Hi! If you haven’t read the first installment of this entry, as well as the comments it generated, please take a gander – in short, I advocate a very “eyes-on” approach to guiding your young children’s TV viewing.
A couple of months ago, my family spent the night at a hotel in town while our house was being painted, and I turned on the tube on what was a Saturday morning to find something for my boys (2 and 3) to watch while we were getting dressed and to keep them from jumping all over the sofa cushions that they kept flinging to the floor. The hotel didn’t carry any of the “big 4” channels I exclusively turn to – Noggin, PBS Sprout, PBS and Disney. I systematically ignore any children’s programming that’s going to be infested with advertising, but it never occurred to me that even the most innocuous sounding shows offered by network television can be just as harmful. “The Care Bears” – seems safe, right? – used to be all about the warm and fuzzy love and rainbows in the 80’s. It now has the jolly critters battling an uber-evil cyborg villain that resembles the Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator with a Care Bear head, using big honkin machine guns. I’m not joking. “MOMMY! What is THAT?!” was the cry as I performed feats of derring-do to get to the Off button. So, with that, I’m not saying everything on my “big 4” is watchable either – but at least nobody’s toting artillery. It would do to simply ignore other channels exist where your small kids are concerned. That being established, this and the next three installments tackles ferreting out the good and the useless among those that remain unblocked.
I hereby give you my alphabetical and in many instances not so intellectual take on the line-up of PBS SPROUT.
Angelina Ballerina: Animation. The dainty mice in the pastel village of Chipping Cheddar feature fanciful attire, endearing Northern English accents, and a love for ballet and cheese. Much of the action takes place at the ballet school, where Angelina dreams of becoming a prima and, with her slightly dopey best friend Alice, deals with the drama of “mean girls” Priscilla and Penelope, and worships her exotic European teacher, Miss Lilly. My boys are pretty small, so maybe the gender thing hasn’t set in yet, but they really enjoy this show, and I’ve seen them both raise their eyebrows sympathetically when Angelina periodically cries, which touches me. Sophisticatedly illustrated, deftly written and supremely-acted, this bit of nice painlessly teaches young children about sticky relationship situations such as loyalty, telling a small lie to spare someone’s feelings as opposed to cooking up a whopper to avoid responsibility or to impress the crowd, or friendly competition versus petty one-upmanship. Judi Dench voices Miss Lilly, and Dames don’t do crap!
Barney and Friends: Live action and costumed characters. For those of you who are miraculously uninitiated, this children’s programming warhorse centers on Barney, a friendly, singing and lesson-spouting dinosaur who is magically conjured from a stuffed toy by his children friends in a park each day. The hideous purple lummox with the yuk-yuk voice is actually outdone in the stomach-churning department by his insipid goody-two-shoes kiddy friends and the hellbeasts Baby Bop and B.J., who all seem to be completely devoid of human essence – this is what they show the kids in Stepford. Okay, he’s legendary for repulsing adults worldwide, but many of you protest that he is for the children and not us. I need to ask you, do you look at those kids on the show and say, “Yeah they’re shiny bulbs o’ bright?” How about the kind of kid that’s going to develop some fundamental social traits based on what these dweebs are like? I don’t want to talk to that kind of kid at my dinner table. This is the kid who tries way too hard to be precious and has a self-satisfied smirk for a smile and appoints him/herself as the manners police for children and adults alike. All the “nice” that Barney advocates can be found in less offensive shows with more depth and wit behind them, and with genuine motivations for being polite, kind and considerate – not because “it’s the rules.” Alternatives: “Angelina Ballerina,” and “Thomas and Friends” demonstrate situational social interactions and their consequences in a way that behooves children to be thoughtful.
Berenstain Bears: Animated. These bears who are “just like humans, maybe more so,” reinforce gender and family role stereotypes in a way that poor “Leave it to Beaver” is vilified for doing. They don’t even have real names – just labels: Brother Bear, Sister Bear, Mama and Papa. While it might be argued that the series promotes “family values,” I like to think that individuals have more to offer their families than their societal-reinforced functions, like Mama cooking and shopping, Brother being protective of Sister and succeeding in sports, and Papa going to his job. Showing common role duties is not unimportant, but when done exclusively, it can make for a rather hollow concept of what family is about. This show is like watching kids play house – it’s all about the sweeping and pie-baking and not at all about the motivations or even the love involved in creating a home life. On a purely personal note, I never liked the books – the illustrations were, to my discerning four-year-old eye, “too ugly.” I therefore can’t be unbiased; I have a primal disdain for the Bears that is only intensified by the country theme song, the irritating voices and that it bores my kids to the point of anger towards me for having put it on. Alternative: “Bear in the Big Blue House” features cuddly critters in a folksy setting with a lot more charm.
