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Series / Clarissa Explains It All

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"If you're so smart, explain THIS, Clarissa!"
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Na na na na-na!

One of the earliest original sitcoms on Nickelodeon, about a teenage girl named Clarissa Darling, her geeky, conniving, conservative brother Ferguson, and her wacky hippie parents. Usually featured Clarissa commenting on the plot directly to the camera, imitating a newscaster.

Despite its seemingly innocent reputation, in retrospect, Clarissa had a habit of making subtle references to sex and teen partying, albeit in a light-hearted, contemporary fashion. Also one of the few shows on the channel that could skate by with using and at times spelling out words like "hell" and "sex" onscreen.

Also noteworthy for being one of the first shows to feature a female lead and be gender-neutral. Before this show, the only shows with a female lead (as few as they were) were intended for girls only. It also helped to tear down a long standing belief that shows with female leads wouldn't be able to gain a significant male audience.

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The show ran from 1991 to 1994, ending just before the introduction of cartoon programming that would come to dominate the channel in The '90s. Is also notable for being one of the roles Melissa Joan Hart is known for besides being a witch.

In July 2011, it became one of the four inaugural shows of TeenNick's "NickRewind" lineup.


This series provides examples of:

  • 30 Minutes, or It's Free!: Since their mom is a health-food nut, Clarissa and Ferguson once took advantage of being allowed to order pizza by timing the delivery boy down to seconds, and then re-ordering more when he was inevitably late.
  • Accidental Theft: Clarissa spends "Life of Crime" worrying about this. She tried on a bustier at a store, but she forgot to remove it ahead of closing time. She worries about getting accused of deliberately shoplifting, as well as the embarrassment of having to talk to others about the item in question. Ultimately, Sam and Ferguson help her covertly return it to the store.
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  • Affectionate Nickname: Marshall regularly calls Clarissa “Sport”. Both he and Clarissa are visibly irked when Janet’s ex-boyfriend, Joey Russo, calls her that.
  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: Clarissa's parents have all manner of eccentric, oddball hobbies. Clarissa may or may not get dragged into them, but she always feels annoyed at them.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Ferguson makes it his life's mission to annoy Clarissa.
  • Anti-School Uniforms Plot: One episode has a variation on this trope, in which fashion-conscious Clarissa protests against being dressed conservatively for her school picture. After many trials and tribulations, she manages to win the right to dress as she pleases, only to feel dejected when the rest of the class follows suit, causing her to not stand out anymore.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:
    • "There are lots of things worse than having your mom teach at your school, like flossing with barbed wire, swimming through shark-infested waters, or having Ferguson for a brother."
    • "Disasters often come unexpectedly and have devastating consequences. Like the fall of the Roman Empire, the Black Plague, or the break-up of The Bangles."
  • Aside Comment: How she Explains It All.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Clarissa and Ferguson are capable of getting along, and in the last episode he admits he'll miss her when she leaves for New York. He even hugs her.
  • Babysitting Episode: One episode had Clarissa baby sitting "Little Elsie", an absolute monster of a child, who makes it a point to make Clarissa's life a living hell. Clarissa manages to beat her by goading her into bragging about everything she's gotten away with and recording it.
  • Balloonacy: Clarissa attempts to do away with Ferguson by hooking him up to a straitjacket attached to balloons. Hapless Sam falls victim to the trap instead.
  • Better as Friends: Sam develops a crush on Clarissa at one point, and she reluctantly agrees to go on a date with him. It turns out that, as close as they are, they have absolutely zero chemistry and agree that they are... well, this trope.
  • Big Eater: Clifford. Eating an entire pizza just makes him hungrier.

  • Blatant Lies: In the episode "She Drives Me Crazy", Clarissa claims that "the world would be an awful place without little white lies". She enters Cheeky Magazine's essay contest, in which the prize is a new car, and writes the winning essay, "My Bro, What A Guy", in which she severely exaggerates Ferguson's qualities. When Jill, the editor of said magazine, comes over to interview them, she soon realizes how far from the truth the essay was, and rejects Clarissa as the winner.

    Jill: I think you have confused Cheeky's essay contest with a fiction competition. This isn't the relationship that deserves a convertible sports car, uh-uh, and I, Jill, won't have you in my magazine!

