Children’s TV Review, Part I

My daughter is three-and-a-half years old now and well on her way to her proper place as a proud American. What I mean is, she watches a shit-ton of TV.

I know, I know. Screen time is bad and should be limited and blah, blah, blah. You know what else should be limited? Microwaved dinners and me teaching teenagers in my underwear. And if I’m going to have time to cook a wholesome meal and, you know, shower, the kid’s going to suckle on a little of that boob-tube teat.

As a result, I’ve come to experience a sizable cross-section of the current children’s television crop. Both of the Juniors, Nick and Disney, have full lineups. Some of it is enjoyable for young and old, some of it is kinda boring for both. And then there are the demonspawn shows – the ones that my daughter enjoys but that are absolutely horrific for the adults in the house.

I’m going to start with some of the good and mediocre. Come back next week for the shit storms.

Dora the Explorer. I know this isn’t a new show. My students all grew up with it. Even my nieces, who are in their twenties, watched the early seasons.

I assumed I would not like Dora. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it came out during the years of Barney and the Teletubbies, I figured it can’t be good. Or maybe I thought it was an artificial attempt at forced bilingualism. Or maybe I assumed that, if she thought Dora and Explorer rhymed, she must be from Boston.

Quick game: find a Republican and ask him what’s more offensive, a Spanish accent or a Mass-hole accent.

But it’s actually pretty enjoyable to watch. The bilingualism is not forced. As opposed to Sesame Street (or every first-year language class ever), it does not just come up with a word, repeat it multiple time, and then makes an artificial skit designed to illicit the one word of the day. Seriously, how often am I going to ask for milk at the library? Dora talks like a real bilingual person. Sometimes she’ll drop a word or two of Spanish into her normal speak, then she’ll turn to the camera and explain what that word meant. “In Spanish, we say leche and biblioteca.”

Sometimes Dora needs to interpret for people she encounters who are unilingual.

Dora is usually on an adventure. There are always three steps, and she will repeat them over and over again. When one’s been accomplished, she’ll still repeat them,  say “Check,” and write a check on the map. Now when I need to take my daughter on errands, we play like Dora “We need to go through  the pasta aisle, around the dairy fridge, then pay at the cashier. Did we go through the pasta aisle? Check!”

The interactions with the audience, which is a staple in children’s television, seems to work, too. My daughter isn’t very likely to respond when Mickey Mouse or Elmo asks her which direction they should go. But Dora asks with a certain cadence and repetition that gets my daughter to respond. Even in very mangled Spanish sometimes. “Should I take the rojo or the verde path?” Dora asks, and my daughter shouts out “Bair-day!”

And the songs are catchy as hell. My students laugh whenever I pull up maps in history class now, because I sing the “I’m the map” song. Seriously, go look up “Grumpy Old Troll” and see if it’s not stuck in your head later. No? Watch it twenty more times and you’ll know what it’s like having kids.

Goldie and Bear. So, evidently Goldilocks and Baby Bear are friends now. And they live in a land with modern twists on fairy tale characters. Humpty Dumpty’s a nerd who always has his head in a book. The three pigs are makeshift carpenters who fix most of the property damage that tends to occur on a regular basis. Their names are Bailey, Twigs, and Brix. Big Bad Wolf occasionally tries to be good, but is still obsessed with Little Red Riding Hood’s muffins. Fairy Godmother is a trainwreck – half of her spells go awry.

Shows revolve around some extension of fairy tales. In one episode, they have a lottery to see who gets to ride the cow when she jumps over the moon. Goldie wins and Bear wants to feel happy for her but is bummed out. But then the cow is scared by a mouse that is attracted to Big Bad’s cheese sandwich and leaps early with both Goldie and Bear on her back. In another episode, everything in the land falling apart because the pigs are arguing over straw, wood, and brick.  Bear’s father sings about fishing in one show, and in another one, Bear is allergic to Goldie’s new shampoo (another Fairy Godmother screw up) right before a dual pogo stick contest.

The shows are pretty fun to watch. Each episode has two 15-minute shows. Or is it every show has two episodes? Whatever. Each 30-minute block contains two 15-minute subdivisions. Each show has an original song (unlike Dora, these songs are not repeated every episode but are based on the current situation). The songs have varying beats and clever lyrics.

I think there might or might not be a morale or a lesson in most of them. Whatever.

A couple of problems with the show. First, it’s new, so whereas Dora has over a hundred episodes to cycle through, Goldie and Bear had a whopping 22. Let me tell you, 22 episodes ain’t a lot when one’s child watches nothing else for an entire month. You know it’s bad when even a three-year old says, “We already watched that one.”

They finally started a second season about a month ago. My wife and I were ecstatic, but my daughter had almost forgotten about the show by then. So far, the second season seems a little lackluster. Classic “Prison Break” syndrome.

I also have issue with the lack of swag for this show. It’s on Disney. How are they not inundating us with plushes and shirts and toy sets? The Disney Store and Toys R Us both have sections devoted to “Puppy Dog Pals” and “Vampirina,” and those two shows have only been on for a couple of months. “Goldie and Bear” started in 2015, yet by the middle of 2016 there were still no official toys, and even by that Christmas, there were only a couple of items hidden around Toys R Us.

I assume that the lack of toys and the lack of consistency in output means that “Goldie & Bear” is not an official Disney property, but is only airing on Disney channels. I didn’t know that was possible, but it’s the only thing that makes sense. Because Disney not overpromoting a property to the point of ubiquity is like…. is like… the New England Patriots not finding a new way to cheat.

