State of the Union: Modern Kids Television

In Media by Daniel M. Clark4 Comments

For this discussion, I'm defining “kids television” as programming designed for toddlers: those viewers under about age five. This isn't about the Powerpuff Girls, Jimmy Neutron or Kim Possible, it's about The Backyardigans, Yo Gabba Gabba and The Doodlebops. Basically, I'll be talking about shows that are aired before noon-ish; shows that are featured on Nick Jr., The Disney Channel, Noggin, and PBS. Of course, I'm not going to talk about every single show out there—that would take far more time and effort than I'm willing to spend—but if it's noteworthy in some way, I'll give you my modest opinion about it. You'll notice though, that I'm skipping over Barney & Friends and Telletubbies. As targets, those are just way too easy.

Sesame Street – PBS

sesame street logoThe gold standard. The pinnacle. The apex. This is the show by which all others are measured – and with good reason. Since 1969, over the course of more than 4,100 episodes, Sesame Street has been watched by more American children than any other kids show. It has garnered 109 Emmy awards, also more than any other show. Is Sesame Street still worthy of all the praise it gets? Mostly.

Let's talk about Elmo. Now, I'm of the opinion that Elmo is neither as horrid as some people will have you think, nor as wholesome and good as other people would have you believe. Is Elmo going to warp your child's mind? Of course not. Is he going to warp your mind? Quite possibly. I know that Elmo is supposed to be a child, and that's why he talks in the third-person, “Elmo wants to do this, Elmos likes to do that”. What I can't stand though, is that in nearly everything else this character does, he's older than his speech suggests. He can run a computer and check his email, but he can't use the word “me”? Granted, my daughter is only two years old, but she's starting to say “me” a little more now. Elmo is supposed to be older than her. Besides, if Sesame Street is supposed to be educational, I'd think that drilling the third-person references into kids' heads would be the last thing the producers would want to do. What happened to the characters setting an example for the viewers?

And Elmo is getting 15 minutes now! Each hour-long episode of Sesame Street has 15 minutes of “Elmo's World” tacked on the end, which, while entertaining, lacks most of the educational value of the rest of the show. Watching Mr. Noodle spend 4 minutes trying to eat soup with a fly swatter isn't exactly Emmy-worthy. Ideally, I'd like to see “Elmo's World” pulled from the show and spun-off into it's own series. At least then I wouldn't have to change the channel or turn the tv off every third time it comes on during Sesame Street; I could just avoid putting it on at all, like I do with The Doodlebops.

Sesame Street as a whole is still the best thing on television for kids in my estimation, Elmo notwithstanding. There is wonderful continuity. When I started watching it with my daughter, I recognized Maria. It took me a few minutes of “is that… is that the same… that can't be Maria, can it?” There was such a sense of coming home for me that it makes watching it with my daughter that much more special. They integrate a lot of the old segments that were new thirty years ago. Recently, I sang along with the numbers song, the one with the pinball animation (1-2-3-4-5… 6-7-8-9-10… 11, 12!) and now my kid knows the tune as well. Priceless.

I'm a firm believer in the premise that not all television for kids needs to be educational. This is the only exception. In a television landscape populated by dreck like Lazy Town and The Wiggles, shows like Sesame Street need to assume the role of the elder statesmen. Sesame Street fills a very specific role, and the day we lose it (or the day it loses itself) will be the end of one of the most important eras in history.

Wonder Pets! – Nick Jr.

I was looking around for some information about Yo Gabba Gabba, which I'll talk about in a moment, and I ran across this comment in a blog:

“regarding Wonder Pets, what got it banned from our household was my hubby (who is Chinese) catching the episode with the Panda who had soy sauce on her…er… ‘person'. Feeding the Asian stereotypes, combined with Ling-Ling's stereotypical lisp, was too much for him (and in our household, ‘this is SEEWEOUS' since I'm the only Caucasian of 4 adults and 2 kiddos).”

I swear, some people are such tools sometimes. The titular characters went to China. I guess nobody in China uses soy sauce… oh, wait, that's where soy sauce comes from? Silly me. Calling this kind of thing stereotypical is like watching Giada De Laurentiis go to Italy and then complaining that she ate pasta. Oh, and the duckling's name is Ming-Ming, not Ling-Ling. If you're going to get offended by an animated duck, you should at least get the name right. Interestingly, in the completely unscientific poll I conducted in my household, two of the two adults didn't even connect the name Ming-Ming with the duckling being Chinese (or even Asian for that matter). My daughter named her toy dinosaur Dee-Poo. They're just names. Stop reading so much into them. Ming-Ming is a child, hence the imperfect pronunciation of some words. There is nothing else about the character to even suggest that she might be Chinese, Asian, or anything else. The duckling can't pronounce her “R's”, just like Elmer Fudd. Anyone think Fudd is Chinese?

