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Rocko's Modern Life returns on Netflix with a modern day spin, with GLAAD's close help
After more than two decades, the cult cartoon classic Rocko's Modern Life is returning in the form of a 45-minute Netflix special, Static Cling. Directed by series creator Joe Murray and Cosmo Serguson, the animated film finds Rocko the wallaby (voiced by Carlos Alazraqui) returning to Earth after floating around in space with Heffer the cow (Tom Kenny), Filburt the turtle (Mr. Lawrence), and Spunky the dog (also voiced by Alazraqui) for more than 20 years. For anyone who grew up watching the weird '90s icon, the special is an electric dose of nostalgia, and it feels like the natural continuation of a program that always pushed the boundaries of gross-out humor and adult-oriented concepts.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling below**
"It was the last thing on my mind, since I was working on the pilot for a new show I'm doing for PBS. I was really afraid of messing up what we did in the '90s," Murray tells SYFY WIRE, explaining that Nickelodeon's Chris Viscardi called him to pitch the idea of bringing Rocko back to close out the '10s. "We had such an amazing crew, so I felt, we either do a story that pushes things even further, or we don't do it at all. I pitched a story that was a little difficult for Nickelodeon at first, with some poking some fun at themselves and handling some strong topics, but they signed on for the ride, and I'm happy with the result."
The episode picks up over two decades after the 1996 finale of the original series, which saw the main crew blasted out into space by a rocket attached to Rock's home. Upon their return to earth (and O-Town), Rocko, Heffer, Filburt, and Spunky come to realize that a whole lot has changed during their celestial sabbatical. They can now shell out for the latest smartphone, chug energy drinks with mutagenic effects, or simply watch 10 hours of mops on the internet. It's not all techno-utopia — callback the original show's opening credits sees Rocko pelted with dislike buttons, chased by 1984-esque security cameras, and attacked by a brain-chomping laptop.
"The characters really just naturally jumped into the world," adds Murray. "It was easier since they were out in space for 20 years. We didn't have to account for any character evolution during that time. So, since the story was about change, it all worked out very organically. Heffer can get gas from hamburgers or kale salad. It works naturally ... It was fun to sit down and list all of the things that are different now as they were in the '90s. I remember I ended up getting a very early mobile phone while I was doing Rocko, it was a monstrosity like the size of a World War II walkie-talkie. I remember it rang and I pulled it out, barely hearing the person on the other end, and Steve Hillenburg said, 'I'll never have one of those things.' So, modern life just keeps going."
Speaking of Stephen Hillenburg, Rocko's Modern Life was the SpongeBob creator's first job in television. Hillenburg, who passed away last year from ALS, served as a creative director on the show several years before he'd unveil his own iconic Nickelodeon creation. And while Static Cling couldn't really include an homage to Hillenburg since it was finished long before his death, Murray assures us that the special would not have been possible without the contributions of the marine-biologist-turned-animator.
"His energy was so influential in the original Rocko, it really couldn't help but pay him homage," Murray says. "I think Rocko gets overlooked often in the huge shadow of SpongeBob, but he really cut his teeth on these episodes ... They are some of my favorites."
Bringing Rocko's Modern Life back meant revisiting the original series, but Murray says he didn't always love looking at his old work. Newer, younger members of the Static Cling team who weren't part of the original series added some nice perspective, though.
"Every morning at 10 a.m., the whole crew would gather for a screening of the original episodes. I grimaced a lot at retakes I should have called," Murray explains. "Then [we had] a Q&A afterward about stories from the episodes and what we were trying to do with them, and whether we pulled it off. Then we brought in old backgrounds and cels to show how we did the show to the new crew members. It also helped that a lot of the crew grew up on Rocko, and probably knew [the show] better than I did."
Heffer, Filburt, and Spunky have no problem adjusting to the modern era, but an already-shaken Rocko has a nervous breakdown upon realizing that his favorite TV show, The Fatheads, was canceled years ago. Unable to accept this major change, he sets out on a self-aware and globe-trotting adventure to track down the show's creator, Ralph Bighead (voiced by Murray himself), son of Rocko's irascible next door toad neighbor, Ed Bighead (Charlie Adler). After a fatal clerical error that bankrupts Conglam-O, Ed sanctions the quest to find his only child, lest he get let go by his nose-picking boss, Mr. Dupette (also played by Adler).
"It was like no time had gone by at all," Murray says of working with the original voice cast, each of whom had a gigantic career in the years since Modern Life ended. "They were all the same. They had all gone on to bigger and better things — Tom Kenny as the voice of SpongeBob — but there was no ego, it was all fun. We had to search out Linda Wallem (who does Dr. Hutchinson), and none of us had seen her for 20 years. But hugging her and laughing with her seemed so natural. Except for the massive press presence, it was all the same. They are all insanely brilliant.
"As far as missing something, any time that I create characters that I grow to love, it's hard to see the business realities of just saying 'It's over,'" he continues. "So it was nice to see and work with them again."
After scouring the globe, Rocko and his friends finally find Ralph, who has left the Fatheads behind to sell delicious ice pops in the desert. More importantly, the audience learns that Ralph now identifies as a woman named Rachel, adding an unexpectedly topical narrative beat to Static Cling. While Rocko & Co. are totally cool and excited about Rachel's comfortable new lifestyle, Ed is not, claiming that he has no child, infusing the story with another unfortunate yet relevant parallel to the trials and tribulations faced by the LGBTQ community.
"It really seemed like a natural progression for Rachel's character," Murray explains. "It was a change for the better for her, and change for the better in how these communities are represented in modern day. Since I have no personal knowledge of how it feels to transition, we worked closely with GLAAD to be as authentic and knowledgeable as possible in our storytelling. I was really happy that Nickelodeon agreed to move forward with the story. That would have never happened in the '90s."
Fortunately, Ed eventually comes around to accept Rachel after she decides to make a Fatheads special (another piece of meta-commentary) that calls back to her own childhood. Despite all the zany stuff going on around them, it really is a touching moment. When the special is finally shown to the world, however, Rocko loses his cool, screaming that the introduction of a baby Fathead isn't true to the original series, a development that makes him angry and upset. It's clearly a commentary on today's toxic fan cultures, but Murray insists that it's not a reference to Modern Life's fan base.
"It's really all observation," he says. "Rocko fans are really amazing and deeply committed. But I also know things could change in a minute. [That's] why I was hesitant to do a special. What if it sucked? I feel that social media and the internet are really the reason Rocko gained momentum over the years. My wife is a little afraid of the Rocko fans with some of our encounters, but it's all good fun."