Roundtable Review: Clarissa Explains it All, “The Understudy” / The Secret World of Alex Mack, “The Videotape”

By Les Chappell, Emma Fraser, Andrew Rabin, Whitney McIntosh and Cameron White

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Clarissa Explains it All
Season 2, Episode 8: “The Understudy”
Original airdate: October 3, 1992

Andrew R.: On our last roundtable discussion of live action shows, we complained about the acting talent, and it only seems fitting to make the counterpoint here. Clarissa, along with Alex Mack, feature two of, what I would peg as five Nickelodeon stars from this era who went on to successful acting careers. Look at the five, and what do you find to be the common factor? Hart, Oleynik, Taylor, Bynes, and Thompson are all attractive blondes, but outside of that there is no common path. (This is ignoring voice over actors who have gained fame through even less similar paths; whether movies, Netflix, or reality television.)

But Melissa Joan Hart and Larisa Oleynik, the eponymous leads of this week’s shows, actually followed similar paths. Both would do popular teen movies, appeared in late 90s sitcoms, took hiatuses in the mid-00s, and have reappeared on television in recent years.

In “The Understudy,” Hart shows the talent and charm she had from such a young age (Hart was sixteen years-old when “The Understudy” aired, so we can guess she was probably fifteen when they filmed the episode).  Clarissa tells us exactly what the plot of this episode would be in the opening segment, and yet her performance still keeps the audience interested through the episode.

“The Understudy” actually gives us a good deal of time with each of Clarissa‘s five leads. It seemed Sam’s ladder was hitting against the window in every scene in Clarissa’s room, and the rest of the Darlings were tangled in two subplots about Janet and Marshall’s love of musicals and Ferguson’s potential need for glasses. The episode so focuses on the five leads that, outside Clarissa’s opening bit about lessons learned, nobody outside these five actors appears until the final minutes.

And almost all of this is sold by Hart. You can see each step of Clarissa’s journey through this episode; from not caring about the play to growing increasingly worried to trying to find easy routes out to the final conclusion. Sam only works as Clarissa’s best friend, Ferguson only works as Clarissa’s brother. The title of the series makes sense because, in this episode at least, everything circulates around Clarissa. And Hart clearly had the talent to carry this. Viacom believed in her so much that, after the Nickelodeon series ended, they filmed a pilot for a CBS spinoff where Clarissa went to New York and interned for a newspaper.

Hart also does something very difficult in portraying Clarissa. While most audience-age characters like Doug or Arnold were outcasts or strange in some way that the audience could mostly relate to, Clarissa, as described by Wikipedia, is “pretty and popular and generally well-liked by her classmates.” That is a type of character that audiences could very easily resent and envy. Hart is so good at playing every angle of Clarissa that she instead becomes someone the audience wants to be friends with.

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Les: Clarissa Explains It All holds something of a special place in my heart, as it’s one of the first live-action shows I have a conscious memory of watching regularly growing up. It was a show that had a winning cast of characters, a quirky aesthetic that wasn’t too weird–a balance shared by The Adventures of Pete and Pete, even though the latter was far more surreal–and that pulled off the trick of dealing with adolescent issues in a way that was never corny or saccharine. And like Andy said in our A&A about TV crushes, Melissa Joan Hart was such a winning lead that my preteen affections were instantly captured and have never been fully released.

“The Understudy” isn’t an episode I remember well, and the odds are good I never actually watched it, but it’s an episode that hits all of the beats I remember fondly. From Clarissa’s sardonic breaking of the fourth wall, to Sam climbing up through her window no fewer than four times (complete with wonderful guitar sting every time) to Marshall’s attempts to seem cooler than he actually is, to the instantly maddening portrayal of Ferguson, it’s clear how wonderful of an ensemble this show had and how by this point in its life how well they all played off each other. Establishing the family dynamic is always important for a show like this, and one of the things I’ve loved about Clarissa was that it rarely marginalized anyone in the cast–especially here, where as you say Andrew, those five leads are the only people we see in the episode.

