"Rocko's Modern Life" Season 1: Great Show, Vanilla DVD
If there was ever a NickToon long overdue for retail release, it’s Rocko’s Modern Life, which debuted in 1993 and still has a strong cult following. For some reason, though, Nick took its time with this show, and it actually took Shout! Factory to take the reins and release it themselves, so that Rocko now gets a retail DVD release 18 years later. Thankfully, the show is just as enjoyable as when it debuted, so the wait was worth it.
Rocko follows the misadventures of the title character, a very unlucky but positive wallaby whose life is a series of real life annoyances exaggerated to the point of cartoony absurdity. A simple trip to the laundromat, for instance, pits Rocko against an out-of-control washer which bounces and hops down the street, as well as some goons deep inside a dryer who purposely cause clothing damage. Or take a simple plane ride: Rocko is thwarted by two flight attendants who purposefully try to run him down with their food and drink carts, even going so far as to corner him between the passenger seats. That’s hilarious, just for how absurd it is.
Frequently accompanying Rocko on his daily challenges are his faithful dog, Spunky, and his friend Heffer, an obese steer who can’t stop eating. Filburt, a Woody Allen-esque turtle, is also in a few episodes, though his role as another friend hadn’t solidified yet; during the first season, the writers were still experimenting with his character, and Filburt would appear as an obstacle for Rocko in a couple outings, such as a DMV employee or a lethargic grocery check-out clerk who almost causes Rocko to miss the deadline for a 99% off sale. Rounding things out are Rocko’s next-door neighbors, the Bigheads, a pair of bulgy-eyed toads. Ed Bighead is the grouchy nemesis, and Bev is his wife who actually doesn’t mind Rocko; in one episode, she even flirts with Rocko due to being unfulfilled by Ed!
One of the reasons why Rocko holds up is that it has something for every age group. Young kids can laugh at the slapstick, physical humor, and fast pace, while teens and adults can appreciate the jokes that would go over the youngsters’ heads. There are innuendos (particularly in the job search episode, where Rocko is clearly working at a phone sex agency, or in another where an optometrist grabs Rocko’s eyeballs and tells him to cough); allusions to racism (in the grocery episode, a customer starts soapboxing about how the country would be better off without sea mammals, only to have an irate bystander pick a fight with him because his wife‘s a sea mammal!); parodies only adults would get (the grocery episode features a great reference to the 1955 film Marty!); even a bit of religious humor that surprises for having slipped through (a trip to a carnival features a ride called “Elevator to Hell”, and of course, one plotline features Heffer going to Heck, with the real name sloppily crossed out). Cartoons which work on multiple levels are almost always better than ones that only play to a narrow audience, as this show proves.
But it’s not just the adult humor that makes it stand out amongst many of the NickToons. It’s the fact that it stars, well, an adult, doing adult things: Looking for a job, taking a driving test, going to the beach, etc. Yet it exaggerates those mundane things so it’s not boring like they often are in real life. Kids grow up fast, or at the very least, want to grow up fast. A cartoon starring someone older than them can be appealing for the simple reason that it shows them a different lifestyle than they’re currently experiencing. I know personally, I was more interested in shows about adults as an older kid than shows about kids in school. The Simpsons, Duckman, and Rocko all fell into that category (only partly so in the case of The Simpsons, since it had many Bart/Lisa school storylines, but it still counts due to Homer being a big focus).
Rocko also still holds up in its presentation. The animation is just fine, and has more character movement than you’d see in some recent animated comedies, yet there are very few (if any) off-model moments, sloppy/unnecessary movements, or animation goofs. One thing I always enjoyed about Rocko is the architecture, which is purposefully slanted, swirly, and off-kilter. Rocko has an appealing character design and his triangle-accented blue shirt is practically iconic. The facial expressions aren’t quite as varied as another NickToon of the time, Ren and Stimpy, but there are still some amusing ones throughout; I particularly liked Rocko’s scrunched lips and teary eyes after drinking some incredibly tart lemonade. The surfer-esque background music by Pat Irwin also meshes nicely with the tone of the show, though I easily prefer the B-52s version of the theme song more than the first season’s, which was by Sarah Frost. The show also benefits from great voice acting by such vets as Carlos Alazraqui (Rocko), Charlie Adler (the Bigheads), and Tom Kenny (Heffer).
Sadly, even though the show itself is good, the 2-disc DVD set isn’t so lucky. The image quality is decent, but I spotted some dot crawl and a few instances of color bleeding. The 2-disc set is bare of extras, and doesn’t even have subtitle options; only a list of episodes is featured on the menus. I never bought the Amazon burn-on-demand DVDs of Rocko, but I wouldn’t be surprised if these were just retail versions of those releases, aside from the new Shout! Factory logos. One final annoyance: The version of “The Good, The Bad, and The Wallaby” on the set is the edited one, with the Heffer milking gag removed. I know Shout! Factory only worked with the masters Nick gave them, but it’s still disappointing we’ll never get that scene on DVD, not as long as Nick doesn’t want to play ball. Based on this precedent, I fear the love motel scene from season 2’s “Road Rash” will be absent as well.
So who should buy Rocko’s Modern Life Season 1? If you’ve already bought the Amazon DVD-Rs, I say just stick with those. This set doesn’t seem like a big upgrade from those, outside of maybe being compatible in more players. On the other hand, if you’ve never bought Rocko on DVD, I definitely recommend season 1, despite its bare bones presentation. It’s a fun show that still holds up after nearly twenty years.