TV Shows

Children’s TV Review (The Shitty Ones)

Last week, I gave my account of some of the shows dominating children’s television these days. Some of it’s not too shabby. Some of it’s actually a little bit enjoyable. But for the good shows, you need to look at my last post.

This week, it’s the fun post. Here we focus on the abysmal.

There are two shows currently atop this particular mountain of shit.

(Oh yeah, this is an adult blog. If you are underage and got here through the fiftieth page of Google results, go away.)

1. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Having grown up in Orange County and rooted for sports teams that Michael Eisner only saw as cross-promotions, I might have a certain anti-Disney predisposition. Yes technically, the Angels won the World Series while a Disney property, but that’s only because Disney was looking to sell and hoping to raise the sale value.

So I rage at the hypocritical message embedded in most Disney shows and movies. Be who you want to be! Except if your hairline is a centimeter too long, because then your ass is fired. Hard work will be rewarded! Hey, work ten-hour shifts five days a week in 100-degree heat and then we’ll fire you at the 5 1/2 month mark because you’d get discounted tickets if we let you work six months. Commercialism is bad! But don’t forget to buy some Minnie Mouse tampons on the way out of the park.

So okay, I might not give Mickey a fair shake. But that doesn’t mean this show doesn’t suck.

I actually like most of the characters on “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” and, obviously, I am aware that Disney knows what they’re doing when it comes to children’s shows. This has all of the tropes one expects. The songs are repeated at the same time every episode. The characters find themselves in problems that the viewer has to help with by picking the right number or the right color pattern.

One might expect Disney to come up with something a little more original than a “Blue’s Clues” ripoff. But hey, if they’re able to bring Clarabelle Cow into canon and sell some cow dolls, all is good.

The start of the show is a little skeevy. Mickey is walking alone through the woods. He turns to the camera and asks the little kids if they want to come inside his secret, magical clubhouse. He tells them to say the magic words and his pervy little hideout pops out of nowhere. It’s got a giant slide coming out of the roof, a mini golf course, and all the accouterments one might associate with Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.

No, I’m not saying Mickey Mouse is a child molester. However, I might think twice before leaving my child alone with the show runners. Hey kid, Say “Meeska, Mooska, Mickey Mouse” and something’s going to pop out of nowhere.

Then again, Steve from “Blue’s Clues” seemed a little off, too.

But the real problem I have with “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” is Toodles, an anthropomorphic, mouse-shaped holding tray.

I guess it’s not mouse shaped, it’s Mickey Mouse shaped. Damn you Disney, for raising three generations of humans to refer to a large circle with two smaller circles on top as “mouse-shaped.”

At the beginning of every episode, they load Toodles up with four tools that they will be able to use to get past obstacles. One of them is a mystery tool and the others range from ladders and balloons to, I think there was one episode that utilized a bologna sandwich.

Then every time they encounter a problem, they whine to the heavens, “Oh, Toodles!” and the little shit comes flying from wherever he’s lazing around. Seriously, they’ve called him from Mars and he put on a space helmet to make it there before his three-second synthesizer theme-song was done. Like a drug dealer afraid that his junkie customers will find a new source or, even worse, sober up.

And when I say they call him for every time they have an obstacle, I mean: Every. Fucking. Time. “Hey, there’s some crumbs across the path. Instead of cleaning them up or stepping over them, lets see if Toodles has a fucking dustpan.”

In other shows, the characters talk though problems and multiple solutions. Some shows even encourage kids to try again if the first one fails. But Disney doesn’t want kids to learn perseverance or patience. If the next generation become critical thinkers, Disney might need a new business model. What they want is a generation of crybabies who think they are incapable of solving life.

It’s called learned helplessness and it’s rampant in the students I teach. “I can’t do it.” Encounter one setback and you might as well give up. “Why haven’t you done the last three homework assignments?” “Well, once I missed one, I figured I couldn’t pass so why try?”

Call for help. Google it. There is no possible way a human being can work their way through anything.

Some say they “just can’t do” history. They’re not good at it, like it’s shooting a three-pointer. How the hell is someone not good at history? Not enough jump? Wrong arc? Poor arm strength? Those are the reasons I am “not good” at three-pointers, although I’m sure I could get better if I tried.

But I don’t see how someone can be “bad at history.”  History is not a particular skill that one does or doesn’t have. You might not be good at reading or writing or listening. But if I ask “Who won the Civil War,” even if the answer is “I don’t know,” that still doesn’t mean you’re bad at history.

