Editor’s Note: NickSplat is now available on VRV! It includes Nickelodeon content from the 1990’s and beyond, including “AAAHH!!! Real Monsters,” “Are You Afraid of the Dark?,” “CatDog,” “Clarissa Explains It All,” “Doug,” “Kenan & Kel,” “Legends of the Hidden Temple,” “Rocko’s Modern Life,” “The Angry Beavers” and “The Wild Thornberrys,” among others. To celebrate, we’re sharing our childhood experiences with these shows and inviting you to rewatch these classics with us.
Of all of the cartoons I watched as a kid, none left quite so strong an impression on me as Doug.
The shows I grew up with were about larger than life superheros, or wacky characters in slapstick situations, or simply outgoing and adventurous kids. Doug wasn’t like any of them—it’s a cartoon about a shy, insecure boy dealing with normal problems. The characters weren’t getting into magical mixups or dealing with powerful villains, they were trying to learn to parallel park, or falling into scams preying on their greed, or summoning the courage to own up to their mistakes. The most unusual thing in the series is Doug’s apparently sentient dog, Porkchop. Otherwise, it’s about as mundane as it gets.
But set against the day-to-day world of the series is Doug’s active fantasy life that would put Walter Mitty to shame. Sometimes he imagines himself as the heroic Quailman, saving his friends and classmates from evil bullies or teachers. More often though, his daydreams revolve around the worst-case possible outcomes of the situations he finds himself in.
As an anxious little kid, Doug’s issues were all too familiar to me. Like all kids, I made mistakes, broke things, and acted in less than honest ways sometimes, and my brain would always conjure up the most dire potential consequences. When, for example, I once accidentally flopped down on the couch and inadvertently crushed my grandmother’s glasses, I expected to be yelled at and sent to the corner. Instead, she told me it wasn’t a big deal and asked me to be more careful of my surroundings.
So Doug resonated with me—and more than that, it showed me that when we did screw up, things usually didn’t go as badly as our guilty consciences might have anticipated.
Series creator Jim Jinkins was insistent that each episode teach a lesson, but these never came across as patronizing morality tales—perhaps because the show was about relatable scenarios and couched in humour. Doug presented us with a world where things would ultimately work out if we acted with integrity and valued ourselves as human beings. Of course, things aren’t like that in the real world, but Jinkins wanted to present kids with a better alternative:
We put ourselves through enormous pain to avoid pain and I had this notion of: ‘What if we didn’t do that? What if we just told the truth?’ But that’s complicated. In the adult world, the notion of truth and not-truth is complicated, but I didn’t want to debate it. I didn’t want to show all of the ambiguity of the adult world to kids. I wanted to show kids a world where everyone took honesty seriously.
In addition to its unique subject, Doug also featured strong voice acting—with the title role played by superstar Billy West—a distinct visual style characterized by a wide range of colors, and a distinct soundtrack primarily consisting of mouth noises. The show looked and sounded different from anything else at the time, which helped it stand out from the crowded cartoon environment of the early 90s.
Doug first aired on Nickelodeon as one of the channel’s first original animated programs—one of three 1993 premieres, alongside Ren and Stimpy and Rugrats. Ren and Stimpy, of course, is a frenetic, often-gross cartoon that many kids at the time—myself included—were forbidden from watching. And while Rugrats became one of my favorite shows of the period, it was definitely much less relevant to my life than Doug was.
Looking back, it seems unlikely that a cartoon about a normal kid dealing with the everyday problems of growing up could launch alongside a lineup of over-the-top programming and thrive in a media environment that was all about wacky hijinks and superpowered anthropomorphic animals. But Doug did just that—and shy, anxious kids everywhere were grateful for it.