Children’s Television Survival Guide: Big Block Sing Song

You guys, I fucking hate most of the content on Disney Junior. They seem to have stopped carrying my favorite of their shows, Charlie and Lola, and we never seem to be watching when Handy Manny is on. That leaves us watching the incredibly annoying Jake and the Neverland Pirates, whining Sofia the First and her horrible brat of a stepsister, and Ella and her magic hat that bails her out of every situation she and her friends find themselves in. (No, Ella, everything you need is NOT between your ears, because without that hat, you’d be fucked.)

But one bright spot in the disaster that is Disney Junior is Big Block Sing Song, which is one of the in-between-show fillers. The first time I saw one, I thought it might be the guys from Flight of the Conchords singing, because it definitely has their flavor, but nope, it’s a couple of Canadian dudes. The songs are all 2 minutes long and each one has a different sound, but they all feature the same style of animation: basic boxy looking characters reminiscent of Yo Gabba Gabba.

One of the things I really like about Big Block Sing Song is the post-modern way it references other music. For example, one of my favorites of their songs is called Brave, and it’s clearly a Queen tribute. Colorful Day is a delightful tango. And Big Foot appears to me as a clear reference to Flight of the Conchord’s Hiphopapotamus vs. Rhymnocerous. But what really makes this series genius is the lyrics. Sad is a particularly awesome example. A unicorn burping up rainbows? Yes please!

I hope Disney Junior will turn Big Block Sing Song into a full series. It really deserves a whole half an hour, not just a couple minutes between shows.

Children’s Television Survival Guide: Zerby Derby

You guys! I finally found another children’s television show that I don’t hate! And it happens to be The Boy’s new favorite show too. Zerby Derby, I heart you so much.

So, here’s the set up: some dudes bought some RC vehicles and put wiggly eyes on them, in an homage to the original Thomas before it was all CGI and Thomas turned into a whiny jerk. Then they gave the cars dorky voices and drove them around a forest and a sand pit and whatever. And they filmed it, and somehow they got the Sprout Channel to buy it. And that’s it, that’s Zerby Derby.

The Boy loves this show because it involves things that go. The Boy LOVES things that go. People told me he would outgrow it and like dinosaurs instead, but nope. Things that go, for almost 7 years now.

I love the show because of the outtakes at the end of each (mercifully short) episode. Like, you guys probably know by now that I like when a show is a little self-aware, like when Nina from The Goodnight Show looks at us like “I know this is dorky, I’m in on the joke.” Well, Zerby Derby totally does that with the outtakes, which are shots of the RC vehicles crashing into each other or falling off things or whatever. The Boy likes that part too, actually.

In summary: try Zerby Derby. It’s 8 minutes of dorkyness, and if you’re a dork like me, you’ll love it.

Children’s Television Survival Guide: The Good Night Show

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post for my Children’s Television Survival Guide, and that’s because there is a lot of really horrible children’s television that no amount of positive attitude or creative interpretation or irony can make palatable. Literally, children’s television is that bad. Especially the junk my kids have been watching lately, most of which has been driven by the tastes of The Boy. But recently I decided that we should go back to basics and start watching the Sprout channel again. Now, that’s dangerous, because they show Caillou. But if you can figure out when that crap is on and avoid watching it during those hours, it’s actually not a horrible line-up. Our favorite time to watch is at the start of The Good Night Show, which is the subject of today’s post.

Basically, the set up of the show is that Nina, the host, is hanging around a tree house in her PJs (don’t worry, they’re tasteful) with a stuffed-animal-puppet named Star, who is, unsurprisingly, shaped like a star. Nina and Star engage in witty banter…OK, not really, they just chat about whatever the topic of the day is, and then introduce the cartoons. Nina also does some “yoga” with some little kids that they call a “Sprout Stretch.” The other night, it was basically doing I’m a Little Teapot but without the singing. And, Nina can speak a little Spanish, so she teaches Star a word in Spanish every day. They do a craft too, but not usually during the stretch I’m watching with the kids.

