Clarissa Explains It All tried to ban TV—on TV
Melissa Joan Hart (Nickelodeon)
Melissa Joan Hart (Nickelodeon)

Clarissa Explains It All tried to ban TV—on TV

Looking back at the influence of Nickelodeon’s first heroine

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. Now through July: TV we loved as kids.

Clarissa Explains It All, “No T.V.” (season one, episode three; originally aired 3/23/1991)

In which Clarissa’s mom thinks the Darlings need some bonding time…

Sonia Saraiya: Well, as this is my pick (along with Pilot), I’ll start with the obvious: I love this show. Clarissa Explains It All is one of the first shows I remember watching, ever, and it was certainly the first I watched in a sitcom format. In retrospect, it was tailor-made for girls like me: smartass weirdos with a family life that didn’t always make sense to the outside world. I found out recently that Suzanne Collins, writer of The Hunger Games, wrote for Clarissa Explains It All decades ago, and to my mind, it explains so much. Both are media aimed at kids; both are terrifyingly prescient. The Hunger Games takes on reality television a lot more directly, but Clarissa Explains It All is a show that is literally about breaking the fourth wall, and it did that for kids in 1991.

For the uninitiated: Clarissa Explains It All is a half-hour kids’ sitcom, structured around the idea that Clarissa Darling is talking about her life, and the people around her (primarily her parents, her younger brother/nemesis Ferguson, and her best friend Sam), to the viewers at home. And she’s not just talking: She’s structuring her updates in the form of a television show. There’s a “special report” every episode or so, or an “update” on a situation as it’s progressing. There are pretty silly animations “drawn” onto the screen, and cutaway digressions that often have rinky-dink special effects. There is a large reptile in a sandbox in the corner named Elvis, and a hilariously ancient computer that Clarissa uses for some of her adventures.

The best descriptor for Clarissa Explains It All is “wacky.” It’s not as earnest as some of its contemporaries, like My So-Called Life and The Wonder Years, but it’s not as normcore as Full House or Boy Meets World. It sort of exists in its own world, because Clarissa sort of exists in her own world. Although she’s acutely aware of pop culture, modern technology, and social history, she’s also created an imaginary audience for herself to talk to. Clarissa’s candid relationship with her audience created a one-to-one bond that I imagine the creators of Blue’s Clues were also hoping to achieve with having Steve address the camera so frequently—because in that fuzzy area before I knew what a fourth wall was, I felt that Clarissa got me. Does that make me sound like a stalker? A little bit! But kids’ programming, by definition, has to rely on very direct appeals to its audience in order to catch on.

I chose “No T.V.” for our trip down Clarissa Explains It All’s memory lane, because I watched it on a plane 10 or so years ago (Why was it available programming on Aer Lingus?) and it amazed me that a show aimed at kids would make an episode about not watching television. Because I was a tiny raging liberal even as a kid (I seriously don’t know where I got my politics from, but to give you an idea of my interests, my other favorite show was Captain Planet) the other thing that really spoke to me about Clarissa was its attempts to do good—whether by entertaining the idea that television has its limits, or by showing Mrs. Darling making obsessive organic meals while eschewing plastic bags and aerosol cans. It’s not necessarily that her parents are left-leaning (though they are former hippies, as is discussed at times in the show); it’s more that they’re trying to suck less, and explore various methods of doing that.

Rewatching it this time, though, I’m ecstatic I chose it—I think it offers so much of what the show was good at, and also some of its more hilariously bad moments. (Every time Dad Darling calls Clarissa “sport,” I die a little inside.) But before I gush, I want to hear everyone else’s take on it. Do you guys see what I see?

