Very few of you, I assume, have heard of Tucker (2000-2001). No, I don’t mean the contemporary talk show hosted by the probable CIA asset, nor do I mean the side character from beloved children’s cartoon Danny Phantom (2004-2007). Let me introduce you to it much like I was. It’s the only way to experience this star child of Y2K overreach.
Tucker was a children’s sitcom on Nickelodeon. In it, Seth Green plays himself as a 26-year-old actor. He, however, separates the character from the man in one not so extraneous way: he is dating a 14-year-old named McKenna (Alison Lohman). This arrangement is not negatively remarked upon. No one sees Seth as a creep. In fact, he’s cool; it is cool that a famous actor who is seemingly good at everything, has decided to date a fan. He’s a dream and we’re all just living in his slickly gelled noggin.
On the face of it in our post-Epstein world, this seems insane, of course. It’s astonishing just how long it took adults to take the epidemic of abuse seriously—some still do not. The unfortunate effects of the Satanic Panic (see this book for a reevaluation of the initial events and how that may have provoked the wrong reaction in the public) and organizations like the False Memory Foundation delayed whatever progress might have been made in the early part of the new millennium. A show like this—and from Nickelodeon no less—who could be surprised? When I looked at the series’ Wikipedia entry and the cast didn’t list Green, despite his coming up in the summary, I smelled something bad cooking.
Here’s the weird thing: it’s a good show. And it’s not quite what it sounds like. Still inappropriate in its way. But not the pure darkness I had expected. In fact, catching a few episodes brought me back to a different time, not one when we didn’t take abuse seriously, but one when children’s TV was made to please both kids and parents.
What the summary above leaves out is that Seth Green is not the main character; he’s something like the lovable antagonist. Instead, we follow Tucker, a 14-year-old boy whose parents are recently divorced, leading he and his mother (Noelle Beck) to move in with his aunt (Katey Sagal), her husband (Casey Sander), and their son, Leon (Nathan Lawrence). Bummed at first, our young male protagonist about loses his mind when he first sees his new neighbor, McKenna. He’s in love; she’s his best chance at feeling at home. The problem—here he comes—is her relationship with superstar actor Seth Green.
The introduction of Green’s character in episode two is where the show finds its footing. You see, something is a little off about the show, but it’s hard to place. The setting and plot are typical; the background guitar riffs and skateboarding protagonist who’s got an independent streak but isn’t bad at heart—heard it; seen it. But little things upset this tried-and-true balance: Tucker wakes up next to a naked Leon, who has scooted up into his bunk because “he was cold.” Our protagonist goes to school in a t-shirt emblazoned with a rabbit smoking a cigarette, which his aunt mistakes for “a bunny sucking poop through a straw.” We see Tucker’s uncle reading a magazine called Manly Gardening [presaging, perhaps Danger 5’s (2012-2015), Sensible Chuckle, which is, funnily enough, perused by a character named “Tucker”].
The adult boyfriend lets you know that this is an absurd world with absurd rules. Until he actually steps on screen late in the second episode, you’re primed to believe it’s not even going to be him. Tucker sneaks into McKenna’s room, hoping to give her a flower as a token of his affection. Instead, he finds Green, whomjudiciously states that there won’t be any physical contact between him and McKenna until she’s 18 (he won’t even kiss her—much to her chagrin). Shorn of any body hair below his head, the movie star responds to Tucker’s confusion about the age difference by saying that he has discussed it many times with McKenna’s mom. She thinks he’s silly, that age is just a number—the NAMBLA routine. But Seth Green is no man-boy love enthusiast; he asserts the difficulty of the situation, despite the mother’s indifference, arguing for a joint wedding-birthday on McKenna’s 18th birthday. The effect of this news is, of course, to make Tucker feel horrible; he squirms on camera as Green comes off as the nicest guy on earth. He even offers to take Tucker backstage to meet his favorite band. Completing this comedic dressing down, Tucker slinks out McKenna’s bedroom window onto a step ladder as Seth Green offers more and more, even reminding Tucker that he’ll let McKenna know he dropped by with a nice gift. There is no hint of malice or sarcasm. Seth Green is, in this world, just that nice.
