Looking Back at 90s Nick Clarissa Explains it All

first_img In a sea of children’s television designed solely to sell us toys, Nickelodeon was special. The people in charge really were all about creating good programming for kids. There was absolutely a marketing-based reason behind it, but that didn’t matter. It was the one thing on TV that felt like it was speaking directly to us. That cared more about showing us what we wanted to see rather than what Hasbro wanted us to see. It paid off. For many of us, Nickelodeon was a formative part of our childhood. And nobody was quite as big an influence as Clarissa.Clarissa Explains it All was only the second sitcom Nickelodeon had ever done. At that point, the network was mostly game shows, reruns of older TV series and teen dramas like Fifteen. The one sitcom the network had produced before was the ensemble western Hey Dude. Clarissa Explains it All gave us a much more recognizable world. Clarissa was a young adolescent girl, living in suburban Ohio with her hippie parents and annoying little brother, Ferguson. Anyone with a younger (or older) sibling immediately identified.The series was also Nickelodeon’s first to star a female lead. Creator Mitchell Kriegman said in an interview with Mental Floss that he knew the network needed a show starring a girl. “They had all this boys stuff, and they weren’t seeing girls in the modern way that girls existed.” As important as it was that girls had a character on TV they could see themselves in, Clarissa Explains it All wasn’t only for girls. Clarissa was someone every kid could look up to regardless of gender. She was cool, capable and smart. She had her own style that both boys and girls could appreciate. The problems she faced were problems all kids face. Sure, I may not have understood why Clarissa was looking at grown-up underwear, but I understood the terror of a good kid realizing they accidentally shoplifted. And while we didn’t all have crazy hippie parents, our parents did often do things we didn’t understand. It was an honest, relatable show.Clarissa Explains it All Title Card (via Nickelodeon)That’s not to say it was mundane. The problems Clarissa faced may have been normal, but they were taken to ridiculous extremes. There’s an episode where Clarissa and Ferguson have to take care of their parents who are sick with the flu. What begins as picking up a few extra chores turns into a complete role reversal with Clarissa and Ferguson acting like tired parents. There’s an episode where Clarissa’s mom bans TV from the house, and the rest of the family goes to increasingly extreme lengths to watch it. Even the episodes that don’t spiral into weirdness had plenty of fourth wall-breaking postmodern humor that kept everyone entertained.Clarissa spoke directly to the camera. She drew and wrote on the screen. She tested out her plans by turning them into video games. (Come to think of it, Clarissa Darling may be the first game developer I was ever aware of.) The show made it very clear that she was in control of the video effects. The effects had a unique lo-fi look to them that fit Clarissa’s style. That was by design. The showrunners made sure that the effects looked like she could have made them herself. The result was that Clarissa felt like a friend. She talked to the audience like we were in the room with her. Clarissa felt more real than any other character on TV. Maybe that’s why, according to an Entertainment Weekly interview with Melissa Joan Hart, she said fans routinely mention Clarissa as though they were part of some secret club together. Hart didn’t realize it at the time, but she had a profound, comforting effect on millions of kids.Melissa Joan Hart (via Nickelodeon)She was perhaps most influential when it came to her sense of style. Long before “Influencer” was a job title someone could have, Clarissa filled that role for kids in a way that was pure, natural and largely untouched by marketing. She had her own style. She didn’t advertise products, and she didn’t follow trends or even try to set them. She wore what she wanted to wear, with articles of clothing often defiantly clashing with each other. She had a very late punk rock/upbeat grunge style to her wardrobe that kids wanted to emulate whether they cared about clothes or not. Her style reflected a confidence in herself that we all wanted. Kids everywhere started mixing and matching their outfits in ways that often elicited raised eyebrows from parents. We didn’t care. We wanted to dress like Clarissa. And that meant dressing any way we damn well pleased. (Minus the damn, that would get your TV privileges taken away for sure.)Her style was even more pronounced in the way her bedroom was decorated. Every kid wanted Clarissa’s room. Kriegman told Mental Floss that the show’s set designer initially created a traditional “girly” room, with lots of pink everywhere. Then, Kriegman made that designer cover the pink walls with black and white checkerboard paint, hubcaps, a They Might Be Giants poster, and all sorts of other strange clutter. Everything about Clarissa’s room was an expression of who she was. She had a science experiment in the background, a homemade dollhouse that now houses video equipment, a desk with a computer (rare for a kid in 1991), and a kiddie pool containing her pet security alligator, Elvis.Melissa Joan Hart (via Nickelodeon)Elvis was cut from the show after only a few episodes because once the novelty wore off, he really wasn’t all that interesting. Even so, fans of the show remember Elvis vividly. Probably because of everything in Clarissa’s room, that was the one thing we wished we had the most. It was also the one thing our parents would definitely never let us have. He may have only been in six episodes, but that was enough to leave a permanent mark on our childhoods. Such was our desire for a pet alligator all our own. Thinking