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Theres no shortage of wonderful episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants—but anyone trying to pick their top three is almost guaranteed to cite “Band Geeks,” from Season 2. Its a classic: Squidward pulls together a band at the last minute in an attempt to impress a former classmate from band camp, the intimidating Squilliam Fancyson. Naturally, the group is terrible, leading Squidward to leave their rehearsal in a panic. But SpongeBob rallies everyone to practice extra hard, and in the end, they rock out to a perfectly performed number: “Sweet Victory” by David Glen Eisley.

The episode encapsulates the indomitable spirit of SpongeBob, Stephen Hillenburgs wildly popular cartoon—which launched in 1999 and has aired new installments continuously on Nickelodeon ever since. (Season 12 began just weeks ago, on November 11.) It is, of course, one among many standouts: theres “Pizza Delivery,” in which SpongeBob and Squidward must deliver off-menu food to a faraway patron—and brave terrifying conditions by embracing the traditions of the pioneers. Theres “Chocolate with Nuts,” which introduced one of the seriess best characters, Screaming Chocolate Guy. Theres “The Camping Episode,” “Sailor Mouth,” “Graveyard Shift,” and “Shanghaied,” among dozens more.

But “Band Geeks” ties together everything that makes SpongeBob irreplaceable—the shows creative bombast, its knack for delightful non sequiturs, its instantly quotable lines (“Is mayonnaise an instrument?”), its surprisingly deep emotional core. It shows precisely why Hillenburgs signature creation has won over millions of fans, from a wide range of ages and backgrounds—and why the news of his death at the age of 57 came as such a blow on Tuesday.

The root of SpongeBobs appeal—both to the kids who watched it growing up and to the adults who now share the memes it inspired—is its embrace of the absurd. This show takes place in a world where nothing makes sense, by design. SpongeBob is set underwater, but its fish still go swimming at the Goo Lagoon. Mr. Krabs, who is a crab, has a daughter who is a whale. It somehow snows each winter in the glass dome where expat squirrel Sandy lives. Existential threats came not from, say, a changing climate, but from giant sea worms threatening to level the entire town of Bikini Bottom.

Everyone in this cheery place reacts to these circumstances differently—none more so than SpongeBob and Squidward, his grumpy neighbor. SpongeBobs boundless cheer and energy stand in stark contrast to Squidwards perpetual ennui—and unsurprisingly, its SpongeBob whose worldview gets affirmed more often than Squidwards. In “Band Geeks,” for instance, Squidwards nagging belief that hes inferior to Squilliam convinces him that he and his band will fail—but instead, SpongeBob pulled through for him, despite having many reasons not to. Because in the world that Stephen Hillenburg created, pretty much everyone cares about their neighbors. Even Squidward, who claims to hate SpongeBob, shows tenderness toward the yellow guy now and again—like when he worries that he accidentally gifted SpongeBob with an explosive pie.

Its that sense of solidarity that makes “Band Geeks”—and SpongeBob as a whole—so special. As SpongeBob tries to convince everyone to stick around for a late-night rehearsal, he acknowledges that Squidward hasnt really given any of his neighbors a reason to help him. He rallies them by talking up the good deeds of others and urges everyone to pretend Squidward was actually responsible for those acts of heroism. Its pretty much what youd expect from SpongeBob, whose heart is boundlessly open, even to those who are rotten toward him—and it turns out hes got the right idea. The band practices and becomes a smash hit at the Bubble Bowl, impressing Squilliam to the point of fainting as everyone on stage has the time of their lives. In Hillenburgs universe, even when the stakes are nonsensical, its always a good bet to count on friends—even when, like Squidward, you dont know how many you have.

SpongeBobs greatest gift is his limitless receptivity; he cares about everyone around him not because theyve done something to deserve it, but because its in his nature. As a character, he represents all of the best impulses were all born with—kindness, curiosity, and boundless joy. Not coincidentally, hes also by far the most emotive character in the series; he can weep to the point of filling mugs, and his laugh can pierce even the toughest eardrums. And even Squidward becomes far more understandable to SpongeBob fans as they age. To young audiences, hes the inscrutably curmudgeonly comic relief. To adults, hes a familiar representation of how age can harden a person: he distances himself from everything and everyone with irony and prefers to stay at home dabbling in art and music. Theyre good hobbies, but his loneliness is often palpable.

As Hillenburg well understood, its easy to be a Squidward—to expect the worst from a senseless world, to shut everyone out and pass the time playing your clarinet. But as this series argued time and time again, wed all be better off if more people played the SpongeBob.

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Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Laura BradleyLaura Bradley is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com.

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