Being a babysitter, I tend to end up watching a lot of children’s television programmes. It’s not by my own choice, but the TV seems to be permanently locked on Disney channel almost all the time at almost every house I have ever babysat at. Sometimes the programmes on are tolerable, even a little bit enjoyable. Sometimes they are not. Either way they have caused me to end up with quite an extensive (and fairly useless) amount of knowledge on them. It doesn’t bother me all that much, but the one thing that makes me wonder is when I compare it to the programmes I used to watch when I was little. I might be delusional about a lot of things in my childhood, but that is one part of it I think I remember pretty well. When I compare those programmes to the ones on TV today, I just don’t remember them being so…….strange.
Jungle Junction is a good example of what I mean. The programme follows the daily lives of a group of animals on wheels living in the jungle. There is nothing strange about that, nothing at all. Except that the animals have wheels. Why? Are they ordinary vehicles that were designed to look like animals but somehow obtained sentience? Are they by-products of the Soviet Union’s experiments on animals during the Cold War? No-one knows, seeing as the issue is never addressed in-show. The show’s creators claim that the programme aims to “help young viewers learn literacy skills and to care about the environment”. How they intend to do this I don’t know, seeing as the characters spend most of the time glorifying “zipping” around roads at illegally fast speeds, and the only obvious educational value in it comes from asking children which picture-sign should be put up to denote, say, a river (hint: it’s the one with a river on it). The animal-vehicles themselves all have exaggerated accents ranging from Caribbean and American to something resembling English. Among the main characters are Zooter, a pink pig/scooter (goodness knows what a domesticated pig is doing in the jungle but clearly realism is not the top priority here), Ellyvan, an elephant/van, and Bungo, a creature whose exact species is debatable but might possibly be a rabbit. Did you get the pun in Ellyvan’s name? There’s more where that came from: Taxicrab, Toadhog, and Hippobus, to name a few.
There is even a bull named Dozer, who is also a bulldozer. Still, for all its peculiarities, children seem to enjoy Jungle Junction , and for that I suppose it should be given some credit. Besides, I’m biased, as I suffer from a slight discomfort around sentient vehicles. Cars creeps me out enormously.
However, there is a programme I’m sure I am not alone in finding incredibly weird, insanely energetic, and far too colourful. It is the single bizarre entity we know as LazyTown. I do appreciate what the creators of this programme are attempting to do. Children are not exercising enough and not eating healthily, which LazyTown is making an effort to fix. But I’m not quite sure about the way they’re trying to do it. The plot of an average episode will follow the residents of the contradictorily-named LazyTown, including a pink-haired, dancing girl named Stephanie, leading exceptionally active lives until the antagonist, Robbie Rotten, tries to put a stop to it with his devious schemes. Additionally featuring in each episode is some thinly-veiled preachiness towards a healthy lifestyle (fruits and vegetables are called “sports candy”), Sportacus, a super-hero who seems to be incapable of moving more than 2 metres without performing some type of acrobatic feat and who regularly spends his abundant free time solving minor emergencies throughout the town, and a hoard of puppets which are not mentioned as being so and are portrayed as being no different from – even related to – the humans in town.
Most of Robbie Rotten’s “evil” plots stem from an as-yet-unmentioned motivation (it is implied that he is just a lazy mean person who applies considerable amounts of effort to making people lazy, like him – which he isn’t, thanks to all the activity his schemes require), and normally involve him dressing up in some sort of costume as a disguise. One memorable episode saw him kidnapping and then posing as the incumbent puppet-mayor of LazyTown. I asked the 6-year-old girl I was babysitting why Sportacus and Stephanie were unable to notice that, not only was Mayor Meanswell miraculously now made of flesh and blood instead of fibreglass and rubber, but was also a good few feet taller than he used to be. I don’t think she understood it any more than I did. For fellow babysitters and parents: please join my petition to have whoever decided to schedule LazyTown marathons for 7 o’clock at night fired or otherwise allocated a job with which they can do less harm.
Jungle Junction and LazyTown are not the only strange programmes on Disney right now, either. There is Jake and the Neverland Pirates, in which a group of supposed child “pirates” sail around Neverland on a ship that requires very little controlling until Captain Hook shows up and does something mean and unprovoked but generally harmless, e.g. stealing a small pink box with nothing in it from the main characters. Between adventures, the so-called pirates advocate washing your hands before eating and wearing lifejackets in the lifeboat. The definition of a pirate as “a person who robs or commits illegal violence at sea” has clearly become somewhat twisted. Plus, you might find yourself going a little insane by the third recital of “And I’ve got my pixie dust!”. As if that wasn’t enough already, there is also Special Agent Oso, about a special agent stuffed teddy bear (that’s right) named Oso, because he is “Oh-so special!”. He and his friends work for U.N.I.Q.U.E. (The United Network for the Investigation of Quite Unusual Events), which basically translates as creepy, colourful stuffed animals helping children solve minor problems, along the lines of tying their shoelaces, worldwide through “Three Special Steps”. The programme breaks boundaries in challenging what it means to be “sentient”, “stuffed”, “secret”, and “helpful”. As an example, the steps for getting dressed are something along the lines of 1. Put on a top, 2. Put on trousers or a skirt, 3. Put on shoes and socks.
Of course, strange and often annoying children’s programmes have been around for a long time – they just seem to have become more common in recent times. After all, Barney the purple dinosaur, the crowning jewel of children’s television weirdness, has been around since 1992. He’s been filling children with pure, unadulterated delusion for over 20 years now and he doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. One episode I saw recently with a little girl I was babysitting was of Barney and his friends going to a farm. They went around saying things like “These are cows, they give us milk”, “These are sheep, they give us wool”, and then “These are pigs, aren’t they cute?”. Yes, Barney, the sole purpose those pigs are on that farm is to look adorable and entertain small children visiting. Just don’t explain the ham sandwiches you had earlier.
Thankfully, there are a few children’s TV programmes that give hope to a disillusioned generation. The Hive is an adorable little show about an adorable little bee named Buzzbee and his family, their daily lives and how they deal with varying circumstances, such as a new baby or if you can’t succeed at something. It’s very cute, educational, and sweet. Charlie and Lola is another example, in which Charlie, a young boy, helps his younger sister Lola grow and understand the world. It actually teaches children useful things, like eating vegetables and not cheating at games. It is also realistic, a quality which many kids’ TV shows lack badly. Plus, it is animated in old-fashioned two-dimensional style, which makes a nice change from all the live-action and CGI on most of the time.
It seems that weird and wonderful children’s programmes have been around for as long as most of us can remember, and they will continue long after we should all have stopped watching them. Yet I still dream of a better tomorrow, where children’s television is made with something near sanity, is entertaining, and perhaps even has some useful parts to it. I hope that you will all join me in this dream, of a land without anthropomorphic creature/vehicle hybrids and brainwashing talking dinosaurs. We must hope, and strive towards this future, and perhaps the amount of pain we have to endure daily via television will decrease, even just a little bit. Fingers crossed.