Are Kids Shows Better NOW Than Ever?


July 28, 2015
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(Shortened opening)

NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to. As many of you know, I'm a big lover of classic nostalgic kids' shows.

NC (vo): From Ninja Turtles to Transformers to the Disney Afternoon to Fox Kids, we had some pretty awesome shows in our time.

NC: Which is why it really pains me to say this, but at some point, you just have to accept reality. (He swaps out his own hat for Dipper's one from Gravity Falls) Kids' shows now are so much better than they were before.

(Clips of Gravity Falls, Adventure Time, Steven Universe and The Legend of Korra)

NC (vo): And that's so weird to say, seeing how much I love the shows I grew up with and will always hold a place in my heart. But when you look at shows today like Adventure Time, Gravity Falls and Steven Universe, there's no question that they're pushing the boundaries of what's normally expected out of children's programming, at least, what was expected in the past.

(The poster for Disney Channel TV show Dog with a Blog is shown briefly. As NC talks, clips from My Little Pony 1984 incarnation are shown at one point)

NC (vo): Don't get me wrong, we still have plenty of mindless stuff, but these shows are going the extra mile to not only fascinate kids, but adults as well, and in a way that was never done in the past. For so many years, we complained about how there's nothing good on for kids. Hell, we complained how there's nothing good on for adults. Well, now, intelligent, funny, thought-provoking kids' shows are surprisingly in competition.

NC: Yeah! They're no longer the rarity, they're kind of the norm!

(Clips of Steven Universe)

NC (vo): And in a bizarre world where things seem to make sense, the more effort in the show, the bigger the hit it is.

NC: So how and why is this possible? Hasn't kids stuff for the longest time been just that? Kids stuff?

(Clips of classic cartoons Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), various Looney Tunes shorts, and the Disney cartoon The Old Mill (1937))

NC (vo): Well, not always. People forget when the art of animation started, it was for both kids and adults. But the more we got used to it, the more it made sense to aim it more towards kids, because you could be more exaggerated and expressive, which kids can relate to easily. But even then, some of the adults putting it together didn't slack off on the effort. Disney and Warner Bros., two animation giants, are prime examples of that. The Warner Bros. cartoons focused more on comedic writing that you would find in most vaudeville acts, and Disney, despite it usually being seen as more kid-oriented, threw in much more artistry and design that may not get as big a laugh as Goofy or Mickey, but offered more of an artistic expression that weren't in most children's entertainment at the time. Both of these studios challenged what was seen as mere kids entertainment and were both big hits because of it.

NC: So big that years later, they're still worth big money.

(The DVD cover for The Lion King is shown)

NC (vo): Most homes wouldn't dream of being without at least a few Disney films, and everybody, young and old, still knows the Looney Tunes by name. This led to the conclusion that kids' shows can lead to big moolah, and show business, still being a business, tried to capitalize on it and make them even more profitable.

(Clips of Transformers, He-Man, My Little Pony and their toy commercials)

NC (vo): The problem was they focused on the wrong areas. Shows for a while were concentrating less on good characters and story and instead more on what'll sell toys. So every episode of He-Man, My Little Pony or whatever was rushed out with new characters, vehicles and accessories, whether they made sense in a coherent story or not. And we ate it right up. We didn't care if it made any sense to what was going on. It was stuff! And we loved stuff! The more stuff we could have related to that show, the better.

NC: But the problem they eventually figured out was stuff fades.

(Clips of He-Man, Looney Tunes, Batman the Animated Series, Animaniacs, Gargoyles)

NC (vo): He-Man and My Little Pony ran for a while, but we eventually grew up and saw it as kids' stuff. Kids' stuff was only for kids and just lame to adults.

(A picture of a man wearing a black sweatshirt with Bugs Bunny on it that says "Forgiveness" is shown briefly)

NC (vo): But if that were truly the case, why are so many adults wearing Looney Tunes t-shirts? Why do so many adults still go to Disneyworld, even if they don't have any kids? Shortly after, producers started to realize that the reason Warner Bros. and Disney were still making money is because the writing was good and timeless. We appreciated them because we can enjoy them both as kids and adults, which, from a marketing standpoint, could double your audience. So shows started to take a few more chances. Animaniacs, Batman, Gargoyles. These were shows that adults could watch with their kids and enjoy on an entirely different level because they tried harder than most other shows. They went that extra mile and introduced new jokes, themes and styles that had never been done before, at least, not with this kind of effort.

(The stills from animated shows Godzilla and Loonatics Unleashed are shown)

NC (vo): Don't get me wrong, we went to crap shortly thereafter, and for a while, we hit a bit of a dead zone.

NC: Roughly around that same time as that Dark Age of Movies.

(Clips of Batman TAS, Legend of Korra, Steven Universe)

NC (vo): But the people who watched those other great shows eventually grew up to make their own shows. And guess what? They were influenced by those shows that put in the extra work! Thus, they had a new bar to hold themselves to. Now, most kids' shows and movies, for that matter, are expected to entertain adultsjust as much as kids, at least, the ones that are expected to be big hits.

(The DVD collections of Avatar: The Last Airbender are shown, before going to photos of fandoms of Avatar, My Little Pony and Adventure Time dressing like the shows' characters)

NC (vo): And even today, DVDs, toys and other merchandise are being bought not just by adults, but for adults. Grown people dress up to say thank you to the dedication these creative teams put in their work.

NC: But, come on! We grew up with great stuff! So...why is this stuff apparently better?

(Clips of Gargoyles, Tiny Toon Adventures, Batman, Animaniacs, Adventure Time, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra)

NC (vo): Part of it is while those other shows are great and changed a lot, it was going through a transitional period. So creators at the time didn't know what they could get away with. The dark writing in Batman was never dabbled with in this much detail, nor the adult jokes experimented with in Animaniacs. Because there was more focus on these new elements, which still hold up today, they were still bound by certain understandable rules. Batman still had to fight someone, Animaniacs still had to keep their stories to a half-hour. Nowadays, the limits have been stripped more and more. Comedic series don't have to be comedic all the way through, dramatic series don't have to be dramatic all the way through, stories can continue an entire season if need be, and even a show based on comedy and action can contain little to none in some episodes and still get critical praise for it. Tiny Toons is great, but you wouldn't see them dive into heavy, drawn-out turmoil like you would in Adventure Time, nor tackle as many potent issues. The con with those shows in the past is that they were still experimenting and didn't know how far they could go. The pro is that it gave way to so much more experimentation today, arguably more than what was ever done in the past.

NC: There's a few reasons for that. One: Technology.

(Clips of Gravity Falls and Steven Universe)

NC (vo: These shows usually look beautiful, and that's because computers have sped up the time to get them done.

(Dipper from Gravity Falls and Bugs Bunny are shown back-to-back)

NC (vo): You'll also notice that the designs of many of these characters are much simpler than the ones of the past. They do this because it gives way to faster animation, while also allowing more time to focus on color, backgrounds and, of course, the story.

NC: Second, feedback nowadays is instant.

NC (vo): Even though we still have focus groups, the internet is the most blunt and massive feedback there is. So if something doesn't go over well, they can know right away and make the appropriate changes.

(Clip of Avatar: The Last Airbender episode The Ember Island Players is shown, showing the main characters watching a play about them)

NC (vo): Hell, they even use some of the backlash in the show sometimes.

Katara actress: We cannot give up hope! (sobs melodramatically)

Katara: Well, that's just silly. I don't sound like that!

NC: Third is, people finally see the possibilities!

NC (vo): Shows like Lost and X-Files demonstrated that a continuing mystery can be a big draw, but if you focused on that and not as much on the characters, it could lead to a bad experience if you don't deliver on the ending.

(The poster for the 2008 movie X-Files: I Want to Believe is shown briefly)

NC (vo): Shows like Gravity Falls and Adventure Time have similar mysteries, but that's not their draw. Their draw is their environment, their characters and the fact that anything is possible. So even if the last episode doesn't give a satisfactory answer to the mystery, people won't feel ripped off because they were in it for more than that. Now, that's not to say Lost or X-Files had bad characters, but when compared to the likeability, even complexity, of these characters, they're just gonna last longer.

NC: But how can something as simple as these characters (indicating Adventure Time cast) be more interesting than (indicating Mulder and Scully) these characters? Well, I just said in that sentence: They're simple.

