Thursday, December 11, 2014

PBS Kids shows, ranked

As a parent, the most valuable skill I've been able to teach my son is to tune the channel to PBS by himself. This has saved me a lot of effort. As a result, I've seen far more PBS Kids shows than I ever anticipated. Naturally, I feel compelled to rank the ones I've seen from best to worst.

 1. Peg Plus Cat

Here is a kids' show with great music, legitimately funny jokes, likable characters, and no filler. I'm surprised it made it out of a pitch meeting. In every episode, Peg and her cat solve a problem by using math, but the problems are always hilarious -- pirates who are too scared to go to sleep at a sleepover, penguins who need help training for the Olympics -- and the math isn't laid on too thick. The songs are terrific, and not in an annoying earworm kind of way, with original ones every show. One of the characters is a pig who everybody hates, and who rarely speaks except to sing, opera-style, about how much he loves triangles. Peg Plus Cat rules. I would watch this show even if I didn't have a toddler I needed to hypnotize.

2. Sesame Street

The original and still almost the best. Although nearly all of the original Muppet performers have moved on, the replacements are terrific, and the cast is still the best in kids' TV. Sesame Street teaches important lessons without pandering. It's funny and warm-hearted and still feels like spending time with an old friend. Gripes? A few. I think it relies overmuch on pop culture parodies to keep parents interested (maybe it always did), and the heavy doses of Elmo's World and Abby's Flying Fairy School aren't as satisfying to me as day-to-day life on Sesame Street. Overall this is still a great show.

3. Martha Speaks

Supposedly educational, Martha Speaks begins with a credits sequence in which a bowlful of alphabet soup ends up going into a dog's brain instead of her stomach, granting her the ability to speak English. The bar is very low, folks. But this is a good show nonetheless. The voice acting is a cut above, and there are frequently awesome guest stars like Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It's more about telling stories than about imparting lessons, which is a nice change from the more didactic fare found elsewhere on the schedule. Best of all, on my local affiliate it only airs on weekends, so I don't have to watch it every goddamn day.

4. Curious George

This show has a laugh or two every episode, and it's more pleasing to look at than a lot of PBS Kids shows. But there's one thing I really don't like about it: George never has to face any consequences. People are always putting him in charge of important things, like spaceship launches and holiday decorating, and every single time when he makes a hash of it, people just smile and laugh. Somehow, everything always works out in the end. This is a terrible lesson for kids. I want my son to learn that retribution will be swift and merciless whenever he messes something up. That'll teach him never to try.

5. Dinosaur Train

This is the kind of million-dollar idea you want to kick yourself for not having thought of. Kids like dinosaurs... kids like trains... what if...? This show really isn't bad. The 3D animation is pretty crappy, but there are a lot of good lessons about dinosaurs, and they even take care to point out that not all dinosaurs lived at the same time by having the train travel through a "time tunnel" to different prehistoric periods. That's pretty cool. My son also likes Dr. Scott the Paleontologist, the guy who does live-action interstitials, probably because he looks more like a cartoon character than any of the dinosaurs do.

6. Super Why!

If my son were making the list, this show would be number one with a bullet. Which is appropriate, because I think about bullets a lot while watching this show, which I do about a dozen times a day. I'm all for teaching kids to read, and I think Sebastian really is learning the alphabet from his constant Super Why! binges. The problem with this show is that the super readers all claim to have different powers, but in the end for most of them it just comes down to spelling. Except for Whyatt: his super power is the power to read, and yet he always solves the problem and changes the story by inserting words. That's not reading. That's writing. This would be like having a show about a mathematics superhero who only uses his multiplication powers to figure out how many times one number can be divided into another.

7. Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood

This show is cute and it means well. In every episode, Daniel learns an important lesson about some universal fear or problem for a little kid. He might be afraid that his parents won't come back when they go out, or be afraid to eat a new dish. That's all well and good. But each of these lessons is reinforced several times per episode with a horrible, advertisement-like jingle: "Groooown-ups come back!" "You gotta try new food 'cuz it might taste goooood!" Remember when I praised the songs on Peg Plus Cat for not being earwormy? This is the shit I'm talking about. Those things get their hooks in deep, and they come out at the worst possible time, like in the office bathroom.

Also, all of the adult characters sound like they're on quaaludes.

8. The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That

This show is, first of all, insane. It looks weird, it sounds weird, and the premise -- two kids go on adventures with the Cat in the Hat in which they assume the attributes of certain animals in order to learn more about the natural world -- is somehow very unsettling. Some or all of this may be attributable to Martin Short's bizarre performance as the Cat, which manages to both sound mailed-in and completely unhinged simultaneously. What grinds my gears, though, is the complete perversion of Dr. Seuss's original vision. The cat was supposed to be dangerous. He was a trickster. Here, when he tells the kids that their mothers will not mind at all if they go off with him, it's not a cunning bit of psychological domination. It's true. They ask their mothers, and their mothers don't mind at all. Then, when the kids get in the Thingamawhizzer, what's the first thing they do? They buckle their seat belts. Come on.

