Friday, March 16, 2018

How I'd Reboot "Clarissa Explains It All"

I grew up in the heydey of Nickelodeon on TV. They say your earliest memories tend to be when you're around 3-5 years old, and for me, that would have been around 1991 when Nickelodeon dominated my early media consumption.

"Rugrats", "Doug", "Ren & Stimpy", "Pete & Pete", "Salute Your Shorts", and "Clarissa Explains It All" composed the vast majority of my early media diet. "Welcome Freshman" was there too, but I didn't care for it. All I can really remember about that show was how everybody always sat in chairs backwards because they thought it made them look cool or something. There was also "Hey Dude", but that show always bored the crap out of me and I usually just watched it when it was on before something else I wanted to watch. Oh, and of course there was "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" but I was honestly too scared as a kid to watch it. I didn't watch it until I saw reruns as an adolescent. There were also a bunch of game shows, but we can't be here all day.

Anyway... Those other shows? They were my jam.

"Rugrats" obviously had the most long-term success, even though the series pretty much lost my interest after the first three seasons.

"Doug" ended up migrating to Disney and, frankly, I thought that version was much more entertaining while it lasted.

"Ren & Stimpy" was pretty much the only show my dad enjoyed watching with us, and those early episodes definitely influenced my taste in comedy.

"Pete & Pete" was comparitively short-lived, but captivating and well-grounded in kid logic.

"Salute Your Shorts" was not the best, but I liked a bunch of the characters and thought their love-hate relationship with camp counselor Ug was fascinating.

But honestly, one of the shows I looked forward to watching the most was "Clarissa Explains It All".

That probably seems weird. And it is. Frankly, I have a hard time explaining it myself. There are a few smaller reasons why I suspect the show resonated with me.

1) It was the only show, other than "Pete & Pete", that depicted main characters who were siblings, and that was something I could relate to, especially once my younger brother was born. I think I related better to the dynamic between Clarissa and Ferguson than with Pete and Pete because the Petes were friendly with one another while Clarissa and Ferguson had more rivalry going on.
2) You tend to see that a lot of TV shows aimed at younger audiences have protagonists that break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. While the other shows I mentioned often had narration, "Clarissa" was the only one that consistently broke the fourth wall, and that probably made it easier for my younger brain to keep up with the show and the protagonist's shifting goals and feelings.
3) It was probably tied with "Doug" for the catchiest theme song of the bunch.
4) As a prepubescent boy with a STRONG distaste for romance, I was relieved to see a show where the female protagonist with a male best friend DIDN'T end up crushing on him.
5) I'm a visual learner and Clarissa always outlined her problems through visual lists and images used to explain her predicaments in excruciating detail. Hence the title.

However, probably the biggest reason by far that I always looked forward to "Clarissa Explains It All" was because of one particular conceit of the show.

Specifically, Clarissa had a computer.

More than that, Clarissa would regularly figure out how to solve the problems in her life by creating a computer game based on her problem and playing it.

Now, in hindsight, that conceit is absolutely bonkers.

Making a computer game, even a pretty simple one, is insanely hard work and requires a lot of special knowledge. At no point in the show is it ever established that Clarissa even HAS this knowledge. Heck, she barely seems interested in programming at all. She spends more time obsessing over bands, cars, and eventually journalism. This was just a thing she did to essentially role-play through her dilemmas. It was the 90's. Nothing had to make sense yet.

I've talked about this before, but that conceit drew my attention to the show like you wouldn't believe. My tiny mind was already blown by the mere idea of computers and video games, but the idea that you could just MAKE a video game and that they could reflect your problems and worries and help you work through them was an infectious one for me. Even during episodes where I might not have completely understood the problem or where I might not have otherwise cared, I still kept watching and wondering what video game Clarissa would make to help her tackle it.

Whatever, I was, like, 5.

That said, I think that this show (perhaps combined with the game show "Nick Arcade") really solidified my fascination and love of computers and video games from an early age. Similarly, I actually think these shows are one reason why I never thought of either thing as a strictly "male" activity, but I digress.

Point is, I have a lot of love for "Clarissa Explains It All", but it's less because it was a great show and more because it was very much a formative show for me. In an era where marketing executives still insist that boys can't relate to unapologetically feminine protagonists, the success of "Clarissa Explains It All" pretty much drives home the winning formula: Boys can relate to girls so long as they say and do things that the boys can relate to.

I couldn't relate to Clarissa's crushes or her dreams of being able to drive a car, but I could certainly relate to her struggles with her annoying younger brother and her continual interest in video games. And the fact that she had a best friend who was a boy made me feel like I could be friends with her and it wouldn't be weird.

