Netflix brings back the classic Nick cartoon twenty years later for a one-off special filled with heart and surprisingly complicated musings on the passage of time.
It’s less than nine minutes into Static Cling that Rocko (Carlos Alazraqui) gets slapped in the face with a neon sign that reads “REBOOT” just as a mechanical hand steals his wallet from him. In most circumstances, I would make a snide joke along the lines of, “Huh, that’s how I felt watching this thing!” But not this time. There are two main reasons. The first is that this Netflix special of Rocko’s Modern Life—released 23 years after the series finale—kept beating me to the punch.
20 years after launching themselves into space, Rocko, Heffer (Tom Kenny), Filburt (Mr. Lawrence), and parasite-laden pup Spunky have fallen neck deep into their routines. They get up, grab their snacks, and rewatch the same VHS tape of The Fatheads as their house circles the galaxy. It’s only when the tape croaks out that they want to go back to Earth. For social connection? Not really, of course. They return to their humble abode of O-Town to find out that Rocko’s favorite show has been canceled, and it becomes his goal to get a new episode.
It’s a hurricane of smartphones, coffee shops, virtual reality doohickeys, and economic turmoil, and while that affects Rocko and company, he doesn’t overtly care. He remains a passive character, the bulging eye of the storm. The teleplay from Joe Murray, Dan Becker, Tom Smith, and Cosmo Segurson presents our lil’ wallaby by his innocence. However, by juxtaposing his underlying selfishness against Heffer and Filburt’s love of modern times, Static Cling places its themes in a refreshingly grey area.
That is, aside from the animation style. The retro-futurism balances bold colors with pastels, traditional slapstick with a fear of nostalgia. It’s a great example of a show having its cake and eating it too both visually and narratively and the writing, similar to the original series, juggles broad humor with satire as well. The dialogue and props check off the list of developments between the ‘90s and the 2010s, but it’s this point of view that avoids being a simple cash grab.
Some plot threads, like the lack of job security thanks to smart technology, carry more of a Chaplin-esque anxiety instead of easy anger. But while its politics come in a tsunami of gags, its contradictions are timely—and oddly touching.
That leads to the second reason Rocko’s return works so well. What makes Static Cling stick is that is isn’t a deification or demonization of nostalgia. Some lines thumb their nose at the vernacular of recent years. (One line in particular has both “gluten-free” and “going viral” in the same sentence.) Some plot threads, like the lack of job security thanks to smart technology, carry more of a Chaplin-esque anxiety instead of easy anger. But while its politics come in a tsunami of gags, its contradictions are timely—and oddly touching.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Static Cling without mentioning one of its supporting characters. Rocko’s quest for a Fatheads revival means tracking down its creator, Ralph Bighead (Murray), who’s ditched home and Holl-o-wood for some soul searching. However, this toad now goes by Rachel. Not only does it give more depth to a previously established character, but the teleplay treats her identity with such respect that it never makes her the butt of a joke. As the trio accepts her, the plot moves on. No dwelling, no panic.
Some family drama arises as a result of this (as such a scenario likely would), and the show makes room for Rachel’s own plot thread without losing its original sense of direction. Make no mistake, though: this is no sheer effort to come off as topical. While Static Cling could have done with another five to 10 minutes, the show does strong work at embracing the evolving mores of our times while hugging onto the past. Just because it has a moral compass doesn’t mean it veers to a black-or-white answer.
It adds up to a welcome surprise, and while its sophomoric gags have come to feel out of place, Murray’s show has a lot up its sleeve. No matter how rough they appear on the surface, visuals and themes coalesce with each other. And for all its sweetness, Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling has its own notes of melancholy strung about towards the end. Hopefully, the end isn’t here just yet.