As a kid, there were few things as fun as waking up early or staying up late to watch cartoons. Whether you watched at home or became friends with someone just to “steal” their cable, ’90s TV was event television at its finest, and the animated shows we watched religiously as preteens (or teens—no judgment) informed our senses of humor and even our personalities. So it’s no surprise that, in our reboot-obsessed age, the shows we loved as kids are making their way back into our lives.
Most recently, after a whopping 23 years off the air, the Nickelodeon animated show Rocko’s Modern Life returned with an all-new 45-minute Netflix special, exciting nostalgic millennials around the world. The special, subtitled Static Cling, picks back up more or less in real time as our favorite wallaby and friends return from space to their fictional O-Town, only to find a very different world than the one they left back in the ’90s.
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Full of the show’s signature mature humor, meta commentary and a refreshingly inclusive story line, Static Cling was so fun that it inspired us to take a look back at our other favorite Nickelodeon shows before watching the new Invader Zim special on Netflix today. Whether you want to revel in nostalgia or catch up via your favorite streaming service, here are the best Nickelodeon shows of all time.
Full of (literally and figuratively) colorful characters, Doug explored everyday life and topics through childlike imagination. At the heart of this classic coming-of-age series lies titular character Doug Funnie, one of animation’s quintessential everymen (everyboys?). To get through the trials and tribulations of school, he writes in a journal, which he narrates, and — as I’m sure you remember — creates an imaginary superhero alter ego called Quailman. And who can forget one of the best songs by a fictional band ever? Aw-wee-oo/Killer Tofuuuu.
Rugrats was part of Nick’s debut animated series, alongside Doug and The Ren & Stimpy Show, and it remains an all-time classic and one of the most heart-wrenching cartoons ever made. Its general premise — babies who talk to one another and go on imaginary wild adventures — belies the emotional depth of its far-reaching themes, including abandonment, grief, loss, and ageing. Kids could have a blast watching Tommy and the crew be silly babies, while adults could relate to those babies’ parents, who struggle balancing being a mom or dad with busy work and social lives. The show spawned multiple movies, TV specials, video games, and even a brand-new sequel show, All Grown Up!, about our favorite babies as middle schoolers.
Aaahh!!! Real Monsters
Leaning into a darker, weirder cartoon aesthetic, Nick introduced the world to Ickis, Krumm and Oblina, three strange-looking monsters-in-training who are the protagonists of Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. Not only was the material darker, skewing toward horror lite, but the color palette itself utilized darker shades, setting the show apart from its brighter, cheerier predecessors. It made perfect sense that it started airing right before Halloween 1994.
The Ren & Stimpy Show
Ren & Stimpy was one of those shows that, depending on your age when it aired, you probably had to sneak-watch when Mom and Dad weren’t around. Unlike Nick’s other debut cartoons, Ren & Stimpy made overtly adult jokes that were sometimes downright sexual in nature. But chances are those jokes went right over your head unless you revisited the series later in life. Despite its controversial material, the show aired for five seasons.
"Stoop kid's afraid to leave his stoop!" The characters in Hey Arnold!, the students of PS 118, were likely most kids' first introduction to what life in New York is like. (Well, technically, the setting was the fictional Hillwood, but, like, it's definitely Brooklyn.) For kids who didn't live in a big city, it offered a glimpse into how much different growing up outside a small neighborhood or town is. In addition to its core cast, there was no shortage of outlandish supporting characters who made the world Arnold inhabited feel that much more rich and diverse. But despite its large-feeling setting, the thematic focus stayed on friendship, young love and growth, cementing it as a cartoon to be remembered for years to come. Move it, Football Head!
We’d be remiss not to include at least one live-action show on this list of all-time bests, and that honor can go only to All That. The wacky sketch comedy show created celebrities out of cast members Kenan Thompson, Amanda Bynes and others, and it led to spin-off shows Kenan & Kel and The Amanda Show as well as a 2019 revival. It was Nick’s version of SNL (which is funny because Kenan Thompson is now an SNL cast member) and included recurring gags that somehow never got old, although our parents probably hated them. Now BRING IN THE DANCING LOBSTERS!
KaBlam! was the kid-friendly version of Robot Chicken well before Robot Chicken existed. Utilizing many forms of animation, including hand-drawn animation, claymation and stop-motion, the sketch comedy show pushed the envelope for what a cartoon could be and utilized fun cliffhangers to get kids to keep tuning in. The claymation segment Prometheus & Bob had an alien teach a caveman simple tasks (to comedic effect, of course), while Action League Now! drew in the comic book–loving fanboys and -girls (and even spun off into its own show!).
