Hello from North Haven!
I was raised a PBS kid. It was one of three channels that reached us deep in the woods of Vienna, Maine, and it was the one without any commercials. With the exception of the famously racy adaptation of Moll Flanders, anything that aired on PBS was fair game for my sisters and I to watch (not so for NBC and CBS, where we were restricted to The Cosby Show, and later ER and The Simpsons.)
My daughter can now enjoy a full plate of PBS Kids shows any time via their streaming app, which loads a few episodes of each show and updates them periodically via either the actual television or a mobile device. While she has a few favorites, recently she’s been interested in expanding her horizons. And so, since I am being subjected to the deep cuts from the PBS Kids archives, I thought I would share my findings with you, dear readers, so you might be spared some pain, or be introduced to a new show that is reasonably tolerable. I’ll look at factors like race and gender representation, annoyance factor, frequency of new episodes, and how much Penrose liked it.
(Note: We will not be watching Caillou as part of this experiment. I am assured by friends who have taken the fall for me that it is to be avoided at all cost.)
Part 1: The Favorites
Nature Cat – Slightly manic but very informative with celebrity voices. My daughter got hooked on Nature Cat a while ago, and it’s hung on as one of her favorites for almost a year. Starring a cat who dresses like Robin Hood and his dog, mouse and rabbit friends, it includes scientifically rigorous information about environmental systems, straightforward messages about action steps kids can do to protect the environment, and the voices of Kate McKinnon (SNL, Ghostbusters) and Kate Micucci (Garfunkel and Oats, Steven Universe). It can be a little manic and shouty, and the characters aren’t quite cute, but Penrose is definitely connecting the information from the show to her observations in the natural world. Racial representation: N/A, all animal characters; Gender representation: good, 50/50; Annoyance factor: enjoyable to tolerable after repeat viewings; Frequency of new episodes: good, episodes also available on Amazon; Penrose review: <3 <3 <3 <3 <3
Word Girl – Stylish superhero format with truly sticky vocabulary lessons. Penrose and I are new to Word Girl, but it’s quickly become a favorite. We both love superheroes and cartoons, and the vocabulary lessons in each episode fit in without being overbearing or detracting from the story. Pen has been talking about and correctly using the highlighted words from the episodes she’s re-watched. The animation fits the genre of the show, and physical strength and intelligence as portrayed as equally valuable. Racial representation: good; Gender representation: good, female led, 50/50 with supporting characters; Annoyance factor: enjoyable; Frequency of new episodes: good; Penrose review: <3 <3 <3 <3
The Electric Company – Kind of cheesy but sneakily hip update of a classic kids’ show, with great songs and phonics lessons. I watched The Electric Company in its first iteration, although I don’t remember it as well as I remember other ’80s classics like Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow. The new Electric Company features short plot arcs with their talented cast of kids and adults, interspersed with songs, skits and animations highlighting certain phonetic rules (or lack of rules). Celebrity guest spots are still the norm, and Penrose was delighted to see Lin-Manuel Miranda (a favorite because he wrote most of the songs in Moana) singing “Silent E is a Ninja” accompanied by some virtuosic beatboxing. Racial representation: good; Gender representation: ok, in the episodes we saw there were more featured male characters than female; Annoyance factor: enjoyable; Frequency of new episodes: good; Penrose review: <3 <3 <3 <3
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood – At times cloying and but valuable social-emotional learning with well-known characters. As we gradually allowed television shows into Penrose’s life, I initially resisted Daniel. And as we first started watching it, I found the infinite patience of the adults unrealistic, the auto-tuned songs unbearable, and the “ugga-mugga” embarrassing. But as Pen became a fan, and it was requested over and over, I either developed Stockholm syndrome, or saw the light. The parents are shown to have emotions, whether it’s anger over kids not listening to beach rules, or frustration at a kite that won’t lift off. The auto-tune still drives me nuts but the little jingles are a great way to embed transition cues and reminders – I still sing “It’s almost time to stop, so choose one more thing to do” towards the end of a fun bath or outside time that I know it will be difficult for Penrose to stop doing. And the unconditional love expressed by the characters for the viewer is just as important as when Mr. Rogers was doing it back in my youth. Pen asks for it less frequently as she approaches 4-year-old-ness, but the lessons she’s retained continue to be of value. Racial representation: ok, animal and human characters; Gender representation: good; Annoyance factor: annoying (why auto-tune???) but worth it; Frequency of new episodes: good, episodes also available on Amazon; Penrose review: <3 <3 <3
Curious George – Natural science lessons delivered in the spirit of play. Curious George is a well-known figure in children’s literature, and in the Hot Topic t-shirt aisle, as the image of him from one of the books passed out after sniffing glue became a popular ironic shirt choice for the college-aged male, at least during my matriculation. The PBS Kids show avoids any inadvertent drug use, of course, and instead uses the mischievous monkey to use experimentation and play to discover rules about the way the world works, from light refraction to printing presses. Adult and kid characters are depicted with various genders and racial identities, although the use of accents for characters of color is at times questionable. Animal characters also play a large role, and we’re especially fond of Hundley, the OCD dachshund who lives in George and The Man With the Yellow Hat’s apartment building. Racial representation: ok, questionable use of accents at times; Gender representation: Male led, female supporting characters in many episodes; Annoyance factor: tolerable; Frequency of new episodes: ok; Penrose review: <3 <3 <3
Wild Kratts – Animal-focused lessons introduced by the actual Kratt brothers, and expanded on through animated stories featuring over-the-top villains. It blows my mind that PBS Kids went for a show that features two white dudes repeatedly referring to each other as “Bro.” There are characters of color included, who are also the female characters, but they’re not the ones who get to use the “Creature Powers” in most of the episodes, which is another issue I have with the show. However, the information included in the show about animal adaptations and the fragility of most wild species is solid. The show is a spin-off of Kratt’s Creatures, which was a more straight-forward “animals are cool” format, and which I kind of miss. Penrose loves it though, and doesn’t have the same negative associations I do with bros bro-ing down. Racial representation: ok; Gender representation: Male led, female supporting characters in all episodes but they don’t usually get to do the cool stuff; Annoyance factor: annoying due to consistent use of bro; Frequency of new episodes: good; Penrose review <3 <3 <3
Come back soon for Part 2, where we dive a little deeper into the PBS Kids offerings! Love or hate any of these shows? Leave a comment!