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!

1 comment:

  1. Jon-

    Stumbled on your post after googling "Kid's shows that don't suck"...Well named post.

    Thanks for the leads. If I have to watch one more Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, I think Toodles is going to get it...and that cow too.