There was a time when I was knowledgable about film and television and even knew who approximately 50 percent of the people were on the Grammys. Those days are long gone and instead, my brain is filled with characters, theme songs and potential plush tie-ins from the Sprout channel line-up. Created by PBS, Sprout is designed specifically for toddlers and pre-schoolers. That doesn't mean it's not weird though, as evidenced by an Icelandic show called Lazy Town which features nightmare- inducing puppets and a former gymnast. But we'll get to that later. For any moms out there or anyone that just wants to take a trip into the toddler's version of HBO, here are my top Sprout shows.
1) Justin Time
Premise: Young Canadian* boy daydreams of traveling through time with his imaginary friend Olive and a shamwow named Squidgy.
Rating: 5 out of five sippy cups
Seriously, I'd probably watch this show even if I didn't have a child. The animation is gorgeous with kind of a retro Jetsons look that I love. Justin is a nice kid with no horrible habits, Olive is cute as a button and strong and capable to boot. I'm kind of hoping her example is being rooted in my son's subconscious because I would love for him to bring a girl like that home one day. And honestly, the little dishrag character is super cute too. Each episode teaches something about a past era or a different country. One episode even had the main characters rescuing a space chimp! NBC wishes they had a show this good in their prime time lineup.
2) Fireman Sam
Premise: In the Welsh town of Pontypandy, there is one competent fire fighter and his name is Sam. Each episode, he rescues one of the apparently six members of the town, most frequently, the incredibly annoying Norman who I can't help but wish gets plucked from the hillside by an eagle.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of five sippy cups
Fireman Sam kicks ass. The animation is great and the Welsh accents allow me to pretend I'm watching the tamest episode of Torchwood ever produced. Oh and my son loves the action, but I'm pretty sure he hates Norman too.
Premise: Four year old Canadian boy learns life lessons as he grows - yet weirdly enough remains four. He's had like three Christmases in one year...
Rating: 4 1/2 out of five sippy cups
Poor Caillou takes a lot of flack because the character purportedly whines a lot but I've never had a problem with it because they always explain the reasons he's upset. I really think the show is well-done and has good lessons about patience and kindness. Plus it features my all-time favorite episode of any Sprout show, which I like to call "The Emasculation of Caillou's Father," in which the family car breaks down and Caillou, his little sister and dad are forced to spend time in the local garage where Caillou's dad is subtly berated for not being able to fix a radiator with his bare hands by the side of the road. Meanwhile, Caillou's mom is flirting with the waiter and drinking wine waiting for her erstwhile family to arrive - and hoping they take their own sweet time. Some communications major should be writing their thesis on this thing.
4) 64 Zoo Lane
Premise: A little girl named Lucy is kidnapped each night, Lindbergh-style, by a giraffe and taken to a zoo where she hears stories of life in the wild, as told by different, now-caged animals. It becomes really sad if you think about it too much.
Rating: 4 out of five sippy cups
The animals are cute and the stories teach good lessons about friendship and kindness. And did I mention the animals were cute? Main character could be replaced by a sack of flower and the show would be none the worse for wear.
Premise: English dog Kipper and his friends do incredibly innocuous things during what could only be termed their extended retirement.
Rating: 5 out of five stars from Mom; 2 1/2 out of five from the actual toddler in the house.
No one in our house likes this show but me and I LOVE IT!! It soothes me in a deeply existential way, which probably means I have some deep and profound issues, given that the show is about a bunch of hyper-literate talking animals. Here's an episode, so you can see for yourself:
Honorable mention: Dinosaur Train because someone had the brains to go into a pitch meeting and say, "Dinosaurs! And trains! And we put 'em together!" Brilliant, because there is nothing little kids love more than dinosaurs and trains AND THEY ARE TOGETHER IN THE SAME MOVING PICTURE!
And now that we've done the best, let's take a look at a few that will make any rational adult pray for thorazine-filled rain to fall from the skies...
1) Angelina Ballerina
Premise: Pretentious, self-absorbed, slightly bitchy mouse goes to arts school and dances...on my last nerve.
Rating: Negative 1 1/2 out of five sippy cups
If there is a hell, it involves me being just out of reach of a box of Oreos and being forced to watch "Angelina Ballerina" on an eternal loop. Oh my God, do I hate this show. It has no redeeming qualities and sends just chronically bad messages to children. And every episode seems to involve the arrival of a new kid at school who knows hip hop and teaches the ballerinas a little something about themselves -- inevitably leaving out the part where they're horrible.
2) Chloe's Closet
Premise: Small, weirdly shaped Australian children play dress-up and are transported to different made up lands. And they have a duck blanky that talks.
Rating: 1 out of five sippy cups
I've never dropped acid so I don't know if this is true, but I'm pretty sure Chloe's Closet is what a trip gone bad would look like. The animation is horrifying and the speech is so cloying and cutesy it makes you hate two-dimensional big-eyed characters. (Sorry all of anime! Blame it on Chloe.) I'm so sad that my son seems to be getting into this show. Just to be clear, I have no problem with him liking a show about little girls and dressing up -- great premise, nice tales of friendship. It's just skin-crawlingly weird.
Premise: You know what Barney is. Please don't make me explain it. Too. Painful. To. Contemplate.
Rating: Negative 5 out of five sippy cups
I have no words for Barney. I hate everything about him, and am so glad it's out of production. Luckily, my little guy seems to loathe the talking purple dinosaur as much as I do.
4) Dora the Explorer
Premise: Little girl travels around with a monkey named Boots and a talking backpack and they do stuff or something. To be honest, I've never watched a whole episode because there's too much shouting. Use your indoor voices, kids! Learn a lesson from Jack Bauer. Seriously.
Rating: 1 1/2 out of five sippy cups
I'm sure this show is fine and I know people love it but it just grates on me. Unfortunately, my kid is nuts for Dora right now. I've had to learn to draw her on his Etch-a-Sketch or else he loses his mind at bedtime. I'm hoping it's just a phase and we can stop shouting about backpacks in the near future.
5) Bob the Builder
Premise: A contractor and his talking machinery fix and build things.
Rating: 2 1/2 out of five sippy cups
Bob the Builder isn't actually that bad. I just wanted to point out the uncanny resemblance between Farmer Pickles and Toby Ziegler from The West Wing. I'm always thinking, wow, look at that steamroller building a driveway for Toby. It's kind of fun, although I keep wishing Josh would show up and yell about something. Anyway, here is photographic evidence:
These are the things you notice when you go down the toddler TV rabbit hole.
* I'm hoping the fact that all of my boy's favorite shows are either Canadian or British will ensure he becomes a maple-syrup loving, tree-hugging hippie with a great accent.