In other subjects, maybe that works. “I struggle conjugating a verb” or “I always get stuck on the quadratic equation” make sense. But how can you be bad at history? “Man, everybody else can Stalin much better than I can.”

But, of course, the learned helpless statements are never as focused as conjugating verbs or solving equations. It is perfectly acceptable to just say “I can’t do this so I’m not going to try.” As they argue over who won the 1978 Super Bowl…

Maybe they should just call Toodles.

But at least I had to watch fifty episodes of “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” before I could really pinpoint my problem with it. For the single worst kids’ show on TV these days, it was apparent right from the start.

Peppa Pig. Oh, this shit is horrible. In fact, I hesitate to call this show shit, because Peppa is a pig and pigs like shit. And I don’t want Peppa to enjoy anything about life, as she’s sucked all the enjoyment out of mine.

This show is from England, the same country that, a generation ago, sent us Teletubbies. Have you ever seen Teletubbies? Have you ever watched an episode of Teletubbies and thought, “If only we could understand what the Teletubbies are talking about.” Well, Peppa Pig is that show and, let me tell you, we were better off not knowing.

Peppa is a little girl pig. Her parents, oddly enough, are named Mummy Pig and Daddy Pig. You might think that those are just the names that Peppauses for them. But there are scenes where Daddy Pig is at work and his co-workers refer to him as Daddy Pig. I am called Daddy around my house, but none of the other teachers in my department call me Daddy, or even Mr. Daddy. Four of the other teachers in my department are also fathers. That would be very confusing.

Then again, Daddy Pig works around other animals, so they probably just use their species to distinguish between one father and the next. Maybe he’s in a meeting with Daddy Horse and Bachelor Mouse. Maybe D.I.N.K. Armadillo pays for lunch, while Co-habitating Camel usually shows up late after partying all night.

Maybe I should start referring to all of my co-workers by their ethnicity. I can’t think of any drawback to that.

Oh, and Peppa’s grandparents are Grandma Pig and Grandpa Pig. That must’ve been very awkward when they were growing up.

Come to think of it, Berenstain Bears does the same thing. The first two children are named Brother and Sister. If they were twins, I could maybe see it, but Brother Bear is clearly older by a few years. I know it was the 1970s, when 2.1 children was a foregone conclusion, but it’s pretty ballsy to name an only child, Brother. What if the second child had been another boy? Would his name have been Younger? Or would they just have named him Sister and had a “very special” book about gender identity? And, oh by the way, they had a third child later in the series. They named her Honey. What the hell? Is she not a sister as well? Seriously, Brother, Sister, and Honey are the three Berenstain Bear children. Good thing they’re religious and can pray the counseling away.

Back to Peppa Pig, she has a number of friends who are also alliteratively-named animals. There’s Rebecca Rabbit, Suzy Sheep, and Zoey Zebra, although zebra is pronounced in the (incorrect) British way so that the first syllable rhymes with zed, not zee. One character I feel bad for is Pedro Pony, because he will presumably have to change his first name when he grows into full horse-hood.

Daddy Pig is a fucking trainwreck. He’s not good at anything, but thinks he’s good at everything. He can’t read a map and gets grumpy when they get lost. He’s fat, but whines about being fat. All the while, he’s trying to teach moral lessons to his kids. Great role modeling, Britain! No wonder you lost the empire.

As for the eponymously-named Peppa, she is a whiny little bitch. Or, since she’s English, I guess the proper verbiage would be a whiny little bird. She is mean to people and is constantly complaining about being bored.

In one episode, she’s playing soccer (and errantly calling it football). They do boys versus girls, because of course they do. When the boys score the first goal, she whines that it’s a stupid game and doesn’t want to play anymore. After the girls score the second goal, all of the boys and girls start arguing. Daddy Pig helicopter-parents in to serve as referee. The boys score next, but it’s in their own goal. So now she love soccer, even if she’s still calling it football.

In another episode, she’s riding a bike. Every time she’s on a downhill she brags about what a good bicyclist she is. Then when she goes uphill, she says riding a bike is stupid and wants to quit.

Maybe she should have called Toodles?

