What the Rocko’s Modern Life Special Does That Invader Zim’s Doesn’t

No two cartoons quite capture the polar opposite ends of the ‘90s like Rocko’s Modern Life and Invader Zim. On the surface, have a bit in common: both are shows that take place in absurd and sometimes grotesque universes with pointed anti-capitalist satire, and both got into hot water with Nickelodeon’s censors more than once. But beneath the broad strokes, the two shows illustrate an emotional schism between the experiences of older and younger millennials. Rocko is influenced by the Gen X world around it that would create Beavis and Butthead and later Daria, and many of its conflicts center around the embodiment of the successful baby boomer generation, Mr. Bighead, and his comical hatred for the supposed “slacker” generation — i.e. Rocko. While still bright and fun, its comedy bears the decided thumbprint of a particular moment.

On the other end of the spectrum, Invader Zim’s explosion of cult popularity at the turn of the millennium left a still-visible mark on the randomcore style of 2000s internet humor, the scene kid aesthetic, and the continued profit margins of Hot Topics the world over. Its world was still grotesque and absurd, but now there was one baffled and slightly frightened character who seemed to know how wrong everything was — he’s just powerless to do anything about it. Despite the show being cancelled in the massive sweep of post-9/11 content changes, it still put a very prescient thumb on the anxiety of a world on the brink.

So when both of these shows received new Netflix specials this year, one of them fun but essentially “just some more of that show people like” and the other an extremely pointed and clever update that speaks to the modern state of the industry, I wasn’t expecting Rocko to be the latter.  

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Too Much Change!

Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling picks up right where the original series left off: with Rocko and his friends having accidentally rocketed his house into space. They crash back down twenty years later only to find that the world is a very different place and Rocko, overwhelmed by the change, starts a campaign to get his favorite TV show back on the air. This means tracking down the show’s original creator, who left on a journey of personal discovery and found peace by coming out as trans. The rest of the special then interweaves its two stories about change with downright incredible deftness that deserves every ounce of praise it’s gotten.

Part of this is down to Rocko’s long-standing lack of interest in subtlety. The show loved popping eyeballs, violent slapstick, racy jokes, and staring right into the camera when it wanted to dunk on some element of consumerism. Those elements serve its return well as it tackles two subjects that are the subject of fierce and often ugly discussion: the way nostalgia can become toxic, and the importance of representation in all-ages media.

The show’s writers seem wholly aware of the cult popularity they hold, and the special bursts with loving nods to the original series and appreciation for the support. It’s also refreshingly uninterested in typical jokes about modernity. Sure, the newly-returned gang goes to a BuzzBucks on every corner and tech geek Filbert immediately straps himself into an absurd self-recording rig, but there’s a delight in the teasing. “Yeah, the future is silly,” it seems to say, “but isn’t all this stuff kind of amazing?”

At the same time, it takes a certain type of viewer — incels and other hateful types, sure, but more broadly anyone stuck on the notion that cartoons “aren’t as good as they used to be” — to task. There is just no getting around the introduction of a sage character called the Winds of Change or the fact that Rocko’s big realization is that he needs to get over his fears about things being different. It’s both as pointed as it needs to be given the level of internet discourse on the topic and perfectly in line with the show’s brand of comedy.

I Have No Son

Rachel Bighead’s arc hits particularly close to the heart. Much of the resistance to queer and trans characters being depicted in all-ages media is due to the insidious insistence that these characters would somehow be inherently more sexual than a cisgender or heterosexual character. In the case of trans characters particularly, this is tied into a much longer ongoing problem wherein trans people’s experiences are staked solely on whether they’ve had “The Surgery.”

But Rachel’s reintroduction shows how comically easy it can be. Known as male in the original series, the show refers to her by her old name until Rocko is able to find her and convince her to help them — at which point she reintroduces herself by her new name and shows off her long hair. Rocko and his friends respond quickly, positively, and only call her by her chosen name from there-on-out.

The show’s handling is effectively straightforward in giving viewers a 101 on how to react if a friend comes out to them. It’s a crucial, powerful tool for normalization that never, ever makes Rachel’s identity into a joke. It’s a huge leap forward from the original series’ “Closet Clown” episode, a metaphor for… well, guess, that ended with the townsfolk rounding up pitchforks to chase down Mr. Bighead for his clowning hobby. It sets a high bar for learning from past mistakes that any other cartoon revival would do well to learn from.

I’m Gonna Sing the Doom Song!

