'The Orange Years' Review: An Enlightening And Nostalgic Look Back At How Nickelodeon Changed TV

Launched as the first ever cable network for kids, Nickelodeon is known as a powerhouse for children's entertainment. But the channel characterized by an orange splat had a long journey full of experimentation, big risks, and innovation from female television executives who knew exactly how to reach kids without pandering to them in an insulting way.

The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story dives into the origins of Nickelodeon and how television executive Geraldine Laybourne turned a niche channel with little to no direction into an entertainment mainstay that would define the childhoods of millions around the world. Whether it was through live-action scripted coming-of-age comedies, creator-driven cartoons, spooky campfire ghost stories, or kid-based game shows, Nickelodeon both captured and defined what it meant to be a kid.

Featuring a number of those who were actually there when Nickelodeon came into existence, The Orange Years is a fascinating look at the origins of the Nickelodeon we know today. The documentary digs deep into how Nickelodeon began, from the creation of the channel's iconic orange splat that would eventually take on many shapes to the very first programming that they acquired from around the world, long before they would have any original programming of their own. Very quickly, it's established that Nickelodeon was the house that Geraldine Laybourne built. Thanks to her pedagogical experience, she had an instinctual approach for how to reach children, and it all started by connecting to kids without talking down to them.

While most corporations at this time saw kids as consumers and their entertainment often constituted nothing more than commercials for toy lines, Nickelodeon aimed to make kids feel like they belonged, with original stories that captured the hardships and hilarity of being a kid, often with just enough irreverence to make them feel like they were watching something that was just a little indecent. That's why some of the earliest original programs on Nickelodeon were unlike anything made for children before.

The Orange Years is fairly formulaic in its approach, but that doesn't make it any less engaging. It's essentially broken down into segments that focus on milestones in the establishment of the channel, casting a spotlight on many of the most innovative and important shows from Nickelodeon's early years. You'll learn how each show served to establish Nickelodeon as the place to be for creating entertainment for kids in the 1990s as each show gets a mini origin story, anecdotes from behind the scenes, and a few interesting details for the longtime fans.Double Dare was the network's first real original, and it would become the driving force for Nickelodeon to establish their own studios in Orlando, Florida. Hey Dude, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Salute Your Shorts, and Clarissa Explains It All would then give Nickelodeon a reputation for telling stories about oddball teens and their perspective on the world that typically went ignored. The first NickToons then came along in the form of Doug, Rugrats, and Ren & Stimpy, and the cable network for kids was truly off to the races.

Many of the creators and stars of these shows (and more) appear throughout The Orange Years, looking back fondly on the work they did, remembering how Nickelodeon let them get away with nearly anything because they wanted these shows to have style and feel like they weren't just trying to sell something (even if Nickelodeon would ultimately start to mass produce merchandise from their shows, even going so far as to create their own products like Gak and Floam).

If you ever wanted to know what the fire dust in Are You Afraid of the Dark? was made out of, or learn the surprising story of how Doug creator Jim Jenkins found the voice of Patti Mayonnaise, you'll get your wish. But you unfortunately won't learn what an "awful waffle" from Salute Your Shorts is. Even Nick Jr. and Nick News get the spotlight for a little bit, and the latter showcases a touching yet heartbreaking moment involving NBA player Magic Johnson and a little girl that I had never seen before. In this moment, I thought the documentary might have benefited from getting the perspective of people outside of Nickelodeon to react to moments like this in order to showcase what the channel and its programs meant to its audience and future creators.

There aren't any shocking revelations to be made or major controversies to be explored in this history of Nickelodeon. Even the transgressions of Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi get glossed over in favor of the legacy of the NickToon itself (after all, there's a whole documentary about that show anyway). We're not sure if that's a concerted effort for this to be a more fluffy documentary or if Nickelodeon simply doesn't have any skeletons in its closet, but it's still informative, lively, entertaining, and will have children of the 1990s looking back fondly at the shows they used to love. If you grew up in a different era, it's an equally as fascinating entertainment history lesson, even if it only goes right up to when Geraldine Laybourne left the network in 1996. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Laybourne then went to Disney, and after that, Nickelodeon felt like it was mostly chasing the tail of The Disney Channel, not to mention Cartoon Network. But both of those networks were walking the path that Nickelodeon carved, and children's entertainment is all the better for it.

The Orange Years is available on iTunes now./Film Rating: 8 out of 10