Rocko’s Modern Life recently got its own Netflix special. This isn’t in and of itself much of an achievement given how freely Netflix hands out this sort of thing but what came out the other side of the cutting room is both unsurprising and something to behold. This is going to be spoilers so please watch the movie before reading this if you’re at all interested.
For the benefit of those who didn’t grow up at the right time or with a childhood filled with 90s cartoons a bit of history. Rocko’s Modern Life is about Rocko and the perils of modern life. (in the 90s) He’s about as out of place a character as you could get 25 years ago: a wallaby in America in an anthropomorphic animal filled world. He is constantly mis-specied as a dog or “____ like thing”. The technology of the time is depicted as arcane and antagonistic and he exists in a world of aggressions as the typical nice-guy pacifist. His friends are boisterous and often times egotistical or at best self-centered. He loves comic books in an era not filled with comic conventions and cosplay contests; the 90s was still very much a jocks vs nerds culture and he gets punished for it.
Naturally with the new special Rocko is thrust into our modern life: cell phones, social media and financial instability. He is also done so in a way that removed him from the gradual acceptance of those changes; he and his friends spent the entire twenty years in outer space. While society has changed significantly the world itself had not. Everyone is the same age essentially and no one’s character has truly gone anywhere in those 20 years. It’s a bit of a “comic characters never change” trope which was a common joke to make in the 90s; a fact driven further home by showing Rocko’s closet being filled with a dozen copies of the same shirt.
All of this non-change is important to the story and not something that one truly gets until we get to the actual main plot. Rocko, inundated by the anxiety of change seeks out the one constant that his life has known even in space: his favorite cartoon The Fatheads. Quite frankly the best running plot from the original series The Fatheads is made solely by his neighbor’s son, Ralph, who at some point in Rocko’s absence had left on a self-realizing journey. None of that is really new either; the entire plotline involved Ralph becoming sick of his cartoon’s success and trying to find a way out of his contract. He hasn’t been interested in wealth or fame for its own sake from the beginning.
Rocko and friends finally do find Ralph running an ice cream truck that sells Fathead branded ice pops. The big reveal, and here’s the spoiler, is that Ralph comes out as trans: Ralph is now Rachel.
From here on out everything falls into place. As I stated in the first paragraph Rocko’s Modern Life at its heart is a show about Rocko surviving the perils of modern society. Your creative idol coming out as trans to many people right now is indeed seen as a peril of modern culture. It isn’t to Rocko or his friends or anyone else in the entire cast except his father which is the “conflict” that carries the remainder of the movie.
It is so important to point out here that Rocko doesn’t go through acceptance of Ralphs transition. It simply is. Rocko and his friends don’t have any odd facial expressions, they don’t offer any platitudes and they don’t question anything at all. Rachel has been hiding in this ice cream truck for potentially years afraid of how society would treat her and the first potential conflict she has as herself is literally a nothing. She’s still afraid of how others will react but Rocko convinces her everything will be fine and they all fly home.
Ed Bighead does react and his refusal to accept Rachel has a lot of very interesting subtleties. To be fair to Ed his life has just had a monumental amount of upheaval. Before the boys return with Rachel Ed had lost his job as a top executive in a massive corporation and his house. His entire life has gone down the gutter and Rachel’s reveal is the final straw of change that breaks him.
The things Ed doesn’t do are the interesting bits. He doesn’t insult her in any way or really question her transition. He just doesn’t understand where “his son” has gone. Ed, like many parents, sees his child as a they were as a child which was a boy in this case. Girl-Ralph is not his son and the timing and immediacy of it shakes out as a pretty natural reaction. Ed and Ralph in the original series had a huge personal conflict. Ed has disowned Ralph years before for becoming an artist and forsaking corporate life. It took multiple episodes for them to come together and a lot of that emotional pain was likely lingering. In the end, as expected, Ed accepts his now daughter realizing that they are the same person and still his child. It may also be of note that Ralph/Rachel is and always has been voiced by Joe Murray himself and he did not change his voice in any way for Rachel. There is no strained falsetto or recasting for a woman voice actor.
Perhaps I was too young at the time or perhaps it was just that subtle but Rocko’s Modern Life had always been a show about acceptance and diversity. It wasn’t about gender diversity but that wasn’t a major topic of discussion 25 years ago and certainly would not have ever aired on Nickelodeon. The greatest thing about this movie is that the subject matter and how it is presented is not an achievement for Joe Murray or Rocko. Getting Nickelodeon to actually allow it may well be but this could have been any random episode for this show. This is the depiction we need. One where it is not the entire plot of something. We need characters that react realistically and especially one where some characters don’t react at all.
Rocko’s Modern Life in its original run may not be a timeless show; it is very rooted in the 90s culturally and many of the jokes fall flat these days. It’s pretty obvious Joe Murray and Rocko himself are, however.