Wednesday! As I said last week, it’s a world gone mad. Real-life work kept me from doing the usual Tuesday Tangents post, and there’s nothing analogous that starts with W, so here we go with metaphors again!
My wife and I have a little guy who turns four on Saturday, and we’re more or less typical Amurrcan videophiles, which means that for the last couple years, I’ve been subjected to a lot of television aimed at very small children. That would also mean I’m almost done with this particular subgenre, except that we have another little guy who recently turned 18 months, so he’s very likely to pick up right where the slightly bigger little guy leaves off. I’m going to be getting songs from Yo Gabba Gabba and the like stuck in my head for most of the rest of my life, probably.
Here are some kids’ shows, and how they’re like the teams of the AL East heading into 2012 (so, no Marlins for once!):
The Red Sox are Word World.
Word World might be my son’s current favorite show, but as an adult, it’s a bit hard to deal with. The premise is, just about everything in the world, including the usual anthropomorphic animal characters, is made up entirely of letters. Pig’s body is the letters P-I-G, and the barn in which he lives is made up of the letters B-A-R-N (like so). If a character “cooks” something, all he or she actually does is find the letters corresponding to the food item, and put them together.
Kind of clever, great for teaching kids about words and the various sounds letters can make. The, um, problem, though, is that in a world in which anything can be made by spelling that thing and there’s an endless supply of letters, there are no actual problems. In order to generate even the faintest hint of tension, characters have to momentarily forget that they can just spell whatever they want to, or forget how to spell the thing they want to spell. It works for its audience, which is of an age that makes them extremely likely to forget simple things and who largely does not know how to spell, but as an adult, as I said, it’s hard to watch.
The Red Sox are a bit hard to follow nowadays, because so many of their problems, like all the ones in Word World, are completely fabricated and ridiculous. Beer and chicken! No heart! Lost drive! And so on. The reality is that this is a really good team, which suffered a truly inexplicable collapse, and which has a particularly large and overzealous media following. So to try to explain the inexplicable and to find something to keep themselves occupied, they invent a bunch of silly crises to move the narrative along. Which is what the creators of the too-perfect Word World world have to do, too.
The Blue Jays are Dinosaur Train.
There are few shows on TV for toddlers that I think are really, truly educational. Most are well-intentioned, and I think many of them “teach” a kid things, in a way, but the things most of them teach are sort of ambient life skills you learn just by watching people do them or say them, over and over and over and over. It’s not often you’ll find a show that really tries to teach these kids facts. Dinosaur Train does, though, and that’s why I love it. As ridiculous as it is to think of a show on which dinosaurs really ride around the prehistoric world on a train talking to each other, the show actually teaches you stuff you probably didn’t know about dinosaurs.
(Side note: there’s a lot of new stuff to know about dinosaurs, since you and I were kids. Did you know that “pterodactyl“ and “brontosaurus” weren’t really things? I learned that from watching this show. Anyway.)
If there’s a problem with it, though, it’s that it’s just in the wrong market. Kids this young don’t really learn facts, typically, which one assumes is why most other shows don’t bother with them. And as unbelievably awesome as the combination of dinosaurs and trains sounds, the novelty wears off after a kid realizes they’re just going from place to place and learning what various species of dinosaur liked to eat and such. After a while, I became a lot more interested in Dinosaur Train than my kid was, which…isn’t ideal. Every kid is different, of course, but my sense is that it’s a show that doesn’t manage to hold most kids’ interest for terribly long. It’s filled with great information, aimed at kids who want more action and aren’t really so ready for information.
I think the Jays have become a really, really clever team under Alex Anthopoulos, and are doing almost everything right. Unfortunately, they’re just in the wrong division. I hope they make a Rays-sized leap and start competing very soon, and I think it’s possible, but that sort of thing is always unlikely, and even if it happens, the window — like the one for a relatively dry show like Dinosaur Train in a toddler’s brain — is a very small one. They’re doing things right, but it might ultimately be a doomed effort. Which is my impression of what Dinosaur Train ultimately is.
The Orioles are Caillou.
A little bit of creative google searching can get you a lot of fun results ripping Caillou, the originally French-Canadian cartoon that somehow lasted for nearly thirteen years despite having no discernible positive qualities. I mean, in terms of educational value (nutrition) and entertainment value (taste), this show is like cotton candy, if cotton candy tasted like actual, unsweetened cotton. The kid is perpetually four years old, yet for some reason has no hair on his enormous round head. He whines and complains all the time, and never really seems to learn anything. I’m pretty well convinced that the only reasons it stayed on the air at all were that (a) kids will watch anything animated; and (b) parents are too weak, lazy or sedated to turn off the TV or change the channel. It’s just fifteen minute bursts of crazy-weird, badly drawn, apparently pointless nonsense.
