The world is a dark place right now. At every turn, we’re greeted with a new tragedy, violence, or people attempting to strip entire groups of people of their rights. And that’s not even including the plague that we’re living through. It’s hard to not think negatively all of the time. So, when something positive comes along, I think it is deserving of the highest praise. That is definitely the case with the newly released nostalgic documentary The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story. When I look back on my childhood, as I’m sure many who grew up in the 90s would agree, it is blatantly clear that Nickelodeon was a very critical part of my formative years. Watching TV was something that my parents and I did as a family and Nickelodeon was on nearly every night.
Enter Scott Barber and Adam Sweeney’s The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story. Coming in at just 102 minutes, this feature-length nostalgia generator sets out to highlight the origin of the children’s programming titan and how it was responsible for creating iconic television shows that serve as the backbone of an entire generation’s pop culture adolescence. Barber and Sweeney’s film is a broad overview of just how exactly Nickelodeon became the successful brand that it is, examining the early beginnings through the creation of the classic SNICK Saturday evening lineup. So, if you’re looking for a Spongebob Squarepants gush fest, this is not the documentary for you. Instead, we get a look at the earlier shows from the network like Hey Dude, Salute Your Shorts, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Clarissa Explains It All, Double Dare, and Guts, as well as the classic Nicktoons like Rugrats, Doug, and Ren and Stimpy.
With so many programs and specific points to address, The Orange Years never gets too in-depth. But we get interviews with original cast members and creators of each of the shows highlighting how they came to be, how they contributed to the 90s Nickelodeon zeitgeist, and, in the case of some shows, how they were able to get away with some of the things that they did. The interview with former network head Geraldine Laybourne was a particular highlight here, because you can see just how much she cared about not talking down to kids as viewers and how she refused to see them as a consumerist opportunity, which the documentary goes on to note is a symptom of modern Nickelodeon. Overall, we’re treated to a few interviewees from each of the programs discussed. Highlights include: Marc Summers (Double Dare), Melissa Joan Hart (Clarissa Explains It All), Kenan Thompson (All That and Kenan and Kel), Lori Beth Denberg (All That), Larisa Oleynik (The Secret World of Alex Mack), Venus DeMilo Thomas (Salute Your Shorts), and many more. It’s legitimately a who’s who of my childhood.
The documentary works hard to provide the viewer with fun anecdotes from the sets, Nickelodeon history, entertaining memories from the cast members, and insight into just how these things came to fruition in the first place. The Orange Years prides itself on reigniting your love for your childhood and greeting you with familiar faces from the past. There are so many genuinely sweet moments with cast members talking about their time at Nickelodeon without reverting to the disingenuous and overly saccharine, as is often the case with attempts at igniting nostalgia. My only complaint is that I just wanted it to keep going. This is definitely a documentary that could lead to a more exhaustive product in the future. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed. You can see just how excited the interviewees are as they speak about their shows and you know that they could just keep going if the time was given.
One element of the documentary that I really appreciated was the discussion on diversity at Nickelodeon at this point in time. Geraldine Laybourne talks about how they wanted all children to feel represented on the network. All That was the standout program for this, as it featured a very racially diverse cast from the beginning, as well, as highlighting Hip-Hop and R&B musicians in their music showcase every episode. Looking back, I remember this being the first exposure I had to so many of the iconic singers and rappers that were featured. The documentary also reminds us of Nick News with Linda Ellerbee and just how effective it was at communicating real world news in an accessible way to children. The example they use is the AIDS special with guest Magic Johnson. Host Linda Ellerbee introduces Magic Johnson, who had recently been diagnosed as HIV-positive, but goes on to ask the children in the program to raise their hand if they too have HIV. Two young children raise their hands. One begins crying as she explains how she just wants people to view her as normal. There is a truly emotional and heart-wrenching moment where Magic Johnson explains to her that she is normal and comforts her. With the AIDS epidemic still raging, the importance of this discussion simply cannot be denied. Nick News gave a young face to HIV and humanized the epidemic to a generation who had simply seen those suffering from it vilified in the press.
The brief Nick News segment of the documentary is one of the few emotional moments of the film. The rest are there to make you think fondly of the shows loved by 90s kids. As we’re nearing the end of 2020, I can’t really think of a time when a fresh and loving nostalgia trip is more vital. For these 102 minutes, I was able to escape from the negativity and bitterness of the world. And I am confident that if you grew up during this era, that you too will welcome the escape to a time when, as the creator of The Adventures of Pete and Pete states, ice cream was the most important thing in the world. The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story is a very welcome and incredibly pleasant time capsule; one that could not have arrived at a better time.
The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story is available to purchase on DVD and Blu-ray and is available to buy on iTunes.