I don’t know a lot about the poet Walt Whitman. Being an English Major, I probably know more than the average man, but I am only really familiar with two of his works. The first is the excerpt from Leaves of Grass made famous by Breaking Bad (which is probably the extent of most people’s knowledge of Mr. Whitman). The second is a poem of his called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, in which he muses about the transcendental nature of shared human experience. He realizes as he makes the crossing on the ferry that many people before him have looked at the same things and thought the same thoughts during their journey across the river. Many people after him will do the same.
I’ve never felt this feeling as strongly as I have since I started going to college. Through social media, I can see classes of young people going through the same shared experience. Two years ago I followed along as those who graduated a year before me posted their senior pictures, declared their college departure, shared college wisdom, complained about finals, and so on and so forth. Then my classmates and I did the same. And now the next class follows along.
I have also felt this transcendentalism when discussing childhood with new acquaintances at school. I found out that other kids had many of the same experiences as I did, and I noticed in particular how many kids watched the same shows that I watched as a kid. Now we sometimes enjoy them again as young adults, which is how you get eight young men in a living room watching Land Before Time.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway is the fact that almost everyone watched the television channel Nickelodeon as a child. A lot. Often paired with Nickelodeon is Disney, which my classmates and I also watched plenty of. And, if my intuition serves, kids are still watching heavy amounts of these channels today. The difference is the shows kids are watching today are nonsense, and the shows my friends and I watched taught kids how to laugh, have an imagination, and be a good kid all at the same time. You may scoff at the notion, but there are few factors in childhood that have as much dominance as the television kids are viewing, and so it follows that kids are raised by Nickelodeon and Disney. Both have topped the lists of highest-rated cable channels.
I’ve been thinking recently about what used to make Nickelodeon special as I continue to watch what remains of the channel as a young adult who has made a habit of watching things and then contemplating them. I’ve also been thinking about the importance of this, in a world where it’s getting easier and easier for kids to be dumb and lazy (I have zero stats on this but you can just kind of tell, can’t you?). It’s also a world where former live-action stars have burned their kid-friendly banner in reprehensible fashion.
There’s a lot to get to in this topic, so I’ll break it up into headings to answer why I’m thinking about this, the Disney vs. Nickelodeon issue, what made Nickelodeon so good back then, and why it’s so weak now. Ultimately, there’s a story of how to make good children’s television and how that art has been lost. The implications? I’ll let you decide.
The Legend of Korra: Book II and a reminder of what was.
This past November, Nickelodeon wrapped up the second season of The Legend of Korra, a sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender. There’s plenty to say about that finale, the show in general, and its comparison to the original show. I think most fans agree that Korra is a fine show. The second season was better than the first, but neither season can quite compare to ATLA, which is one of the finest shows ever put on television. Unfortunately, I don’t think enough of my readers really care about ATLA or Korra, so discussing either one too much would probably be an even greater waste of time than this is.
Basically, what makes both shows good is the fact that they’re actual television shows, you know, like with a plot, character developments, and original ideas. Add in terrific animation, haunting and grandiose scores, expertly-crafted fight sequences, and humor, and you end up with works of art that both have some weight to them and are loads of fun. And that’s what Nickelodeon used to do. Their shows either meant something or were designed to be fun. Or both. The creators made shows that they thought were fun and kid appropriate, not shows that they thought kids might find fun that were parent-approved.
The final episodes of the second season of Korra were highly, highly ambitious. And, in fully old-school Nickelodeon fashion, the creators took on all the weight a story-arc of 14 unevenly paced episodes could handle and came through with a finale that was, although bizarre, really good. Although the epic-scale of the story was not handled as skilfully this time around as it was in ATLA, the producers of Korra created a show that looked like the product of artists who really cared about their product and wanted to make it their way regardless of how kids might receive it. And that’s a good thing. That’s how we get shows that kids and adults can enjoy, for some of the same reasons and for different ones as well. I was reminded watching Korra of the excellence Nickelodeon used to produce. And, while watching, I was reminded of how lazy writing abandoned hilarious shows like Catscratch, how an idiotic shift in tone destroyed SpongeBob SquarePants, and how we went from Eliza to Jamie Lynn Spears.