Playing off the same idea of the universe essentially being “on pause” since its cancellation, Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus opens with its titular character reemerging in order to start phase two of his plan to conquer Earth. As always, local conspiracy theorist Dib Membrane is the only one who both notices Zim is an alien and cares enough to try and stop him. What follows is essentially an ultra-high budget, double-length episode of the TV series, involving lots of food-related grotesquerie, explosions, and a demented return-to-status-quo closing moment. What is new is the special’s comparatively sincere emotional underpinning, which contrasts Zim’s redoubled efforts to gain his leaders’ approval with Dib’s struggle to get his science-minded dad to appreciate his paranormal interests.

This is by far its biggest diversion from the source material. While one can say many things in praise of the original series, it was an undeniably mean-spirited work. The average background citizen was slack-jawed and thoughtless, with fatness often serving as a shorthand for filth. Its characters, when not dismissive of one another’s problems, often lived for the pursuit of petty revenge — when Florpus included a sweet scene of Dib’s younger sister Gaz promising to have his back, all I could think about was that episode where she left him behind to clean a putrid interstellar toilet.

That’s not to say that the show’s edge inherently devalues it, only that it makes it visibly a product of its time in a more subtle way. Zim, like Rocko, was made when Nickelodeon defined itself primarily in opposition to Disney cartoons, and gross, rude humor were primary selling points. It also came out at the end of that decade of nonspecific malaise — the horror of Columbine in 1998 left the country scrambling for an explanation, resulting in a false narrative about antisocial outsiders that proved difficult to shake; at the same time, the economy was relatively robust, and many popular works satirizing society at the time from Reality Bites to David Fincher’s adaptation of Fight Club, came from straight white men who could focus on emotional turmoil without having daily anxiety over their legal rights and physical safety.

The comedy of 90s animation is in a starkly different place from modern works like Adventure Time or Gravity Falls, series whose reaction to weird discoveries and cosmic dread is to double down on the importance of found family and reaffirm that one can fight back and win. Its role is as much comfort and catharsis as escapism: “the world is terrifying, but don’t give up; you can make it to a place worth living in.” The original incarnation of Zim, by contrast, said, “the world people insist is great is actually rotting; don’t worry, we see it too.”

Peace is Nice

Obviously, that approach would not play well in a world that is demonstrably on fire in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Florpus’ solution to that tonal disparity is to create a special that calls on the same touchpoints as the original, but with a gentler framing, more traditional emotional arcs via the “fatherly approval” plot, and the occasional affirmation that the characters like each other deep down. It comes off surprisingly well, delivering an experience that doesn’t so much directly reproduce the original show but instead conjures the show as you remember it from a distance: the same jokes, the same actors, but a little more polished and smoothed out with age. It’s an enjoyable watch, exactly like finding a lost episode that isn’t one of the actual lost episodes people used to pass around audio of back in the day. But it does raise an interesting question: why was it made?

The obvious answer is that art need only exist for its own sake and doesn’t need a reason. But art made at the level of a Netflix special isn’t the same as someone putting out their independent project online — there is a finite amount of spotlight and funding, both of which are highly coveted by artists hoping to reach a wider audience. When we’re talking about continuations of art that’s being given a chance to shine in part because of its name recognition and potentially at the cost of other projects by lesser-known artists, the question persists.

Static Cling answers that question handily: it uses its status as a respected cult classic to deliver a message that its audience might balk at if delivered by an unknown series. It is both true to itself and aware of the position it occupies as a stunt revival. That’s not to say that Invader Zim needed to do exactly the same thing in order to justify its own existence. While the two might share temporal similarities, blunt commentary was already built into Rocko’s DNA. It wouldn’t fit with Zim’s historic cynicism.

But where does that leave Zim as a work of art? None of the possibilities seem quite right. It isn’t attempting to converse with modern animation trends, unless you count a (pretty great) opening homage to Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. It couldn’t be a reboot, as the show is far more about its aesthetic than its characters. But it also isn’t a finale — while it nods to the threads of a larger arc the show was beginning to build before it got cancelled, it has no interest in resolving any of the show’s central conflicts; nor does there seem to be a new season on the horizon. 

It’s just… some more Zim. Pleasant, but with roughly as much purpose as the copyright-extending live action efforts of the Disney corporation. Art doesn’t need a reason to exist; but when a nostalgia-driven property is brought back even as Netflix continues to prematurely cancel shows like the women-driven Tuca & Bertie because existing licenses are more lucrative than paying new creators a reasonable wage increase, maybe it should.

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