    Clarissa: Well, I might have stretched the truth a little, but at least we don't talk about ourselves every minute!

    Ferguson: And we don't go around calling people we don't know "Rusty" and "Freckles"!

  • Boy Next Door: Sam.
  • Butt-Monkey: Sam does have a tendency to fall off of that ladder more often than he'd like to admit..
  • Cannot Tell a Joke: Ferguson was generally a straight-laced, snobby know it all. Later in the series, he spent an entire episode practicing the delivery of a cliche joke (A homeless man walks up to me on the street and says he hasn't had a bite in...) for some event that he was participating in. The humor came not from the joke itself, but from the ludicrous attempts at telling it, which eventually started including ridiculous stresses on random words of the punchline, a la "I bit him. I bit him. I bit him."
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Clarissa has a dream sequence where she finds her mother smoking like a chimney. The mother explains that she used to smoke and had quit, but that recent stress had caused her to pick up the habit again.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: One episode, Clarissa has serious problems training to become "normal". It Runs in the Family, even her mentor is Not So Above It All.
  • Conflict Ball: The source of some of the drama being the unjustified parental veto.
  • Cool Pet: Clarissa has a pet alligator named "Elvis".
  • Cool Teacher: Mr. Futtstein. Clarissa often quotes his words of wisdom, and one of his assignments was watching television for 24 hours straight to figure out how to improve it.
  • A Day in the Limelight: "Ferguson Explains it All".
  • Diet Episode: Marshall tries to go on a diet upon discovering he can no longer fit into his old jacket from high school. Janet is reluctant to help him out, stating that every time she tries to help him with a diet, she ends up becoming the bad guy because he can't stick to it.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
  • Dogged Nice Guy: The Clarissa/Clifford dynamic starts off by following this to the letter, with Clarissa being irritated by his relentless serenading her until he stops, at which point she realizes she misses him.
  • Drop-In Character: Sam doesn't have to call ahead or even knock on the front door. He just props a ladder against Clarissa's patio and climbs on in unannounced. Clarissa often doesn't even look up from what she's doing when he arrives, simply calling "Hi, Sam!" when his ladder and dissonant guitar lick leitmotif are audible.
  • Enter Stage Window: It's debatable whether Sam's even aware the Darlings' house has a door. At one point he was downstairs in the kitchen, and instead of leaving through the back door he climbed out through that window!
  • Evil Redhead: Ferguson isn't really evil in the world at large, but he certainly feels that way to his older sister.
  • First Gray Hair: In one episode, Clarissa's mother panics about getting older after discovering that she has a gray hair. Clarissa's dad, however, is quick to point out to her that she only had a gray hair, having just plucked it out before both characters entered the scene.
  • Granola Girl: Clarissa's mom is quick to jump on any trends she feels would advance the world.
  • Homage: One episode has Clarissa befriending Eve, the new girl in school; she practically worships Clarissa, begins copying her style, and later steals her ideas for the school newspaper column.
  • Hostile Show Takeover: "Ferguson Explains It All".
  • I Just Want to Be You!: Eve in the episode "Hero Worship".
  • Imagine Spot: At least Once an Episode, often more.
  • Insufferable Genius: Ferguson is remarkably smarter than Clarissa. At least, book smart. And he will never, ever shut up about it.
  • Intrepid Reporter: The one featured on the show has an odd tendency to sleep standing up.
  • It's a Wonderful Plot: "Ferguson Explains it All" eventually turns into one of these after Clarissa "kills" Ferguson and he returns to show Clarissa what their parents would have been like without him.
  • Jury Duty: The episode "The Silent Treatment" has as its B-plot Janet being called to jury duty in the case of a mobster named Fishface Freddy; where she struggles not to talk about the case in front of her family. That plotline ends when she doesn't get to even make a decision on a verdict due to Fishface Freddy taking a plea deal.
  • Leitmotif: Now full-on Memetic Mutation.
  • Lethal Chef: Janet, as she both is a health food nut and likes to experiment in the kitchen.
  • Love at First Punch: Clifford falls for Clarissa because she's the first girl to ever try and stand up to him. However, they don't actually fight, which is definitely a good thing as it's made abundantly clear the results would not have been pretty.