Maybe I’ve watched Death to Smoochy one too many times, but I feel like Nina’s in on the joke when I watch her. Like, sometimes she’ll look at Star or the camera or whatever, and she just gets this look that says “Yeah, I know how silly this is, I’m talking a puppet.” Like she’s stifling a laugh. I feel like if I met Nina in person a cocktail party, she’d be cool, and not like Uncle Fran. (No seriously, you HAVE to click on that link, it’s so awesomely inappropriate! But make the kids leave the room first. God, I miss Almost Live.)

The Good Night Show was actually one of The Boy’s favorites when he was The Girl’s age, and I think that’s because he was in love with Nina, the host. She’s gorgeous but in a non-threatening way. What I love about Nina is that she’s soothing. Because, it’s bed time. I don’t need Dora screaming at my toddler and winding her all up when it’s time to go to sleep, I need someone calm. The Sprout Stretch is not aerobic exercise, it’s a stretch. She sits calmly on the couch and talks. She smiles a lot but isn’t bouncy. It’s relaxing after a long day to see calm, pleasant Nina on my TV screen.

And now I feel so calm, I need a little nap. Thanks, Nina!

Children’s Television Survival Guide: Charlie and Lola

I’m gonna be honest for a moment: there is very little on the Disney Junior channel that I enjoy. Jake is just as bad as Dora, and don’t even get me started on Sophia the Whiner and her horrible snob of a stepsister who fakes like she’s learned a lesson about friendships after being a bitch for the entire episode. VOMIT. Still, we all know I adore Days of Handy Manny’s Lives, and then there’s my favorite show on that channel, which is the subject of today’s edition of my Children’s Television Survival Guide series: Charlie and Lola.

First off, this show is fucking ADORABLE. Not in a “My Little Pony” or “Care Bears” too-cute-by-half way. I mean it’s adorable the way Mr. Rogers was adorable. The way watching your kids cuddling on the couch while watching this show is adorable. It’s sweet without being cloying. It’s dark chocolate ice cream with unsweetened raspberry purée. It is, in a word, perfectly adorable. If you are so cynical as to find Charlie and Lola to be anything but adorable, then you, my friend, are a grinch and may need a heart transplant.

Charlie is Lola’s older brother, and they are drawn in a scribbly fashion. I’d guess Charlie is about 9 or 10, and Lola appears to be about 5. They speak with English accents, and they share a room and attend the same school, so I would guess Lola is in kindergarten, since she can’t read yet. Charlie is kind to Lola, and Lola is loving to Charlie, but like real siblings, sometimes they disagree and get frustrated with each other. Unlike Sophia and her bitch of a stepsister, however, their relationship is clearly built on mutual respect, and they often do extremely kind things for each other.

For example, in one episode Charlie organized a pretend camping adventure in their back yard, and although Lola wasn’t enjoying herself that much due to the extremely poor weather, she played along because it was making her brother happy, until she really couldn’t take the rain anymore and expressed her unhappiness to her brother, and then Charlie came up with a way to play camping adventure indoors instead. Did you get that? The older brother actually wanted to include his little sister in his activity, AND she participated even though she wasn’t having fun because she wanted to be with her brother, AND he thought about her feelings and found a way for them both to be happy. And you know what? Neither of them once went tattling to their parents. They worked out their problems themselves based on mutual respect and love. See? Mr. Rogers-Style Adorable.

The other thing I like about the show is, it really is a show about two regular kids. They don’t need some kind of hook, like princesses, or pirates, or monsters who like to hug and have annoying voices, to sell the show. Charlie and Lola are enough, just as they are, to draw us in. No fancy animation, no obvious product tie-ins, just good quality television.

Final selling point, and I know this isn’t a huge deal, but I also love the opening theme song for this show because although it’s a bit catchy, it has no words to get stuck in my head. (Come to think of it, neither does Handy Manny really.) It’s the little things.

