[Nostalgia Week] The Hidden Subtext of Nickelodeon

Disney+ may have few selling points, but it’s winning over the 18-30 demographic with the promise of re-watching the shows of their youth, reminding them of a simpler time. Whilst others may use these universally friendly shows as a form of escapism, there’s an inescapable quality of applying life experience and adulthood to watching these programmes. It may be non-existent on Disney Channel – which kept to childish humour with toilet jokes and eccentric yelling but if any kids network was able to teach children talking points that others would not, that crown would go to Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon – whether they realised it or not – spoke about cultural and societal issues and made it easily accessible for kids. So, having been a Nickelodeon kid through and through, I’ve decided to take a look back at my own childhood shows to find the hidden layers ready to be revealed.

Mr. Krabs and SpongeBob bury the health inspector in a dark graveyard.
Image courtesy of Nickelodeon

Many people have written on the politics and wider meaning to cult classic SpongeBob SquarePants (1999)episodes – myself included -, and there are iconic episodes that almost any Millennial or Gen Z can watch now and find these hidden layers themselves. Pizza Delivery is one such episode, and , where SpongeBob and Squidward go on a cross-country journey to deliver a customer’s food and provides a critique on both parties of consumerism. Another fine example would be Squidville, which examines Squidward’s mental health, as well as the notions of individuality in a consumerist world. But the episode I want to bring attention to is Season Three’s Nasty Patty, an episode that highlights Mr. Krabs’ corporate greed. The episode revolves around a health inspector visiting The Krusty Krab, who Mr. Krabs and SpongeBob try to impress until a news bulletin states a false health inspector is conning restaurants for free food. Believing they’ve found the guy, the duo produce a ‘nasty patty’ which accumulates all the germs and expired food that still remains in the restaurant. It causes the inspector to be sick, but unbeknown to Mr. Krabs and SpongeBob, thanks to other matters, he has also been concussed. After realising he’s not moving, they soon believe they’ve killed him and Mr. Krabs does what any boss would do, bury the body with the forced help of his staff. Comparisons to Amazon, McDonalds etc. are not well disguised here, with these companies’ adverts stating how fresh their food is or how well their employees are treated, despite constant evidence proving otherwise (a most recent example being Michael Sainato’s ‘I’m Not a Robot’ article in February of this year). Mr. Krabs respects the health inspector until it doesn’t benefit him anymore; he shows no remorse when leaving the body in the graveyard and appears ready to throw anyone under the bus to save his own skin. However, these actions have no repercussions and the boss is still able to stay on top – eventually bullying his way to passing the health inspection.

Josh dressed as the Theatre Thug.
Image courtesy of Nickelodeon

Drake & Josh (2004) was one of many live action noughties Nickelodeon shows that appealed to kids with its eccentric and chaotic energy. Drake & Josh has touched upon extended family – with the show revolving around two unalike stepbrothers – marital affairs and other household issues. However, the episode Theatre Thug seems to focus on wider complications of the effects of Television and the truthfulness in what it depicts. In this episode, Josh is asked to play the role of the so-called ‘Theatre Thug’ in a reconstructed segment for the show ‘FBI’s Most Wanted’. However, Josh looks too much like the criminal and whilst Drake is getting positive attention from being on TV as a scared civilian, Josh has the cops called on him every time he stops foot in public, as he is believed to be the thug. In 2020, the internet is surrounded with deep fakes, photoshops and magazines fabricating news to push their own agenda so it’s no surprise that the general public would believe first hand that what’s on screen is the truth. It’s also directly profiling the middle-aged and elderly in believing TV’s truth with the residents who call the cops on Josh always being at least 40 or older. It’s no surprise that Drake & Josh would take on an idea like this, considering their cold opens revolve around Drake and Josh telling identical stories with differing perspectives in how it happened.

Following on from Drake & Josh, was iCarly (2007) – a show with similar concepts, even using the same actors with Megan (Miranda Cosgrove) and Crazy Steve (Jerry Trainor) who now play the brother/sister duo of Carly and Spencer. Unlike Drake & Josh, iCarly is a show about teenagers running a popular web show was made during the rise of the internet and its transformation into a platform for visual entertainment. Many episodes about the home-grown web show talked about the negative aspects of having an online profile but whilst they’ve talked about security, fanbases and more – iMeet Fred has an excellent depiction of how the internet attacks one person for having an alternating opinion. Whilst hosting their web show, Carly and Sam show clips of internet sensation Fred. Freddie states his simple opinion in that he doesn’t find the videos funny. However, this causes an uproar. Fred refuses to make any more videos and the community around Freddie despise him for this. He is kicked out of every extra-curricular club and Sam and Carly are also victims hate from the community only because of their connection to Freddie. When they later encounter Fred, he makes it clear that this was all a stunt to him to raise his own viewers which also raised iCarly’s. This episode predicted 2020 online backlash perfectly, where online websites like Rotten Tomatoes or IGN have their audience scores bombed with negative reviews, when media may focus on someone who isn’t a cis white male, most recently with The Last of Us 2. At the same time, it looks at the toxicity of the media in how they obsess over this drama, but this kind of fake drama benefits all parties in the long run.

Timantha Turner talks to Trixie at the comic book store.
Image courtesy of Nickelodeon

Whilst representation of LGBTQ+ characters seems more adamant in animation (Disney’s Out (2020) and In a Heartbeat (2017)are two most recent examples), there is a deep lack of inclusion when seeing these children shows of the noughties. However, an episode of my childhood that seems the clearest in telling the story of someone being trans is in The Fairly Oddparents’ (2001) The Boy Who Would Be Queen. Timmy Turner ditches the pink hat for a bow as he is wished into a girl by his fairy godparent, Wanda. Under the new name, Timantha, they become close friends with their crush Trixie after finding them in disguise at a comic books store. The plot line may be simple – in that the takeaway from this episode is everything either deemed ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ is accessible to everyone – but for Timantha to appear on screen is representation that people may have never realised until now. The rest of this episode continues as it means to go on with furthering the conversation by shattering the idea of colour theory, as well as showing the benefits of gender-neutral toilets. This subtext of the past is context for the now, and all these previous episodes whether they realised it, have continued to be relevant.

The catalogue of Nickelodeon shows is endless when it comes to hidden subtext. Hey Arnold!, (1996) Danny Phantom (2004),etc. all have episodes worth mentioning but the shows mentioned are ones personal to my own growing up, re-watching them shedding a new understanding of why I’m the person I am today. And the importance of shows designed for children talking about these topics is more important than ever, giving kids a wider picture than what they may be told by their peers. So, the next time people criticise ‘politicising’ kid’s programmes, just remind them they’ve been this way since day one – they just couldn’t see it.  

Header image courtesy of Nickelodeon.