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'Doc McStuffins' and kids' TV: The good stuff rises to the top

Doc McStuffins is one of the most successful new cartoon-series launches in recent years, and like a lot of children’s programming, it’s also a good show. But what do I mean by “good show” in this context? Is good kid TV a show that holds your children’s interest, that they want to see more than once? Is it material that holds your adult attention as well as your child’s? Is it a creation that teaches a moral lesson, or suggests commendable behavior?

When it comes to children’s programming, slightly different measurements of quality obtain, and that’s one of the primary things I plan to explore regularly in this space.

Take my Doc McStuffins example. This series, created by producer Chris Nee and CGI animated by Brown Bag films, is so lushly sleek-looking, an adult might be skeptical that there is good stuff here — after all, slickness = emptiness, right? Not so fast. The title character is a little girl, Dottie, whose mom is a pediatrician (Dad, as far as I’ve been able to tell, is the stay-at-home, good-cook kind).

Dottie emulates Mom’s profession in her fantasy life: She’s gathered her toys, which include a stuffed lamb, a rubbery-looking dinosaur, and a jack-in-the-box, and — wearing a white lab coat and her “magic” stethoscope around her neck, she solves minor medical mysteries, applies bandages to toy cuts and scrapes, and sings an original pop-rock song every so often. The look of Doc McStuffins is blindingly bright, dominated by pinks and purples, and Dottie has the big wide eyes that prevail in so much animation and on toys, since it’s the eyes that little kids fix on most readily in a toy or visual object. The look of the show is sumptuous; its animation seems to pick up the texture of, say, the knitted fabric of the lamb, or the dragon’s hard, plasticky scales.

There are subtexts running through Doc McStuffins. Dottie is black, one of the few such main characters on a major cable outlet like Disney Junior. And the mix of toys adds subtly to the notion of inclusiveness. Since Dottie conducts a lot of medical examinations on her toys, one result of the show might be fewer fears when a child goes to see a real doctor — after all, after seeing Dottie check a heartbeat with her stethoscope or look into her toy patients’ ears and eyes with her various tools, these intrusions don’t seem very intimidating.

It’s tricky to find the right combination of characters, plot points, design, and themes that will result in a good kids’ TV show. I’ve been looking at a lot of this programming, both new and long-running series. Most of the stuff that gets widely praised and reviewed tends to be the material that contains jokes and pop-culture references that can appeal to children and adults, such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Phineas and Ferb. Those are indeed excellent productions, but in the coming weeks I’ll talk about other shows floating around your network and cable channels (and on DVD) like Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, Justin Time, Poppy Cat, and the PBS Kids Sprout network, to open up discussions about what’s entertaining, educational, or tedious in TV for tykes.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll tell me what you think about Doc McStuffins, and what your kids watch.

Twitter: @kentucker


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