Judge Aaron Bossig once thought it was perfectly normal for a guy to enter a teenage girl's bedroom using a ladder. Tragically, her parents didn't agree.
Since its first broadcast in 1979, the cable channel Nickelodeon has consistently tried to deliver high-quality shows for preteen viewers. In the late 1990s, with most of Nick's original target audience having grown up, they found themselves with an unexpected secondary audience: college kids and people in their mid-20s. Now, Nick has released a DVD collection of the first season of Clarissa Explains It All. The question is, will this set appeal to a younger generation of Nick viewers, or is it strictly a nugget of nostalgia for twentysomethings such as myself?
Facts of the Case
Teenagers never understand their parents. Parents never understand their teenagers. What we need is someone to explain it all. Enter Clarissa Darling, a completely typical American teenage girl dealing with the crises of junior-high life as best as she can. Her parents, Janet and Marshall (Elizabeth Hess and Joe O'Connor), are good people, but just a bit clueless when it comes to the mind of a teen. Her younger brother, Ferguson (Jason Zimbler, The Edge of Night), has been a smarmy troll since the day he was born. She's got a best friend, Sam (Sean O'Neal, Cop and a Half), who spends so much time at her house that he's forgone the formality of using the door and simply climbs a ladder into her bedroom window whenever he stops by.
Think that's a little odd? We're just getting started.
Clarissa Explains It All was Nickelodeon at its finest: a show that kids could claim as their own, written from the ground up to appeal to them. Loaded with sight gags and pop-culture references, it was funny. By showing Clarissa (Melissa Joan Hart, Sabrina the Teenage Witch) as a kid in control of her own destiny, it had an "edgy" feeling that kids love (but was still safe from a parent's point of view). What could be better than a show about someone their own age who had in-depth answers on how to deal with parents, teachers, and curbing that urge to drive? And finally, it wasn't stupid. Mutant cake jokes aside, Clarissa wasn't a show that asked a young viewer to turn off their brains, as so many other kids' shows do.
To keep the viewers' minds active, the show is more than just actors playing out a story. In every episode, Clarissa will break from the action and speak directly to the camera, guiding us through her inner monologue and views on the situation. Her thoughts come complete with charts, lists, and visual aids, to make sure we get all the needed info. If the explanation requires an Instant Replay, she's got it. When an event is so tragic it seems to take epic proportions, Clarissa is more than willing to add movie-style music and special effects. And at least once a show, Clarissa will use her PC to make a video game out of her current challenge (I was never quite sure how that part was supposed to help).
But what, really, is the show about? Why, just the everyday emergencies of a young teen: homework, school, parental nagging, and dreams of the future. It's the kind of stuff every kid goes through, though we seem to forget its significance as we get older. Clarissa hits the nail right on the head, though, showing how to get through those awkward years. It's not just Clarissa's explanations that make the show worthwhile; a lot of its value comes from the fact that she's such an approachable character. She's the kind of friend everyone wants to have: She's smart, has a bright personality and a few bad habits, but won't get you into trouble. I could definitely see today's high-school freshmen getting a kick out of this show.
I'd stop short of saying that Clarissa Explains It All could appeal to any generation. There are definitely elements of the show that are quite dated, first and foremost being Clarissa's wardrobe. It's filled with wild combinations and bright, screaming colors (actually, the whole set is very colorful). The show began in 1991, and so the styles reflect an attitude of "Yeah, the '80s are over, but we've got nothing else to work with yet!" On one hand, I hope the age of the show wouldn't matter…after all, Clarissa shared a network dominated by reruns of Lassie and Dennis the Menace. However, the show does target kids at a point at which they become very conscious of fashion and relevance. The content is great, but the appearance might seem a bit "retro."
