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OFFSEASON CONTENT GENERATOR: Fond memories of early 2000s PBS cartoons

The times, they are a changin’.

2006 Summer TCA Day 17 Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

It’s the offseason, which means this blog has unleashed a flood of offseason content generator posts. From the great staff that brought you “mid-major teams as Asian restaurant items” and “times to eat lunch, ranked”, we now want you to remember Sagwa, the Siamese cat.


The early 2000s are old now. This year will mark the 15th anniversary of the Bush vs. Kerry election, something I vividly remember watching. Just as that election is the primordial ooze of political consciousness which this upcoming generation swims in, the educational television programing of the early 2000s is the ooze surrounding the ooze, a.k.a. the stuff people my age actually cared about it.

By the way, we’re starting a running joke where every article will reference Game of Thrones at least once, because we love keywords and search traffic.

Lately, especially in light of Game of Thrones, the so-called “final unifying event of television,” the last prince of universal pop culture. has been declared dead. This is, in my opinion, patently ridiculous. Since the invention of the printing press, the literate classes that devour culture have repeatedly found mass entertainment to sate their souls. Remember when video killed the radio star?

Yeah, we didn’t stop unifying around pop cultural moments after that event. By now, we’ve actually infused pop culture into sports, government, political life, jobs and every waking second we stare at screens. There will be another Big TV Moment. I guarantee it. Even if it’s on Youtube TV or WhatTimeIsItRightNow.com.

But that’s irrelevant. My point is, even beyond the “universal” cultural touchstones, there are still dozens and dozens of moments and entertainment properties that unify you and your friends, or you and your generation. And those count even more, honestly. These are the things people care about even more and, importantly for media executives, buy merchandise for. So, what do I have to say about these generational pop culture moments?

Let’s talk about PBS Kids!

I watched a depressing amount of television when I was younger. In order to salt away the guilt from my parents for both working full-time jobs, they decided that it was ok to be raised by television (and various day cares) as long as my sister and I watched “educational” programing. This meant hours of PBS Kids, a two-hour block of shows that specifically aired when children were coming back from school.

We were allowed to watch as much PBS Kids as we wanted, for some reason. Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network or Disney Channel were luxury items, mostly reserved for weekends, rewards or holidays. All this TV, of course, likely backfired tremendously on my very professional, stressed East Coast parents. My sister is now a digital artist/animator and I am moonlighting as a “culture journalist,” which means we will make precisely zero dollars in our lives (but we can both sing the entire SpongeBob Campfire Song, so there’s that). That’s ok, when the climate apocalypse comes, I’ll be put out of my misery and she’ll design propaganda for the American version of Odoacer.

Regardless, I’ve found two truisms about PBS Kids things in my life.

  1. I was not alone.
  2. They tried really hard.

PBS was big on making television “useful” for children by teaching them math, English, science, or life lessons.

This was a noble goal, but it likely failed miserably. I don’t remember a single educational lesson I learned from Cyberchase, but I do remember Gilbert Gottfried and Christopher Lloyd’s voices. Arthur did not help my moral rectitude, but I remember the “Crazy Bus” song.

Likewise, attempts at cross-cultural representation and multiculturalism were well-meaning. I always thought they did a good job of this, even as a child, but the direction of the country is...uh...making me doubt this concept worked (young people, why can’t you just vote and stop embarrassing the poor PBS writers?). It turns out that television was probably just phenomenally useless and addictive, just like they always thought.

Nevertheless, it was still a good time. They tried so hard with these shows. They tried really hard at Nick, Cartoon Network and Disney too. And as the recent proliferation Arthur or Lazy Town memes showed, everyone respected that. Here is a collection of theme songs that should stir memories among the 10 people still reading this piece (hi Emma, please, go do something else):

Clifford the Big Red Dog isn’t allowed to be embedded into this article, for some reason.

Don’t forget the Arthur song is such a banger that Chance the Rapper used it in a song.

That being said, in light of the golden age of animated cartoons and the syndication of anime of the 2010s, the PBS content is still kinda bad. This is true of almost every animated series as time progresses, due to technology advancement and investment. Peppa Pig is demonstrably more watchable than Dora the Explorer, which was more watchable than Teletubbies. There’s no critically-acclaimed Sopranos or Secret of NIMH for children’s animated shows: the only way to go is up.

For example, let’s look at Sawga, the Chinese Siamese Cat, which ran from 2001-02.

This is not great. I mean, just compare Sagwa to something like The Amazing World of Gumball.

It’s not even close. I understand they are trying to do different things, but one is re-watchable in 2019 and one is not. And don’t even ask if the cats survived the Boxer Rebellion or the Sino-Japanese Wars. Regardless, at any particular moment in the history of animated television content, the best you get is the best you get, which means you remember it fondly.