The downside of Charlie and Lola is that when it ends, you have to change the channel as quickly as possible or you’ll wind up in the hell that is most of the rest of the lineup on that channel. (Chuggington’s theme song is horrible. I’m just saying.) Perhaps consider watching this one On Demand?

And there you have it, Charlie and Lola: another to add to the list of survivable children’s television. Do you have a show that you think I could make survivable for you? Post in the comments and I’ll see what I can do!

Children’s Television Survival Guide: Mighty Machines

It’s time once again for another post in my continuing Children’s Television Survival guide series! OMG you guys, I am so excited to share this show with you. I can’t believe how many people have never heard of this show–probably because you can only find it on Netflix, I guess? But it’s so fantastic, everyone should be watching it. Without further ado, I give you Mighty Machines.

Mighty Machines was made in Canada, and it features real footage of all different kinds of mechanical devices. We’re talking trains, dump trucks, street sweepers, bulldozers, airplanes, mining equipment, submarines–if it has an engine, they probably made a Mighty Machines episode about it. But it’s not just footage of the machines, because, yawn, that would be dull. It’s that the machines are talking. TALKING. Like, “Hello, my name is Spike, and my job is to drive over the garbage at the dump and crush it down.” This would be one of those times when I desperately wish I wasn’t a square and was into drugs, because imagine how cool that would be if you were high while watching this show. THE MACHINES ARE TALKING, MAN.

My favorite episode is probably the one at the airport, uncreatively titled “At the Airport,” because a big part of the episode is following Sammy the Suitcase (who is actually a duffel bag) along the conveyor belt under the airport and being tossed onto an airplane. Sammy talks too, for some reason, even though he isn’t a machine, but you don’t care about inconsistencies like that, because he and the airplane are TALKING TO EACH OTHER. In a Canadian accent, because it’s filmed in Canada. But when the British Airways plane appears, it has an English accent. And once in a while, a machine will have a Quebecois accent, because it’s Canada.

There are over 30 episodes on Netflix, so the good news is, you don’t have to get bored watching the same 10 episodes over and over. And there’s enough variety of episodes that there is bound to be at least one that appeals to your kid. In fact, there are several on garbage/recycling, several that are set on the water, and three that have to do with airplanes. So even if your kid is obsessed with a particular topic, you can probably find more than one episode on that topic.

True story about this show: one time I had to bring The Boy with me to work because his school was closed, and I brought along a DVD player and a DVD with an episode of Mighty Machines. One of my coworkers came in at lunchtime to say hi to me and The Boy (I love my coworkers, they are super kind to my kids on the rare occasion they are at the office), and The Boy said, “Hey, I’m watching Mighty Machines” and proceeded to explain the show to my coworker. And I swear to god, the two of them sat there watching the whole episode together and commenting on how cool the machines were. Literally, it is so good, it sucked in an adult.

Big kudos to Canada for bringing us this show–it almost makes up for Caillou. Almost.

Children’s Television Survival Guide: Word Girl

It’s time once again for another installment in our Children’s Television Survival Guide! I feel like I need to back up a bit before I start talking about our show for this post and talk for a minute about why I write this series. It’s because there is so, so, sooooooo much crap in the world of children’s television. I mean, a LOT of crap. So, I am focusing on shows that parents can find some way to enjoy, even if it’s just appreciating them on an ironic level. That’s why I haven’t talked about Dora or Caillou. Because I hate those shows. Those shows are irredeemably bad. There is no attitude or perspective that can make them enjoyable. So let’s talk about some shows that you CAN find a way to like.

OK, onto our Survival Guide! This time we’re back to PBS Kids for a show that was probably designed by someone who hangs out at Comicons and also scored very high on the vocabulary section of the SAT. That’s right, it’s Word Girl!