From then on, the series is full of man such total absurdities. Tucker’s uncle, for example, is a pilot who seems to be good at everything, a sort of universally respected can-do guy with not an ounce of guile. He sets out to shoot a basketball through a gap in some tree branches into a hoop dozens of feet away. Despite remarking “this should take a while to get down,” the uncle immediately makes the shot. He beats Sully to the emergency landing punch and saves hundreds of lives.
At one point a bit later in the series, both Tucker and his quasi-malevolent aunt get sick and are forced to quarantine together (on Halloween, no less). Their fever dreams get the better of them, with her imagining her boogying down to “Dancing Queen” by ABBA and Tucker imagining himself dressed like a dog, collared at the end of a leash held by—you guessed it—McKenna. He even woofs! As if that wasn’t enough, the mischievous McKenna shows up and takes pictures of the two of them crawling around in bed, delirious. Aunt Claire mistakes the young girl for her sister (Tucker’s mom), allowing McKenna to play a little trick. She “admits” to kissing Aunt Claire’s prom date, leading her outraged sister to call the guy up and tear him a new one. One problem: only after her tirade does she realize the voice on the other end is the ex-prom date’s son (junior, one assumes). Meanwhile, Tucker knows who the presence is and does what any teenage boy who dreams of being a human dog would do—acts like a human dog, panting, woofing, and snuggling up to his crush (from whom, it should be said, he initially got sick).
It’s not even really clear if McKenna is really there during this scene. Not long before the two bedridden knuckleheads were talking to a waffle and a Pop-Tart. Outside their chamber of germs, Uncle Jimmy and Leon strip down to their boxers and don (respectively) a pilot’s hat and a luchador mask. They whittle the time away by surprising would-be trick-or-treaters, scaring them off such that they drop their candy-laden pillowcases and contribute to the pair’s holiday haul.
Nothing perhaps beats episode three, in which Tucker decides to wow McKenna by getting the high score at Dance Dance Revolution at a local arcade. The problem, of course, is that Seth Green holds nine of the ten top scores. The top of the machine even constantly flashes “HIGH SCORE: SETH GREEN.” Tucker has no choice but to go to his cousin Leon (the only non-Green name on the list) who agrees to train him if his cousin will eat his “feta peas” (Leon has been stuck at the table for hours, his mom refusing to let him get up until he’s eaten all of this Oprah-inspired dish). It gets even weirder though. In thanks for the training, Tucker volunteers to cut off a lock of Seth Green’s hair so that Leon can add it to his collection. Heart warmed and blushing, Leon agrees, but makes his cousin take Annabel, his prized golden scissors.
Seth Green may play the opposite of the real rock star or movie star who abused his power with younger fans. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Tucker rises to the level of social critique. It’s a show filled with absurdities and occasional adult jokes to keep the whole audience interested. Uneven in many places and downright boring at times (it is a sitcom after all), the show steadfastly maintains a willingness to see the world of turn-of-the-millennium suburbia with unsparing eyes, reminding us of the absurdity that so haunted such an existence (paging the films of Todd Solondz, paging).
Now I don’t watch a ton of kids shows now. I have no idea if entertainment for that age bracket today is stellar or not. But I feel safe in assuming it isn’t, because little of our society’s cultural production strikes me with hope or confidence. Tucker brought me back to a time when Him could be on Powerpuff Girls (1998-2005), not as a last-minute thought or a topic of the week, but just as a character—a villain yes, but so was Gorgeous George. The series called to mind Chokey Chicken from Rocko’s Modern Life (1993-1996), the red-assed devil from Cow and Chicken (1997-1999), and the generalized insanity of Aaahh!!! Real Monsters (1994-1997). All that ended up going too far, veering off into the era of randomness for its own sake. But I admire and miss the implicit trust such shows had for kid viewers and their parents. We might even get more handholding today from mainstream TV and movies. So, it goes.
But go all the way it does not have to. Tucker is available on YouTube for free. Walk; don’t run. And, should you ever recommend it to a friend, lead with the summary—they’ll thank you.