It’s bewildering that Caillou stayed on the air as long as it did, and at least in a sort of metaphysical, utilitarian way, it’s even more bewildering that the universe has allowed Peter Angelos to remain in charge of the Orioles, one of the only things on the planet that’s an even bigger, uglier mess than the blindingly white and crushingly dull adventures of a weird bald whiny kid. The Orioles are a really poor team, with an owner so controlling and incompetent that they repeatedly failed to convince qualified people to take their general manager spot, one of 30 such high-profile positions in the whole wide world. There are other bad teams out there (the Pirates, the Astros, very likely the Twins), and there are other huge catastrophic messes (the Mets and Dodgers). But only the Orioles combine the two modes of failure effectively enough to be baseball’s Caillou.
The Rays are Sesame Street.
It’s a bit boring and stereotypical, but after more than 40 years, Sesame Street remains, easily, the all-around best show for toddlers on TV. For all the ways in which it’s changed since you and I were growing up, the basic formula for each episode has remained essentially the same for quite a while now. It just works; they’ve found the recipe that keeps kids glued to each episode, tosses in sly pop culture references to keep parents entertained, and actually, effectively (at least by TV standards) helps kids learn things. Really, if not for this competitive capitalist world in which we live, Sesame Street would probably be the only toddler show we ever need. It’s better than all the others, and kids are perfectly happy to watch the same episodes day after day. But I digress.
It’s kind of clicheed and oversimplified now to say anything like that the Rays, too, have “figured out the formula” — the extra 2% and all that, you know — but the one thing I do think is undeniably true is that, like Sesame Street, they’re easily the best-run show around. You might find little things to quibble about with the way they’re managed (and, accordingly, the way they’re effusively praised) — their vaunted scrap-heap bullpen was actually kind of terrible last year, for instance, and they certainly did benefit from a lot of high draft picks. But a lot of other terrible teams have gotten a lot of high draft picks, and none of those other terrible teams have ever more than held their own for four consecutive years among the two highest-revenue teams in the sport. For whatever minor flaws they might have, they’ve pretty conclusively proved by now that they’re the best in the game, just like Sesame Street. Now, similar success in drawing audiences would be nice to see.
The Yankees are Yo Gabba Gabba!
If you’ve never seen what we unaffectionately call YGG (to keep the kid from getting too excited about our mentioning it)…you’re probably a slightly happier and more fulfilled person for it. It’s completely unwatchable for anyone over five. It’s an upsetting blend of nonsensical puppets, human actors who can barely speak and who are given lines that are only barely coherent, and really, really repetitive techno music. Here’s a sample of the lyrical brilliance (video here):
There’s a party in my tummy.
(So yummy. So yummy.)
Now, there’s a party in my tummy.
(So yummy. So yummy, yummy.)
Hey, there’s a party in my tummy.
(So yummy. So yummy.)
Now, there’s a party in my tummy.
(So yummy. So yummy, yummy.)
Yeah. Hear that twice, you’ll never have room for anything else in your head. The thing about it is that, while Sesame Street succeeds in part by catering to the adult audience with little jokes and references, Yo Gabba Gabba!, a bit like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood before it (albeit in a totally different way), takes things in the opposite direction, speaking only to kids. I suppose it might just be me, but I don’t see how anyone not within the show’s target audience can tolerate it for more than a few minutes at a time. The show is so repetitive, so bright-colored, and so poorly presented (by the standards of the TV you’re probably used to), it gives me a terrible headache.
But: it’s great, in that it does exactly what it tries to do. It entertains and even educates the kids, and parents/big siblings/etc. are trusted to fend for themselves and just plain deal with it for half an hour or so. It’s terribly, terribly obnoxious, but I’ve noticed that those repetitive, short lyrical lines have really gotten through to my kid — he’d not only sing the songs and talk about the characters, but he also often actually learned and applied the lessons that those things were supposed to be teaching him. I hate it, but I have to begrudgingly admit that it does just what it sets out to do.
See where I’m headed there? There’s just no end of things I find obnoxious about the Yankees. Every player who joins the team seems to immediately adopt an insufferable personality. The irrationality and sense of entitlement among the bulk of Yankee fans (not all of them, certainly) is simply astounding, easily the hardest to deal with of any team in the league. The media, which of course encourages that sort of behavior, is worse. They have the worst radio announcer in the league, by far. I hate the Yankees, and it’s not a kind of blind, jealous-of-success sort of hate. There are all sorts of good reasons.
Yet, despite (or perhaps in some ways because of) the obnoxiousness, they’re very, very good at what they do. There aren’t a whole lot of things that do a brilliant job of doing exactly what they’re meant to do, but that I overtly despise; Yo Gabba Gabba! and the Yankees are two such things.
I think I might do posts for all the divisions, leading up to the start of spring training. I might even need to do another kids’ TV one, because I’m leaving off Thomas the Tank Engine, my favorite British commie propagandist series.