As such, the actual content of the episode is secondary to that dynamic, not that it’s a bad episode in that regard. The theme of the episode is a simple one–Clarissa procrastinates doing any preparation for the school play, convinced that she won’t have to do any work, and then she pays for her hubris when the lead is hit with a case of strep throat. The plot finds ways to keep that interesting, constantly snatching victory from her in amusing fashion thanks to either her brother’s malicious intentions or her shortcut idea bombing when her brain becomes a melange of theatrical offerings. There’s some great asides to the episode as well–I loved the “sports section” musical number fantasy that Clarissa had, and the way they worked it in without seeming hokey.

The ending took me a little bit by surprise, given the way that much of the episode was building towards a total embarrassment for Clarissa as all of her plots came undone. I was expecting a disaster in the vein of the stinger to Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Puppet Show,” but she still manages to pull victory from under her hat (and her dress, her umbrella and every other piece of fabric) with an endless string of cue cards. It’s a nice way for the show to have its cake and eat it too. Clarissa manages to both save the day, proving how competent and resourceful she is; and also learn a lesson from it in that this is a circumstance she never wants to repeat again.

Cameron: With each passing year, I appreciate Clarissa Explains It All more and more. For one thing, it’s hard not to watch Clarissa Darling and see the seeds of Clueless‘s Cher already sown. (The ’90s: what a time to be alive.) More importantly, I see in Clarissa an element of my generation that I absolutely love: an unbridled problem-solving optimism that does not quit and is also not unfounded in reality.

Just look at the way this episode opens and closes. At the top, Clarissa lists off ways in which people study for tests; at the end, she reinforces the awesomeness of recess and free time as “the best part about school.” Already, there’s a subtle acknowledgment of the education system’s institutional problems that would become exacerbated in the 21st century. It’s no accident, too, that the theme is tied to a plot about preparing for a stage play. The connection between test-taking and performance anxiety is underlined in Clarissa’s preparation scenes with the other leads as she struggles to find ways to learn her lines in time for the play.

And because Clarissa is who she is, she does ultimately solve the problem, and rather creatively as well. Because Clarissa, like Cher and Buffy and Daria (who, in her series finale, states, “There is no aspect, no facet of life, that can’t be improved with pizza”) and the other ’90s teen girls that are the iconic images of the decade, sees solutions where others freak out about the problem. Compare, for example, Clarissa’s approach to solving her conflict with Ferguson’s attempts to stave off an eye exam. Ferguson tries to deny, over and over, that a problem exists; Clarissa, on the other hand, is faced with a problem and works it through. And she does so, as always, with an impeccable sense of fashion, a smile on her face, and some fourth-wall-breaking monologues to her audience, her fans… her peers.

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Emma: Hi everyone! This is the first Nickelodeon roundtable that I am taking part in and my experience with these shows is a lot more fragmented as I didn’t have the Nickelodeon channel (this was only part of cable over here and my parents didn’t get that until I went to university). Both of these shows that we’re discussing this week aired on regular TV (Clarissa on BBC) and Alex Mack on Channel 4) and I have fond memories of both.

Clarissa is still as chaotic as I remember and as it’s been mentioned Melissa Joan Hart is incredibly charming and personable as the lead; this is one of the things that helps ground the show. Considering how long it has been since I last watched an episode of this it isn’t hard to pick up on the relationship dynamics and the ladder up to the window is one of the defining images for me.

The other aspect that defines this show beyond Clarissa talking to the audience is her clothes and I was so happy to see outfits that included diamond leggings with a plaid shirt and a Commitments t-shirt followed by a rodeo shirt with a floral skirt. This is power clashing at its finest and it’s like all 90s trends vomited all over Clarissa in a clothing explosion. While I never got any fashion advice from Clarissa, I always admired how she wore these combinations with all the confidence in the world. Turning her costume into a giant crib sheet was a stroke of genius and provided a funny visual to close the episode with.

Whitney: How appropriate that the episode we chose to discuss this week was centered around a school play, as the style of Clarissa evokes more of a theater feel than most of the other single camera comedies on the air during the 90’s due to the constant breaking of the fourth wall and fantasies about crazy things happening with her family and friends. This was definitely my first live show that I remember enjoying and tuning in for most episodes and I was drawn in back then, as I was now, by the general silliness of everything and the ability of the show to add little unique touches like the aforementioned musical day dream or the labels that popped up on screen.