I wish I could say there was more meat to that episode, but these synopses pretty much cover the whole thing. The average episode is about six minutes long, so Nick Jr puts five of them in a row to fill a half-hour slot. Every time an episode ends, I wait with baited breath to see if that was the final one, but there’s only a twenty percent chance. I don’t like those odds.

Most episodes end with everybody falling over laughing over something that is very unfunny. The animation for the entire show is very crude, so when I say they fall over laughing, I don’t mean they hunch over and start slapping their thigh and then fall to their knees. No, instead they are all standing upright in one frame and then are completely horizontal on their backs in the next frame. Then they shake, laugh, and snort another second or two until the episode is over.

And again, the thing that caused them all to fall over backward was something hilarious like a whiny child saying she didn’t like biking uphill. Clearly that is enough to cause people to lose their vertical fortitude.

Peppa has a little brother named George. He is one of the few tolerable spots of the show. He can only say a few words, two of which are “Dinosaur, rawr.” Even though he’s barely a toddler, he’s good at all of the things Peppa sucks at, which is pretty much everything. Of course, this just causes her to complain more, which is just what the show needs.

Peppa terrorizes her poor brother. She plays keepaway, she belittles his accomplishments, and I’m pretty sure she’s pushed him a few times. Just the things we want to teach our children.

Nick Jr starts all of its shows with a list of what the kids are learning while they’re watching. “Paw Patrol” says they’re learning about teamwork and community. “Dora the Explorer” highlights problem-solving skills and Spanish language. Most of them are a reach, but at least the intent is there.

According to them, “Peppa Pig” teaches children about emotional development. Bullshit! Peppa never develops emotionally. Peppa is the antithesis of a well-developed child. Unless you want your child to be a rude and entitled quitter.

But I’m here to help. Here ya go, Nick Jr:

When watching “Peppa Pig,” your child is learning about how to bully and not take accountability for their actions. With any luck, they’ll be President of the United States someday.

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.

The Great Red (Muppet) Menace

Back around Christmas time, I remember talking to some family members and friends who had kids around my daughter’s age (between 14-20 months). Lots of questions about what her favorite TV shows were. I tried to fake some answers but in reality, she didn’t watch much. It’s not like we had actively tried to encourage or discourage TV Time, but there were certainly times that the TV was on, and even times we put on a children’s show in an attempt to actually get something done around the house. But she didn’t seem interested and when confronted by other parents, I wondered if she was an anomaly Were we good parents or were we the bad parents?

I mean, the experts say no screen time until they’re two, right?

Hey experts, you want to come offer some free babysitting while I’m getting ready in the morning?

Because my baby’s aversion/disinterest in television came crashing down right around twenty months. Now she regularly wants to take her place among the American public by plopping her butt right in front of the Boob Tube. And she can binge watch like a motherfucker.

Oh hey, kids? If you just found this blog after googling Sesame Street, this might be a good time to move along to another blog. And maybe stop going to the 117th page of Google results.

My daughter’s tastes are not all that refined, however. In fact, there are really only two shows she watches. The first is Bubble Guppies. I like Bubble Guppies. It features six mermaid-type kids that are in school. Or at least they are enrolled in school despite their best attempts at truancy. Each episode starts with two of them seeing something as they dally, unsupervised, on their way to school. Then they get to school and are excited about what they witnessed, and their teacher, Mr. Grouper, immediately delves into a lesson on the topic.

Really, Mr. Grouper? It’s called a lesson plan. You’re just going to scrap what you were going to teach because some kids come in excited about something? If I did that, every day I’d be teaching about teenagers getting “hella crunked over the weekend.”

To say nothing of the Bubble Guppies’ parents. What the hell are you doing letting your kids randomly walk to school through marathons or loading docks or the train station? Just because their teacher indulges their delinquent behavior doesn’t mean you should!

But I digress. The episode then revolves around this theme. They sing songs, they set up a make-believe shop selling items related to the topic, then they have lunch, then go outside (“Line up, everybody, line up, line up…”) and pretend to be that thing. And through it all they ask the viewers to help them solve problems with budding skills in math and literacy.

As I said, I like Bubble Guppies. But my daughter quickly grew tired of it, and now always tries to push me toward her current addiction. She asks, and I say, “Bubble?” “No Bubble, Daddy.”

Except sometimes she manipulates me. After I say I don’t want to watch the other show, she says “Yes, Bubble.” And I say, “Yay, Bubble,” then I go turn on the TV, and repeat “Bubble?” Then, with the TV on and me already thumbing through the DVR, she magically changes her mind. “No Bubble….”

