Dora the Explorer: B

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Dora the Explorer is a really, really hard cartoon to grade. Debuting in 2000, it carries a different aesthetic than the more modern shows reviewed previously, and no doubt influenced many of them. Yet it also comes with its share of shortcomings, despite its popularity.

The setup is pretty simple: Dora and her monkey friend Boots have to solve some kind of problem and an animated map jumps out of her also-animated backpack to give three places they have to go through to solve their quest (which could involve saving somebody or merely making sure a party has decorations). They run into some additional puzzles to solve or characters to interact with (almost always having to get past Swiper the Fox, and more on him later) and ultimately triumph through ingenuity and help from the audience. It’s hardly Shakespearean but it’s a replicable structure that both works for children and set a template for later series.

The best thing about the series is that my son Arius adores it. I find the pacing a bit slow and the characters sometimes annoying, but I know I can set Arius in front of an episode and he’ll be happily engrossed (which is great when I need to do something else around the house). As a bilingual show, it was (still is) far ahead of most other programs in terms of inclusion as well as teaching children English and Spanish. And Dora provides a role model of being helpful and doing the right thing, which is laudable.

Dora the Explorer popularized what is now a staple of countless shows from Bubblies Guppies to Ruff Ruff, Tweet and Dave of asking the audience for its help in selecting between two or more things. That Dora and friends came from 15 years ago when the pacing was a little gentler is reflected in the pauses awaiting a response now seem awkwardly long. At the time, doing what almost nobody else was doing, it likely seemed apt.

The show has its points that can really nettle anybody attempting to apply logic to it. Characters undergo changes in demeanor quickly (usually from adversarial to helpful) and with insufficient buildup. And then there is Swiper the Fox, perhaps the most illogical character on TV.

When Dora encounters Swiper on any given episode, he’s usually trying to steal something important to her quest. But wait, if the characters and the audience say, “Swiper, no swiping” enough times, his plans are thwarted … for some completely unclear reason. (Apparently it’s akin to saying “Beetlejuice,” expect with the inverse reaction.) And if Swiper gets hold of the cherished object, he … throws it somewhere. So Swiper isn’t really into swiping things, he’s really into being a jerk. What’s his motivation? WHY? Hang on, I gotta get up and cool down for a bit …

… OK. Beyond that, there’s the visual and sound of a cursor navigating a screen and the beep of pushing a button that mimics an early computer but also seems a strange thing for a children’s show that doesn’t involve computers. It all made more sense once upon a time, but one wonders if such an anachronism will prove somewhat confusing to kids.

But beyond that small point and the inscrutable mystery that is Swiper’s maddening motivation (or lack thereof), Dora the Explorer has held up well over the year and spawned spinoff series including Go Diego Go and Dora and Friends: Into the City, so its relevance is continuous. And, more significantly, it keeps children enthralled by its adventures.

You’ll like it if: You can overlook some incomprehensible characterizations and sometimes-deliberate pacing to appreciate why it’s entering its second generation of young fans.

Grade: B. It’s not near the top of my list, but Arius loves it, which is more important.

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[Everybody] saves Christmas

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The Paw Patrol joining the lengthy list of animated characters who have saved Christmas. (Image courtesy of Nick Jr.)

One of the most popular staples of TV scriptwriting history is the Christmas episode. Most of the best shows on all of TV (by which I mean The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Doctor Who, WKRP in Cincinnati and Arrested Development) have made much of the seasonal merriment — sometimes original stories or often a take on “A Christmas Carol” or other holiday fare. But watch enough preschooler TV and you can’t help but notice a different spin.

Everybody, so it seems, saves Christmas on children’s shows. From the Paw Patrol to Handy Manny, Team Umizoomi to the Tickety Tock crew, Dora’s best friend Diego to Blaze and the Monster Machines, it’s hard to watch toddler TV around the holidays without seeing some animated characters saving Santa Claus in the St. Nick (sorry) of time.

Not that this is a new phenomenon. In one of the most famous contemporary Christmas stories, a reindeer who was different is bullied and ostracized before Santa gives him a chance to save him — even though the bearded icon and everybody else was kind of a jerk to Rudolph for most of the show. (The first time I watched this with Arius, I was honestly shocked to be reminded how awful some of the other characters were.) Even unlikely hits like the Rankin/Bass ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas won with a clever spin involving a mouse catching the Christmas spirit belatedly and saving the holiday. So it’s only natural that this thread continues weaving into seasonal programming.