With most Nickelodeon shows from the 90’s, the moral of the story matters more at the end of every half hour than the pure entertainment value of the show. Cartoons are naturally entertaining and can reset or reframe reality whenever they please due to the nature of most of their premises. Live action kid’s shows, however, usually rely on a lesson learned or a moment of clarity for the main character to change in some way. Both Clarissa and Alex Mack balance the need for a lesson with the fun of the show very well, especially the former. When the episode began I was worried the need for a moral would overshadow the cast and any fun the show might try to have. But as the episode went on and it was clear any closure would be only a small part of the plot I began to enjoy it more and more.

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This particular corner that Clarissa painted herself into reminds me slightly of our discussion of Salute Your Shorts. Andrew, you made a good point about Hart’s ability to create a character with Clarissa that was a person who made mistakes and might be a little on the quirky side but wasn’t an outsider or disliked in any way. Instead of being the camper who made a fool of himself, got away with it, and managed to ruin things for other people in Shorts, Clarissa was the type of person who got away with procrastination and unpreparedness but relied on her own ingenuity to solve a problem and her friends to make sure she didn’t make the same mistakes twice. Come to think of it, maybe the reason I liked this show so much is that Clarissa and I both know how to properly bounce back from a nasty bout of procrastination.

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The Secret World of Alex Mack
Season 1, Episode 4: “The Videotape”
Original airdate: November 5, 1994

Andrew R.: In this episode of Alex Mack, Larisa Oleynik is asked to carry even more of the load than Hart in “The Understudy.” “The Videotape” is light on both Annie and Barbara Mack, so the onus is on Oleynik who was only thirteen years old when this episode aired. And, while Alex Mack is not as well written a show as Clarissa, Oleynik largely pulls off what she was asked to do.

As I said in our discussion last week about The Wild Thornberrys, the difference between Eliza’s powers and Alex’s powers are that someone was constantly trying to catch Alex, and that was the central plot of “The Videotape.” The trouble with this is, despite the episode being only the fourth episode of the season, nobody says why Danielle and the rest of the plant staff is so obsessed with this. The audience is left to make their own assumptions, and for a children’s show, this is a big leap. Still, this works in an episode like “The Videotape,” where Alex, Ray, and her other friends are brought to the plant. It is other episodes, where Alex and the plant are only tangentially related, where this can become stale.

Finally, how dumb is Alex? She really thinks using her powers at the plant is a good idea? Sure she wanted to impress her father, but she could have done the same thing through normal means.

Les: Unlike Clarissa Explains it All, The Secret World of Alex Mack is a show I never watched much of growing up. I probably watched a couple episodes here and there, but don’t have as much of a connection to it–in fact, prior to watching this episode I’d forgotten the show’s core premise. However it’s a premise I warmed back to almost immediately. The extraordinary powers to an ordinary person is very reminiscent of The Greatest American Hero, and it’s not hard to see Alex’s struggles to keep her abilities secret from anyone other than her core set of friends as a predecessor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Unlike Clarissa, this is a show with more of a narrative sense of urgency, and one where I found myself more invested in the plot than in the performances.

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“The Videotape” is early on in the series run, and compared to Clarissa it’s still a show finding its legs, but I can still see the pieces coming together entertainingly. The chemical company that employs Alex’s father and apparently half the town is a convincing central antagonist, and there was an effective caper vibe as Alex, Ray and Annie break into the company headquarters to procure the titular videotape. Unfortunately, the other teen characters don’t click as much outright as some other shows do outright, and I found myself enjoying the Frick and Frack dynamic of Dave and Vince more than I did Ray acting all superior with his “Danielle” attitude or whoever the other two female characters were.

As with Clarissa this is another show grounded on its likeable lead, and I thought the future Mrs. Ken Cosgrove did a sturdy job holding things together. Perhaps less so than Melissa Joan Hart, but Larissa Oleynik is playing something of a more complicated character thanks to the superpower framing device, whereas Clarissa is in control of her world even when circumstances are out of her control. There’s a conflicted edge as she’s trying to figure her powers out, and a nice winking quality to her performance when she’s able to execute them competently.