“Elmo!”

Shit.

“Elmo! Elmo! Elmo!”

I don’t even know how she learned who Elmo was, but she was saying his name before she had watched an episode of Sesame Street. I’m sure it’s just like every other addiction – peer pressure from those other kids at school.

I originally pushed for Sesame Street. Before we discovered Bubble Guppies, Sesame Street was one of the shows we tried to occupy her with back when she wouldn’t watch. I was keen to avoid the likes of Caillou and Barney and the other dregs of children’s television.

I grew up on Sesame Street.

But this ain’t her father’s Sesame Street.

“Can you tell me what they’ve done, what they’ve done to Sesame Street?”

And before I get all “get off my front lawn” about it, I’m not saying they should have always kept things the same. I’m not opposed to change for change’s sake. It wouldn’t really make sense for all of the characters to be wearing disco pants like they were when I was watching the show in the 1970s. And for obvious reasons, Jim Hensen can’t voice a lot of the Muppets that he used to voice.

I like that they encourage kids to get up and move around more than they used to.

And I know that Snuffleupagus can’t be an imaginary friend anymore because we don’t want kids to keep quiet about abuse. I might question how much it’s made a difference. I’d be interested to see if there was an uptick in child abuse reports once Snuffleupagus was revealed to be real. But if that statistic was even one, then it’s worth it.

And truthfully, some of the problems are getting a little better since HBO took over. HBO’s increased the production value immensely. Once you can get past the all the full frontal nudity. (I’ll take “The Obvious Joke” for two hundred, Alex.)

But there are some things about Sesame Street  that still bug me:

  1. Character Voices.

Grover is now voiced by the same person that does Miss Piggy. Grover sounds exactly like Miss Piggy. And Big Bird sounds like Big Dork.

  1. Muppet Lower Torsos.

I assume this is easier with CGI, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. It just looks awkward. Check out the closing credits from last year or this year. Awkward. And man, in the latter, Grover needs to do some squats or something. Not sure how he manages to lug that potbelly around on those spindly legs.

  1. Abby.

If you’re as old as me, you might have noticed some new Muppets in those clips. Of course, I pre-date Elmo, but you would have had to be deaf and dead to not know of him. One in particular, the pink one with pigtails and a wand, is Abby. Abby Cadaby, to be exact. She is a magician. Abra Cadabra – Abby Cadaby, get it?

Abby is probably the second-most featured character on Sesame Street these days. She hasn’t infiltrated out amongst the general population as much as Elmo has yet, but among Sesame Street groupies, she’s almost as ubiquitous.

Abby Cadaby, being a magician, actually casts spells and makes things magically appear. Really, Sesame Street? Magic? What a lazy shortcut to storytelling. I mean, stick to the giant talking birds and cookie-obsessed monsters and green dudes that live in trash cans. Why do you need to add something fake, like magic?

  1. Episode structure.

I seem to remember that the interactions between humans and Muppets on Sesame Street (ie the entire point of the show) were spread out over the course of the entire episode, interspersed with various vignettes. A typical episode might go: Introduce Problem/Theme, Video of animals, Continue storyline, Aliens creating compound word, Preview resolution on “The Street,” Different Muppet video, then back to the Street for resolution and lessons learned.

Today’s episodes frontload all of the plot/lesson/Street scenes so they are self-contained, and completely over by the time we hit the ten minute mark. Then it’s on to the vignettes, maybe with Murray and his Little Lamb at a school or Cookie Monster exercising self-control. I will address the last ten minutes in #5 below.

I assume this re-organization is partly because episodes are now only a half-hour instead of an hour. Damn you, Mitt Romney! Oh wait, he lost? But you know what happens. Republicans are elected and they cut funding, then Democrats are elected and they restore the funding but also increase the ability of Muppet Local 2658 to negotiate exorbitant pensions that shoestring the show’s budget.

Or maybe it’s because these whippersnappers can’t pay attention to a storyline once it breaks away. We’re no longer training the TV watchers of tomorrow to remember the plot through a commercial break. Boy, back in my day, we had to watch commercials, uphill both ways, in the snow. You little rats have DVR’s now.

Then again, Bubble Guppies can break up the theme throughout an episode.

“Bubble? Bubble?”

“No, Daddy, no….”