The best of the PBS Kids block was definitely Arthur, which is The Simpsons of the children’s programming world. Based on a series of books about anthropomorphic animals living in Boston Elwood City by Marc Brown, the show started in 1996 and is still running to this day.

It was great! There were guest stars, good songs and good plots. It was high-quality. The only issues I’ve found is that the distribution company, Cookie Jar Industries, had a massive fraud investigation during its time (yes, really). Short list of my favorite episodes: The Jeopardy! parody with Alex Trebek guest starring, the infamous Green Potato Chip, the Snowball Incident, and the one where Buster enrolls in the older brother program. There was also the Harry Potter/Henry Screever parody episode, which was literally a documentary. To anyone reading this who came of age after all the Harry Potter books were released, yes, there were informal competitions to see who could get the books and finish them first. Those were the days.

Arthur also did plenty to try to advance messages, not going to lie. Adoption, divorce, death, mental illness, disabilities: it’s all there. Even up to the latest season opener, where Mr. Ratburn had a gay wedding, the show has consistently tried to introduce social consciousness to a kids’ audience.

Also, there were some cameo appearances that did not age well in hindsight.

Lance Armstrong, folks!

Also, Johnny Playmon/Damon was forever immortalized as a hero of the Boston Red Sox Elwood City Grebes. The episode continued to air while he was with the Yankees, who made him cut his glorious hair.

Also this:

[F***ing love the incredibly nerdy writers at PBS. The stupendous nerdery of the PBS writers was something that definitely stuck with me. Peak PBS nerdiness was embodied in Wishbone, a show where a dog recreated plots of classic literature. PBS’ nerdiness directly intersected with my childhood obsession with Brian Jacques’ legendary Redwall series, as they produced a very dramatic adaptation of the first three books. Redwall, with its high medieval politics, lavish feast scenes and brutal hand-to-hand combat, was Game of Thrones before Game of Thrones was Game of Thrones, except that the characters were all woodland creatures. Didn’t matter. Redwall rules (TV show and books). The surrounding fan communities that often drift into furry territory, on the other hand, is uh...]

The other Tier One shows were Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (which I actually found incredibly boring as a child, but oh well, can’t ignore it), Reading Rainbow, the inevitable behemoth of Sesame Street (all of which are well-chronicled) and Cyberchase. We should talk about Cyberchase, the only original show from this era that is still running. Cyberchase is about three kids and a talking bird who constantly defeated the evil Hacker in “Cyberspace” on each episode. From a qualitative perspective, I think this show is worse than the other ones from most perspectives: the animation is worse, the plots are worse, and the morals are often some hokey STEM topic like “logic” that I never paid attention to anyway (editor’s note: but he went to Medill). Apparently, for kids who really liked math and science, this is the best show ever. And yeah, it’s good. Tier One for sure, just in terms of longevity.

Let’s stay on topic. The second tier of PBS Kids shows was also pretty clear. That’s Clifford, Liberty’s Kids (a show that reimagined the American Revolution, so basically Hamilton before Hamilton), Maya and Miguel, Zoboomafoo, Dragon Tales, Sagwa, Between the Lions, The Berenstain Bears and Zoom (a science show). These shows were good and memorable. They weren’t as good as the First Tier from a critical perspective and had little impact, but they existed. Various spinoff shows like Postcards from Buster and Clifford’s Puppy Days also exist in this space. In this tier, Clifford, Dragon Tales, and Between the Lions are the elite.

The next tier is the forgettable tier, filled shows that weren’t popular or designed for very young children. The only show I’d like to highlight in this tier is, ironically, Bob the Builder, which is just terrible, although it has plenty of cultural cachet (shout BOB THE BUILDER! on a college campus, and plenty of people would immediately respond). Noddy is another show in this tier. Other shows in this tier include Anne of Green Gables (a truly boring show about a dismally boring 19th century bildungsroman) and Marvin the Tap Dancing Horse.

Finally, we have the “straight-up terrible” tier, which is pretty much exclusively reserved for Caillou, which I regard to be the worst children’s television show ever made. Caillou, with his insane amount of whining and psychopathic tantrums, was either too real for kids or too annoying for kids to stand. This was the only show that I would voluntarily not watch as a child. It was the worst. Dora the Explorer was better than Caillou. Bob the Builder was better. Lazytown was better. ANYTHING WAS BETTER THAN CAILLOU!

Please sign the “Get Caillou of the Air” petition.

That’s pretty much all anyone can stand of my self-indulgent culture blogging for today. We’ll be back later with an examination of “real” 2000s cartoons that weren’t trying to make you smarter.