A few weeks ago I wrote about my reintroduction to Rocko’s Modern Life via the show’s first season. Rocko’s Modern Life was a favorite of mine as a kid, and if you had asked me to rank the Nicktoons back then it would have gone something like this: The Ren & Stimpy Show, Rocko’s Modern Life, followed by who cares? Those two cartoons were so far above the others that they didn’t feel worth mentioning. Sure, Rugrats and Doug were fine for what they were, but they weren’t appointment viewing for me. And after a few years, none of them were as I felt I had aged out of them. I was a young, dumb, kid though and upon revisiting such works I’ve come to find that, if anything, I’ve aged into a show like Rocko’s Modern Life.
What separated Rocko’s Modern Life from the other shows was that emphasis on the mundanity of life itself. Rocko was challenged by simple tasks such as laundry, household cleaning, commuting, work, and all of those others things we as adults have to deal with that we really take for granted as children. Rocko’s difficulties encountered with these tasks are obviously exaggerated for comedic effect, but like all good comedy there is still an element of truth to all of it making the show arguably more relatable for an adult than it is a child.
When it came to Season One of the show, I was delighted by the humor aimed at adults. I remembered the Milk-O-Matic gag as a kid in which Heffer, a steer, is masturbated by a mechanical milking machine and knew there was humor in this show that really only older kids and adults would understand. That type of humor is more of a shocking variety of humor, what I had forgotten is the more nuanced approach such as the episode where neighbor Bev Bighead tries to seduce Rocko because her husband doesn’t make her feel attractive. It’s a pretty adult concept to try to base a cartoon intended for children around, and it’s even affecting in turning Mrs. Bighead into a sympathetic figure. And yes, there’s still plenty of physical comedy in that episode and all of them.
As I approached Season Two of the show, I was hoping for more of that style of story-telling: mature in concept, but accessible for all via the physical comedy. And for the most part, Season Two really delivers. It starts off with a heavy hitter in the two-part “I Have No Son” in which we learn the Bigheads have an estranged son named Ralph (Joe Murray) who long ago disappointed his father by not accepting a job at Conglom-O where Ed worked. A father being so ashamed and disappointed of his son that it causes him to disown him is a pretty heavy subject for the show to tackle because it’s also a very real thing that happens. Ed looks down on Ralph for his wanting to be a cartoonist, but you can substitute that with pretty much anything and the episode would still work. And even though Ralph has found tremendous success with his cartoon The Fatheads (which is clearly inspired by his parents), he still hasn’t earned his father’s approval.
The premiere is a pretty weighty episode to kick things off, but it manages to handle the delicate material with the show’s usual brand of humor. It does struggle a bit to fit it all into one episode and the resolution feels a bit rushed, but it’s still quite the achievement. The rest of the season will balance the absurd wackiness of Rocko’s world with actual real world issues and problems. Bev Bighead has to break the glass ceiling, so to speak, and go to work in one episode and another deals with Rocko having to thwart immigration officials who want him deported for an expired green card. That episode might actually hit too close to home for some given the current climate surrounding immigration in the US. A particularly heartfelt episode is “Tickled Pinky” in which Rocko deals with the fear of surgery when he finds out he needs to have his appendix removed. It turns into a story where Rocko meets a personified version of his appendix, named Pinky, via a dream. Rocko, in a bid to cheer up Pinky since he’s essentially about to die, takes Pinky out to essentially check off a bucket list of experiences for Pinky to enjoy before his time is up. It’s surprisingly sweet and it left me wishing I had thought of this episode when my own little boy had to have his tonsils removed.
