Nick and Amy Dunne are not the only people celebrating a landmark anniversary. Tomorrow marks 20 years since the premiere of Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack.
People like to ask pop culture writers, “What should I be watching?” At this time of year especially, everyone wants to know which new fall shows are the best. Please believe me when I tell you: almost without exception, the new fall shows are the worst. (Exceptions: How To Get Away With Murder, Amazon’s Transparent, and, if you want to count mid-August as fall, Outlander).
I remember loving Alex Mack very, very much, but if you had asked me approximately an hour ago what specifically I loved, I would not have been able to come up with a satisfying reply. Like many a childhood favorite — Skip-it, that special blue paper you could use to make plant silhouettes, Jazzy Jewelry — my love of Alex Mack is a primal, visceral thing, unmitigated by logic or actually vivid memories. I remember some bullet points: She got caught in a chemical spill, and she could glow and turn herself into a puddle, and these evil science people were chasing her, and… that’s it. The rest is blank.
But that was two hours ago. I was so much younger then! For two hours ago, I made this thrilling discovery: the premiere of Alex Mack is streaming, in its entirety, on this crazy thing we call the internet.
Here is what I have confirmed: The Secret World of Alex Mack is, no exaggeration, significantly better than nearly all of television’s new fall offerings. As Stefon would say: this pilot has everything: two female characters who are, within the first twenty minutes of the series, presented as complex, three-dimensional people; a girl who is better at science than her professional-scientist dad; a mean, popular girl named Jessica; a vaguely evil corporation run entirely by humorless grown-ups wearing black and white; spontaneous telekinesis; some dude who serves as a cautionary tale against eating while driving a truck filled with top-secret hazardous chemical materials; those hazmat suits from Breaking Bad.
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First of all, we get all the great tropes of “shows about young people”: evil old folks who just don’t get it, fashion of the era, mean girls and gold-hearted jocks. The villains are all adults, and their dialogue is written as a child’s idea of what grown-ups sound like. “I just got off the phone with our testing facility.” “The testing facility is expecting the shipment now.” Alex wears a backwards baseball hat, long denim shorts, a striped t-shirt and, possibly, combat lace-up boots. That she would not look out of place at Urban Outfitters right now is just one of the many ways in which this series was so ahead of its time. At school, she gets picked on by a girl named Jessica. Why is it always a Jessica? The cute guy who helps Alex up is named Scott. It’s always a Scott. The Jessicas need to find out who is doing the Scotts’ PR.
Also, fun fact about that Jessica: she is played by a real-life Jessica. Jessica Alba.
The premise of the series is bonkers but perfect; instead of getting weighed down in too many details or annoying questions, we quickly establish that, post-chemical spill, Alex has powers. Sometimes, these powers will act up without her even trying; sometimes, with concentration, she can control them. And that’s it. As outlandish as this is, the simplicity keeps it grounded, and besides, it still makes more sense than anything that happens in Manhattan Love Story, The Mysteries of Laura or Bad Judge.
Like any good story about teenagers, Alex’s powers are all loaded with that coming-of-age symbolism: she watches herself, half in awe, half in terror, become someone she isn’t sure she’s ready to be. Alex runs away from the site of the chemical spill that serves as her spider-bite moment and locks herself in her garage. Sparks come out of her fingers. Her hands glow gold. Just standing in the vicinity of an electric saw and a toy train set makes the saw whir and the train chug in loops around the track. In this moment of crisis, she calls out for her sister, Annie.
Annie is the other vital thing keeping us in some recognizable version of reality. Usually, sisters on television shows could not seem less like sisters. This is an extra-glaring failure on shows for kids. They’re always referring to each other as “sis,” something I have literally never heard a real pair of sisters do in my whole life. Whenever they make up after a fight, without fail, one will say to the other, “You’re my [big/little] sister,” as if the other sister in question was uninformed as to the nature of their relationship. As a lifetime sister-haver myself, I can attest to being unsatisfied with 96-percent of all sister depictions on TV. But Annie and Alex, who have names that people must mix up all the time, seem like actual siblings.
Take Annie’s reaction to Alex’s crazy-sounding story of how she wound up doused in chemicals: “Well, you’re not clever enough to make this up.” A lesser show would be all, “Alex, whatever happens, I’m your sister and we will get through this.” But real sisters do not constantly remind each other that they are sisters, and Alex Mack knows this.
Also, Annie is just an awesome girl character. She is feisty and brilliant and a feminist; when a creepy old man from the chemical plant asks her, “Sweetheart, do you know where you were at 3:30 this afternoon?” she replies, “Sweetheart? I don’t even know you.” (And anyway, she was at AP Chem.) When her parents ask why Alex isn’t downstairs for breakfast yet, Annie says Alex is busy “trying unsuccessfully to define herself through fashion.” When her dad is working on some science graphic on a laptop that looks like one of the old Dell computer screensavers, Annie just bumps him aside and takes over the operation. Annie is the true (secret!) hero of this show.
In the aftermath of “oh my kid sister just got drenched in possibly hazardous unidentified chemicals,” Annie rolls up those genius-sleeves and gets to work, checking Alex’s blood pressure and body temperature. Alex’s face oscillates between orange and normal, like she’s testing out personal Instagram filters installed directly into her skin.
Alex wants to go to “the plant” (again, all the science things sound like they were named by fourth graders) but Annie, a real worst-case-scenario thinker if there ever was one, has a hunch that “whatever doused you is illegal and majorly top secret… they’ll cut you up piece by piece and put you under a microscope and examine you like biology class!” Annie is not the most calming presence but she is the only one making the hard choices, and I respect that. These two, under these completely insane circumstances, manage to be obeying the laws of a more logical universe than the one in which NBC’s A To Z takes place.
So Alex, in one of her now-trademark moves, morphs into a gelatinous puddle. This was, as you likely recall, a very hip bit of CGI in the ‘90s:
But better than the (awesome) fake-science is the girls’ genuine enthusiasm for real science. At the end of the episode, Alex and Annie whisper before they go to bed:
Annie: Everything has changed, Alex. You were just this average kid headed for this life of inconsequence and boredom. And now look at you!… I bet we make the cover of Scientific American one day!Alex: You would’ve made it by yourself eventually.Annie: Don’t worry, I’ll take all the credit.
Two tween girls curling up under the covers on a television show for kids, and what are they fantasizing about? Not seeking vengeance on Queen Bee Jessica, not making out under the bleachers with a one Scott The Generic Cute Guy. These are teen girls who dream about making the cover of Scientific American.
(Sidebar: Scientific American doesn’t put scientists on the cover, right? I thought I learned that on Orphan Black. But let the youths have their hopes, their beautiful, academic, STEM-centric hopes.)
Happy twentieth birthday, Alex Mack. You are all that I remember, and then some.