Bob the Builder: Claymation. Bob and his anthropomorphic construction equipment are positive-thinking team players that are always at the ready to help others in their community. No task is too challenging: ”Can we fix it, yes – we – can!” I like the can-do spirit and production quality of this show – and obviously, it’s insanely popular – but both my kids and I think the writing’s boring and they are seriously only interested in shouting the theme song. I prefer “Koala Brothers” and “Wonder Pets” for the same essential themes of working together and being determined when solving problems. It’s just a preference, though. Alternatives: the aforementioned “Koala Brothers” and “Wonder Pets,” plus “Thomas and Friends.”
Bounce: Live action + animated. This, like many here, doesn’t merit much analysis. It’s touchy-feely crummy songs with a wannabe Lisa Loeb/Laurie Berkner who’s less than half as good, more than twice as annoying, and joined by an obnoxious cartoon named Ballou. She’s a music therapist, the stereotype of which is borne out here in her good-on-paper, devoid of art or soul “feelings” ditties. Alternatives: “Jack’s Big Music Show” and “Johnny and the Sprites” have way more musical cred and some actual creative talent behind them.
Caillou: Animated. Anyone who wants to have the snottiest kid on the block can tune in to this little jerk. He’s “just a kid who’s four,” but that seems to be the excuse for why he is constantly pestering all the adults in the neighborhood, whining about the few rules he must obey, throwing full-on foot-kicking tantrums, antagonizing his little sister, and having all his caregivers treat him a little like that boy in “The Twilight Zone” who could turn them into Jack-in-the-boxes and wish them into the cornfield. Nobody ever scolds him, reprimands him or even gives him that weakest of all lessons, the time-out. They all use reverse-psychology, distractions, games and outright rewards for bad behavior to cajole him into acting semi-civil. His voice is pure adult repellant, too. Alternative: “Little Bill,” which was produced by Bill Cosby, is everything this show should have been and a great deal more.
Dive Olly Dive: Animation. Jay Jay the Jet Plane, only they’re subs. Yeah. Sub-tastic. See what I did there? SUB-tastic? Alternative: “Thomas and Friends” for the same reasons why it’s an alternative to “Jay Jay the Jet Plane” – it’s the show they’re trying to rip off.
Dragon Tales: Animation. To riff on Wheezie the dragon’s catchphrases, I “(think really obnoxious, escalating musical voice like Christine Baranski’s), haaaaaaaate it!” Two kids wish on a magical dragon scale to teleport to Dragon Land, where they cavort with duh! dragons. There is some clumsy attempt to inject a clichéd message and a Spanish vocab word per episode, which obviously somebody thought made this show educationally worthy of a public grant. The animation is hideous and dated-looking without being retro, the writing is so atrocious, the voices so hive-inducing, the entertainment so absent, and the characters so deserving of scorn – what, did the producers of this show have sex-vid on PBS’ programming director? “Barney” is Frasier-refined compared to this. “I wish I wish to use this rhyme” to smack the writers for this crime. Alternative: Simply omit.
Fifi and the Flowertots: Animated. Well, it nauseated me and my boys thought it was for babies. I played it for them because the messages of environmental responsibility and eating healthfully and mindfully are laudable, but it turns out that the vehicle is not entertaining. It strikes me as a “Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends” / “Johnny and the Sprites” knock-off with a hint of those Precious Moments figurines thrown in to make sure it sickens. Alternatives: “Johnny and the Sprites” captures the whimsical enchanted garden thing way better. “Charlie and Lola” are much more engaging and sophisticated in their approach to recycling, nature and eating right without those being the sole focus of their show.
Fireman Sam: Claymation. I thoroughly enjoyed this “Wallace and Grommit” resembling British import that’s like a hybrid of “Thomas” and “Bob the Builder” alone – my kids would not sit through it, and no matter how “quality” the parent thinks a show is, the kids have to want to see it. We can only dictate what will not be watched, and offer the good stuff. Since, to me, Sam doesn’t provide anything educationally, artistically, or entertainment-wise that other shows they like don’t cover, it’s redundant anyway and not worth fighting for in my particular household, but it is definitely something to try and hope your kids will appreciate. Alternatives: as mentioned, “Bob the Builder” and “Thomas and Friends,” but also “The Koala Brothers” and “The Wonder Pets” for the lessons of getting along and deriving satisfaction from doing one’s part in a team setting.
