Bo Burnham’s Inside reminds me of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai and David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion: formally innovative, emotionally affecting, and obsessively inward-looking. While it is hard to tell where exactly the author stops and the character begins, they all could only have been created by someone struggling with profound depression.
Wolf, wolf! he cried and we all came running because we are good villagers, but there was no wolf. We told him, why did you do that, everyone knows there are no wolves around here. He said, it was there I saw it, but he was lying.
Wolf, wolf! he cried and we all came running because we are good villagers, but the wolf was far away at the other end of the clearing. We asked him why did you do that, everyone knows that the wolves around here are scared of people. He said, it was right here, but he was lying.
Wolf, wolf! he cried and we all came running because we are good villagers, but the wolf was just walking around doing nothing. We told him, why did you do that, everyone knows that wolves are friendly. He said, it ate a sheep, but he was lying.
Wolf, wolf! he cried, and we all went back to work because we are good villagers with jobs to do. Everyone knows that there are no wolves around here, and the wolves around here are scared of people, and wolves are friendly, and he had lied to us three times already.
We went back up to the meadow the next day and the sheep were gone and the wolf had killed and eaten the boy. It was a terrible shame, because everyone knows we are good villagers, and would have come running if he hadn’t lied to us three times. It was all his fault for crying wolf.
Moral: The villagers warned the boy three times that they would not save him from the wolf, but he was too stubborn to listen and run away. It is better to be alive than right.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic: The brony thing is legitimately weird, but this is legitimately a great show. The combination of epic-fantasy plots with a deep dive on friendship is a winner (and has also been deeply influential on kids’ television). It also makes the obligatory pro-social messages feel earned, rather than an afterthought. The characters are charming, the writing sparkles, and the animation is still distinctive. Endlessly watchable, which is a good thing when your kid wants to watch endlessly. Fake holidays: Nightmare Night, Hearth’s Warming Eve, Hearts and Hooves Day. Grade: A+
Avatar: I was fifteen years too old for this when it was on TV, so I didn’t understand what the fuss was about. Now I do. It’s epic but not grandiose, funny but not dumb, and morally deep without giving into plot gravity. The world-building, the writing, the animation, the voice-acting, the fight scenes, the side characters: everything works, and everything is pulling in the same direction. (The sequel series, The Legend of Korra, is more of the same, with an interestingly updated setting and better music.) If your kids are like mine, they’ll want to talk about everything, and so will you. I guess binge-watching is a family thing now. Grade: A+
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: This show is so gay. However gay you expect it to be, it’s ten times gayer. It’s also pro-diversity along every axis you can imagine, including body-type. It’s completely awesome. It captures the uncannily compelling techno-fantasy atmosphere of the original, and it has characters with the same names, but otherwise it’s a total gut rehab. The character studies at its core are compelling, even as the overall plot and action hold a young child’s interest. It takes lots of anime animation tropes and tones them down to the verge of naturalism, which I wouldn’t have thought would work, but totally does. Grade: A-
Wild Kratts: The big kid was learning biology from this show almost from before she could talk. “Giraffe. Long neck. Eat leaves.” The premise of the show is genius: animated versions of veteran kids’ wildlife-show hosts Chris and Martin Kratt have suits that give them “creature powers,” and they travel around the world having adventures with animals. The science is legit and it’s presented entertainingly. And the characters are winners, especially the creature-suit inventor Aviva Corcovado and the colorful villains. The only thing consistently annoying about this show is that it can be shouty. Everyone is Just! So! Excited! About! Animals! Grade: A-.
Phineas and Ferb: The Arrested Development of kids’ animation, Phineas and Ferb is impossibly dense with overlapping plots, brick jokes, and a large army of recurring minor characters. Every episode features an original song, some of which are genuinely brilliant (“Squirrels in My Pants” is a household favorite). It is also a wholly, completely sweet-hearted show. Even the antagonists – Candace and Dr. Doofenshmirtz – are sympathetic, charming, fully-realized, and allowed to grow and be happy in ways that a lesser version of this show would never even have realized was a possibility. The allegretto pacing and intricate writing keep the show consistently fresh. New Disney at its best. Grade: A-
Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom: From the same team who brought you Peppa Pig, but even drier underneath its treacly trappings. The comedic timing is straight out of classic British sketch comedy. The voice actors are clearly in on the joke, which if anything makes the show more fun to listen to than to watch. B+
Dinosaur Train: Sometimes high concepts work. The show 100% owns its message: dinosaur physiology is a diversity metaphor, presented with just the right degree of insistence. The characters are sketched with grace and sympathy, and the science is pitched just right for its target audience. Over the years, the show (like all railfans) has gotten increasingly obsessed with its train equipment: the aquacar, the submarine, the … zeppelin. The songs are surprisingly catchy, too: our favorite is probably the Dinosaur Train Zeppelin song, which, yes, is a Led Zeppelin pastiche. Grade: B+
Odd Squad: This one really grew on me. If all you’ve seen is short clips, it just seems like everyone is shouting about math all the time. But the show overall is delightfully goofy, with a real sense of how to string along a running gag, and some genuinely talented child actors. Grade: B+
Creative Galaxy: Despite being a total Daniel Tiger rip-off, down to the animation style, the obligatory song in every episode, and the live-action codas, this one is actually kind of nice. The art projects are well-chosen both to interest kids and also to actually be doable. Fake holidays: Heart Day. Grade: B
Peppa Pig: It took me a long time to appreciate this show’s arch sense of humor. Everyone’s pretensions and ambitions are punctured; embarrassing mistakes and small indignities await adults at every turn. Once you realize that the show is making fun of most of its characters but loves them anyway, it’s much more bearable. Grade: B
Curious George: Entirely forgettable, with two mildly redeeming qualities. George himself is as charming as always, and the jazzy musical score is pleasant. Grade: B-
Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir: It took me a while to understand what this show was doing. It’s very, very French. Grade: C+
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Even my kids recognize that Daniel Tiger is needy and whiny. The show inadvertently teaches kids what to be afraid of and how to misbehave. There is also something deeply wrong with the economy of the Neighborhood: everyone seems to have multiple jobs and the public transit system runs on magic. On the plus side, the potty song has come in handy as a reminder: when you have to go potty, stop and go right away. Fake holidays: Love Day, Snowflake Day, Dress Up Day. Grade: C+
Ready Jet Go: I suppose there’s some science in here somewhere, I guess. Grade: C+
Tumble Leaf: Reviewers might call this one “gentle,” by which they mean “boring.” The animation is lovely and the music is calming. But what’s the point? Grade: C+
PAW Patrol: Unbelievably, incredibly formulaic. For example: have you noticed that they get in their trucks at exactly the same point halfway through each episode? Just Canadian enough to be noticeably off, but also rah-rah in a George W. Bush-administration kind of way. Sometimes I imagine grown-up versions of the pups. Chase regularly engages in police brutality, Rubble has a drinking problem, and Marshall has joined the alt-right. Grade: C
Nature Cat: Nature Cat is annoying and his friends are worse. I’m not clear on what they’re supposed to be learning. And the theme song manages to be both unmemorable and an earworm. Make it stop! Grade: C
Super Why: More like Super Why Does This Exist, amirite? The whole show is oddly paced: I find the story-within-a-story structure confusing and can only wonder how much of it kids actually get. Having each character deal with a different aspect of literacy leaves the show’s educational content unfocused. And the Super Letters are like the world’s lamest game of Wheel of Fortune. Plus the song is an earworm, and not in a good way. Grade: C
Sofia the First: Empty Disney calories, this show is the reductio ad absurdum of Disney’s democratization of the idea of “princess.” The plotting, the writing, and the music are technically proficient. The cel-shading effects that give 3D animation the luminosity of 2D hand drawn are lovely. The messages are perfectly innocuous. But the heart of the show is a giant gaping void. Fake holidays: Wassailia. Grade: C
Lion Guard: More empty Disney calories, like Sofia the First but with more obnoxious characters. Inexplicably real holiday: Christmas. Grade: C-
Peg + Cat: All I can remember is that the show is inexplicably drawn on graph paper, and they have a BIG BIG PROBLEM every few seconds. When people complain about STEM, and I remember that this show exists, I have to admit that they have a point. Grade: C-
Martha Speaks: The AV Club’s term for this kind of show is “least essential.” Even by the standards of kids’ shows, the premise makes no sense. Nobody here, human or canine, is remotely sympathetic. And the plot comes to a screeching halt every time it’s time for a new vocabulary word. Grade: C-
WordWorld: I have so many questions about this show. If everything is made out of words, what about the ground? The sky? Windows? And what are the letters in the words made of? What is going on with the accents? And who greenlit three seasons of this garbage? Grade: D+
The Adventures of Puss in Boots: This is a weird, weird show. And not in a good way. Grade: D+
Trolls: The Beat Goes On: Quite possibly the most misanthropic kids show currently streaming anywhere. The combination of grimdark setting and hackneyed uplifting plot tropes is somewhere between unsettling and child abuse. Poppy is a walking illustration of emotional labor; Branch has severe PTSD. The show treats both of these as laughable quirks. And I am never going to get used to the Auto-Tune. Grade: D+
Kung-Fu Panda: The Paws of Destiny: Pretty much your standard DreamWorks animation. This is not a good thing. Grade: D
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: The animation and voice-acting are innocuous. But building an entire show around the “if X, then Y” formula led to some disastrous choices. The show taught my big kid how to say things like, “If I see a rock, I just have to bring it home with me.” It takes a special kind of kids show to affirmatively instill bad habits. Grade: D-
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2018): An absolute travesty in every possible way. The remake is the direct opposite of everything the original represented: crude instead of clever, manic instead of playful, and mean instead of goofy. Grade: F-
In my obituary for Sheri S. Tepper, I said that her novel Raising the Stones “contains the single best portrait of a utopia – feminist or otherwise – I have ever seen.” I’d like to say a bit more, and why that book has been a source of comfort and inspiration for me for years.
