I have to say for current or expecting parents of wee ones, you can’t go wrong with The Backyardigans
What Sam fails to explain is WHY you can’t go wrong with The Backyardigans. And not simply because it is the BEST KIDS TELEVISION SHOW EVER.
Let me tell you why:
1. Kid voice talent
Like classic Peanuts cartoons, The Backyardigans is voiced by kids (although different kids for speaking and singing). A kid actor not delivering a joke quite right is still WAY funnier than a professional adult not delivering a joke quite right (sorry Yeardley Smith). Also since much of the dialogue is anachronistic genre-speak (see below), the juxtaposition can be both DELIGHTFUL and WEIRD (cf. Bugsy Malone).
2. Building genre literacy
Because each episode is set in a different narrative universe (ostensibly, in the characters’ imaginations), kids watching the show are exposed to a broad array of genre tropes they can reapply to their own imaginative play. From show to show these same five characters (Uniqua, Austin, Pablo, Tasha, and Tyrone) are variously knights, surfers, scientists, superheroes, robots, vikings, bikers, butlers, mermaids, barkeeps, mounties, museum guards, cowgirls, vampires, genies, harbor rescue patrol officers, tie-wearing mission control workers, or international super spies. Stories are set in ancient Egypt, outer space, Ming China, a British country estate, the Florida swamp, colonial Mexico, and even CZARIST RUSSIA.
For preschool-aged kids, knowing that pirates say “Arrr” and cowboys say “Yahoo” is ALL THAT YOU NEED to start playing with peers. For my kid, whose social and imaginative play skills were delayed (but who loved quoting TV shows), Backyardigans DVDs were an awesome form of speech therapy.
While each of the characters have their own mannerisms, each episode also introduces repeated stock phrases specific to the story genre.
Meaning kids learn when it’s appropriate to say “Ahoy!” or “Eureka!” or “MWAHAHAHA!” Kids watching Handy Manny or Dragon Tales will be a little less likely to insert “Ho daddy!”, “Dagnabbit!” or “Hi-ho, old chap!” into a conversation.
4. Music (The Killer Feature)
Sam mentions how the show has great music but neglects to mention that EACH AND EVERY EPISODE is an ORIGINAL MUSICAL in a DIFFERENT MUSICAL GENRE. To do this for 73 episodes, the genres cannot stay as simple as “Reggae” or “Disco”. They must be as specific as: Kenyan Highlife, Tarantella, jump blues, Norteño, psychedelic soul, and Countrypolitan. And (with one or two exceptions) the musical genre is COMPLETELY UNRELATED to the episode’s narrative. So a horse race episode is set to Klezmer, a story set in the old west is scored with Algerian Raï, and an epic of knights and dragons is sung to Queen-like operatic rock.
And there is no Little Einsteins-like prologue to INFORM the viewer that what they are about to hear is in the style of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. The show exposes kids to culture without worrying one bit whether it is teaching them anything.
Composer/musical director Evan Lurie also has the budget to use real studio musicians, so that (except for the auto-tuned vocals) each genre sounds like itself. A fair number of Backyardigans tracks have made their way onto Daddy’s playlists is what I am saying.
I will grant you that not every episode is as awesome as “Save the Day” or “The Masked Retriever”. And the better episodes start in Season Two, when they begin casting the characters against the types they had pretty well stuck to in Season One (and also when the stories evolved from simple “Pirate” or “Cowboy” stories into combinations of “Cops + Robots” or “Bakers + Ninjas”).
And do beware of “The Legend of the Volcano Sisters”, a nightmarish portrayal of dysfunctional American gender politics.
Otherwise? Yes. YOU CANNOT GO WRONG.