We are living through the ‘Golden Age of Television’. Since the early 2000’s there has been mega hit after mega hit on television. The Soprano’s, The Wire and Game of Thrones are just a sliver of the giant pie that is high end television. With the dominance of streaming now enshrined it’s unlikely that the television epic is going away for a while at least. Some time ago a meeting somewhere was held, probably in secret, where a group of film makers and writers decided amongst themselves that television was no longer going to be the dull little brother of cinema. It was going to borrow heavily and steal it’s actors like the suave little brother stealing the others girlfriend. Things were awkward for a while but the two finally know how to live with each other. Quietly however there has been another revolution in television thats gone unseen by many adults. Kids TV has exploded and it very quickly outpacing adults television in terms of writing, cinematography and content. Children and teenagers are no longer being asked to passively sit by and absorbed whatever they get. Where my generation had Transformers, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Johnny Bravo kids today are challenged by Adventure Time, Steven Universe and Gravity Falls. And any adult not watching these shows is, honestly, missing out. I’m going ton concentrate on these three shows despite knowing there are a dozen others that are just as worthy. These are the ones I know and have watched either plenty of or am up to date with.
The first thing I want to do is chastise myself for continuously calling it ‘Kids TV’. From a quick scan of any of the shows I mentioned I have to say it’s not longer Kids television as I knew it. The Kids television I remember had a very simple purpose. Sell you shit. Both Transformers and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (as it was known in Ireland because apparently the word ‘Ninja’ was too violent for us) had toy and distribution deals all wrapped up well before they graced my little eyeballs. Their purpose was to be bright, fun and make sure there was a rotating bill of characters that could be patented and priced. This lead to a short, sharp, shock of great early episodes of both shows followed by a decline in their later years as the pressures of creating new characters forced the story out the window. And if you dare watch the shows without the the glasses of nostalgia you can see that, even for their time, they were only passable stories. That isn’t to say that the new shows are just doing it for the art. Adventure Time toys and products alone are as ubiquitous as Ramones T-Shirts on teenage girls. The difference is the shows, no longer in their infancy, are maintaing quality for years and their stories are compelling.
My first experience of Adventure Time was one of total confusion. My brother showed me the pilot and I thought it was a cute but all too eccentric idea that was bound to flame out. A few seasons in I was happily proved wrong in a massive way when, watching the show one day with my family I did a quick and very unscientific survey. My mother, in her late 40’s was compelled, as was my brother and myself who are both in our mid/late 20’s as well as my cousins were 15, 13 and 6 at the time. Not one of us were bored. In fact (excuse the cliche) there really was something in it for every one. At this point I knew Kids TV had changed. Jake (great name for a character) and Finn had a grasp on such a wide spectrum of personalities that it was impossible not to notice. Last year, when I came across Steven Universe, I began to see why this might be. These shows are starting to deal with universal, human issues where as when I was a kid it was about children’s issue. Episodes were ham fisted messages about not getting into strangers cars and being careful around the road. Where as Steven Universe’s is more about relationships, families and what it means to love and be loved (and thankfully beautifully choreographed fight scenes). These aren’t things exclusive to children. This is also some of the big questions asked in much of the ‘Golden Age’ Television. Big, dramatic, human themes. Gravity Falls also takes part in the question of what it means to be a family and takes the unusual route of creating a brother and sister team, Dipper and Mabel, and make them like each other for once. Gravity Falls, set over one mysterious summer in Oregon, is intelligent and challenging. The entire show is one big game, asking its viewers to work out hidden messages and ciphers hidden throughout the episodes, fitting in perfectly with it’s theme. It refuses to speak down to it’s viewer and instead challenges them. One of the strongest themes is bravery. Another human trait. Sometimes it’s the bravery of the dark cave, other times it’s telling somebody you love them and other times it’s just about the bravery to be yourself.
These are ideas we need to teach adults, not just children. Often we believe that adults are some how done developing. As though it’s all over when you start saving for retirement. But if we expect our media to instruct and entertain out children then we should probably expect the same treatment. What happened to Kids Tv? We grew up and learned how to make it. The creators now, with more power than ever, remember what it was like being a kid. They remember their fears, their passions and their past. Instead dredging the pit of nostalgia they focus on what they loved and make it new. They’re not afraid to make the monsters really terrifying, because monsters should be, and kids know that. They’re not afraid to put their characters in physical and psychological peril because they know kids will understand that fear. And they’re not afraid to talk about love of all kinds because they know kids will understand that too. These shows were created out of love, not nostalgia, and deals in giant universal themes. If you’re stuck for something to watch on a Saturday afternoon I beg you not to watch a single episode of ‘Reality TV’. Find some new cartoons. Stick them on and see what you’re missing.