Word Girl is a child super hero who fights battles against villains such as a bratty rich kid whose parents have spoiled her, and Lady Redundant Woman. Word Girl’s superpower is her amazing vocabulary.

The slightly-above-the-heads-of-kids jokes in this show are FANTASTIC. Seriously, the writing on this show is really outstandng. Here’s an exchange she has with a homeschooled kid named Tobey who she has play dates with, who is also a super villain who builds robots that destroy buildings.

Tobey: Oh, you think you’re so smart, don’t you, WordGirl? With your superpowers and your vocabulary skills..and your luminous smile! But you can be beaten, just like everyone else! I’m going to prove I’m smarter than you, and then you’ll be mine! All mine!
WordGirl: What do you mean, I’ll be ‘all yours’?
Tobey: Urmm….nothing!

There are a lot of shows that The Boy simply will not watch, because it’s obvious to him that they are “girl shows.” Sophia the First immediately comes to mind (and that show isn’t so great anyway). But Word Girl is not one of those shows. It has enough super hero stuff in it that despite the lead character being a girl, he does not think of the show as being for girls. Which is awesome, because he gets to see a girl kicking ass and be reminded that girls aren’t just princesses.

Since I am a lawyer, my kids have a pretty big vocabulary for their age. I mean, when Mom is a lawyer, it’s no surprise that you are a very good talker. But even The Boy learns new words from watching Word Girl. It’s words like bobble and glum and stampede. Words that I don’t use in my everyday conversations, so the kids wouldn’t necessarily pick them up on their own. And what’s great about it is, the characters use the words in ways that are really conversational, as well as defining them.

To sum up, this show seriously kicks ass, just like Word Girl does. Kudos, PBS!

Children’s Television Survival Guide: Shaun the Sheep

It’s time once again for another in our Children’s Television Survival Guide. This time, we turn to Netflix and a gem of a show about a schizophrenic farmer and his livestock, called Shaun the Sheep. It’s yet another example of how a show can work both for kids, and for adults.

I’m sure the creators of Shaun the Sheep would like you to believe that their show is all about a bunch of sentient farm animals who spend their time having dance parties, playing soccer, and learning circus tricks. But I know what’s really happening on that farm: the farmer has gone round the bend. He is now only capable of mumbling–he never speaks actual words during any episode–and he frequently has glimpses of his sheep doing all these strange things, but when he does his double-take and comes back to his senses, the sheep are back to being ordinary sheep. Every episode, he has more breaks with reality. We are watching his descent into total madness, and it’s fascinating.

Of course, all the kids see is Shaun and his friends meeting aliens and dressing up as people to go order pizza in the village. They think it’s hilarious. They’re entertained, and we get to watch a brilliant study of a man’s struggle with mental illness.

The best thing about Shaun the Sheep is that it avoids the worst thing about a lot of children’s shows: horribly annoying characters’ voices. No whining like Caillou; no shouting like Dora. Just some bleating and some mumbling.

Another bonus about a show being available on Netflix is that if you’re playing it on a Playstation, it’ll just keep playing episode after episode. Which is handy on those days your kid is home sick and you’re working from home. (Are you being a Judgy McJudgersn and thinking I shouldn’t let my kid watch TV all day when he’s sick, or that I shouldn’t try to work from home when he’s sick because I should be smothering him with my love instead? If so, you really need to go back and review my deprogramming archives. Also, fuck you.)

Shaun the Sheep is produced by the folks who make Wallace and Gromit, and in fact Shaun made his screen debut in a Wallace and Gromit short. And in turn, the lamb from Shaun the Sheep, Timmy, has his own spin-off called Timmy Time. What I am saying is, the creators of this show really like sheep.

Children’s Television Survival Guide: Zoboomafoo

It’s time once again for another installment of our Children’s Television Survival Guide. This time, we’re talking about an oldie but goodie: Zoboomafoo, which features everybody’s favorite children’s television siblings, the Kratt Brothers. And by everybody, I mean every straight woman and gay man in America.