Nickelodeon vs. Disney
It’s important to understand what made Nickelodeon what it was. Partially, it was because it wasn’t Disney. Disney usually wins at whatever game it plays, and for years now Disney Channel has had a firm and consistent grip on the minds of America’s children. What made Nickelodeon work was the fact that it embraced the role of being the quirky little brother. In the 90’s, Nickelodeon was mainly comprised of game shows for kids, such as Legends of the Hidden Temple, and a few animated shows, of which the most popular was Rugrats. Into the late 90’s and the beginnings of SpongeBob SquarePants, Nickelodeon maintained this role as the cruder, more off-beat version of Disney.
Nickelodeon also showed its tendency for smart, thoughtful writing with early shows. Although Doug didn’t gain substantial popularity until it’s move to ABC, it showed many of the hallmarks of the Nickelodeon style. There was almost an element of PBS Kids in Nickelodeon, and although no shows were intentionally educational, they still had the kind of intellectual and creative components found in some of the popular shows airing on PBS. The early 2000’s established the difference in the channels. Disney looked good and gave the people what they thought they wanted. Nickelodeon accepted that they weren’t Disney and continued to write for themselves, not for the kids. While Disney continued to use good-enough formulas that kids were sure to like, Nickelodeon changed the ideas of kids programming with quirky, creative, smart shows.
The channels also tended towards certain medias. Disney made plenty of animated shows, and found some success with them, but always leaned towards live-action series and original movies. Nickelodeon, although adding more live-action series, remained focused on animated series. It’s important to know these differences in order to understand Nickelodeon’s grand demise. Because not only has Nickelodeon stopped doing what they used to do, but they also have started trying to do what Disney does. As a result, the channels are now only barely distinguishable.
The REAL Animation Domination
From the late 90’s through the 2000’s, Nickelodeon shows rose and fell in quality and popularity at different rates and across different years. Some built long and successful runs (Fairly OddParents) and others shined brightly for only a couple years (Catscratch). And, it’s important to note, not every show that’s been on Nickelodeon has been good. A lot of shows I won’t even mention. Each show had its strengths and weaknesses, and a show might come to an end for different reasons. Some lacked quality while others actually wrote in an end to the show. Across the board, successful shows succeeded when they followed their winning formula, which always included a mix of creativity, heart, well-written characters, consistent plots, big laughs, and the element of quirky intelligence. Let’s take a look at a few different shows. You’ll notice trends:
The Fairly OddParents is the third longest running Nickelodeon show (behind SpongeBob and Rugrats) for a reason. The show’s very concept allowed for unmatched creativity, as Timmy Turner’s two fairy godparents, Cosmo and Wanda, were able to grant his wishes, which were usually ridiculous and created a wild and whacky chain of events. This also created a consistent and reasonable plot, which usually consisted of Timmy wishing for a solution to his problems, finding initial success, creating a bigger problem, and then finding a way out of the problem that essentially brings everything back to normal. And no wish or problem was too big with fairy magic. No matter how bombastic the events were, the show gave itself the freedom to fix anything. The characters were brilliant, as the main character was an awkward ten-year old boy who still had an amount of swag and, despite the fact that he was the sympathetic character, had lots of moral growing to do and was kind of an idiot. The rest of the characters all had roles to play and were written consistently. The laughs focused mostly on Cosmo, who, along with Patrick Star (more on him later), are the best examples of the laugh character. Almost every single thing Cosmo says is meant to be funny, and most of it is funny thanks in part to brilliant voice acting. The show had plenty of heart, as Timmy was constantly learning lessons with his godparents, who, although they were basically replacement parents for his clueless biological ones, often moved him closer to his real parents. Timmy has the power of fairies, but more often than not it’s the lessons he learns from his misuse of magic that help him grow as a person. The show was also chuck full of intelligent, appropriate grown-up humor (a mafia fairy has a horse-head pillow). Fairly OddParents hasn’t fallen off too much, but the additions of Poof and Sparky were interesting character choices that might indicate the show is nearing a creative end.
Danny Phantom is another perfect example of Nickelodeon’s strengths. Danny is a superhero, but he’s also a regular kid with a nerd friend and a goth friend. His parents are basically idiots, although they are fiercely dedicated and loving. His powers come from the fact that he’s half ghost, and the ghost-zone and the phantoms that continually emerge from it give the show an endless supply of plots that have no creative ceiling due to the fact that we’re dealing with a world that doesn’t exist. The humor was consistent and more evenly spread from character to character, with a few especially focused on comedy. The show had plenty of heart, but also dealt with weightier topics, as Danny faced epic battles as the lone protector of his town from the ghost zone, all while battling his antithesis, Vlad, and learning what it means to become a responsible young adult and decent person. The burden that Danny faced was sometimes startlingly clear. The series also had a story-arc that continued throughout the show. Danny would learn new powers, meet new villains, and find new problems. The show ended in style with a television special that actually brought everything to a graceful close, and consequently it never faced a demise as it followed a consistent and winning formula throughout its existence.