In the best examples of regular children’s programs, holiday episodes rely on the existing characters and their ingenuity, resourcefulness and resilience to salvage the beloved holiday. Unfortunately, sometimes writers result to some kind of “huh?”-worthy deus ex machina for their denouement. One show (which I’ll leave unnamed to avoid spoilers) has Santa save everything with some magic Christmas dust he’d held onto just in case. That’s, honestly, kind of lame and mortgaging a learning and role-modeling opportunity.

(Disclaimer: I didn’t see the conclusion of many of these shows because my son instead asked me to take part in some other creative activity, generally sitting on the kitchen floor holding a Tigger hand puppet while Arius fed it toy food.)

We can only expect more and more of these specials in the years to come, with children’s television remaining a popular (and potentially lucrative) industry, but let’s hope the results feel like a shiny new toy more than a lump of coal. Love the shows or hate them, here’s hoping for a very merry Christmas (and not just on TV) for you and your family.

Doc McStuffins: A

Doc McStuffins and crew, image courtesy of Leapfrog
Doc McStuffins and crew, image courtesy of Leapfrog

A strong core concept and exceptional writing make Disney Junior’s Doc McStuffins among the best preschool programs. An effective elevator pitch of “little girl and her toys making kids everywhere feel better about going to the doctor” is just part of the story.

The animated episodes feature the little girl, Dottie “Doc” McStuffins who is trusted by friends and family for her ability to fix toys, with a series of toy sidekicks (almost a Disney formula) that come to life when nobody else is around. A toy who is new to the cast or a recurring character has a central problem which Doc solves, with the plot carrying a parallel parable that teaches children an important lesson, or several lessons.

Stuffed toy sidekicks offer a wealth of characters — Hallie the hippo, who serves as a nurse and has a Southern drawl and mannerisms; the clumsy Stuffy the blue dragon; Chilly, a hypochondriac snowman; and Lambie, the lamb who knows that hugs are great medicine. The McStuffins family, including her father and doctor mother and little brother Donny, as well as other friends, figure into some plots but are more like supporting characters.

The show features catchy music from the theme song through the recurring “Time for Your Checkup,” which lets the toy patient know what to expect. The writing overall is top-notch — with the occasional exception of needing to introduce a sidekick’s foibles, such as Stuffy’s clumsiness, which can once in a while feel forced — and aptly addresses the fears and feelings of preschoolers.

“The Super Amazing Ultra Hoppers” is an episode that shows the program’s genius. DiNardo and DiAmbrosio, two of the hopping trio of brothers, can leap really high, but their sibling Delloroto can’t reach their heights. Doc finds that he is a few bricks shorter, which subtly leads to the universal urge to be bigger and grow up, which Doc says Donny sometimes has. Eventually Donny shows up and realizes he forgot to use all the bricks to build Delloroto, and soon the toy is fully built and hopping alongside his brothers. But the lessons of size, self-esteem and self-awareness along the way, which are rolled into the narrative cleverly, come through very effectively.

To perhaps state the obvious, DocMcStuffins — winner of an NAACP Image Award and Peabody Award — deserves added appreciation because the main character is an African-American girl. Would the show have worked with a white male lead, which has dominated the TV landscape forever? Sure. But Doc provides a great role model for a society that needs to foster an inclusive environment for the fields of science and medicine, and lets anybody anywhere start dreaming early about what they can be.

You’ll like it if: You and your little one enjoy smart, funny and well-crafted programs that offer valuable lessons to kids in a very pleasing format.

Grade: A The diagnosis for this popular, award-winning program is excellent.

The Chica Show: D+

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The Chica Show, image via YouTube

The puppetry-live action show The Chica Show is among the most underwhelming offerings on PBS Kids and Sprout, which makes the appearances of its title character across programming somewhat surprising. Which is about the only surprisingly thing in this story.

The Chica Show stars a young chicken puppet, her parents Mr. C and Mrs. C and a human named Kelly running a costume shop called the Costume Coop. A kids’ show in a costume shop should offer a lot of promise, yet the shows generally lumber through without much fun. Since Chica’s vocalization consists of what sounds like a squeaky toy and the other main characters are puppets, Kelly has to carry the whole load here and isn’t really an interesting enough character to make it compelling. As translator and actor, she’s mainly asked to overact and handle poorly written dialogue. (You get the feeling in storyline that the chicken family gets all the money and credit on the shop name and she does all the work … which is reminiscent of any number of jobs one can work as a teenager, but I digress …)

Episodes tend to involve a family coming into the shop looking for a costume and some minor action or misadventure that ends in finding the requested costume. Then the shop closes for the day and Kelly and Chica have a short animated story with Bunji the rabbit and Stitches the rag doll that often relates to the earlier scene.

