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Wednesday, January 20, 2010


In a previous installment of FTI, I informed you that we bought a new television. We also bought an amplified antenna for it so my wife wouldn’t have to constantly change DVDs for our daughter while feeding our son.

Our daughter watches a lot of television. And you know what? I don’t care what you think. I’m on record as stating that TV itself isn’t an evil. It’s what you let your kid watch, not how much of it. Or, at least, it doesn’t matter how much TV the kid watches if the kid remains active and engaged while the TV is on. Sitting slack jawed on the couch = bad. Running in circles whilst playing with wooden puzzles and trying to match the dance steps of the characters on screen = no problems at all.

But the question remains: What’s good television? Well, I’ve had an opportunity to observe some modern children’s programming, and I have a handy-dandy guide for you! Don’t you feel special?

It’s a Big Big World. A giant sloth named Snook acts as a guide through the world of natural science. It’s all puppet based, and the puppets are exquisite. More than once I found myself wondering how the puppets work.
Why you should show it to your kids: The colorful world, the wonderful music, but most of all the excellent writing. Characters are not sanitized for your child’s protection. Any given character is apt to be stubborn, petty, vain, ignorant or just plain grumpy. They’re not always role models, but they provide object lessons. They model the behavior that your child should work to avoid well, but without making the characters vile or abhorrent.
Why you might give it a miss: Newer episodes went all Elmo on us and delivered a mildly obnoxious character with a squeaky voice. My wife informs me that they’ve also done away with Oko, an old, vaguely Asian howler monkey who practices Tai Chi and dispenses wisdom to the young characters. Seriously, Oko is awesome and if they’re going to boot him from the show, I’ll stick with DVDs of old episodes.

Bear in the Big Blue House A giant bear teaches children about living in polite society. From the post-Henson Jim Henson Workshop.
Why you should show it to your kids: It’s not for nothing that this show won a ton of awards back when it was on. It’s a fun show with likeable characters that teaches about life and living. At least the early seasons do, but since it’s only watchable on DVD, you get to pick which episodes you show your kids so it’s all good. Also, Doc Hog is an absolute riot.
Why you might give it a miss: The songs are a little uneven. There’s a gospel song about words that seems out of place; especially when Bear bellows “hallelujah” for no apparent reason. Also, the characters aren’t as well written as they might be. Treelo is annoying (though, typically, the young child’s favorite) and Ojo falls into the “We only have one girl, so she can’t be flawed or interesting in any way otherwise we’ll get sued” trap.

Curious George. The monkey made famous for sniffing ether and getting high comes to the small screen to teach kids exactly the opposite lesson that he should have learned in the books. I.E. That curiosity is always good thing. And it’s not a wrong lesson, exactly, except when George starts playing with idle construction equipment to retrieve a ten dollar bill that fell into a hole.
Why you should show it to your kids: George and the Man In The Yellow Hat have lots of adventures and sort of learn about stuff. I say sort of, because the lessons can sometimes seem to be tacked on to the action after the fact. They reinforce the lessons between stories with segments involving live kids putting the lesson of the episode into practice. Also, George is voiced by Frank Welker. Sold!
Why you might give it a miss: While each live-action segment is always prefaced with the statement “George is a monkey, so he can do things you and I can’t do,” I’m not so sure about the whole “follow your curiosity no matter what” vibe the show gives off. The original books made it clear that George got into real trouble following his curious nature. The show… not so much. Fortunately, the George of the TV show is a wiser monkey than the one in the books, and he tends to not destroy as much property.

Sid the Science Kid. A frightening abomination of a child meets up with other frightening abominations and apparently teaches kids about science and stuff. I’ve never been able to figure out what exactly they teach, because my daughter bursts into fearful tears whenever the show comes on.
Why you should show it to your kids: You can practice your quick-draw remote skills by changing the channel as quickly as possible whenever Sid shows his hideous, misshapen head.
Why you might give it a miss: Seriously, the characters on that show are freaking terrifying.