Highlights from the set include "Cool Dad," in which Marshall is invited to speak at Clarissa's Career Day school event. She's afraid her dad will embarrass her (she's probably overreacting). She's also afraid he'll embarrass himself (this may not be too far from the truth). The question is how can she bring up the topic tactfully, without hurting her father or letting him make a big mistake? First, she enlightens the viewer by presenting case files of previous students who befell horrible social tragedies after Career Day traumas (bullies turn meek and normal girls go schizoid). Then, she tries scare tactics on her dad, dressing up in punk garb to make Marshall think all of today's teens are animals. Not one to be intimidated, Marshall decides to go into school in M.C. Hammer pants, which finally drives Clarissa to just be honest about her reservations about the whole thing.
Also one of the better episodes is "School Picture," in which Clarissa fights to break free from tradition and get her school picture taken in a trendy outfit, rather than the traditional blazer. To present her fear of not making a lasting impression, Clarissa goes on a journey through her parents' old yearbook, terrified of the plainness of her mother's photo and intrigued by the absence of her father's. Not only is it a story perfectly suited for the show's format, but it also helps establish the characters' perspectives: Clarissa's compulsion to comment, Janet's appreciation for what's tested and true, Marshall's hidden rebelliousness, and Ferguson's eagerness to exploit any conflict his sister causes for his own personal gain.
Clarissa Explains It All can get a bit goofy at times (ahem, the aforementioned M.C. Hammer pants) which is fitting, but at times the show's logic is weak, even by its own standards. Most notably, Clarissa tries to earn money by selling Christmas cards, but winds up even further in debt. Her problem is solved when the local Boy Scout troop buys all the excess cards. I have yet to figure out why nine-year-old boys would be so interested in discount greeting cards. Likewise, Clarissa's offer to hold a séance for her widowed aunt seems highly inappropriate, and just a tad mean-spirited. Actually, the whole "Aunt Mafalda" episode seems a bit darker than the rest.
Included in the set are two extras. First up, we get a collection of Nickelodeon promo spots used when Clarissa Explains It All originally aired. Most of them are kind of irritating. That's not age talking; I thought they were just as irritating 15 years ago. More worthwhile is an episode of MTV Cribs showcasing Melissa Joan Hart's home. It's a great extra for the DVD set, though it does remind me of exactly why I hate MTV. I was genuinely interested in seeing what kind of home Melissa has, how it reflects her taste, etc., just as a curiosity if nothing else. While MTV Cribs did answer my questions, it did so through Short-Attention-Span-Friendly editing. Images of furniture, fixtures, and decorations were fired at me one after another, without really giving me time to appreciate anything. If you want to get a good look at anything, the pause button might be your best friend. Of course, this is MTV, so giving me something to think about isn't high on their list of priorities. The Cribs episode does make several passing mentions of Melissa's fondness for gin, so parents being extra cautious about the subject of alcohol should be warned (it's really not a big deal, just not something you expect when picking up a Nickelodeon DVD). In any event, it's also the type of thing that would be appreciated more by Clarissa's older viewers.
Overall, Clarissa is a good show that holds up well, no matter how old you are. Clarissa's narrative format is fun to watch, and the actress herself was quite talented, even at such a young age,
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Clarissa Explains It All: Season One is a good, solid release, though I do have some minor complaints. First, the individual episodes don't have chapter stops, so you can't easily jump right to a particular scene. Second, while I like the extras that were included, it would have been nice to see a commentary or interviews with some of the cast or crew. We still have several more seasons to go, so hopefully the next few sets will be even better.
For you veteran Nick watchers who are now occupying The Real World™, Clarissa Explains It All: Season One is a good buy. If you're seeking nostalgia, you always run the risk that time will change your perception of the things you used to enjoy. Rest assured, Clarissa is one thing that actually is as good as you remember. If you're wondering about its worth to a younger person or trying to justify its "educational value," I'll just say this: The show was made for kids who are growing past the point where they feel comfortable talking about everything, hence the appeal of someone their own age who will take the initiative. Clarissa is trying to lead them through the trials and tribulations of their world and offering the advice that maybe you (as a parent) are just a little too old to give.
Clarissa owes us no further explanation. She is free to go.
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