Andrew, I agree with you that it was unbelievably stupid of Alex to use her powers in the heart of the company that quantifies her as GC-161, but I think it’s a choice that I empathize with more than you do. Given that it’s only the fourth episode, Alex hasn’t had these powers for very long and is still figuring them out, as we see in the early scene with and the temptation to do something constructive with them—especially to try connecting with her father, who it’s implied she was already distant from before the incident—feels very much in character. (That said, I thought the ending of the show trying to deliver the heartfelt moment between Alex and her father fell incredibly flat, the show trying to force some sense of closeness that

Two closing thoughts for the group. 1) Of these two shows, which one do you think is more dependent on the charms of its leading lady to succeed? I say Hart but I’m curious what those who have seen more Alex Mack think. 2) Between the test tubes, yellow hazmat suits and barrels, am I the only one who imagined a really bizarre crossover episode with Breaking Bad?

Emma: While I liked Clarissa, I loved Alex Mack (see also Skechers and my Prada backpack) and this was a big summer holiday show for me (along with Eerie Indiana and later My So-Called Life). My one lasting memory of this show/character was thinking how much fun it would be to have these kinds of super powers – yes even the melting into a pile of goo power.

As this episode is early Alex is still figuring out just what she can do and we see her using them in moments of stress, to impress her dad (and yes it is dumb to use them here) and with her sister who is monitoring what she can do. Things happen to go very well for them as they go to get the videotape back and this episode reinforces the notion of how cool night vision goggles are after Jurassic Park had already made me want some, luckily I hadn’t quite seen The Silence of the Lambs by this point. It’s also hilarious that when everyone is chasing after the car with no driver that their bikes are just laying there for all to see and yet no one catches them, but I guess I shouldn’t look for plot holes in this show.

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Having super powers like this means keeping a lot of people in the dark and I’m glad that one of the people that knows Alex’s secret is her sister Annie. This helps with their sneaking out plan and subsequent “Oh we just popped to the video store” excuse and what exactly did Alex’s dad think was on the tape that he isn’t ready to see just yet? Yes my mind is in the gutter right now, at 12 it probably wasn’t. The differences between the sisters have been made clear and rather than creating conflict there is clearly a close bond.

To your question Les and in way I think that Hart has to be the most charming because she is having a direct dialogue with the audience. While I’m not saying that Larissa Oleynik doesn’t have to be charming I think that there is something naturally appealing about a story of a girl hiding her powers from a big, overbearing chemical factory that owns half the town (which instantly makes me think of Pawnee and Sweetums). Clarissa’s life is relatable whereas Alex Mack’s is fantastical and as I’ve already mentioned there was only one of these girls that I wanted to be like at 12.

Whitney: I didn’t watch Alex Mack when it was on the air outside of a few errant episodes that were probably on after something else I liked. The few I remember from when I was younger I do remember enjoying, especially Oleynik’s performance and the camaraderie between her, her friend, and her sister. Even though this was only the 4th episode, I liked how neither of the people who knew about her powers treated her like a freak. Yes, they were curious and a little weirded out by what she could do but they also both supported her and knew how to make her feel like a normal person even when she was using her mind control to sneak into a heavily guarded factory.

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This episode almost reminded me of an adult spy show or heist thriller, only made more believable with children as the main characters. In a movie involving someone with strange powers who was trying to keep them hidden, the audience usually finds themselves yelling at the screen for them to not do something stupid that will obviously betray their secret. Here, I was doing the same thing but it’s a lot more believable for a 13 year old to be making a stupid mistake like using her powers in a camera-filled factory jam packed with people out to catch her (as Ray so astutely pointed out)  than it would be for an adult to do the same thing. I was also happy with the portrayal of Alex’s relationship with her father. Not every kid’s show has to feature a nuclear American family who gets along perfectly and sits around the dinner table chatting about the day. Alex’s efforts to make her dad happy and proud, followed by him thanking her for trying, were heart warming moments and a great example of Nickelodeon stepping outside their comfort zone when it came to more muted character beats.

***

Our schedule for the next few weeks is as follows:

10/7: Guts, “Alex/Sarah/Jennifer” and Legends of the Hidden Temple, “Secret Battle Plan of Nathan Hale”

10/14: All That, “Tyra Banks”/”Blackstreet” and Kenan & Kel, “Who Loves Orange Soda”

10/21: Weinerville, “Dottie’s Birthday” and Roundhouse, “TV”

10/28: Are You Afraid of the Dark, “Tale of the Dangerous Soup” and The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, “The Smoke Screen Case”

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