Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Four TV Shows You Should Watch With Your Kids

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on August 10, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Television viewers have never had it so good. In this age of DVDs, digital cable, and iTunes downloads, there is almost no end to what is available. A few weeks ago, I recommended five recently cancelled TV shows that you should definitely watch. Today I turn my attention to a different kind of programming: four quality shows that you should watch with your kids. Popular culture produced for children doesn’t always have a reputation for quality, and Saturday morning shows even less so. But it isn’t all Hannah Montana or The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. As with adult fare, it is usually simply a question of knowing where to look. Each of these shows is perfect for kids 8-12 years old, but they are all worth checking out, with or without child supervision!

All of the shows I discuss below have finished their runs. Although these series were not necessarily cancelled before their time, they may still have passed unnoticed. Children’s programming is often underappreciated, but each of these shows, in their own unique ways, demonstrates the real strengths of television as a storytelling medium. Even when its target audience can’t legally drive, television continues to create cleverly constructed worlds, with fully-defined characters, intelligent dialogue, and compelling stories.

Avatar: The Last Airbender
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008, Nickelodeon)

Avatar: The Last Airbender is an animated series produced by the American cable channel Nickelodeon. This is a television series which can compete not only with the best of television, but also with the best of children’s literature. Created with a careful eye to sharp characterization and long narrative arcs, this is a cartoon with ambitions far in excess of its network and its genre.

Set in an Asian-influenced fantasy world, Avatar focuses on a handful of young protagonists on a quest which takes them far from home. The animation is stunning (a fusion of anime and Western styles), and the writing is always smart and accessible. The show succeeds in being both funny and thoughtful, and its stories address richly human themes without ever becoming too complicated for its young target audience. In three seasons, series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko built an entire world, populated by morally and narratively complex characters, whose stories are told with an always entertaining mixture of myth, action, humour, romance, and depth. The result is a show that resonated with viewers of all ages.

The program was a genuine phenomenon for Nickelodeon, and the magnitude of its success should not be tainted in any way by the disappointing response to the recent feature film adaptation of the show’s first season. (Look here for my review of The Last Airbender (2010).) The greatest weaknesses of the live-action feature are actually most apparent when compared to the series which inspired it. In contrast to the film, Avatar boasts an original narrative which excels in both breadth and depth. In July 2010, Nickelodeon announced they were planning a sequel series, titled Avatar: The Legend of Korra, set 75 years after the end of the first series. That means you and your family have a few months catch up on Avatar: The Last Airbender before the new series begins to air in 2011!

The Spectacular Spider-Man
The Spectacular Spider-Man (2008-2009, The CW)

The Spectacular Spider-Man is the sixth, most recent, and by far the best animated adaptation of the popular Marvel superhero Spider-Man. (I say this however with one minor qualification: having grown up on the classic late 60s Spider-Man cartoon, strong production values and quality writing will never win out completely over the primal inertial force of nostalgia.)

This incarnation of the famed wall-crawler was the brainchild of writer/producer Greg Weisman (most famous for creating Gargoyles in the mid-90s) and animator Victor Cook. Unlike most previous adaptations, The Spectacular Spider-Man returns Peter Parker to the setting of Stan Lee’s original Spider-Man stories, placing the drama in a Manhattan high school, with a teenaged Peter Parker dealing simultaneously with the combined pressures of crime-fighting and adolescence. The look of this show is inspired by the Sam Raimi’s very successful Spider-Man film trilogy. This combination of the traditional and the contemporary allows the series to be appealing whether you’re a longstanding Spider-Man fan or not.

Its combination of action, humour, and drama places it among the best of the recent TV adaptations of comic book superheroes. Each season is clearly sketched out in advance, and the episodes move ahead like chapters in a single book. Multi-episode arcs and attention even to the most subtle elements of continuity allow future developments to be foreshadowed in dialogue as well as visually. Every character—whether they are a hero, villain, or school mate—is set up with patience and deliberation. For example, the pilot episode introduces us to basically every significant character of the first season, though few reveal themselves in their iconic and recognizable forms.

Of all the shows being discussed today, this was the only one to be cancelled before it could fully realize its vision. The creators were aiming for a 5 season run, but Disney and Marvel pulled the plug on the show after just two seasons, despite the critical and popular success of those early episodes. Currently only Season 1 is currently available on DVD and iTunes, but hopefully Season 2 will be available shortly. Check it out: you will not be disappointed.

