Photo: Nickelodeon

In 1992, the second season of Salute Your Shorts debuted and I felt betrayed. Michael (Erik MacArthur), the angel-faced every-kid, was gone, replaced by a smug schemer named Ronnie Pinsky (Blake Soper). I loved Michael. Michael was insecure and awkward and sort of a follower, just like me. Pinsky was none of those things. Pinsky was confident and suave and, god, he could even play piano. “Michael left and we got a new kid who’s 10 times better!” Z.Z. Ziff (Megan Berwick) gushes, while chic Dina (Heidi Lucas) says Pinsky is like “they recycled Michael into something better.” How rude.

Going into that second season, Nickelodeon’s shaggy, sunny comedy about preteens at Camp Anawanna was my favorite show. I loved the manic milieu, the bizarre insults (“You 10-ton traitor tuna!”), and perhaps most of all, its knowledge that there is no funnier word than “fart.” Truly, though, it was a show built on characters, ostensible stereotypes that, through clever writing and earnest performances, were able to (mostly) transcend their quirks to offer an identifiable portrait of adolescence.

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But Pinsky? Pinsky didn’t fit in. He was smug where the others were sassy, savvy where the others were awkward, and, well, adultlike where the others were adolescent. In the end, he even gets the better of potty-mouthed bad boy Bobby Budnick (Danny Cooksey) as well as doltish camp counselor “Ug” Lee (Kirk Bailey), seemingly carving a schism among our central ensemble. Sure, Michael and Budnick feuded early in the first season, but Budnick was also presented as the antagonist. By replacing Michael, Pinsky was the assumed protagonist. This I did not sign up for.

But then something curious happens. By the next episode, there is no schism. Pinsky’s no longer the focus; rather, he’s more or less interwoven into the fabric of the gang’s dynamic, no more or less established than the others. Within a few episodes, even he and Budnick are thick as thieves. This seeming neglect for arc or continuity is something we’d criticize in most shows, but what I realize now, 24 years later, is that it actually serves to highlight part of what made Salute Your Shorts such a singular entity.

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See, when Michael arrives in episode one, he’s the audience surrogate, the new kid whose defining characteristic is his newness. His bunkmates and friends embody broader characteristics: Budnick is the bully; Sponge (Trevor Eyster), the nerd; and Donkey Lips (Michael Bower), the slob; while female counterparts Dina, Z.Z., and Telly (Venus DeMilo) are the rich kid, free spirit, and jock, respectively.

What becomes clear as the show progresses is that creator Steve Slavkin and his team of writers had no real use for a straight man. They were clearly much more interested in peeling back the layers of their supporting cast, each of whom are given episodes centered around them. That’s true for most ensemble shows, but what’s different here is that Salute Your Shorts never frames those journeys through the lens of its ostensible protagonist, as, say, Saved By The Bell did with Zack Morris, who always resided at the heart of each story. As such, Michael recedes some throughout the course of that first season. He remains a fun character, with the writers (and MacArthur, who’s great) highlighting a smart-mouthed boyishness over that initial innocence. Still, that didn’t stop the character from feeling adrift within an ensemble with such clearly defined roles.

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MacArthur left the show of his own accord, which came as a surprise to me, since Pinsky, in a way, feels like a course correction. Knowing that it wasn’t the show’s decision, it seems that Slavkin sought not to create a clone of Michael upon his departure, but rather to round out the ensemble with another strong archetype. Pinsky’s street smart, a rakish plan-man who, in many ways, helped relieve Budnick of the multiple roles he was asked to play. And that’s why we get bizarre, unexpected season two episodes like “Budnick Loves Dina,” where we see the sensitivity buried beneath that ginger mullet.

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What I didn’t get as a kid was that I was never supposed to identify with Pinsky. Well, not as a singular whole, like they tried to achieve with Michael, the blank slate onto whom I placed my own insecurities. That I found myself loving the second season even more than the first just proves that I didn’t actually need that evergreen protagonist. The best ensembles, it seems, are the ones where you see a little bit of yourself in everyone, and Salute Your Shorts did that about as well as anyone.

That the show unmoored itself from a central anchor in such a fashion speaks also to the peripatetic nature of its storylines. Rewatching the series, it’s easy to see why the writers couldn’t commit to a clear protagonist—they were far too curious. After the straightforward pilot, Slavkin took a hard left turn into genre with “Ghost Story,” wherein Budnick freaks out his fellow campers with the story of Zeke The Plumber, a mythic figure with a rubber mask and a plunger that, when suctioned to your face, reveals your deepest secrets. It’s a kid-friendly riff on Freddy Krueger, but still pretty freaky—try not shivering a little at the image of a masked adult, replete with a bloody bandage on his nose, rhythmically plunging a toilet in the dead of night. The squelching alone is the stuff of nightmares.

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Every episode’s something different, and they ping-pong between topics with the bug-eyed energy of an adolescent. Even the campers’ interests change from episode to episode: Sometimes Dina likes Michael or Pinsky, but mostly she’s crushing on a rando. Sometimes Sponge is a journalist, but mostly he’s tinkering with computers. Sometimes Donkey Lips is trying to lose weight, but mostly he’s scarfing down everything in sight. It works because, while most adults know what they like, kids like just about everything. Kids want to try everything, and one of Salute Your Shorts’ biggest successes was being able to capture that sense of continual discovery.

And Pinsky’s part of that. The girls’ hyperbolic gushing and easy dismissal of Michael at the beginning of season two speaks to both the excitement of newness and a preteen’s ability to blithely discard the thing that came before. Looking back, it’s also kind of sad. It reminds me of Chuck Klosterman’s essay about Saved By The Bell in Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs. There he writes about the Tori Paradox, referring to the season of Saved By The Bell that added biker Tori to the ensemble while refusing to acknowledge that main characters Kelly and Jessie were nowhere to be found. Saved By The Bell fans often grouse about it, but Klosterman finds it to be one of the show’s rare truths. Sometimes our best friends fade away for months, sometimes years, he reasoned, while new people enter our lives, fulfilling their roles. Strangers come; friends go. Sometimes we don’t even notice. People are easily replaced, especially when you’re young. Similarly, the friendship Pinsky and Budnick eventually forge is a reminder that sometimes our closest pals begin as our worst enemies. Some of my best friends were total dicks the first time I met them.

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Through this lens, the summer camp setting is that much more resonant. These are places where strangers are thrown together in cabins for an established period of time, only to be separated by station wagons at summer’s end, knowing full well they’ll probably never see these people again. And it feels like everything moves faster in that space in between—friendships bloom and wilt in the space of days, obsessions form and fade away. Things that feel life-altering in the moment are all but forgotten the day after.

If I’m perhaps being a touch too wistful about a goofy ’90s Nickelodeon show, chalk it up to “Greetings In Braille,” a sweet, melancholy song by The Elected, the band Soper, who now uses the surname Sennett, formed when he wasn’t playing guitar in Rilo Kiley. “Greetings In Braille” is about childhood and moving on, and there’s a genuine ache in his voice when he sings that “you’ll never have friends like you did when you were young.” Watching Salute Your Shorts as an adult reminds me not just of how much I loved it, but also of the ensembles I filled out as a kid. The inside jokes, the fights and farts. And the friends, the ones who left and the ones who replaced them. I guess I came around to Pinsky, after all.

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