So anyway, it looks like apparently Viacom is looking to reboot "Clarissa Explains It All". "Reboot" actually might be something of a misnomer, though, since it sounds like their intention is to have Melissa Joan Hart still play the title character, but as an adult matriarch of a family of her own.

There was also apparently a novel released a couple years ago by the original showrunner called "Things I Can't Explain" which detailed her post-high school life, including, yes, an actual relationship with Sam that eventually ended on weird, ambiguous terms. I haven't read it, but my understanding is that Sam got a gig in Europe, Clarissa couldn't stay with him and had to go back to New York, she didn't hear from him for years, and then she finally got a letter from him and... didn't open it.

So the novel doesn't really make it clear what Clarissa's mid-life trajectory would be. It would be fair to assume that she could have somehow eventually ended up with Sam, given that their platonic friendship eventually did evolve over the years. However, it's left so ambiguous that I'm not going to take it for granted.

Given everything I've said, here's how I think they should handle the reboot. Finally.

For starters, I like the idea of Clarissa now being a parent. The recent show "Girl Meets World" (itself a reboot of a different coming-of-age sitcom "Boy Meets World") took a similar approach where the former protagonists are now parents. However, while "Girl Meets World" kept the focus on the young character and made the older characters the supporting cast, I actually think the "Clarissa" reboot should retain the focus on Clarissa rather than be "Clarissa's Kid Explains It All" or something.

That might seem like a bad idea for a kids' show, but allow me to remind you all that I maintained interest in "Clarissa Explains It All", a show about a 16-year-old girl, as a 5-year-old boy. I'm pretty sure making her a couple decades older and giving her a couple of kids won't suddenly make her unrelateable.

Furthermore, "Girl Meets World" ended up getting canceled. I was also a pretty big "Boy Meets World" fan as a kid, so I can pretty easily tell you why "Girl Meets World" didn't have the same staying power: It was a retread. It was just "Boy Meets World", but with a female protagonist and with the old characters in the supporting roles. Frankly, unless you have a hard time relating to Corey and Topanga, there's very little in "Girl Meets World" that you couldn't have gotten from reruns of "Boy Meets World". Similarly, I think that if this reboot was just "Clarissa's Kid Explains It All", it would have a hard time not just feeling like a retread of the original series.

So how would I make the reboot interesting? Well, for starters, let's point out why Viacom is probably thinking about this in the first place. Specifically, they're hoping that a bunch of Millennial parents will tune in and get their kids hooked.

In that case, that should be the focus of the show.

A number of my friends are now married and/or have kids. I myself am getting married in like a month. The struggles of adapting to parenthood is difficult, but it's particularly strange for us Millennials, who have been admittedly slow to transition to adulthood, or at least the kind of adulthood that we grew up observing.

A lot of Boomers and Gen-Xers rushed into marriage and kids, and a LOT of the media Millennials grew up with OOZED with regret over that tendency. All the songs, movies, and TV shows told us to enjoy our youthful energy while we can, take our time settling down, and not rush into lifetime commitments before we were ready. By and large, I think we took that to heart. Millennials are generally less likely to rush into marriage, more likely to go to college, and less likely to reach financial stability as quickly as generations' past.

So we've got a bit of an "arrested development" thing going on. This is largely why Millennials are blamed for things like not buying cars or houses or cable subscriptions.

But because we diverged so much from the models left by the generations that came before us, when we do finally reach that point where we start making big life decisions, not only do we get filled with anxiety over the idea that we're finally putting down the roots that we put off for so long, we also stress over whether or not we took too long to do it and that we are simply too old to become "true adults".

So, to me, I imagine Clarissa the mother actually hasn't changed all that much, and that stresses her out. She probably feels like she SHOULD be behaving more like how her parents behaved, but she can't, and that probably makes her worry that she's doing it wrong.

Now, technically-speaking, Clarissa isn't a Millennial. She's a Gen-Xer. But let's be honest... Gen-Xers didn't really watch "Clarissa Explains It All". Millennials did. That's the audience that has nostalgia for the show, so that's the audience I expect the show to try and focus on (at least partially).

In other words, I see this reboot as a show that Millennial parents would watch with their kids to essentially be able to relate to the experience of transitioning into parenthood. Unlike the original show which portrayed the parents as archetypes (quirky archetypes, but archetypes nonetheless) that existed to provide obstacles and advice, the reboot would focus on Clarissa failing to fulfill those archetypes and then eventually figuring out her own way of parenting.

And if that sounds too focused on the Millennial audience, you're not entirely wrong, but I think that kids today have a different relationship to Millennial parents than us Millennials had with our parents. And I'm not trying to say "Millennial parents are cooler" or whatever, but I do think we Millennials are kind of obsessed with doing things differently than how our parents did them. Oftentimes this is hubris, but in general, the relationships that my friends have with their kids don't really remind me of the relationships I remember them having with their parents. One of those bigger differences is that I don't think Boomer parents were as inclined to watch TV with their kids. Growing up, most of the time I watched TV (even when at friends' houses) the adults would rarely join in, and if they did, they mostly commented flippantly, regularly criticizing what we were watching. Millennial parents, on the other hand (or at least the ones I know) seem to be more inclined to watch TV with their kids as a general rule.

