As someone who studied film and television, writes in his spare time, and has grown out of "kids" animated television, I have come to realise that these shows are carefully produced and crafted to fit within a certain format and criteria. Content like this made for young audiences typically have lovable, funny characters going on anything between 10 to 30 minute long adventures (including ads) for the purpose of keeping audiences entertained and occupied.
God I’m only 24 and I’m about to sound so old, *sighs*... When I was growing up, I enjoyed the likes of Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, and all the shows that channels such as Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon offered. These days I don't tune into this type of content anymore, however I do stumble across word of mouth and good recommendations for stuff; even random fandoms from time to time. So when grown adults who I know and that also share similar interests with me do nothing but sing a show’s praise, it shows up on my radar. Now hold your horses, this doesn’t mean I’m going to binge and dive into the world of things like My Little Pony, but hey maybe it does have all the traits of quality TV hidden under the guise of a “kids show”. How would you or I know any different if we never had any intentions of watching it in the first place? Well as it turns out, Star Vs the Forces of Evil (SVFE), and one of my favourite animated shows of all time, Gravity Falls are actually examples of these.
Who knew that some Disney Channel Original shows would spark something in me as an adult, and become some of the better TV I've seen in a long while?
For those of you that are uneducated about the two shows:
Gravity Falls follows twins Dipper & Mabel Pines as they spend the summer with their Gruncle Stan, owner of the tourist trap known as the Mystery Shack. Although things appears normal and quaint, the town holds many secrets and everything is not what it appears to be.
Star Vs the Forces of Evil is a funny fantasy, action, adventure show centred on Star Butterfly, a magical warrior princess from an another dimension sent to live on Earth with the Diaz family. Along with human friend Marco she must learn how to control her abilities, fight the many enemies of the Mewni Kingdom, all whilst trying to fit in and navigate the life of a teenage girl.
The former initially sounded vaguely interesting to me but I would usually cast a show like this aside due to what I assume it will be like - a simplistic childlike adventure. The latter, I would normally not even remotely consider watching because of who I believe the obvious target audience is intended for - young stereotypical "girly" girls. Given they are also both from Disney I knew the company's ideals and aims that they push towards their audiences would influence their content.
On a whim, I watched a couple of episodes.
I’ve since binged all of Gravity Falls and SVFE... Send help
As mentioned before, I’m not a kid anymore so it’s no surprise that I haven’t been keeping up with that world of TV but I have to say, a lack of good content on TV and some subsequent channel surfing have made me realise and appreciate that standards have risen. I’m honestly shocked, though more importantly I’m pretty pleased with this.
Where were shows like this when I was a kid and how much great content have I missed out on?
Now I’m sure not all kids animated TV are amazing hidden gems like Gravity Falls and SVFE, but when something's good, it deserves respect and recognition. For me personally a big part of it is down to the writing. I've found that both both shows nail the dialogue and have a great sense of humour.
Surprisingly enough they also have a modern approach to things as well, whether its the characters having realistic yet hilarious interactions, or amidst the crazy chaos they're somehow dealing with something really relatable. Shows like these put you an a roller-coaster of emotions experiencing the highs and lows of the characters' lives. You laugh, smile, and worry about them because you start to become attached and care for them, just as you would any likeable character in any other genre of film or TV.
In short they evoke emotion, and that’s the truest experience that the storytelling medium of cinema and television has to offer.
All of this wasn't even required or relied upon to entertain before. Like a great stand-up comedian, the only things that were needed to get audiences to laugh were, setup, timing, and a good pay-off. It wasn’t hard to please most kids or even adults with simple jokes and slapstick comedy. Rinse and repeat for 20+ seasons and you have a animated TV show with a legacy that will outlive its airtime. This comedic technique still works and is employed today, but in my humble opinion when the writing is done well it just truly becomes an enjoyable escapade that I want to experience more of and have last for as long as possible.
