We live in a golden age of television. That’s an article of faith among people who drink deeply from the popular culture. Their point is that the current era, which has produced richly made shows ranging from The Sopranos to The Wire to Justified to Breaking Bad is the result of a confluence of technological and economic conditions that have made TV the ideal medium for long-form storytelling.
There is, however, a corollary for people who don’t have much time for pop culture. These folks are commonly referred to as “parents” and the corollary is this: We live in a golden age for off-loading childcare duties to television.
Don’t judge me. I’m happy to stipulate that TV rots kids’ brains and that happy, inquisitive children should never need a liquid-crystal pacifier. But this isn’t about the kids. It’s about us. And sometimes—especially during a long, soggy winter where it’s cold enough to be miserable, but not cold enough for snow—you can’t send them into the backyard to play for, like, weeks at a time.
They’ve been hitting each other over the head with light sabers in the basement all afternoon and dinner won’t be ready for an hour and you’re fresh out of Xanax and you just have to tell them “Look! Here’s some television! Let’s lop 10 points off your SAT scores so daddy doesn’t call Casey Anthony for a family photo shoot.”
The good news is that kids’ TV is better than ever.
The first part of the equation is technological. For decades, the most pernicious aspect of kids’ TV was the commercials. As a parent, you might not object to the messages G.I. Joe or Jem and the Holograms were beaming onto your children’s retinas. But the commercials were awful. In them, adults were always portrayed as fussy idiots and kids as super-cool, skateboarding hipsters. Think back to the sugar-cereal ads—Lucky Charms and Fruit Loops and Cap’n Crunch—where the typical script involved some smart and knowing 9-year-old humiliating a hapless adult killjoy. Not. Cool.
And the products being hawked in all those commercials were the worst. Not just the sugar cereals, but also sugary “vitamins” and Hot Wheels and silly dolls and thousands of plastic blobs imported from China. Honestly, would any kid, ever, have wanted a Stretch Armstrong without being brainwashed into it by the commercials during Super Friends?
But thanks to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other streaming options such as PBS Kids, your child can now watch thousands of hours of TV without ever seeing a commercial. Our parents would have paid hundreds of dollars for a cable channel that did this. We get it for $8 a month.
Not only that, but your kids can watch whatever episode they want. In the bad old days, you had two, maybe three, channels to choose from and you made do with whatever was on. Now, you go to the streaming portal and not only are there scores of shows, but you get to pick the individual episodes. In the long run, I suspect that teaching children that the world is their on-demand oyster is bad for character formation. But in the short run, it’s excellent for parental sanity. You want to watch the episode where Word Girl saves the bunny for the fourth time in a row? Go for it. Daddy will be in the kitchen with a Schöfferhofer.
And believe it or not, the quality of the shows themselves is pretty good these days, too. Time was, cartoons were either exercises in product placement or cheesy morality plays culminating in a rash of hugging and learning at the 22-minute mark. And they were cheap and ugly, too. (Fun Fact: In He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, the character “Orko” was originally supposed to be named “Gorpo.” The producers changed his name so that by having an “O” on his chest, rather than a “G”, they could reuse animation cells by flipping them over.)
Today’s kids’ shows are, more or less, beautiful to look at. The cost of computer animation has fallen to the point that the median cartoon now looks better than the 1995 cinematic masterpiece Toy Story. And they’ve advanced narratively, too. Today’s kids’ shows can be broken down into roughly four distinct genres:
Educational: These are the PBS kids shows—the ones that try to flatter parents into believing that they’re not off-loading childcare but rather enriching the early scholastic lives of their baby Einsteins. There’s Curious George, Dinosaur Train, Super Why, and a host of others. The hallmark of these shows is that they talk directly to the kids, trying to engage them into figuring out, say, which shape onscreen is a triangle.
Hugging and learning: These are the direct descendants of the shows many of us grew up with. Every episode centers on mild interpersonal conflict and resolves with some character learning an important life lesson. Work hard! Be kind to others! Watch out for Uncle Ned! Thomas the Tank Engine and Paw Patrol fit firmly in this genre. Sofia the First—one of the Disney Princess gateway drugs—is such a throwback that the show’s opening credits sequence is an homage to ‘80s sitcom openings, complete with a peppy theme song and funny highlights from previous episodes.
Straight entertainment designed for kids and their parents: In the ‘90s, Nickelodeon pioneered cartoons such as SpongeBob SquarePants, which smuggled adult-ish humor into shows that were theoretically for kids. Today, there are cartoons so sophisticated that it’s a little shocking kids get anything out of them. For instance, Barbie: Life in the Dream House is a deconstruction and subversion of reality TV, pop culture, and the entire Barbie universe. It’s the bleak, cynical, LOL-nothing-matters of kids’ television.
On the other end of the spectrum is Star Wars: Clone Wars, which is a straight-up military adventure. Characters die. There’s no hugging, except for the joy of comrades surviving an artillery barrage. There’s no learning except about the value of strategic surprise, HUM-INT, and air superiority. It’s the most martial cartoon ever made and, as such, is absolute catnip to boys between the ages of 7 and 12. (And their fathers.)
Brain-rotting visual crack: Make no mistake—not all kids’ shows are admirable and entertaining. Just as the adult golden age of television encompasses both ambitious dramas like Deadwood and soul-deadening reality dreck like Sister Wives, the golden age of kids’ television has both Clone Wars and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.
All of the awfulness of ‘80s cartoons still exists in modern form, though with the virulence amped up by techno music and frenetic editing. If My Little Pony doesn’t give your kid a seizure, prolonged exposure will almost certainly keep her out of Stanford.
That probably sounds bad. But on the other hand, parenting is an infinite series of excruciating trade-offs. And sometimes a half-hour of peace is worth it.