Strange Days at Blake Holsey High (aka Black Hole High)
Strange Days at Blake Holsey High (2002-2006, Global/NBC/Discovery Kids)

Strange Days at Blake Holsey High (also known as Black Hole High) is a Canadian youth-oriented science fiction series. Set at the fictional boarding school Blake Holsey High, this live-action show tells the story of five members of the Science Club and their faculty advisor as they investigate the mysterious phenomena that occur on the school’s grounds.

Clearly inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show integrates the drama of high school life with elements of fantasy and science fiction, mixing life lessons with basic scientific principles. Blake Holsey’s version of Sunnydale’s Hellmouth is a recurring vortex under the floor of the science office, which has the unfortunate effect of turning adolescent emotional turmoil into real and visible phenomena (social frustration results in actual invisibility, a failure of mutual empathy turns into a body-switch, alienated children confront teenage versions of their distant parents etc.). The solutions to these problems are invariably a combination of personal growth and scientific research. The show ran for three full years, coming to a very satisfying conclusion with a feature-length special, which was produced in lieu of a fourth season.

Unlike many primetime high school dramas (e.g. Glee, Gossip Girl, 90210), one feature of Saturday morning live-actions show is the casting of genuinely age-appropriate actors to play the young leads. While in some instances, this can no doubt be a significant point of weakness, in the case of Blake Holsey, it is definitely a strength. The show’s penchant for continuity, season-long story arcs, and clever writing makes it stand out among other shows of its kind. The series was shot on location and on film (instead of video, like many of the show’s Disney Channel equivalents), it has the look and feel of a much more mature effort. It is disappointing, and somewhat appalling, that Discovery Kids has yet to release any of Blake Holsey on DVD, but the show continues to make regular appearances on cable.

However you find it, this is the perfect show for the impatient Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan who simply can’t wait to introduce their progeny to Buffy Summers, but feel uncomfortable with the show’s violence and frank sexual situations. (Buffy fans will also enjoy the numerous homages to the show which are sprinkled throughout Blake Holsey’s 3 seasons.) Watch Strange Days at Blake Holsey High with your 8 year-old and they will be well-primed for Buffy by the time they turn fifteen!

Kim Possible
Kim Possible (2002-2007, Disney/ABC)

Kim Possible is an animated series which originally aired on the Disney Channel. It tells the story of a teenaged crime fighter who saves the world on a weekly basis, all the while still struggling with the pressures of high school, cheerleading practice, dating, and two bratty younger brothers. Always at Kim’s side is her best friend, sidekick, and comic foil, Ron Stoppable. The show ran for four seasons, and was the lynchpin of Disney’s Saturday morning programming block on ABC for each of years it was on the air. The show is irrepressibly clever—its writing is sharp and funny, the characters are well-drawn, and the dialogue moves as fast as the action sequences. While it is of necessity as action-oriented show, it is the character-driven humour and situations which invariably make the show most entertaining.

Show creators Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle (still working together on The Penguins of Madagascar, also for Disney) kept a close hand on the show throughout its run. Continuity established in early seasons pays off, sometimes year later, both for drama and for laughs. Bart Simpson hasn’t changed his shirt in 21 years, but Kim Possible lets its characters grow and learn, allowing the relationships between characters, and between the show and its audience, to deepen and evolve.

Like Blake Holsey, this is most definitely a post-Buffy series. At its centre you have a girl hero, preternaturally competent, athletic, brave, and self-motivated but still very much a teenage girl. Kim Possible isn’t two people: head cheerleader by day, superspy by night. There is just Kim: no mask, no superpowers, no secret identity. (A recurring gag has fellow cheerleader and personal rival constantly complain about Kim coming late to practice because of her crime fighting.) To paraphrase the show’s catchy theme song: she’s just your basic average girl, who’s here to save the world, and there’s nothing she can’t do.

All seasons are available on DVD and still play non-stop on the Disney Channel. (And don’t forget to keep an ear out for some of the remarkable voice talent, including Elliott Gould as Ron Stoppable’s father, and the late Ricardo Montalbán as recurring villain, Señor Senior, Sr.)