Netflix's 'Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling' Is a Perfectly Nostalgic, Dystopian Revival
Almost a full 25 years ago, on Saturday, September 24, 1994, Rocko's Modern Life kicked off its second season with the show's first two-part episode, "I Have No Son!" Nothing else particularly special aired on TV that weekend: NBC had premiered Friends days earlier, The Simpsons ran one of its widely derided clip shows, and in the theaters, The Shawshank Redemption had just debuted. So when no one was paying attention, Rocko's used a poignant story -- about a child leaving home to chase the dream of being a cartoonist -- to roast Hollywood, corporate America, and the animation-industrial complex on a spit and rip jokes off the bone.
The series has been revived with Netflix's Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling, a final chapter of sorts in the story of "I Have No Son!" and a triumphant return to what made the Rocko's formula so effective: vivid slapstick, canny topical references, and stories with a genuine warmth to them. Written and directed by series creator Joe Murray and Cosmo Serguson, alongside fellow writers Dan Becker and Tom Smith, and based on a story by Murray, Mr. Lawrence (who also writes on the show and voices Filburt), and Rocko's veteran Martin Olson -- the 45-minute Netflix special came with the right creative pedigree but no guarantees. Luckily, it proves itself within the first five minutes of screentime and careens nonstop from there. Let's talk about how.
Major spoilers for Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling follow from here on out.
Static Cling stays true to the humor and horrors of the TV show
We begin in near-Earth orbit. Our noble nincompoop slacker heroes Rocko the wallaby, Heffer the steer, Filburt the turtle, and Rocko's dog Spunky have been floating in space for the past 25 years, propelled by a rocket that punched a hole through Rocko's house, with only one VHS to entertain them, their favorite cartoon show The Fatheads, before the tape finally unspools and is destroyed. (This setup is a gentle retcon of the Season 4 episode "Future Schlock.")
The loss of their favorite TV show motivates them to hustle back to Earth only to find they're not in their familiar '90s O-Town anymore. The special makes time for several winking jokes around the traumatic loss of an iconic television series, but also timelier concerns like social media stunting, endless smartphone updates, 3D-printed comic books, absurd food items, and energy drinks that mutate their bodies -- all delivered as mile-a-minute, blink-and-you-miss-it callbacks rendered in gorgeously grotesque 2D animation. (I would pay obscene amounts of money for a "REBOOT" neon sign.) And Ed Bighead, Rocko's former neighbor-nemesis who had been doing just fine in Rocko's absence, predictably loses his mind the moment he sees the wallaby again.
The pace and tenor of Rocko's critiques of modern life in the 21st century track with those of the '90s. In Static Cling as with Rocko's Modern Life, capitalism blows, corporations like Bighead's company Conglom-O abuse workers and strangle communities, and technocratic consumption runs amok, sucking Rocko and his pals in from the jump. Rocko reasons that he has only one hope to retain his sanity, as well as save the town from economic turmoil: to get The Fatheads, a surefire hit for Conglom-O if produced correctly, back on the air by tracking down its creator and convincing the studio to make more episodes. It's such a meta premise that it works! But as Rocko learns, it will be easier said than done.
Static Cling gives a classic Rocko's storyline a positive twist
The trick is that the in-universe show The Fatheads was created by Rachel Bighead -- a character we encounter in the episodes "I Have No Son!" and "Wacky Delly," when the transgender character had not yet transitioned and was still using the name "Ralph." This twist in Static Cling is nothing short of extraordinary and a surprising commentary on both the film's core theme of change, which Rocko and his friends, and later the Bigheads (Mr. Bighead in particular), all have to adapt to if they want to, respectively, live in a modern world and enjoy a relationship with each other as family members.
It's also a natural progression of Rachel Bighead's storyline, one that was always a meta-commentary on cartooning. Rachel in the '90s and in 2019 was voiced by series creator Joe Murray. Murray and his team wrote the character in the original series as a disillusioned cartoonist whose choice to be an artist instead of a worker bee had caused a deep rift in the Bighead family. After those episodes resolved that tension, Static Cling quickly establishes a backstory where Rachel still hadn't come out to her parents, becomes estranged from them in the process, and also stops producing her art. Her journey to accomplish all three things, and her father's journey to accepting her, is the soul of this movie and is executed with a level of nuance that's rare in any medium, let alone a 45-minute slapstick cartoon.
"The younger characters accept Rachel immediately; recognizing she's still their friend," Nick Adams of GLAAD, who consulted on the film, told EW. "And while Rachel's father is slow to accept change within his own family, even he realizes that loving your child should be unconditional."
Static Cling also never essentializes Rachel as someone other than the dynamic, three-dimensional character she always has been. We get every indication that she's led a rich, globetrotting interior life before we meet her again. And when we finally do, she seems happier selling freeze pops from a food truck than when she was cartooning, presumably because she's getting used to living a fuller life as herself. The invitation to return to her artistic pursuit feels almost like a bother. "I'll do it for my parents," she says, because personal priorities matter more to her.
Static Cling spares no one, not even you
For years much of the conflict of Rocko's Modern Life played on Rocko and Mr. Bighead's opposing generational and personal views. Rocko, the young hero on a show still mostly for kids, worked at a comic shop and (and, uh, a phone sex hotline), while Mr. Bighead worked as an exec at Conglom-O, getting easily riled up at whatever Rocko or his pals were up to every week. In Static Cling, Mr. Bighead has to radically shift his perspective on his daughter in order for the movie to wrap up in well under an hour, as does Rocko -- who starts the movie thinking he needs The Fatheads only to see the finished product, with its alterations and revisions from the original format, and dislike it. Meanwhile, everyone else loves the new Fatheads Rachel puts together -- leaving Rocko feeling more despondent and disconnected from the 21st century than ever.
"This is not right! This isn't just new Fatheads! It's different Fatheads! We can't like this," Rocko rails. "You! You changed it, Rachel. You changed The Fatheads! It's too much change!"
Rocko is obviously in the wrong, and it's Mr. Bighead who calls him on it, defending his daughter in the process. Change is inevitable and can even be great, and it's impossible not to read Rocko's line -- attacking a character we've built up so much good will for -- as a pre-emptive commentary on any real-world critics of Static Cling. It's as if the creators of this film were dragging nostalgia-obsessed fans into the future, reminding them that culture moves on, with or without them, after catering to them at every opportunity. Whether you join in on the laughter is on you.