|Unfrozen child stars from the 1980s (?)|
When it comes to my television viewing, I can be a bit of a masochist. Last night, for no reason in particular, I decided to watch the bulk of a "Two and a Half Men" rerun, even though I find every aspect of that show to be dreadful - it's misogynistic, it's lazily written to the extent that it actually once used the very old "more chins than a Chinese phonebook" joke, it thinks crudeness and overt sexuality automatically equals comedy, the laugh track is obnoxiously loud, its stars are greatly overpaid considering what they're being asked to do, it panders to idiocy, it aspires to absolutely nothing, it's killed much better television shows that deserve good ratings, but most importantly, it's just not funny. And when I talk about how bad the show is, I don't mean that the show sucks now that Charlie Sheen is gone. The show was no better when he was around.
This sense of masochism is largely how I watch anything meant for children. See, as a product of the 1990s, I have the privilege...well, less so than in the past...to be part of an elite group of people in their late teens and early twenties who get to bitch about how kids TV these days is significantly worse than it used to be. Go-to examples to take shots at include "Hannah Montana" and "Wizards of Waverly Place", or really anything currently airing on the Disney Channel.
In my opinion, this sentiment has become cool and not everything made for kids these days is a horrid wasteland. Could I name a kids' show right now that I enjoy? No, but that's probably only because I don't really watch these shows anymore. This is not to say, though, that there isn't ample evidence on television that children's programming has become nothing more than 21 or so minutes of fame-obsessed nihilism. Case in point: Disney Channel's "ANT Farm".
The "ANT Farm" is not an actual ant farm. That could potentially make for a much more enjoyable television show. Rather, the "ANT Farm" is a high school program for gifted children, with ANT standing for "advanced natural talents". In that program and at the center of the show are China, a musical prodigy and the show's protagonist, Olive, a girl with an eidetic memory, and Fletcher, an artistic genius. And you'll never believe this one, but apparently these natural talents often get them into trouble and other wacky misadventures. I do wonder how often a pitch for a show on Disney or Nickelodeon ends with "as a result, generic sitcom wackiness ensues, and you can lean back and watch the money pour in".
Would you also believe that a bitchy cheerleader is the main rival of a girl in the gifted program, or that the male best friend has a crush on the protagonist? I bet ya didn't guess that!
Is there anything redeemable about "ANT Farm"? Well, I can think of one pro off the top of my head, which is that the protagonist and her family are African American, which means that half the cast on this show isn't just the same white people on every other television show. Other than that? Meh. I wish I could count "giving "Saturday Night Live"'s Finesse Mitchell occasional work" as a plus, but I don't think I can.
Unfortunately, just because the cast is partially non-white doesn't mean the same unfortunate character archetypes aren't there. Which is probably the show's biggest narrative flaw, other than as mentioned earlier, it's yet another kids' show about the struggle to become famous or receive recognition for their abilities. Just because these kids are geniuses in certain fields of expertise doesn't mean they aren't also the same idiots on every other Disney show. Protagonist who makes mistakes but she means well? Check. Best friend who is a total idiot but is loveably naive? Check. Dopey male friend who is in love with the protagonist to the point that he really actively tries to sabotage any of protagonists' efforts at a basic teenage relationship? Check. This is really no different than the three main characters on something like "Hannah Montana", other than the fact that "ANT Farm" tries to tell us that these idiots can sometimes be geniuses if they want to be I guess. Really strange.
I found myself questioning whether kids would even enjoy this (apparently they are because "ANT Farm" made it to a second season), because the show plays like a bad sitcom that would been cancelled after two or three episodes in the Must See TV block, maybe airing before or after "The Cosby Show" sometime in the late 80s. Kids are kids and you can only expect so much, but even the adults on this show mug to no end and do everything they can to remind you that you are watching a bad sitcom. And the show's sense of humour seems more tuned in to someone in their 30s or 40s who laughs at things that either a) aren't funny or b) used to be funny because at least it was new or underused, and now the joke's been played to death so it's definitely not funny. Take for example a sample bit of dialogue from one of the episodes (yes, I watched more than one of these - like I said, masochist) I watched. The school's principal, Mrs. Skidmore, enters the cafeteria and announces she is giving out awards to the students, and being the new kid and audience surrogate, China is confused:
China: "What's going on?"
Olive: "Skidmore gives out these awards four times a year."
China: "Why, because she wants to recognize student achievement?"
Olive: "No, because she has all these evening gowns, and no one will ask her on a date."
Hi-larious. Kids everywhere must have been tickled endlessly by the fact that everyone finds this sad and lonely woman utterly repulsive. Those tweens, they love their humour of the pathetic.
Incidentally, while I don't expect much from the Disney Channel, the actress playing Olive really slurs through that last line and I'm surprised it passed for broadcast.
The most important thing I look for in a comedy is very simple: whether or not it's funny. I don't think that's asking too much, right? But in the case of a children's comedy (not that there are really children's dramas, although man, would I watch a pilot for that) I have to consider another important factor: would I want my hypothetical children watching this? Do I think it's appropriate? Is it offering any educational content? And above all else, is it instilling them with good values or teaching them lessons that reinforce the values that I would be teaching them myself outside of the time spent in front of the television? The answer to all of those questions is no. Sure, as something of a television masochist, I can appreciate a bad show for being bad and letting me laugh at its badness. But my aforementioned hypothetical children can be television masochists with me after they've stopped being impressionable kids who might learn nothing from this show other than "if I don't have my very rare special talent, I'm basically worthless".