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10 best Rocko’s Modern Life episodes

Ranking the 10 best Rocko’s Modern Life episodes
(Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

For any full-fledged American ’90s kid, 2009’s The Proposal evokes two second-season Rocko’s Modern Life episodes.

The unrelated movie title matches an Ed Bighead line, which he follows with a classic scream. Later on, another plot fundamentally resembles that of the Sandra Bullock vehicle 15 years in advance.

Granted, it takes some stretched-out thought or brimful devotion to make those connections. But as this author has testified in this space before, Rocko has the best shelf life of any ’90s Nicktoon. While it had enough material to satisfy its intended audience, its mature and sophisticated trimmings are brimful.

As of this week, a quarter-century has passed since Nickelodeon premiered this program as its fourth orginal animation series. It mustered four seasons, culminating in the fall of 1996, then stayed in reruns through 2000.

More recently, after years of undue obscurity, it has resurfaced on DVD and Nickelodeon affiliates that slake millennials’ nostalgia cravings. Those exhumations were not a moment too soon, for just like its original run, Rocko gets better over time.

In selecting the top episodes, establishing and maximizing character traits is crucial. The title character wants little more than a stable existence with decent time for enriching diversions. His two best friends walk an iffy tightrope between boyhood and bona fide maturity.

But whichever way they go, they all but inevitably cross the crotchety Mr. Bighead.

Starting late in the first season, these and supporting characters tended to stick with their trademarks. The result was majority quality over five half-hour and 94 quarter-hour teleplays.

Out of an ultracompetitive pool, the following Rocko’s Modern Life episodes best established and maximized its core characters. Some even flirted with calculated breaches of character before restoring familiarity. And, of course, there was bountiful comedy along the way.

10. “She’s the Toad
Season 1’s “Canned” might as well be out of the Rocko canon. It is the ultimate measuring pole for how much shape the show takes by Year 2. Exhibit A: “Kiss Me I’m Foreign.” By this time, Filburt has ceded “Turn the page, wash your hands” duty to a rabbit while pretending to marry Rocko.

Slightly earlier in the sophomore season, this story establishes Ed as a slightly lower-ranking Conglom-O executive, answering to Mr. Dupette. The previously unnamed yellow lizard had been Rocko’s boss while Bighead was running the downtown corporation.

Regardless, while establishing a virtual end to experimentation, “She’s the Toad” has some callbacks to the prior season. Heffer casually tells Filburt, “I died once,” in implicit reference to the events of “To Heck and Back.”

The off-topic dialogue fills the time while the crafty Bev Bighead devises a way for them to replace her (literally) broken-down husband. Upon executing the scheme, her two enlistees open Conglom-O’s doors to female empowerment.

Meanwhile, Ed’s spiral becomes easy fodder for Heffer and Filburt’s “mischief.” In his disoriented state, he also makes another first-season reference by repeating Rocko’s assessment of Garbage Day.

9. “Born to Spawn
This Filburt-centered storyline holds up flawlessly for the generation of youths who watched this show mature out of control.

For anyone who feared outgrowing childhood staples like this, Filburt is the source of solace. He can dodge and fight the onset of adulthood all he wants. But in due time, he finds that it is not such a drastic or dreadful adjustment.

At its resolution, the tied-in Jolly Roberts storyline reinforces that message. As the newsreader mentions, “only a few cases of fishsticks were discovered missing” after Filburt implicitly returns the stolen ship.

The way Filburt learns to stay young at heart is not unlike Mr. Bighead’s later lesson in “Old Fogey Froggy.”

8. “Dumbbells”
After a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, the Hippo Lady returns for some genuine character development.

On three first-season occasions, the hippo’s only purpose is a recurring gag that runs twice per episode. Rocko would erroneously offend her, draw a masculine-sounding admonishment, then sustain a painful punishment.

When coaxed into playing ding dong ditch at an apartment complex, Rocko encounters his nightmare again. But in a refreshing twist, the hippo cackles uncontrollably and takes up the game herself.

Once her antics land the two in court, she is even mentioned by name: Gladys.

As a bonus, for once, Rocko does not endure undue consequences at this encounter. Before the accused can be sentenced, Heffer and Filburt step in and sobbingly confess to the nuisance.

7. “Fly Burgers”
As with Gladys, Rocko’s last run-in with Flecko includes a court case. It is also the best of the recurring character’s appearances.

Previously, the fly disturbed Rocko’s much-needed sleep after losing his false eye in the wallaby’s nostril. Two seasons later, Rocko took his selflessness above and beyond to save Flecko and friends from insectivore Ed.

This time, though, you get a piece of both-sides-have-their-flaws friction. As Rocko says, “I was just trying to cook my burger.” He then faces an unfair trial under false pretenses.

With that said, while he does it the wrong way, Flecko merely seeks a better quality of life. During his 30-day sentence “as a fly,” Rocko, being Rocko, quickly comes to understand. Apologies are warranted all around, even if some are delivered with insufficient sincerity.

