Of the nostalgic 90s Nicktoons, most people would automatically list Doug alongside Rugrats, Rocko’s Modern Life, and Hey Arnold! But Doug wasn’t ever a show I liked very much. It was simply something to watch while waiting for a different, better show to come on. Smashed somewhere between CatDog and Ahh! Real Monsters, Doug was uninspired and inoffensive, and it doesn’t deserve to be listed among the Nicktoon greats.
When I mentioned to my editor that I wanted to write a brutal take-down of Doug, he informed me (I hope jokingly) that I was on thin ice. (Editor’s Note: Yes, that was joking. Maybe.) But I am not alone in my mild, soft hatred for Doug. On a recent road trip, I mentioned, in passing, my dislike for Doug, and was surprised that everyone present agreed with me. Later, in a conversation about that conversation at a small dinner party, more people echoed the sentiment.
In fact, every time I mention how overrated Doug is, there’s always a few people who chime in, with apparent relief, to agree that they never liked Doug but simply accepted Doug as one of the Nicktoons gang.
What was it about Doug that rubbed so many people the wrong way?
For those who don’t remember (though I’m sure you all do), Doug was a sweater-vested diarist who attended middle school, and each episode focused on a mild predicament of Doug’s. Every episode had a fairly relatable conflict and ended with a neat resolution. In this way, it was not dissimilar Hey Arnold! Like Hey Arnold!, Doug had a pet sidekick (Porkchop the dog, not to be confused with Arnold’s pig, Abner), a best friend who was Black (Skeeter, not to be confused with Arnold’s Gerald), a clumsy bully (Roger, not to be confused with Arnold’s Harold), and a blond-hair female love interest who was part of the friend group (Patti, not to be confused with Arnold’s Helga).
Doug was formulaic enough to be immediately accessible, and all of the episodes were stand-alone, so anyone could sit down, “enjoy” one of Doug’s incredibly mild “adventures”, and then immediately forget about it.
Here is where Hey Arnold! and Doug differed.
Doug lacked any agency whatsoever.
I’ve thought a lot about why I loathed Doug (again, with a soft and mild sort of loathing, the kind you’d paint with watercolors), and what I finally realized was that Doug inhabited one giant fair world fallacy. Doug’s problems are always resolved without needing Doug’s intervention. Doug was a goody two-shoes (so was Arnold), but things worked out for Doug not because he Did The Right Thing, but because he was good and good things happen to good people.
For most of the Nicktoons, conflicts were handled very bluntly. If you were a Rugrat who was being bullied, for example, you confronted your bully. If you were Eliza Thornberry, you’d run over a poacher while riding atop a bull elephant. You know, very hands-on solutions. Perhaps over-simplified, but that was okay. The stories were for kids and most of them conveyed a message. That message could be distilled into four words: “Do The Right Thing.” Whether it was welcoming the new kid or using your animal-talking powers to fight deforestation, all of the Nicktoons lived in interactive worlds where their actions had consequences and their decisions led to outcomes.
But then there was Doug.
Let’s examine a few case studies. The following are all real Doug episodes:
- Doug loses his diary (sorry, journal) and it is discovered by his bully. Doug is terrified Roger will tell everyone what he’s written inside of it! Resolution? The bully gives him the diary back and claims he couldn’t read Doug’s handwriting.
- Doug breaks an expensive item belonging to his neighbor. Grappling with guilt, he eventually admits to what he did, and the neighbor reassures him it was no big deal and lets him work to pay it off without it affecting their relationship..
- Doug is invited to a pool party. Worried about his physical appearance, he diets and exercises and makes his goal weight before the party. But he still feels self-conscious! Once he attends the party, he realizes everyone feels that way and gets over it immediately.
- Doug enters a talent show with an old ventriloquist dummy that frequently breaks. It breaks during the show. Doug’s friend then comes to his rescue and everyone thinks it was part of the act. Ha, ha!
- Doug is invited to Patti’s house to eat “liver and onions.” He hates liver and onions! He spends the whole episode forcing himself to learn to like it, and then when he gets there, Patti reveals she was only kidding.
Do you notice a trend here? In every single instance, if Doug did absolutely nothing, it wouldn’t matter. It never mattered. Doug stumbled through his innocent world with everything always working out for him, and though he always chose to do the right thing, it never truly mattered. Doug’s conflicts resolved themselves in a way that felt predestined. Maybe that sounds like heaven, but the bland consistency of Doug’s world started to feel more like hell if you watched more than a couple of episodes in one sitting. Doug never had to engage with his world; things just fell into place for Doug, and as a result, nothing ever felt like it mattered.
It’s not that Doug does nothing, by the way. He usually tries to act to better his situation; It’s just that his actions don’t bring about the solution so much as they seem to earn the favor of a benevolent god. There’s no real cause-and-effect relationship between Doug’s actions and the solution to his problems. His problems resolve because Doug is a good person who has good things happen to him because he’s a good person.
