Things I Can’t Explain: Growing Up Darling

Back in the early ’90s, Nickelodeon first began to explore having their own original live-action shows in their line-up, alongside their cartoons. Among these shows was a series known as Clarissa Explains It All. Starring Melissa Joan Hart, the series follows Clarissa Darling as she navigated the murky waters of adolescence. Along for the ride were her eccentric parents Janet and Marshall, her scheming little brother Ferguson, and her easy-going confidant Sam Anders. The series struck a chord with audiences, offering a fun take on a teen sitcom with a style that incorporated fourth-wall breaking and info graphics, while also dabbling in a subtle touch on more risque subjects like sex and teen partying. In fact, the show’s popularity even proved that a series with a female lead could garner a male audience, paving the way for numerous Nickelodeon shows which would be centered around female protagonists. In the many years since, the show’s creator Mitchell Kriegman has decided to revisit his old creation. In this case, it is not with a television series. Rather, it is with a novel. With his new novel Things I Can’t Explain, Kriegman gives a look at Clarissa’s life that feels like a natural progression from his show.

Though she has left her hometown in Ohio for the energy and excitement of New York City, Clarissa Darling is finding that life is not quite as understandable as she expected. Her parents are exploring the realm of a separation, an aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Her brother Ferguson is in prison, the result of insider trading and messing with Russian mob money. Even her dream of being a journalist has hit some snags, as newspapers have begun to fall out of prestige. Still, she has managed to find some positives. For instance, she finds herself with a golden opportunity at an internet news source known as Nuzegeek as a potential financial reporter. She has also met a local guy named Nick who shares a spark of desire with her. Unfortunately, even these perks have their hurdles. The financial editor is a snobbish jerk who looks down upon Clarissa, while Nick is plagued by a punk rocker ex-girlfriend who knows just how to sink her claws into him. That is not even mentioning Clarissa’s ex-boyfriend, a slacker named Norm who insists that they are still together. Even with all of life’s hard curve balls, Clarissa sets out to persevere and achieve her dreams.

Mitchell Kriegman’s new novel makes for a fun read. Even for those who might not have seen Clarissa Explains It All, the book works well in hooking readers with its world and characters. There is a sense of history to Clarissa, whether she is talking about her old newspaper internship or when she is hanging out with her group of friends. The lived-in sense is also complimented by the novel’s breezy prose, which does not drag on and allow the pages to flow by for the reader. The result is a novel that is easy to pick up and get into, something to enjoy. Now, there is the occasional reference or character that is made to be topical that comes off a little rough, such as a friend of Clarissa’s who speaks largely in abbreviated words. These moments come off as more stereotypical and cartoonish of current-day elements, but such lapses are generally outweighed by the positives over the course of the story. As for people who have seen Clarissa Explains It All, then the novel will make for a fun return for that familiar audience.

Even as the novel works for those who have not seen the original show, the novel works well as a continuation of Clarissa Explains It All. Stylistically, it carries over a lot of elements from the show. For instance, the info graphics return with their familiar appearance. The writing and presentation of Clarissa’s challenges are also akin to the approach to the show, which had a more irreverent take on teenage issues than most teen sitcoms of the time. That slight irreverence is now used to examine the hurdles of adulthood, from romantic relationships to workplace struggles. Along with that, other characters from the original series turn up. In addition to her family members, the book also explores the unsteady relationship history between Clarissa and her confidant Sam Anders, which traveled an unsteady path between friends and something more. In fact, that is part of what works well with this novel. It feels like a natural progression from the original series. The strengths of the show are allowed to bolster and develop, thanks to the room of a novel. It allows itself to explore more mature problems for this older audience, while still maintaining the spirit and voice that had made Clarissa Explains It All such a hit. In essence, the audience for the show has grown up, and Clarissa Darling has gotten the chance to keep up pace.

Back in the early ’90s, Nickelodeon had a hit on their hands when they began airing Clarissa Explains It All. Now, the show’s success is continued with Things I Can’t Explain, which ages up and tackles more adult issues while preserving the winning voice and spirit of the original show.

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