“TV” was never a bad word in my home when I was young, which is a good thing, because I grew up during the golden age of kid's TV.
It all started with the essentials—Sesame Street, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, The Electric Company, and Romper Room were my favorites.
But it wasn’t long before primarily educational TV was replaced with the purely entertaining kind, and my viewing was no longer limited to shows funded by a grant from the Children’s Television Workshop.
The Muppet Show—brilliant for all ages—was mandatory family viewing, but animation definitely dominated what I watched. G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, and even the movie-turned- toon-turned toyline The Real Ghostbusters were regular features on the screen and in the toy box, as were the various cartoons based on Marvel and DC comic book heroes.
I was also a big Looney Toons fan, as Bugs and the gang were going strong in syndication.
My favorite cartoons of all were probably the various iterations of Scooby Doo and his gang of teenage crime solvers, Mystery Inc. How could you pass up a talking dog with the munchies who hung out with Batman, the Harlem Globetrotters, and Phyllis Diller?!
While I still haven’t actually outgrown my cartoons, I did eventually gravitate toward shows with real people again.
But, because this was (thankfully) before there were whole channels dedicated to Disneyfied tween nonsense, I got to watch primetime shows in syndication—Mork and Mindy, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, The Facts of Life, Different Strokes, The Jeffersons, and even Three’s Company.
It was a feast of future kitsch!
When I outgrew the kindly folks in a neighborhood filled with make-believe and Muppets, I turned to The Dukes of Hazard and The A-Team to be my earliest small-screen action heroes; and Gilligan’s Island gave me my requisite bumbling sidekick. We mustn't forget that mine was the last (maybe the only) generation to experience an MTV that actually played music videos all day. I even remember when Vh1 was the spin-off network for old-people music, rather than a pop-culture nostalgia factory (though I prefer that change in focus).
It’s no wonder I'm such a couch potato today and "essential TV viewing" has made it to the top of my list of parenting priorities!
ALL CHEERS, NO JEERS
I may have jumped the gun just a little bit in my eagerness to share all my geeky passions with Lady Lex. I blame Joss Whedon and my wife. She was far too eager to spend her pregnancy sitting on the couch with me watching the complete runs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel on DVD, and, well, he just created them. Real-life, non-comic book science has suggested that gestating babies become aware of the goings on outside the womb. We haven't revisited either show since Alexa was born, but we fully expect her to have some sort of placenta flashback if she hears either theme songs again.
But the point here is that, even before Lex was born, I was already excitedly exposing her to geek TV, often in lieu of the age-appropriate, baby-friendly stuff.*
[*Note to Alexa's future therapist: My bad.]
Just because geeks are a suspicious and nit-picky lot, I am compelled to acknowledge that, technically, most of Lesky's viewing experience that I'm about to run through here has been movies or older shows that we've watched on DVD. But since the little squirt doesn't know the difference yet, let's just roll with it. It's not TV, it's G.E.E.K.!
1. TRUE GEEK
I could write about how I held Alexa Sky on my lap every Saturday morning to watch the first season of the spectacular Spectacular Spider-Man, or how we've watched (most of) The Incredibles together twice already, and spent a long Sunday breakfast watching the recent DC-animated Wonder Woman.
But the true geek badge of honor on Alexa's viewing list is The Original Star Wars Trilogy. No Jar Jar/Waaaa-nakin crap, for my kid --just Luke, Leia, and a couple of bad ass smugglers rebelling against an evil empire. We've already covered this experience in an earlier column, but it is worth repeating.
The Saturday before the 2009 New York Comic Con, when I played the entire trilogy for Lex, has got to be the single geekiest thing I've done to the poor kid yet, and she made it through unscathed. I was nice enough to not leave her in her high chair in front of the TV for the full 6+ hours of intergalactic rebellion, so there's no guarantee the kid even noticed half of what was happening on the screen, as she ran around the living room playing with toys, chasing the cat, and climbing on furniture. But she clapped for Vader's entrance, laughed at everything the droids did, and perked up whenever the music swelled.
Sounds like a positive impression to me.
2. KID TESTED, HENSON APPROVED
Pretty much anything with the name "Jim Henson" attached to it is going to be a hit with any kid ... unless that kid is a total creep. So, unless your kid is a creep, I highly recommend putting the Muppets into heavy viewing rotation. Of everything I've put on for Alexa, THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER, the second Muppet movie is the one I've played the most. I don't know if she likes it nearly as much as I do, but she doesn't cry when it's on, either. We've also watched the complete first season of The Muppet Show a few times over, and I think actually Alexa prefers the short snappy flow of that to the longer films.
Another Henson creation -- Fraggle Rock -- saved our life back in the summer of 2008, when we got lost on a long road trip and found ourselves 5 hours off course with a baby who had had enough of her car seat. The 6 discs that made up season 1 of the Fraggles' adventures, a mix a sweet-natured plotlines and catchy tunes, kept the kid (and her ready-to-kill parents) calm and collected on the long road to our destination.