Speaking of being relatable, modern, and more down to Earth, animated kids TV nowadays also appears to cast a diverse range of characters appealing to all audiences. Gravity Falls follows the lives of normal people (for the most part), and SVFE's magically empowered protagonist tries to fit in with humanity. They portray a spotlight of normalcy on their characters making them akin to people like you and I, and place them in larger than life situations. This proves effective and works quite beautifully due to the simple fact that that's what we all have dreamt about for ourselves at one point or another.
It's a novel concept that the fantastical elements of going on a boundless adventure are grounded with the realism of universal human experiences, appealing to who we are as people.
Regarding representation, take Marco Diaz, a Latino-American teenager from SVFE as an example. People like Marco are underrepresented in the media we consume, so by putting him at the forefront of this show it confirms to younger audiences that the racial diversity in our world is actually a normal part of life and society. Regarding him as a character though, Marco's role and archetype is presented as a “sidekick”. In comparison to the titular character, Star has been given power, a platform, and subsequently a voice with which to speak her mind - all benefits which are traditionally reserved for the lead male. Where then does that leave Marco as the supporting character? Are the roles now simply gender swapped? Normally yeah, Hollywood has a certain preconceived notion about how social dynamics work, but not this show. You see what I love about SVFE is that thankfully Marco has not become the damsel in distress. That role is outdated and female empowerment shouldn't mean putting men down, or vice versa. As the sidekick he might not be as strong as Star, but as someone trained in self-defense he's an experienced fighter, is generally capable as a person, and contributes meaningfully to Star's journey as a character.
Star Butterfly on the other hand... well I might not be a woman but I can recognise the importance of her portrayal for women of all ages.
She has a bubbly personality, is friendly, tough, kind, stubborn, heroic, flawed, and that's incredible because as far as I'm concerned that's what it means to be a woman. To be capable of being anything. To be human.
There are a variety of people from all walks of life and what they watch will impact and influence them for years to come. Her 'image' is more realistic than most present mainstream examples, and "kids" TV sets a precedent so I’m glad it seems that some of the industry understands the significance of its programming. It's not as commonplace as it should be but hopefully it will be soon when more people break the moulds of racial and gender stereotypes/representation like SVFE.
Why can't people like The (Oscars) Academy can’t get with the times already?
Another element that I think is important to mention is that there is a shocking level of continuity present in kids animated TV. Gone are the days of one-off episodic adventures with your favourite characters wandering what to do next or have trouble come find them. I'll be honest, I didn't expect TV networks to want to rely on kids paying attention from episode to episode and become invested in their stories, especially with the short attention span of today's always-on society.
I'm not at all complaining however, because for me personally this means that there is a higher chance of better content. The connectivity allows room for depth, progression, character development - all the things that make me more invested and enveloped in a fictional word.
There is lore, history, and subtly brilliant world building in both shows. Through characterisation, SVFE develops character arcs which audiences follow along and watch evolve over the seasons, like a beautiful star butterfly. See what I did there?
Gravity Falls is a great example of continuity as the creator Alex Hirsch loved code breaking and conspiracies when he was younger. The show is essentially a product of his childlike experiences, whereby audiences are rewarded for participating in solving ciphers and hidden messages, as well as finding Easter eggs layered in every episode. You can still enjoy the show without doing this of course, but it enriches the experience of watching the series wouldn't you say? Oh by the way, VWDQ LV QRW ZKDW KH VHHPV. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Anyway, to make a long article short, it's amazing that TV aimed at kids and young adults has changed and gotten better since I stopped watching. I shouldn't be surprised as media and entertainment are constantly evolving along with us, but I just wanted to take a moment to appreciate it, and spread the word to those of you that were unaware.
Even if an animated TV show is labeled for "kids", great TV can come from anywhere or be about anything. As long as it checks all your boxes as to what the hallmarks of quality binge-worthy television are, then it doesn't matter what the theme or the context of the TV show is about.
So don't judge a book by it's cover. You could miss out on something great.