Photo credit: SlimeCon
For adults of my age range who had access to basic cable in the 1980s, the most important channel in the universe was — sorry MTV fans — Nickelodeon. From meager beginnings as The Pinwheel Network, one of many offerings from the revolutionary QUBE cable system, Nickelodeon seemed to be an endless treasure trove of entertainment for kids. This despite the fact that for much of its early existence, Nickelodeon only broadcast for 12 hours a day and relied on a hodgepodge of foreign imports and leftovers for the bulk of its programming.
Perhaps it was the relative lack of slick presentation or marketing guile that made the early Nick years so special. Or perhaps it was a roster of truly excellent shows. Likely it was both. Here’s my selection for the top 8 programs from the first full decade of Nickelodeon’s existence.
#8. Out of Control
Most people were probably introduced to the magic of Dave Coulier through his role as Joey on ABC’s Full House, but a few years before then he cut his live-action teeth as the host of Out of Control. This show has the distinction of being the first original Nickelodeon production, and was presented as a zany hybrid of a talk show, sketch comedy, and informational program. It was certainly goofy but never seemed dumbed down or pandering. I always felt like I was watching a show aimed directly at me, and I even appropriated Coulier’s trademark “Cut… It… Out!” catchphrase until he brought it to Full House and tainted it forever.
#7. The Third Eye
The Third Eye, an anthology series, was a pretty bold programming choice for a children’s station in 1983. Basically it was The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits for the kiddie set. The show consisted of already broadcast sci-fi/fantasy series produced in the U.K. and New Zealand. Many of these shows, while quite dated now, were legitimately creepy and unnerving at the time. Over the course of The Third Eye‘s run it aired the first series of Into the Labyrinth (1981), as well as The Haunting of Cassie Palmer (1982), Children of the Stones (1976), Under the Mountain (1981), and The Witches and the Grinnygog (1983).
Oh sure, I loved Sesame Street as much as anyone. But man, sometimes you just had to get away and check out the scenery somewhere else, you know? And so there was Pinwheel, existing in the same universe of preschool kids’ shows but just in a different dimension. It had cute songs, cute puppets (not Muppets), and super-nice human beings to help keep things moving along. It even had its own catchy theme song. My favorite characters were Herbert and Lulu the Hobo Bugs, Silas the Snail, and Admiral Bird, all of whom appear briefly in the opening sequence.
#5. Today’s Special
The children’s department of a Canadian mall might seem like an unlikely place for television magic to unfold, but it unfolded all the same for seven seasons of Today’s Special. Each half-hour episode worked on teaching one topic and featured a whimsical cast of humans, puppets, and even a mannequin who came to life. (That last one may or may not have been the basis for a later movie in the ’80s.) While the show typically kept a light tone and didn’t teach anything that might stress kids out, it was the ’80s and so they got heavy from time to time. Take, for instance, the “Phil’s Visit” episode, which dealt with the topic alcoholism.
#4. Double Dare
There were not a lot of game shows targeted at kids back in the day, but even if there were it’s unlikely that any of them could have touched the sloppy glory that was Double Dare. If you don’t remember the show or never saw it, imagine Family Feud with a lot more food and a lot less borderline sexual assault from the host. For kids of my generation, hearing the words Physical Challenge elicited a nearly Pavlovian response, as it meant some insanely entertaining and messy shit was about to go down. Double Dare, more than any other show, helped establish Nickelodeon as a force to be reckoned with on cable TV. And most amazingly of all, host Marc Summers performed his duties with aplomb while dealing with OCD.
#3. Mr. Wizard’s World
You can have Bill Nye the Science Guy. For me and millions of my generation and earlier ones, Don Herbert is the once and forever King of Pop Science. Over the course of 78 episodes Mr. Wizard, with little fanfare or need for fussy showmanship, taught all of us — through the eyes of a bunch of dumbstruck Canadian children — about the wonders of the world around us. Something I didn’t notice when I watched the show in the ’80s but do now is that there was a bit of an edge to Herbert’s delivery. He was like a really cool but no-nonsense teacher that ultimately we all loved, and that’s probably what prompted the internet tribute “Mr. Wizard’s a Dick.”
#2. You Can’t Do That on Television
We all know by now that You Can’t Do That on Television served as the launching pad for Alanis Morissette’s career, but let’s not hold that against the show. Chances are if you watched Nickelodeon for any length of this time you saw YCDTOTV or witnessed its impact. Not only was it the station’s flagship program for many years, it was practically synonymous with Nick as well. The show’s trademark green slime is still used by the network, and it’s doubtful that any of the show’s fans will ever forget names like Christine, Barth, Moose and Alasdair. Not to mention phrases like “Stop the execution!”, “I heard that!”, or “Blue skies, Barthy Burgers, girls!”
If there’s one show that spurred my love of British humor, it’s DangerMouse. And the reason it’s in the top spot over shows that I loved just as much as a kid is staying power. I find DangerMouse‘s usually subtle, dry wit just as appealing now as I did 30 years ago. While the animation for the most part was serviceable at best, the characters are great and the stories are a ton of fun. I was seriously bummed out when DangerMouse finally left Nickelodeon’s airwaves and I scooped up every DVD release of the show several years ago.,While nostalgia did play into that decision I have watched them over and over anyway, with not a trace of irony. Sure, I didn’t get a lot of the references and I could’ve used subtitles half the time, but it’s a testament to the show’s great writing that it didn’t matter anyway.