Clarissa Explains It All

Clarissa Explains It All

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys. YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros. Countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and videogames whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look back at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

Draw a straight line back from any of today’s lady-blogs, like Jezebel, The Gloss, or The Hairpin, and somewhere around 1994, you’ll crash right into Clarissa Marie Darling. Together with Blossom, The Baby-Sitters Club’s Claudia Kishi, and basically everyone who worked at or was featured in Sassy magazine, Clarissa personified what so many girls—myself included—at that time aspired to be: smart, funny, and wearing the hell out of some badass Doc Martens. 

Too often, girl-centric entertainment is pink, frilly, and laced with woozy crushes on some unattainable, cool older boy. Tween girls are one of the most powerful buying groups (Who else buys Wet ’N’ Wild cosmetics and Lip Smackers?), but more often than not, shows designed to appeal to them end up being critically untenable schlock, filled with toy-driven characters like She-Ra, Bratz, or Strawberry Shortcake. 

Smart live-action television shows for girls didn’t actually exist until the mid-’90s, when an ex-Saturday Night Live writer named Mitchell Kriegman managed to convince Nickelodeon to take a chance on an off-the-wall fictional gal from Ohio. Clarissa was strong. She could make her own computer games back when it wasn’t cool for girls to spend time with technology, let alone learning programming. She wore men’s work shirts instead of Esprit, and preferred Violent Femmes to Wilson Phillips. Simply by being an individual, she became an everygirl for viewers.

Though it only ran for 65 episodes over three years, Clarissa broke the world of girl-centric—and tween-centric (a term that didn’t even exist before the SNICK era)—television wide open. It was the first Nick series to feature a female lead, and its success led the network to churn out at least 10 more “girl power” live-action shows to date, including The Secret World Of Alex Mack, The Amanda Show, Zoey 101, and iCarly. The lesson from Clarissa was clear: Take the time to make smart television for girls, and they will come in droves to watch it. 

Clarissa was about more than just girl crap, though. It was about teen angst and the eternal struggle to stand out from the crowd. Granted, those struggles manifested in crushes on the town weatherman, standing up to (and later dating) school bully Clifford Spleenhurfer, and trying to keep a hippie dad from rapping about architecture on career day. But heck, it seemed really real. And weirdly, it kind of still does today.

There’s an argument that all kids’ TV is total garbage, and a lot of it is. Hannah Montana isn’t a great show. Saved By The Bell didn’t empower kids to do much more than be cool. In the ’80s, a lot of Saturday-morning TV existed for the sheer purpose of selling toys to kids. It’s a racket, and it doesn’t have to be done well. Put in a laugh track, some fart jokes, and kids running circles around befuddled adults, and your show is almost a guaranteed success. 

Clarissa rose above that, though it did occasionally embrace the standard tropes. This dry comedy was, after all, about the trials and tribulations of growing up as a teen girl within the wacky constructs of the offbeat Darling family. Dad Marshall was an architect, Mom Janet a tofu-obsessed children’s-museum director, and young Ferguson a Reaganite redhead from planet little brother. Clarissa’s best friend Sam had a mostly absent sportswriter dad who let him eat pizza every day, much to Clarissa’s chagrin. Other characters came and went, including the occasional female friend for Clarissa, but this core crew held down the fort, for the most part.

In the first season of the show alone, viewers got a strong sense of Clarissa as a person as well as a protagonist. In the pilot, for example, Clarissa is hellbent on killing her brother Ferguson after he brings her training bra to school show-and-tell. She manages to wrangle him into a straightjacket and attempts to hook him up to a bevy of helium balloons, ultimately injuring Sam instead, but in a way that gets him out of his dreaded football tryouts and getting pulverized by Wally Butterman. It’s worth noting here that viewers actually saw Clarissa’s bra here for several seconds, something pretty edgy for a children’s network, not to mention the whole “actually trying to kill her brother” thing. Moreover, viewers learned that this wasn’t a kids’ show—or a girls’ show—they’d seen before. Clarissa talked fast, broke the fourth wall, and snuck around behind her parents’ backs. She didn’t care about boys or clothes, and she owned an alligator. She was cool without being Zack Morris or Kelly Kapowski, and that was admirable.

In “School Picture,” which aired later in the first season, Clarissa fights the powers that be, both in her family and at her school, by asking to choose her own clothes for the dreaded school-picture day. Janet wants a navy cardigan and knee socks, but Clarissa wants an orange b-boy jacket, overalls, and an India-themed baseball cap with a jeweled elephant on it. After Clarissa discovers her dad’s high-school photo was redacted from his yearbook because his hair was too long, she wins her mom over, only to discover that her quest for individuality has spilled over to her classmates, resulting in a group shot of a bunch of kids wearing sideways baseball caps and neon. The lesson? Even successful grassroots activism doesn’t always benefit the activist.

