There was a time, touchingly, when I believed I was not going to allow my young child to watch television. Today my two-year-old can name so many different animated characters that she's either sneaking out at night to watch bootleg videos at some kind of toddler speakeasy, or the educational games her nursery school touts are just a front for a daily program of endless cartoons and puffy synthetic snacks.
In any case, apart from a few crossover stars like Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants, television shows that are major cultural reference points in our house are virtual unknowns on the adult scene. For the benefit of those without children or cable, here's a quick primer on what the kids are watching these days. (Kids under three years old, I mean. Not teenage 'kids'. I genuinely have no idea what they're doing. Just planking and sexting each other, as best I can tell.)
Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: No longer a talent farm for the future subjects of "Where Are They Now?" specials and Dr. Drew recovery shows, MMC is now a digitally-animated cartoon. The jerky characters and endlessly repeating backgrounds that marked the celluloid animated cartoons of our childhood are largely a thing of the past. Digital animation is cheaper, and it shows. Each episode of the 'Club concludes with the "Hot Dog Dance," where Mickey and company phone in uninspiring performances that would have made 12-year-old Justin Timberlake sad. It's doubly offensive because the song sticks in your head for days. Hot diggity dog, indeed.
Bananas in Pajamas: This is a show about a pair of talking bananas who live together (Brothers? Friends? Gay couple?) and wear matching striped pajamas. The reason for the pajamas is unclear. Maybe they suffer for seasonal affective disorder and have struggled since moving from Ecuador. They also run a school in their backyard. Being homeschooled by two pajama-clad drifters is either the premise of a quirky blogger memoir or the "Family and early childhood" section of a serial killer's Wikipedia page.
Dinosaur Train: This is a show about anthropomorphic dinosaurs travelling by train through what looks like the American Southwest. The action centers on a Pteradon family and Buddy, their adopted T-Rex brother. It is only a matter of time before the Very Special Episode of "Dinosaur Train" when Buddy hits puberty and someone sits him down to talk about his burgeoning desires to eat his family. Like "Jungle Junction," "The Chuggingtons" and other transport-centric series, this show has always struck me as an extended commercial for expensive vehicle and action figure toy sets.
Max and Ruby: Max and Ruby are a pair of 3- and 7-year-old rabbit siblings who live alone, for reasons never satisfactorily explained. Apron-clad Ruby is raising Max by herself. Parents are never mentioned. They have a grandmother they call every once in a while, but she never comes over and frankly seems like she could use a visit from Adult Protective Services herself. At first I wondered if this was a situation like Michael and Bug in "The Wire" - where is their test chemical-addicted mother? Is there a history of abuse here? What unspeakable things is this girl doing to keep the scraps of her family alive? Then I remembered this French film where a mom dies at home, and to avoid being taken away by social services her young children bury her in the backyard and run the house with the help of complicit school friends. I now get very nervous every time Ruby opens a closet door. "Max and Ruby" ran during a very dark week this winter when we were all home with the flu.
Doc McStuffins: Doc McStuffins is a little girl who runs a pro bono clinic for broken toys out of her playhouse. No major complaints about "Doc McStuffins," except maybe that it gives children unrealistic expectations of how cheerful people should be about fixing the stuff they break.
In the Night Garden: "In the Night Garden" is a live-action children's show made by the same production team behind the Teletubbies. In terms of narrative clarity, "Teletubbies" is The Old Man and the Sea next to "In the Night Garden." I don't have words to describe how weird "In the Night Garden" is. None of its characters make sense - not the Tombliboos, a baby-like trio under constant attack from a giant bouncing ball, nor Makka Pakka, a stone-shaped monster with a cleaning fetish who sneaks up on people to wipe their face.
But it's toddler catnip. In the UK, where we live, it's the last program aired before the BBC's children's channel goes dark at 7 p.m. Ours is one of millions of children toddling woozily toward the television at the sound of Sir Derek Jacobi's narration, bewitched by the Tittifers' song. It's so impenetrable to adults that I sometimes worry that it's sending subversive subliminal messages: The system is rotten. Overthrow your parents. Drink all the juice!!! But it calms her down before bedtime, which is reason enough to live with the threat of an eventual Toddler Uprising.
Besides parents of young children, there can be only two kinds of adults who can ever have seen "In the Night Garden": College students who watch it ironically, probably with large amounts of weed and Cheetos; and people on harsher drugs who come across it accidentally while in a fragile state of mind, see the Pinky Ponk coming for them, and cry and cry.