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The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story

DOC NYC 2018 Review


Independent; 98 minutes

Director: Scott Barber & Adam Sweeney


Written by on November 15, 2018 




Breaking the rules and providing kids a space to hang out and be kids, Nickelodeon proved to be a progressive network one sliming at a time. As documented in the occasionally charming yet awfully brief The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story, the experimental network was itself formed from a cable experiment in Columbus, Ohio called Qube, an early interactive video on demand service. 

Directed by Scott Barber and Adam Sweeney, The Orange Years interviews players critical to the network’s success including former network president Gerry Laybourne whose vision for “Nick” included a rebranding in the style of MTV with its freeform iconic orange blob that could morph into anything. The early years proved to be rocky with the station importing and dubbing cartoons until it found success with You Can’t Do That On Television, a Canadian import that spoke directly to the network’s target demographic.

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Spanning the first 20 years or so of the network’s 40-year history (prior to the adaptation of mega-hits), The Orange Years is partly a love letter to the zany spirit of the network that brought us Double Dare and All That. While the filmmakers have no shortage of talking head interviews with the network’s megastars–including Mark Summers, Melissa Joan Hart and Kenan Thompson–their access to network materials remain a bit thin. While Laybourne beams with pride over a powerful episode of Nick News in which Magic Johnson comforts three children with HIV in a powerful passage, the moment would have been more affecting if we had seen more of it on screen.

Running a brisk 98 minutes, The Orange Years could easily inspire a mini-series. Produced outside of Nickelodeon, the film often alludes to but never directly mentions its corporate owner Viacom and the economic pressures it faced. Perhaps Viacom had the good sense to let it be, provided it turned a profit. (A discussion of merchandising is left for the film’s third act.)

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Like Bao Nguyen’s Live From New York! (which attempted to document 40 years of Saturday Night Live in 90 minutes), The Orange Years bites off more than it can chew and devolves into a chronicle of the network’s greatest hits without much drama. While Fred Rogers openly shared his disdain for loud and aggressive children’s programs in Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, he may have found some common ground in the way Nickoledon approached telling some stories as writers and creators of Hey Dude, Pete and Pete, Clarissa Explains It All, and Salute Your Shorts share their interest in not talking down to kids.

The Orange Years might have found better focus if it keyed on the career of Gerry Laybourne and other major figures behind the scenes rather than attempt to take on twenty-plus years and dozens of TV shows. Older millennials may pick apart the cultural influence the network had on their lives, however the film–true to the network’s spirit–resists doing so. Direct, straightforward, and lacking both access to extended clips and the restraint to focus on some of the more interesting parts of the story (like Nick News), The Orange Years is clearly influenced by the zany pacing of the network’s earlier shows with its brisk pace. While it offers a few interesting insights as the brand expands and moves for a time to Universal Studios in Orlando, its ambitions outweigh what it can reasonably accomplish.

The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story premiered at DOC NYC 2018.


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