In regards to Nickelodeon’s history, Ren and Stimpy is undeniably the most influential for the field of animation and Spongebob is by far their most successful hit. However, I will always argue that Rugrats stands head and shoulders above the crowd as their most imaginative creation. I have never seen another program that so completely embraces the perspective of children, to where pushing a cooler to the ocean is a life-changing experience or going in the snowy backyard becomes a months long journey into the north pole. It’s all about how young children, due to their size and lack of experience, see the world as far grander than adults, who’ve gotten used to it. To emphasize this, most every episode from the original 3 season run opens on a zoomed-in picture of a mundane object or animal, making it look totally different.
Yet at the same time, Rugrats wasn’t afraid of tackling more concrete and foreboding subject matter either. There’s “The Gold Rush” where the group finds a nickel in a sandbox which quickly becomes a subtle warning against greed. In “Angelica the Magnificent,” Angelica’s magician kit served as a lesson against tampering with forces one can’t fully understand. “Tricycle Thief” is an examination of why the concept of innocent until proven guilty is so important–even if it’s Angelica on trial. “The Stork” tackled the birds and the bees in a way that children watching could understand, but without getting risqué for a kids show. Last but not least, “I Remember Melville” dealt with death in a way that was respectful yet approachable.
In this post, I’m going to talk about several other deep moments this show has to offer which deserve more attention then they currently receive.
Stu and Tommy
There’s one particular episode of Rugrats that portrays parent-offspring relationships so well it deserves a shoutout. That episode is “Regarding Stuie” and it involves Tommy’s dad, Stu, getting knocked out and believing he’s a baby again. At first everything’s great, the kids and Stuie enjoying playing together. Until suddenly Tommy recognizes that as long as Stuie is around, he’ll never see his father again. Chuckie explains to Stuie that he has to be a grownup and take on the role of Tommy’s guardian again.
This leads to a great conversation between Tommy and Stuie that, despite the ridiculous circumstances which led to it, is quite thought-provoking.
Stuie: “You miss your daddy, huh?”
Tommy: (holding back tears) “Yep.”
Stuie: “Chuckie said I should be your dad…”
Tommy: “Aw Stuie, I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
Stuie: “I’ll try.”
As a child watching, the subtext sailed over my head. Now, I look at this scene as a metaphor for what parenthood really is: kids raising kids. When we’re young, we think of our parents as being these wise, higher people who know everything. I remember often wondering when I’d reach that set age where I’d intrinsically start to know everything too. But the reality is, parents still have plenty of doubts, ignorance and immaturity themselves. They make mistakes and many times they aren’t ready when the incredible responsibility is thrust upon them. It’s more the willingness to try that defines them.
In addition, I thought it was so beautiful how, even in his incapacitated state, there was still an inherent love there between Stu and Tommy. It was so great that the former would instantly rise to the call of duty even with the personality of a child, and the latter would recognize what a tremendous burden that is. Rugrats, a kids show on a then-struggling cable channel tackled this complex relationship better than any other media I can think of.
The Darkest Episode
My favorite story was “Chuckie’s Wonderful Life.” Obviously by its title, this one was a parody of It’s a Wonderful Life, where everyone is worse off without Chuckie. But by applying this storyline to a children’s cartoon we are handed some unfortunate implications. Namely, that Chuckie has such little self-esteem that he would believe his disappearance would improve everyone’s lives, and that Angelica would tell him so in the first place. Angelica was characterized as a spoiled brat throughout the series, but those first 65 episodes she could be downright vicious. This is probably the worst thing she ever did.
There’s one scene that’s particularly emotional, where Chuckie and his guardian angel come across a broken Tommy bumming cookie crumbs. Chuckie wonders how a brave guy like Tommy could let Angelica push him around. So his guardian angel explains “having someone like you gives Tommy reason to stand up to Angelica” or something to that effect. Now, as a kid I never bought this reasoning. It just seemed like a forced way to make everyone demonstrably miserable without Chuckie for dramatic emphasis. The other characters’ fates are similarly exaggerated, like Phil, Lil and every kid in town acting like vandals since “there’s no one around to tell them it’s not such a good idea.”
