Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Kids’ Shows That Don’t Suck: Vol 2

This is sort of cheating a little bit, but the fact is that the first list of kids’ shows that I like to watch with my kid is the most popular blog post I’ve ever written.  And since it’s been almost a year, we watch a lot of different shows now, some of them brand new.  Sure, we'll always watch Spongebob and The Clone Wars, but there are so many new things to try that we're both growing in to.

Chime in if I’ve missed one that is awesome.  Or if you prefer, decry my selections as offensive or ridiculous.  I’m open to interpretations other than mine...even if they're wrong.

I suspect this Disney product was created for adults, and kids just happened to glom on to it.  The title characters are two suburban boy geniuses who pass the time by inventing amazing devices, and trying to avoid being “busted” by their shrewish teenage sister.  This, while interesting at times, fades to the background when we get into the show's subplot, the super-spy adventures of their pet platypus Perry.

Feathered, not furred.

Perry the Platypus could be the next great animated superstar.  Who knows, he may already be.  Case in point, months ago, I was shopping for kid pajamas with the boy (for the boy, you weirdos), and we saw the character on a shirt.  On first glance, it appeared to be one of the Angry Birds, and I said so.  I was told slowly, with clear annunciation as if to a slower person that you don’t wish to offend,  “No Dad, that’s Perry.”  Perry lives a secret life as Agent P, the arch nemesis of the...evil?...and brilliant Dr. Doofenshmirtz, whose dastardly machines are forever threatening the boring existence of the suburban summer.  Yes it sounds dumb, but it's so not.

Come on, children of the 80’s.  You remember the Thundercats.  I fondly remember running around a playground screaming “Ho-ooooh!” at the top of my lungs (an activity that would get you into a significant amount of trouble today.  Especially at my age).  We’ve recently rewatched the first season of the classic series, and while the boy really loves them, I’ve discovered that I can’t abide watching it.  Whether it’s the indifferent (at best) hand-drawn animation, or the fact that Lion-O has a serious case of Inner Monologue Deficiency, or IMD (“My hand…it’s…burning!”), watching the show now is an exercise in flagellating yourself for being such an idiot at 6 years old. 
The new Thundercats on Cartoon Network seeks to modernize the classic series by taking it to a darker, somewhat more sophisticated setting.  The one-hour pilot, which aired in July 2011, was a legitimately great piece of television.  A compelling overarching storyline, characters that have a little depth—though most are still pretty one-note at this point, it is a kids’ show after all—and very good but subtle anime touches make it appointment TV in our house.  And the new Snarf sort of reminds me of my cat, Max.

The resemblance is passing, sure, but it should be noted that the photo on the right was not posed in any way.

We watch a lot of PBS in our house, especially in that 5-7 PM kid-heavy block, because the guilt modern parents feel for letting their kids watch too much television is alleviated somewhat when the shows are deemed “educational.”  The newest incarnation of Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat is a great example of a show that is fun and engaging to watch, while still providing lessons that stick.  To say the chief character is “beloved” is to dance with cliché, and the new version, voiced by an ever youthful-sounding Martin Short, seems to embrace the character while winking at the absurdness of it all.  Mike Myers’ attempt at this in the retched live-action movie was...rather less successful.

The animation in the PBS version is a delightfully low-tech play on the familiar illustration style of the books, and the dialogue isn't stilted or oversimplified, tactics that tend to bore parents and insult smarter kids.  The lessons lean toward science and nature topics, but a great deal of time is spent in teaching social interaction and the art of being curious about stuff.  Also, there are lots of ludicrous made-up words that nonetheless are applicable to daily life.

"To the Thingamajigger!"
Dinosaur Train

Dinosaur Train would seem to be based on the decision that resulted from a Friday afternoon brainstorming session.
Boss-like Figure:  “Okay, we need a show to pitch to the network Monday morning, so let’s get thinking.  Edwards, what do kids like?”
Edwards, startled:  “Uh…like, dinosaurs?”
BLF:  “Great!  Hanrahan, what else?”
Hanrahan, visibly irritated:  “I don’t know…trains?”  <sullenly checks Red Sox score>
BLF:  “Super!  Throw some time-travel in there and we’ve got a show!  Get some concept art and story boards together over the weekend.  I’m heading to the Hamptons!”


