Why The 90s Were Nickelodeon’s Golden Age

We salute Nickelodeon's 90s heyday, and gems including The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, All That, Are You Afraid Of The Dark, and more...

So what made Nickelodeon so great in the 90s? The main answer to that question can be found in the ideals of the team at Nick, to make television that kids actually wanted to watch and could relate to.

While that might not seem revolutionary as an idea, there were still plenty of examples of shows that talked ‘at’ kids rather than to them and which prioritised imparting morals and teaching lessons over pure entertainment. Nick changed this as its shows – although hardly leading young viewers into a pit of temptation – were not worried about lessons being learnt or group hugs, it was about fun and entertainment and actually celebrating what it was like to be a kid.

First, there was Nick’s anarchic side, which felt like it was born out of the green slime of Double Dare, the game show that mixed trivia questions with dares that every kid wished they could take part in as well as handing out a neat array of prizes and cash. Capitalising on that came Wild & Crazy Kids which took on school yard games, making them more unusual or with slightly different rules, with added Nick Slime and a lot of pies, Nick Guts which saw young athletes from across the country – and later the world – taking on the Nick Extreme Arena which hosted a variety of games and for those who liked their gaming slightly less active Nick Arcade which pitted contestants against each other to gain control of Mikey and to eventually enter the video zone.

All of these shows really felt like kids had been at the drawing board rather than a bunch of adults locked away in a development room somewhere. They had their finger exactly on the pulse of what kids wanted to see and wanted to take part in and it was something which became so successful because it has been ignored for so long.

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But Nick wasn’t just a one trick pony; it also brought back something that has also been missing from kids’ TV, the variety show. Adults had for year enjoyed shows like Saturday Night Live and In Living Color but Nick wanted something that would appeal to their audience and this started with the Pythonesque You Can’t Do That On Television, which was also the closest show to actually trying to impart a message to its viewers (episode titles included “Bullying,” “Personal Hygiene” and “Divorce”) but what made this so undecidedly uncommon was that said messages were imparted via short, surreal comedy sketches. 

By the early 90s, the tone of television was changing and Nick became a bit slicker in its variety show productions, the first seeds of which were seen in Roundhouse which took the idea of the leads being part of the Anyfamily and dealing with the issues of everyday life with the help of sketches, musical numbers and dance sequences but again the show focused more on the fun side of things than trying to out and out teach a lesson and instead to engage its audience into thinking about issues rather than preaching to it. Following on from that came the more traditional All That which was played for out and out laughs and started was the catalyst for the creation of the hugely popular Kenan And Kel show.

Another huge success for Nick were its Nicktoons. The 80s had been filled with plenty of Saturday morning cartoons and we could all reel off lists of the ones we grew up watching and enjoying, but what Nick did was to make cartoons that were not run of the mill, that broke apart the status quo of what TV show animation had to be and paved the way for shows in the future. For example would there have been a South Park or Family Guy without The Ren & Stimpy Show? For a cartoon showed on a kid’s network, Ren & Stimpy pushed the envelope in every way un-imaginable from its look, to its content, to its innuendo, it grew to be a bit of a problem child (as did its creator John Kricfalusi) and it aired a relatively short two and a half seasons, but its impact on animation can still be felt today.

Nicktoons did not begin and end there though, during this period it was also airing classic shows like Rugrats, Doug, Rocko’s Modern Life, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters and Hey Arnold! all of which had the orange blood of Nick running through them. They were all very unique properties which showed the world in different lights, were very funny, skilfully animated and all had a heart which beat loudly and consistently, which given that the majority of cartoons of the previous decade had been interested in selling kids toys, was something very welcome in this new age.

What really marked the 90s as the golden age for Nickelodeon for me though were its comedies and drama. As with everything that Nick produced, it had the entertainment of kids at its heart and this came through in spades in its output within these genres. 

The first few productions to come out of Nick were slightly more run of the mill comedies such as Hey Dude, Welcome Freshmanand Salute Your Shorts, but it was three shows that really showed that Nick was a powerhouse of kids television output and all three could not have been more removed from each other if they tried.

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Then there was Clarissa Explains It All which had the honor of being the first Nick show with a female lead. It also was a very funny, non-dramatic look at adolescent life. Clarissa was supposed to be at the start of the series a regular 14-year old and it actually felt like it. She was doing the same things as you and your friends and was thus relateable. The show also broke the rules of the normal sitcom. Clarissa addresses the audience directly, which was usually a big no-no (unless you were Zack Morris in Saved By The Bell), it also added great cut-scenes and each week Clarissa actually faced whatever issue was bugging her that week via the medium of videogame. Clarissa was a character you could actually aspire to, somebody who was actually a decent person, not just a pretty popular one and that is a really important thing within the usually superficial realms of girls and women in kids’ television sitcoms. They also kept that ideal up with The Secret World Of Alex Mack, which again focused on a strong female lead.

Secondly there was Are You Afraid Of The Dark? which was one of the most perfect kids TV shows you could imagine. What more could any kid want then to sit around a campfire and listen to supernatural tales, and with Are You Afraid Of The Dark? that was something you could do on a weekly basis. It felt like we were all members of the Midnight Society and it wasn’t afraid to scare or spook its viewers (Zeebo, agh!) which made it all the more special. It was a show that allowed the view to think creatively, to maybe make up their own stories when the show wasn’t on and share them with their friends. It probably also helped feed a generation of horror genre fans to come.

Finally though, the icing on the cake, the cherry on the top, the best of all kids TV ever had to offer The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, which for my money is the best TV series about just being a kid that has ever been broadcast. The show itself at times could be completely surreal and wacky but at its heart it focuses on the joys, the heartbreaks and the realities of growing up. The show’s leads are two brothers both called Pete who along with their best friends, Ellen and Norah have to deal with the everyday issues of life, from dating, to friendship to family issues to ultimately growing up and becoming their own person. They do however get help of an array of completely wild supporting characters such as Artie, the Strongest Man in the World (Pipe!) and a perfectly cast Steve Buscemi and Iggy Pop as Ellen and Norah’s fathers respectively. There’s also Petunia but I think that is a surprise best kept for those who have yet to watch this masterpiece.

These three shows all are such fantastic examples of why Nick was the station that it was: it knew its audience, it cared for its audience and it respected it enough not to talk down to them. They put together shows that kids could actually enjoy watching, that fed their imagination and let them ‘own’ something that was just for them.

So Den of Geek readers, which 90s Nickelodeon show was your favorite?

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