"Go back to the '90s!" yells one of the characters in Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling, voicing the challenge that the Nickelodeon-produced Netflix special faces in justifying its existence. Gamely acknowledging that the world has changed in the 20 years since the TV finale of Rocko's Modern Life, Static Cling's creators (including original mastermind Joe Murray) try to apply the attitude of the 1990s Nickelodeon series to the complexities of the modern world, but its efforts are impotent in the face of a real world that is frequently beyond parody.
Static Cling reunites us with worried wallaby Rocko and his friends Heffer and Philbert, who have spent the last two decades in outer space, ignorant of contemporary news and trends. They return to O-Town, the super-corporate city that was their home, to find it altered by the hands of time, the winds of change, and the sands of time. Rocko's future-shock is expressed as despair over the long-ago cancellation of his favorite animated sitcom, and we follow his and his friends' attempts to produce a reboot which will, as one of Static Cling's delightful TV chyrons declares, "fix problem$."
The slim plot is made promising by its self-referentiality, but beyond a heavy-handed message about "accepting change," Static Cling doesn't have a lot to say. Though time has passed, no one has aged, so there are no births, deaths, or otherwise messy relationships to deal with. O-Town's corporate patron, Conglom-O Corp, still feels like an office that could exist in the 1950s, with neat rows of desks, apoplectic balding bosses, and paper print-outs. Where the '90s had a lot of Starbucks outlets, modern O-Town has... even more Starbucks outlets. Some of the anti-consumerist barbs feel out of date: Are people still waiting with bated breath for the latest iPhone variation? Are superhero movies still too gritty? The internet is hardly mentioned, let alone deeply woven into society. For all we know those precious smartphones are just portable TVs. It's very "Homer get iPad."
For a '90s kid, watching Rocko's Modern Life in its Nicktoons heyday was like having a cool Gen-X cousin who introduced you to the B-52s (who reprise their performance of the Rocko theme song in Static Cling), gave you a lesson on the subversive content of Devo lyrics, and slipped you age-inappropriate indie comics like Weirdo or Hate. Rude and crude, the show embodied the "alternative" spirit of the age by rejecting the whole idea of growing up into a pre-packaged, all-consuming corporate culture. Like Mad Magazine for earlier generations, it was ostensibly for kids but in fact aimed squarely over their heads; grown-ups would catch the satire (though they might find it overly simplistic), while kids would cop the rebel attitude.
That studied aloofness, so hip in its day, feels unsuited as a satirical instrument to the rolling emergency of our times. There's nothing in Static Cling about the voracious immigration debates of our day (a topic the original series did tackle), nor any nod to the disintegration of our democracy in ways Clinton-era viewers would have considered improbably dystopian. Static Cling doesn't tackle mass shootings or cyber bullies or white nationalism. A returning character is revealed to be transgender, but the treatment of the subplot is so anodyne, it makes our cool cousin seem like they're trying too hard. If '90s consumer culture made Rocko feel nervous and alienated, the sweeping changes of the new millennium should make him alternately apoplectic and depressed — in other words, like the rest of us.
Static Cling is funnest and funniest when it doesn't try to keep up, and just lets loose. Rocko and his friends go on a search for his favorite show's creator, which leads them to visit the North Pole, a fish peddler, Napoleon's skeleton, and a clown in an iron lung, for no particular reason. Their quest succeeds when they're dropped from a drone onto a desert merchant selling "culturally ambiguous pillows." At moments like this, Static Cling gets air, not beholden to any particular baggage of the original show nor to the reboot's "20 years later" conceit.
Rocko occupies a strange space in the Nicktoons canon, in almost every way an exact midpoint between legendary The Ren & Stimpy Show and the uber-successful SpongeBob Squarepants. Ren & Stimpy was wholly original, its painted still-frames giving it a high style to match its gross-out subject matter while its Blammo Corporation advertisements gave a middle finger to passive baby boomer complacency. By the time SpongeBob arrived at the end of the '90s, its herky-jerky animation style pioneered by Stimpy and continued in Rocko was so mainstream that it was the de-facto house style for Disney Animation in movies like Hercules. SpongeBob inherited much of Rocko's staff (series creator Stephen Hillenburg was a Rocko vet), and the parallels to the earlier show extend to its characters and locales (Patrick is a dimmer Heffer; Squidward a petty bourgeois Mr. Bighead). SpongeBob kept the surrealism and "modern life" conceit of Rocko but de-emphasized the punkish satire in favor of more complex character interplay, which has helped ensure the show's prolonged popularity over two decades.
With these points of comparison, one wonders what assets, if any, are unique to Rocko, and this unresolved question problem haunts Static Cling. Neither as hard-hitting as Ren & Stimpy nor as fully realized as SpongeBob, it's hard to make a case for it as the most distinctive show of its era, and the creators of Static Cling have failed to make a case for it as an effective rejoinder to the madness of contemporary times. Revisiting Rocko reminds us of all the reasons why it is fondly remembered, and helps us appreciate why it is best left in the past.
Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling is now on Netflix.