  1. Elmo!

As I mentioned, I was familiar with Elmo going into this rediscovery process. I used to use Tickle Me Elmo as an example of demand and shortages in economics class, up until that particular zeitgeist craze started pre-dating my students. I’ll let that sink in with some of my older readers – current high school seniors were born in 1998.

So yeah, I was aware Elmo existed. What I wasn’t aware of was that Sesame Street had pretty much become the Elmo show. Take Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, multiply it by Cartman in South Park, and raise it to the power of Barney in How I Met Your Mother and you will begin to approach the degree to which the Giant Red Menace has spread his socialist scourge across Sesame Street. And his pinko girlfriend, Abby, too.

I would guess one of those two is on screen about seventy percent of the time. And if you only count the times that a Muppet is on screen, that would rise to over ninety percent. I’m trying to think of a time that any other Muppet shows up without Elmo lurking on the margins like a Mafioso Union Boss. The only time is when Murray and his Little Lamb go to school, and that’s only in the recent HBO shows. By comparison, Big Bird doesn’t even show up in half of the episodes, and Oscar the Grouch might as well be considered a guest star these days.

Oh, and that “last ten minutes of the show” I referenced earlier? That’s “Elmo’s World,” a completely separate entity. No other cast members, puppet or human, are allowed entry into Elmo’s World. Not even Abby. It’s Elmo, his pet goldfish, and a couple of humans named Mr. Noodle. There are two Mr. Noodles and they are both called Mr. Noodle, unless they’re both on the screen at the same time, in which case they are Mr. Noodle and Other Mr. Noodle. Just like a tyrant to not let the dudes each have their own name. But Mr. Noodle(s) are contained in the Sweatshop that is Elmo’s World, and are not allowed to venture out into Sesame Street proper. Elmo needs to keep his empires separate, like when Walter White picked up that second cellphone.

And really, how is Elmo a good role model? He talks about himself in the third person constantly. “Elmo has a question.” “Dance with Elmo.” “Elmo’s gonna fuck you up and Elmo-shit on your Elmo-fucked corpse.”

That last one might be a misquote.

I know no Muppet is perfect. Each has his or her own little foibles. Oscar represents sloth, the Count has certain OCD tendencies, and Big Bird suffers from the deadly sin of dorkiness. Cookie Monster, in addition to some slightly gluttonous persuasions, also uses the word “me” in place of “I.” But a little subject/direct object pronoun confusion is fine next to the megalomaniacal tyrant that is Elmo.

In fact, I expect Elmo to endorse Donald Trump any day now. It’s too bad he’s only been around since the early 1990s, he’s too young to be Donald’s VP pick. They’d make a natural pairing, and Elmo might be able to bring Republicans back to the fold, reminding them of the third-person self-references of the Bob Dole days.

And with Elmo on the campaign trail, maybe I’d finally win the mental tug-of-war with my twenty-three month old daughter.

But until then, it’s another steady dose of…

“Bubble? Bubble?”

“No, Daddy, no… Elmo!”

Selfie Immolation

I guess the world and pop culture moved on while I was taking my one-month writing sabbatical. Not sure who the hell gave them permission to do that. But now I have to catch up.

So am I here to write about the horrors of Ferguson? Or maybe the effect that the midterm elections will have on Obama’s second term and place in history? What about the spread of Ebola and its implications on civil liberties?

Nope. I’m here because those bastards cancelled Selfie!

Most years I have two reactions to the first round of TV cancellations. The first is “Really? That sounded like a stupid show” or “I totally saw that coming.” Next, I expunge my DVR of the remaining episodes of whatever show was just canceled. I can usually read the tea leaves and hold off watching a few shows until they get the pick-up. This year, I’m still waiting on Forever.  I watched the first few episodes and thought it was okay, if a bit thin, but I can see its ratings and don’t want to get too vested.  If it somehow makes it to the end of the season and gets picked up for another, I guess I’ll get caught up over the summer.

This year, I aired my rare third reaction. It’s a mixture of “Man, you didn’t even give that a chance” and “What precisely did you think would happen with that show?”  Although I saw it coming, this was my reaction to Selfie.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to wax lyrical about the brilliance of this show. And I’m not going to malign the multitudes for not watching. Had I been blogging when Better Off Ted failed to find traction, you would all be getting a stern finger wagging. But Selfie was no Better Off Ted. It wasn’t a great show. But in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t bad. In a world where Two and a Half Men and Everybody Loves Raymond can each reign supreme for a decade, there should certainly be room for Selfie.

