You know these faces. At the start of last week, this writer didn't. He wishes he'd never learned. (Image: Tina Tiller)

I watched nothing but kids TV for a week and I lost my mind

Sam Brooks wasn’t allowed to watch kids TV as a kid. Now, as a 30 year old man, he watches it for the first time.

My mother’s approach to parenting was unorthodox. I wrote weekly book reports on top of my actual homework, I did maths equations in Roman numerals and I briefly picked up morse code. One of the stranger things about my childhood was that kids television was forbidden in our house. If it was made for children, it was not made for my consumption. Her idea, I think, was that watching kids TV would rot my brain, or at the very least, start it on the path to rot.

What was fully allowed? Television made for adults, no matter how trashy or inappropriate. From about age five, I was watching Absolutely Fabulous and reading along with the published scripts (remember when people did that?). A lot went over my head – I 100% thought they were putting sugar up their noses – but this was still the kind of stuff I was watching when other kids my age were watching Thomas & Friends, Playschool and Disney. While you had the Barney the Dinosaur, I had Patsy Stone.

I’ve never felt the lack of kids TV, but it means there’s a whole part of life that I’ve been very curious about. Also, I’m someone who constantly wants to increase my range of cultural references, and so I want to know exactly why people think of a train with a face so fondly, or whatever makes people want to pay good money – even during a pandemic – to see four dementedly cheery people in primary colours lip-sync to a backing track.

So, in my trademark extra fashion, I decided I would do nothing for one whole week other than try to experience the childhood my mother had kept from me. I would watch nothing but kids TV and, in the interests of completeness, would also embark into the world of kids YouTube. This is the diary I kept over that (work) week.

Spoiler: If this was the childhood my mother stole from me, she can keep it.

Monday

Bluey (TVNZ OnDemand)

My computer crashed four seconds into Bluey, which was one of the top suggestions when I put a call out for shows to watch. It’s as though my computer, used to its usual diet of Vulture and ASOS, was physically rejecting this new experience.

Alas, my computer and I soldiered on. Bluey is a show about an anthropomorphic dog family and before the first scene is over I’m already alarmed. Are they going to talk that way the entire time? Why do these dogs have jobs? Why won’t that dad leave his kids alone? Get a hobby, dad dog!

Octonauts (Netflix)

This one also comes highly recommended, but not by me, after watching it. Why is that cat an octopus? Why does that cat have an eyepatch? What did it do? Are these child octonauts compensated for their labour? I turn it off after one episode, deeply regretting my commitment to this bit.

Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom (Neon)

The animation style horrifies me, as do those English accents in that cadence. That pitch might be comforting for children, but to me it sounds like someone condescendingly explaining the menu back to a waiter at 3am. I turn it off quickly.

Postman Pat (YouTube)

It’s here that I am shown my first YouTube ad – I started a burner account because no way am I wrecking the carefully calibrated algorithm on my YouTube Premium account for this piece – and it’s shocking how tonally and visually similar it is to the show I’m actually watching. If I wasn’t such a sophisticated consumer of media – or, say, a child – I wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the two. Unsettling is an understatement.

Blippi (YouTube)

YouTuber Blippi is someone I’m mostly familiar with because, in a former life, he shat on his friend in an internet video for laughs. And F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in life!

My first question re Blippi is: why does he sound like that? If a chainsaw and an air horn had a child it would sound like Blippi. His voice cuts across the shield of my apathy, and I can still hear his voice in the quiet dark of the night.

I watch three of his videos, including the most viewed one where he plays in a kids playground to teach them about jungle animals. It has 700 million views. I learn nothing about jungle animals, because I’m a 30 year old man and this is not made for me.

The Feijoa Club (TVNZ on Demand)

A breath of fresh air! This locally made series is about a girl who moves from the ‘Big City’ to a small town. She joins a club, they eat feijoas and solve mysteries. Wholesome as hell.

Cocomelon (YouTube)

Look, I draw the line at nursery rhymes. I might be reclaiming my stolen childhood, but some things don’t need to be reclaimed. Bury this in an unmarked grave.

Bear Behaving Badly (BBC via YouTube)

Like many British sitcoms, Bear Behaving Badly looks like it was shot immediately after World War 2, rather than about a decade ago. It doesn’t help that they employ sock puppets, which I thought they stopped using on television around the same time we moved to colour.

Hi-5 (Nine Network via YouTube)

Growing up, this is what I assumed most kids television was: a bunch of skits featuring photogenic humans who can do choreography, hold a note, and recharge the dying light behind their eyes.

Based on what I’ve seen of Hi-5 so far, this is what I would give kids to watch, at least in its original version (the show’s cast has had many refreshes since its debut in 1998). Hi-5 is relatively charming TV, and it features real live people interacting with real, physical objects. The bar is set low here, people.

