Sunday, March 8, 2009

What's Happened to Children's Television?

Since Belle has always been a television kid (but also an intense book kid and one of those that's always doing something when the TV is on ... she just likes the background noise, I guess), I've had the interesting opportunity to peruse the latest and the greatest (so to speak) in children's television offerings over the past four years.

Belle's favorites are quite varied. She's recently started to love "Sesame Street", which pretty much speaks for itself (and when she was much younger, she very much enjoyed the late, great "Fraggle Rock", which her lame parents have on video). I mean, how can you go wrong with "Sesame Street"? It's educational, it's funny, it doesn't take itself too seriously, and it has a message that's legit without being preachy. She also randomly ADORES "The Smurfs" (she has a little crush on Hefty Smurf, which is just hysterical)

One of her other new faves is this offering from Disney Channel called "Imagination Movers" about these four guys who live in a warehouse and solve "idea emergencies", usually helping out their chirpy neighbor, Nina, or her boring uncle Knit-Knots (who collects rocks, which is just about one step down from collecting calculators, but I won't go there). Actually, it's not that bad ... the music makes Belle dance, and I was so excited during this one episode where they were trying to figure out which of five unopened boxes had something metal in it, and Belle looked at me and said in a bored voice, "Why don't they use a magnet?"

But for the most part, I don't think the TV shows on today hold a candlestick to what was on when I was a kid. "The Smurfs" was one of my all-time favorites (although Belle has rediscovered it because of On Demand cable, a great invention as far as I'm concerned), as was "He-Man" (when I had my appendix out in second grade, I threw a major tantrum the morning after my surgery because there was no TV in my hospital room--this was not standard operating procedure in 1981--and my poor mother arranged for a TV pretty quickly after that), "Scooby Doo", "Looney Tunes", "The Snorks", "Thundercats", and so on.

There are two major differences, I think, in what was on then and what is on now. The first is that today's shows for children go out of their way to avoid violence at all costs and, when it is approached--with kid gloves--there is always a happy or at least hopeful resolution. It drives me crazy ... what sort of real life are we setting these kids up for?

As a child, I had nightmares about Gargamel giving up on the Smurfs and coming to get me and cut out my eyeballs for a magic potion. I was afraid that the Mystery Machine kids would find some crook wearing a me-mask and wouldn't be able to identify the true villain. And I cringed inside every time Wile E. Coyote held up his pathetic umbrella as yet another rock fell on him. Like fine literature, these stories stayed with me. I can still remember them vividly, many individual episodes from each of those shows. My brother Adam and I used to write stories (and awful songs ... we thought we had a rocking band but it was pretty ridiculous in retrospect) based on the characters from these shows (and movies like the Star Wars and Indiana Jones offerings). Yeah, they scared the shit out of us ... but they also gave us a sense of reality, scary as that sounds. Things are not tied up into a neat little package in real life. They're not. Even as I teach the concept of denouement, I want to yell out to my students, "I'm lying! I'm lying! Don't listen to me!"

The other thing that bothers me about television shows today is the ridiculous attempt to be politically correct. I don't mean that fiction--books, movies, TV shows--shouldn't try to portray reality such as it is (and Beauty and the Beast will always be my favorite Disney movie because it was the first one with a brown-haired protagonist), but there comes a point where it crosses the line into absurdity. I think I'd feel better if so many of the shows--"Dragon Tales" jumps to mind, or "Dora the Explorer"--didn't portray a different culture/language/race in a vacuum. That's just as un-PC as a show featuring all blonde-haired blue-eyed Caucasians. I mean, the Hispanic Max and Emmy (and their Hispanic neighbor Enrique, in later episodes) go to Dragon Land, where the dragon children are taught by a bilingual (in Spanish, naturally) teacher name Quetzel. That's great ... but where are the other children, the ones that aren't Hispanic?

I wish there would be a children's show where people of all different races, cultures, disabilities, whatever are all together. These shows that attempt political correctness are missing children of middle-eastern descent, obese children (although they always have that one wheelchair-bound kid), kids with Down's Syndrome or one arm or mental illness or ...

Sigh. The options are endless, but nobody will say or do anything. Why is this?