Charlie Brown, stuck forever between diapers and pimples, is a symbol of unfulfilled childhood ambitions. The Charlie Brown I seem to remember, through an overabundant blur of Sunday papers and seasonally-aired TV specials, always strove for conventional happiness in a half-conscious sort of way that made him irreparably unconventional. Bill Watterson’s Calvin was a boy apart: an expat from the playground, living abroad in his own imagination. Charles Schulz’s Charlie was more like a refugee. His outcast status seems as much the result of a depressive temperament as it results in a depressive temperament—an ambiguity unresolved after 65 years.
If the blockhead were ever to grow a libido, it would probably come at the price of the thick waistline and high hairline of Louis C.K., whose FX show at its critical zenith was like a sequel to Peanuts set in the adult world. Its jazzy punctuation, and skittish tone and structure, all evoke Schulz on the surface, and it has the same heart. Yet in a sort of backhanded tribute, his legacy seems less apparent in media for children and young adults, which, both in its aspirational and apocalyptic strains, fattens its audience with the notion that each individual among it is special. Good ol’ Charlie Brown has no superpowers. He isn’t much of an athlete, or a brainiac like Linus, a musical prodigy like Schroeder, or a born leader like Lucy—say what you will, but she broke the glass ceiling of bullyhood. What he has is humility, grit, and a romantic outlook: none of which will get you into Harvard.
In a culture that panders to middle-class children—as proxies to the purse strings—the normal range of behavior, where they actually live, tends to get lost. A more vivid life is not the prize of a rich imagination—like, for instance, Snoopy’s—but a savior to be waited for, a secret gift intrinsic to our nature, an excuse to show our valor in an arena that the real world cannot provide. Unfortunately, these saviors often have ulterior motives. We have resigned ourselves to a world in which one’s fantasy life is the intellectual property of one corporation or another; that’s what The Lego Movie sought to destigmatize. Peanuts is hardly realism, but the scale of Charlie Brown’s victories and defeats is in synch with that of real kids, so it reads as a common language between generations. One never outgrows Schulz’s poignancy. And the glossed-over period that the Peanuts gang lives in—not enchanted or heroic but mythic in its simplicity—has become as much a modernist device as the elegance of Schulz’s draftsmanship.