My husband, Ben, recently bought the complete series of Home Improvement. I was perplexed by this purchase despite the world being in the grip of 90s nostalgia. It’s such a random show to own.
Overlooking the dated technology, we were surprised to find that the show has held up pretty well. I think a lot of this has to do with the lack of “very special episode” vibes that a lot of TV shows in the 90s still went for. But that wasn’t the biggest realization I had while watching it. Tim Allen’s television son Randy Taylor, played by Jonathan Taylor Thomas– a.k.a. Simba from The Lion King, a.k.a. JTT, a.k.a. the imaginary boyfriend I shared with almost every other pre-pubescent girl in the United States– was kind of a shithead.
If you haven’t seen the show in awhile, then you’re probably forgetting all this and only remembering his adorable smile (which, for the record, is still adorable). For starters, Randy is super sarcastic. This is meant to be the trait he shares with his dad, but there’s a meanness behind his barbs that Tim’s don’t typically have. He’s also beyond cruel to his little brother, Mark. It seems like every episode in the first couple seasons features a sub-plot where he and the oldest Taylor boy, Brad, team up to pick on Mark in some extremely mean way. He’s also the child most likely to talk back to his parents, a trait that’s not so bad taken on it’s own, but when coupled with the stuff above makes him seem pretty mean.
Which got me thinking… was my love for this character a way of justifying my own personality at the time? Randy was basically me: sarcastic, verbally mincing, and at times needlessly cruel. But what about my other TV favorites? Were any of these characters more likable? Or was I just drawn to the terrible kids?
Oscar the Grouch – Sesame Street
Though not a human, Oscar the Grouch was my first favorite TV character. If anyone out there is unfamiliar with Sesame Street, here’s a primer: He’s a grouch. He gets annoyed by nearly everyone and everything. This is basically me in the mornings or when I’m hangry. If anything, I’ve come to identify with this character more over time.
Stephanie Tanner – Full House
Stephanie was the epitome of cool when I was a child. I never liked D.J., because she was too much a goody-goody, and Michelle was a baby with no personality for a good chunk of the show. Stephanie, however, always had real spunk, getting all the wittiest lines and comebacks. (Plus, she also knew how to rock a side pony.) Of course, she’s very sarcastic and often talks back to the adults in her life. She’s also a sneaky spy, eavesdropping on conversations and reading diaries. I was guilty of all of the above as a child.
Clarissa Darling – Clarissa Explains It All
Oh, Clarissa. How badly I wanted your crazy clothes, multi-color room, and pet alligator. Miss Darling was sarcastic and a bit manipulative with her parents. She also talked back to adults like crazy, a trait I imitated for years. Maybe if I’d been given free reign of my wardrobe I’d have laid off the backtalk? (Also, look at that eye roll!)
Angelica Pickles – Rugrats
This one should be obvious to anyone familiar with Rugrats. Angelica is Tommy, Chucky, Phil & Lil’s primary antagonist. She’s selfish, mean, and manipulative. I’m both distressed as an adult that kid me liked her so much and relieved that I didn’t turn out to be a worse human being.
Conclusion: TV kids (and angry Muppets) are often terrible role models. But, they’re entertaining as hell. Maybe I borrowed a bit too heavily from some of these characters, but I think I turned out OK. Right, Mom?