You know the television shows you never watched, but seemingly absorbed through osmosis from those around you that did? I think that describes my relationship with almost any show to come out of the 1990's.
Rocko’s Modern Life is a cartoon I’ve never seen, but have heard plenty enough about to assume I would’ve liked it as a kid growing up. Initially ending after the creator, Joe Murray, left the show in 1996, a revival special had been in the works for the last four years. It finally aired yesterday on Netflix.
The special, titled Static Cling, is a breezy 45-minute watch, essentially an extended episode that follows Rocko and his friends, Heffer and Filburt, after the events of the original series finale (where they are accidentally shot into space, and have apparently been in orbit ever since). Upon finally making it back to Earth, they discover the 21st century with equal parts excitement and horror — and once they realize their favorite show has gone off the air in their time away, its up to them and Rocko’s neighbors (Ed and Bev Bighead) to find the show’s creator (the Bighead’s adult child) in order to get the show revived and save the town in the process.
Considering my complete lack of background in the show, I was almost surprised how much I enjoyed it and didn’t find much problem following along with the characters and their various colorful personalities. While probably not catered to those who aren’t fans of the original series, its not inaccessible either.
The animation was beautiful and the jokes almost always got a chuckle, if not an outright laugh. I could gripe that the “computerized animation is evil, good old hand-drawn is the way to go” mini-message was a little heavy-handed (read: very), but, hey, its a revival of a kids cartoon, heavy-handed tends to come with the territory.
But the reason the special gained so much pre-release traction wasn’t for its central message or animation or jokes, nor was any of that why I decided to watch the special in the first place.
Halfway through the special, Rocko and his friends have finally found R. Bighead out in the desert operating an ice cream truck, having “gone off to find [herself]” years earlier. It takes admittedly minimal persuasion in order to get her to agree to come back to revive the show and reunite with her family. But, the character notes from off-screen, it’s been twenty years, and “I’ve… changed”.
And with that line, Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling earns itself a little home inside the LGBT media canon.
I won’t lie, I was definitely nervous when I saw the headlines that this special was going to have a transgender subplot; I’m currently gearing up for Adam’s release next week, on top of most transgender media already being pretty awful. But GLAAD’s director of transgender rep. consulted on the special through nearly every step of the creation process, and it is evident.
Rocko’s Modern Life was a children’s show (though both children and adults were regular viewers), and children’s shows, purposely educational or otherwise, always end up teaching lessons and leaving impressions on young minds. Static Cling is no exception, and the special uses Rocko and his friends to intentionally showcase the best way to react to one’s friend coming out: plain and simple acceptance.
GLAAD’s director of trans rep, Nick Adams, wrote that “This story of inclusion and acceptance is so needed in our current climate… The younger characters accept Rachel immediately, recognizing she’s still their friend”.
Rocko and co.’s near lack of reaction is undeniably purposeful, and almost comedic; I think we as a society are so used to coming out stories in the media as being teary, angry, emotional moments, that something so anti-climactic as “cool!” is rarely considered an option.
(Sure when I came out, there were lots of tears and emotions, but I’ve scrubbed most of those moments from my memory. But I still remember my sister’s text message, the casualness that boiled down to a “cool, am I allowed to give you new stupid nicknames?”)
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that casualness can go so far in normalizing and humanizing us; Rachel’s reaction to her friends’ acceptance says it all.
Beyond this, the special continues on and shows the reaction of Rachel’s parents once she returns home, one fully accepting and the other much more resistant. But very quickly, the resistant parent (Ed) realizes that Rachel is not going to just stop being Rachel because he doesn’t want to accept the change. He didn’t lose a child (as so many parents of transgender children initially think), but he knows he will lose her if he doesn’t adapt. He can struggle and stumble, but he cannot outright reject her.
And so, with Rachel’s revival playing for all to see and marvel at in the background, he does accept this change, and in a time where transgender women are disproportionately targeted with violence for their existence, such a simple message of love and acceptance from a simple little TV special goes so far. Somewhere out there, Rachel is going to be someone’s first positive depiction of a transgender woman, and she’s going to teach them so much about acceptance and love.
It’s very rare that content concerning transgender people is ever very good when written by cisgender men and women. But Joe Murray, Doug Lawrence, and Martin Olson created something so incredibly solid with this special and its something that I hope has a long shelf life. They were smart to seek outside help in making sure Rachel didn’t come off as a caricature or as a joke, and that extra effort is something I pray to see in future transgender-focused media. It makes a genuine world of difference.
Ultimately, the special’s message is that you need to be of accepting change that isn’t just vaguely new things, but of completely different things. As Ed Bighead points out, life isn’t permanent:
“We can be grateful [for the past], but if we don’t embrace what’s now, we miss out on a lot of the important stuff”.
I hope that Static Cling is going to teach parents and children alike the value of accepting the transgender people around them as they change into their best selves. And I hope this message of love makes a dent in the maelstrom of hate we’re always surrounded by.
“Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling” is streaming now on Netflix