The moral vision of SpongeBob SquarePants.

What you're watching.
Feb. 3 2003 11:29 AM

Mark Twain Under the Sea

The moral vision of SpongeBob SquarePants.

A hip square
A hip square

Is a sponge a good or a bad thing? On the one hand, a sponge might soak up information; so maybe it's intelligent. On the other hand, it can soak up other people's energy and money; so maybe a sponge is lazy and a user.

This dilemma is faced every day, many times a day, by the world's foremost sentient sponge, SpongeBob SquarePants, star of the self-titled animated show with the obscenely high ratings on Nickelodeon. You might find the name of this creature—one more time, SpongeBob SquarePantsrevolting, or you may sing it quietly to yourself, profoundly amused. Taken together, the syllables Sponge, Bob, Square, and Pants are primally affecting. No one quite knows why.

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SpongeBob lives in a pineapple on the floor of the Pacific Ocean in a city called Bikini Bottom, in which a squirrel cavorts, fires are lit, and the properties of the deep sea as we understand them do not obtain. SpongeBob is a young adult sponge who lives with his pet snail; he is an excellent short-order cook, and he enjoys his work. He is yellow, absorbent, and porous. He spends much of his time after hours with a dopey starfish named Patrick, who talks like Bert Lahr. SpongeBob has a female pal, too—the squirrel, Sandy Cheeks, who's a surfer—but, perhaps since the show's gay following has picked up, she hasn't been around much lately.

The show, like many non-PBS shows that feature explosions, is flamboyantly anti-educational. In Bikini Bottom, in fact, "educational television" is a horrible punishment, as fearsome as a bout with giant clams. And still each show contains moral questions, after a fashion. They are not the kind that find answers in ordinary children's fare (be kind and tolerant), but rather the pressing, if tawdry, dilemmas that adults face every day.

  • Am I cool enough to get into a cool bar?
  • Is it all right to borrow something without asking, if I return it before it's missed?
  • Is it OK to pass a class on dubious extra credit?
  • What if junk food is delicious?

What do you teach your children about these things? SpongeBob SquarePants is no help; it has nothing to teach. SpongeBob's would-be role models—his greedy, pirate-like boss (Mr. Krabs); his blowzy, neurotic teacher (Mrs. Puff); and his snobbish co-worker (Squidward Tentacles)—furnish only opportunistic answers. And SpongeBob, who never stops being happy, fumbles toward his own ad-hoc solutions. Bikini Bottom is no Gotham City, but it is a world of low-end cheating, slipshod work, obliviousness, firecrackers—and cheap Huck-Finn-style rascality. In the way of Mark Twain, SpongeBob SquarePants disdains sanctimony and hypocrisy far more than bad behavior. It does not put a lot of stock in families; characters tend to live by themselves and congregate in bars and restaurants. And it puts a premium on go-along-get-along happiness, the kind not grounded in principles but in small pleasures, the kind enjoyed by SpongeBob himself.

SpongeBob SquarePants has featured cameos by the actor John Lurie and the director Jim Jarmusch (who collaborated to make the films Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law), and it's no surprise that these downtown-art outlaws took to this show. They were probably drawn to its trippy good/bad sponge hero. For sure, the show is for an audience that prefers adventure to self-improvement, fun to goodness. That sounds like kids. That sounds like a lot of us.

Virginia Heffernan is a television critic for The New York Times. Her book, The Underminer, which she wrote with Mike Albo, comes out in February.

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