My Least Favorite Martians
I thought I’d endured the last of the TV indignities. We’d passed the false god of Baby Einstein, and my son’s interest in Dora the Explorer was declining. Even Dora’s cousin Diego, the most cynically introduced cartoon spin-off character since … Read More
For those of you who’ve avoided visual contact with these animated distortions of all that is good and holy about childhood, please allow me to provide background. The Backyardigans are five child-animals—a beanie-wearing penguin, a moose, a girl hippo, a boy kangaroo, and a female buglike creature named “Uniqua”—who meet in the seemingly infinite backyard of their suburban neighborhood and have adventures that are imaginative only in the most generic way possible. Cowboys say “Yahoo!” while they “ride the range,” and a hunt for “soccer monsters” devolves into a rejected Scooby-Doo script, only without the eye candy and the stoner. Worse, The Backyardigans, like most contemporary kids' shows, incorporates multiple sub-Broadway numbers into every plot, creating 10-minute operettas where none is needed. The songs usually end up sounding like rejects from the original score to Wicked.
“How can he like that show?” I asked my wife. “It’s crap!”
“The more you tell him that,” she said. “The more he’ll want to watch it.”
I tested this theory.
“Elijah,” I said. “I don’t like The Backyardigans.”
“But I do!” he said. “And I want to watch it right now!”
My wife is such a reasonable person.
You may ask: If you don’t like what your child watches on TV, then why do you let him watch at all? Well, we’re TV people. It’s hard for a guy who spent every Saturday night of his boyhood watching The Love Boat to get overly censorious of his own kid’s tube habits.
But if Elijah is going to watch his hour or so of TV a day, then I’d like to have at least a little say. It’s part of his daily diet. And just like with diet, I want to feed him stuff that’s good. Not necessarily good for him—he’s only 4, and he isn’t exactly going to cotton to Masterpiece Theater’s adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit—but at least well-made.
This reflects my larger parenting philosophy. Why play soppy kids’ music for Elijah when Bloodshot Records puts out its own compilation for kids? Why should he watch The Land Before Time 7 when there are perfectly good Discovery Channel dinosaur documentaries also on DVD? Why should he eat processed pre-bagged popcorn when we can make our own together in just a couple extra minutes? Quality matters, and for the most part, it’s not any more expensive. In the most rudimentary way, I want to teach him to think critically, or at least discerningly. Preferring one TV show to another may not be developing a point of view, but it's a start of sorts.
It was “Mission to Mars” that finally set me off. In this very special episode, the Backyardigans go to Mars with their pretend dog robot, wittily named “Rover,” and find the red planet populated by googly-eyed aliens who sing a bouncy song while doing Martian aerobics. It was the lamest fictional depiction of Mars that I’d ever seen. I found myself simultaneously sad and furious. My childhood Mars had meant Ming the Merciless and the semi-psychedelia of Ray Bradbury. My son’s imaginary Mars deserved much more interesting treatment. The time had come to show Elijah what a real Martian looked like.
Enter the Justice League. Unlike the cheesy, campy, poorly animated Superfriends cartoons of my childhood, with the Wonder Twins and other made-up “ethnic” superheroes, this show captures the reality of comic-book heroes better than any other cartoon, ever, and possibly better than any live-action movie. The fights are exciting, the writing witty, and the animation top-notch. As an added bonus, Justice League strongly hints that Batman and Wonder Woman got it on. Most importantly, Justice League features the coolest Martian in our popular culture: J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter. This guy, the last survivor of his kind, is a shape-shifting badass philosopher, a sophisticated, wise, Yoda-like tutor of the spirit, with the additional draw of terrible personal problems.
A boy could really profit by the Martian Manhunter’s example and his guidance. So I made the editorial decision. Elijah and I would watch Justice League. We’d be father and son, joined for eternity in dorkdom.
Regina, on the other hand, thought Elijah was too young. She objected.
“It’s too violent,” she said. “He’s only 4.”
“But it’s awesome,” I said.
As usual, I wasn’t going to be stopped, until I stopped myself.
I chose to start off with an archetypal two-parter where Lex Luthor, acting typically sinister, assembles a team of supervillains to destroy the League once and for all. Elijah drooled with joy for 40 minutes and then began asking important questions. “Why is Green Lantern green? … Why does Hawkgirl fly? …Why does Batman have his hand on Wonder Woman’s back?”
And finally, “Is that what all Martians are like?”
“Martians can be whatever you imagine them to be,” I said.
“Like on The Backyardigans?” he asked.
“Not exactly,” I said.
Two steps forward.
A few nights later, after watching an episode where the Flash and The Martian Manhunter fight a giant fire-breathing snake that’s been unleashed by otherworldly forces, Elijah woke up crying. He’d dreamed he and a friend had fallen down a hole and were being eaten by moles. That's what I get for trying to "educate" my son by showing him a violent superhero cartoon. Then again, he claimed that he wasn’t scared, that the moles were, in fact, cool. My wife didn’t buy into this line.
“You don’t know if there’s a correlation … ”
Her glare annoyed me, but she was right. The giant snake had scared me a little.
The next day, I told Elijah that Justice League wouldn’t be on anymore. He was only mildly upset, and I considered it a small victory that I'd broadened his range of characters a little. At least he knew another Martian, and at least he’d invented an imaginary superhero character called Yellow Lantern. And another named Orange Lantern.
But The Backyardigans continued to rule. We needed a long-term, subtle plan. Over the next few months, I supplemented Elijah's hour-a-day TV diet with other shows. Regina found a few episodes of a Canadian show called Popular Mechanics for Kids, and now Elijah knows a lot about recycling and the medical uses of leeches. We watched the original Christopher Reeve Superman movie, which is simply a chestnut for kids, along the lines of The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. Gradually, he came to ignore The Backyardigans. I’d like to think it’s because he’d finally learned the difference between good TV and bad.
Meanwhile, I've got a lot of Justice League episodes earmarked on YouTube. They can wait until Elijah is 7.