Television is a vast wasteland, according to Newton Minow.

Read a book.

Posted: 23 September 2007 | posted by David J. Loehr |

As long as I'm checking out new shows, I might as well comment on some that I wouldn't normally watch except for the fact that I'm a work-at-home dad (in the mornings) and thus have a lot of repetitive, competitive kids' shows fighting for my sons' attention spans. SuperWhy! is one of those shows, alas.

Yes, that's an exclamation point.

What I saw: SuperWhy!.
Where it's at: PBS, weekday mornings, times may vary
Who made it: Angela C. Santomero, of Blue's Clues
Glib deconstruction: Get a clue.
What I thought: Not very much.
What I'll do: Endure it for the littlest one, for now.

Before I go into my own reaction, let me share the boys' impressions. My two year old watched, rapt and happy, and now he asks for it by name. After a day or two, I decided to TiVo an episode to try on the five year old, as he's usually as school at that time of day.

I knew the show was in trouble when--during the credits--the first thing the five year old said was, "Shouldn't that be a question mark?" followed shortly by, "But that isn't a question." We agreed that "super why" meant that you reeeeeally wanted to know why.

Of course, it's in the same vein as Blue and Dora and Little Einsteins, all the shows by the same core creative people trying to outdo one another in crafting puzzles for preschoolers. My eyes were beginning to cross by the time they got to the second meta-layer of reality within the setup. Not the story, mind you, still the setup.

Once they finally entered a storybook, the five year old chimed in with, "That's too many layers." Since we've never talked about things like that, I asked what he meant. "First, it's a library, then Storybook Village, then the Book Club, and then they jump into a book?" Right, and... "If the storybook friends live in Storybook Village, what are they doing inside a book inside a club inside the village?"

I think I hugged him at that point.

The heroes enter books in order to solve some everyday problem in Storybook Village. What kind of problems? A cat is stuck up a tree, and they want to know how to get it down. "Get a ladder," says the five year old. Twenty-five minutes and several expositional sequences later, they get a ladder.

However, in order to enter the books at all, they become "the Super Readers." Which would be fine if they actually read the books and learned from them. What they really are is "Super Editors," because once they enter a book, they discover that something is wrong, i.e. Rapunzel has short hair. So the magical Princess Presto spells "grow," and poof, long hair. Okay, so they've "fixed" the story, which, unless you know the book, might seem more difficult to solve than the problem they're actually trying to solve. But then, they proceed to further change the book, i.e. it hurts for the Prince to climb Rapunzel's hair, so "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your ladder," and poof, she's free.

To top it all off, they have to collect magic letters while in the book, which will eventually spell out the solution to their problem. They leave the book, go back to their book club and then need their computer to spell out the magic solution.

Even trying to explain this is hurting my brain.

The thing is, in changing the classic stories, they alter or lose the lesson or moral of the original. Now, Goldilocks is Baby Bear's regular babysitter, and she thought they'd be home and accidentally made a mess while waiting for them. But isn't the point of the story not to go into places you don't belong? I suppose the "don't make a mess with other people's stuff" is still there, but the primary lesson is lost.

If they were readers, they would read the story and learn from it. Period. This leaves the impression that books are malleable, interactive experiences inasmuch as you can change them however you see fit, never mind the author or the creative impulse behind them. Books don't change as you read them.

On a second viewing, the five year old noticed just how much of each episode was repurposed from the last one, which is to say most of the transformational segments as they go from layer to layer within the premise. "Why didn't they make a new show?" I've noticed that children don't mind repetition so much, but there's a difference between repeating a song or routine and repeating the exact footage over and over without change or variation.

Apparently, this was the project that Angela C. Santomero worked on as her thesis project, long before she created Blue's Clues. Blue, pre-speech and dopey puppetry, was a far more engaging character and series that drew children in; thanks to Blue, my eldest scared the preschool folks a few years back by naming chartreuse and aquamarine on a color chart. By contrast, this is flat and empty, which is ironic considering the many layers and dimensions they've tried to build into the thing.

My two year old watches and it keeps him occupied. My five year old went off to read some Winnie the Pooh. The real one, not the Disney, not the picture books.

I guess the real super "Why?" would be, why did PBS think this was worth the time and trouble?

UPDATE: One week later, and the two year old refuses to watch because "it's the same." Even he's noticed how much of every episode is the same recycled animation from day to day. Good work, PBS.