The Wild Thornberrys
Despite Nickelodeon's ahead-of-its-years animated programming, it sorely lacked shows driven by female protagonists. Enter: Eliza Thornberry, the booksmart 12-year-old girl who travels the world with her family as they film nature documentaries. Oh, and she can also talk to animals. As Eliza seeks adventure after adventure, using her abilities to help the animals she encounters, she also finds herself at odds with her less adventurous sister and struggles to keep her secret from the rest of her family. In the movie Rugrats Go Wild, the Rugrats and the Thornberrys meet for a one-of-a-kind crossover event that most millennials surely haven't forgotten, and Nigel Thornberry will forever live on in memedom.
CURSE YOUUUU!!! Lasting only two seasons, Invader Zim has lived on as a cult-favorite show, arguably finding a larger audience with adults today than it did with kids as it aired. Zim is a somewhat inept space invader who poses as a child to infiltrate Earth, but unpopular kid Dib is bent on exposing Zim as the alien he knows he is. The real star of the show, though, is GIR, the defective robot who accompanies Zim, speaks mostly in adorable bleep-bloops and dresses in a green dog costume. The show’s renewed popularity has also earned it a new special aà la Rocko’s Modern Life titled Enter the Florpus, premiering on Netflix today!
This might be a left-fielder, but hear us out: Danny Phantom was awesome. A ghost-kid with ghost-hunting parents is the perfect recipe for conflict, and for a mostly episodic show, it got excitingly serialized over time, with recurring antagonists and a main arc for the titular Danny that took welcome twists and turns. The show premiered in 2005, later that most of the others on this list, but it served as a welcome transition from more children’s-oriented shows to preteen/teen humor/situations. We could definitely see a reboot happening in the future.
Woogity woogity woogity! Rocket Power was an adrenaline-filled ride through California that featured four best friends who surfed, skateboarded, mountain biked—well, did basically any sport you could name. Although we sat in front of the TV to watch it, it made being active look fun and likely encouraged many kids to get outside, if not to be as cool as the Rocket Power kids then to at least avoid being a Squid. Also, who didn’t want a Tito Makani—the philosophizing Hawaiian surfer—in their life? No one!
The Fairly OddParents
Wands and wings/Floating crowny things! This bit from the Fairly OddParents’ excellent theme song pretty well encapsulates the show’s humor and premise: silly fairy godparents who appear to a young boy, Timmy, with wands that can grant him any wish, aka every kid’s dream. But Timmy soon finds out that his wishes come with consequences, and it’s not all fun and games. Meanwhile, Timmy’s offbeat teacher Mr. Crocker is out to prove that fairy godparents DO exist and spends every minute trying to ruin Timmy’s fun by exposing his winged friends. The show leaned into the internet age by including many jokes about technology and the web, and it remains a funny, bright moment in time for animation.
Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? I think we all know the answer to that question. For just a talking sponge with pants, SpongeBob has become one of the most iconic characters in all of television, and the show’s success has led to multiple movies and even a Broadway musical—not to mention it’s still airing new episodes [SpongeBob narrator voice] 10 Years Later. The kids who grew up with it are still watching (and memeing) the show, whose unique humor transcends age. Sadly, Stephen Hillenburg, SpongeBob’s creator, died late last year, but we see his legacy continuing on under the sea for some time to come.
Avatar: The Last Airbender & The Legend of Korra
Avatar featured incredibly rich world-building and complex characters, making it a show that kids and adults loved—and still love—in equal measure. The world's last Airbender, a boy named Aang, is discovered by two siblings in a sheet of ice. Once rescued, he's forced to travel the world as the Avatar to master all four elements—earth, wind, fire and water—and save the world from the tyrannical Fire Nation.
The show started off with a very episodic format, but its popularity led to more risk-taking serialized storytelling, which made for more exciting (and sometimes infuriating) cliffhangers and emotional character arcs. Its success led to comic book continuations, a live-action movie we do not speak of and a sequel show, titled The Legend of Korra. Legend of Korra, which aired for four seasons, followed a new female Avatar in a post-Aang world and included a groundbreaking moment of inclusivity that changed the animation landscape. Production is currently underway for a live-action adaptation of The Last Airbender that will stream on Netflix.