The Nostalgic Xennial's Guide to Children's Television (That Doesn't Suck)
What To Watch With Your Kids When You Miss the 80s.
Hey, fellow Xennials. Did you know that some call us the Oregon Trail Generation? We were born on the cusp of Generation X and the Millennials. We're too young to appreciate Reaganomics and too old to understand Tik Tok. We were born in an analog world and grew up with evolving technology.
And it was glorious.
Let's hop in the Delorean, fire up the flux capacitor and take a little journey back to that time, shall we?
It's Saturday morning. You're parked in front of that trusty ol' console TV in your parents' living room in its shag-carpet-pastel-sofa glory. You're feeling snuggly in your Star Wars PJs, and you've got a heaping Tupperware bowl full of Smurf-Berry Crunch in your lap. You're ready.
And when that old familiar tune fills the air, and you can't help but sing along.
Okay, come on back to 2021, because now you're middle aged, and you have responsibilities. You haven't watched cartoons in years because the kids in your life have commandeered the flat screen in your living room, and all they ever want to watch are ridiculous shows about talking dogs or extremely obnoxious tweens opening boxes of nonsense in front of a camera. And just to add insult to injury, they haven't made Smurf-Berry Crunch since '87.
Oh, my friends.
We have earned the right to complain that "they just don't make TV shows like they used to." Because they don't. Or maybe they do, and we've officially turned into our parents. Either way, when I try to watch some of the things my six year-old daughter is into lately, I sort of feel like I'm in the middle of a fever dream. When did kid's TV become so basic and unoriginal? (Hear that, Blippi? You're not Pee Wee Herman, man, and you never will be!) But then again, I'm coming in with a bias; we are a nostalgic generation. While the late 60s-born Gen-Xers worry about their retirement plans and Millennials feud with Gen Z about skinny jeans, we Xennials-the micro-generation trapped between them- sit quietly in the corner, reveling and reminiscing about how much better things were in our youth. And then we reboot those things. We're reuniting the casts of our favorite shows and movies with wild abandon and remaking our favorites (Punky Brewster! Saved By The Bell! Boy Meets World! Roseanne! Full House!) for a new generation. (Rumor has it there will be a reboot of Clarissa Explains It All, and if that show doesn't feature Clarissa and Sam as a married couple raising a gender-fluid teenager, I will burn this place to the ground, so help me God and the almighty Brandon Tartikoff I will!)
The good news is that not all children's programing is trash. My kid and I have unearthed a few gems that we can watch together in harmony. If you miss your childhood heroes, here are four shows that might just give you all the Saturday Morning Cartoon feels.
1. You loved Jem and the Holograms...
Jem was truly outrageous. Truly, truly, truly outrageous (If you know, you know). The series ran from 1985-1989 and revolved around Jerrica Benton, the plucky young owner of Starlight Music, and her “ultimate audio-visual entertainment synthesizer” computer named Synergy who (thanks to fantastical 1980s technology logic) allowed Jerrica to tap her fabulous star-shaped earrings, say "It's showtime, Synergy!" and morph into her alter-ego Jem. Jem was the front-woman of the Holograms, a totally rad rock band made up of her sister Kimber and their childhood friends Shana and Aja. The Holograms often found themselves at odds with their rival band The Misfits and their manager Eric Raymond, who happened to be Jerrica’s dead father’s former business partner and who is hell bent on getting revenge for being ousted from Starlight Music. Oh! There’s also a love triangle between Jerrica, her long-time boyfriend Rio and her alter-ego Jem because Rio doesn’t know that Jem and Jerrica are the same person but finds himself increasingly attracted to Jem (which kind of begs the question...what's the deal with Rio? Is he a two-timing jerk, or is he just that dumb?)
