Nickelodeon was a staple of my childhood. The channel not only was meant for kids, but also put out some of the most unique content out there. Who doesn’t remember game shows like Double Dare or narratives like Are You Afraid of the Dark? or Clarissa Explain It All. Then, there’s the animation, including, but not limited to, Doug, Ren & Stimpy, Rocco’s Modern Life, and Rugrats. We all know and love them, but have you ever stopped to consider what made them so special? Together, they made a television channel into something revolutionary. That’s the subject of the documentary The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story, out today. Anyone who loved or loves Nick owes it to themselves to watch, though anyone curious about the making of classic entertainment would do well to give it a look.
The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story is a mix of talking heads (which, frankly, is a pleasure, since getting to see the stars of Nick shows all grown up is fascinating), as well as archival footage of the seminal shows. That puts the onus on the talent from said programs to shine. Luckily, all of the shows hold up splendidly, while the recollections from the actors, actresses, and creatives who made them what they were are perceptive and imbue the doc with added nostalgia. At its core, this is a high-level dose of nostalgia, and it’s impeccable at transmitting that feeling to you.
What this documentary does so well is give you the overall flavor of Nickelodeon. Nearly all of the shows the channel put out, and certainly all the programs depicted in the doc, could have been worthy of their own features. In fact, Ren & Stimpy got one of sorts earlier this year with Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story. In making this a broader movie, we only get a taste of classics here, but you immediately understand their appeal.
Chronicling the creation and rise of the channel Nickelodeon, the doc begins by depiction its somewhat uneven inception. Things find their footing under the leadership of executive Geraldine Laybourne, who believes in not talking down to kids, as well as allowing creatives to pursue singular visions. The initial breakthrough is with game shows, including Double Dare, with Marc Summers hosting. The network is a hit, but that’s just the start.
Established as a force to be reckoned with, Nickelodeon tries out successful sitcoms like Hey Dude and Salute Your Shorts, as well as other beloved live-action programming like The Adventures of Pete and Pete, as well as Clarissa Explains It All. But, it’s when auteur based animation like Doug, Ren & Stimpy, Rocco’s Modern Life, and Rugrats make their debuts does the station become unstoppable. Things change, including an explosion of merchandising, but a valuing of children remains the surprising constant.
Filmmakers Scott Barber and Adam Sweeney do a great job of capturing what made these Nickelodeon shows special. They pull from the right programs, showcasing a small sample of how they changed the game. If anything, one of the complaints here is that Barber and Sweeney race through some of the classics. Towards the end, they seem in a hurry to wrap up and some of the cartoons especially are given short shrift. Sure, the live-action stuff is what established the channel, but a big part of what made the brand is the animated fare. That being said, any individual show could have been a bigger focus, so it’s mostly an embarrassment of riches.
There’s a genuinely moving sequence when Nick News is briefly cited. An episode on Magic Johnson and his HIV diagnosis has a similarly afflicted little girl crumble while talking to the star athlete. As much as the doc succeeds at explaining why Nickelodeon meant so much to children, seeing this interaction and how it provided an outlet for information and growth is even more effective.
The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story will bring back a ton of memories. Sure, this may be a glorified special feature on a box set of Nick classics, but a tribute to the channel certainly has merit. If you fondly remember these programs, you’ll get a huge kick out of this doc. However, if they were before or after your time, it’ll be a compelling introduction to what made them so special.