The world needs more kindness, clearly. Thalia Kehoe Rowden reviews Kiri and Lou, a new musical comedy show about kindness and feelings – made for children, but a tonic for adults too.
What if you could make a home-grown kids’ TV show that combined the endearing quirkiness of The Muppets, the deadpan hilarity of Flight of the Conchords, and the emotional education of Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood? Oh, and make it gorgeous, please?
It’s been done. Kiri and Lou is a claymation musical comedy with songs by the original Front Lawn duo, Harry Sinclair and Don McGlashan. It is utterly charming and delightful and you should all go and watch it now, especially if you’re an adult in need of a bit of TLC.
Kiri and Lou live in a prehistoric cut-paper forest with kōwhai, ferns, giant sloths, moa, and kiwi and kākāpō who can still fly. Kiri (Olivia Tennet) is an energetic therapod with lots of big feelings and ideas for fun. Her bestie, Lou (Jemaine Clement), is a dreamy elephantine creature with a very sensitive trunk. The characters are realised with Antony Elworthy’s warm, precise, evocative claymation and will become your best friends after about 40 seconds.
In each five-minute episode Kiri and Lou face the everyday dilemmas of three-to-seven year olds, like accidentally hurting someone’s feelings; being upset at losing a race; trying to be a good sharer; and lacking the patience to wait for your buddy before gobbling up all fruit she’s picked from the Yum Yum Baronie tree.
There’s at least one song in each episode, and often snippets of more. They’re clever, catchy and thoughtful, as you would expect from these master songwriters. Kiri and Lou’s fruit-picking song ‘Yum Yum Baronies’ is a favourite in our house already, along with the close-harmony trio of songbirds passing on wisdom from their mama: ‘Look Before You Poo’.
The show captures the intensity of a small child’s emotions, and the well-meaning kindness most kids naturally show, on a good day. This is where the show is absolute gold for any adults trying to raise children to be kind adults.
It’s not just in online comments sections that adults struggle to be kind. When we’re frustrated by traffic, impatient with customer service, worried about our job security, or just overtired or ill, most of us find it sometimes takes extra moral strength and energy to choose a kind response over a sarcastic or downright mean one.
Kids are often naturally and easily kind when the stakes are low, but everyday interactions with siblings, and children at kindy and elsewhere really put them to the test. Caregivers need to teach, model and encourage kind behaviour dozens of times a day to coach children in making difficult choices – all while sleep-deprived and financially stretched.
All day, every day, we repeat:
‘Gentle hands, please.’
‘Thank you for your kind helping!’
‘Have you got some kind words for your friend?’
‘Let’s think about what a kind choice would be.’
‘You told her what you wanted with such kind words!’
We have these phrases on high rotate because it is so very important to us that our children don’t hit other kids at the playground, don’t become a school bully, don’t punch fatal holes in their teenage peers’ self-esteem. We desperately want to equip them to resist mob rule, misogyny, racism, homophobia, ableism, violence and all the other awfulness they’re going to come across. We want them to make the world a better place.
Kiri and Lou creator Harry Sinclair wants to help us out with this tiring but vital parenting task. “We are trying to make something truly beautiful for kids, which celebrates New Zealandness, and draws the audience into a charming world where kindness rules, an oasis for both parents and children,” he says.
The result is so lovely you might just cry. While they’re having their little adventures, Kiri, Lou, Sorry, Small and their mates all have touching moments of insight, compassion and activism that can inspire our kids – and us – to be our best selves.
As in all the very best kids’ shows, there are plenty of quiet winks at the adults watching, too. You’ll be familiar with the patient sigh you hear from a nana character, Pania (Rima te Wiata), as she referees a squabble:
‘Pania! Lou ate all the yum yum baronies from the tree I found!’
‘Oh, well, let’s find you another tree, shall we?’
‘But I wanted THOSE ones!’
There’s nothing heavy-handed about Kiri and Lou’s morality, it’s just a safe place to think big thoughts.
It’s also terrifically funny. My kids (four and seven years old) and I have taken to reciting scenes as skits in the car and at bedtime, everyone joining in with the best lines. There are some episodes we’ve already watched six times, and we’re not done yet.
There aren’t nearly enough shows like this made for small children, and even fewer with New Zealand voices. Kiri and Lou continues the tradition of high-quality, emotionally intelligent shows for littlies, like Puffin Rock and Sesame Street. It’s a tremendous achievement, and I hope it goes all round the world.
Sinclair says, “What sets it apart, is that without all the hype of your average TV show, children can really settle, focus and engage in the depth of the stories. They can really work things out for themselves. There is no fake excitement or hype. It is simple and subtle and lovely. We just tell stories that connect. We never dumb it down for kids, the emotions are layered and complex, but we distill them simply, and the power of a well-told story does all the work.”
Raising thoughtful, kind children is a tough gig, and adults need all the help they can get. Kiri and Lou is educational TV – for emotional literacy – and we all need more of that.