If this all sounds a bit weird, well, that’s what it is, but not even an interesting weird like Lazy TownIt’s predictable, but not in a good way in that it’s not particularly funny or interesting.

Yet Chica also gets a lot of screen time outside of her show. She appears between segments of Sprout’s morning Sunny Side Up show and especially a recurring happy birthday segment. Perhaps the idea of having a voice made by a squeeze toy obviates the need for a high-paid actor or something. But that Chica is generally more appealing in these lightly scripted or ad-libbed segments draws attention to the deficient writing and plotting of The Chica Show.

Despite Chica’s potential appeal as a squeaking chicken puppet, Arius wasn’t particularly interested in the show. A one-note character and aimless plot couldn’t keep his attention, and I couldn’t find anything particularly educational or of other value to make him want to stay tuned.

You’ll like it if: Your little one finds Chica’s antics entertaining, or if either of you enjoy listening to a squeaky toy on your TV.

Grade: D+ The set-up has potential, but a lack of engaging characters, interesting narratives or educational value make this worth skipping.

Fresh Beat Band of Spies: C

Image courtesy of TV Insider
Image courtesy of TV Insider

When we first saw the promos for Fresh Beat Band of Spies, the first thought was: “Whoa! This has the whiff of possibility of one of the most craptacular series ever!” For good or ill, the series instead is incredibly middling.

If you didn’t know in advance (and I can’t fault you for it), the Fresh Beat Band is one of those groups probably put together by a casting company that seems like they play their instruments minimally at best in a live-action Nickelodeon TV series I can’t bring myself to watch. The network commissioned an animated series where the four photogenic bandmates Kiki, Marina, Twist and Shout are joined by a chimp named Bo Monkey, who as Twist’s sidekick creates a slapstick pairing cribbed from Shaggy and Scooby Doo, without the psychotropic subtext.

On the plus side, it’s harmless mystery-solving fun that occasionally provides genuine laugh-out-loud moments in wordplay or slapstick, the central premise emphasizes teamwork and some subtle pop-culture references are pretty clever.

On the flip side, for a show revolving around musicians, the music is quite subpar. As referenced earlier, it feels a bit like a Scooby Doo retread right down to the two men/two women/one animal team solving mysteries. The islands of good writing sometimes disappear behind waves of inanity.

The episode “Mummy Mayhem” presents a fairly typical tale. The Fresh Beats are playing a museum opening for a powerful Egyptian artifact also attended by explorer Arizona Jones, who is Shout’s childhood idol. A duplicitous lemur steals the artifact which eventually turns loose an army of ancient mummies. They’re generally harmless mummies, seemingly more interested in sightseeing than mayhem, but it’s up to the Fresh Beats to return them to their slumber, which they do through a lame cover of the Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian.” If this sounds strange, well, you get the general idea.

You’ll like it if: For some reason you and/or you child are Fresh Beat fans, always wanted to see a show roughly modeled on Scooby Doo or find the entertaining bits worth waiting for.

Grade: C It could have been much more dreadful, but it certainly could have been better.

Thomas and Friends: B

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Thomas the Tank Engine. Image courtesy of Sprout Online.

It’s hard to separate the show Thomas and Friends from the marketing juggernaut that has emerged from this British animated show. Thomas merchandising would probably get an A+ — Arius is one of many, many kids who love all the train things — but the show itself has strengths and weaknesses. (And rating Shining Time Station, which used Thomas and Friends stories in its program, is a whole nuther animal.)

Produced by Britain’s ITV network and airing on PBS Kids and Sprout in the States, Thomas and Friends concerns a multitude of trains and railcars doing various jobs on the island of Sodor under the direction of Sir Topham Hatt (aka the Fat Conductor). Much of the time the protagonist is Thomas the Tank Engine, although the show has a surprisingly large cast of engines but utilizes its characters reasonably well.

The plot tends to follow a simple structure: A character has an assignment, but something like pride, fear, making assumptions, trying too hard to impress or other traits that commonly challenge the preschool set gets in the way. The character eventually learns the key lesson, gets on the right track and carries out his or her task successfully. It’s not a complicated narrative and the corrective structure can fall variably somewhere between smooth and heavy-handed (better than The Pajanimals anyway). The repetitive plot structure helps youngsters follow the familiar rhythm of each episode, although the predictability represents a challenge to long-term viewing as well. Having a decent number of characters and situations mitigates this concern somewhat.

