Thoughts On The “Spongebob” Legacy
Pretty much everyone in and around my age group seems to agree that post-movie Spongebob sucks.
Although the nostalgia bias is heavy, I think a compelling case could be made that the first few seasons of Spongebob Squarepants were among the cleverest, smartest, and most purely funny of any children’s cartoon maybe ever. The humor of Spongebob was so advanced that for a time, a majority swath of modern internet humor seemed to be entirely predicated on recycling its imagery.
Beneath showrunner Stephen Hillenburg the show could do no wrong…but without him, in the wake of a highly-anticipated but ultimately mediocre movie, the quality of the show plummeted to such a degree that an entire section on the Spongebob Wikipedia page is now dedicated to it (see “Declining Quality”).
Much like The Simpsons, Spongebob is the kind of show whose former brilliance is so unimpeachable that people have chosen to basically pretend that none of its bad seasons actually exist, even when those bad seasons begin to outnumber the good ones. At this point, Spongebob has been shitty for way longer than it’s been great, but that doesn’t matter, because new Spongebob isn’t even really considered Spongebob, and those who truly love the show from a critical standpoint are not even bothered by its current lameness, because that lameness ends up reinforcing the eminence of its previous incarnation on merit of favorable comparison and amplified nostalgia.
The uncomfortable question for Spongebob fans, however, is this: because Spongebob is, and always has been, geared at kids, and kids have (rightfully) no sense of protection for the past, isn’t it possible that the generation growing up now will know Spongebob only as it is today, and regard its original episodes with indifference? Isn’t it also possible that kids growing up under Spongebob 2.0 will actually end up preferring the later seasons because they’re what they remember best, and therefore, feel best exemplify the core spirit of the show?
It is very difficult to hold an earnest opinion that is also a time-worn cliché. The oldest intellectual misstep in the book is mistaking your affection for art as it was when you were its primary audience for proof of that art’s objective superiority. Everybody thinks that music was at its peak when they were younger, and everybody is obviously wrong. It is therefore very difficult to seriously defame the modern incarnation of Spongebob without suspecting in the back of one’s mind that certain unfair biases are heavily at play. Isn’t it entirely possible, given millions of similar situations, that our generation’s disdain for the goofier, stupider version of Spongebob is simply a reflection of our discomfort with the evolution of the show into something that we don’t recognize? Isn’t the sense of ownership we feel over Spongebob a little deluded, given that it hasn’t really “belonged” to us for most of its run now?
On the other hand, it also feels like a flimsy argument to say that Spongebob can’t be criticized simply because criticizing it now is something an old fogey would do. Just because annoying people are prone to hold a certain type of opinion doesn’t always make that opinion wrong. Is a critical person supposed to abandon the premise that new Spongebob sucks simply because they’re not 12 years old? Is it impossible for a show to start good and get bad and have people express that fairly?
Ultimately these questions have no concrete answers because there is no actual objective way to say what era of Spongebob is the best. The most you could earnestly say is that new Spongebob has definitely abandoned the original spirit of the show, although one couldn’t exactly argue without subjective bias that the original spirit of the show was the “best” one. It all runs back to the eternal conclusion about art: you cannot judge it without emotional prejudice.
But that being said, sometimes emotional prejudice can weirdly transmute into a form of objective measurement. Consider this: in the future, the legacy of Spongebob and the general opinion on its early vs. late quality is ultimately going to be determined by whatever side cares the most. The best argument that our generation has for its upholding the Hillenburg era as superior is that we do seem to be more invested in defining the legacy of the show than the younger generations who watched it when it “sucked”. If this perception does not change, and modern Spongebob viewers simply don’t end up caring about the argument over what era was best, then the fogeys who hate post-movie Spongebob will earn the right to say when the show was at its peak for the people of the future. The stronger emotional investment of the one group will end up as an argument in and of itself. A subjective cliché will have ossified into something much greater: proof of cultural importance. This is to say, I guess, “keep hating”; it may write history someday.