Of all the cartoon series produced by Nickelodeon in its decades of operation, none could have been more unlikely than . Creator Jhonen Vasquez had previously achieved cult fame and notoriety for producing two of the most twisted comic series of the late ’90s, and , full of gallons of black-and-white blood and utterly evil characters.
Yep, that’s a perfect fit for one of the biggest children’s networks of all time.
That the series aired for a full year on Nickelodeon, packed full of dark comedy and sneering satire of complacent mainstream culture, is as baffling now as it was then. But that surprise has nothing to do with the series’ inherent preteen-friendliness. Above all, worked because its wiry alien fingers tapped directly into the nonconformist weirdo tendencies that lurk in growing children. It respected the instincts of preteens—and understood their equal desires to feel smugly superior to authority while also acting as immaturely as possible. This concept wrapped deftly around a universe where one alien had sneaked onto the planet Earth—with the Vasquez twist that nobody other than the two main characters (the alien, Zim, and his Mulder-like rival, Dib) gave a damn.
This balanced juggling of topics—of maniacally cackling teen aliens, galactic-stakes battles over the universe, and bulbous creatures who both roll around in and vomit entire pizza pies—is not an easy thing to pull off. Thank the Almighty Tallest, then, that ‘s return this week on Netflix is not a lazy cash-in on catch phrases or previous episodes. may rank as Netflix’s most impressive nostalgia rebirth to date.
“Sitting in a toilet? The whole time?”
This week’s new 70-minute standalone special begins by introducing a plot point hinted to in the series’ return as an Oni Press comic book. The alien Zim vanished years ago without a trace, but arch-nemesis Dib still obsesses over the possibility that Zim has somehow been hiding, waiting, and lurking. Dib’s younger sister Gaz relentlessly calls her brother out for his unhealthy obsession (which has turned him into an unhygienic blob, wedged into his office chair). Seconds later, she flatly remarks, “Oh, there he is.”
Sure enough, Zim is back, doing calisthenics and stretches in the series’ familiar neighborhood.
From there, each of the two main characters continues their streak of obsessing over how to beat their rival, which likely sounds familiar to series fans. No matter how big the stakes become in Zim and Dib’s battle for Earth’s future, the special never fails to remind us of how foolish these rivals are in their battle to out-narcissist each other. Zim’s supposed bosses complain about how much they wish their “Urth” ambassador would just leave them alone, while Dib is truly the planet’s last Rodney Dangerfield, failing to elicit respect from both his mega-famous scientist dad and his much more capable younger sister.
Yet the special manages to do something that has eluded many TV series’ bloated, feature-length efforts: it keeps the story’s momentum moving with a tight, focused plot. Instead of introducing a cast of new characters or an ambitious and unfamiliar motivation, Vasquez plays to the series’ strengths by having the two loudest, weirdest characters concoct goofy schemes that slam human and alien technology together in visually stunning fashion, all while failing brilliantly and repeatedly for humor’s sake. Why does the plot have to become unwieldy, when the show can instead take a welcome breather with a hilariously drawn montage of something else going wrong? And why waver from a successful formula of hopping from one relationship to the next while letting the plot unspool its goofy surprises? As soon as we’re bored watching siblings Dib and Gaz battle over a way to sneak out of a hairy situation, the camera can pan to Zim and his dimwitted robot companion GIR, where we watch them each talk past the other to great comedic effect.
One thing that boosts is its willingness to throw in some true emotional moments, in the form of Dib finally confronting his father about a conflict that persisted throughout the TV show. “I wish you were on my side!” Dib shouts while trying to convince his father, for the zillionth time, that aliens exist. His father pauses for a beat, peering through his thick pupil-hiding scientist glasses before replying, “Son, wishing isn’t very scientific.” The special is extremely careful not to overdo this quest for affirmation, and luckily, it doesn’t have to. We already know Dib craves an entire planet’s worth of gratitude for everything he thinks he’s done to battle aliens, and his delusion is easily mined for comedy without diluting the emotional power of a boy wishing his dad just gave a crap.
“Their greatest and most incredible invader!”
Everything else about the special is either easily spoiled or would make absolutely no sense typed out in the context of a review. But here’s one of a few anecdotal examples that, to me, highlights exactly the sense of humor does best. In one scene, a hundreds-strong army of robots is torn apart, and Zim is forced to watch this battle happen from the sidelines. We have only briefly been introduced to the fact that Zim controls any of these robots. After we see sparks fly and robots fall apart, the camera pans to Zim, who looks entirely forlorn as he watches from afar.
We hear a metallic whack in the distance. “Spencer!” Zim cries. Another crunch. “Devon!” One more smash. “Maria!” he yells, this time rolling the “r” for no apparent reason. Finally, a robot’s head lands in front of Zim’s feet, to which he exclaims, in his most bonkers scream yet, “Lawrence! Noooo!”
There’s so much genius to how this moment pulls away from a battle and introduces us to the care Zim has applied to these robots for no good reason. It’s funny on a sheer “Zim is shouting” level for kids, with equal parts silly animation and bonkers voice acting, along with the nuance of laughing at his obsessiveness over the otherwise-worthless bots. We even get a giggle-worthy bonus at the end of this sequence, when Zim barks an order to his robo-buddy GIR: “Avenge your robot brothers! And Maria!”
More often than that, elicits laughs—serious out-loud howls—for its willingness to abruptly disobey all logic and reason in the name of absurdity. Conversations will turn on a dime (especially when GIR unwittingly messes up), and these moments land so confidently that it’s easy to forget how long it’s been since we’ve seen a new animated episode. Sometimes people call each other names, and other times characters punch each other, but there’s a strange kindness to how nails its memorable jokes and gags.
And that’s really the best part about the special: it carries forward the series’ bizarrely wholesome core, as opposed to pivoting to bloodiness or extreme content thanks to its new Netflix home. The original series’ ethos (carried by its use of gorgeous, hand-drawn animation) remains intact. Thank you, Vasquez and company, for pulling off another successful alien invasion.