I watch this show with my daughter fairly frequently. The Wonder Pets get a phone call in each episode, and they're required to use teamwork to build their “fly boat” so they can fly to the rescue of the animal in trouble. Usually, the animal in trouble is in another part of the world (begging the question, just how fast can an open-cockpit frisbee-based flying boat travel?). The Pets have rescued a poodle in France (who correctly had a French accent), a kangaroo in Australia (who correctly had an Australian accent), and a hermit crab in Mexico (who correctly had, yes, a Mexican accent).

They visit other cultures, which is hard to complain about… though it seems easy enough for idiots like those who think that a Chinese panda in China with a Chinese accent is somehow bad.

Yo Gabba Gabba! – Nick Jr.

yo gabba gabba logoI was prepared to hate Yo Gabba Gabba based on the promos that ran for the month running up to the premiere. After watching it… it's kooky, original, non-formulaic, and fun. Remember fun? Kids used to be able to have fun without overbearing parents trying to force education on them. My two year old knows her letters and digits, can count to twenty and loves to sing and dance. Why? Because my wife and I taught her. We don't rely on TV for education. My daughter likes it for entertainment, and if a show whips a little education on the kids, so much the better. Education shouldn't be a requirement.

What's amazing to me is that with all the shows that try to be educational, the United States is still lagging behind much of the rest of the industrialized world in educational results. Seems to me people need to pay closer attention to schooling, where education is supposed to be taking place, and less attention to television. Let television be fun—and if we're talking fun, we're talking Yo Gabba Gabba.

You can do far, far worse than Yo Gabba Gabba, and oh my LORD all you people that say it should be canceled simply because it “annoys” you… you need to get a life. You annoy me. That doesn't mean you should be “canceled”, if you know what I mean.

The creators of the show are also the guys behind the band
The Aquabats. Definitely worth a listen.

The Doodlebops – Disney Channel

This is, by far, the most inane show on the planet—which is saying a lot considering that Lazy Town is still airing. It takes “formulaic” to new heights, in that anyone paying attention can give you a minute-by-minute breakdown of any episode regardless if they've seen it or not. This goes beyond “boy meets girl, boy dates girl, boy screws up and learns valuable life lesson”. Each episode is crafted out of a template and only the dialog changes (barely).

The costumes and sets are loud, garish and obnoxious. The acting is sophmoric and overblown. The quality of the CG aspects of the show is terrible—I know self-taught animators and first-year students that can produce better effects. The characters are one-dimensional. The plots, what little of them there are, are predictable.

The songs are simplistic, but that's to be expected from a show targeted at such a young audience, so I don't really hold that against the show.

For a show about a fake band, The Monkees did it better. Come to think of it, The New Monkees did it better, and they sucked.

Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go! – Nick Jr.

I'll take on both shows in one segment because they are essentially the same thing. Diego is Dora's cousin, and he romps around the jungle (and other places) just like Dora. He has a magic backpack, just like Dora, and a talking animal partner, just like Dora. Diego and Dora like to command their viewers: stand up, do this, do that. They both yell at their viewers. The two characters will occassionally cross over into each other's programs, although Diego appearing on Dora's show is more frequent than the other way around (Diego even has an appearance in Dora's show opening sequence; Dora does not have one in Diego's opening). They both aim to teach a new word or two in Spanish in each episode.

Are either of these shows worth the effort required to watch them? Considering that it takes zero effort to sit still and keep your eyes open… not really, no. While they are not the worst programs for kids, there are definitely better alternatives. I'm not a huge fan of interactive shows that take the interaction to the extent that these shows do. Thankfully, my daughter seems to have passed through the Dora/Diego phase and rarely asks to watch either show; now, if we can just get rid of the Dora toys…

Little Einsteins – Disney Channel

Some folks were worried when Disney bought the Baby Einstein property, and I was one of them. Disney has a knack, second only to Microsoft, for screwing up the properties they buy or adapt (or steal, but that's a whole ‘nother discussion). I'm happy to say that this isn't one of their blunders. Little Einsteins is smart, fun and educational without being preachy or condescending.