A number of shows, particularly sitcoms, need a little time to find their way. It’s always worth noting that Cheers got horrible ratings in its first season. Truthfully, Cheers is still a show that takes a number of episodes for a new viewer. It is an wkward show to introduce people to, no matter what season you’re watching, because so much of the humor involves knowing the characters and all of their foibles. Think about it – the brilliance of the episode where Cliff goes on Jeopardy is lost upon someone who hasn’t spent many weeks listening to him as the know-it-all that annoys the whole bar with his inane trivia. Trust me, I’ve tried a number of times to show some Cheers episodes to my students. Episodes I find hilarious fall flat, and it’s not just because the times have changed. Show them an episode of I Love Lucy or Welcome Back, Kotter, and they laugh at all the right spots. But not Cheers.

And let me reiterate, I’m not saying Selfie was anywhere close to Cheers, only that some shows need a season or two to figure out what they have. I thought the Robin Williams sitcom last year fell into the category of shows that get better in the second half of the first season when they figure out how the characters should interact. It started out trying to put Sarah Michelle Gellar on equal footing with Robin Williams, but then they realized that a) Sarah Michelle Gellar isn’t a comic lead, and b) there were three other very funny actors next to her. The last half of the season, it turned into an ensemble behind Robin Williams and it was much better.

Of course, the viewers didn’t come back to the Robin Williams show, because once you decide the show is a lost cause, you don’t check to see if you’re right later in the season. So Selfie never would have gotten to where they needed it to be. But it wasn’t the show’s fault.

Selfie also had some good ensemble actors to work with. Poor John Cho just can’t get a break. For a guy who started his career out as the “MILF Guy” from American Pie before starring in a slew of Harold and Kumar movies, the guy actually has some acting chops.  He was pretty good in FlashForward, a drama that lasted only one season. Last year, he played alongside Matthew Perry, another guy who can’t seem to gain any traction post-Friends. That show only lasted a year. Seeing a trend? I would say he is becoming this generation’s Ted McGinley, except that Ted McGinley brought about the demise of established shows, not new ones.

But any question about John Cho’s ability to act should be answered by Star Trek. He plays a Korean ensign who will grow up to become a Japanese captain. I mean, that’s some ability!

As for Karen Gillan, I’m not overly familiar with her ability, because I was late to the Dr Who party. I’m currently on Martha Jones, who is at least two companions before Amy Pond, the one played by Karen Gillan, and I only watch over the summer when shows like Forever don’t get picked up for a second season. Friends have assured me that Amy Pond was a good companion. I will have to take their word for it. They have also informed me that Karen Gillan is attractive. I am proud to announce that I have verified this information.

In Selfie, her character didn’t seem to have much consistency.  The writers seemed to have trouble growing her beyond the vapid narcissist that the show was based on. The same could be said for John Cho’s character. The only consistent characters were the aloof boss and gossipy receptionist. This seems to happen a lot in new sitcoms, as the writers realize the main characters have to become more well-rounded than the initial kooky-crazy person created for the up-fronts. But the lesser characters don’t have to evolve. They can stay with their shtick. And if the show lasts as long as The Big Bang Theory or How I Met Your Mother, those quirky characters might even become the focus. Yes, I said it. Sheldon and Barney were never intended to be the front characters. And I think both shows suffered when each character grew from random comedic interjection to focal point.

The failure of Selfie lies squarely at the feet of the TV execs for a number of horrible decisions in the placement and promotion of a show that had a chance. The main problem was its place on the schedule. The horrible name didn’t help. Oh, and selling it as a modern day My Fair Lady. Boy, nothing says hot and modern like referencing a 60 year old Broadway play. And the ultra-ephemeral name was just seen as overcompensating. But really, really. Those weren’t the major problems. The major problem was where it was placed on the schedule.

ABC put it on Tuesday night opposite NCIS, which is one of the top, if not the actual highest, rated shows on television. Okay, whatever, something’s got to go up against it, and maybe they draw from different crowds. Plus everybody has a DVR these days, so no biggie. I managed to record both shows for a few weeks despite the fact that they were on at the same time.