about it now, allowing the designer to build the “girly” room first was genius because that’s how bedrooms like that happen. Parents find out they’re having a girl, so they paint her room pink and fill it with traditionally “girly” things. Then the kid turns out to be a Clarissa, who has her own ideas about what she wants her room to be. So she covers all the pink with posters, new paint and everything else that means something to her. Soon, you can hardly see the pink, but anyone visiting instantly knows whose room that is.Of course, Clarissa wasn’t the only character that made the show great. A huge part of the show focused on her rivalry with her brother Ferguson. This troll-looking Dan Quayle-lover was the template for all annoying little brothers to come. He butted into her plans, stole her things, and even took over the entire show for one episode. (Thankfully, “Ferguson Explains it All” was all a dream.) Even in episodes where Clarissa wasn’t directly trying to compete with or get revenge on Ferguson, their rivalry came into play. It was a fact of life, always there. In that way, it felt real. If you had an annoying younger sibling, they weren’t always your main focus, but they never let you forget them. Sometimes you could ignore the annoyance, other times you couldn’t. Sometimes you team up and work together. After all, you’re still family. Probably the best sibling rivalry episode was the one where Ferguson is getting picked on, and Clarissa stands up to his bully. Only she is allowed to pick on her little brother.Jason Zimbler (Via Nickelodeon)Then there was Sam. Clarissa’s best friend who never used the door. He always climbed in and out of her window. And occasionally the kitchen window. Clarissa’s parents were hippies; they didn’t have a problem with it. It was nice to have a show that featured a platonic relationship between a boy and girl that didn’t have to grow into anything more. Sam was a boy and a friend, but not a boyfriend. (A few Nickelodeon shows of the day played with this concept.) Sam was the perfect best friend. He was always there for Clarissa, always ready to help with whatever scheme she concocted. He offered advice that was genuine, even if it didn’t always make sense. Some later episodes began to explore the idea of Sam and Clarissa becoming something more, but they always decided they were better off remaining friends. I liked that. It felt like we were growing up alongside Clarissa and Sam, asking the same questions about some of our friends. The fact that boys and girls can be friends without dating isn’t a radical idea, but it needs repeating sometimes. Especially when other kids’ shows can’t resist pairing up their male and female characters.Melissa Joan Hart and Sean O’Neal (via Nickelodeon)The show ended in 1994, when it was still one of Nickelodeon’s most popular shows. Ratings weren’t going down, but Viacom felt Clarissa was getting too old. Kriegman says the network executives at the time wanted kids to age out of Nickelodeon and into MTV at 15 or 16. Since Melissa Joan Hart was 17, they felt she no longer had a place on the kids’ network. They didn’t realize that kids had grown up with Clarissa and would happily keep watching. Clarissa’s audience wasn’t the same 11 or 12-year-olds they were in 1991. They were now 15 or 16, and still watching Nickelodeon because of shows like Clarissa Explains it All. After Nickelodeon canceled it, it nearly had a sequel series on CBS. Kreigman wrote a slightly more adult-oriented series called Clarissa. His original script had all the elements that made us love Clarissa Explains it All. It had fantasy sequences, video effects, Clarissa narrating directly to the camera, all of that. CBS didn’t like it. They cut out all that stuff, thinking you couldn’t do post-modern stuff like that on network TV. (Given the recent success of shows like The Office, Modern Family, and Parks and Rec, it would appear you totally can do post-modern stuff like that on network TV.) Funny how the network for adults had less faith in the intelligence of their audience than the one for kids.Screenshot of Clarissa opening. (Photo: Screenshot via YouTube)CBS created a pilot that was just a so-so sitcom. Not all that funny, and not all that different from everything else on TV at the time. Clarissa was interning as a journalist in New York, which is the direction she was going in towards the end of Clarissa Explains it All. That was about the only recognizable element in the show. CBS aired the pilot but never ordered a series. The pilot was later shown on Nickelodeon as sort of a look at where Clarissa was now. It served as a confusingly dull end to a truly special show. If you’re really wondering where Clarissa ended up in Kriegman’s mind, he wrote a novel back in 2015. Things I Can’t Explain deals with Clarissa navigating a quarter-life crisis as a journalist in her mid-20s living in New York. Melissa Joan Hart said she had different ideas about where Clarissa would end up, but the book serves as a fine sequel to the series. It’s definitely a better follow-up than the CBS pilot.Clarissa Explains it All was the perfect sitcom for early-’90s Nickelodeon. It was defiantly weird, had its own style and honestly spoke to kids on their level. Watching it today, there’s a lot about the way the show looks that is painfully ’90s. The pastel colors, the slang the kids use, the computer graphics… I’m not saying the show has aged perfectly. Most of it though, is timeless. It ultimately let kids know that their opinions and choices mattered. No wonder we wanted to be like Clarissa so bad.Let us know what you like about Geek by taking our survey. Stay on target 11 Other Old-School Nick Shows That Should Get Netflix MoviesWatch These Movies Before ‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold’ last_img

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