One of the coolest things about having a child is that I have an excuse for feeding my longtime love of cartoons. I mean, I’d watch them anyway, but now I don’t seem like quite as much of a dork for knowing, say, the difference between the old and new animated Batman series (ah, who am I fooling?). Of course there are ‘toons that aren’t appropriate for Simone, and, sure, opening the Pandora’s Box of animated fare on the TV means being forced to watch attempts at entertainment that make the stilted stylings of classic "Scooby Do" episodes look dynamic by comparison. But when we cuddle up to watch the latest episode of “Avatar,” or I watch her face as we immerse ourselves in the latest Miyazaki epic, I revel in the chance to share in something we both find thrilling.
So here’s a quick look at our regular stops for the uninitiated.
Avatar: The Last Airbender
Well into its second season on Nickelodeon, “Avatar” has a richness, a sensitivity, and a sense of humor unmatched by almost any other show on basic cable, animated or not. Each episode is a new chapter in the education of young Ang, who has been charged with the weight of the fate of his world. On his own with two friends who are more like family, and their animal companions (a lemur named Mo Mo and a giant, flying bison), Ang must master the four elements (Air, Fire, Water, Earth) before the Fire Nation is successful in its worldwide conquest. “Avatar” skillfully mixes a sublime sensitivity with a sharp sense of humor. Sometimes the interval between a touching moment that may cause you to wipe at your eyes and a full on, unabashed snot joke is breathtakingly narrow. Borrowing from several Asian aesthetics, the show, in all its gravity and layered narrative, never forgets that it’s about (and for) kids.
Dora the Explorer/Go Diego Go
In spite of the specious lessons these two shows inadvertently provide kids, e.g. all third-world children have beautiful almond-shaped eyes, and it’s okay to approach wild animals, especially baby jaguars, as long as you make the right noises, both programs (“Diego” is a spin-off of “Dora”) encourage active participation and interaction of their viewers. Each episode begins with a problem the characters must solve with the help of the TV audience, and most episodes’ structures follow a predictable pattern, which is a good way to ensure the participation of young viewers. Do I feel guilty when I mutter smart-ass answers to the characters’ call-and-response prompts while I’m trying to comb Simone’s unruly hair into matching pigtails? Maybe a little. But I think of it as raising a critical, media literate young consumer. And it makes her laugh.
Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends
The premise: when kids outgrow their imaginary friends, these constructs of creative minds need a place to live. So they move to Foster’s, where they’re available for adoption. If the vast array of odd creatures doesn’t make you grin, the antics of a boy named Mac and his incorrigible buddy Bloo, supported by a cast of imaginary friends that would make Tim Burton jealous, will have you laughing (or at least shaking your head) from beginning to end.
Peep and the Big Wide World
You’d expect a show funded in large part by the National Science Foundation to be dense with facts, sacrificing a narrative for the didactic. But “Peep” adopts the constructivist approach to learning, where the naïve and charming characters (Peep, the chick, Chirp, the robin, and Quack, the narcissistic duck who wears a sailor hat) sort out their world through trial and error. The animation is simple and effective, and how can you go wrong with Joan Cusack as narrator? Each 10-minute segment is followed by a short live-action film of kids learning through play, like damming water flowing from a hose or dropping different objects from a jungle gym. If you’re paying attention, you’ll even encounter some very subtle Easter eggs for the grownups.
Although its days of glory have long since past, Pokémon is still a powerful franchise. What surprised me, after Simone became so enamored with, and an expert on, the myriad species of odd creatures and their unique attributes, was the depth of the Pokémon mythology. The movies have complicated narratives infused with textured messages of environmental and interpersonal awareness (no, really!), and even the weekly TV show, with all of its silly battles and insider lingo, is more about good sportsmanship and the value of friendship than a 30-minute marketing campaign (seriously). Although the gestalt of the Pokémon marketing machine is damned annoying (and expensive, believe me), the animated aspects of the franchise have their own rewards.
Time Warp Trio
What a pathetic waste of energy. Based on the very funny and popular book series by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, the geniuses behind The Stinky Cheese Man, the “Trio” TV show is a mess. The animation is disturbingly primitive, the stories are weak, and the characters are unlikable. Maybe I’m spoiled by what else out there, but the surprising lack of any depth in this Discovery Kids show is surprising. Simone seems to enjoy it, though. She says she likes it because the characters “go to different places, and meet new people who help them.” So there you go.
I keep waiting for this show to jump the shark, but, all these years later, it’s still consistently funny and unpredictable. The key is in maintaining Spongebob’s feckless charm. His indefatigable optimism and incessant goodness provide a wholesome core that never allows the snark or irony of pop culture to poison the whole apple. There’s plenty of sub-level humor that appeals to adults, but it’s not the gritty innuendo you’ll find in some other cartoons. Simone and I don’t watch it as often as we used to, but even the early series episodes have held up over time.
You’ll notice I didn’t put the greatest show ever to hit the airwaves on the list, but that’s because “The Simpsons” really isn’t for kids. Simone knows the characters, but we don’t watch it together. Plus, it’s hard to guffaw at searing social satire, knowing you’re going to have to explain why you laughed to a six-year-old.
Cartoons aren’t just for kids. Anyone who has seen even a single Pixar movie understands that. Still, it’s nice to have someone to blame when my knowledge of the Saturday morning ‘toon schedule becomes apparent.