(Clips of Interstellar, Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, Adventure Time, Avatar, The Legend of Korra, Transformers, Animaniacs and Gargoyles)

NC (vo): What are you gonna remember more? The complex inner workings of Matt Damon from Interstellar, or how badly the coyote wants to catch the Road Runner? Chances are we're gonna be quoting "beep-beep" before any line of dialogue in this film. With kids' shows, you have to keep the motivation simple so they can follow it. But what they go through to achieve it is where the complexity comes in. Because these worlds they create are fuelled by imagination rather than logic, more possibilities are available to them, with new ways of tackling and explaining issues that were never present in kids' shows before. Issues you never thought would be in a kids' show, like abandonment, anxiety, sexuality, inferiority, depression, control. These shows are exploring these issues in everything but name. You can have characters with goofy identities like the Ice King and the Vampire Queen, but when you put them in a loving situation where one has almost entirely forgotten the other, it's one of the most heartbreaking things you can watch, and can also help people in real life identify with the pain of Alzheimer's. Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra educate on the themes and ideas of East Asian philosophy. Yeah! East Asian philosophies, and all explained in a way that children can understand! There's a power in Steven Universe where two people can combine their mind and bodies together in one, meaning they have to work together to share both their mental and physical abilities. There's so many levels of identity being addressed here, it would make Kafka blush. Even political issues can be brought up! Both Adventure Time and Korra give some pretty interesting conversations about how much control a government should have. They're not just based on cookie cutter villains trying to take over the world, they're legitimately compelling arguments of how much do you sacrifice and how much do you let slide, both walking the tightrope of what's ethically acceptable. Gravity Falls not only has hilarious writing, but it also litters its episodes with puzzles and clues, encouraging kids to solve a mystery that even most adults haven't figured out yet. Even sexuality plays a role! While government was still taking its time to legalize gay marriage, shows like Steven Universe, Korra, and even shows intended for really younger kids like Postcards from Buster, were getting the jump on what they already knew was right, introducing kids to gay and lesbian couples before their minds could be exposed to any prejudice. None of these would be tackled in the toy-centric shows of the past. Even the ones that started the change wouldn't quite touch a lot of these subjects. Now, this doesn't mean I love them any less, but it does mean I should acknowledge when an art form is clearly advancing.

(The posters for Steven Universe and Game of Thrones appear next to NC)

NC: TV for both kids and adults has gotten so good recently, but it's the TV for kids that's even more important.

(The pictures of children watching TV are shown)

NC (vo): We know we can show them anything, and for years, we took that as an excuse to merely profit and distract, while sometimes educating. Now, we're using it not only to entertain and educate, but also enlighten them. They're used to expand their mindset and show possibilities.

(Clips of Avatar, Steven Universe, Adventure Time, Gravity Falls)

NC (vo): Instead of just introducing information, they're introducing wisdom, and through the best way possible, without them even realising they're learning anything at all. They're fun, exciting and silly, but also smart, artistic and insightful. They play with mood, character and different ways of telling a story than any kids' show has done in the past. A five-year-old can watch Adventure Time and enjoy it, but then grow up years later and enjoy it for entirely different reasons.

NC: It's a strange time now where talent and respect for your audience actually equals big bucks.

(Clips of Steven Universe, Gravity Falls, Adventure Time, Legend of Korra, Batman and Avatar)

NC (vo): Maybe people finally got tired of awarding the same repeat programming, or maybe the means of recognising that frustration have just gotten more obvious, but whatever it is, it's leading to some great work. New classics, new characters, and new stories that will not only be remembered years later, but appreciated on levels that we never appreciated on kids' programming before. Over the years, pioneers saying kids should be given our best instead of our leftovers are being heard and explored through brand-new ways, discovering, educating, creating, and all while having a great deal of fun. The generation that watches these shows now will then grow up and bring us even newer and greater possibilities, because, hey, we gave them a great starting point to be inspired by. It's a great world of imagination, intelligence and ingenuity that hopefully isn't slowing down any time soon.

NC: I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to.

(He gets up and leaves, putting his usual cap on top of his Dipper hat. The credits roll)

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