It wasn’t just Doug, by the way. Every “good” character had good endings. There was an episode where Patti gets a haircut she doesn’t like and then Doug reassures her. There was another where his older sister can’t parallel park but then… learns to parallel park. That’s it. That’s the whole episode.
Mind you, there aren’t really “villains” in Doug’s world. He has a very, very gentle bully, Roger, who occasionally annoys or pranks him, but certainly couldn’t be said to “torment” him. Roger is perhaps the worst person in Doug’s world but he’s still fairly benign as a “bully “character who shows up to birthdays and friendly group hangouts.
Yet Roger at least has a little bit of depth, which is more than we can say about Doug, the most inoffensively bland and milquetoast citizen of Bluffington, a town compromised of other inoffensively bland people with vaguely good intentions.
Speaking of which…
Hey Arnold! was another show with an annoyingly perfect protagonist for whom things usually worked out. But I can give some credit to Hey Arnold!, because Hey Arnold!’s world wasn’t perfect. Arnold was an innocent character who experienced it that way, but if you look closely, you can see Arnold’s world was actually fairly grim. For example, Helga’s mother was an alcoholic, and there’s an entire episode framed around Helga going to therapy to address her family’s dysfunction (Helga on the Couch).
Another episode in which we catch a glimpse of the larger world that Arnold occupies is Arnold’s Christmas, one of the highest-rated episodes of the whole series, wherein we see Arnold interacting with a Vietnamese refugee who was estranged from his daughter during the war.
And we had a few other combo-breaking episodes that gave us a taste of bitterness:
- The Pigeon Man (One of my favorites!)
- The Stoop Kid (One of everyone’s favorites!)
- Arnold Betrays Iggy (Universally the most hated episode… we’ll get to that in a second.)
Arnold personally believed in the good of people and in a world where things would work out for those who tried their best, but the world he occupies is a real one with actual consequences. Sure, there’s some Dougesque episodes, like “The Sewer King,” in which Arnold goes into the sewer to retrieve Grandpa’s watch only to discover that Grandpa has a whole drawer full of identical watches. But there’s also episodes like the notorious “Arnold Betrays Iggy” in which things don’t work out at all for Arnold.
In “Arnold Betrays Iggy,” Arnold is accused of betraying someone’s secret. To make it up to him, he agrees to subject himself to total humiliation by wearing bunny pajamas out into the street for all the neighbors to see. If this were Doug, then some sort of deus ex machina would swoop in at the last minute to spare Doug, but in this episode of Hey Arnold!, Arnold actually goes through with it. It’s heart-breakingly terrible to watch. This episode was so disliked among fans that there was a rumor that the creator and staff actually apologized for it.
But I loved “Arnold Betrays Iggy” because it broke the formulaic perfectness of the world and gave us, the viewers, the realization that Arnold’s world had actual stakes to it. Arnold always Did the Right Thing and it usually worked out for him, but not always.
Arnold’s world is a lousy one and Arnold is an innocent who happens to occupy it. Doug, on the other hand, is merely a cog in his world and the world itself is innocent. Doug’s world is a Calvinistic nightmare in which all characters are predestined to be good or bad, and their alignment determines for them whether their conflicts will resolve or not. Their actions have no consequences and we can therefore receive no morals from them. Arnold had free will; Doug really did not.
If Doug was saved by grace, then Arnold was surely saved by works.
Doug’s weirdly inconsequential purgatory of non-conflict also makes it impossible to root for Doug. It would be like cheering on the progression of time or the erosion of a river bed. It’s simply the nature of things. On the other hand, Arnold is a character we’re cheering on not only because he’s trying so gosh-darn hard all the time to do the right thing, but because we’re aware that his world has the potential to corrupt him and we want him to stay pure and unsullied.
When I was a kid I did not appreciate the nuance of Hey Arnold! Arnold’s moral righteousness bugged me; I related more to Helga than to Arnold. But looking back as an adult, I feel that Hey Arnold! deserved—nay, earned—its reputation as a good Nicktoon.
Arnold wasn’t merely standing up for The Right Thing. He was also standing up against a world that was trying to demoralize him, and he was holding his own. Arnold’s bravery wasn’t in Doing the Right Thing, but in wanting to do it, knowing that it might or might not pay off for him.
To quote Pigeon Man, Arnold taught us that “some people can be trusted.” Not all. Perhaps not even most. But some. And it encouraged us to try to be one of them as we grew up and lost our rose-colored glasses. When Pigeon Man takes flight, he says, “I just hope there’s another Arnold where I go next.” And in that single sentence alone was the fundamental cornerstone of Arnold’s appeal: Arnold was the change he wanted to see in the world.
Need more ’90s cartoon nostalgia? Check out the latest episode of Most Extreme Ranking Challenge, where Tyler oversees Lemar, Marcelous, Matthew, and guest star Adin Rudd as they argue for their favorite toons!