By Darren Franich
Updated August 30, 2011 at 01:38 PM EDT
Credit: Everett Collection

It’s not that I don’t understand all the love for Clarissa Explains It All. Melissa Joan Hart’s Clarissa was simultaneously a smarmy misfit and a lovable everykid; in some ways, she resembles an almost perfect combination of Linus and Lucy from Peanuts. But when I cast my mind back to my SNICK days, my heart will always belong to that other proto-hipster faintly-tomboyish cool Nick chick. I’m speaking, of course, of Larisa Oleynik’s Alex Mack, star of The Secret World of Alex Mack.

The pitch for Alex Mack sounds pretty simple by today’s standards: An average girl gets doused with chemicals, develops superpowers, and has to hide from the Bad Guys while attempting to live a normal life as a junior-high kids. That basic structure — juxtaposing superpowers with the normal struggles of being a teenager — is practically the defining story of our era: It’s the elevator pitch behind everything from Harry Potter to Twilight to Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Etc. But Alex Mack got there earlier than most people; in a sense, it was the perfect gateway drug for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, which debuted right as Alex Mack was going into its final season.

I don’t want to overstate Mack‘s quality. Like most live-action Nickelodeon series from the early ’90s, it has the pleasantly cheap look of something shot on weekends in an inexpensive corner of Los Angeles and/or Vancouver. But I still get a kick out of the show for a few reasons. It’s one of the first sci-fi shows I can remember watching that had an impressive devotion to continuity: Alex was forever dodging the baddies from the chemical plant. It also impressively toes the line between frothy teeny-bopper fare and genuinely enjoyable sci-fi storytelling. (Actually, it wouldn’t feel that out of place on the current Syfy line-up. Reboot, anyone?)

But the most captivating part of Alex Mack was, well, Alex Mack. Unlike Clarissa, Alex wasn’t a savvy kidult, and she didn’t particularly want to stick out. In fact, the most memorable episodes revolved around Alex’s attempts to fit in and live a normal, non-mutated life. In a sense, that urge for normalcy predated the superhero boom of the ’00s. It also made me connect with Alex in a way I never could connect with Clarissa, who was so clearly the coolest and smartest person the room. Actually, now that I think about it, Alex Mack was probably my first geek crush. The hats definitely helped.

Fellow Mack lovers, am I the only one who remembers this ’90s gem? Is it crazy to think that the show prepared a generation of viewers for the twisty sci-fi continuity of Lost? And tell us in the poll below: What’s the coolest thing about Alex Mack?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read more: