When I was a kid, there was only one children’s show to watch. Sesame Street. That was it, the be-all and end-all of preschool programming. I liked Sesame Street a lot, if I remember correctly, but I also don’t seem to remember learning too much. A hodgepodge of speaking, singing and dancing sketches, Sesame Street somehow had the feel of a children’s variety show, something I still find distasteful today. Nowadays, however, children have a veritable plethora of shows to keep them entertained while their parents desperately try to wrest a few quiet moments from the day.

  • There’s Thomas the Tank Engine, a quaint little show about a bunch of animated trains on the mythical island of Sodor. I liked Thomas a lot when George Carlin did the narration and the show was filmed with real miniatures. It was restful and charming, in a very low-tech way. Now the animation is done in CG, with someone who is definitely not George Carlin doing the talking, and I don’t like it so much.
  • There’s Dora the Explorer and her friend Diego, the Animal Rescuer, a pair of children devoted to exploring new places and rescuing lost animals, respectively. The shows are certainly engaging, and they do an admirable job of working the bilingual aspect into the dialogue (both Dora and Diego are Hispanic), but they are ultimately a little too co-dependent for me. The plots are very mission-driven (I’ll explain later) and the main characters’ entire raison d’être is to rescue someone or some animal who has managed to get itself into dire circumstances. Which brings me to the next show on my list . . .
  • The Wonderpets, my son’s absolute favorite show (shudder). The Wonderpets are three animals, a turtle, a duck, and a gerbil, who live in a cute little red one-room schoolhouse as the class pets. The three pets sit contentedly in their cages until they receive a call for help each episode (on their can-and-string telephone, of course) from a baby animal in distress. The pets then jump out of their cages and fly off (hence the name, “Wonderpets”) to wherever their help is needed. Yet another mission-driven, co-dependent kid’s show, but I’m getting ahead of myself once again.

There are countless other such shows for kids out there now, giving parents the option of a wide variety of educational entertainment. From Baby Einsteins to Caillou to Blue’s Clues to the intriguing new entry, Ni Hao, Kai-lan. They’re all pretty good, and some days, to be perfectly honest, if it’s good enough to catch my son’s attention for a few minutes, it’s a godsend.

But my personal favorite, the children’s show I would choose and watch even if my son weren’t watching with me (and I have), is clearly The Backyardigans. How much do I love this show? Well, since you asked, I’ll tell you. I’ve watched this show when John Tyler was taking a nap, much to my wife’s distress as she vainly tried to snuggle with me on the couch. I’ve found myself singing the songs from the show as I go for walks in the evening. Hell, I’ve even dreamt about the show.

That’s how much I love it. So what's up with that, you ask? Why is a grown man watching entertainment specifically aimed at two- to ten-year-olds?

It's really good stuff, that's why. Every show starts with the Backyardigans meeting in their adjoining backyards to explore wherever their imaginations take them that day, from an around-the-world race to a deep tropical rainforest, from a journey on a pirate ship to an ancient pyramid.

The sky's the limit because the each episode is a journey into exactly the kind of fantasy play that happens in every little kid’s mind. Nickelodeon puts it really well when it describes the show on its website.

For little kids, the line between reality and fantasy is very thin. Their backyards can suddenly turn into pirate ships, distant planets, desert dunes, or whatever they can imagine. That’s what The Backyardigans is all about.

In each episode, the five friends -- Uniqua, Pablo, Tyrone, Tasha, and Austin -– conjure up a different imaginary world in which to play. These “worlds” may or may not have any relationship to the real world around them. A tree in the backyard might magically transform into an enchanted castle, or it might disappear entirely as the backyard morphs into a vast ocean. It’s all up to the whims of the five “children” and their vivid imaginations.

This has never been a difficult concept for me, and I wouldn’t expect it to be a tough sell for anyone else either. I mean, if you can accept a Star Trek holodeck, why not a kid’s backyard that magically transforms into whatever the kids may desire? But for some "bean counter" types, it actually presents a quandary.

Take Wikipedia. Please. No, seriously, the Wiki-entry for The Backyardigans devotes several pages to a hilariously serious discussion of the show’s “Setting” and “Props,” apparently finding it quite difficult to accept the notion that “not everything that appears in the imaginary world has a real-world partner” and “the characters often pull items out of thin air, or from behind their backs.” But then again, the same entry also runs aground on the notion that the “children” are made to look like animals, but they have posters of Pelé and Mia Hamm, who are both obviously human.

When looking over this part of the Wikipedia entry, I could only think of the robot from Lost in Space flailing its arms wildly, shouting “Danger Will Robinson. This does not compute.”

Get a grip. It’s a kid’s show. A good kid’s show, to be sure, but nonetheless a show intended for children. Children for whom, as Nickelodeon reminds us, the line between reality and fantasy is very thin.

Just like us noders.

Anyway, enough digressing. Back to the show. Like I said, there are five different Backyardigans. Uniqua, Pablo and Tyrone are the three main ones, while Tasha and Austin are supporting characters. How do I know this? Because there's a website where one of the parents reconstructed, and posted, an extensive aerial view and analysis of the children's five houses, showing that Uniqua, Pablo and Tyrone's backyards actually merge to form a large "super-backyard," if you will, while Tasha and Austin are left to sneak in or through fences to get in on the action. Clearly, the show has a devoted following.

  • There’s Uniqua, a cute little pink polka dot creature, apparently female, but of uncertain species. Some say she’s a ladybug, but it’s not entirely clear. A tough little tomboy, complete with overalls, Uniqua routinely steps up to more aggressive, assertive roles often reserved for boys. A piece of trivia, Uniqua is not only her name, but also her species.
  • My personal favorite is Pablo the penguin, an energetic, neurotic little overthinker who often takes the lead in terms of ideas and creativity, but who routinely veers off into “panic attacks” when the hijinks go awry, as they always do. When he goes into one of these attacks, Pablo will typically run around in circles, flapping his stubby little wings and shouting “Oh boy, oh boy, oh man, oh man” until someone shouts him down with a friendly “Pablo? Pablo? PABLO!!”
  • My wife and son’s favorite is Tyrone, a laid-back orange moose who chimes in with ironic comments from time to time. For example, in one episode three Backyardigans are chasing a Yeti across the North Pole when Tasha chimes in “We need kayaks to cross this water,” at which point they spot three kayaks that just happen to be sitting on the banks of the river. Tyrone comments, “Well, that certainly is convenient.”
  • The last two, Tasha and Austin, much like the Professor and Mary Anne, are relegated to perpetual also-ran status. Tasha is kind of a prissy little you-know-what, if you ask me, but Austin is a lovably “sweet and guileless” little kangaroo (I think) who constantly tries to be one of the guys.

But if the characters are lovable and the plots are fun, it’s the music of the Backyardigans that is truly remarkable. Each show has a theme. One week it might be swing music, the next country, the next rock. There are four original songs each episode, with the characters singing and dancing to each. The songs are worked into the plot, so, for example, Pablo and Tryone might be singing about “trudging” as they climb a huge pile of sand on a quest for a magic rock. The music is performed well, with separate voices brought in for the singing. The dancing is filmed in live action first, with the CG graphics based on the live actors’ movements.

And these songs are seriously catchy. On my way to the coffee shop to write this node, for example, I found that I couldn’t get this snappy little Cajun number out of my head (“Go, go, go, go, go . . .”). Well, I guess you had to be there. But not only are these songs entertaining for adults, they really grab the kids’ attention, too (go figure).

And while I’m talking about the music, I’ve got to tell you about what I consider one of the most heartbreakingly sweet lullabies I’ve ever heard. That would be a little number called “Hush, Little Mermaid,” a song by Pablo, Tyrone, and Austin in the Vikings Voyage episode, to get Tasha, a mermaid for the day, to fall asleep. It works, but Pablo manages to sing himself to sleep during the song too. The video is posted on YouTube, and I highly recommend watching it, whether you have kids or not.

Last, but not least, the Backyardigans deserves special attention because, unlike many other children’s shows out there, it is not aggressively mission-driven. What does this mean? Well, consider shows such as Dora, Little Einsteins, Diego and the Wonderpets. These are excellent shows, to be sure, full of lessons in problem solving and teamwork. But all of these shows are focused on achieving a set goal or accomplishing a mission. Often a mission to “rescue” another animal, child, or other helpless creature who cannot help itself. As one web commentator-parent aptly observed, “we might as well integrate basic mission statement writing into the preschool curriculum.”

The Backyardigans are a refreshing change, a show that works the way kid’s minds do. Yet it does so without the chaotic free-for-all of Curious George or the sometimes languid monotone of Caillou. Instead, it’s just about imagination and fun. You know, the way things were when you were a kid.

I discovered The Backyardigans early on in its first season in 2004, before it had a full 20 episodes, back when CBS was still running Viacom content from Nick, Jr. in its Saturday morning lineup. No one else I knew watched the show, whether or not they had kids. When I discovered it, I immediately knew it was different. Something new. It felt like a show destined for cult status, like the newly arrived Grey's Anatomy, or Lost, only without all the hype or critical acclaim, and buried in the Saturday morning lineup in between the bizarre Icelandic import Lazy Town and the uber-popular Dora the Explorer. While it would be bounced from network TV to cable when CBS and Viacom split in 2006, its popularity nevertheless grew, leading to fan blogs, Wikipedia entries, and merchandising mania (an entire aisle at my local Target store has product).

For connoisseurs of animation, the show's 3-D CGI animation (created by Nelvana) might be offputting. While the show uses realistic background, the characters neotenic features are rounded and simplified, as if animated in the mid-1990s (when less processing power was available to animators and it was more expensive. The look of the Backyardigans characters seems slightly more advanced above the limbless VeggieTales cast but not as articulated as the cast of Reboot). But this show isn’t about the animation (Although Animator Jeff Astolfo did win a Daytime Emmy in 2007 for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation.)

