Of all the 1990s Nicktoons, Rocko's Modern Life holds up best when viewed through adult eyes. The only one that rivals it would be the early years of SpongeBob SquarePants, which just so happened to be made by most of the same people. The difference between the two shows is primarily of attitude. SpongeBob is comforting, its protagonist an unflappably optimistic man-child. Its Golden Age was often brilliant but rarely biting. Rocko, in contrast, was about a young adult who acted like a young adult, dealing with all the anxieties adult life brings. For young viewers, it was a warning; for older viewers, it's all-too-real satire.
Static Cling, a new 44-minute special bringing Rocko, Heffer and Filbert into the 21st century, has been anticipated by fans for years now. Announced in 2016, the special was supposed to air on Nickelodeon sometime in 2018 but management changes caused it to be delayed and eventually sold to Netflix. Now it's finally available to stream, and anyone who grew up loving the original series should check it out.
Creator Joe Murray, writers Mr. Lawrence and Martin Olson, and all of the original voice actors are back for the special. The result is a return to O-Town that feels like we never left. Static Cling pushes all the right Millennial nostalgia buttons. The animation's as wacky and wonky as ever, a perfect stylistic recreation of the original upgraded to the widescreen HD era. All of your favorite bizarre side characters, from Peaches the devil to Spunky's parasites Bloaty and Squirmy, make cameos. The exceeding dirty innuendoes are back in full force; Heffer's favorite restaurant is once again the Chokey Chicken (later seasons of the original changed it to "Chewy Chicken" once the censors caught the joke), and there are some choice gags about internet porn and the Bigheads' love life.
Of course, many things have changed since the '90s, and Rocko is ready to make fun of life in the 21st century in the same way it made fun of the '90s. When a trailer filled with jokes about cell phones and social media was released in 2017 at Comic-Con International, some fans expressed worry that Murray was going to take an "old man yells at cloud" perspective on modern technology. This is decidedly not the case, and the tech-addiction gags don't extend much further than what was shown in the trailer.
The biggest criticism to be made of these gags isn't that they're too negative (certainly they're not any more negative than ones in the old series), but that they're playing catch-up. Topicality is an odd thing in animation, which takes a long time to produce and, in this case, even longer to release. Of course Static Cling has to address the ways society has changed since the show went off the air, but because it's been so long since 1996, a lot of ground it covers is well-trodden. Jokes about hipster food trucks and gritty 3D superhero movies could just as easily have been made in 2009 as 2019; they still amusing because of the characters and the execution, but they're also kind of old already.
In other aspects, however, Static Cling manages to be downright cutting-edge. The original series' criticisms of late-stage capitalism were already ahead of their time (the show basically predicted Amazon before Amazon was a thing). If jokes about Conglom-O being "too big to fail" could have been written any time in the past decade, the way the Conglom-O storyline ultimately concludes is still destined to play to better now, in an age where Millennials are increasingly leaning further Left and jokes about "fully automated gay space communism" proliferate online, than at any point before.
One thing this special absolutely couldn't have gotten away with before this moment is its sensitively handled transgender storyline. Ralph Bighead, the creator of The Fatheads, is now Rachel, and a much happier person than she was before. Rocko and friends are instantly accepting, whereas her father Ed struggles with his feelings about his child being a woman in much the same way he did about her being a cartoonist. The story with Rachel and her family is one of the most poignant ways the special goes about addressing its themes of accepting change.
As much as Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling owes its existence to '90s nostalgia, its views on such nostalgia are critical and nuanced. In showing the Chameleon Brothers' crappy CG reboot of The Fatheads, it acknowledges that sometimes changes made to old properties are, in fact, awful. But when Rachel gets to take control of her old show, putting her soul into making the best possible revival, there is still fanboy rage out there than anything might be different now than it was 20 years ago. Far from being an "old man yells at cloud" movie, Static Cling instead yells at the old men yelling at clouds, arguing that whatever joys can be found in revisiting the past can't be an excuse to stay stuck living in it.
Streaming now on Netflix, Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling stars Carlos Alazraqui, Tom Kenny, Mr. Lawrence, Charlie Adler, Linda Wallem, Joe Murray, Jill Talley and Steve Little.