Zula Patrol: Space Aliens teach about science from their space ship while battling grumpy aliens who want to litter and stuff.
Why you should show it to your kids: The characters are cute, and the stories are interesting enough for adults to not lose their minds watching. The science lessons are a little more blunt and instruct-y than other shows, but the antics surrounding the lessons are entertaining.
Why you might give it a miss: The characters can be annoying if you’re in a certain frame of mind, particularly the pilot who seems to voiced by a woman trying to swallow a ping pong ball while high on blow after attending the James Kirk school of overemoting (note to actors: Only William Shatner is awesome enough to get away with acting like William Shatner. The rest of you are just overacting.) The theme song is an earworm to rival all others.

Electric Company: Who knew? They brought back the Electric Company. Now it’s a much more narrative driven show with a story interspersed between the old “Ssss,” “Tuff,” “Stuff” routines. The new Electric Company are high-school superheroes whose powers revolve around learning and stuff. They can throw balls of words, unscramble scrambled words, and play back overheard words. Basically, there’s a lot of do about words. Their foes are called “the Pranksters” and they consist of people with the opposite powers (scrambling words, etc).
Why you should show it to your kids: Two words: Danny Rhebus. You need more words? Okay, but I won’t explain Danny Rhebus. He must be observed first hand to be appreciated. The pacing is well done, and the storylines are corny but so earnest you won’t care. Also, there’s this dude who does beatbox that must have had bionic lips installed or something because he’s amazing.
Why you might give it a miss: The show went in the hip-hop direction, so there’s a lot of rapping about words. Also, two of the four members of the Electric Company (who are in high school, I must remind you) appear to be in their mid thirties, so I’m not sure why we should trust what they say about spelling.

Miss B.G.: Grammar school aged girl attempts to climb the social ladder with a series of schemes that usually involve misbehaving and then lying about it. It’s narrated by the girl; named B.G.; in the style of the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The show is 3D computer animated, but cheaply done. The character models for the kids are okay, but the adults are comical. Every grown woman in the show—even the high school girls—are built like Barbie after working with Pam Anderson’s plastic surgeon. Seriously. You see those coming around the corner, you’ve got time to comb your hair.
Why you should show it to your kids: The show teaches about consequences and about how doing the right thing immediately can make things easier in the long run. B.G. has a little brother who is cute, and his pet hamster is even cuter.
Why you might give it a miss: Watching the show, you can’t help but wonder why B.G. goes to such lengths to impress her friends. They’re all such jerks. Of course, she’s no prize herself, so I guess it evens out.

Cyber Chase: Three normal kids go into their computer and try to protect the benevolent MotherBoard from the notorious Hacker. Teaches about science, critical thinking and problem solving.
Why you should show it to your kids: It features the voice talents of Christopher Lloyd and Gilbert Gottfried. Lloyd plays the evil Hacker, while Gottfried plays the kids’ sidekick and helper while providing sarcastic commentary. Neither actor is phoning it in, particularly Lloyd who really seems into it. The kids in the show approach everything very scientifically, explaining in full detail their thought processes in a way that make Basil Exposition look like a deaf mute.
Why you might give it a miss: Memo to kids: When a (cyber)volcano is erupting about to engulf you in (cyber)lava, this is not the time to whip our your (cyber) notebooks and (cyber) pencils and draw blueprints of what you’re going to build to escape the eruption out of (cyber) logs that just happen to be lying about, and it’s certainly not necessary to provide a fully dimensioned (cyber) drawing with (cyber)units in (cyber) feet. Oh, and by the way, they’re in a computer. Can you tell by my judicious, reserved use of the word cyber to describe every freakin’ thing under the (cyber) sun?

Rescue Heroes: Hey! It’s G.I. Joe without any of the stuff that made G.I. Joe interesting! Basically, it’s an advertisement for a line of toys that replaced Husky Helpers because someone took offense at burly construction workers being called “husky.”
Why you should show it to your kids: The show features exaggerated versions of real-life heroes (policemen, firemen, etc) saving imperiled people from some of the slowest moving natural disasters in the world. The segments teaching about emergency preparedness are informative. It helps you to realize why the action genre usually involves people shooting at each other.
Why you might give it a miss: The show is boring as heck. There’s never any real tension, because you and I both know that nobody’s ever going to get hurt. And don’t think the kids watching don’t know that. This show just serves as a reminder of how neutered we are as a society that we can’t show our children heroes unless the thing the heroes are “fighting” is the weather.

