Rugrats 

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced or reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

Original programming for cable has revolutionized television as a medium, but until very recently, cable wasn’t the place a scripted series went to get to 100 episodes. HBO’s stalwarts—The Sopranos, Sex In The City, and The Larry Sanders Show—all topped out under that mark, and the few series that have made it there tend to be similar to network shows in their ambitions. (USA’s Psych, for instance, will cross the mark later this year, and TNT’s The Closer will have eked out 109 episodes when it finishes its run this summer.)  

There’s even less incentive to reach 100 episodes for a cable kids’ show. The goal for most children’s series is to reach 65 episodes. At 65 episodes, the series can be broadcast five days a week for 13 weeks, thus allowing for broadcast of the complete series four times over the course of one year. This works out to be just the right amount of episodes for kids to watch over and over again, without getting bored of endless repetition. The number of kids’ shows that got to the 65-episode mark and just stopped is legion. Take, for instance, the Disney Channel’s Lizzie McGuire, a Hilary Duff vehicle that was enormously successful for the network in the early ’00s. The show ended its run at 65 episodes and a movie, and the network got another several years out of airing the program endlessly. (It was airing as recently as 2009.)

So it’s all the more remarkable that one of the first scripted cable series to hit the 100-episode mark and keep going was an animated kids’ show, one that was largely ignored when it first launched in favor of the two series it debuted with. When it premièred in 1991, Rugrats was part of the very first “Nicktoons” block, a vanguard idea at the time. Few cable networks had considered producing their own scripted series. Even fewer considered doing so for kids when there was content from other countries to be imported and old cartoons to revive and run in the afternoons. But Nickelodeon saw the value in having a series on its airwaves that couldn’t be seen anywhere else. The network had long dabbled in cheaper original programming—particularly in game shows and dirt-cheap sitcoms—but scripted series would give the network an identity beyond the vague idea that it was a place where kids would get slimed.

And if the network wanted to garner a larger audience beyond its core group of bored latchkey kids, the best place to start would be with cartoons.

Nearly everything that would make Rugrats a major success and a pop-culture phenomenon is present in the original pilot presented to Nickelodeon by Klasky-Csupo productions. It was produced after the animation studio’s heads, Arlene Klasky and Gábor Csupó, heard Nickelodeon was looking for its own original animated series. Co-creator Paul Germain created the characters, while Klasky and Csupó handled the animation end, and the six-and-a-half minute pilot introduces the world of the characters fairly intact. Not every character is here—the villainous Angelica, perhaps the series’ most famous character, doesn’t appear at all—but the show’s sensibility and toddler-like point of view are present immediately, as hero Tommy Pickles attempts to figure out what the strange white object he’s spied in the bathroom is. Even the Mark Mothersbaugh-composed theme song is present.

When it debuted in August 1991, Rugrats received the least attention of the initial band of Nicktoons. Doug—a benign series about a young teenager making his way through the pitfalls of early adolescence—received the strongest initial reviews, while Ren And Stimpy—a wild, scatological series that pushed the limits of what was considered acceptable on kids’ TV—was the instant hit, becoming a sensation both with kids and adults, particularly those in college, thanks to its zany, occasionally gross-out humor and sumptuous animation led by instant cult-figure John Kricfalusi. Rugrats was just the third show, the one that aired with the other two but attracted far less attention.

These circumstances, however, ended up benefiting Rugrats. Kricfalusi clashed with Nickelodeon, and when he was removed from Ren And Stimpy, the program’s audience rapidly abandoned it. Doug was never a ratings success on the level of what R&S had been or what Rugrats would become, and Nickelodeon eventually lost the rights to the program to Disney (which hoped to ape the success Nick had had with kids’ programming by stealing one of its foremost weapons). Rugrats, meanwhile, became first a reliable performer, then one of the first smash-hit shows to air on cable. (At its height, Nickelodeon estimated more than 25 million people per week watched Rugrats.) The network left the show in the same early-evening timeslot for much of its run, and having it in the same spot every day allowed it to attract first a solid audience of kids, then, gradually, one that included their older brothers and sisters and parents. The early-evening slot turned out to be a masterstroke, and Nickelodeon’s gamble that families might be looking for an alternative to the evening news paid off. (Nearly every channel aimed at families now puts a marquee series in this timeslot on weekdays.)

What made Rugrats so successful was that it was a surprisingly layered series. Like Doug, it was filled with small observations that would ring true with the network’s primary audience, but like Ren & Stimpy, it contained the sorts of crazier gags that would appeal to kids and teens, though it never pushed the envelope in the way Kricfalusi’s series did. In some ways, Rugrats was the perfect ’90s series, a less-daring cable counterpart to The Simpsons. It possessed the edginess that marked most of the decade’s successful programs, yet it never pushed so far as to alienate anyone. That central tension arose because the animators—led by Klasky and Csupó—often seemed to want to make a gentler show than Germain and the writers did. Angelica, something of a childlike sociopath, was the major point of contention between the two groups, due to how utterly evil she could be toward the other kids. Yet Angelica ended up being the series’ breakout character, a necessary dose of conflict in a show that otherwise would have been a more wry, slice-of-kid-life comedy.