The Wild Thornberrys couldn’t have possibly failed. A girl who can talk to animals? A hoity-toity pet chimp that’s more human than the wild-child adopted younger brother? A can-do mom, goofy dad, and drama queen older sister? And they all travel around the world to exotic locations to film wild animals? I guess that’s all you need to know. That and the fact that Eliza was not a princess. She was a ginger who wore her hair in a strange style. She had glasses and braces. She wasn’t all that girly. And no one cared.
Jimmy Neutron came into existence after a full-lenth feature film. And, unlike almost every single Nickelodeon series spinoff (and there have been a number) the show improved on the film. The show asked us to suspend our disbelief and let Jimmy’s giant head invent anything. Like Cosmo and Wanda’s magic, Jimmy’s brilliance actually ended up getting him into trouble, and he would have to end up using his genius to get himself and his friends out of difficult situations. Sometimes there was a lesson to be learned, and other times we just said, “Wow, that could have gone really badly.” His friends Carl and Sheen were terrific laugh men, and both his parents were really well-written. The show’s eventual fall came when the events got a little too over-the-top. Jimmy became almost a secret agent, and he was constantly saving the world and battling big-time villains. Jimmy Neutron succeeded for a long time because of its smart humor and imaginative events, but eventually it just ran its course.
Catscratch was basically abandoned by Nickelodeon. Its story really shows what happens when a partially-developed storyboard gets propelled through two years on pure Nickelodeon power. Here’s the setup: three talking cats inherit a millionaire’s wealth and estate. That’s all. Most of the important elements were missing from the show, and that’s why it just couldn’t last. The reason I remember it at all was because Gordon, Waffle, Mr. Blick, and their butler Hovis were just so freaking funny. But this is where we see why other shows make it. They have heart, compelling characters, and creative plots. Eventually you’ll run out of things for millionaire cats to do. The final pairing of episodes featured the brothers helping an alien race of slugs and then MMA fighting a giant duckling. Nickelodeon shows that succeeded use much more than humor to stay afloat. Funny as Catscratch was, there just wasn’t enough substance.
Drake and Josh is easily Nickelodeon’s greatest accomplishment in live-action television. And, as a testament to Nickelodeon’s excellence, it was as good as any live-action show Disney aired. Heart and humor carried the show to fame as two very different step-brothers go through their high school days together. Drake Bell and Josh Peck were pretty solid actors, and even passed off overacting pretty well. Their chemistry together was exceptional, and each was so in command of his character. Unlike many other teen comedies, Drake and Josh took place almost entirely outside of school. Instead of asking the same questions about growing up and surviving in school, the show stayed more general and looked at how two very different young men grow up and learn life lessons together. While looking more like a Disney Channel original series, it maintained the quirky, intelligent laughs as well as the slapstick.
