In the place where we belong…

Sigh. Well, the tax refund apparently doesn’t kick in for another week, so I guess it’s time to haul out the Backyardigans episodes!

Quite seriously, ever since Treehouse put it on the weekday midnight rotation – ie., just in time for me to snuggle down with something fun – I have learned to totally adore this series. Thusly intimate with the concerns of dancing daring CGI critters, I have even picked out a favourite character. This is Austin, the shy but smart and sensible purple kangaroo, who is clearly going to grow up to be the closest thing his universe has to a Net geek. I would cheerfully babysit him anytime.

This is the thing about these characters: you cannot help but think of them as real little kids. Which turns out to be more than you can say for a whole lot of Nick Jr.’s nominally human cast. It is possibly not a coincidence that there (usually) isn’t a single Positive Reinforcement of Behaviour visible anywhere on the screen.
In the bewitching tradition of the very best children’s media, Burgess & co. have instead focussed on the possibilities inherent in a child’s inner life – that necessarily chaotic, thus perpetually exciting and involving, place we all exist in from roughly ages 4-10. They’ve taken great care to phrase it correctly, bringing on talented dancers, real musicians, and above all writers who have an uncannily firm grasp on a kid’s self-involved, opportunistic, yet strictly fair approach to plotting logic (clearly, they’ve tried to run their share of kindergarten birthday parties). Net result: an invitation to imaginative creativity that’s almost impossible to resist.

Funny how, despite children’s educators obviously having the best intentions in the world, how few seem to be able to grasp that all the careful socio-intellectual indoctrination your Doras and Blues can muster is totally useless if kids aren’t inspired to try and figure out what to do with it…

…OK, that’s an essay for another time. Let’s get to the cute. Here in no particular order is my official List of Favourite Backyardigans Episodes (thus far):

1. The One Where Tasha’s an Egyptian Princess. Ironically enough, we begin with the ep that’s all about learning to say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank-you’, as noted approximately sixty zillion times in the song lyrics. Thing is, though, the little guys are just so dang adorable in those dashikis, waving palm branches and bowing and rolling their eyes in total exasperation as the ungrateful Princess Cleotasha drags them across the desert in search of three gifts for the Sphinx. And her Majesty’s post-lesson song is so cheerily authentic (“And thanks for doing all that other servant stuff…”)

2. The One Where Pablo’s a Surfer. Really, I need to find the writer of this ep and just give them a great big hug. I’m not sure how many kids are actually up on the finer points of the Perfect Wave fantasy these days, but from an adult POV this is a tiny perfect satire of the genre, complete with Austin as the self-appointed Mystery Lifeguard who refuses to let anyone find the legendary Tiki Beach until he’s satisfied they’ve got ‘the rad moves’. Meanwhile, we get to watch as the others really, uh, throw themselves into the surfer mindset (“This isn’t Tiki Beach?” “No, this is Pink Sand Beach. You can tell by all the pink sand.” “Yeah, also the no tikis…”)

3. The One Where Uniqua, Pablo and Tyrone are Secret Agents…make that sneaky secret agents. Who never get caught on their super sneaky Spy Missions through dark, deserted museums – apparently borrowed from the Alias ‘verse – thanks to their cool Spy Gadgets. (Yes, including the Spy Maple Syrup, complete with little tiny maple leaf on the bottle.). Even if they occasionally have to limbo under the laser-beam boobytrap. Dun-dun-dunnnnnn…I especially like how Tyrone’s antlers and Uniqua’s antennae stick up through their Spy Stocking Caps.

4. The One Where Uniqua and Pablo are the Movers of Arabia: Representing an entire series of decently clever eps where the kids play movers or deliverymen who spend the entire time trying to keep up with their strange/magical cargo. There’s just something about the concept of an Arabian Sultan needing a couple of guys in overalls to haul his riches across the desert that especially tickles me – that, and Austin was pretty much designed to play a wiseacre genie, and Tyrone an imperious sultan. The attention to detail in this series extends to the care taken to assign each ‘kid’ their roles.

5. The One Where They’re All Super-Powered: A full-on superhero-vs.-supervillain adventure that works brilliantly by the simple expedient of understanding first of all that kids take this stuff extremely seriously, and secondly that kids taking stuff seriously is the heart of the entire genre. Thus the villains are nasty as they can be in a universe where they’re not allowed to actually shoot people with anything, and the heroes are just ridiculously amped up. The stakes, of course, are no less than The World…and you actually do find yourself getting just a little bit worried for it.

6. The One Where Tasha Throws a Tea Party:…Yeah, the others have the same reaction when she suggests it. A gentle riff on the series premise finds everybody wanting to do something ‘exciting’ or ‘thrilling’ or ‘funny’ – except Tasha, who wants to have tea. The perfect cup of tea, mind you. With ingredients that can only be found in far-off, exotic corners of the globe…necessitating exciting adventures, thrilling feats of courage, and even a dour Mandarin who needs to be told a really funny joke. This may be one of the most intelligent episodes of any kid’s TV series I have ever seen.

7. The One With the Monster Dance Party: Not to be confused with the One Where They Hunt the Soccer Monster, which is also teh cuteness (“Rahhh!”) but just a bit less fun, as defined by ‘lack of Austin trying to ride herd on a bunch of goofy Hammer-homage monsters, all of whom are scared not only of him but of each other’. I would’ve preferred a MacGuffin a little less ho-hum than a surprise birthday party, but…more evidence of attention to character detail: Tasha as a mad scientist. Also, Uniqua as an absolutely adorable fuzzy-eared werewolf.

8. The One With the Snow Fort: Occasionally, the writers send the kids off on their own little mini-adventures within the larger fantasy and watch them collide. Here, Pablo and Tyrone have assigned themselves to – [sporfle] mini-Mountie uniforms! – a Yukon snow fort, as stalwart guardians of the World’s Biggest Snowball. Meanwhile, Tasha and Uniqua are playing Ski Patrol, bound and determined to rescue somebody from that ominous fort…even as our little Nelson Eddies valiantly defend their treasure from these hot-chocolate-wielding ‘intruders’. The screwball logic is totally seamless throughout.

9. The One Where The Guys Play Tarzan: Pretty standard action-adventure ep; what I love is the way it takes the standard ‘See, girls are too as smart/brave/clever as boys!’ kiddie-plot cliches and proceeds to mess with them until they’re turning backflips trying to keep up. Uniqua plays our Livingstonian heroine, who’s initially scornful of three lunkheaded Tarzans trying to guide her though the jungle…it’s just not scientific, after all…but soon discovers that sometimes listening to experience, no matter who it’s coming from, can be worth it. (Also, the first appearance of Sherman the Wormyn, basically a CGI take on the fuzzy multicoloured Muppet worms from Sesame Street. [sporfle]!)

10. The One Where Tyrone Plays Sinbad: Who sails alone, capisce? Which doesn’t prevent eager-young-wannabe Pablo from stowing away on a voyage to the end of the rainbow…and wreaking no end of havoc, until – naturally – proving himself magnificently in the end. More perfectly-timed character moments, and – not coincidentally – more spot-on screwball logic. In the end I don’t know whether to be amused or concerned that a single 25-minute ep of a kiddie series can execute a better spoof of Epic Movie cliches than several multi-million-dollar full-on Hollywood productions.

Phew! Well, that certainly was an excellent listing adventure, don’t you think? Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a snack in the kitchen with my name on it. Animal crackers and juice, mmmm!

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