Pilot Viruet: It’s possible that I just have a bad memory, but I can’t remember watching much television as a kid except for Clarissa Explains It All and The Simpsons. (My obsessive TV-watching habits wouldn’t come full force until high school, when I started skipping school just to watch marathons of shitty syndicated sitcoms.) The Simpsons was a no-brainer—everyone watched it, and my entire family loved it—but, like Sonia, I viewed Clarissa as a show that was specifically for me. I liked that she, like me, dressed a little weird, obsessed over music, constantly fought with her brother, and gave us updates on her life. I was fond of the same things: I even, annoyingly, documented my life with poorly drawn comics, online journals, and a fake news program shot on my father’s VHS camera (those tapes have since been destroyed). So Clarissa is the first show I remember watching and thinking, “Someone else is like me!” and subsequently realizing that was going to be a big trend in my television-loving life—seeking out characters that make me feel a little less weird.

There are so many outdated references and strange ’90s technology happening in Clarissa Explains It All. But I think it’s a show that really holds up. One bit has always stuck with me—when Clarissa asks Sam to watch The Simpsons for her and tell her what happens on Full House—because it spoke to the importance of television when it came to fitting in at school. I remember kids giving other kids the cold shoulder if they hadn’t watched some popular show; it’s basically the equivalent of adults telling another adult that they haven’t seen The Wire.

I’m glad you chose “No T.V.,” because it’s an episode that I have a very vivid memory of; I was fascinated (and confused!) by an episode about not watching TV. But I loved Clarissa’s clever attempts to get around it, with her use of implausible technology. That was a big draw for me: Kids’ shows tend to put their characters in neat little boxes, but Clarissa wasn’t just a super-girly girl or a big tech nerd. She was a mixture of both—and had so many other characteristics—that she came off as a real teenager with real interests, some that stayed throughout the series and some that disappeared like the real phases teenagers go through.

Clarissa also wasn’t as clean-cut as its counterparts. As a kid, I remember being positively floored that Janet smoked (and that it was treated as this simplistic “Ew, gross!” thing instead of a big flashing public-service announcement like Full House would do). I’m pretty sure cigarettes are banned from Nickelodeon at this point. 

Joshua Alston: Clarissa is far more playful than I remembered, and much, much weirder. I mean this as high praise; the idea of hooking up a makeshift television and only being able to tune in a Russian shopping channel selling Ukrainian potatoes is funny to me now, but was probably too absurd for me as a kid. I was also surprised to see how many quirky devices and references Clarissa deploys in a single episode. Between the animation, the “special reports,” and the Casablanca riff, there’s just so much stuff in the episode, and I’m impressed by how gracefully the show managed to incorporate it all in a compelling way for a very young audience.

It helps that it’s all wrapped around an idea to which any kid can relate: the agony of having television withheld. My parents were never so strict as to declare an outright television ban, but my mom got pretty firm about us not watching any television until after dinner, and even that was a tall order. My brothers and I would invent storylines for our favorite after-school shows in lieu of actually watching them, and sometimes we came up with some pretty entertaining stuff. This might be why the funniest part of the episode to me was when the family lapsed into a Cosby Show recap as their television withdrawal worsened.

I have zero recollection of this particular episode, but I definitely remember watching and talking about Clarissa as a kid—which is striking to me now, because, as I recall, it was a show every kid my age was watching, boys and girls alike. That was also the case for teen shows like Swans Crossing and Fifteen, which by today’s standards would be considered female-skewing. It’s easy to see why that’s the case from watching “No T.V.,” which still doesn’t strike me as a show for girls, even as I see why girls would identify so strongly with it.

I suspect the biggest reason Clarissa was as appealing to boys as it was to girls was the fourth-wall breaking, a device I remember being introduced to via Saved By The Bell, which wasn’t quite as wacky as Clarissa (and preceded it by a few years), but did feature Zack Morris freezing time at will to address the audience directly. It’s such an effective tool, because it forces identification with the protagonist and dampens the voyeuristic dynamic, which can feel alienating when you’re peering into a world you feel you don’t belong in—especially as a kid, when you’re so desperate to identify with others.

Plus Clarissa featured Sam, and as I recall, never tried to advance any notions of puppy love between them. (They did go on a date later in the series, but decided to remain just friends.) Sam is a normal kid his age, and his friendship with Clarissa was effortless because she was, as you guys mentioned, an atypical girl. That made it easy for boys to watch and enjoy the show without feeling like we were crashing a slumber party. I don’t watch a ton of children’s television these days, but with so many more television choices available to all ages, I’d imagine teen and tween shows are now much more traditionally “gendered” than they were in the days of Clarissa Darling.