And you can't forget the gold standard in Muppet television for toddlers -- Sesame Street!
I loved spending my sunny days where everything was A-ok when I was a youngling, but I was under the impression for the longest time that Sesame Street had lost it's wit around when Mister Hooper died in the 80s, and had since become a vehicle for selling the latest A.I.-Elmo dolls at Christmas. But then one day, on a whim, we happened to catch an episode on TV with Alexa and she loved it. Not only that, but I didn't hate it. It was the same old show I grew up loving, only with a few new characters (who weren't nearly as obnoxious as I thought they'd be). And I was happy to discover that, despite the popular misconception, Cookie Monster is still totally all about cookies -- health consciousness be damned! I could personally do without the 20 minutes of "Elmo's World" tacked onto every hour-long episode, but it's Alexa's favorite part of the show. Something about that baby-talking red furball hits all the right buttons with my girl.
The best part of Sesame Street for parents is the guest stars, who are always very hip, now personalities put into charming and/or embarrassing roles to entertain the kids. Here are two of my recent favorites:
NPH as the shoe fairy.
Tina Fey as a bookaneer.
3. MUSIC IS MY...BABYSITTER
I guess it's not all that surprising that programming with a lot of music, dancing, and colorful set design gets the best reaction from Alexa. The two musicals that are her reigning favorites, however, do surprise me.
First, there's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Maybe I'm just trying to make Lex the wrong kind of geek. I'm all about comics, action, and sci-fi ... but maybe the kid is really a band geek at heart! My kid can do a lot worse for herself than become a rocker, and based on the way she gets giddy listening to this Beatles-by-way-of-Bee Gees oddball musical, that may be her calling.
And then there's Purple Rain (the Vh1 edit). I don't know how the poor girl is going to react the first time she sees the non-TV-edited version of this Prince classic, with a topless Vanity, a few F bombs, and a domestic abuse subplot; but so far, she's just in it for the music. Even more so than Sgt. Pepper, Prince and the Revolution make Alexa go crazy!
When it comes to actual kiddie TV, we try to indulge Alexa's music jones with Jack's Big Music Show, a really delightful, short-running Muppets-and-people program that is now in repeats on Noggin. With one exception, which we'll get to shortly, "Jack's" is Alexa's favorite show.
It's bright colors, catchy songs, and funny character interactions are what good children's programming is all about, and it's a shame there's only a small number of original episodes for us to cycle through.
4. BREAKING IT DOWN, GABBA STYLE
Without question, the #1 show on Alexa's viewing list is Noggin's hip-hop remix of the old Sid and Marty Krofft formula for tripped-out kid-friendly entertainment, Yo Gabba Gabba.
Gabba is two parts costumed kaiju sing-along and one part animation jam, thrown into a blender with the simple aesthetic and no-budget randomness of the Baby Einstein series, only with the volume turned up to 11. It is chaotic and calming at the same time, and watching it wil ensure that you and your kid learn some cool tricks and like to dance. The show is in it's second season now, and still seems to be finding new and bizarre ways to teach our kids everything from how to wash their hands to how to play the theremin.
As DJ Lance Rock would say, it's awesome!
The successes I've listed aside, plenty of early attempts to dive right into geek TV backfired. G.I. Joe: The Movie and Labyrinth bombed, for instance, and I can only get Lex to sit still for 10 minutes during The Daily Show or Attack of the Show (the nerve!). But Plan B -- putting the focus on age-appropriate, but geek-minded shows like Yo Gabba Gabba and Jack's Big Music Show, and on favorites from my own youth like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers have been a hit. (The kid also happens to love watching Rachel Ray every morning, but you'll have to wait for my wife to start a blog to read about that aspect of Lesky's life.)
It all comes down to common sense and good judgment when it comes to TV for tots. You can't just bring up baby with a cable-box babysitter. And while I don’t necessarily worry about my daughter watching too much TV, I definitely recognize the dangers of too much of the wrong kind of TV. And that doesn't just apply to my worrying that she still doesn't like watching cartoons.
I know I’ve crossed the line with her a few times already trying to get her to like what I liked as a (much older) kid, and the last thing I want is for her to rebel against all that is awesome just because I came on too strong too soon. It is so easy to forget that she's still so young -- only 19-months old! -- and it took me years to discover what I really liked to watch. She still hasn't even figured out how to work the remote!
So I'm going to continue to pace myself and keep the programming sensible. I'm not going to sweat that Alexa still won't sit through a full episode of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons or Spectacular Spider-Man, and we're not going to start watching Three's Company until after she's 2, at least!
NEXT TIME: THE MUSEUM OF PLAY!!!
FoG-PoP runs on the first Thursday of the month, but you can follow me on Twitter the rest of the time at @D18Matt. And don’t forget that I’m always looking for more of the best of the comic blogosphere at ComicBlogElite.com.