So you will probably like Miraculous: The Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir
Miraculous was originally a French cartoon by Zagtoon but has since been developed for American audiences and was recently picked up by Disney. This charming super-hero soap opera follows Marinette Dupain Chang: high school sophomore, aspiring fashion designer, everyone's clumsy yet lovable friend who just happens to (secretly!) be one half of Paris's most badass superhero duo Ladybug and Cat Noir. Marinette is majorly crushing on Adrien Agreste, the cute (but kinda drippy) son of the mega-rich Gabriel Agreste. Alas, Adrien only has eyes for Ladybug. Which is convenient for him, because he spends all of his free time with Ladybug. Why? because he’s secretly the charming, witty Cat Noir. So to recap: Marinette is Ladybug and Adrien is Cat Noir, and neither knows the other’s secret identity, but each is in love with the other's alter-ego. And to complicate things even further, nobody-not even Ladybug and Cat Noir- knows that Adrien’s father is actually their arch-nemesis Hawk Moth, who routinely wreaks havoc on the people of Paris.
Paris is a crazy place.
You'll like it because: Both shows have a similar theme at heart; strong young women with strong convictions and strong morals who are trying to make the world a better place while also trying to live normal, young adult lives. Both Jerrica and Marinette are fiercely loyal friends who struggle with maintaining secret identities, sometimes to the detriment of those relationships, but they both know that in the end they must have the greater good in mind. At the same time, neither show focuses solely on the “girl power” theme. Both characters are deeply complex and charmingly flawed, and they aren't afraid to ask for help when they need it. Jerrica/Jem and Marinette/Ladybug are relatable to anyone who struggles with the duality of Who I Am versus Who I Have To Be.
2. You loved Fraggle Rock...
Gobo, Mokey, Wembley, Red, Boober (yes, Boober) and Uncle Travelin’ Matt danced their way into our hearts in early 1983. They were the colorful Muppet-esque creations from Jim Henson, and they lived in Fraggle Rock; a magical underground world hidden behind the walls of a human’s workshop. They got into mischief together, solved problems together, and played great music together. For those of us now in our late-30s/early 40s, it was our Sesame Street chaser and our Muppet Show companion. Finally, we got more than comical vignettes and famous guest stars. We got to see entire storylines play out in a Muppet universe (Muppet-verse?). We identified with the Fraggles's personalities on a deep level. Seriously, ask the Xennial in your life who their favorite Fraggle was. We all had one (but Red was the best).
So You Will Probably Like Pete the Cat
Based on the adorably witty Pete the Cat books by James Dean and Eric Litwin, this Amazon Original series follows Pete, his ultra-cool older brother Bob and his diverse group of friends as they navigate childhood with the help of some very musical parents (voiced by Elvis Costello and his real-life wife Diana Krall, who were also responsible for adapting the books to the small screen). Pete the Cat combines themes of teamwork, inclusion, friendship, family and (of course) great music.
You'll like it because: Just like the Fraggles, the Pete the Cat characters are relatable on a very personal level, not only individually but also within a group of friends. Each show explores important milestones and life lessons that will eventually shape us into functioning adults within that group dynamic; interpersonal skills, handling disappointments, being good sports... but, like, in a really cooooool way.
And the music...oh, the music.
Fraggle Rock showed us just how much rock, bluegrass, gospel and country music could speak directly to our souls. Pete the Cat features a diverse original soundtrack full of rock, blues, and jazz tunes which you'll probably download immediately and sing along with at the tippy-top of your lungs when you're alone in the car. Not that I've done that.
But just check out this song and and tell me it's not loud-car-singing worthy:
3. You Loved Are You Afraid of the Dark...
Remember the creepiest opening credit sequence of your childhood?!
Okay, so technically this one didn't debut until 1990, and technically it aired on Saturday nights, but I'm including it anyway because I was a Spooky Kid. I think Ghostbusters must have been the catalyst for this, but honestly I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t all about the paranormal. I carried the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books to every single sleepover, poured over Blockbuster’s Horror section every Friday night and begged my parents for a Ouija board for Christmas (They actually got me one, but I had to promise not to contact Satan with it). Naturally, the very second Nickelodeon introduced this piece of Canadian perfection to their Saturday night SNICK lineup, I was right there with a fresh pack or Dunkaroos and an Ecto-Cooler.