There are four reasons The Backyardigans stands out:

1. Dance. The show has hands-down, the best choreography in children’s television. The reason? Beth Bogush, the show’s choreographer. As a dancer with thirty years of performing experience and a former teacher for The Ailey School of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, she knows dance. The show hires real dancers. The dancers are videotaped, and the animators at Nelvana use the video as a reference. The Backyardigans, short and round though they be, dance like people--people who know how to dance.

2. Music. So if I were going to create a musical program for kids, going after the same market that The Wiggles and Barney the Purple Dinosaur had conquered, what would I look for? I dunno, maybe the guys from Avenue Q to bring back that Joe Rasposo sound?

How about a pianist/composer for a Thelonius Monk-based “fake jazz” band that also counted prog rock, Kurt Weill, and Erik Satie among its influences? Probably wouldn’t be my first choice. Or an intuitive choice at all. Nevertheless, Nick, Jr. hired Evan Lurie, a founding member of the Lounge Lizards, to score the show, and he has the musical chops to take on most any genre. And for The Backyardigans, he does.

Musical director Lurie and Douglas Wieselman create four songs for each episode (usually one is a traditional melody, the other three original), plus a theme and background music. Four songs in a twenty two minute show? That makes this show a musical (as opposed to other shows tailored for young children, where one song is tacked on as an introduction and a finale).

In the early planning stages of the show, Lurie created a list of musical genres. Someone made the decision to use a different genre each episode. So far, in three seasons, they’ve tackled hip-hop, Gilbert and Sullivan, swing, ska, country-western, polka, norteño, jazz from different eras, mambo, bollywood, opera, rock from just about every decade, bossa nova, klezmer, funk, Motown, tango….

But here’s a stroke of genius: the genre of music chosen is not the obvious one. As the kids search for the perfect wave in “Surf's Up,” the gang sings to lively Afro-beat arrangements. In “Riding the Range,” an episode featuring the gang on the way to a hoedown in Texas, the music is hip hop. It's counterintuitive, but it works. “The Key to the Nile” is set in Ancient Egypt, but the music is pure Broadway. The next season adds Alicia Keyes as a guest voice in “Mission to Mars,” where space exploration gets a Kenyan Highlife beat. In all of these cases, Lurie uses a full complement of musicians and sounds. You won't hear a keyboard trying to fill in for a horn or a string section.

Whether the music is Western Swing or Django Reinhardt, Lurie and Weiselman manage to make it work (along with the lyrics of series head writer McPaul Smith). This isn’t kids music. It’s enjoyable music, plain and simple. (Parents who have purchased the soundtrack CDs of the show for their kids are known to slip several songs into their own iPod playlists).

Oh, and this also means that Bogush has to choreograph in a new dance style each episode. Disco. Line dancing. Hip hop. The Charleston. Flamenco. It's all there.

3. Voice. In the US and Canadian versions of the show, the characters, who are child-age in the show, are voiced by children. So instead of a thirty-year-old voiceover artist trying on a kid voice, a ten year old boy is doing the voice of a six year old boy/moose. It’s surprising how much a difference this makes, aurally, in capturing the feel of kids at play.

4. Content. The show is the brainchild of Janice Burgess, who started as an executive at Nick, Jr., overseeing the production of award-winning shows like Blue’s Clues and Little Bill. When she was given the greenlight to become a creator, she put together a show about kids playing--not about kids learning to count, or learning to follow a sequence of instructions in two languages, or exploring emotional intelligence. She created a show where kids play, and use their imaginations to go on adventures. In the realm of television shows aimed at two to five year olds, each with their own team of educational psychologists to develop learning outcomes, this is a refreshing change.

The scripts often features clever dialogue, although, to be sure, because of the target audience (two to ten year old children), certain plotlines (haunted houses, ninjas, mad scientists, secret agents, English drawing room mystery) are defanged and played for laughs.

The show won a Gemini Award in 2007 for Best Pre-School Program, and a Gracie Award in 2008 in the category of Outstanding Children/Adolescent Program.

Janice Burgess. “Meet the Creator of the Backyardigans.” NickJr.com. <http://www.nickjr.com/shows/backyardigans/back_meet_creators.jhtml> (May 28, 2008)
Eileen Clarke. “Bring It On.” Entertainment Weekly. October 4, 2006. <http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,1542683,00.html> (May 28, 2008)
Mark Fleischmann, et. Al. “Lounge Lizards.” TrouserPress. <http://trouserpress.com/entry.php?a=lounge_lizards> (May 28, 2008)
Internet Movie Database. "The Backyardigans." <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0439349/> (May 28, 2008) Cynthia Littleton. ‘"The Backyardigans'" musical tour guide is a Lounge Lizard.” Variety. September 19, 2007. <http://weblogs.variety.com/on_the_air/2007/09/the-backyardiga.html> (May 28, 2008)

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