SpongeBob SquarePants tells you basically everything you need to know about the rise and fall of Nickelodeon. From it’s beginning in 1999 up until The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie in November 2004, it was the best animated television series Nickelodeon, or anyone else, had to offer. Creativity was a breeze with a full society of ocean-dwelling creatures living on the seafloor. There were a host of well-crafted characters. The heart was mostly subtle, although sometimes clear as day, and was a continuing theme in the relationship between Squidward and SpongeBob. The writing was so intelligent and had so few wasted lines, most of them leaving you smiling until Patrick knocked you out with some of the funniest lines Nickelodeon ever produced. The humor was a type all its own. Elements of slapstick often took a secondary role to witty, off-beat dialogues and declarations. As a result, it is far and away the most quotable show in Nickelodeon’s history. The pre-movie seasons stayed consistent, as the plots remained inventive yet manageable. Then, starting with the movie, the series steadily headed into a tailspin. The good moments were fewer and good episodes were rare. Episodes declined further and further and attempts to bolster the show with specials failed miserably. I’m not alone on this. Maxie Zeus of Toon Zone said “it’s a disappointment to watch as the show becomes something it once wasn’t: Just another kid-pandering attention-waster.” Roy Hrab of DVD Verdict said “it makes me sad to think about how something so pleasurable has declined into something so tedious.” The newer episodes look, sound, and feel so different they might as well be a different show. Do kids still like it? Probably, but kids like a lot of dumb stuff. This goes back to the PBS Kids idea. When my generation watched Nickelodeon, we didn’t realize we were enjoying a show that was sort of making us smarter too. SpongeBob left behind everything that had made it so good. The quality of humor got lazy, the events got ridiculous, strange new characters were always appearing, Patrick wasn’t as funny, and the original characters weren’t as solidly written. SpongeBob was no longer the enthusiastic, lower-middle class young adult with a goofy best friend and a grumpy neighbor. He changed so much that some people thought he was supposed to be homosexual. Which isn’t necessarily a problem, as gay characters often work well on television, but that wasn’t SpongeBob. The old SpongeBob wasn’t so over-the-top. He was quite energetic and enthusiastic, but he was also hard-working and thoughtful (not to say gays aren’t hard-working and thoughtful. This has nothing to do with the quality of gay people or gay characters. It has everything to do with the fact that SpongeBob’s character changed dramatically and wasn’t as well-written as he once was). Instead of continuing to make brilliant, high-quality episodes, Nickelodeon opted to produce an artificial show that continues to make them millions of dollars on the power of the franchise name alone. They sold out on SpongeBob.
So you can see the trends. Idiot fathers is one, but that’s not one of the contributing factors in the common successes and failures of these shows. What you see in all these shows is creativity, intelligence, originality, and quality. No more.
Nickelodeon has now opted to go the Disney route. Now they air a collection of kids-only cartoons and spinoffs, re-runs of newer episodes of SpongeBob and Fairly OddParents, and a host of live-action shows. Yes, live action shows. Big Time Rush, Victorious, True Jackson VP, iCarly, Sam and Cat, Zooey 101, and others now air on Nickelodeon when that sort of thing was once saved for Teen Nick. In other words? Nickelodeon is just another Disney. NickToons is the only things that resembles the good old days. And I’m sure kids love it. They don’t know the difference. They’ve traded witty dialogues for musical numbers. They’ve abandoned well-written characters. They’ve ignored creativity and originality. They’re just selling to the kids. There isn’t any PBS Kids or Cartoon Network (although CN is an entirely different story) element left.
Perhaps the most disturbing part is the move from animation to live-action. These shows are more difficult to write and create in the first place, and it’s even more difficult when the original concepts are weightless. Tell me: what is special or intriguing about Victorious and Big Time Rush? I’ll tell you: they’re like Glee for kids. Nickelodeon traded in goofy sea creatures and dorky adolescents for musically inclined, highly attractive young people (some of it’s actually kind of shocking). Young girls don’t admire awkward Eliza. Rather, they watch Jamie Lynn Spears. They see Hannah Montana turn into Miley Cyrus. While I can always hold on to my favorite animated characters, live-action stars don’t generally turn out so well. Best case scenario? You forget about them as they fade into obscurity. Next best is Hilary Duff, and even that comes with its consequences.
This is what kids are watching now. Like I said, I’ll let you decide the implications. As it turns out, most adults watch equally idiotic programming as well. However, isn’t old-school Nickelodeon one thing we’d like this Twilight, X-Box, smartphone, social media generation to have?
It makes me all the more thankful to Nickelodeon for creating Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Thankfully, a third season of Korra is going to be released sooner rather than later. Nickelodeon’s best programming has all but disappeared: the classic 90’s shows are reserved for special time blocks, Danny Phantom reruns are too rare since the series finale, The Wild Thornberrys is long gone, Jimmy Neutron is on even less than its spinoff Planet Sheen, and most of the episodes of SpongeBob on television are from the later days. Only Fairly OddParents and Drake and Josh reruns remain somewhat strong.
But now, contemplating the finale of Korra, I have at least some hope that Nickelodeon has some greatness left. Maybe they can still create shows with heart, smarts, and humor. Maybe they can make more shows with weighty themes, epic action, and meaningful plot. As the creators of Korra have shown, there’s some old magic left at Nickelodeon. Unfortunately, I don’t think enough people really care. Nickelodeon is still a channel meant primarily for children, and if they don’t care about what made the shows my generation watched so special, then I don’t think the suits at Nickelodeon really care either. I can’t really express my anger about this as effectively as Jorgen, so I’ll let him have the last word:
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Soli Deo Gloria