If you’re a parent, you might spend ridiculous amounts of time watching bad children’s shows. Caillou is my daughter’s current favorite (but check this out for a cathartic rant). And then there’s Barney. If you’ve seen even one episode of this dire show starring an insipid purple dinosaur, you will understand why I’d rather work than have to suffer through yet another hour of cloying actors who lie to little children about some perfect world.
Some weeks I work 60 hours, 100 including parenting. That’s how bad the show is.
Barney and his many unfortunate analogues make it all the more pleasing when the rare quality program comes along. Kipper is one of these programs. Kipper is an English dog who doesn’t teach annoying lessons about being nice, picking up toys, or maintaining good hygiene. He and his pals Tiger and Pig just do fun kid stuff, and that’s it. They don’t sing asinine songs or promote plastic tolerance. They just go on walks and picnics, get lost, try to find each other, and paddle in boats at the beach.
So what’s so great about Kipper, besides the cool jazz theme that opens the videos? Partly it’s just refreshing to watch something low-key enough to show kids doing fun stuff and solving practical problems in a relaxed way. No hand wringing about values, courage, blah blah blah…
But there’s two things that I especially love about Kipper. The first is that he and Tiger and Pig somehow seem both old and young at the same time. They’re kids but they talk sort of like old men, like grandpa fuddy duddies having fun making sandcastles. To me, they capture that sweet way that the very old and very young are so compatible, moving a little slower than everyone else and finding great and simple joy in their sandwiches and lemonade.
At the same time, Kipper is a learned show but wears it lightly. Instead of unbearable moral lessons, the writers throw in classic plot devices, like when Kipper and Tiger go to a park to meet Pig, who has promised them cake. After searching everywhere, Kipper and Tiger hear Pig snoring on the other side of a hedge and mistake the sound for a growling lion. Finally brave enough to peer around the hedge to the other side, they see that Pig has gone but has dropped his scarf, which looks like a lion’s tale. Without investigating further, Kipper and Tiger mistakenly conclude that Pig has been eaten by the lion, and the plot unfolds until the friends are finally reunited.
The writers seem to have paid attention in mythology class because this scenario comes from the ancient Roman poet Ovid’s myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, a story of star-crossed young lovers whose parents insist on keeping them apart. The teenagers run away to meet in the country but tragically commit suicide when Pyramus finds Thisbe’s lost veil, which has been bloodied by a lion hunting, and concludes that the girl herself has died. Sixteen centuries later, Shakespeare adapted this basic plot (through other sources) for Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Happily, the writers of Kipper skip the suicides and simply change Thisbe’s bloody veil to a scarf that looks like a lion’s tale, and all ends well as it should when the friends find each other. But what is so unusual is that the story is both interesting and age appropriate, which is rare because in the current obsession with teaching morality to children, most writers have forgotten (or never even learned) how to come up with an engaging story.
Kipper doesn’t grapple with big ethical problems, but the show is far more honest than most of what’s out there because it doesn’t lie about the nature of life’s challenges. And beyond misleading children about how people live, these fake and fatuous other shows instill a kind of bad taste that encourages stupidity, the cultural equivalent of eating Pez for breakfast three days a week.
There’s no need for too much vigilance here. I like my occasional corn syrup entertainment just like everyone else. But it’s more than just refreshing to watch this unassuming show that proves someone can still imagine smart and simple stories for kids.