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‘The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story’ (review)

Produced by Bill Parks, Scott Barber, Shawn Cauthen,
Alisa Reyes, Adam Sweeney, Brian MacGillivray,
Lance Paul, Suzanne Scudder

Written and Directed by Scott Barber, Adam Sweeney
Featuring Gerry Laybourne, Larisa Oleynik, Christine Taylor,
Kel Mitchell, Melissa Joan Hart, Kenan Thompson,
Danny Cooksey, Graham Yost, Drake Bell, Coolio,
Mark Summers,  Venus DeMilo, Mitchell Kriegman


“Before 1979 there were no networks devoted solely to children’s programming.”

The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story covers the golden age of Nickelodeon; those first decades that range from their humble beginnings to their dominance of dynamic kid-centered entertainment. Writer-directors Scott Barber and Adam Sweeney give us a nostalgic look at some of the channel’s most successful shows threaded with a lesson about the special type of leadership and mentality that led to the network’s unique relationship with the kids it served.

Any millennial that had childhood access to cable will find their heartstrings sufficiently tugged, if not left a bit wanting.

We start in Columbus, Ohio where the idea for a channel just for small kids brings Pinwheel into being. When the network starts to collapse, Pinwheel is moved to New York and expanded to Nickelodeon, the first full network for kids. The real fun begins when we meet the dynamic president of the fledgling Nickelodeon, Geraldine “Gerry” Laybourne.

A mother and former teacher, Laybourne flipped the network’s direction by aiming to do what no one had ever really done before – create and find content that spoke directly to kids rather than to what adults thought they would be happy watching. Laybourne surrounded herself with people dedicated to an experience where children learned not only about the world but about themselves. With that as a driving ethos, Nickelodeon centered the experience of childhood in a way that nothing else ever had.

The documentary goes on a greatest hits type tour of the shows that launched each new phase of Nickelodeon, from foreign acquisitions when no one would sell to them stateside, to live action success and the creation of NickToons. With so much to cover, It’s easy to feel warm and fuzzy inside while also being a bit rushed. There is simply not enough time in the 102 minutes to fully cover 20 years of a groundbreaking international phenomenon that reshaped children’s programming as we knew it. The revisit of Magic Johnson’s historic appearance on Nick News after his HIV diagnosis alone could have a one hour special.

There are more talking-head interviews than behind-the-scenes footage or classic clips, but they happen with some of the most popular names from Nickelodeon history including Kenan Thompson, Melissa Joan Hart, and Danny Tamberelli, as well as hosts of popular game shows like Marc Summers and Kirk Fogg. The fondness that washes over everyone’s face when they are talking about those early days of Nickelodeon – where it’s clear that trust and imagination reigned instead of oversight and risk-aversion – more than makes up for any missed candid shots.

The driving mantra in The Orange Years is that their success came from the respect everyone showed for how sophisticated a child’s palette can be.

Doug, Rugrats, and Ren & Stimpy proved that kids deserved original artist-driven animated content that did not depend on merchandise to tell the story. Salute Your Shorts and Hey Dude ushered in teen live-action for Nick but also showed that kids don’t necessarily need stories that have a win or a lesson in them to be engaged. This is more than a look at moments that make us laugh and reminisce. It is impossible to walk away without a deep and lasting appreciation for how a dedicated team who just truly loved and understood children carefully crafted our entire childhood media experience with our well-being in mind instead of a bottom line.

Now that’s something worthy of watching on the Big Orange Couch.

The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story is now available On Demand


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