Over the last few weeks, TV Guide correspondent Robert Edelstein previewed a spate of new programs for preschool audiences. After he was done (and ate a box of animal crackers, washed down by a juice box... ), he debriefed TV Guide's family editor, Michael Davis.
Michael Davis: What was the best new series of the bunch?
Robert Edelstein: I completely loved Curious George (PBS, premiering Sept. 4). To me, it hit the ever-elusive triple: It's spirited-enough fun for kids, it's got sophistication within its presentation to be way more than tolerable for adults, and it has enough warm and fuzzy references to the Curious George we remember. But the secret of its success is found in three words: William H. Macy, the voice of the narrator. OK, I guess that's two words and one initial, if you're getting technical.
Davis: I really enjoyed it, too, because it found a way to be contemporary without abandoning all that is so timeless and charming from the original books. But the series I've been really talking up is The Upside Down Show (Oct. 2, Noggin), starring the hilarious Umbilical Brothers from Australia. It's a great series about two guys who romp from room to room in this strange, wondrous house, making jokes, practicing weird sounds and interacting extremely well with the kids at home. Did you watch this one with your kids?
Edelstein: I did, and I found my 7-year-old daughter asking for it again. It amazes me to see what we each love about it. I can go on and on about its special brand of cleverness: the sounds, the endless number of doors (even really small ones), the great sketch-nature of the comedy, and, above all, the fourth-wall-smashing part of it where the guys hand an imaginary remote control to the viewer, and the kids at home, when prompted, get the chance to "control" how fast and slow the guys move, and whether or not they move forward or backward. That breaking of the wall is very appealing and is a big reason I like the series. Meanwhile, Nellie, my daughter, says, "I like it 'cause it's really funny." Boils it right down, doesn't it? Makes me feel kinda dumb for overintellectualizing it.
Davis: I'll be surprised if The Upside Down Show isn't a big fat hit. It's like a cartoon come to life in many ways, and it offers a really tilted way of looking at the world. What were your impressions of the new character on Sesame Street, Abby Cadabby, the fairy godchild? She's received a lot of hype. [See related Q&A, also in today's Insider.]
Edelstein: My only problem with Abby is that she's "new," and, as with any new character, the show has to introduce her and all her quirks. So what I'm really saying is my only problem with Abby is the folks at Sesame Street sent me one episode instead of 20. I'm psyched to see how she continues to interact. I think she's charming, innocent and fun. I don't know that there's any rhyme or reason to what makes a character catch on. It's like trying to write a hit single. I think Abby will be a worthy Muppet. But will kids clamor for "Tickle Me Abby" this winter? I don't know, and I don't think it's important.
Davis: Disney Channel is reaching out to Hispanic audiences with its new CG series Handy Manny (Fall, Playhouse Disney), voiced by Wilmer Valderrama (That '70s Show). It's certainly earnest, and it has its heart in the right place, but I wasn't bowled over by it, were you?
Edelstein: Here's what I was bowled over by: The dang theme song from Los Lobos. I don't know why I found it so infectious, but it could have gone on for five minutes. I thought the show was "fine." Sometimes a show attempts to live up to the credo too much: 1) You Will Educate, 2) You Will Entertain, 3) You Will Have a Message and 4) Your Talking Hammer Will Be Insecure About His Ability to Aim Correctly. Too many shows are just "fine," but that's what makes the great ones stand out.
Davis: You said Nick Jr.'s new Wow! Wow! Wubbzy (Aug. 28) reminds you of vintage video-game characters from the age of Ms. Pac-Man. Do you think that's deliberate?
Edelstein: I absolutely think it is. It's funny, you talk to kid-show publicists about new shows, and read the press material and find out things I personally would never have noticed, like differences in the way certain characters are drawn as a way to differentiate between cultures. One school-age kids' show, for instance Kappa Mikey purposely has the American character drawn in the thicker lines of traditional American animation, and the Japanese characters drawn in thinner lines, as per anime style. I'll have to ask my kids if they notice that certain animated characters are drawn differently within a show. But with Wubbzy, a show that has been podcast and seems already to have a big Web presence, it does seem intentional. And I found that element of the "sets" somewhat comforting.
Davis: To me, Pinky Dinky Doo on Noggin and The Wonder Pets! on Nick Jr. are two of the best series for preschoolers to come along in ages. Though entirely different, they each have a distinctive visual style that might be best described as simple but elegant.
Edelstein: They do, but what I love best about those shows is they absolutely, positively do not take themselves seriously. Yes, they try to educate and entertain, but, in a manner of speaking, you don't "see the strings on the puppets," and I love that. On Manny, for instance and any number of other shows, older and new you do see what's coming. There's nothing wrong with Manny; it's just that it's "fine." And I'd put JoJo's Circus in the same company as Pinky and Wonder Pets. And speaking of Pinky, any show where a father and his daughter love each other very much and could, if they chose, have a burping contest is required viewing for us here in the Edelstein house. But hey, that's just us.
Coming Tuesday: What's new for school-age kids.
Later in the week: Tweens, teens and a look at TV ratings.
Also on TVGuide.com Insider: a recap of kids' returning favorites.
For more "parental guidance" to the fall season, pick up the Aug. 14 issue of TV Guide magazine.
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