Did I belong to an unusual tribe of male Clarissa fans, or were you and your friends watching it back then, Brandon? 

Brandon Nowalk: Oh, I was right there with y’all. In fact, Clarissa was the first thing that came to my mind when I heard the topic was shows we watched as kids (after the shows I watched as a kid that I still watch, like SeinfeldStar Trek, and The Twilight Zone). I didn’t remember much about it, except for Melissa Joan Hart, direct address à la Zack Morris, and highfalutin references—in truth I had it partly confused with the news segment on All That—but I definitely remember it being the only Nickelodeon comedy I watched regularly.

“No T.V.” first aired in early 1991, and it has the neon and diskettes to prove it. But like Joshua, I’m totally taken with all the pop culture riffs. In the first few seconds we get the Pink Panther theme and then the Jaws theme, with Clarissa peeking through bushes to break the fourth wall in between. There’s a light-saber battle between the remotes. Ferguson’s reading “the annotated exegesis of the quest for space travel through the popular medium,” er, a Star Trek episode guide. The Casablanca re-enactment, in sepia and composed like Curtiz, almost has me itching to watch more just to see what other movies and shows became Darling family fantasy sequences. It’s hard to think of a better episode for all these pop-culture tributes than the one about the way TV looms so large in our culture.

I love how the sensibility of this show is part Karl Marx and Marcel Marceau and part comically large spools of bright blue cable that go unnoticed in Clarissa’s room. Or the high-tech universal remote she gets that’s really just a normal remote blown up to nine times the normal size. Everyone gets in on the broad gag action, from Dad’s giant pickle place to Ferguson’s smoking tatters at the end. And Mrs. Darling makes such appetizing courses as “lentil surprise” and “alfalfa parfait” to stave off the TV-withdrawal shakes. My favorite goofy joke in the episode combines that wackiness with references that would have certainly flown over my head when I was five: The Russian infomercials, no matter which one, all have the same text toward the bottom of the screen: “Glasnost! Perestroika!” All the while Clarissa’s dropping references to Laugh-In and Attila The Hun. It’s not educational, exactly, like younger kids’ shows, but it’s aspirational. Clarissa just has all kinds of cool knowledge at her disposal. And even when she gets wise-ass lines, Hart doesn’t play her as prickly. She’s cool. Girl or boy, who wouldn’t want to be her?

As for the TV-or-not-TV question, I guess the episode comes down on the side of not watching TV, at least sometimes—I mean, it opens with Clarissa suggesting Marx might call TV the potato chips of the masses—but it can’t help but be even-handed. When Clarissa points out that the average kid watches three-and-a-half hours of TV a day, absorbing a proportional amount of sex, drugs, and violence, there’s Sam with a joke about how he needs to watch more to meet that number. “I must not be watching the right channels,” he says, faced with the prospect of more sexual references. But more than that, TV has a lot of different kinds of value for Clarissa. It’s cultural currency for Clarissa at school, in the way Pilot describes. It’s a shared experience for her family, as Joshua points out with Cosby. It’s a shared experience for whole communities with live sporting events. It’s just plain cultural, as well as nostalgic, for the Darling parents, who bonded over Casablanca. And clearly it’s not rotting Clarissa’s brain; she figures out how to get Russian TV on her computer. If that’s your brain on TV, I don’t see the problem.

Sonia: It’s funny: This is children’s television, but in its perspective and storytelling, it feels about as complicated as a David Milch drama. (Okay, maybe that’s overstating it, but it amuses me that both Deadwood and Clarissa could make a joke about the means of production and farting in the same episode, without breaking a sweat.) What enchants me about the perspective of “No T.V.” is how ridiculously complicated it is—and how comfortable it is with that complexity. Clarissa Explains It All doesn’t try to resolve the questions it raises: Instead, it tries to live with them. That’s dark, yo. And kind of deep. (Even the cigarette smoking isn’t resolved. It just sits there, an after-school special waiting to happen, and no one picks it up.)

