What does it mean, in terms of my mental health, that I’ve now spent several hours watching a giddy yellow sponge, and still crave more? SpongeBob SquarePants has long been a global phenomenon; that isn’t news, nor is the idea that Stephen Hillenburg’s underwater creation—which debuted in 1999 to a slowly growing cult—is a favorite of nonkids. As addictive as the Krabby Patties our porous hero cooks (and often dreams about), these brief episodes have a hold on the appetites of adults—not just stoners swaying to the Hawaiian ukuleles, but fans of zany elasticity and subversive charm.
It’s a show that deserves serious consideration, and that’s exactly what this invaluable 14-disc set provides: a chronicle of an evolving comic sensibility. By the second season, the small team of self-amused screenwriters is subtly taking on issues of economic emptiness (“Patty Hype”), class warfare (“Squidville”) and racism (“Squirrel Jokes”)—while still reveling in goofier tastes. SpongeBob never feels educational, though, and the occasional crudeness makes for delightful raspberries. (No “bun” joke goes unexplored.)
Nickelodeon does honorably by its crown jewel, creating easy-to-navigate menus and an entire disc of grown-up extras and interviews. Hillenburg, a marine biologist by training, comes off with appealing intelligence, and his show is explored as a cultural touchstone and (infamously) a target of antigay groups.—Joshua Rothkopf