TV has changed a lot over the past few decades, gradually moving away from traditional formulas to offer viewers more in-depth looks at culturally relevant issues with unique storytelling.
A lot of that momentum started with 90s classics. Shows like Seinfeld, ER, and The Real World are commonly celebrated as foundational television, but people often forget the more unlikely sources of groundbreaking 90s TV. Nickelodeon was at the top of its game in the 90s and did more than its fair share of groundbreaking in the TV landscape.
Clarissa Explains it All was one of these trendsetting shows, and while it may invoke nostalgia with many, the show was actually way ahead of its time.
Melissa Joan Hart in ‘Clarissa Explains It All’
Clarissa Explains it All followed Clarissa Darling, played by a young Melissa Joan Hart, years before she’d be casting spells in Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
While the show’s presence as the central feature on the popular Saturday Night Nickelodeon lineup made the show seem like just kids fare to many, the show used a lot of techniques and storytelling devices that would be much more widespread afterwards.
In the show, Clarissa is a teenage girl living in an anonymous suburban US town. The show explores similar themes as most coming of age sitcoms, but had some key differences. Clarissa commonly breaks the fourth wall and acts as a narrator to the show, while also being the active protagonist.
While addressing the audience got more common on TV in later years, at the time it was a stark departure from family sitcoms like Full House and Family Matters. This narrative frame often leaves the show with less conventional lessons for viewers in each episode.
Clarissa also broke the sitcom formula out of quite a few tropes. The show was one of the first young adult shows of its era with a female lead, and its success with both boys and girls prompted a slew of shows focused on young female protagonists.
Clarissa was also surprisingly tech-headed for the 1991 show. As a hobby programmer, she regularly solves problems and creates fun visual aids in the show by making video games. While hobby programming may seem a pretty typical pastime for a young teen today, in 1991 it was unheard of.
Clarissa Explains it All was created by Mitchell Kriegman who had previously worked on The Ren & Stimpy Show and Saturday Night Live.
Though Nickelodeon had only recently branched into sitcoms with Hey Dude, Kriegman wanted to create a show for the network that drew inspiration from his early performance career, but framed for a young adult audience.
The show was arguably a massive success due to the unique storytelling and the iconic performance of star Melissa Joan Hart. Hart was very nearly not Clarissa at all though, according to a 2017 interview with Kriegman by Paley Matters.
Kriegman shared with the interviewer that he had narrowed it down to two leads, but was concerned that Hart was too “normal” for the role. “When I saw Melissa, though, and she lit up the screen, it was easier to have Clarissa be weirder and do stranger and more offbeat things if she was more normal, and that’s when I settled on her.”
Despite working together on the successful series for years, not even Hart knows the reason her character is named Clarissa.
Hating her name was a running joke in the show, but in reality why the character had the name is a secret known only to Kriegman. “That’s a secret that’s going to go to my grave with me,” the show’s creator said according to Mental Floss
The show wasn’t the end for Clarissa
Kriegman was so attached to the character that he wasn’t ready to let her go after just a 4-year run on Nickelodeon. A planned spinoff called Clarissa Now never made it past the pilot episode according to HuffPost, but the show’s creator wouldn’t be deterred so easily.
In 2015 Kriegman would release the novel Things I Can’t Explain chronicling the story of Clarissa Darling through her late 20s. The writer shed some light on why he revisits the character with Entertainment Weekly after the book’s release. “Those adult problems looked way simpler from at fourteen-year-old girl perspective. After all fourteen-year-old girls know everything.” Kriegman said of how Clarissa deals with adult problems. “That said—who actually grows up anymore? Or at least who doesn’t think that deep down inside their chewy center they aren’t still a kid?”
It’s a challenge to believe that Clarissa Darling’s story began over 30 years ago. We may not have seen the last of this character though. In 2018 The Hollywood Reporter broke that a revival was in the works with Hart and Kriegman both returning. The story supposedly is planned to follow Clarissa as a mother, after the events of the novel.
Though everyone rumored to be involved in the project is keeping tight lips about it, fans would be thrilled to see Hart return to the role. Clarissa explaining motherhood and real adult problems, just like she did everything in fans’ childhood would be quite a show to see.