A few years ago I heard former Viacom executive Geraldine Laybourne talk about Nickelodeon, which was almost entirely her creation. She started out her presentation (to a crowd of young professionals in New York) by asking when we were born, and taking a quick survey of ages. Then she looked out at us with some satisfaction and said, “I know everything about you.” For 15 years, all she cared about was our generation—and this is crucial; not what came 10 years before, and not even what came 10 years after. (She left the company before Nickelodeon’s early-childhood shows were developed, like Blue’s Clues and Dora The Explorer.) She told us about her hands-on focus groups with kids and moms, which were (according to her) unheard of at the time.

Because I was so extremely young when I started watching Nickelodeon, I don’t think I entirely realized how revolutionary and weird—and successful!—the network was when it began. Laybourne leaving Nickelodeon had an effect on the network similar to Dan Harmon leaving Community: It wasn’t exactly bad, but something was off. And a hallmark of Laybourne’s era is Clarissa Explains It All, which she told us was her favorite show the network created. (She is also a fan of Rocko’s Modern Life.)

What struck me afterwards, in comparing the network under Laybourne’s direction to pretty much anything else in children’s programming, is how emphatically un-patronizing Nickelodeon is. This is the same era as The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, Salute Your Shorts, and You Can’t Do That On Television—the same era as Nick News, too, which was another pet project of Laybourne’s. All of these shows looked and felt a lot like what adults watched on TV—even the news segment imitated our parents’ evening news, with Linda Ellerbee as anchor. It all jives with what I remember frustrating the hell out of me as a kid—that everything, always, was either dumbed-down or out of my reach (literally). Very few people in the world talked to me like I was a real person. Clarissa talked to me like a real person—and she was so cool! It made me feel like a grown-up.

Well, as we’re all charmed by Clarissa Explains It All, still and always, here are a few questions for us all: What makes it evergreen? Is it the actors, the writing, the format? Does it have a present-day counterpart? Or a grown-up version of same? 

Brandon: I’ll leave the broader analysis for someone who has a better memory for this show and its neighbors. I like what you say, Sonia, about not realizing how creatively successful Nickelodeon was back then. I didn’t either, and after this and Hey Arnold!, I’m itching to check out some other ’90s Nick with fresh eyes. It’s interesting to look back on something I lived through with, like, actual consciousness. I had heard that Bush and Quayle attacked television at large via Murphy Brown and The Simpsons in 1992. What I didn’t realize was Bush would spout facts like the ones Clarissa spouts a year after she spouted them. That politicians, like the Supreme Court, don’t lead but instead follow public opinion. And most significantly, that I had been absorbing America’s anxiety about television for roughly as long as I had been absorbing television.

Nick wasn’t first on the scene. Max Headroom presented the future as a dystopia governed by television networks a few years before Clarissa started her TV show within the TV show (and while I’m on the subject, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, which broke the fourth wall decades before Zack Morris). The ’70s gave us Mary Hartman, a housewife whose life is first developed entirely by television—its ads a late-capital shell game and its news a cover fire of world traumas—and later completely broken down by it, live on The David Susskind Show. The first episode of The Honeymooners even revolves around TV. It’s a “keeping up with the Joneses” plot, but then again, maybe that’s how Mary Hartman and Max Headroom’s dystopia begins.

On the other side is HBO’s Dream On, a ’90s sitcom that heavily relied on clips from old shows or movies to express its characters’ feelings—like a musical, but instead of songs someone changed the channel. You don’t have to dig very deep to see the end of history, but on the surface it’s practically an ode. Then there’s the Holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a leisure activity that’s like a video game (or a TV show) you’re a part of. It has its malfunctions (and sad, sad episodes), but there’s no anxiety about its role in the universe. It isn’t dumbing everyone down or anything.

