Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Stockholm syndrome

I suppose it shouldn't come as too much as a surprise, given that I owned several Muppet movies and albums long before I had children, but today I found myself switching to a cd of Backyardigans in the car when the radio got too depressing. And there were no children in the car.

What can I say? A great deal of it was because that was what was in the cd player and I didn't feel like going through the contortions of getting a different disc. But part of it is that, um, I actually like the music. I can guarantee that if the disc had been that wretched Sesame Street album where Elmo sings the Macarena, I would have gladly listened to all six hours of Shoah first. But the Backyardigans use a large variety of musical styles and the lyrics are genuinely clever and funny. I can't say I like the show enough to watch it on my own the way I do the Muppets, but I'm always happy when K wants to watch it because it's cute and funny and while they may periodically learn Valuable Lessons, it's generally free of the painfully obvious morality plays that plagues much of chldren's television programming.

Having watched quite a variety of children's programming in the past couple years, I've found there are two main kinds. The first is the painfully earnest sort that is aimed at children and only at children, which consists of the things that the writers think children find interesting. They're the ones that hold children in unholy thrall while their parents fantasize about opening a vein to get sweet relief. This includes things like Barney, Caillou, Ni Hao Kai Lan (speaking of excruciating morality plays) and Dragon Tales. Dora. Diego. The list goes on and on.

On the other end of the spectrum is shows that while they're intended for children and usually take pains to be developmentally appropriate, the writers are clearly writing the things they find interesting and funny. This is what made the Muppets brilliant, as well as Sesame Street (this is still the case, except for Elmo's World, which careens right back into category 1). These are the shows where you realize you don't mind so much if you get the songs stuck in your head. This is sadly a much shorter list.

Somewhere in the middle is a lot of shows that you find yourself enjoying a little despite yourself, because they're clearly not meant for you, but they're a little funny and the writing is decent. Blue Clues and Wonder Pets fall here (I'm always kind of conflicted about Wonder Pets. The music worms its repetitive way into your head and burrows there like a Ceti eel and a lot of the plot points can be spotted a mile off, but there's a demented sort of humor running underneath and Ming Ming is amusingly snarky for a duckling with an annoying speech impediment).

And then of course there are the shows where the writers have clearly done too many drugs, like Yo Gabba Gabba and Wow Wow Wubbzy. Watching them is kind of like having a fever dream and makes them impossible to categorize, since adults tend to either love or hate them.

A corollary to this is music groups: just like it's not hard to tell the difference between writers writing things they think children will like and writing things that they like, there is a painful difference between a band consisting of people who came together out of a genuine passion for writing and performing music for children, and people cast by executives out to make a buck in the lucrative children's music field. I think of this every time I look into despairing eyes of the Fresh Beat Band attempting to act like it's cool and fun to sing about bananas (why do I allow this on my television? Nick sticks it in front of their On Demand programs and I'm not always alert enough to fast forward).

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