I’m also fascinated by this song, which could fit in on either of Taylor Swift’s acoustic albums, and is weirdly low-key and haunting for kids TV:

The Wiggles (YouTube)

I don’t think I need to introduce anybody to The Wiggles, or their sexually ambiguous charms. They’re an institution, and while I’d never watched an episode, the strains of ‘Big Red Car’ have still burrowed deep in my subconscious like those earworms from Animorphs.

Watching, I find myself focused on Dorothy the Dinosaur, the Wiggles’ begrudging supporting character. I think of her haunted by being the last of her kind, her face set in a constant, pained grimace, dancing these sad jigs until her prehistoric life gives out. Nothing goes gently in The Wiggles, but especially not Dorothy the Dinosaur.

Afterwards, I go home and finish off When Meat Loves Salt, a 565 page historical fiction novel set during the English Civil War, following a murderous psychopath who falls in love with a fellow soldier, and because he can’t reconcile his sexuality, ends up utterly destroying that soldier. My soul feels so light it could fly.

Tuesday

Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse (Netflix)

Life in the Dreamhouse actually comes highly recommended by an adult friend of mine, Jake. I can see the appeal nearly immediately: it’s basically a sitcom with a one-liner rate that rivals 30 Rock, and the jokes are definitely aimed more at parents, rather than kids. For example, this:

“I brought my own PH-testing kit to ensure the chlorine balance is acceptable for my complicated skin condition.”

That’s literally the joke. I think it’s hilarious, as an eczema-sufferer. Your children likely won’t. That’s their burden, and not mine.

Being a Barbie product, everybody is of course thin, gorgeous, and a doll, but expecting progressive social comment from Barbie™ is like expecting RNZ to cover TikTok news. Not gonna happen.

T-Rex Ranch (YouTube)

I watched one video on this channel – which has 2.07 million subscribers – that was just some dad and his child playing a made-up game where they pulled dinosaur toys out of holes. Watching it felt like watching some sick, funhouse version of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. How do you allow your child to be part of your content production factory? At least Carrie Fisher got to be in Star Wars eventually! What’s in this kid’s future?

Honestly, I expect people/aliens watching this sort of thing in years to come will view it like we view vaudeville now: How did anybody think that this was entertaining?

We Bare Bears (Netflix)

Okay, this is absolutely delightful. It’s maybe aimed at a tad older age group than I expected, although growing up there’s zero chance I would have been allowed to watch it. “You pick up that remote and you change over to Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman and watch Jane Seymour like a good, honest, young homosexual!” is along the lines of what my mother would have said.

Anyway, this is three delightful bears stacked on top of each other who crack jokes and wander around San Francisco. Highly recommended.

Hilda (Netflix)

Hilda is probably my favourite of the shows I’ve seen so far. It’s a Canadian series adapted from the comics of the same name by Luke Pearson, and is gorgeously animated, with a haunting, moody score. The protagonist is a young girl who grew up with her mother in a cabin on the edge of the woods, where they are surrounded by mysterious spirits. There’s some light lesson-learning, and it’s heavy on mood, but I was utterly engrossed by it and will probably return to watch more after this ridiculous stunt is over.

Trollhunters (Netflix)

This is fine! Trollhunters is apparently the best kids show since Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I had no idea was a show intended for kids, given how many adults talk about it. (See also: Star Wars. Grow up, you guys.)

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (Netflix)

Why is that horse so awful to the other horses? Oh yeah, because she’s a horse, and horses are horrible creatures. Do not recommend.

Pregnant Alex is PUSHED DOWNSTAIRS by her EVIL husband!! Minecraft Life of Alex & Steve (YouTube)

The above video was linked to me by a parent coworker as something her children had recently stumbled upon on YouTube. ‘Pregnant Alex’ belongs to a highly specific genre of of Youtube skits and stories based on characters from Minecraft. This sort of fanfiction-style roleplaying used to be restricted to chatrooms and message boards, but now, apparently, it has spread into Minecraft, which is still highly popular amongst kids and adults who haven’t grown up.

What terrifies me is how this looks basically identical to the sort of harmless thing kids would usually watch. If you saw your child watching this with headphones on, you might think it looked a bit weird, but not actual adult content. But it is! This is basically a shitty version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, so Who’s Afraid of Vita Sackville-West, basically (and there’s a joke that three people will understand.)

The difference is that this is really unnerving, and potentially scarring for a developing brain. You don’t want your child, age regardless, to watch eight pixels pushing another eight pixels down the stairs. I feel like that’s a universal thing.