Season Two is also not without its dose of more crass humor. The episode “Born to Spawn” basically deals with Filbert’s (Mr. Lawrence) desire to mate, though that part of it isn’t spelled out. It’s pretty funny though with that context in the back of your mind. In “Hut, Sut, Raw” Rocko, Heffer (Tom Kenny), and Filbert go camping and leave the confines of a modern camp ground to rough it in the woods. The DVD is censored to remove a scene where Rocko picks berries off of a bush, only to have a bear scream and run out from behind it implying that Rocko just picked one the bear’s “berries.” The final cartoon, “Eyes Capades,” revisits the old white lie of Rocko’s eyesight going bad due to too much “jacking.” In the context of the episode, the jacking is Rocko practicing for a jackhammer competition that’s basically figure skating on a jackhammer, but it’s obvious the episode is playing off the notion that masturbation in a young boy can cause blindness.
A welcomed trend established by Season Two is that this show, unlike many other cartoons, actually has some semblance of continuity. Past episodes are referenced and new characters like Ralph will show up in later episodes at peace with his parents. The cartoon “Short Story” contains the most references when Really Really Big Man details Rocko’s good deeds and accomplishments for him in a bid to build him up. The episode “Rocko’s Modern Christmas” (which has been featured during The Christmas Spot) is the first episode to really bring the whole cast together when Rocko attempts to throw a party that everyone in town wishes to attend. It’s really satisfying to see the writers opening up the world of O-Town and incorporating a lot of these side characters.
In terms of missteps, there are few. The animation is as good, if not better, than the first season and the performances by the voice actors are all tremendous. Especially considering how much screaming is sometimes required of them. There are three oversized episodes in this season, which are episodes that dedicate both halves to one story and they are: “I Have No Son, “Rocko’s Modern Christmas,” and “Cruisin’.” Of the three, only “Cruisin'” felt like it didn’t really need the extra time. It’s a bit of a weird episode in which Rocko and Heffer take Heffer’s grandfather on a cruise for old people (or rather, they got stuck on the boat by accident) and the ship enters the Bermuda Triangle making all of the old people young and the two young people old. It gives Grandpa a do-over with an old flame, a relatable and pretty adult plot, but one that struggles to remain interesting.
In terms of personnel, much of the folks involved with the first season returned for the second. Stephen Hillenburg was around to oversee everything as showrunner and creator Joe Murray still received several writing credits and remained involved. Doug Lawrence, also known as Mr. Lawrence, stepped back from directing, but still has a few writing credits. Some of the newcomers include directors Alan Smart, Pete Michels, and Howy Parkins. All would make future contributuons at Nickelodeon while Michels would go on to direct several episodes of The Simpsons and Family Guy. Voice of Rocko, Carlos Alazraqui, even received a writing credit for “Gutter Balls,” one of two writing credits he’d receive on the show. Considering that episode has four credited writers, I’m assuming he must had ad-libbed something that was considered large enough to warrant a credit. The only major change between seasons is the theme song which was reworked by Pat Irwin and re-recorded by Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider of the B-52’s. It’s still fine, though I miss the swank of the first season’s theme.
The DVD release of the first season of Rocko’s Modern Life had the dubious honor of not containing any bonus features. Joe Murray was quite willing to contribute to these releases and for Season Two Nickelodeon at least made some effort to add a little extra, though not much. The original pilot of the show “Trash-O-Madness” is contained here. It’s not much different from the episode that made it to air, but it’s cool to see the original version of the show. There’s also a collection of segments hosted by Murray where he shares the ideas behind the show’s core characters while also demonstrating how they’re drawn. He doesn’t reveal any bombshells or anything, but it’s worth a look. That’s, unfortunately, all that there is for bonus material which means there’s no commentaries and no options to view the episodes uncensored.
Rocko’s Modern Life is a great cartoon series and I’m happy to say the second season is just as good as the first. The show definitely embodies that 90’s spirit of being a bit manic, loud, and certainly gross, but it also includes a surprising amount of heart and relatability as well. In some ways, it’s the perfect children’s cartoon because there’s plenty here to entertain a 7 year old while also keeping mom and dad engaged. And pretty much all are guaranteed to find something to laugh at as well, or be charmed by, or both! I’ve enjoyed it enough that I definitely intend to binge Season Three and report back here on how well I think it compares with the first two seasons, so stay tuned!