Merry Christmas, Arnold”. A kids show, folks.

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I know that was a long synopsis, but I cannot think of a more human show than Hey Arnold when it comes to animation, and the fact that I can remember how it plays out perfectly shows how much it stuck as a kid and an adult. I don’t need define depth as while it sure was fun watching SpongeBob teach fish about Christmas and Timmy Turner wish for presents out the ass, Hey Arnold made me care about characters as if they were real. Sure, I want to celebrate Nicktoons for their greatness, but I also want to prove how much heart they had, with Hey Arnold’s writing leading the way for some of the most memorable moments of television during my own childhood.

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I didn’t make mention of other greats. I loved Rocko’s Modern Life, The Wild Thornberry’s, SpongeBob, and even the Fairly Odd Parents, to which I still enjoy today. However, the selections I spoke of are a bit different, as I watch them today and don’t just see happy characters in wacky little adventures. Instead, I see messages that could be read by adults but still relevant to kids at that time. Writing with meaning. Sure, Rocko fans will quickly say “That show had hidden innuendo on the walls and now I get it” and others did that as well, but again, seeing dirty words doesn’t make your show timeless, it makes your product cheap and tacky – to be honest. To animators of today, don’t follow the route of Rocko, even though it is still a hilarious cartoon. These are kids you are marketing to, and if you want for your show to be passed down to the next generation, don’t rely on hidden jokes that will be interpreted as dirty later as that is giving adolescent comedy to nothing more than a different group of adolescents. Make them get your writing by writing your cartoon as if you were speaking to an adult and not a thirteen year old who spends all day watching Youtube clips of Minecraft remixes.

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I see people who are very caught up in Adventure Time and the likes of Regular Show, and that’s fine as those shows are this generation’s versions of my own favorites in terms of popularity alone. I think they are great for their audience, but I don’t see them lasting in fanfare for decades like the first couple sets of Nicktoons. Random comedy is only funny for so long before you realize you’re only getting the laugh without any substance (much like Family Guy), and I would bet money that many are going to cringe as an adult thinking you watched something so terribly childish (and hello again Ren & Stimpy). I may be taken as an arrogant asshat for that statement and truly, I mean no ill will to the fantastic teams that have went for their dreams and created these modern animations.

My point however is that when you give these characters dialogue and make them come to life, make them absurd, make them as crude as you want and let every creative thought in your head emerge, but most of all, make them timeless and lace interactions with meaning from life experience. A cloud that has “D-I-C-K” hidden in its lines will get a chuckle, but a strong message about morality iced on top can last a lifetime.

Not just Cartoons. They’re Nicktoons.

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  • Cool read Dustin, I basically grew up on Nickelodeon I loved it. First website I went on when we got Internet ever was the Nickelodeon Treehouse lol

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