Rocko’s Modern DVD

Rocko’s Modern Life was an incredible show. It manages to present the crushing realities of living in the lower-middle class, spurning the horny advances of ugly people, and trying to get those around you to join in singing “The Lumberjack Song” (only to fail miserably). Just like life all around us, it’s funny because it’s equal parts inspiring and pathetic. With just a bit more focus on the latter.

Rocko – a squat and honest wallaby with a legally retarded dog named Spunky – is living on his own for the first time. He has a crappy job he likes, crappy friends he tolerates, and no love or social life to speak of. He just wants to live out a simple, quiet life with his dog and his TV, but the world just tends to not let that happen. Normal episodes include him going grocery shopping, wasting away at the DMV, getting in over his head with his first credit card, and trying to keep his dog from fucking a mop. I’m not kidding, there’s an entire episode dedicated to Spunky having sexy time with a household cleaning item. At one point he helps his pal who suffers from OCD graduate… by fighting a giant mutant tooth, and drops the ball when he tells his best friend (who’s a steer) that he’s adopted. By wolves.

Having been created and produced by Joe Murray, a man who describes himself as “not having much experience with children”, Rocko’s Modern Life has a core of frustrated maturity wrapped in talking animals and barf jokes. While the formula of targeting children and adults simultaneously is as old as cartoons themselves, much of the show’s visual humor skews to either the disgusting or the absurd, while the dialog and stories themselves focus on the evils of consumerism, the bonds of family, death, bigotry and the horrors of… well, crap. I guess maybe Really Really Big Man doesn’t have much to say about these trying modern times. But he does have “Nipples of the Future”, and if that’s not worth a chuckle I don’t know what is.

Shout! Factory has released the first season in a $20 MSRP 2-DVD set, and it’s… well, it’s about what I expected. The show looks about as good as it’s ever going to. As was the norm through the 90s for American animation it was shot on film (I’m assuming 16mm), transferred to analog video, and then edited further by the episode directors from there. There’s dot-crawl, aliasing on some episodes, edge-enhancement, print damage, and a host of other video anomalies that fans of the show will be all too familiar with. These DVDs simply aren’t pretty, and anyone who’s gotten used to the clean, vibrant look of HD cartoons like Regular Show and Adventure Time might just puke a little in their own mouthes.

Unlike “classic” cartoons from the bygone era of theatrical releases and local TV studios using actual film prints, Rocko was intended for a modern TV broadcast from the get-go, so there was no perceived value in keeping the original film prints. You really can’t remaster a BETA tape beyond tweaking the colors a little or blurring out some of the analog noise, and it’s perhaps to Shout! Factory’s credit that they seem to have done very little else. Broadly speaking the show is totally watchable and free of distracting errors that aren’t a part of the show’s production history. Rocko honestly looks slightly better on DVD than I had expected, even if it’s not breathtaking. This is as good as Rocko has ever (or will ever) look, so don’t waste your time waiting for a Blu-ray; to quote Ralph Bakshi’s seemingly lost-in-licensing-Hell masterpiece Coonskin, “This is it, fellas. This is really it.”

Frustratingly, some of the episodes are censored. Again, it comes down to materials; Rocko’s Modern Life is a repulsive show laden with heavy innuendo even in it’s current form, but some of the most obvious “ew!” moments – like Heffer accidentally getting his schlong milked – are simply nowhere to be found. Nickelodeon never bothered to keep back-up masters for the uncut versions of their cartoons, so much like The Ren & Stimpy Show, the only way you’re going to see the original, uncensored broadcast versions is if you taped them nearly 20 years ago. Me, I’d totally hop in a time machine to watch Rocko accidentally crush a gorilla’s testicle in his fingers, but I imagine people will come up with much lamer uses first – stopping the Lincoln assassination, or teaching the middle ages to wash their food and avoid the plague… you know, dumb shit like that.

There’s no special features, not even trailers or alternate language tracks. You get 6 episodes per disc and some simplistic menus in a nice double keepcase with some painfully stock artwork. That’s all. I’d love to hear what Joe Murray, Tom Kenny and Mr. Lawrence might have to say about the show after all these years, but the latter two probably make more money voicing a goddamn Spongebob TV spot than Shout! was willing to pay for them to show up. It’s really a lost opportunity, and compared to the ample features Paramount lavished on the thematically similar (but also much more expensive) Ren & Stimpy DVDs, the total lack to place this unique and still highly stylish piece of entertainment into any sort of context is really disappointing.

The show is easy to recommend, and the DVD is – for the $15 I paid, anyway – well worth buying on the strength of the content alone. I’m deeply frustrated to see that not one ounce of time or money was spent giving older fans some conversations with the twisted but sincere minds behind the wallaby, but if you can live with your cartoons not coming with any scraps on the side the set is still worth your dime. Not having children I’m probably in no position to say “Buy it for your kids!”, but come on, what’s the worst thing that could happen?

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