The iconic nature of the show has led to some entertaining academic analysis, such as those cited in the NPR story “Just How Do Thomas & Friends Drive Sodor’s Economy?” But beyond pondering how the show’s ecosystem could represent any feasible economic model, the line of thought points to the odd way Hatt runs the railroad: The trains do a lot of special errands for his family and other vaguely nepotistic activities. I guess in a world where trains have faces and can talk, nobody questions management practices where employees screw up repeatedly with no threat of reprisal, although that the trains generally find a way to make things right could verify Hatt’s eccentric approach to running the railroad.

“Jitters and Japes” is a fairly representative episode. Hatt asks Thomas to take his mother, Dowager Hatt, on a tour of Misty Island. Thomas is concerned that he’ll do something wrong so he takes the dowager on a slow, conservative trip. But he sees Dowager Hatt become downcast, as does Thomas for disappointing her — until she tells him that what she really wants is for him to go fast and give her a bit of fun. Thomas realizes he should have asked her what she wanted to do instead of assuming he knew, and the two have a marvelous speedy adventure together.

Arius is a fan of all things railroad, with Thomas one of the main attractions. He tends to like the episodes, perhaps because they feature trains but also because the straight-ahead stories and compelling visual style prove engaging.

You’ll like it if: You have a young one who’s into trains and can enjoy the repeated structure of misadventures by misbehaving trains that eventually learn their lessons and get their jobs done.

Grade: B The show’s episodes ride the line between familiar and predictable, but the overall result is a program that runs like clockwork.

The Pajanimals: C-

The Pajanimals. Image courtesy of Sprout Online.
The Pajanimals. Image courtesy of Sprout Online.

The Pajanimals sort off puts itself off on the wrong foot by calling itself Jim Henson’s Pajanimals even though the late legendary and beloved Muppets creator has no physical connection to the show, although it is produced by the Jim Henson Company he founded. This review shall merely refer to the show as The Pajanimals and we shall discuss this subject no more.

The PBS Kids/Sprout show is laudable but limited in its options. The basic scenario is that four young and colorful Muppetesque creatures — Apollo the dog, Squacky the duck, Cowbella the cow and Sweetpea Sue the horse — are getting ready for bed when one or more of them have some kind of minor problem that keeps them from sleeping. They all pile onto one of the beds and magically travel to a place where a friendly character provides a positive, educational and uplifting moment that solves the problem and allows the four friends to regain their harmony and ability to sleep.

In the abstract, it’s a nice concept that should provide for easy-to-absorb lessons on important things such as sharing, playing, fear, impatience, anxiety and other subjects relevant to preschoolers. Unfortunately, the execution makes for some problematic storytelling.

In many episodes, a character suddenly takes on an unlikable aspect or tendency to drive the plot. This is about the only character development that happens at all, and it’s erased by the end of the episode. Thus it’s pretty hard to connect with any characters when about the only time they stand out is when they are acting a way they shouldn’t. The corrective nature of most of these episodes can unfold a bit heavy-handed.

The overall structure also limits the plots and makes them feel somewhat repetitive. I’ve said before that a consistent plot structure is a good thing to provide predictability, but there’s a big difference between a Bubble Guppies where the adventures are wide and empowering in scope and The Pajanimals where the going-to-bed/character-becoming-unlikable/trip-to-magical-land/solution narrative can get tired after a few episodes.

For example, in “Winning Isn’t Everything,” Apollo suddenly becomes hypercompetitive yet manages to lose out on a bunch of games, including while showboating. He gets mad and/or sad, according to a song he sings before bed, and can’t sleep. So the Pajanimals spirit away to visit Coach Whistler, a walrus who lets them play a fun and frenetic tag-like game. Apollo wants to sit out because he doesn’t want to play if he can’t win, but eventually realizes he’s missing out on the fun. Playing with friends, he discovers, is more important than winning and all is well as they return to their bedroom.

Arius enjoys the colorful characters and magic moments, but the tales tend to lose his interest after a while. That it unfolds at an easygoing pace isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it’s meant to be a relaxing show that can work well prior to bedtime — but the plots and sometimes-whiny characters don’t do much to endear themselves as much as they could.

All that said, the music (including the opening theme and closing “La La Lullaby”) is definitely above average and it does have its charming moments that validates its Muppets roots. In the canon of all things Jim Henson, however, it doesn’t measure up to the best work of the master.

You’ll like it if: You can enjoy the visually compelling characters and sets, nice music and good intentions without the potentially off-putting antics of characters and repetitive feel of plotlines in a limited storytelling framework making you weary.

Grade: C- In the world of toddler TV, this is pretty average — but decidedly below average for anything out of the Muppet family.