Because, let’s face it, during their Zoboomafoo days, those Kratt Brothers were kinda sexy. Are they goofy? Sure, but it just makes them more endearing that they don’t take themselves too seriousy, doesn’t it? Plus they’re kind to animals, and then there are the episodes where they’re running through the African Savannah in their little shorts. Or when they fall into some mud and I like to imagine it’s chocolate that someone might lick off their face for them…oh wow, I’m sorry, Kratt Brothers, I totally just objectified you, that is wicked uncool of me. My bad, moving on…

Zoboomafoo himself is a hoot and a half–he’s a real lemur who turns into a puppet lemur when you feed him a snack. I feel like him and the Kratt Brothers are totally aware that this show is being seen by kids AND their parents, so when they talk, it’s not like watching Dora where everyone is just screaming at the kids in the room all the damn time. They use the proper names for animals and their anatomy and habitat and behavior. I just feel like I’m not being spoken down to all the time.

My favorite part of the show is when Zoboomofoo starts telling us a story from Zoboo Land. Which is a claymation world of bizarre looking creatures who do strange things. None of Zoboomafoo’s Zoboo Land stories make any sense, but I always have the feeling that if I could just get my hands on some acid, suddenly all the wonders of the Zoboo universe would become clear to me. Also then I might understand the weird claymation clock thing on the wall in Animal Junction.

Of course, the Kratt Brothers got too old to be rolling around in the chocolate, I mean, the mud with Zoboomafoo and a tiger cub and some turtles or whatever. So, now they have that cartoon show instead, so they can stay young and handsome forever. Which is OK and all, I mean, The Boy likes it and they have a hell of a game on the PBS Kids we site. But like most sequels, it just doesn’t live up to the original. I miss Zoboomafoo and his drug-induced Zoboo land.

Post Script: When researching this post, I discovered that someone has actually started a Zoboomofoo Wiki. No lie. God, I love the Internet!

Children’s Television Survival Guide: Handy Manny

It’s time once again for another installment in our Children’s Television Survival Guide. This one has a romance that lasts the test of time, a lunatic middle aged man, and a multi-ethnic cast of dozens. No, I don’t let my kids watch Gone with the Wind, I’m talking about Handy Manny.

Where to begin, this show has SO MUCH AWESOME.

First off, for someone with the sense of humor of a 13 year old boy (and really, who doesn’t? That is to say, who doesn’t who’s stuck with this blog this long?), Handy Manny is fucking AWESOME. I mean, there’s The Tools. (Haha, she said tool.) Two of them are screwdrivers. (Haha, she said screw.)

Then, there’s Mr. Lopart, who runs a candy store that no one is ever in. He’s got all these crackpot inventions and a cat who looks like Ernst Blofeld’s. Did you notice his mother is a big part of his life? Guy is one step away from being Anthony Perkins in Psycho. It’s like the writers took all these awesome 1960’s evil, mentally unstable characters and referenced them all in one weird dude who makes everyone around him uncomfortable, but like, in a non-threatening way. It’s genius.

But what really brings me back to Handy Manny is the romance between Manny and the lovely Kelly, who runs the hardware store. You could cut the sexual tension between those two with a knife. And did you ever notice how Kelly never makes him pay for his supplies? Not in front of the tools, anyway! Snicker. Manny always thanks her and says, “You always have just what we need.” Of course she does, Manny, wink wink. There’s even one episode where they enter a chili cook off together and when they win, they hug and then quickly step apart awkwardly and blush. Come on Manny, man up and tell the tools they’re getting a new mommy!

I could go on and on about Pat the hammer and his obvious yet tragic traumatic brain injury (his head is the part of the hammer that you hit things with–it was only a matter of time, really); Turner’s soul that is as black as my own; and of course, that hot Eric Estrada-referencing motorcycle that Manny rides around that makes me want to him the theme song from CHiPs. I suppose I should be raving about the show teaching my kids about people of different ethnic backgrounds living side by side, and teamwork, and getting to learn Spanish words without Dora or Diego screaming out of the TV. But really, I would probably watch Handy Manny even if I didn’t have kids. It’s better than Days of Our Lives.

