Sunday, September 12, 2004

Television Review: Childrens Programming

I have a two-year-old, so obviously there are a lot of shows aimed directly at him that make adults in the vicinity dumber simply by collateral splash damage. I won't be reviewing shows that my son likes that are aimed at older kids, such as Spongebob Squarepants or Billy Talent music videos. This is just about the goofy-ass shows.

Blues Clues

The first show that my son got ravenously addicted to, I have no major problems with. The animation is simple, the dialogue is not condescending, and the colors are pretty enough to keep my son thoroughly entranced. It was not long at all before he knew all the songs and dances, before he had even learned to speak. He could mumble quite well with the "We Just Figured Out Blue's Clues". This show also has the added advantage of a disturbingly charismatic live-action character, Steve. He performs the entire show in front of a blue screen, with only a notebook, pencil, and chair, and it is clear this fact does not elude him. Oftentimes you are positive he is watching the film crew simply kill themselves laughing, and his glances at the camera are quite clearly aimed at the parents, as if to say "Yes, I know this is demeaning, but your kids are cool with me for a minute. Go grab a coffee." Blue the Dog is cuddly and cute, as any animated puppy should be. It was only after they got rid of Steve and acquired Donovan Payton, a 'prettier' host with 'singing talent' and 'shiny teeth'. He just isn't the same. At least my wife has stopped watching the show now... Still, it gets a 9.5 out of 10. Even I get a kick out of it now and then.

The Bear In The Big Blue House

At first this show irked the hell out of me. I mean, it's a seven foot tall bear with an animatronic head in a house filled with with rodents, and he ended every episode by singing a song with the freaking moon. It was only after being forced to watch a couple of episodes of this all the way through did I actually start to respect it. The bear's voice talent is curiously good, very emotive and also not condescending. The songs are actually catchy, and they do fun things on the show like bake cookies and eat them... come on, who doesn't like that? The moon still annoys me, but my son loves it, since he also knows every single song on this show. (He can't say his own name, but he can perform the "Where Is Shadow" song and dance flawlessly.) The guy in the bear also gets a little respect, frolicking around in a hundred pound fur suit just to make kids happy, with someone off-camera controlling the eyes. All in all, I have to give points to this show, since my son will drop everything (including things we don't want him to play with) to watch this show. 8.5 out of 10.

Dora the Explorer

Oh, God, save me. This show is perhaps my son's favorite nowadays, and I shudder to wonder why. The premise: a tiny little mexican girl wanders around the countryside with a trained monkey, and a backpack that likes to eat things through the top of it's head. She can perform Matrix-style soccer kicks, occaisionally shifts from English to Spanish, and is constantly being pursued by a retarded fox who likes to steal things. What parent lets a small child go alligator-jumping, or bear-dodging, or snake-climbing? Also, a couple of wierd insects playing jazz instruments known as the "Fiesta Trio" like to follow behind her, playing a little fanfare everytime she does something. The songs are catchy, but the voices stab right into my brain like silky smooth ice-picks. Everytime my son sees Dora merchandise in the store, he charges it, grabs it, and tries to dance with it, screaming "Boots! Boots!" which happens to be the name of said trained monkey. I give it a 4 out of 10, and those points are simply because it gives me another few minutes to clean in the mornings.

Magic School Bus

A deeply disturbing show, I actually happen to like this one. Another conceptual nightmare, the premise is a classroom of extremely multi-ethnic children who all get along go on bizzarre field trips. As a product of the public school system, I can most definitely say that the first part of that statement is the most far-fetched. They seem to see nothing wrong with having a teacher with phenomenal cosmic powers wasting the, on showing the kids how near-shore ecosystems work, or how the center of the earth works, or shrinking them down and taking them on a journey through an open sore on one of the childrens legs and into the bloodstream. The show is educational, and the teacher is voiced by Lily Tomlin, which is kinda cool, but some of the topics on the show are a little advanced for a child who has only recently learned that if you take a container of sour cream and drop it off the table, you can eat the stuff that ends up on the floor. Still, as he gets older he'll probably become more interested in the scientific and ecological topics (even if my wife still can't watch the one where the bus drives under a bandaid and into a pool of blood). I give this an 8 out of 10, for effort and actual well-done animation.


or as I like to call it, "Friggin Miffy". A wierd claymation show with unrealistically spherical anthropomorphic animals. It's a short show, usually used to fill up space between the longer shows, but since my son is horribly addicted to it, I shall include it. He sings the song from the beginning, which is essentially "MIFFY" screamed over and over by high-pitched childrens voices, separated by such intellectual gems as "A cute little bunny" or "A smart little bunny" or "A happy little bunny". It's pure genius. The stories are simple, usually things like a ball going missing, or a rainy day. There is no real plot, no surprises, no real dialogue... it's just 'stuff that happens'. I'm not sure if the show is ripped off from Japanese culture, or if Japan ripped it off from us, and I don't really care, as long as my son outgrows it soon. 3 out of 10.

Max & Ruby

Some sort of cel-based computer animation, my brain can't quite reconcile inverse kinematics being used to move bunnies accross the screen, but that might just be my own personal issue. This show is aimed at slightly older kids... maybe even as high as three year olds. Ruby is the older daughter, and is accurately portayed as being gossippy and annoying if she doesn't get her way. Max is the younger child, with perfect pronunciation despite being able to only speak single words at a time. Their adventures include such things as "Max is annoying while eating breakfast", or "Max is annoying while playing Hide and Seek", or "Max is annoying while Ruby is on the phone". I rather think the producers had some childhood troubles, since every show is about how younger siblings can be annoying, and there's nothing you can do about it. This show has also taught my son that if there's food on his plate he doesn't want to eat, he can throw it on the floor and everyone will laugh and be amused. Wonderful morals. 3 out of 10, if only for the animation and voices, and amusement factor.

Timothy Goes To School

I am unsure about this show. The animation is OK, the stories are average fare for this kind of programming, but sometimes something unusually good or unusually bad sneaks through. Most of the show very pointedly does not center around Timothy, or even include him, which is my first beef. One episode centers around the arrival of a Japanese... animal-thing, named Yoko, so naturally everyone makes fun of her, only realizing at the end that she's a good person. One other episode focuses on a forgetful... animal-thing. This is perfectly fine, since most kids are forgetful at times. Even so, I simply could not wrap my mind around the line, "My mom says I forget things because my head is full of sunshine". Yeah. Remind me to try that the next time I have to tell someone they're stupid. These parents obviously have no regard for their childs future feelings. In spite of this, it's an average show, and my son likes it just fine. 5 out of 10.

Conclusion: Most kids programming is just re-hashed pap packaged in different animation styles. Above we have regular cel animation, computer animation, claymation, live-action puppets & animatronics, and blue-screening live-action people with computer animation. The ones that both I and my son like best are the ones with good writing and voice talent, so I think programmers need to start respecting their audience's intelligence a little bit more.


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