Tommy Pickles, in case you were wondering, would be in his 30s now. So would Angelica, Chuckie, Phil, Lil, Susie, and all the other Rugrats alumni—except for those who would be even older still.
You might think this is beside the point. After all, even if you were a child during Nickelodeon’s Golden Age—only ’90s kids know!—you have probably not spent much time worrying about the fate of the Pickles clan and their friends. (That is, assuming you missed the extremely cursed aughts follow-up, Rugrats: All Grown Up!, which imagined the kids as teenagers and is a future best left in the past.)
Except, well, it’s not. Rugrats is back, with a new CGI reboot debuting Thursday on Paramount+. While three decades may have passed since the cartoon’s original Nick debut, the new edition doesn’t change much: Most of the original voice cast returns, including E.G. Daily as the plucky Tommy and Nancy Cartwright as a still-cowardly Chuckie. But while the show may have hit the big 3-0, no such time has passed for its characters: The babies remain babies, the toddlers remain toddlers, and the terminally uncool 30-something parents remain all of the above.
But I bring up the temporal gap for a reason. While Tommy is still in diapers, the new Rugrats has shifted ahead to the present. There are smartphones, online dating, she-sheds, a Marie Kondo dupe (“Lady De-Clutter”—“Isn’t that the bossy lady who convinces people to throw out their stuff?” gripes a video game–obsessed Stu), and a graying one-hit-wonder band named “Y2K.”
Make no mistake—this show is aimed squarely at its now grown-up millennial audience. Well, kind of. Like the original Rugrats, this one is meant decidedly for children: It’s stuffed with too many kiddy mispronunciations and gross-out gags for it to be any other way. But it is intended for a very specific group of children: the ones had by the erstwhile children who first tuned in during the ’90s.
Which is to say that the Pickles family, or at least corporate parent ViacomCBS, sure hopes you have kids by now. Maybe you do, and you can park your mini-me under your own personal nostalgia blast and recoil at how familiar all the set pieces—that pink stucco house, the diamond baby gate, the terrible depilated Cynthia doll—still are.
But also maybe you don’t have kids, and Rugrats takes no joy, or maybe a small amount of joy, in pointing out that, well, that seems like a “you” problem.
This Rugrats is relatable in a way that is somewhere between haunting and mean-spirited. My fellow millennials, we and our macramé houseplant hangers—Stu and Didi have one too, naturally—are easy marks. The first episode alone features a well-meaning adult installing a video doorbell for his less-than-tech-savvy aging parent, and then—egads—a coffee shop calling up the order for a “Jen Z.,” who flounces into the frame, takes a selfie, and then leaves without bothering to so much as take a sip of her drink. If the modern millennial condition is alternating between exasperation with boomers and bewilderment at Gen Z, nouveau Rugrats has you covered.
Or at any rate it would if you had simply hewed to the prescribed Rugrats procreation cycle. What have you been doing that you can’t relate more to the show’s parents now? Where is your big suburban house with its big suburban lawn? Where is your confidence that you could support two kids by yourself with a job at a café? Where is your brood ready to be lined up in front of a laptop screen—you cord-cutter, you—and told all about how you used to watch just this show when you were their age? Why haven’t you secured your place on the property ladder, loser?
Some of the gags—the ones a little less fixated on rehashing a future dreamed up in the early ’90s, say—work better than others. One of the new additions to the Rugrats cast is none other than Michael McKean, who steps in for the late Joe Alaskey as the voice of grandpa Lou Pickles. McKean’s Lou takes a particularly groovy approach to things, starting with a fondness for yoga and a braid stretching down his back. Angelica, ever the ne’er-do-well (and still with Cheryl Chase professing her hatred for all things baby), swipes gramps’s phone at one point, opening a senior dating service that she delightedly mistakes for a “grandma store.” She sets upon swiping right on everyone she sees, who then turn up en masse at the Pickles home looking for a taste of Lou’s cookies, so to speak.
But mostly the new Rugrats is designed with an eye to the millennials who grew up begging their parents for Reptar-branded cereal. That old audience may or may not be able to meet the show—and its long-established depiction of what adulthood ought to look like—halfway. I’d like to think, anyway, that if Tommy Pickles had been allowed to grow up—to take on student loans, move to a city where his chances of owning anything bigger than a closet were essentially nil, get work in a dying industry, and other such birthrights—he probably wouldn’t have much reason to bother watching, either.