Children’s Television Survival Guide: SuperWhy

It’s time for another installment in our Children’s Television Survival Guide. Now, the last show, Sid the Science Kid, is one of my faves. This next one? Well, let’s just say I enjoy it on an ironic level. And I actually have come to enjoy watching it a lot more since The Boy got old enough to see the flaws in the show that I see, so we can snark about it together.

Without further ado, I bring you SuperWhy.

Let me explain the show for those who haven’t seen it: Wyatt is a kid who lives in a storybook land, and his friends are Red Riding Hood, Princess Pea, and one of the little pigs. Each episode starts out with a problem that never seems like a serious one to me (or The Boy) but is dubbed by Wyatt as a “Super Big Problem.” So Wyatt and his pals transform into super heroes, each with a different literacy-related superpower, and they fly into a book whose story will show them the answer to whatever the “Super Big Problem” is.

So, the upside to SuperWhy: it’s clearly super educational, what with all the spelling and reading and letter identification. It’s also one of those call and response shows–as in the characters ask the audience to talk, wait politely for an answer, and then move forward. Kids of a certain age get really engrossed in that crap, which is handy when I want to pee alone for a few minutes.

But what I really love about this show, is how bad it is. As a friend of mine pointed out, it’s incredibly repetitive–I’m sure it saves them a lot of money that they recycle the same songs on every episode, so they don’t have to record a ton of dialogue. Also, although I’m a defender of complainers generally, the “Super Big Problems” on the show are really, really dumb. The problem on the most recent episode I saw was that Princess Pea and her friend, a spider, couldn’t agree on what game to play. I turned to the boy and said, “Is that a Super Big Problem? Would you take that one to a teacher?” And he cracked up and said “Hahaha no hahahaha!” So I said, “What do you think the answer’s gonna be?” And he said “Take turns.” I said, “Good call. Or, you know, they could play apart.” And he said, “Yes, they could.”

We continued riffing on the dumb stuff the characters were doing throughout the episode. Pig fished some thing out of a pond with a fishing pole; The Boy and I commented that we might have used a fishing net instead, since that would be faster than removing each letter individually. The story they flew into was The Frog Prince, except for most of the episode, there was no talk of kissing, leaving me saying, “Why aren’t they kissing? This story is about her kissing him, not playing a game called ‘wands.'” (Snicker, wands–I kept that one to myself.) And when she did kiss the frog, he turned into such a douchey prince (the Boy said “he’s annoying”) that Princess Pea turned him back into a frog. At one point the frog jumped into a tree and Red Riding Hood went through a shtick about jump being an “ump” word and what are some other “ump” words? Alas, The Boy isn’t quite old enough to know “hump” as verb, only as a noun meaning a small hill, but I was laughing on the inside so much that I had to leave the room for a moment to let it out.

The Boy and I watched as the letters that make up the answer (revealed slowly a la Wheel of Fortune, also an inane show) were collected, and we figured out what letters were left to make up the words “Take Turns.” And I’ll be darned, we guessed the answer correctly! The Boy and I totally high-fived.

I used to think that SuperWhy must have been written by some focus group of education professors and that’s why it sucks. Like, The Boy is 6. If he can see through your plot, seriously, you’ve fucked up in the story department. But I have come to believe that SuperWhy is COMIC GENIUS. I think it’s that bad on purpose. They wrote it so horribly that it’s awesome. Like Howard the Duck, or Bernard’s on Seneca with its RC Cola. I mean, “ump” words? I dream of one day being ale to pull off that kind of humor while still teaching kids about reading.

And that is why I don’t mind watching SuperWhy with my kids. Embrace the craptasticness!