Nickelodeon was a staple in the childhood of millennials, and this year marks its fortieth anniversary. Marketed as the first television network for kids, it launched in 1977 under the name “Pinwheel,” and spent the next decade struggling to find its footing. It wasn’t until 1991, with the debut of its original Nicktoons programming, that the network found its distinctive voice. Throughout the 1990’s, it produced a series of superb, idiosyncratic shows, the titles of which provoke nostalgia in most adults who are in their late twenties or early thirties. These include Are You Afraid of the Dark? Clarissa Explains It All, Salute Your Shorts and All That, to name a few. The producers at the network appreciate this nostalgia, and in June announced the revival of several of its classic shows, among them Rocko’s Modern Life and Hey Arnold!
Yet the show the network should revive is its greatest Nicktoon, Doug, which ran for four seasons from 1991-1994 and established Nickelodeon as a unique provider of children’s programming. There’s never been a kids’ cartoon quite like it.
Jim Jinkins, the show’s creator, treated his young audience with respect. He never talked down to them, never pandered to them. He told stories which, while fun and zany, also promoted ethical development. He even required that his writers write the lesson of each story at the top of their scripts. This helped them stay focused on the message they were communicating. These weren’t simplistic messages, either. They were often profound explorations of the moral universe.
Consider, for example, an episode called, “Doug and the Little Liar”.
In the episode, Doug is desperate to acquire a rare comic book to complete his collection. The comic is issue #1 of “Man-O-Steel Man.” To his surprise, Doug discovers that Mr. Sully, owner of the local comic book shop, has a copy in his store. Mr. Sully, however, refuses to sell it. Later, Doug meets a pair of teenagers in the mall parking lot selling comics out of the trunk of their car. Most of the comics are worthless, but Doug finds another copy of “Man-O-Steel Man” #1 buried in the junk. The teenagers don’t realize the book’s value, and Doug buys it for cheap. He’s elated until the next day when he learns that Mr. Sully’s store was robbed and his prized “Man-O-Steel Man” was stolen.
Doug knows immediately that he bought the stolen comic book and that it belongs to Mr. Sully, but he rationalizes that he has the right to keep it. After all, he didn’t steal it himself; the teenagers did. He bought it from them “fair and square” and, therefore, it belongs to him. Yet this line of reasoning doesn’t assuage his conscience, so he presents the dilemma to his dad, disguising it as a hypothetical situation. To guarantee dad’s approval, Doug deceitfully frames the situation in such a way that makes him sound perfectly justified in keeping the book. He gets the answer he’s looking for and feels temporarily relieved of guilt. It’s not until Doug sees how the theft has emotionally wounded Mr. Sully and made him bitter toward his customers that he ultimately does the right thing and returns the comic book.
Reflect on this for a moment. This is an incredibly sophisticated ethical dilemma to present in a kid’s cartoon show. It’s not saying merely that “stealing is wrong.” The message is deeper than that, the psychology more complicated. It’s dealing with self-deception, rationalization, lies of omission, and evasion of responsibility. Doug isn’t directly responsible for the theft but he is complicit in it by not returning the book. The moral universe has been warped and it’s up to him to set it right, yet he dodges the call of his conscience out of pure selfishness. He even tries to unburden himself of responsibility by lying about the situation to his dad just to hear an authority figure voice approval of his behavior. Again, this is in a cartoon! What’s also profound is the reason why Doug finally returns the book: the negative effect the theft has not just on Mr. Sully but also on the community. In other words, Doug realizes the broader ramifications of his moral choice.
W.K. Clifford, the philosopher, wrote, “If I steal money from any person, there may be no harm done by the mere transfer of possession; he may not feel the loss, or it may even prevent him from using the money badly. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself dishonest. What hurts society is not that it should lose property, but that it should become a den of thieves; for then it must cease to be society”.
Doug’s creators accomplished this in a single twelve-minute episode about a comic book in a way that any eight-year old can understand. That’s kind of astonishing.
Doug was a cartoon that taught kids about moral law. It looked at human nature realistically and told young people that their self-esteem was based on their choices and behaviors, not on simply “being themselves.” Doug is appealing because he doesn’t know who he is yet. He’s basically confused all the time, trying to figure things out, trying to do the right thing, trying to be a good friend, and son, and neighbor, and student. He’s constantly dealing with fear, uncertainty, and doubt. He’s not ironic, sarcastic, or cynical. He doesn’t look at life through a postmodern lens and he doesn’t act older than his age. Like all kids, he retreats into his imagination to escape reality as well as to find solutions to it. He respects authority, particularly that of his parents, but still thoughtfully questions it. He appreciates the differences in other people, their oddities and idiosyncrasies, and has no tolerance for cruelty.
At the end of each episode, sitting beneath his desk lamp with his dog Porkchop lounging nearby, Doug records in his journal what he’s learned from his recent dilemma. In four seasons of the show, Doug never once blames another person for any of his challenges. He never whines or complains, never harbors resentment. He faces life with courage and dignity.
There’s never been a kids’ cartoon quite like Doug. If Nickelodeon revives it, let’s hope they revive it with its spirit intact, because the show about the kid in the green sweater and the khaki shorts who lives on 21 Jumbo Street in Bluffington, USA, was truly something special.