6. “Commuted Sentence”
To accentuate Rocko’s innocence, his boss, Mr. Smitty, is at his worst in this storyline. He sets his subordinate up for failure by needlessly taking a parking space, making Rocko late for work and forcing him to settle for a tow zone.

A catch-22 ensues, as Rocko needs his car to sustain his job, yet needs a steady paycheck to regain his vehicle. Naturally, all attempts at a happy medium fail, and the unreasonable Smitty sacks him.

Little does he know that he has now set the tables to turn on him. This program has never typified the old saying “last laugh” quite like it does at the end of this episode. The protagonist’s instant, last-minute turnaround equals the villain’s deserved expense.

5. “With Friends Like These”
Seinfeld creator Larry David would appreciate the lack of lessons at the end.

Rocko could have averted this episode by giving both of his wrestling tickets to Heffer and Filburt. After all, he won them by accident whereas his friends made a maximum effort to attain them. Acknowleding and doing as much would be well within his character.

Instead, when pressed as to who the spare ticket will go to, he admits to “not giving it much thought.” This renders him the object of an over-the-top competition.

In the midst of that, Heffer kicks off the final season by calling back to Season 1’s “Popcorn Pandemonium” and Season 2’s “Road Rash.” Meanwhile, Filburt brandishes a parking meter as a weapon, a la the Fatheads from “I Have No Son.”

4. “Rocko’s Modern Christmas”
Rocko’s voice artist, Carlos Alazraqui, captured this episode’s splendor best last July in an interview with AfterBuzz TV.

“I like it because it’s a quintessential episode where Rocko is at his sweetest,” he told reporter Keetin Marchi. He continued, “It’s beautiful and it’s wonderful and crazy.”

If any of those adjectives are indispensable, the third one is. Madness is not only part of this satirical show’s essence, but a fact of the holiday season. Both the mall scenes and the mass hysteria Ed spreads fall under that heading.

Yet amidst the materialist whirlwind and unseasonably dreary weather, Rocko retains his generosity and optimism. Implicitly the latest person to have moved into the neighborhood until the elves arrive, he comes to the aid of the shyest and is the first (only, really) to welcome the new Christmas-loving clan to town.

3. “Wacky Delly”
Against “I Have No Son,” this is the better of the two episodes featuring Ralph Bighead.

Series creator Joe Murray, who voices Ralph, and his crew plunge into self-examination here. By satirizing their own field, they can get away with subsequently critiquing the consumers’ taste in cartoons.

For all of the differences “I Have No Son” addresses, “Wacky Delly” leaves no doubt as to Ralph’s hot bloodline. As his father often does, Ralph brooks exponentially comical setbacks in a singular, underhanded, anger-fueled mission.

Some of the humor’s escalation comes from the lack of explanation. Sure, one can credibly argue that too few people appreciate quality art over mediocre entertainment. But how does Ed’s manmade flood manage to wipe out “all shows, except Wacky Delly”?

Cartoonish suspensions of disbelief aside, much of this teleplay, especially Part 2, is funny for its elements of truth.

2. “Cabin Fever”
As one should expect, the first season is rife with unripe, experimented content. Still, it is little surprise the cast selected this gem for a live read at 2015’s Florida Supercon.

Of the episodes that ensured the show’s traction toward a coveted encore campaign, this stands out for Ed’s misfortunes. Stuck with his easygoing wife and “idiot neighbors,” he is the only traveler who succumbs to the title condition.

Besides serving as a crucial plot point, the avalanche embodies the ill luck Ed brings on himself with his impatience. Before and afterward, a string of missteps, miscommunication, misidentification and mistakes exacerbate his doomed-for-ruin getaway.

First there is the wild bear that takes exception to Bighead’s errant shots in a snowball battle. After the avalanche, there is the utterly inexplicable dialogue between Ed and a drive-thru clerk.

That ludicrous sequence is enough of a classic on its own. But the eventual explosion in Ed’s face will not be the last hit he takes in this episode.

1. “Cruisin’”
“Lookee, Heff, we’re a thousand years old and surrounded by wild kids.”

Rocko’s amusing exaggeration of the twisted time warp conveys its instant impact on him. Who needs elderly sensitivity training when you can divert a cruise ship to the Bermuda Triangle?

Before Rocko does just that, he sulks over Grandpa Wolfe’s curmudgeonly temper. His return bitterness is uncharacteristic, but a duck-feeding cruise customer puts him back on the path to empathy.

From there, out of frantic concern for the ducks and against the cruel captain’s desire, Rocko steers the story into the episode’s second part. Once there, a sneering clock takes the seniors back to their prime and forwards the two stowaways to old age.

For the ensuing 10 minutes, some get the second chance they want while others get the perspective they need.

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Al Daniel

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