When I was young, you didn’t have much choice, educational-television wise. I grew up in a small, rural town, without cable, so we had PBS, a few basic channels, and a few Canadian channels. My children’s programming was mostly Sesame Street, Romper Room, The Electric Company, and a Canadian show called Mr. Dressup. (Just a quick aside – Mr. Dressup was, in retrospect, creepy. He was a man who invited the neighbor child and his dog – Casey, a plastery puppet with no facial articulation, and Finnegan, a floppy puppet dog – to come into his house and dress up in costumes. Said costumes were stored in – wait for it – his “Tickle Trunk.” I could not make these things up if I tried.)
Mr. Dressup and his weird, possibly illegal, habits aside, I learned a lot from these shows, enough that I was able to read already upon entering kindergarten, much to the joy of my teacher, who would install me in front of my class and have me read while she went out in the hall to chat with people. (This, thinking back, might have started my 13-year run of unpopularity.)
Note – this is going to sound like craziness unless you understand that I talk to the television. Listen, I live alone, and the television is my roommate. I know it doesn’t respond. But I have fun snidely commenting on its shenanigans. Watching these shows, I did the same thing. It didn’t go over well. It goes over better when the only audience = my two cats who don’t care what I do as long as treats are dispensed at the accustomed times.
Dora the Explorer: This show is about a girl who lives in the forest. Her sidekick is a talking monkey. But it doesn’t stop there. Everything talks in this forest. Including inanimate objects. And there is a fox (I only know it’s a fox because the Internet told me so, I thought it was a weasel, it LOOKS like a weasel, and weasels are known to be weaselly, wouldn’t that have made more sense, show?) named Swiper who takes things, but they seem to get returned, so that’s not a huge plot point. The thing that irked me was her constant breaking of the fourth wall. She kept turning to the audience and asking us questions. “There’s a hole in my SHOE!” she’d say. (Oh, and she shouts every other word, it seems. Maybe you have to do that, to be heard over the forest noises.) “Do you see any OTHER holes?” Then she’d stare at us with these creepy dead unblinking eyes. There would be a hole in a tree or something, and I guess the correct answer was you saying “Yes, Dora the almighty, there’s also a hole in the tree there,” and after what seemed like the longest pause in the world, an arrow would pop up pointing to whatever she wanted you to notice and she’d say, “In the TREE! YES! GOOD!” My thought was, what if you said, “There’s a hole in my sock” and she said “In the TREE! YES! GOOD!” – wouldn’t that confuse a kid, that the TV seems to be talking to you, but wasn’t answering you correctly, or even referring back to what you’d just said? This might be the cause of the terrible twos. Just a theory.
The episode of Dora that I watched involved holes, and talking about holes ad nauseum (and because I have the mentality of a 13-year-old boy, I thought that was hysterical, and whenever she asked “Can you see my hole?” I would crack up, garnering me major glares from my mother and sighs from my more-tolerant father) and fixing things with a magical machine that fixes holes, and traveling through the forest with other talking animals, all of whom had hole-related issues (don’t we all, forest animals, don’t we all) and confronting the audience with in-your-face hole-related questions every few seconds. Very disconcerting. My nephew loved it, though. Whenever I snarked on it, he would look at me with a confused look, like, “I do not understand your venom, beloved auntie! This is Dora! She is my teacher, nay, my friend! Her backpack and her map talk! Her monkey wears red boots!”
Ni Hao, Kai-Lan: This show is about a Chinese girl who has adventures with animal friends (a tiger, a thing that looked like it was meant to be a rhino with a balloon tied to its trunk, and a monkey) and her grandfather. It seems to be teaching our children Chinese as well as friendship. I saw two episodes. Both involved a naughty monkey named Hoho. In the first episode, Hoho would NOT PAY ATTENTION. People were talking to him and he was all “ooh shiny apples wind a tree look a bird I like grass on my feet.” When Kai-Lan asked me “What can I do to get Hoho to pay attention?” and I said “You can go to the doctor and get him a prescription for ADHD medication,” my parents thought that was an inappropriate response. Well, she opened herself up for the answer. If she didn’t want it, she shouldn’t have asked. In the second episode, Hoho had a temper tantrum because someone took all the yellow paint and banana stickers (they were painting a mural. You know, as you do, with your magical talking animal friends) and so he furiously kicked a tiger named Rintoo who, Rashomon-style, may or may not have been the cause of the paint and sticker pilferage. (See, I was thinking it was Swiper, but no one got on board with this theory.) I was sure we’d get some major action and Rintoo would eat Hoho, but no such luck. We just got a speech about using our words. It was, overall, a disappointment. But Kai-Lan was much less bitchy than Dora, so I was less inclined to stab her with a fork whenever she opened her mouth.
Team Umizoomi: This cartoon was very much like the dreams you have when you are very ill and drink too much codeine cough syrup. There were two cartoon children, rendered in bright colors (Wikipedia says they are Milli and Geo) and Bot, their sidekick robot. They seemed to perhaps be teaching us about math? Or hallucinogenic drugs. It didn’t make a lot of sense. Because in the episode I saw, they went to the grocery store, and this very, very bossy child popped up on Bot’s stomach screen and started screaming about how she was left alone with her toddler brother and they needed to buy him some items so she could make his favorite snack now now now and my comments at this point were, “Why is there a live person on a cartoon robot’s stomach?” and “Why does she get to be such a bitch? RUDE” and “Where are her parents? She can’t be more than 8. That’s kind of the thing you call CPS for, no?” My father at this point tried to explain to me that this was a children’s show, but I don’t think that means logic gets thrown out the window. Sesame Street used to make sense, didn’t it? They were neighbors who lived on a street and they taught you things, and some were monsters, but some were people. Just like in real life!
So the cartoon children and robot had to buy a banana and a carton of yogurt, and the girl was most unhelpful about the yogurt. “Buy the one with the triangle inside the square, that’s his favorite” she said, and I said, “You couldn’t just say, ‘Buy YoBaby Peach’ or something like that? Way to be vague’” and my father told me if I couldn’t behave I would have to leave the room, so I had to quietly watch the rest. Which killed me, because next, the loud girl told them to buy him EIGHT BLUEBERRIES. Eight? Who sells blueberries individually? This does not happen. Now my nephew is going to think that the grocery store sells individual blueberries and it just isn’t true. You are crushing his little dreams!
Oh, and also Milli’s braids doubled as measuring tapes, and Geo had a magic belt. And there was singing.
After this show, it was time for dinner, so we didn’t have to watch anymore television. I was pleased by this, because there’s only so much of this you can take.
I’m going to YouTube some old Electric Company episodes now. I need a palate cleanser.