I watch every show on PBS Kids (except Caillou) so you don’t have to: Part 5

Hello from North Haven!

Somehow it’s been a REALLY long time since I last wrote. Let’s see…Penrose turned 4, my entire house got norovirus just in time for opening night of my spring show, and both of our apple trees are in bloom for the first time ever!

I want to wrap up the review posts and back to philosophizing, so here goes. DISCLAIMER: I did not actually get to every single show that isn’t Caillou! But hey, this blog is free, so you get what you pay for, I guess?

Getting the baby cousin on board with reading at an early age! Another thing you can do instead of watching television!

Part 5 will be a jumble, starting with MORE MEH.

Ready, Jet, GO! Family from space lives on earth, brings kids on adventures. The first few episodes I saw of this show left me lukewarm. Sure, there’s some good astronomy and earth science, but the animation is of the bad CGI variety, there’s a weird smarminess to the adult voices, and the songs are kind of embarrassing. BUT, I happened to see an episode featuring an African-American character and her mom discussing how important representation is (regarding an African-American astronaut character in a comic book they both loved), including Sally Ride’s quote “You can’t be what you can’t see,” and I warmed up to it somewhat. Racial representation: Ok; Gender representation: Ok; Annoyance factor: tolerable to annoying; Penrose review: <3 <3 <3

The Ruff Ruffman Show: Mix of animated annoying dog with silent sidekicks and live-action kids using the scientific method to solve problems. I do not like this show. Yes, it does a good job explaining and demonstrating the scientific method, but there is one female character in the animated cast, and she is SILENT. She does not ever speak. Come on. And the scenarios are mostly based around competitiveness, dishonesty, and making terrible choices. So naturally, my kid thinks it’s hilarious. Racial representation: Ok within live action sequences, N/A in animated sequences (all animals); Gender representation: Ok within live action sequences, VERY BAD in animated sequences; Annoyance factor: high; Penrose review: <3 <3 <3

Sesame Street: Revision of the best show of all time misses the point. It kills me to put Sesame Street in my “meh” list. It really does. As I’ve written about before, Sesame Street of the ’70s and ’80s does what we should be doing now, presenting majority minority casts teaching literacy, numeracy and social-emotional skills in ways that honor different cultures. But current Sesame doesn’t fit the bill. The monster-focus, squeaky clean setting, and full 20 minutes or so of Elmo’s World, probably do a good job of teaching the aforementioned skills, but the tone of the show is a victim of the imaginary post-racial world people like to pretend we live in. Older episodes of the show are on Youtube, and that’s where we go for a little Big Bird. Racial representation: Ok, more monsters than humans; Gender representation: good; Annoyance factor: tolerable; Penrose review: <3 <3 <3

Sid the Science Kid: Animation straight from the uncanny valley teaches scientific method and observation skills. I like some things about this show very much. I was excited, for instance, to learn that Sid is Jewish on his dad’s side (and African-American on his mom’s), and so Sid is one of the few shows to have a Chanukah episode. However, the motion capture animation of Jim Henson puppetry is actually very eerie. The show’s producers also made the strange decision to have white voice actors playing characters of color, and the show suffers from acute accent-itis. The science content is solid, though, and it inspired Penrose to want and use a magnifying glass and microscope. Racial representation: good in theory, but weirded out about the voice actors; Gender representation: good; Annoyance factor: tolerable; Penrose review: <3 <3 <3 <3

Super Why: Literacy-themed superheroes solve problems for fairytale characters. Penrose loves a good princess, and I think that’s what keeps bringing her back to Super Why. The literacy skills it teaches are well-demonstrated, although I find the story-within-a-story-within-a-story format a little confusing. This show is fine, it’s just not as cool as Word GirlRacial representation: Ok; Gender representation: Good, 50/50; Annoyance factor: tolerable; Penrose review: <3 <3

Word World: Animals use letters to build words and solve problems. As far as I can tell there is ONE female character in this show, and it’s a sheep, and just…why. Seeing words turn into objects is neat I guess, and I think it’s likely that watching the show will add a little boost to Penrose’s developing literacy, but this is definitely not my favorite. Racial representation: N/A, all animals; Gender representation: poor; Annoyance factor: pretty annoying; Penrose review: <3 <3

Ok, LAST TWO SHOWS! These are non-meh shows that I am just adding now. Also, sorry Splash and Bubbles, I just have not watched you yet. If anyone out there has watched it and wants to add a review, let me know or put it in the comments!

Maya & Miguel: Latinx siblings in a variety of sitcom-like scenarios. Unfortunately, Maya & Miguel is only available as clips to stream right now, so we haven’t been able to watch a full episode. However, we’ve liked the way Spanish is integrated into the episodes, the variety of storylines (from what we can glean there is one about becoming friends with a Deaf student, one about making a cousin who has recently moved to the U.S. from Mexico feel at home, and one about cleaning up a vacant lot), and the well-rounded characters. Racial representation: Good, majority Latinx but other identities represented; Gender representation: good; Annoyance factor: tolerable; Penrose review: <3 <3

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: The classic, with gentle social-emotional lessons and kind of trippy visits to the Land of Make-Believe. For all the whining I do about Sesame Street, it took a long time to watch Mr. Rogers with Penrose. I wasn’t sure what she would think, especially since she’s a Daniel Tiger fan. But recently she asked to watch “The one with the man holding a bunny” which I finally figured out was this old chestnut. Frankly, I wasn’t sure how it would hold up. Spoiler alert: it holds up GREAT. The loose themes tying the episodes together never feel forced, it’s peaceful and sweet but not as cloying as I cynically remembered it to be, and Penrose really loves it. Also, there are LOTS of episodes posted. Racial representation: Ok; Gender representation: Ok; Annoyance factor: enjoyable; Penrose review: <3 <3 <3 <3

Here ends my project, unless I come back and hit up Splash and Bubbles at some point. Some takeaways: PBS Kids has a lot of great-to-good shows available. Most have a strong educational component. However, even when the cast overall is racially diverse or gender-balanced, the shows are still dominated by white and often male characters (or animal or monster characters in lieu of a racially diverse cast). Hopefully, children’s public television will experience some sort of “third wave” in which these issues are addressed to the degree they were in the ’70s and ’80s, or even more thoroughly. In the meantime, I’m glad that PBS Kids is continuing to provide educationally sound programming that’s sometimes not super annoying to watch!

Courtney Naliboff

About Courtney Naliboff

In addition to this blog, I'm a contributing writer to kveller.com, a Jewish parenting site, a blogger and book reviewer for reformjudaism.org, and the author of Salt Water Cure, a column in Working Waterfront. I report news from North Haven for Working Waterfront and Island Journal, and was a speaker at the Maine Conference for Jewish Life in 2015. Follow Frozen Chosen on facebook or visit my Web site for more writing and free music to download!