After those two weeks, though, CW added The Flash to their schedule.  This is a show I’ve been looking forward to for a year, ever since it was announced. So a few days before it was set to air, I thumbed forward in my channel guide and set the DVR to record.  I was then informed that The Flash would not record due to two other conflicts. I checked what the two conflicting shows  were. NCIS? Nope, not skipping that. Selfie? Sorry, buh-bye. You were cute for a couple of episodes, but we’re done now.

I haven’t looked at the ratings, but I would be willing to bet they dropped when The Flash came on. Let’s look at who Selfie was catering to. The show stars somebody that has been in the last two Star Trek movies and another person who was on Dr. Who. Plus, let’s not forget Karen Gillan was in a little movie this summer called Guardians of the Galaxy, albeit bald and in green skin. Oh, and throw in Harold and Kumar. So who is going to check this show out? Geeks. But when push comes to shove, those geeks are going to pick The Flash over a sitcom still trying to find its way.

I assume someone at ABC knew it catered to geeks and put it on the same night as Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But Marvel is on at 9:00, an hour after Selfie was on. Isn’t the spillover effect supposed to go the other way? I could maybe see somebody watching one show and leaving it on the channel, but who turns on a channel because a certain show will be on later that night? Are the execs aware that we have these new-fangled remote controls?

I did end up watching the rest of the episodes online. Like I said, it was nothing spectacular, but  a fun show nonetheless. The interactions between the characters was getting better. One of the last episodes featured Eliza (Karen Gillan) and Charmonique (the receptionist) try to fill out an online dating profile for Henry. They end up setting him up with a roomful of people who look exactly like the two of them. Sure, it’s been done a thousand times, but what sitcom trope hasn’t? At least it wasn’t continuous menage-a-trois jokes from Charlie Sheen.

There were a couple of other sitcoms that debuted last year that had similar dynamics to Selfie. Both had an ostensible star, but featured an ensemble that developed their shticks and interactions as the season went on. The first was Undateable, starring Chris d’Elia, who had previously been the boyfriend on Whitney. The other was Ground Floor, with  John C. McGinley, no relation to Ted McGinley (as far as I know, neither of them have invited me to their family functions).

That’s two Ted McGinley references in one blog post. If I bring up Revenge of the Nerds, do I win a prize?

Interestingly, both Undateable and Ground Floor featured the same female “lead,” an actress named Briga Heelan in a budding relationship with a supporting actor.  Both shows seemed unsure if that particular relationship should be the focus of the show or not. Undateable, in particular, lost her for the second half of the season, presumably because she was filming the other show.  That forced the show  to feature some of the other actors. One of them, Ron Funches (don’t worry, you haven’t heard of him) stole almost every scene he was in. Rory Scovel was quickly becoming the star of Ground Floor’s first season, although I worry his kooky, quirky character is starting to go down the Sheldon/Barney path, becoming way too much of a focus. Of course, I assume the producers would be perfectly fine following in those characters’, and their shows’, footsteps.

The irony, of course, is that both Undateable and Ground Floor got picked up for a second season. Briga Heelan is going to have to hedge her bets for another year. So why did they make it but Selfie did not? The same reason mentioned above – because the television execs realized what they had, or more precisely what they didn’t have, and that it shouldn’t go up against the powerhouses of Fall TV. The execs in these cases also seemed to realize that it is no longer 1995, and there are different ways to market and broadcast a show now. Ground Floor was on TBS. I’m pretty sure getting ten viewers is enough to be profitable on that channel. Undateable was on NBC, but they held it off until summer, when it was not on against anything else. They then ran two episodes a night for six weeks and were done. And it worked.  Not in the November sweeps way, but in the middle-of-June way.

Seriously, had Selfie been moved to the “death valley” of Friday night, it might have been successful. I know my DVR would have followed it. In fact, why do we still run all of our shows between 8:00-11:00 PM? Had they run it at 3:00 AM, I would end up watching it just as close to “live” as I watch anything. But not if it’s opposite NCIS and The Flash. Really, when is TV going to lose the 8:00-11:00 Prime Time model. Just tell us when the show is on and we’ll set our DVRs.  I know, I know. Live audience, ad revenue, Same Day +7, blah, blah, blah. The world is passing you by, better come up with a new business model.

In the end, Selfie did not fit whatever unrealistic expectations ABC had for it, so it was dumped. Was it going to be the next  Seinfeld or Modern Family? Doubtful, but it certainly was more watchable than about ten seasons’ worth of Two and a Half Men. Or it could have been. But now we’ll never know.