Modern Life, Modern Trouble

Reboots make me uncomfortable. It’s hard to say why exactly, but I find myself drawn much more towards stories that feel new than to recreations. Though a new Rocko’s Modern Life special was announced way back in 2016, I became conscious of it only when it was revealed earlier this year that the special would stream on Netflix. Struck with a sense of impending doom for one of my childhood favorites, I wondered if Nickelodeon secretly prepared to launch a Disney-style live-action remake raid on their classic cartoon properties (though the Mulan remake is a good idea and, hopefully, Disney can fix some missteps).

Rocko’s Modern Life has always been strange and inappropriate, transgressing with the freedom we allow cartoons so long as they avoid any hint of photorealism. Whether it’s an unlucky trip to the local beach, a demoralizing attempt to get healthy at the gym, or a desperate unemployment during which Rocko briefly moonlights as a phone-sex operator, the show wastes no opportunity to push boundaries and prepare a young audience for the endless absurdity that waits just beneath adult life’s mundane routine. Some details, like Really Really Big Man and his powerful nipples of the future, may seem less deliberate than others; however, they’re what give Rocko its unique, off-color humor that paved the way for fan favorites like Spongebob Squarepants and Regular Show. After over 20 years off the air, so much about culture and humor has changed. I wondered if the show would feel the same—and if that feeling would still be a good one.

Rather than ignore the problem of change, Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling obsesses over it with equal parts fascination and distrust. The special picks up right where the show left off: if you’re familiar with the finale, “Future Schlock,” you’ll remember that the series ended with Rocko, Heffer, and Filburt carried off into space by a rocket stuck through Rocko’s house. Static Cling opens about 20 years into the future (the amount of elapsed time gets a little muddled between the two episodes) as our heroes find the rocket’s remote control and guide themselves back home to O-Town. As soon as they return, the thematic problem of change appears pretty quickly. Surrounded by two decades worth of new technology and real estate overdevelopment, Rocko is visibly anxious while Heffer and Filburt assimilate seamlessly. Even places that survived through their absence, like a once-again uncensored Chokey Chicken, now sport sleeker looks and advertize non-GMO, organic options. Changes, especially to the life fixtures he remembers, overwhelm Rocko and render him unable to rely on the things he thought were constant.

Fortunately, the special does not devolve into 45 minutes of Luddite propaganda, and opts instead to juxtapose Rocko’s struggle against change with another character’s. The rocket’s return accidentally ruined Ed Bighead’s job and thrust O-Town into financial turmoil, but the mistake gives Rocko an excuse to seek out the Bigheads’ estranged son Ralph in the hopes that he can reboot Rocko’s favorite show, The Fatheads, and thus revitalize the town’s economy. After a long search, Filburt, Heffer, and Rocko stumble upon a Fatheads ice cream truck operated by Ralph, who reveals that she now identifies and presents as a woman named Rachel. Rocko and his friends accept this without a second thought, but it presents a major future conflict to the audience in the form of Ed Bighead. Ed’s defining characteristic has always been general intolerance, and the next 15 minutes or so play out as expected: Rachel agrees to make the reboot, Ed rejects her and cannot accept her change when they meet, they go their separate ways on unfriendly terms. Despite this, Rachel still begins production of the Fatheads reboot and digs into her fond family memories for inspiration.

The narrative delivers its point successfully because it widens the scope beyond Ed Bighead’s bigotry to address the fact that change can be difficult but necessary. When Ed discusses Rachel with Beverly Bighead, she scolds his intolerance while he expresses not hatred, but fear of the unfamiliar. When Rocko forces Ed to attend the Fatheads premier, Ed recognizes his mistake and sees that his daughter loves him, even with his faults. And, pointedly, it is Rocko rather than Ed who takes the final stand against change. Rachel’s inclusion of a new character in the reboot reminds Rocko that the world has moved too quickly for him, that the cultural fixtures he counted on were inconstant and fleeting. He refuses to accept that he can love his favorite show if it changes, accusing Rachel of ruining it and prompting Ed to turn the tables and teach Rocko, “we can’t live in the past. We can be grateful for it, but life isn’t permanent, and if we don’t embrace what’s now, we miss out on a lot of important stuff.” The sight of his friends happy and the Bighead family reunited give Rocko the push he needs to accept that change, even unwanted, reluctant change, can lead to positive outcomes.

Cartoons are important; they’re as worthy of study as children’s literature, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales, which is to say highly worthy. Remember that content made for children, regardless of medium, isn’t made for children alone. Adults watch too, the audience grows up, and cultural changes bear out over the course of a generation. Static Cling has a lot to say—about gentrification, capitalism and wealth redistribution, the craft involved in animation—but above all it asks the audience to pause and reflect on the difference between change for change’s sake and authentic, constructive growth. Small moments of positive representation go a long way against misunderstanding and fear, and set the precedent that the differences between people are exactly what create culture and build stories worth telling. When we tell children stories about people with differences coming together to celebrate change, we invite them to see beyond themselves and to recognize the ways we grow and improve with diversity.

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