On Returning to Children's Television

Taking care of Vivian, while Erin returns to work, I admit that I sometimes park Vivian in her chair in front of the television and go and do the laundry. I play with her, but I also distract her by turning to PBS, TVO or anywhere else where there is an educational kids show on. A lot of them are still as good as I remember. Believe it or not, Sesame Street still has a lot of depth (though why they replaced Grover for the uber-shrill Elmo, I’ll never know) and nothing beats Mr. Rogers Neighbourhood. Still, is it wrong of me to chuckle over some of what I see?

For instance, the programs of TVO Kids is bookended by a series of shorts under the banner Giselle’s Back Yard. These spots are hosted by the exuberant (and surprisingly buxom) young woman by the name of Giselle, who plays educational games and — heh! — plants and picks flowers from her “giggle garden”.

“Giggle garden”. Um. Yeah.

Tell me, Giselle: what exactly grows in your “giggle garden”?

I’ve also been privileged to watch a cartoon called Charlie and Lola, which is based on a pair of British children’s book characters. Charlie and Lola are an older brother and a younger sister who care for each other and go on adventures. Charlie, being the eldest, is the sensible one, who tends to ground the exuberant, imaginative Lola, and set things right after she accidentally sets things skittering off course.

A recent episode had Charlie bring home a rocket he’d built out of discarded food packages. He was proud of it because it had won a prize at school, and he instructed Lola not to play with it. It wasn’t a toy anymore and could break easily. She could play with any other toy in his room, but the rocket was off limits, here on this prominent shelf. Of course you realize what happens next. To make extra, extra sure that temptation gets planted in Lola’s path, Charlie heads off on some errands, leaving Lola alone. All of her other friends are occupied, so she has no one to play with, so Charlie suggests that she play with her imaginary friend, Soren Lorenson. So, Lola calls Soren Lorenson.

Soren Lorenson, when he appears, is a greyscale, boy version of Lola. He’s also transparent, leading me to wonder if Lola’s imaginary friend is actually an imaginary friend, or perhaps she’s become acquainted with a somewhat creepy boy ghost. Anyway, they play an imaginary game that eventually requires Lola’s pet elephant to flee from the planet Earth, which of course requires Charlie’s rocket, which of course breaks into little-bitty pieces.

The really neat part is that when Charlie finds his rocket broken and confronts Lola about it, he only really gets angry because Lola refuses to own up to it. He listens while she tells the story about how the elephant was responsible, then says, “uh, huh.” And then runs off shouting, “MOM! LOLA BROKE MY ROCKET AND SHE’S TELLING LIES ABOUT IT!”

This sends Lola into a crisis of conscience, during which Soren Laurenson tells her to tell the truth. “It will make you feel better,” he says. So while Charlie is in his room mending his rocket, there’s a knock on the door. He opens it, and there is Lola and Soren standing there (Charlie can only see Lola, of course). Lola’s looking very contrite.

Lola: Um… I told you a lie about your rocket, Charlie. Um… I’m sorry. Um… The truth is… Soren broke it!

We get one priceless expression out of Soren Laurenson before Charlie slams the door on her face. After another minute, there’s another knock, and there’s Lola standing alone, looking really contrite, and she finally admits that she broke the rocket. Charlie, having finished rebuilding his rocket, has it in his heart to forgive her.

The animation is deliberately childlike, but the animators are able to get excellent expressions out of these characters. The moment when Lola betrays Soren, and the look he gives her really makes this story for me. And if you can get adults enjoying kids programs alongside the kids, then you’ve got a winner.

Watching all of these programs brings to mind the shows I watched on TV Ontario when I was young, including Vision On, Read All About It, Write On and Eureka. Some of these things deserve a DVD release, especially Vision On. They don’t make kids shows like they used to, but it is heartening to see that they do still make kids shows that don’t insult our intelligence.

Anybody looking for a trip down memory lane should check out Rick’s TVO Tribute Website.

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