The Hoobs: Puppets. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. Instant horror coupled with a lack of morbid curiosity prevented me from taking in a full episode of this Technicolor lame-fest with more rage inducing made up words than the Smurfs’ lexicon. I guess it covers the usual cuddly crap – sharing, caring, navel baring – but if the viewers of this jelly-bean barf are anything like me, they will be inspired to shove the next kid they see just for spite, and if they dig it, they’re likely the ones getting shoved. Seriously. And I’m very anti-violence. Not the most helpful review, I’m sure, but I just couldn’t do it. Sorry. Don’t make me shove you. Alternative: “Jack’s Big Music Show” has the cleverest use of puppets since Jim Henson’s heyday, and Frank Oz has been known to voice guest characters. Plus, it’s an excellent source for adult-friendly kid music that will send you clicking to iTunes.
Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks: Animation. This sweet, beautifully produced, nicely written and well-acted series about a grandfather pig’s reminiscences over his and his friends’ childhood exploits in rural Ireland imparts appreciation for family, hard work and honesty while entertaining small children and adults alike. The characters and artwork are so lush, you would half expect this to be a Pixar production. The inclusion of a lone sentient sheep in a pasture of mindless, um, sheeeeeep – voiced by a bombastic Mel Brooks – who constantly schemes for improved conditions only to be met with no support from his flock is purely for the grown-ups.
Jay Jay the Jet Plane: Animated + live action. This one is too annoying for adults to be around, and you don’t want to claim ownership of the kind of kid that enjoys it either. It is a shameless attempt at appealing to the “Thomas and Friends” crowd, churned out in low budget computer animation. Here we follow the daily tribulations of garishly colored planes with knock-off Thomas faces that have some of the most agonizing voices ever; especially Jay Jay himself and Herky, the spluttering helicopter. The plots are useless, the writing more so, the songs atrocious and the live actors lifeless. Thoughts of my kids singing the theme song and imitating the characters alone prevent me from ever letting them know this show exists. Alternative: “Thomas and Friends” is an intricate, very fleshed out little world of make believe that can really let your kids’ imaginations soar.
Kipper: Animation. It’s my younger boy’s favorite show, so I can recite just about every episode, and it never gets annoying! Like “Angelina,” this British import based on the books by Mick Inkpen is lovingly rendered, sweetly written, and pitch-perfectly voiced. The characters are agelessly lovable, and the stories are gentle, calm portraits of friends enjoying one another’s company. An example: in one episode, Kipper’s friend Pig hints in his birthday party invitation that he would love to have a small pet, so Kipper dutifully goes out and buys a hamster that he falls for himself; after some soul-searching, he realizes he must give Pig the hamster because he would enjoy the pet as much as Kipper, and he was the intended recipient. No big message, no learning Spanish or appreciating the rainforest – this is simply a study of considerate interaction. Refreshing.
Make Way for Noddy: Animated. Another low-budget bit of badness that usually has a twenty second message about selfishness or thoughtlessness tacked onto twenty minutes of one or more of the characters behaving badly. The result is a very long and loud tutorial on a new way to irk friends and family followed by a faint whisper of, “no, stop, don’t.” My older son learned from the one episode I let him watch that he could push his younger brother out of his ride-in car and play with it while the other one cried his eyes out and everything would be alright if he just chirped “sorry” after he was done. Not good. Alternatives: “Thomas and Friends” and “Angelina Ballerina” are very adept at illustrating consequences.
Pingu: Claymation. Okay, I like it for myself – these nonsensical, highly emotive penguins entertain me in the same vein as old Donald Duck cartoons. I guess I’m a sucker for frustrated animated birds. But they have nothing much to offer a small child other than an interesting voice in which to throw a tantrum. My kids looked at Pingu with their mouths slightly agape and that baby WTF expression. Alternative: none.