Odd Squad, (Netflix) Tales of Nai-Nai (TVNZ OnDemand, Heihei), Book Hungry Bears (TVNZ OnDemand), The Adventures of Massey Ferguson (NZ on Screen), Kiri & Lou (TVNZ OnDemand)

These (mostly locally made) shows blur together to me – they are all clearly made with love, are gently funny, and do not seem to involve anybody talking directly to the camera. They do not offend me, philosophically or otherwise. We make good kids TV (although the Odd Squad is Canadian, so let’s give it up for the Canucks).

The Magic School Bus (Netflix)

I’m already a little familiar with the Magic School Bus, thanks to the CD-ROM games, and my opinion on it remains unchanged: Ms Frizzle laughs in the face of God, and she is to be feared.

Norris Nuts (YouTube)

The video I watched from this family was titled ‘Letting Our Kids Turn 21 Years Old’. It has a five minute segment where a 14-year-old girl laments not having boobs, and a part of her imagined transformation to “being 21” involves her pretending to have boobs. (Her word choice, not mine, for important clarity.)

If this is not child abuse, then filming this and uploading it is, at the very least, not very good parenting. I’m no expert here, but Jesus Christ and the motorbike he rode in on, do not turn your children into a load-bearing pillar of your content creation enterprise.

Oversimplified (YouTube)

This channel explains historical events using Newgrounds-style animation and scratchy voiceover, though I’m not entirely sure it’s designed for kids. I watched the video that explains the Three Kingdoms era in China, which I know far too much about, and the lack of detail made me feel very superior. I imagine this is what a lot of parents must feel when watching a kids show that teaches a basic concept like ‘sharing’ or ‘not being dicks to the people who raised you’.

After work, I go for a drink with a friend and initially have trouble making conversation without sounding totally demented. I assume this also plagues adults who have to interact with children constantly. I stare into my sauvignon blanc with begrudging empathy.

Wednesday

Beat Bugs (Netflix)

“With songs made famous by the Beatles, five friendly bugs leap on big lessons about the world around them, all from the safety of their own backyard.”

I bet they don’t do ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’, huh? But seriously, this is mostly just white noise. White Noise is, incidentally, also the name of my Beatles cover band. Honestly, give me a kids show based on Yoko Ono’s music! That’ll teach ’em something that’s worth learning!

Phineas & Ferb (Netflix)

I love the mum in this, and feel like the stepbrothers are gaslighting their poor sister. Otherwise, delightful, funny, and smart. Wednesday’s going fine thus far!

The Lion Guard, Timon and Pumbaa, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure (all Disney+)

Only one of these series starts with that priceless Disney+ disclaimer that reminds you, in not so many words, that you should probably watch something that isn’t racist. I’ll let you in on the secret: It’s the one where the characters travel the world.

Disney is as Disney does, though. It’s designed to be watched on repeat. I have little love for it.

Blue’s Clues (YouTube)

The animation gives me such a headache I stop watching. There’s something Lynchian about seeing a three dimensional human interact with a two dimensional dog, and it displeases me.

Cupcake & Dino, Pocoyo, Dragonriders of Berk (all Netflix)

These all have the Netflix sheen of competence. One is about the gig economy, one has Stephen Fry voicing it, one is a sequel series to How to Train Your Dragon. 

Hey Duggee (Neon)

We’re back to that singsong cadence that drills into my brain, but not in a way that would actually, blissfully lobotomise me. This bear tidies up as well as a two dimensional bear can.

Steve and Maggie (YouTube)

A grown man pretending to be on a tractor (which is clearly him holding up a steering wheel while scooting around on an office chair), singing about cucumbers to a magpie hand puppet is just about my breaking point.

Carmen Sandiego (Netflix)

Carmen Sandiego does not need an origin story. She’s a snappy dresser who always wins. 

I finish up Wednesday by having a regular hangout with regular friends, and find myself unable to make any interesting conversation.

Thursday

Peppa Pig (Amazon Prime and Neon)

I can see why kids might like this. It’s simple, it’s silly, and it’s stupid. Adults like The Big Bang Theory for the same reason.

This does, however, remind me of this great video, my only exposure to Peppa Pig up until this point:

Arthur (Amazon Prime)

Holy shit, this theme song (courtesy of Ziggy Marley) is great. Arthur has apparently been running for 25 seasons, making it the second longest animated series of all time behind The Simpsons. The episode I watched featured Mr. Rogers as an aardvark, which is definitely something that didn’t come up in the recent biopic.

Teletubbies (Amazon Prime Video)

If you watched this as a child, I think you should be eligible for fully state-funded therapy. What the hell is this? What is this setting? Why do the costumes look like that, by which I mean, completely unwashed? Why are they so happy about burnt toast and synthetic custard?

Teen Titans Go!, Totally Spies, Steven Universe (all Netflix)

Fine! Inoffensive! Funny. (Actually Totally Spies has a unique gross blend of Islamophobia and sexism, but who in 2020 is watching Totally Spies except me, for a stunt?)