McStuffins the First of Avalor: Okay, these might actually be three different shows. I don’t know. Sometimes I’m blogging when the show is on. One is an African-American girl in a smock, another is a white girl who likes purple, and the last is a Latina in red. They… I don’t know… have problems? That they have to… solve? And maybe they sing? Not sure.

These shows aren’t bad. There have been times it seems like one of them is about to take over my child’s zeitgeist for. (Can one person have a zeitgeist? Hmmm. I’ll have to look that up the next time my child is watching TV.)

She liked “Doc McStuffins” for a week or two, but it never really stuck. She still likes the  characters.

If “Sofia the First” is on, she might pay it some attention, but she’ll never really seek it out. Again, she enjoys dressing up as Sofia and getting Sofia books, just never really cares to watch.

She’s never enjoyed “Elena of Avalor.” It could be that Elena is older than the other two and the show caters to grade-schoolers, not pre-schoolers. But the same argument could be made for the Dora sequel (Did you know Dora has a sequel?), which has Dora as a teenager, and my daughter eats that shit up.

These shows follow a standard sitcom formula. I thought an extended story over a half-hour might account for my daughter’s lack of interest. But, again, the same description could be used for Dora. Seriously, what kind of crack is Dora that makes it successful?

Anyway, not really sure why these shows haven’t really distinguished themselves or caught her imagination.

A potential exception in this genre is Vampirina. It follows in the same vein as the others, but features a little vampire girl who moved to America from Transylvania. We’ve only been watching it for about a week, but so far my daughter likes it better than the others. I like it so far. The parents oscillate between being supportive and creating their own problems – again, very sitcommy.

Of course, as a new show, we will quickly run into the “not enough episodes” problem. But at least Disney is putting Vamprina merch in stores. Too bad my daughter didn’t start watching until the week after Christmas. Actual conversation wife and I had in Toys R Us in mid-December: “Oh, hey, should we get her a Vamprina doll? That shows fun.” “Yeah, but she never asks for it. Not even sure she knows who the characters are.”

Famous last words.

But hey, Vampirina’s not a princess, so that’s a fun twist for a Disney show.  The opening lyrics even go “I may be blue with pointy teeth, but I’m not so different underneath… I’m just like you.” Maybe Disney is finally getting past the… Oh, who am I kidding? That’ll be retconned out.

Paw Patrol. Daughter’s obsession with Paw Patrol was deep but brief. We have a dog and two cats, so she might be naturally inclined toward animal shows. Within a couple days of first viewing, she could rattle off all of the dogs in rapid succession. I was still trying to get past the fact that every musical break was right out of the techno nineties. It even has a Dance, Dance Revolution rip-off!

The dogs all have civil service jobs. I’ve also been told have personalities? Marshall, the fire truck dalmatian, is clumsy. Not sure why they went with firefighters being clumsy, but whatever. The recycling dog is surprisingly not a loadie, so maybe they’re trying to break stereotypes. Although the husky’s owner is a ski instructor that’s a total loadie, so maybe they are into stereotypes after all. The organized, calm police dog and the fact that the only female in the original batch was the small, peppy, compassionate one pretty much solidifies it.

The problem with Paw Patrol is it’s a bit too formulaic. Even the writers know that. The new episodes have them running a Sea Patrol or running off to England to go all James Bond.

My daughter still likes all the characters, but she doesn’t ask for the show very often. This is fine with me, because I found the shows a bit boring. Not that boring is bad, mind you. But none of them are ever going to make a mistake, and Ryder, their “handler,” is way too goody two-shoes. Think Mister Rogers without the acerbic wit.

My daughter’s favorite character is Rubble, the bulldog construction worker. Unfortunately, Rubble isn’t allowed on girl’s clothing. I’m not going to go off on weaponized genderification or anything. I realize there are only so many different combinations of the various characters they can put on clothing. Rubble appearing by himself is rare, even on boy’s clothes. And you can get girl’s clothes with Marshall, and occasionally Chase. So it’s not entirely the fault of genderification. That being said, my daughter’s not a big Skye fan, so sometimes our options are limited.

And yes, I could put her in boys’ clothes, but the underwear doesn’t fit her great.

As a subset of Paw Patrol comes Puppy Dog Pals. This is another show that is still in its infancy. At first, I hated it. I thought it was Disney’s half-hearted attempt at stealing some of Paw Patrol’s mojo (ie merchandising power). The dogs had annoying voices and were always doing stupid things that nobody seemed to notice. One of the child voice actors can NOT carry a tune.

I’m turning around on “Puppy Dog Pals” a little. I now realize that they do all of their shenanigans when their owner is otherwise occupied. All of the humans, including their owner, can’t understand them, and even though they are solving great mysteries, they appear to just be doing typical dog stuff. Bob, their owner, is never aware that they’re the ones who fixed the problem he was whining about at the beginning of the episode. It’s kind of funny to watch the end of the episode. It goes back and forth between them excitedly telling him everything they did, then it switches to his vantage point, and the dogs are just yapping away.

A bit of a “Toy Story” vibe that is fun considering every other cartoon features animals and humans interacting with regularity.

But, ooo, that singing…

I think that’s it for the good and mediocre kids’ shows. I think I need a week or so to work up my vitriol for the remaining couple. Come back later.

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