So given that, I think it makes sense for "Clarissa" to evolve to a show that Millennials would watch with their kids so they could learn to better relate to one another.

But enough talk about the high-level concept stuff. Let's get more specific about what's changing and what's staying the same.

For starters, I don't see the reboot taking place in the suburbs of Ohio. Not just because Clarissa seemed eager to get out of Ohio and live in New York in the show, but because that's honestly what a lot of us Millennials did. We moved away. Not always that far, but with jobs becoming harder to get (and keep for that matter), and student loans ballooning out of control, we don't always get to choose where we live. A lot of us moved closer to cities and lower-income neighborhoods with real estate prices we can actually afford. I don't think I know any Millennial family that lives in a "white picket fence" suburban neighborhood like the one Clarissa grew up in. As such, I imagine Clarissa's family lives in a more modest home, probably closer to New York. She might not even own a home, she might just rent a decent-sized apartment.

Second, I think that, given her apparent state of arrested development in the novel (where she was in her late 20's) I'd find it unlikely that any of her kids would be older than 12. I'd probably aim at keeping them as young as possible. I wouldn't want the kids to be in their "rebellious" phase yet. I feel like the kids should not be old enough to see their mother as a burden (at least not constantly).

Third, unless the actor who played Sam is willing to come back as a regular and he actually can convincingly act as an adult version of the character, I think that Clarissa should be a single mom. For one thing, characters who break the fourth wall tend to be loners, and I think that it would be weird for her to have a husband that she met and fell in love with between the novel and the new series. Plus, being a single mom gives more opportunity for life drama since she'll have to juggle more. Also, divorce is a recurring presence in the series. Sam's parents were divorced, and apparently even Clarissa's parents separated.

Fourth, the show has to get the kids right. The kids can't be like the parents in the original series. They can't just exist to create conflict and occasionally show up to help Clarissa figure out the solution to her problem. Their problems have to be Clarissa's problems and vice versa. As I talked about earlier, the biggest challenge of the way I envision the reboot is making a show starring a middle-aged Millennial stereotype interesting to kids, and I think the key to that is making the kids relate to Clarissa the way they relate to their parents. It's hard for a kid to understand the perspective of their parents, but I think they try to more than we give them credit for. Also, being a kid can feel really powerless, something the the original show often touched on. Clarissa grew up frustrated with the limited control she had on her own life. Many of her conflicts arose from expectations and restrictions placed upon her by her parents. By instead making this show about the kids and the parent(s) cooperating to help solve one another's problems, kids might feel less powerless when it comes to their parents. Being able to see that their parents are just grown-up kids could be a powerful thing if done properly, and the relationship Clarissa has with her own kids will be important for establishing that.

And finally, one of Clarissa's kids should be a computer whiz who makes games every episode to help their mom deal with her problem of the day. Theoretically, Clarissa could still be the one to do this, but if the show's about her struggles as a single mom, it's probably a bit too much of a stretch to suggest that she still has the time to work out her problems by making video games. It's not a stretch at all to suggest that she still works through her problems by playing video games, but I think that this is a very simple way for her to be able to connect with at least one of her kids, get them involved in her problem-solving process, and reflect how video games can actually be a pretty good way to both bond with your kid and learn key problem-solving skills.

So that's how I imagine a "Clarissa" reboot. Pretty much an all-ages sitcom interpretation of Millennial parenthood where Clarissa has basically grown up to be the Wine Mom from BuzzFeed.

Honestly, I doubt the reboot will take the form I imagine. Mitchell Kriegman is a Baby Boomer, and while he was very influential to Millennials, I somehow doubt he's all that interested in continuing to explore the psyche of people my age. More likely, I imagine the show will be more like "Girl Meets World" where Clarissa isn't the main character and they instead do a retread of the original show, but with Clarissa taking the place of Janet. And if the show takes that route, I imagine it will do rather poorly.

But hey, I could be wrong. Kriegman definitely seemed inclined to take risks and maintain a specific creative vision with the original show rather than just do the easiest, most obvious thing to do, so maybe he might do the same now. Who knows? Honestly, there's a decent chance Viacom won't be interested anyway. Wouldn't be the first time a Clarissa reboot would get passed on. But if this actually happens, I think there's honestly a lot of potential here. There really weren't a lot of shows like "Clarissa Explains It All", and there really haven't been any other shows like it since then. Maybe it's time.