Sesame Street / Play With Me Sesame: Live action, puppets, animation, stop motion, you name it. Okay, it kills me to say it, but my kids won’t watch more than ten minutes of it unless it’s the “Elmo’s World” segment – too “Max Headroom” blipvert for them; they get invested in a character and 45 seconds later, he’s gone. I think whoever came up with the more preschool-friendly “Play With Me Sesame” had the right idea by linking classic SS clips with a handful of recognizable faces - Grover, Bert & Ernie, Prairie Dawn (not one of the more popular Muppets, but I suspect they scrounged her up for a token girl) and Cookie Monster, who serve as hosts and guides to a cohesive theme that only lasts for twenty minutes. Unfortunately, this is geared toward what I call “old babies.” My kids already knew everything PWMS seeks to teach by the time they turned 2. If your kids can learn at a Playstation pace without developing ADD, then try Sesame Street – it’s a judgment call. Alternative: “Between the Lions” is the best show on that’s geared toward literacy. “The Upside Down Show” handles some of the spatial concepts nicely.
Teletubbies: Costumed live action + reality segments. Long before Ashton ever pretended to trash his co-stars’ cars, some evil, cackling creature devised the ultimate punk on the parents of toddlers everywhere. There is no parent alive who can enjoy watching this, none who can ferret out how this would be beneficial to their children, not a one who can fathom how this got produced and put on PBS; and there is nary a mother nor father with a child under 4 that won’t be transfixed as though they were either under a curse or in on the joke. They’ll stare until their retinas sizzle off the cooing sun-baby and afterwards look like they’ve been smoking something. I don’t like it. Alternative: “The Wiggles” has color-coded life-size characters that jump around in front of the camera, too, and even with the thick Aussie accents, they’re way more intelligible.
Thomas and Friends: Live motion models. Now, for this one I would make the Barney argument – it is for kids, and we adults must bear baffled witness to the entrancement it causes while kids (particularly boys) watch, and the dichotomous combo of ordered thinking and imaginative play it sparks once they’re done. The Thomas industry is one that I have no qualms about buying into (occasional lead paint issues notwithstanding). The toys are exceptionally well made and my boys have eagerly played with them on a near daily basis for as long as they could stand at the train table. In addition to truly absorbing the lessons of human interaction from the show, like being fair, kind and useful, they have put them into practice when they pretend play, which, at 2 and 3, is no small accomplishment. The whole Thomas enterprise is being studied for its ability to promote significant learning breakthroughs for kids with autism where all conventional education has failed. http://www.nas.org.uk/nas/jsp/polopoly.jsp?d=368&a=2683.
Zoboomafoo: Live Action + one puppet & few animated segments. Another one that I thoroughly enjoy and lose the intended audience from the room. The Kratt brothers are wild animal experts with all the knowledge and enthusiasm of Steve Irwin and none of the pesky insanity. They introduce a new baby animal every episode with the help of their grown-up to kid liaison Zoboomafoo, a real lemur that transforms into a realistic talking puppet after being fed his “special” snack. Kids learn about all sorts of creatures and nature, a little basic evolution and a whole lot of ecology in an energetic, entertaining format. If they stay in the room. I’m really hoping my kids are the anomaly and that most would get into it.
For those of you who prefer to go the DVD route, here is a sampling:
Angelina Ballerina - Meet Angelina Ballerina
Angelina Ballerina: The Big Performance
Angelina Ballerina - The Magic of Dance Angelina Ballerina - Rose Fairy Princess
Bob the Builder
Bob the Builder: Bob's Hard at Work Collection
Fireman Sam: To the Rescue!
Jakers! - Treasure Hunt on Raloo Farm
Jakers! - Spooky Stories Jakers! - Piggley Gets Into Trouble
Jakers! - School Days in Tara
Jakers! - Sheep on the Loose
Kipper: Amazing Discoveries!
Kipper - Kipper Helps Out Kipper - Friendship Tails
Kipper - Pools, Parks & Picnics
Kipper - Fun In The Sun Kipper: Puppy Love
Kipper - Cuddly Critters
Thomas The Tank Engine and Friends
Thomas The Tank Engine And Friends 3 Disc Set (Make Someone Happy/Spills & Chills/Percy's Chocolate Crunch)
Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends - Platinum Collection (Best of Thomas/James/Percy)
Thomas The Tank Engine And Friends - The Early Years (3-Disc Set)
Zoboomafoo (Double Feature) Monkey Business
In the next installment, I will laud or eviscerate all that Playhouse Disney’s line-up has to offer! Now, please excuse me while I go outside.