Ink and Paint: Nickelodeon Nostalgia

I am so much of a nerd that I enjoy reading books of essays on television, especially if they address a given subject from a philosophical or analytical angle.  The "(Insert Pop Culture Topic Here) and Philosophy" series seems to have been made for me (for example, Superheroes and Philosophy finally gave me an explanation of utilitarianism and its inherent contradictions that I could understand better than any course I ever took).  So recently, Amazon recommended a low-priced book called Nickelodeon Nation that I picked up, and besides being a fascinating read (one essay is from Linda Simensky, mastermind behind both Nicktoons and CN's What-a-Cartoon! pilot systems), it's also an interesting artifact in two ways.

First, there is an interesting emphasis on Nickelodeon's programming being "nonviolent" - in other words, they don't air action cartoons, which every single author in the book treats as a worthless subgenre.  I can only imagine what these writers thought about Avatar: The Last Airbender and if they dismissed it without thinking just because it's a "violent" action show, that would say more about their inherent blind biases than the show itself and leave me quite disappointed (but not surprised).  ATLA proved that you could do an action show that had a lighter touch but could still bring you interesting, well-defined characters, moving drama, heavy themes, and well-researched, beautifully animated fight scenes.  I will argue that it is the strongest contender for a perfect action cartoon alongside the DC animated canon, and I am positive its sequel will continue to pursue a similarly high level of quality & care.  It fits in well with the emphasis on respect equal for creators and for viewers that the books' authors subscribe to Nick as part of what helped it succeed.  It might not be their first pure action series, but I personally find Danny Phantom's good to be hampered by Butch Hartman's pet themes (anyone smart/athletic/rich/ambitious is inherently evil and women are joyless scolds) & I'm not alone in this.  ATLA was still creator driven and carries the torch started by the Nicktoons initiative of individual visions as series honorably.

Second, it is also a reminder when TV Land/Nick at Nite offered more than just the same shows you can find on any lower-tier UHF channel's syndication package.  I have fond memories of watching the SNICK block and then Get Smart on Nick at Nite with my father when I was a kid; seeing the older sitcoms and even vintage ads on TV Land is what made me interested in TV history.  They led me to look into shows past and even discover programs that I consider formative favorites, even if they were on other networks, because they gave these old shows an easily accessible home.  Now?  TV Land is churning out originals that are of middling quality, and Nick at Nite has the zombie sitcoms shooed from ABC's schedule instead of anything classic.  I know that a lot of shows have been lost to rights issues (Sony's holdings are with Antenna TV - a network my family quite enjoys - and MTM is apparently locked up by a Unification Church-run satellite only network), but the sheer wealth of classic programming available doesn't excuse the fact that very little of either network's schedule could be called "classic" unless it's with deep sarcasm.  It's fallen a long way from when Donna Reed was the unofficial mascot and treated with a mix of ironic amusement & kindly respect.

Nickelodeon Nation isn't just gushing praise; they site events like the overhyped premiere of Jimmy Neutron and the slide of Nick at Nite as symptomatic of a decline.  But they site a lot of the good that Nick has done, stuff that has bothered me about certain other networks with cartoons that they deliberately avoid - shows that tried to be either gender neutral or have a balanced cast, diversity as a fact of life instead of a "look at me, I'm sooo progressive" sore thumb in programming, recognizing that kids can handle more than same-old-same-old approaches with a tacked-on life lesson, and even just making sure that your heroes are likable enough that the marketing comes as a natural extention of audience fondness, not as the reason for the heroes' existence.  I miss the days of Pete & Pete, Are You Afraid of the Dark?Legends of the Hidden Temple, and Rocko's Modern Life, but I am sure that one day twenty years from now, a kid similar to me will be reflecting on the Nick programming of her youth while her kids/nieces/nephews are still watching their own generation of shows on it.

Nick is doing a lot of stuff right currently, especially in the action arena, and I sincerely doubt that CertaiN competitors would inspire such an interesting and respectful book anytime soon, unless it's as a fond look back at lost potential.  Nickelodeon Nation studies a subject that has been tied to some of my happiest childhood memories and gives me a new respect for the people who helped make them.  It also made me miss the doo-wop dinosaurs.


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