Clarissa splits the difference, and—conflict of interest, I know—I think she’s basically right. Television is a vast wasteland that’s nevertheless peppered with oases. It isn’t Roddenberry’s light diversion. It’s an aggressive medium, a tool for the dissemination of relatively quick, cheap, and above all unchallenging product directly into your home—don’t get up!—funded by massive corporations interested in maintaining the establishment by reinforcing conservative values, and I mean that aesthetically as much as socially. It’s a creeping weed spread across pop culture, routinely crowding out the best and boldest, the new and the experimental. It’s easy. But it also has all of the values Clarissa demonstrates and more. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Clarissa never defends the content, does she? She could have cited BlackadderTwin Peaks, or Fishing With John, or someone a bit older might have, anyway. The utilitarian defense works, but personally I think television is capable of great artistic achievements, too. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is all the defense television needs.

But Clarissa plays it safe at the end: Television’s fun, but shouldn’t we really be playing charades with our families? There’s some irony there. If we were playing charades with our families, we wouldn’t be able to watch Clarissa do that with hers. Still it’s a letdown. If you can’t go wild on Nickelodeon, where can you?

I have answered approximately zero of Sonia’s questions, so somebody please take over. I have a TV-watching quota to meet.

Joshua: Brandon, your comparison to Dream On is shrewd and spot-on. Dream On’s use of cutaways is reminiscent of Clarissa’s many narrative ornaments, and its also apt to compare the two—especially within a discussion of “No T.V.”—because of how Dream On commented on the way people experience real life through a televisual filter, sometimes consciously, other times not. I’d also toss out Roundhouse, Nickelodeon’s surprisingly effective hybrid of sketch comedy, community theater, and after-school specials, which debuted a year after Clarissa and was paired with it on Nick’s schedule. I’m thinking specifically of that show’s technique of ending its stories with one of its characters interjecting: “Reprise the theme song and roll the credits!” before the cast does just that. It wouldn’t have occurred to me before this discussion, but it seems like a certain meta quality or self-awareness is the common link between most of the children’s shows we’ve talked about.

That’s a long-winded way of saying Clarissa was and continues to be effective because of its format. No shade towards Melissa Joan Hart and the rest of the cast, all of whom are perfectly competent, but is there a performance here I watch and think “I can’t imagine anyone else in this role?” No, there is not. The magic of Clarissa is how deftly it juggles all those narrative devices, which couldn’t have been an easy feat, resulting in a show that works even when, as is the case in “No T.V.,” not a whole lot is happening. Perhaps what surprised me most upon rewatching Clarissa is how light on plot the show is, and “uneventful” is the last word I’d imagine applying to a successful children’s show.

But I don’t want to give short shrift to how well-conceived Clarissa Darling is as a character, which is also a huge part of the show’s success. The format is amazing, but it could only work if built around a character endearing enough to make the show entertaining even if she isn’t doing much, and Clarissa is someone you want to hang out with. She’s savvy, clever, and seems entirely disinterested in whatever is considered “cool” or “normal” among her peers. It makes Clarissa, for girls and boys alike, the perfect companion for that type of kid, who all too rarely meets others like them.

The potent combination of a solid format and a strong character paves over the uneventfulness, which would have presented a huge hurdle for Clarissa if the rest of the show wasn’t so soundly built. Children thrive on immediate gratification, then learn to suppress those urges as they learn responsibility. Many of us mature as audience members too, learning to appreciate slowly built tension and eventual release, a dynamic that bores children to tears. Kids are also addicted to happy (or at least pat) endings, and the success of Clarissa flies in the face of that as well, assuming its other episodes are like “No T.V.”

Having television privileges withheld is the highest of stakes for Clarissa’s audience, so it’s pretty daring to have the episode end with Clarissa being subjected to life without television for a longer period, rather than having Clarissa find some way to inveigle Ma Darling into abandoning the experiment. It’s an incredibly confident move for the third episode of a kids’ show, and evidence of how finely tuned Clarissa was from the get-go. 

Availability: The entire episode, and many more, are available for free at Teen Nick. (Part one of “No T.V.”; Part two.) Also on Amazon Prime.

Next time: A trip with imported Japanese anime superheroes, as TV Roundtable takes a look at Sailor Moon.

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