What ultimately made the series a huge crossover success was that it treated its adult characters just as seriously as its child characters, even as it kept the point of view firmly focused on the toddlers. Kevin Johnson, an animation blogger who’s an expert on cable cartoons, points out that incredibly adult situations could be playing out in the background of any given episode, be they slightly risqué or teasingly dramatic. In the pilot, for instance, the episode concludes with a serious argument between Tommy’s parents, one that attentive viewers will hear slightly as the closing credits music rises up. Tommy’s not paying attention—he’s too busy watching TV—but his parents’ adult lives are going on, even as he’s growing up. The most genius move the series made was to put a fairly standard show about wide-eyed innocents learning about the world in the foreground and a domestic drama like Thirtysomething in the background. The series was also willing to examine living arrangements beyond the standard nuclear family one. Tommy’s grandfather lived with his family, and his best friend Chucky was being raised by a single dad. Later seasons would incorporate kids of divorced parents.

The series also used this disparity between what children perceive and what adults actually understand to be happening to humorous effect, often creating hilarious juxtapositions between how the children understood things—in ways that would seem very strange to an adult—and how their parents did. Here was where Klasky and Csupó’s animation direction shone. Their oddball designs and unusual camera angles presented something that looked very different from other kids’ shows, and the visual design of the series grew increasingly confident as it went along. This is most evident in the show’s most famous episode, season two’s “Reptar On Ice,” which has the kids attempting to bring a baby lizard to their dinosaur hero, Reptar, who’s actually just a man in a suit skating in an ice show. The kids’ quest sucks in younger viewers, but adults and teens will probably be more amused by how utterly bizarre the ice show the animated parents are sleeping through is. 

Nickelodeon already knew about the 65-episode ceiling, evidenced by the way several of its sitcoms had topped out at that number (including, among others, Clarissa Explains It All and Hey, Dude). Though it saw potential in Rugrats as the show crossed into the mainstream over the course of its first three seasons, the network produced 65 episodes (13 in season one, then 26 each in the following two seasons), then put the show on hiatus. The longer the series ran, however, the more the show gained in popularity. It began winning Daytime Emmys, and more TV critics sang the praises of its gently acerbic humor. Rugrats was never a great television show, but it was always superbly constructed comfort-food TV, something kids and parents could enjoy together after hard days at work or school, each group finding something different to appreciate in the show’s sweetly zany universe, a universe that could be laced with darkness when it so desired. (In that regard, Rugrats’ successor, SpongeBob Squarepants, the only other Nicktoon to pass 100 episodes, has also captured the attention of the family audience.)

It took time, but Nickelodeon eventually realized what it had. After taking much of 1995 and 1996 off, new episodes of Rugrats were produced—starting with highly rated, critically acclaimed holiday specials that marked Chanukah and Passover, thus reflecting the Jewish roots of some of the series’ characters. The show ran successfully until its final episode aired in 2004. (The network stretched the final season of 14 episodes out over the course of 18 months.) But it was never quite the same after the hiatus (perhaps because Germain and the rest of the original writing staff departed after the initial 65 episodes). More and more new characters—like a baby brother for Tommy—were added, and the combination of gentle kids’ stories and more adult-focused material going on just offscreen became broader and broader, with the kids spending more time in their own fantasy worlds. The series’ writers cycled through, and the show’s animation became increasingly handsome, trading in the initial ragtag charm of the early seasons for something smoother and more refined. This wasn’t always a bad thing, and most episodes of the series retain their charm, but everything felt a little less like a skew on real-life and a little more like keeping the Rugrats factory churning along. The series became a franchise, spawning videogames, movies, and a spinoff (where the kids advanced in age by a decade). Rugrats products continued to appear well after the series ended, but gradually, the show faded from public consciousness, as surely as the two shows it debuted with had. 

Yet the series’ success pointed the way forward for scripted kids’ TV on cable. Now, networks are more likely to let hits—particularly animated hits—run past the 65-episode barrier, and they’re more likely to take chances on weird material that might have as much adult appeal as kid appeal (though Ren & Stimpy and The Simpsons are just as much to thank for that). The series was influential in ways that haven’t been fully recognized, from standardizing the now-normal two-stories-per-episode format to allowing for animated series that dabbled in point-of-view tricks. Rugrats had its ups and downs, particularly the longer it went on, but it somehow made cable kids’ TV an event, solely by trying to appear as uneventful as possible. 

Next time: Survivor