How iCarly Defined a Millennial Era

Just as it did back in its Nickelodeon days, Paramount+'s iCarly still understands the social media generation.

Nathan Kress as Freddie, Jaidyn Triplett as Millicent, Miranda Cosgrove as Carly, Laci Mosley as Harper and Jerry Trainor as Spencer of the Paramount+ series iCARLY
Photo: Paramount+

For those of us in the late millennial generation, TV, movies, and videogames of the late 2000s were ideal platforms to explore the ways in which the planet was changing rapidly. They were a way for teens to connect with each other when the older folks were too stuck in their ways to move along with the new times. And when certain pieces of entertainment really nailed the intricacies of the era, that media became eternally ingrained in the psyche of the audience it was targeting.

iCarly ran on Nickelodeon from 2007 through 2012 and embodied these descriptions more than any other adolescent show of the decade. Starring Miranda Cosgrove as the clever and ambitious 13-year-old Carly Shay, the show depicted the journey of teenage exploration through the eyes of her webshow, a program that eerily resembled the entertainment provided by YouTube pioneers and OG social media stars of the time. 

With her friends Sam (Jeannette McCurdy) and Freddie (Nathan Kress), and her goofy older brother Spencer (Jerry Trainer), Carly shared her oddball sense of humor with her web show audience, and vicariously through her actual TV audience behind the fourth wall. A show within a show is nothing novel, but it was a bold decision from showrunner Dan Schneider to create a world that allowed young people to explore their creativity on screen in a way that was completely unique to the years being lived in. 

For those who didn’t fit the targeted demographic the first time around, it would be no shock if they didn’t understand why the show was being revived for Paramount+ this summer. To truly understand why the series connected with ‘90s babies, you’d have to have trekked with the show through the internet globalization that it was birthed into. Millions of returning fans rushed to watch the trailer and were rewarded with the familiar humor they were looking for when the show returned on June 17. 

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Unfortunately, Sam is absent from Carly’s life now because McCurdy chose not to return due to the toll on her mental health from working in the entertainment industry as a child and young adult. New character Harper (Laci Mosley) fits in nicely as a semi-replacement, sharing Sam’s spunk but also adding some racial and sexual diversity (the character is both Black and dates women). Spencer has finally cashed in on his dream of being an artist, but it hasn’t altered his struggles to find a wife or create a family outside of his little sister. Freddie has a step-daughter from a divorce and is living with his mom again after failing to make it big as a tech entrepreneur. 

All of the occupations and tribulations of the cast make sense and fit with what we would have imagined would happen to these people in the nine years since going off the air. 

Both the original airing of the show and this reboot fit together like a locktight time capsule, displaying for the viewers at home a select set of people who are simultaneously relatable, but also even more flaky and unpredictable than ourselves. In 2007, Carly and her cohort wanted to show the world all of the zany things that suddenly poof into the millennial mind: what happens if you hit someone with a sock full of butter? What about putting a grown man’s face inside a plastic baby’s body and flinging ketchup, lotion, shampoo, and other gooey substances all about the crib? 

iCarly is special because it was and still is all about feeling free to do whatever the hell you want, whenever you want, and not being embarrassed to share it with the world! It had a keen understanding of the teenage struggle, and that sometimes letting off steam and just doing some stupid crap and broadcasting it to people who are like you is a great anecdote for the most confusing time in life, compounded by existing on a planet that had never been more in the process of evolving. The show even brilliantly foretold some of the pop culture events of the early 2020’s, such as feverish fan panels a la Comic-Con, or social media stars getting in the boxing ring for a minute or two. 

Through the first four episodes of the reboot the characters’ choices in social media interaction reflect their growth in age; the webshow remains as the chosen avenue for Carly to project her views to the world. If the original were being made today, Tik Tok would almost certainly be the chosen medium for Carly’s teenage fans. Today’s adolescents are experienced vets in tech, whereas 2007’s were pioneers still learning the new ways. Being trampled by the overabundance of options available, the current kids are most attracted to instant gratification and short bursts of artistic expression. YouTube is a little too long-format for the contemporary attention span, but it fits like a glove for 20-somethings who are willing to adapt and learn about new world affairs, but are also starting to sound more and more like their “get off my lawn” ancestors. 

This is why the show embraces having been pigeonholed into the demographic that is so in love with it nearly 15 years after the pilot episode (the show’s trailer on YouTube has garnered nearly 4.5 million views in the month of June and the official Twitter account has over 3.5 million followers). Every piece of humor and every choice the characters make is a reflection on a little bit of ourselves trying to figure out what the hell this world means and how we can become successful in it. 

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While older folks call us lazy or undriven for using these artistic or unconventional methods to try and achieve greatness, we know that we are simply not going to be deterred until we are thriving in the chaos. If you live outside of this bubble, you’ll think of the show with the same confusion that someone from this time would perceive Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Sixteen Candles. The former is celebrated on Twitter annually on the anniversary of its release, and younger generations are expected to worship at the altar of an iconic flick that screams 1980s and nothing else.

And that is the most universal thing about iCarly and any other era-specific piece of media, the concept that ties them all together for every age: if entertainment understands where it came from and why it exists, there is no reason to try and progress forward or backward from that point. The memories are unaffected, and even when the nostalgia-glasses are removed, the emotions and lessons of the work have an ability to transport us right back to where it came from. And if they remake the show again in 2040 when Carly has her own teenage kids, we’ll still be there to see where she takes them!

The iCarly revival series is available to stream on Paramount+ now.