  • Loves My Alter Ego: Clarissa once attended a costume party while dressing and acting like a punk named "Jade", and caught the attention of an older boy.
  • Men Can't Keep House: Clarissa ends up interning for Sam's dad in one episode. She goes over to his house and is repulsed by how messy it is.
  • Missing Mom: Sam's mother ran off with the Roller Derby at some point before the series. According to Sam, the divorce was not on amicable terms. She makes a couple of appearances however. Once to take custody of Sam and move to Seattle, but Sam clearly doesn't want to go, and another when she stays with the Darlings for a week during the Roller Derby playoffs, where her crass nature clashes with the prim and proper Janet.
  • Mistaken for Pregnant: An early episode has Clarissa thinking that her parents are expecting another child after catching her father drawing designs for an extra room for the house and her mother knitting a web for a spider exhibit at the children's museum she works at.
  • No Fourth Wall: Clarissa addresses the audience almost every scene. Ferguson and Sam also did it a few times.
  • No Sparks: The reason Clarissa and Sam decide they're Better as Friends.
  • Of Corsets Sexy: Clarissa tries on a bustier and accidentally leaves the store wearing it under her clothes. May count as She Is All Grown Up.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Sometimes we see Clarissa come up with a solution and only hear what happened after she carried it out.
  • Pac-Man Fever: Clarissa would, Once an Episode, make a game venting her frustrations at her current dilemma. They looked a bit like what games would appear as at the time; but nowadays they would be more appropriate for flash.
  • Parental Fashion Veto: In one episode, Clarissa argues with her mother over what she will wear for the school photos.
  • Pet's Homage Name: In one episode, Ferguson finds a lost cat that he names William F. Buckley.
  • Phrase Catcher: "Hi, Sam." twang
  • Pilot: Taped in September 1990, it was identical to what aired when the show premiered, except for the parents and Sam being played by different actors. Henry Irving directed it.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Clarissa and Sam.
  • Precocious Crush: Clarissa develops a temporary one on the local television weatherman.
  • Rear Window Investigation: The episode where Clarissa and Sam try dating features a B-plot with Ferguson investigating a possible murder the neighbor appeared to commit.
  • Security Blanket: Ferguson, still sleeps with his "blankie". Clarissa was once able to sabotage his election for class president by releasing a picture of him with it throughout the school.
  • Shaped Like What It Sells: Marshall Darling is an architect who seems to specialize in these.
  • Spin-Off: After the series ended, Nickelodeon aired the pilot for a failed spin-off called "Clarissa Now" which focused on Clarissa getting a job in New York. It even featured an urbanized version of the "Na Na" theme song. It failed to catch on with younger viewers due to the fact that it was originally produced as a prime-time sitcom for CBS complete with an all-adult cast that included comedian Robert Klein and Lisa Gay Hamilton (of "The Practice").
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: In the final episode, Sam is worried he won't get accepted to college despite applying to a wide variety of schools. He even mistakenly applied at a girls' college because he wasn't paying close enough attention. The girls' school replies saying they've actually felt their student body needs expanding anyway, so they're happy to accept him as their first male student.
    Sam: Wow! I get to go to an all-girls school...
    Clarissa: An all-girl and Sam school!
  • There Was a Door: Sam. Repeatedly. Lampshaded often by Clarissa's dad.
  • Title Sequence Replacement: The first season episodes originally opened with Clarissa trying on different costumes her family and Sam handed her.
  • Trapped in TV Land: Clarissa pretends to be this to prank Ferguson, when she'd really just set up an elaborate video camera.
  • Un-Duet: Clarissa performs one in front of Sam when her partner backs out.
  • Wacky Parent, Serious Child: Sam's father is a good guy and holds a steady job, but he has very eccentric habits, so Sam often takes the lead when it comes to keeping house and making meals. Sam never seems particularly bothered by this, with his only stated concern being if he prepared enough meals for the old man. He also thinks his mom being an aggressive roller derby skater to be awesome.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The name of the town the series takes place in is never given, nor its location. Various hints throughout the series imply that it's somewhere in the Midwest, but nothing particularly specific.

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