It’s been 23 years since Rocko’s Modern Life went off the air. A progenitor of SpongeBob SquarePants, with much of the cast and creative team moving on from one show to the next, the satire was Nickelodeon’s in-house answer to its more troublesome The Ren & Stimpy Show. And it was sharp. Deranged. Relatable. Ripped from the daily lives of its writers and unlike any other cartoon airing on TV. Now, animation has come out the other side. Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is one of the most elevated shows about depression, loss, and trauma. Comedy Central’s South Park started skewering headlines a year after Rocko went off the air and hasn’t stopped yet. So now, with the 45-minute special Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling coming to Netflix, how does the original spirit of the show persist? Like any good revival, it makes a point of being familiar but different.
Original creator Joe Murray is back on writing and directing duties, alongside all the voice actors (Carlos Alazraqui, Tom Kenny, and Mr. Lawrence) returning to play Rocko, Heffer, and Filburt. The companions, who would feel right at home in either Office Space or a zoo, have been canonically lost in space for two decades since the series finale and finally figure out a way back to Earth. These cartoonish Rips Van Winkle didn’t miss the American Revolution, but they certainly missed enough.
With a meta plotline about the cancellation and subsequent rebooting of a beloved cartoon, Static Cling isn’t afraid to be self-effacing about the revival process—or poke a little fun at the fanatical cult audience that got it a second run at Netflix in the first place. “An old cartoon isn’t going to solve the kinds of problems you have,” Rocko’s neighbor, Mr. Bighead, tells him. It’s a bit of a middle finger to its viewers, but a loving one. It’s hard to be counter-cultural and rebellious when the very existence of a revived special means that some version of success awakened the corporate overlords.
Much of what made the show a fan-favorite is still here. Its color-packed, neo-Fleischer Brothers animation (with surreal, askew Chuck Jones backgrounds and images that are just funny enough not to be disturbing, like Rocko’s visible optic nerves when his eyes flying out of his head) and expansive vocabulary balance its fart gags and butt jokes. It’s warm and nostalgic, but only in the sense that its aesthetic maintains a dedication to strangeness. There are also strides forward. Moving on from the ‘90s hasn’t all been overwhelming technology and scary surveillance.
Lest they be taken for old-fashioned curmudgeons, slackers-turned-conservatives, or simply retro fetishists, Murray and team (Dan Becker, Cosmo Segurson, and Tom Smith are credited with additional writing) find positive change and make it stick. And it’s found in an unexpected yet lovely place. Static Cling allows Rachel Bighead (Murray) to come out as trans in an intentional and delightful scene. Not only does it make her happy, it pleasantly highlights that—along with a flurry of tech baubles and consumer fads—the world has moved forward, and that’s OK. Rocko and his friends (the simple, doofy, good-hearted ‘90s guys that they are) accept this in stride, but her dad puts up a fight. What seems at first to be simply a gesture of solidarity with the LGBTQ community becomes a major plot point, and moves the story on from being a self-referential one-note one-liner.
The ensuing plot, which is brief but sweet, gives the special a reason to exist for anyone who missed the original series. It also, thankfully, undermines some of the more tired jokes that were already hacky back when they began appearing in Robert De Niro’s reactionary old-man comedies. Those gags may have added impact to the final message of the film, but they’re the only parts of the special that aren’t especially funny, sweet, or odd. When everything else is one or more of those (even the inside baseball about how the animation process has changed), the road bumps rattle your teeth harder.
It’s a winding and often silly road, but Rocko was never about the direct path or the straight line. The tangential adult references, background fan-service characters, and yes, the nipples of Really Really Big Man may give fans some small feelings of comfort. They may even entice newcomers to check out what made the original so “how did they get away with that?” strange in the first place. But they feel relatively empty, because they’re not the point. Static Cling is mostly Murray and his team building to their end. It’s them deciding that when Netflix gives you a pulpit, well dammit, you scream your lungs out about what matters. Then you tip your hat and thank everyone for their time. It’s a wish for the future—the special even redistributes the wealth by the finale—masquerading as a return to the past. And it, in the immortal words of Heffer, was a hoot.
Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling premieres Friday, August 9th on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.