Massive spoilers within.
The setting for the book is that humanity has recently turned the planet of Hobbs Land into a quiet agricultural colony. It was previously occupied by a placid species called the Owlbrit, who moved about on detachable tentacles and left it dotted with small circular temples. A few of the inhabitants of Settlement One have taken up the Owlbrit custom of leaving small sacrifices of mouselike creatures, a practice recommended by the last surviving member of the species when a linguist asks whether such sacrifices are necessary:
“Not necessary,” the Old One had scraped with his horn-tipped tentacles in a husky whisper. “What is necessary? Is life necessary? Necessary to what? No, sacrifice is not necessary, it is only recommended. It is a way, a convenience, a kindness.”
Birribat Shum, one of the settlers who has helped keep up the temple, dies. His companions, without clearly being able to say why, decide to bury him nearby. And then, very gradually, things start to change. The children start rebuilding a ruined Owlbrit temple. The people of Settlement One are calmer, happier; their productivity goes up. No one really talks about it, but one day a group goes out to where Shum is buried and digs up the gravesite. His body has been replaced by a heavy mass of fungus that spreads out through the earth in fine filaments. Most of it they place in the rebuilt temple, but one girl carefully cuts out fifteen hand-size pieces. Then, whenever a burial is being conducted in another settlement, someone slips one of the fungal pieces into the grave – and that settlement grows more peaceful and productive, too. So it spreads, the filaments growing underground and being transplanted. Everywhere it spreads, people start building round temples and offering small sacrifices, and the natural world bursts forth with massive groves and forgotten species.
There is more, including actual characters and an actual plot, but the Hobbs Land Gods have stuck with me, in part, for their humble simplicity. They don’t give orders, they don’t make demands, they don’t try to change people all that much. Tepper works mostly by indirection; we see what people who have been in contact with the dust-like filaments do, but they avoid talking too much about it.
As best I can glean, most of the time, these “gods” only ever do two things. First, they tell people things it would be useful for them to know – an irrigation ditch needs mending, your co-worker needs a wrench, the gods will spread if transplanted to other planets. As one character puts it:
I know some things. They come to me solid, like pieces of wood, all carved to fit and nailed down. I just know, and I open my mouth and out it comes, and that’s that. No questions, no hesitations.
And second, they make people less afraid. Not of everything: if a harvesting machine is bearing down on you, the gods won’t stop you from running. Just of the things one shouldn’t really fear: unfamiliar customs, other people’s affairs that aren’t your concern, the intentions of people who mean no harm.
That’s it. For most people, the Hobbs Land Gods provide a simple, sensible, way of living better. They calm down a bit, they cooperate more, they go on for the most part as they have before. But conflict basically disappears, along with pointless destruction. And why not? Before you even think about raising a hand, you know that wouldn’t be a very good idea. So you don’t. You chose not to; you still have your free will. You simply knew enough and were unafraid enough not even to be tempted. For a few people, who prize their independence, or power, or a jealous grabbiness, something about Hobbs Land feels off: they’re uncomfortable, and they leave, which everyone agrees is for the best. What they leave behind is, as I said, a utopia.
Of course, the limits of human knowledge and the limits of human psychology are no minor matters. But out of all the things one might think in need of reform in the human condition, these are lesser changes than most other utopias depend on. If we knew a little more and feared a little less, everything really might work out all right.
I first read Raising the Stones in the spring of 1993. It has always been bound up for me with what I see as the redemptive potential of the Internet – if not quite literally, than perhaps thematically. The Internet, after all, is another almost-living network that spreads everywhere human hands carry it. It whispers needed knowledge in our ears, and maybe just maybe it might help soothe our unnecessary fears. The Internet we have is not so good at that, but the Internet we might have – the Internet we can imagine – the Internet we need – could be better.
For now, the Hobbs Land Gods remain the stuff of speculative fiction. But I carry the distant and unlikely hope that some day they may be made real. I will plant it where it might take root, and raise up the stones to make a home from which they may spread. It is a way, a convenience, a kindness.
SODOR – Confusion and delay reigned on the North Western Railway today after its Controller, Sir Bertram Topham Hatt, was crushed beneath a tank engine while reviewing switchyard operations late on Saturday. Authorities were not immediately able to determine whether Sir Hatt’s death was simply the latest misfortune for this notoriously accident-prone railway system or should be classed as a suicide. The Railway has been in dire financial straits following a series of serious accidents over the last few years, including numerous collisions, fires, derailments, and, in one spectacularly unfortunate incident, the destruction of a chocolate factory by a runaway train. Family friend Alicia Botti said that Sir Hatt had been despondent since the Railway’s insurers cancelled its property and liability coverage in October, and that he despaired of ever being really useful to society again.