The iCarly episode “iGo Nuclear” is a haunting reminder of US climate change policy’s stagnation. It premiered on April 22nd, 2009, the first Earth Day under the new Obama Administration. There was a hope the US would emerge from the war-ridden, recession-ravaged mid-Aughts on a better path. This episode, disguised as a light-hearted reinforcement of the lessons its audience had surely been learning at school that day, delves into the bitter ideological stalemate between techno-optimism and primitivism.
Mr. Henning is their well-meaning, uber-crunchy science teacher. He is mocked by students for explaining the tenets of Earth Day, which start and end at recycling. The students are tasked with creating a sustainable project of their own. If their design fails, they must embark on the Root and Berry retreat, a primal weekend in the Olympic range.
Carly begins to build a composter, quickly abandoning the project after discovering Freddy has already completed a more advanced model. Freddy’s composter has all the hottest mods; randomly attached solar panels, a thermostat, and worms airmailed from Portugal. Sam, always a beacon of nihilism, disregards the project altogether.
On presentation day, the show makes one of its better points when Freddy’s projects fail. He neglected the airmail emissions from the worms, a wild mix-budgeting of carbon. Sam jams her thumb into an orange, claiming she has created a plastic free way to drink OJ and is the only one who passes. Mr. Henning is a staunch primitivist, preferring the basics over glitz.
Carly and Freddy are given one more chance to redeem themselves. In a deus ex machina, Spencer presents them with his new acquaintance Cal. He recently moved to Seattle by way of MIT and claims he can help build a device guaranteed to get an A.
In the studio, the machine is being built. While Carly and Cal assemble the reactor, Spencer sits in the corner playing solitaire. Frustrated by a missing jack, he demands to know why people play solitaire. Carly asks, “What did you expect from a card game for the lonely?”. He responds, “Joy?”. A uranium rod, explained away as something that comes from nature, is installed. The fan it’s plugged into becomes supercharged, knocking Spencer and his game over. Unknowingly, Carly has commissioned the construction of a nuclear reactor.
The reactor is a revelation. The next episode of the namesake fictional webcast is powered entirely by the device. Mr. Hennings is brought on as a guest. He finally sees an innovation that is a solution, not a distraction. It’s an A-plus, the first one he’s ever given. The group retires to Groovy Smoothie to celebrate.
Sustainable achievement is discussed over styrofoam cups. Behind the banter, a group of lawmen watches on. They are enthralled by Cal’s modern haircut and need to know where he gets shaped up. What begins as a friendly inquiry soon turns into confrontation. The cops recognize Cal, and he smashes through the glass door to escape. He’s wanted by the FBI for the illegal sale of uranium. The project is a bust. Root and Berry retreat it is.
While the cast sits in a rainy tent, the viewer is given a chance to reflect on the episode with them. All attempts at a technological solution have proven fragile, inconvenient, or just plain silly. The reactor, the only functioning answer in the episode, is not accepted. Not by the government, not by academia, not by the layman.
This begs the question that if the technology we are using the battle climate change is inefficient, what other solution do we have? Nickelodeon’s stark message, the world needs to take a collective Root and Berry Retreat.