Posted by: Mark Nielsen | July 8, 2008

Cartoon Network: The Other Petulant Child in Our Family

It’s hard to know exactly when it happened, but sometime between January and June of 2008, my five-year-old (now six) outgrew most of the post-toddler “kid” shows on Playhouse Disney and PBS, and became a crazed fanatic about Cartoon Network.

It would be easy to blame it on my wife, since she does not share my mistrust of the network itself, and started turning it on for him when I had previously been steering him away from it. But it’s my fault, too. For one thing, I’m doing what we said we would not do: using the tv as a babysitter, to keep him occupied and safe while we try to get other things done (like this damned blog! …which magically turns minutes into hours!). Or rather, his body is safe… his mind may be another matter.

I’m trying to nip it in the bud by setting some time limits, but I fear Pandora may already be out of the box, and my kid’s a budding cartoon junkie. He hasn’t asked  to read a book in months. He blurts out random non-sequitr quotes from unknown shows while we’re riding in the car. He doesn’t want to go outside when it means turning the tv off. I don’t want to sound alarmist, but I’m concerned Cartoon Network will make my child into a brilliant idiot.

There are two reasons I don’t like and don’t trust Cartoon Network’s daytime programming:

  1. commercials for junkfood, bad toys, and more crap we don’t need but that he will bug us to buy. He’s being groomed as a consumer, and I don’t want the corporate monstrosity that is AOL/Time/Warner reprogramming my child and undoing the good work we’ve done for six years
  2. too much ‘toonified violence… watered down, bloodless, but aggressive nonetheless, and pushing values I definitely don’t share. There’s a marked difference between the spirit of conflict between Wile E. Coyote vs. Roadrunner, and the power rays, magic and kung fu of today’s cartoon violence. I can’t always put my finger on it, but something about most of the current “drama” and adventure ‘toons just seems to rub me the wrong way as a parent and a pacificist-leaning Christian. Plus it’s mostly just bad… badly written, badly drawn, badly acted. For example, I won’t willingly let Graham watch Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs until he’s 17… but when he does see it, I want to be the one to show him how good movie and tv-makers can do up violence and double-crossing with great intelligence, humor and style, instead of the cartoonish hollowness and CGI flashiness of The Incredible Hulk.

Just as an experiment, though, let’s switch on Tuesday morning’s Cartoon Network offerings for awhile and see what we get:

7:56am   Ben 10  is just wrapping up. Or is it Ben Ten: Alien Force. I don’t know. There are two current series featuring the same characters, and I think Ben 10 is Graham’s new favorite show. He clearly idolizes Ben, who is ten. (How’d you guess? No wait –on Alien Force, Ben is 15. I’m confused now.) It’s not bad overall. Fairly innocent, with today’s villain being a midget hypnotist who wants all the people at the mall to rob the cash registers and bring him cash. Ben has some wristband thing with a button he can push to transform himself into other entities, like Fireball Guy, or Plant Guy. Silly, but not all that different from the animated adventure/superhero stories that formerly appeared only on Saturday mornings or after school. The downside: I put on Playhouse Disney as Little Einsteins was wrapping up today, and Graham howled, “No! I don’t like this show anymore!” It used to be his favorite. Poor innocent little glasses-wearing Leo, cast aside in favor of one of the “cool kids”, complete with a shape-shifting gizmo and a preteen’s smart-aleck attitude.

7:59am        Wedgies. I had neither seen nor heard about this show until just moments ago. Oh wait, I see — it’s only a little bumper, a time-filler, a 1-2 minute mini-toon called Flapjack. Maybe these pilot-y sorta things are called Wedgies ’cause they’re wedged between two other shows. And unless I miss my guess, that’s Brian Doyle-Murray I hear voicing one of the two featured Flapjack characters. Brian is Bill Murray’s older brother. He’s a fairly decent, funny actor in his own right. But apparently nowadays, in an era where scripted tv comedy is third in the pecking order, behind hourlong dramas and semi-scripted reality tv, A-list character actors like Brian have to take what they can get. That means voicing car commercials (Matt Dillon is the current voice of one of the major car companies), or little wedged-in bumpers, or cartoons, just to keep working steady. (Brian’s done some Sponge Bob, some Disney tv stuff, a wide range… his scratchy voice is good for cartoons.) It used to be that movie actors (I think) did this type of work on the side, for fun, or after their biggest career successes were well in the rear-view mirror. But with increased competition, for fewer on-camera jobs, I’ve noticed more and more recognizable actors slogging away on cartoons. Take the PBS show Cyberchase, for example. It has two: Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future’s Dr. Emmett Brown) and Gilbert Gottfried (better known as a stand-up comedian, and for that aggressively annoying voice). Now maybe these two actors actually like working on a quality show that subtly builds math skills into the plotlines. And I know Mr. Lloyd has done stage work on and off for years as well. But part of me can’t help but wonder if the less expensive, less creative, tenement-style programming that is reality tv is the main reason that cartoons have become the bread-and-butter for a whole class of actors now. Meanwhile, have you looked at most of the crap that passes for live-action network sitcoms aimed at 18 to 32-year-olds these days? Big Bang Theory ? Puh-leeease!

8am      Johnny Test – (Not to be confused with Jonny Quest, for all you old-schoolers out there.) I’ve only popped my head in and watched partial episodes, but when I did watch, Johnny Test had a time machine. This is an old trick: it gives the writers permission to put their own goofy spin on thousands of years of human history. Now Graham will probably think Atilla the Hun was just a scowling ham of an actor with a beard and a clearly un-American look, unlike the dashing, blond and ironic hero, feisty little Johnny T.

8:30am    missed it – TVGuide.com says it was Skunk Fu! – probably typical of the snarky, hugely ironic and self-referential nature of entertainment in the Oughts. Everything’s a lefthanded rip-off of something else…

9am    Tom & Jerry Blast Off to Mars. A feature-length movie, produced by TBS cable network. Actually, Ted Turner and/or AOL/Time/Warner (owners of Cartoon Network) own alot of those old cartoon franchises now. When Cartoon Network first started it was mostly just an outlet for a wide range of those shows I grew up with, like the Hannah-Barbera stuff. (Now , CN shows alot of original and syndicated programming, some of which is imported, much of which is crap that definitely will not stand the test of time.) I blogged about this once, in the context of a discussion on Scooby Doo’s staying power. Meanwhile back here at the ranch, Graham just saw that Tom and Jerry were on, and got very excited. I was gratified that at least two of the more “classic” characters and situations strike his fancy as much as, if not more than, the Pokemons and Ben Tens of the cartoon universe.

Long live Bugs Bunny, Felix the Cat and Fred Flintstone!


Responses

  1. I agree that kids shouldn’t watch too much television-it mostly makes them stupid. I have 12 years and I don’t watch tv more tham 15 minutes per day-so my friends think I’m crazy- because all the commercials are very stupid, the novels are boring, cartoons-very boring, except Spongebob, news-even more boring. But I hate the most this shows about cellebrity people. They are so STUPID.
    You can visit my blog on coolrafa.wordpress.com because I have one great article in English what you will probably like.

  2. Thank you, coolrafa. Based on some phrases in your comment, it seems you might be from a foreign family. Which is fine, I’m glad to hear from anyone. Especially a twelve-year-old who has had some good steady cultural influences that *don’t* come from American television. So no, you’re not crazy. Just smart, confident, and able to make up your own mind. I’ll check your blog, too, just to encourage you to keep writing.

  3. go to jamaman.wordpress
    .com


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