And so we have another entry in the PBS block.  The show is actually very straightforward about teaching basic paleontology and exploration of known dinosaur species, and this works beautifully because startled Edwards was right…kids have loved dinosaurs unconditionally for as long as the word has existed.  But blended deftly into the stories are great teaching moments about acceptance of those who are different—one of the chief characters is a T-Rex adopted into a pteranodon family—and the scientific method of deducing facts through observation.  The time traveling train is simply a plot device to allow them to see the entire Mezozoic Era--so the juxtaposition isn't stupid at all! 

The one thing the show really skirts around though is where meat eating dinosaurs, um, acquire the meat.

"He's gonna eat the Goldblum?"
Veggie Tales

Yes, the show has a specific religious message, so take that any way you'd like.  While the older episodes were more overtly Christian in their delivery, the more recent feature-length films feel much more secular in the story-telling, saving the evangelizing for the end (so you can skip it if you want). 

The best features are the parodies of existing blockbuster films.  "The Lord of the Beans," "Sheerluck Holmes," and "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything" are among our favorites.  The saccharine sweet wholesomeness of the stories and lessons are cut nicely by a very acidic knowledge of pop culture and the absurdities sometimes found there, with a nice bitter aftertaste provided by the curmudgeonly Pa Grape.

I suppose you're right, Y-U guy, I suppose you're right.  But it still works.

Enjoy TV with your kids, everybody!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Archeress, Part 5

I did say I had stuff ready to roll out, didn't I? 

If you've forgotten, "The Archeress" is a little microfiction serial story I'm gradually scratching out.  Each installment is exactly 100 words, not counting title and this blather you're reading at the moment.  "Stirrings" is Part 5.  If you need a primer (or a refresher), the first 4 parts are linked at the bottom.

Stirrings  (Part Five of The Archeress)
A rising buzz could now be heard in the arena.  The entrance tunnels were beginning to disgorge the earliest arrivals—those staunchest of his followers desperate for a front row position.  She acknowledged this without opening her eyes, reluctant to exit  hard-won meditation for such vermin. 
Sighing, she opened her eyes a fraction, and looked to the dais rising above the swelling crowd.  Guards stationed in front held the crowd back a minimum distance from the stage, to better protect the great orator who would address them.
That distance was of no consequence to her.  And no guards looked up.

Previous Installments:
Part 1:  Preparation
Part 2:  Infiltration
Part 3:  Eyrie
Part 4:  Patience

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What I Did on My Extended Summer Vacation (from writing)

Hi, I'm Jon.  You may remember me from such blogs as, well, this one, and some of you from real life.  It's probably a faint memory at this point, since I haven't posted since April. 

Why the long absence?  I'm not sure I can pin it to any one thing, although I don't think it's a coincidence that I started reading George R. R. Martin's "A Game of Thrones" about a week after my last post.  I'm not blaming him, but it's not the sort of book you put down once you start.  And once I was finished with it (in record time for me), there were three more, right there.  I got to the end of book 4 just as the long-awaited book 5 was released, one thing led to another, and 4,800 pages later here I am. Don't worry, I'm not going to review the thing.  There have been probably as many words written about the saga as are actually in it, and it seems unlikely that I'd be able to add any thoughts that could be considered "new."  But getting back on point, George R. R. Martin is personally to blame for the lapse.

That's not entirely true. I have lots of other things going on--heavier responsibilities at the paying job, coaching little league and various other dad stuff, traveling--but it's not like that's a new development. The truth is that writing anything for the last 6 months has felt like way more of a chore than it should be.    I love doing this, but for some reason it just seemed like a big weight to lift.  And the longer I let it sit there, the heavier the weight got, much like cleaning the garage.  That's the big reason I'm back here now--I realized that I'd started equating writing with menial household labor.  This cannot stand.

So I'm back.  I even have some things that can roll out immediately that have been hanging around for 6 months (man, I couldn't even post stuff I'd already written).  Keep an eye on this space.  Send me encouragement.  Send me ideas for articles.  I have some--I'll take more.