The Suite Life of Zach and Cody (Disney+)

I get through half an episode before stopping – everybody is great here, even Ashley Tisdale, but I just can’t do it. Instead I spend my night watching Supernova, a mediocre indie where Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci play sad old homos. It’s not great, but at least they’re not talking directly to me, or trying to teach me any lessons.

Friday

Vlad and Niki, Gamergirl, Ninja Kids (all YouTube)

I decide that Friday is to be my day where I dive into kids’ YouTube. I regret it immediately. Back in my day we were stuck with whatever was on television. Now, the algorithm is king and ita reign is neverending.

These channels have hundreds of millions of views, and they’re essentially monetised child abuse. You haven’t seen the ugly soul of capitalism laid bare until you’ve seen a literal child, wide grinned and dead-eyed, engage in sponcon. This is a half step away from Judy Garland being given pills to wake her up and then pills to make her go to sleep. The only difference is that here the abuse is right there for everybody to see. It’s gross, and it baffles me that this is entertainment.

‘Sonic the Hedgehog Has a Baby’ (YouTube)

This video is nowhere near as horrible as you think it might be. It’s actually part of a strange genre of video where adults, usually, play out skits over video gameplay (see Pregnant Alex Falls Down et al above). In this case, it’s a skit played out in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, wherein Kirby views Sonic the Hedgehog as his/her/its parent, and Mario makes fun of it. The screen doesn’t move, but the characters move. It is lo-fi, and I cannot imagine any child taking pleasure in it. It has two million views.

Mr. Maker (Netflix)

I hate this man. He exists only to create labour for parents and make them buy crafts their kids will inevitably get bored of. He is a one-man waste machine, and he should be in prison.

Andy’s Dinosaur Adventure (Neon)

Why are kids into dinosaurs? They’re just birds who couldn’t survive the winter. Also, this is basically Jurassic Park without Laura Dern, so a shitty Jurassic Park.

Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood (Netflix)

This is an animated twist on Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood, with the main difference being that the host is not Fred Rogers but an animated tiger called Tiger. The episode I watch repeats the adage ‘You don’t have to twirl like Katarina, you should be yourself” and I find myself nodding along, thinking of the Katarinas in my life, and how I don’t need to twirl like them.

I hate being taught, generally, but I enjoy this show. The songs are nice, the messages are clear and uncontroversial, and while I don’t endorse encouraging children to speak back to a screen, you could do worse than this.

Thomas & Friends (Neon)

Thomas the Tank Engine is a pro-capitalist simp, and is not to be trusted. 

Ryan’s World (YouTube)

For nearly six years, this  YouTube channel has tracked the growth of a child who opens boxes. Ryan’s World has 28.2 million subscribers, 1902 videos and 44, 694, 092, 772 views. To break that down: that’s the equivalent of every human on the planet watching six Ryan’s World videos.

I’m ringing the bell again re: monetised child abuse, but this truly takes the cake. By the time Ryan comes of age, he’ll either be ruling the planet or we’ll all be dead by his hand.

I end my experiments with kids’ YouTube here. I will judge very few parents – OK, maybe Minnie Dean – and I understand the lure of a curated, fairly safe, series of videos for your child to watch while you go about the business of being a human adult. You do you, raise your child, you probably won’t find out if you’ve really messed up until it’s too late anyway!

But maybe still keep them away from Ryan’s World.

Bumble (NZ on Screen)

For my last piece of kids content, I turn to something that I could have feasibly watched as a child (although, in reality, I probably would’ve been too old for this one). New Zealand show Bumble is cute, sweet, and has an understandably retro feel, given it was made in the ’90s. 

There’s a genuine comfort in watching Jason Gunn that I sort of wish I had experienced as a kid, and I can feel it even when he’s underneath a massive bee costume. Patsy Stone is a great reference point, but not necessarily the most comforting presence to a child. And comfort is one of the things that kids TV does so well, along with educating children, keeping them entertained, and sometimes simply keeping them distracted for a certain amount of time (if I’ve learned anything from this experiment, it’s that a lot of the content made for YouTube seems more about filling time than any of the older stuff made for TV). 

Of course I didn’t enjoy most of what I watched. It’s not made for me. I’m Mr. 30, not Mr. 4. 

Would I have enjoyed this stuff when I was a child? Absolutely. But if I had that opportunity, today I probably wouldn’t be the kind of person who watches kids TV for an entire week. Or perhaps I still would’ve been, because at its heart, this genre is all about giving parents extra building blocks for the child-rearing journey. A little bit of education there, a little bit of distraction here, an understanding of stories there. At its best, kids TV is a helping hand – as much for parents as for kids.

Frankly, I just think my mother didn’t want all that noise in her house. And after a week of it? Power to you, mother dearest.




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