Clarissa’s last new episode ran in 1994, and though the series was on Nick until 1997, and a weirdly horrible reboot—Clarissa Now, about her life as a big-time New York journalist—ran on CBS in 1995, the magic was lost. As a long-time devotee, I remember feeling like I lost a friend when that show went off the air. I missed Clarissa talking directly to me. When Melissa Joan Hart popped up on Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, it just wasn’t the same. (It’s even less the same now, as she’s an outspoken Republican, but I digress.)

It’s hard to not employ the rose-colored glasses when you look back at something—and someone—you idolized so much. I honestly thought I was Clarissa in some way, and so looking at the show for this column was a rough exercise in objectivity. Watching hours and hours of Clarissa in the past few months didn’t dissuade me from remembering how important it was to me growing up, though it did seem a little stale, years later—a fact I attribute to my obsessive, repeated viewings as a tween (I can still remember a lot of the dialogue verbatim), rather than a commentary on the show’s writing or style. The whole thing is a little hammy, sure, but I’d rather watch this than Hannah Montana any day.

My one complaint—other than a lingering desire to see Sam and Clarissa get together in their late 20s—is that Clarissa is a bit of a snot. Like any teen, she knows far more than anyone around her, and she’s unwilling to learn anything new unless she teaches herself. Even though Marshall and Janet vary in their degrees of flakiness, they still don’t guide her much, other than the occasional light push in the right direction. As I get older, I tend to long for smart, fair parental characters who aren’t just friends or weirdoes. Or, even crazier, what if her younger brother wasn’t someone to murder, but an actual ally and friend sometimes? In a semi-groundbreaking show like Clarissa, it would have been nice if the Darlings, all together, could have been a new kind of television family.

That said, even after my intensive recent jaunt through the catalog, the show stands up to some of my expectations, and maybe even exceeds them. The showrunners, whether intentionally or not, made a bunch of choices that now seem really bold, from Clarissa not wearing much makeup to her wearing the same clothes over and over in different combinations. The show also makes frequent, only somewhat veiled references to sex and partying. In “Life Of Crime,” which aired in season three, Clarissa “accidentally” shoplifts a bustier, which is more than titillating enough for a kids program. In that act alone, the show acknowledges that lingerie (gasp!) exists and that girls are somewhat interested in it well before they’re 18. Sure, it’s no Cathouse, but it’s pretty damn racy even now for a show that was rated Y7. 

Speaking of taboo, it’s damn bold that Clarissa and Sam were just friends. They even tried dating for one episode and declared it disgusting. They were platonic friends, and that was totally okay. (Though if there’s fan fiction out there about them getting together later, I’d love to read that.) 

Clarissa ended because its fans and its star grew up. Clarissa went to New York to intern at The Daily Post. Sam was the first man admitted to all-girl Bibbington College, somehow. In spite of that ill-fated CBS pilot, we’re left to just assume things turned out okay, and that Clarissa became every single thing that each of us wanted her to be. That’s probably for the best, at least for me.

For better or for worse, I built a lot of my life on this kind of hybrid notion of my own identity and Clarissa’s. Looking back, I’m a little frightened of how much of my life reflects hers. I lived in New York, am a journalist, liked They Might Be Giants, and wore more stretchy headbands and novelty tights than I care to admit. Still, I don’t honestly think I consciously made decisions based on what Clarissa did or said. I admired her outfits, but I only wore the really loud stuff on the weekends, when I thought I could avoid social torment. I got involved in music and journalism because they were things I loved, not just because Clarissa liked the John without the glasses in They Might Be Giants, or wanted to be Jane Pauley.

That’s really the lasting impression I’m left with, watching this show as an adult. I don’t think I—or any Hart admirer—tried to become Clarissa. But all viewers—myself included—gravitated toward the show because we could find ourselves in her. And in that sense, that’s the show’s biggest success. Clarissa wasn’t a pop star, a superhero, or incredibly rich. She was an average girl living an average life, but in kind of an extraordinary way. Clarissa Explains It All left a nation of young women safe in the knowledge that things would work out just fine, as long as they stayed true to themselves—Doc Martens and all. 

In fact, it’s a message that holds more than 15 years later, and in that sense, Clarissa is a nostalgia-buster. The outfits look dated and the technology hasn’t held up, but I’d be proud to show this series to my future daughter, and I’d hope that maybe, just maybe, she could get some of the same lessons of self-determination and acceptance of individuality that I got out of it, all those years ago.