Jane and the Dragon: Another CGI show! This one is set in a pseudo-Arthurian version of England that has dragons living in it. The main character (Jane) is a young girl who wants to be a knight.

All together now: “You Go Girl!”

Jane’s best friend is a dragon named Dragon. He’s wry, sarcastic—everything you’d expect from a friendly version of something with no natural predators. The shows generally revolve around using teamwork, trying your best, and not being a major tool.
Why you should show it to your kids: Despite the premise, the show uses a light touch with the GRRL POWAR!!!! Stuff. Jane wants to be a knight, but it’s not the focus of her every waking moment and in practice she just comes across as tomboyish. The animation is reasonably well done, if obviously motion-captured, and the stories feature a good balance of action and wit to keep kids and adults interested.
Why you might give it a miss: Some of the character models look… wrong somehow. Your kid may not like the dragon much—kids can be scared of unexpected things. If you’re not big on Renaissance festivals, you might skip this one since the whole show feels like an animated LARP session. Other than that, the show is a pretty good bet.

Word World!: Cartoon animals made out of letters learn about spelling and reading by literally building things out of letters. Want a spaceship? Spell the word “Spaceship” out of the letters that litter the landscape in Word World. The economy in that place must be seriously messed up, seeing as how easy making M-O-N-E-Y would be.
Why you should show it to your kids: The character design is simply brilliant. Making a frog out of the letters F-R-O-G couldn’t have been done before CG animation became this cheap and easy. The stories are pretty good, and as a way to teach about spelling and what words actually mean, it’s very well done. Sure, they can only do nouns, but there are a lot of nouns.
Why you might give it a miss: The show features dozens of characters and three voice actors: One for the girl characters and the rest for the boy characters. So if you don’t like, for example, Ant’s voice, you’re probably not going to like Duck’s, Dog’s or Monkey’s voices either. Also, Sheep appears to be doing a bad impersonation of William F. Buckley, Jr. because she says “uh” every 1.5 words.

Peep and the Big Wide World: A newly hatched chicken named Peep learns about how the world works, at least from a physical standpoint, along with his friends a baby robin (named Chirp) and a baby duck (named Quack). The show features lessons about simple science, like where shadows come from and how levers work, and a goodly amount of humor to soften to schooling.
Why you should show it to your kids: The characters are simple and colorful, and are likely to appeal to younger viewers. Once the kids get older, they can enjoy the in-between segments that feature real live kids employing the lessons of the previous episode. For example, an episode about flowing water will be followed by a segment where kids play with water. The characters act like real kids, being at times curious, cranky, petty, or just self-centered. Also, Quack is a laugh riot. Seriously, get the DVDs for your kids and watch it just for Quack. He’s awesome.
Why you might give it a miss: There is no reason to miss this. You can watch free episodes daily on the website, and the DVDs come in three packs. It’s just a good, kid friendly show.

Bob the Builder: The man from whom a sitting US President stole a slogan works hard every day to keep his little town in good repair. Bob and his crew of anthropomorphic construction equipment (Lofty the crane, Muck the frontloader, Dizzy the cement mixer, Scoop the backhoe and Rolly the steamroller) build things, fix things, and generally learn about teamwork and hard work.
Why you should show it to your kids: The characters are well designed, as they should be since the show is basically an advertisement for a line of toys. Bob has a can-do attitude that borders on derangement, but he models a good work ethic, and that’s a good thing. Any show that instills in our youth the value of a good general contractor gets a thumbs up from this commentator. You can’t all be astronauts.
Why you might give it a miss: Depending on how recent the episode your watching is, the voice acting might be grating (When Greg Proops joined the cast as Bob, all of the other actors spontaneously became British). Most of the episodes are pretty similar: Bob starts working on something, and he gets called to work on something else, then he goes back to finish what he started earlier. Occasionally, Spud (a living scarecrow) tries to help and messes something up, causing Travis (a tractor) to have a panic attack and giving Bob and the crew more work. This happens once every 1.25 episodes.

So there you have it. A guide to children's programming.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have more research to do for the followup to this post. That national average for time spent in front of the TV isn't going to bring itself up.