The characters are interesting and the plots are non-formulaic. The premise of the show is that Leo, the red-haired boy, had a mobile above his crib with a toy rocket on it when he was an infant. As Leo grew up, so did the rocket. Leo rediscovered his rocket and learned that he and his friends could fly around in it to go on missions. Each episode features one or several pieces of art and one piece of classical music. The art and music actually play a part in the mission itself in one way or another.

The missions are generally grounded in real life situations or locales. When June, the dark-haired girl, discovered a living Chinese dragon kite in her backyard, the mission is to return it to China (and rescue the rest of the dragon kites) in time for a parade atop the Great Wall. Some parts are wholly unrealistic; it's a kid's show after all. The bits that deviate from reality are generally mild compared to what you'll see on shows like Dora the Explorer—no talking mountains or volcanoes that spew soap bubbles here.

Higglytown Heroes – Disney Channel

What the hell? was my first reaction. You gotta be *bleeping* kidding me! was my second. Look, I'm not a big fan of this decade's redefinition of the word “hero”. Not every cop is automatically a hero. Nor is every firefighter automatically a hero. Not every soldier is a hero. Either words have meaning or they don't.

The kids of Higglytown Heroes get themselves into situations that they need help with, like when they need to find pasta in the shape of stars at the grocery store. They call upon the help of a hero—the grocery clerk. Yes, this show actually puts forth the idea that a grocery clerk is a hero of the town because he “helps the town” with the things he does. In the few episodes we've watched, the heroes of the town have been the aforementioned grocery clerk, a window washer, a librarian, a mail carrier, and a dog. A FRIGGIN' DOG!

I'm all in favor of teaching kids about the jobs that adults do, but the hero angle is ridiculous. The show also gets the award for worst logo design, just because pouring salt on a wound is one of my favorite pasttimes.

Random Thoughts on Other Shows

* It's creepy that Barbie is listed as the star of movies like Barbie and the 12 Dancing Princesses and Barbie Fairytopia. Barbie is fictional. They've got a fictional character starring as a fictional character. You have to feel bad for the actress who voices Barbie.

* Reading Rainbow is fantastic. LeVar Burton never talks down to the audience and always makes the subject interesting. It's hard to believe the show is 25 years old!

* I'm not a big fan of trying to make a show hip and current simply for the sake of making a show hip and current because the producers usually screw it up. That said, Nick Jr.'s Max & Ruby needs to be brought up to the 20th century. That's right, 20th.

* There's nothing inherently wrong with Blue's Room. Except the fact that it stomps all over the whole point of Blue's Clues. Blue shouldn't talk. Ever.

* I like the idea behind The Backyardigans, but the execution has started to get ridiculous. It was cool in the beginning because the kids would imagine themselves into situations that could be reasonably played out in a backyard by kids. Now, the writers are putting them in situations that kids could not possibly come up with in locations that span areas far too large to reasonably put in a backyard setting.

* Speaking of The Backyardigans, I'd like to see an episode where Tasha wasn't a royal bitch. That's the only thing the writers ever do with her.

* Short list of shows that are so boring and safe that nobody could possibly complain about them: Clifford the Big Red Dog, Berenstain Bears, Thomas & Friends, Little Bear, Postman Pat, Jay Jay the Jet Plane, Rainbow Fish, Maisy, and Bob the Builder.

* More producers need to follow the example of Fred Rogers in creating and running their shows.

* I was in a hotel with my family and caught a few episodes of HBO's Crashbox. It was almost enough to make me subcribe when we got home, just so I could watch it. I hope it's still airing, or at least on DVD, by the time my daughter is old enough to keep up with it.

* Harry and His Bucket Full of Dinosaurs. Weird (but accurate) title; decent show. The kids almost assuredly won't pick up on it, but adults may notice that there are no adult males on that show. Harry has no father figure. That might explain the dinosaurs.

* If there was a show called Handy Manny when I was a kid, we would have assumed it was about a kid in a wheelchair. Look, I'm not saying it's right, but hey, we were kids. That was the kind of joke we thought was funny twenty years ago. Witness: the Garbage Pail Kids.

* Someone needs to bring back The Electric Company.

* Disney Channel's Emily Yeung shorts are awesome. This kid needs her own series. She's got a tremendous on-screen presence. Her male counterpart, Daniel Cook, can't claim a tenth of that personality. He could easily be replaced.

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