Kids’ TV: A Vast Stygian Wasteland

One of the great joys of parenthood, it’s often been said, is the experience of reawakening your own inner child. Another of the great joys is casually flirting with the hot moms at your child’s pre-school, although that’s not something I do, or at least not something I’d admit to in any kind of public forum, my wife being literate and all. So that’s just, you know, hypothetical. Honey.

What I’m talking about is the great fun that can be had hanging around with a three-year-old for several hours with no actual agenda. My boy, Declan, is three, and has the proportionate agility and strength of a crack-addicted howler monkey. But recently, he and I both were felled by a particularly savage cold virus that knocked all the fight out of us for about four days. We spent the bulk of our time curled together on the couch and exploring the fascinating world of children’s television.

Man, things have changed. I spent an enormous and plainly debilitating amount of my early childhood in front of the TV, watching cartoons. This was before there was any real consciousness on the part of parents (or broadcasters) that television intake should be monitored or restricted. And that was fine by me. I loved those cartoons — Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker. The central message appeared to be that the world was a fun, colorful and wacky place, if remarkably violent. A land where dynamite and anvils were cheap and plentiful. Smart-ass rabbits, mischievous ducks, malevolent cats and clearly psychotic coyotes — it was all good.

The live-action Saturday morning options were just as wild. The syndicated Krofft brothers shows were full of man-eating dinosaurs (Land of the Lost), vaguely erotic C-list superheroes (Electrawoman and Dynagirl), and Bigfoot and Wildboy (Bigfoot and Wildboy). It was weird, but at least it was fun.

There were no attempts at educational programming, no instructional content (unless you clicked over to PBS, but everyone knew that crap was for sissies). I realize this is familiar lament, registered by many commentators of my generation. Cartoons were better back in the day; this is self-evident. But frankly, I was unaware of the scope of the crisis. Those four days marooned on the couch with my boy opened my eyes to the bottomless pit of despair that is modern children’s television.

The kids shows today are kind, gentle, well-intentioned, and completely unnerving. Not only is there no violence — at all — there’s barely any conflict. It’s all hugging and sharing and learning.

The worst offender by far is an animated cartoon on PBS — out of Canada, significantly — called Caillou. Calliou is a bald-headed four-year-old who looks and acts like Charlie Brown, albeit oversedated with Ritalin meds. Here, truly, is a show about nothing. Forget Seinfeld. Literally nothing happens in these stories. Caillou just hugs and shares and learns, episode after glacially-paced episode, forever. A typical plotline might go something like this:

KINDLY GRANDMOTHER (V.O.) Caillou was thirsty. He decided he would ask for a glass of milk.

CAILLOU: Mom, can I have a glass of milk?

MOM: Sure, Caillou!

KINDLY GRANDMOTHER (V.O.) And so Caillou drank a glass of milk. He felt much better.

There exists also in the basic cable wasteland of children’s television an unstoppable juggernaut of vanilla programming called Disney Playhouse.Mickey Mouse is here, updated for the digital age with an aesthetically bankrupt style of computer animation that renders the magical world of Disney approximately as fun as a primary color spreadsheet. Also, a half-hour adventure series called Little Einsteins, in which four adorable, gifted-class types explore the superfun realms of, um, classical music and art. Each episode features a venerated composer and painter, so instead of Tweetie Bird morphing into a Mr. Hyde monster and stomping Sylvester, you get a mini-lecture each morning on the delights of Shostakovich and Edvard Munch.

It gets worse. Higglytown Heroes is another ugly piece of computer animation that celebrates the giddy fun of proper citizenship and an honest day’s work. It’s just this side of cultural propaganda, and I’m not kidding. The Soviets used to broadcast this kind of thing back in the day, trying to shore up party sentiment and keep the kids toeing the line. Then there’s this interstitial programming called “Safety Patrol”, in which two adorable little moppets run around writing tickets and busting other kids (and parents) for violations like not wearing a seatbelt, or forgoing sunscreen. Coming up next season: Instructional episodes on how to turn in your parents for recreational drug use.

I dunno, maybe it was all that cough suppressant, but I found the experience completely wretched. There are some bright spots: there’s a British import called Charlie and Lola that’s quite charming. It has stuff like actual jokes and sight gags and entertaining, likeable heroes. You know, something kids might actually like to watch.

I’ll tell what’s funny, though — well, not so much funny as totally predictable. The Cartoon Network regularly runs old classic cartoons like Tom and Jerry, and Declan and I caught an hour of these one afternoon. Naturally, he loved them. They’re kinetic and crazy, with lots of headbonking and yelling and chasing — those activities most appealing to a three-year-old’s sensibilities.

So we’re going old-school, Dec and I. I’ve already ordered some Looney Toones collections on NetFlix, because every kid needs to see these, cartoon violence and all. And if, someday, years down the line, he drops an anvil on my head, well, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.