9. Thomas and Friends

Thomas and Friends is superficially gentle and inoffensive. It's all about cooperating, being honest, and doing your best job. But there's something troubling lurking beneath the surface. Sir Topham Hatt's insistence that every train in the crew be "really useful" smacks of fascism. What of the engines who are not really useful? Do we sell them for scrap? If another train comes along who is marginally more useful than Thomas, is our brave hero suddenly obsolete? What then? The suggestion that some engines are really useful leads inescapably to the conclusion that others are useless, and therefore disposable. We've seen before where this track leads. Heil, Sir Topham Hatt!

10. Sid the Science Kid

Combine the freakish character designs of Sid and Marty Krofft, the insipid songwriting of Super Why! and Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, add a heaping helping of stultifying stupidity, and you've got Sid the Science Kid, by far the worst show I routinely suffer through on PBS Kids. Everyone on this show is a ghoul. They look creepy and sound brain-damaged. They don't even teach you anything about science. This show makes science seem uncool. Not on my watch, pal! It's Cosmos or bust in this household.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014


In a pre-credits scene in Michael Bay’s directorial debut, Bad Boys, two characters played by Martin Lawrence and Will Smith are arguing inside of a Porsche 911 Turbo. Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) is attempting to eat a combo meal from a fast food restaurant, and is vexed by the lack of any place to put his drink. He spills French fries down between the seats. The car’s owner, Mike Lowrey (Smith), is furious. This is a high-performance machine that Marcus is smearing with grease.

Not without some justification, Marcus gripes about all the things the Porsche doesn’t have. No back seat, no cupholders. What good is a car without those crucial amenities? He observes that it’s just "a shiny dick with two chairs in it," and the men are the balls, "bouncing the fuck along."

We laugh at Marcus’s inability to see the forest for the trees. Of course Mike’s Porsche doesn’t have any of that shit. It’s built for one thing, and one thing only: performance. He’ll never be able to use his car to take the kids to soccer practice or help a buddy move. He’ll only be able to use it to rev the engine and draw stares. It’s a shiny dick with two chairs in it. That’s why he bought it.

This scene is, essentially, Michael Bay’s thesis statement for the rest of his career. It’s obvious whose side he’s on. As the movie continues, Bay’s camera will ogle Mike’s Porsche and all but drool over it. That’s how Bay treats every subject in his lens: cars, women, explosions. Especially explosions. They’re all just shiny dicks on celluloid.

Bay’s critics, who hold him up as the cinematic antichrist, have for the past twenty years been playing the role of Marcus. Why don’t Bay’s films have interesting characters? Why is his editing so slapdash? Why isn’t there anywhere to put my drink?

I have always been confused as to why Bay’s critics are so bothered by what his movies lack. No, you don’t see a Bay movie for characterizations, moral quandaries, or narrative sophistication. But who says that all movies must have those things? It’s like criticizing a rap song for not having enough guitar solos.

I am not attempting to tell you that Michael Bay is a great filmmaker. He isn’t. But he is great at one thing, and one thing only: putting arresting images onscreen. Like the Porsche that only does one thing well, Michael Bay focuses relentlessly on what he cares about and disregards everything else. The man has never composed an ugly shot in his life. Take any still frame from a Bay movie and you will see something gorgeous. Watch the movement of his camera in any shot and you will see a confident, dynamic arranging of visual elements that can be, frankly, dazzling.

Granted, most of these shots are smashed together in ways that may make little or no sense, and certainly do nothing to establish relationships between characters or any kind of human drama. What I’m saying is: who cares? You can watch other movies if you want that stuff.

How many movies do you get to watch that are such sumptuous visual feasts? How many directors can put such care into lighting, color timing, composition, and camera movement for even the most minor things? I am not saying all directors should try to do what Michael Bay does. I am saying that no other directors succeed at it.

Whenever Bay comes out with something slightly different from his norm – something like The Island or Pain and Gain – the consensus is that he’s trying, and failing, to change gears. He isn’t. Both of those movies are still about the visuals. They’re just visuals of slightly different things. (And not even that, really: Pain and Gain slobbers over its male performers bodies’ more than any shot of Megan Fox in Transformers.)

Let’s not confuse the issue. Critics and cinephiles can't stand that Bay’s movies make so much money. His commercial success really bothers them. That’s why they hate him so much.

Now, I’m not one who thinks that the market has spoken, so we’d better shut up. It’s weird to me, too, that there must be so many people in the world who only see one movie a year, and choose to make it a Transformers movie. There are so many better, more entertaining, more thoughtful, and more challenging movies to choose from. By the same token, it’s strange to me that someone who sees a hundred movies a year would refuse to number a Transformers movie among them. If you care about cinema, how could you write this guy off?

Michael Bay is exactly who he wants to be: a shiny dick in a director’s chair. His critics are the balls, bouncing the fuck along, wondering where the cupholders are.