But thinking about that scene again as an adult, it makes perfect sense. We’re social creatures who need to feel accepted and loved by others. We value the people in our lives who make us feel good–they give us a reason to struggle through life. It’s hard to stand up for yourself when you’re standing alone, but when you see someone you care about getting picked on it’s a whole different story. In situations like that, there’s no doubt in your mind the victim doesn’t deserve their abuse, so the act of defending them is one of camaraderie and justice. Where maybe you might be willing to shoulder a burden of abuse, or become convinced you’re unworthy of compassion and deserve what’s happening, it’s harder to watch someone you love suffer. It’s completely understandable for Tommy to stand up to Angelica for Chuckie’s sake in the original timeline as opposed to his bravery being some innate quality. After watching this episode, go back and make note of how many times Tommy shuts down Angelica specifically after she disparages Chuckie.
This scene drastically changes how the viewer interprets the show and its characters as well. It reveals that Tommy, the fearless leader, has actually been intimidated by Angelica throughout the whole series, and yet, he cares about his friend Chuckie so much he’s willing to stand up to his fears solely to put his friend at ease. When you tie this back to the “Home Movies” episode where we get Chuckie’s point of view and he literally depicts Tommy as a superhero, it makes their close friendship all the more beautiful. These two episodes put everything else that happened in those magical 3 seasons in a stunning context. These are just babies, but they have a lot to teach the rest of us.
Chuckie, the Best Animated Character Nickelodeon Ever Made
I don’t want to dwell on negatives too much in this blog, but it bugs me that the writers for the later seasons of Rugrats and All Grown Up itself never really “got” Chuckie’s character again. He’s flanderized in the later seasons of the original show into a one-dimensional cry baby and in the spin-off he’s a nerd because…he wore glasses in the original show so he was destined for it I guess. I’m left wondering, could they be any more uncreative than that? Did they truly never watch the original 65 episodes and appreciate these subtle but character-defining moments like those I just went into?
One of the best aspects of Chuckie’s character in the classic episodes, and something both viewers and later writers overlooked, was his surprising wisdom beyond his years. If you go back and watch, Chuckie was a very well-spoken and at times outright philosophical young kid. Even just the way he describes Tommy in “Showdown at Teeter Totter Gulch” betrays a capacity for eloquence you don’t even see in most adults: “I didn’t meet Tommy until he was eight days old. I don’t know what happened to him those first eight days, but he sure doesn’t like to see people get pushed around.” That was a very astute observation for any secondary school student to make of another person’s character, and Chuckie is supposed to be 2 years old. Not only was he intelligent, but in the episode “Chuckie is Rich” we see that he also has a great moral compass as well. Chuckie alone did not get caught up in the shallow appeal of material possessions, and knew Angelica was only being nice to him because of his money.
Making Chuckie a scared whiny geek and nothing more was a complete bastardization of his character–if anything I think future Chuckie would have been a great writer or artist, with an intellect far ahead of his peers. He would have been something like All Grown Up‘s version of Dil, an eccentric guru who saw the world in a different way. Normally, I wouldn’t be quite so annoyed at something like this, but Chuckie is yet another in my pantheon of “fave fictional characters,” and he deserved better.
When People Drift Apart
“Grandpa’s Date” and “Farewell My Friend” deal with this topic in regards to Grandpa Lou/Morgana and Tommy/Chuckie, respectively. What I found so realistic, yet so sad, about each was the way these deep bonds between people were broken due to stupid misunderstandings. Grandpa Lou and Morgana broke up because she mistakenly thought he was having an affair with another woman. Rather than properly discuss the matter, she made a rash decision to leave him. Similarly, Chuckie initially renounces his friendship to Tommy after a terrifying adventure, the outcome of which was not Tommy’s fault. It’s unfortunate but true, that sometimes friendships end because of circumstances neither person intended. While Morgana and Lou reconnected, it is extremely sad to consider the years they wasted over nothing. Fortunately Tommy and Chuckie were brought together again in time.