Back in the early 1990’s Nickelodeon was pretty dumb. Filled with cartoons and show’s pandering to cultural expectations and too pre-occupied with selling you toys to care about how good the show was. That all really started to change in 1991, when ex-Saturday Night Live writer Mitchell Kriegman convinced Nickelodeon to take a leap of faith and make Clarissa Explains It All, a kid’s show unlike pretty much any other out there.
Before she ever discovered the wonders of magic (which, don’t worry, we’re talking about next week), Melissa Joan Hart won hearts around the world as the sarcastic, smart Clarissa. The show was simply about her travails as a teenager, learning who she really was and, well, being a regular old teenager.
The show was somewhat trail-blazing though, as it was kids’ TV giant Nickelodeon’s first major female lead show. Afraid that only girls would like a show starring one, the execs had always been scared until Clarissa came along and blew all of those preconceptions away. That Clarissa wasn’t written like a girly-girl, all pink frocks and lace definitely helped.
Clarissa was the absolute heart of the show. Grounded, realistic and occasionally unlikeable, she was a completely accurate take on the 1990’s teenager. She also dressed oddly, listened to rock music and made her own video games in her spare time. Played to perfection by Melissa Joan Hart, who won four Young Star Awards for the role, Clarissa’s oddness was the key to her normality.
It also featured a really odd relationship for early 90’s TV, a completely platonic girl-boy friendship. This was pretty much unheard of back then, especially in kids’ TV. That Sam would come over nearly every day, and nothing ever happened between the two was a real mark of maturity. Only once was the spectre of romance even mentioned, and was put down even before the end of the episode. That the show never went the easy route and hooked the two up is admirable.
That wasn’t the only mature theme dealt with clearly and funnily by the show. Sex, bullying and drinking were brought up with regularity. Even more surprisingly, they weren’t shunned, just explored.
Even the pilot featured Clarissa’s bra being used as a plot device. Risqué indeed for 1991. That an entire episode was dedicated to Clarissa ‘accidentally’ shoplifting lingerie was a pretty brave decision made by the writers.
The show even managed to have unconventional storytelling, as Clarissa broke the fourth wall and talked to the audience with reckless abandon. Filled with pop culture references and clever satirical jokes, Clarissa was easily the brainiest show on the block for kids and teens to get their teeth into.
The show seems fairly hammy now, but nothing in comparison to the vaudeville acts that have popped up on the Disney channel over the last few years. Far cleverer than Hannah Montana and Clarissa’s natural successor iCarly, it stands up extremely well. The only trouble is that's more than a little
It may have been about an average girl in an average town, but Clarissa Explains It All was anything but average.
FemaleFirst Cameron Smith