POSTED ON AUGUST 17, 2011:
Kids' television is outsmarting the adult networks
Television today has few bright spots. Remember "Must See TV"? Cosby, ER, Seinfeld, Cheers -- some of the best stuff on television in a long time. With the proliferation of cable and satellite services, we have so much more to choose from, but I maintain that this has only diluted the talent pool.
Let's face it: most of what's on television these days is crap. Especially on the networks. I know, I know. You're saying, "But Brad, what about [insert your show's name here]? If you think that show is crap, you're stupid."
To that I respond that I didn't say EVERYTHING sucked. There are shows out there that I enjoy. Unless you're one of those "reality" people. Lord help us all.
I have found that most of the best shows are cable shows. Personally, I love Showtime's Dexter, though it is admittedly not for everyone. Also, our household is very much a USA and TNT home. I find that the very best shows are on in the summer.
So with Falling Skies and others finished for the season, and Burn Notice among others wrapping up, I'm settling in for a good long draught while prime time network television comes back with dumbed-down comedies, 13 more variations on the one-hour drama about cops, lawyers and doctors (maybe Law and Order: Suburban Tallahassee or Hospital Bill -- a drama about a lawyer named Bill who works at a hospital), and still more "reality" tomfoolery.
Well, have I got the solution for you: have kids.
Some of the smartest, best television I watch these days consists of shows I never would have ventured near had it not been for my kids.
When my eldest daughter Emma was little, we watched Sesame Street. At first, I was kind of excited knowing she'd grow up watching what I did. For the most part, that was true.
She got to meet Big Bird, Oscar, Grover and the Cookie Monster. But it's different now. Those four are there, although the PC crowd has bullied the Children's Television Workshop into making Cookie Monster crave vegetables before he's allowed to go on his cookie-destroying binges.
In addition to those I remembered, there's Prairie Dawn, Zoey Monster, Telly and a bear with a speech impediment. And Elmo. How I grew to hate Elmo.
Now, before the hate mail comes pouring in about how Elmo is sweet, innocent and fun; and Elmo is good for children; and my daughter loves Elmo; and the Tickle Me Elmo toy is still our prized possession; and Elmo represents the future of our nation; and Elmo teaches kids valuable lessons, let me say this: I didn't say Elmo was a blight on our society. My kids all watched him, and they're all turning out really well.
I know that red puppet is good for kids. But I hated the continual assault that is Elmo's militant refusal to use personal pronouns. The words "I" and "mine" are not in that little monster's vocabulary, and it's maddening. Also, I remain baffled by the inexplicable use of the "Jingle Bells" melody at the end of every Elmo scene when he sings about whatever thing they've been learning about: "Hat hat hat. Hat hat hat. Hat hat hat hat hat." Honestly. I'm not making that up.
But then, I started discovering great stuff in children's television.
First came The Powerpuff Girls. I was originally pleased about this one because it is about three super-powered little girls. Blossom is the leader, and the most even-keeled and well-rounded of the trio. Buttercup is a rough-and-tumble tomboy and would rather fight than do pretty much anything. And Bubbles is kewpie-doll sweet and is the most innocent 5-year-old ever to be on television. This adorable little trio matched my own set of three daughters whose personalities ran nearly perfectly parallel to the Powerpuff girls.
I soon learned, though, that what makes this and other great kids' shows great is the humor aimed at the adults. I'm assuming someone finally said to themselves, "You know, moms and dads are watching these shows with their kids. We should throw them a bone so as not to cause mass suicides."
What hooked me on Powerpuff was an episode called "Meet the Beat-Alls." Patterned after the documentary The Beatles: Love Me Do, this episode follows Mojo Jojo, an evil, talking monkey with a giant brain, and three of his fellow criminals in the City of Townsville as they discover, by accident, that by pooling their evil resources, they are able to defeat the eponymous trio.
The villains decide to unite permanently against their good-hearted nemeses, calling themselves The Beat-Alls. Spectacular success ensues until, predictably, Mojo Jojo meets Moko Jono, a monkey planted by the police, but who Mojo Jojo thinks is a "performance criminal." They fall in love, and eventually, the Beat-Alls drift apart and finally break up. Incidentally, once the quartet chooses its name, almost every line spoken is either a Beatles song title, lyric or other reference.
It's these pop culture references that make these kids' shows tolerable. I remember my parents laughing at things in Bugs Bunny that weren't funny. Now I understand.
But the best one has only been recently introduced to me by my son, Sutton. This has almost become a show he just tolerates while I watch enthusiastically. I'm talking about Phineas and Ferb. I think this might be the most well-though-out show on the air today.
Following the adventures of Phineas Flynn and his British stepbrother Ferb Fletcher, the show chronicles the kids' summer activities as they try to cram as much into their sabbatical as they can before school starts up in the fall.
The boys are geniuses, so they regularly invent translators for animals, teleportation rings, molecular separators (to separate, for instance, shampoo plus conditioner into shampoo and conditioner), or simply create a full-size holographic reproduction of the Eiffel Tower in their backyard. Once, they made a miniature golf course complete with a roller disco area -- mirror ball and everything.
Big sister Candace tries and always fails to bust the boys, as she always gets their oblivious mother out into the backyard too late.
This is funny stuff. But the funniest is what is almost always the B-plot, revolving around the family pet, Perry the platypus, who is actually a secret agent with the government agency OWCA (Organization Without a Cool Acronym), and his efforts to thwart the evil deeds of Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, owner and operator of Doofenshmirtz Evil, Inc.
Between whip-smart pop culture references -- a recent episode's references being as diverse as Georgia O'Keefe and the early Patrick Swayze vehicle Red Dawn -- and the hilariously clever songs that appear in each episode, including a Bollywood musical send-up, this show is the funniest thing on television. Really, its only real competition is from 30 Rock. It's that smart a show.
Do yourself a favor. Have kids. Until you do, you're missing some great television.
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