Are You Afraid of the Dark was every Spooky Kid’s dream TV show. Here's a quick refresher in case you've completely forgotten (in that case, shame on you); Every week, a group of teenagers who call themselves The Midnight Society meets around a campfire to tell each other their most terrifying tales. Each episode begins with this meeting and its featured storyteller, but the focus soon switches to the world of the stand-alone story. During its run, Are You Afraid of the Dark featured so much nightmare fuel: ghosts who didn’t know they were dead, haunted forests full of homicidal witches, maniacal magicians, clowns (lots of clowns!), and the occasional appearance by a young, baby-faced Ryan Gosling. It was just the right amount of scary mixed with a little humor and a lot of cheesiness. It was just so perfectly 90s. (Fun fact: M. Night Shyamalan credits the AYAOTD episode "The Dream Girl" as his inspiration for The Sixth Sense.)
So You Will Probably Like Creeped Out
Creeped Out came to Netflix in 2017 via the CBBC and features two seasons worth of 30 minute horror tales geared towards younger viewers. While each episode is a stand-alone story, all of the episodes are connected by a character known only as “The Curious,” a mask-wearing, child-sized figure who appears at the beginning of each and claims to "collect" these tales of terror. Episodes feature terrifying tropes like revenge gone wrong, parents becoming puppets, mystery objects and haunted side shows.
You'll like it because: Are You Afraid of the Dark never watered itself down in fear (pardon the pun) of being too scary for younger viewers. It didn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence, and it didn’t certainly didn't rely on flashy special effects. This show was, at its core, practical horror for aspiring horror fans. The same can be said for Creeped Out. Each episode is a carefully crafted, brilliantly written thriller that explores both the Paranormal Spookies and real life Big Bads (bullying, body image, teenage independence) in a completely non-preachy, non-patronizing way.
4. You loved He-Man & the Masters of the Universe and/or She- Ra, Princess of Power
The Masters of the Universe made their debut in 1982 as a line of fantasy toys by Mattel and was so popular that Mattel partnered with Filmation to develop a He-Man animated series (If you want to do a fascinating deep dive, check out creator Roger Sweet's book Mastering the Universe: He-Man and the Rise and Fall of a Billion Dollar Idea). The show featured Prince Adam of Eternia who instantly became He-Man simply by raising his sword and declaring (say it with me!) "By the Power of Grayskull, I have the Power!" And even though Masters of the Universe was loved by both boys and girls alike, it was the 80s and sexism was still alive and well, so obviously there just had to be a girl version. In 1985 Filmation developed a spin off series in which Prince Adam had (gasp!) a long-lost twin sister named Adora, who had been kidnapped as a baby and raised by Hordak, commander of the Evil Horde that ruled Etheria.
Even though I knew at the age of six that girls can do anything that boys can do, I couldn't help but fall in love with She-Ra and her friends. They were gorgeous bad-asses who had cool pets and wild adventures, and it endlessly annoyed my brother and all the neighbor boys when I brought my She-Ra action figures to crash the He-Man party.
So you will probably like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
Yep. Netflix and DreamWorks rebooted it in 2018.
I was very wary when my kid discovered this one last summer. Super-buff She-Ra in a minimalist anime style? Nope. Can't do it. Why mess with a classic?!
Because it's actually pretty amazing, that's why.
DreamWorks and creator/showrunner Noelle Stevenson (an actual, real life bad-ass herself) have managed to develop this classic effectively for a 21st century audience while maintaining the original integrity of these characters we idolized as kids. The plot is essentially the same as the original. He-Man doesn't show up (although he's not missed here), but all our heroes from She-Ra's inner circle are present and accounted for and in several cases, we get to see much more intricate and developed back stories.
You'll like it because of: sheer nostalgia! I had a blast watching this series with my daughter and rediscovering this world that had such a huge impact on my childhood. I was able to tell her all about the original characters, and she was able to explain to me why she loved the new ones. And it wasn't just the sugar-fueled ramblings of an overly-tired six year old in the back seat of the car while I eked out an occasional Oh, wow! while I tried to concentrate true crime podcast. We had actual conversations about character attributes and plot points!
And then I really blew her mind when I dug out my old She-Ra action figure.
But childhood toy nostalgia would be a whole different article.