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Is 'Rocko's Modern Life' secretly the best cartoon Nickelodeon made in the '90s?

Rockos Modern Life

(Everett Collection)

Here’s the funny thing: When I was a kid, I didn’t like Rocko’s Modern Life. Or at least, not nearly as much as I enjoyed its Nickelodeon brethren. Ren & Stimpy could make me fall down and hit my head from laughing so hard. Rugrats was an eerily perfect vision of the weirdness of being a kid. And Doug… actually, I had an irresistible urge to punch Doug in the face, but Skeeter was the bomb. By comparison, Rocko’s Modern Life seemed… strange. I could never quite put my finger on it, until years later, when I rewatched the series and had a revelation: Alone among the Nicktoons, Rocko was a show about being an adult. The opening credits sequence presents the show’s protagonist growing from a lovable, naive little wallaby into an anxious adult living in the big city. Take out the “wallaby” part, and Rocko’s Modern Life almost sounds like the plot of a ’90s NBC sitcom, something wedged in between Friends and Veronica’s Closet.

It’s a bit crazy, looking back at Rocko now, to see all the talent at work in the show. Rocko was voiced by Carlos Alazraqui, later to star in Reno 911!, and his bestie Heffer was voiced by Tom Kenny, now and forever the man behind SpongeBob SquarePants. Creator Joe Murray came out of the indie-animation world (and was also an animator for MTV commercials, back when “animator for MTV commercials” was a mark of coolness) and Rocko had an intriguingly multi-level comic vibe. The show could be acidly satiric, especially in regards to Ed Bighead, a company man who worked at a bleak megacorporation called Conglom-O.

When Rocko was at its best, though, it could be incredibly profound. The episode that stuck with me the most when I was a kid was “Who’s For Dinner,” when Rocko meets Heffer’s family. It turns out that Heffer – a happy-go-lucky overweight cow – was actually raised by a family of wolves. When Rocko innocently points this out – “Heffer never told me he was adopted” – drama ensues, because Heffer didn’t know he was adopted. It turns out that his family had actually been planning on eating him as a baby… before they decided to raise him as their own. It’s simultaneously a heartwarming portrait of adoption, a semi-Orwellian fable, and just a really funny drawing-room comedy.

PopWatchers, am I the only one who didn’t understand the genius of Rocko’s Modern Life until I, too, was an anxious grown-up?

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Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Originally posted September 12 2011 — 9:00 AM EDT

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