April 5, 2011
You know how, at certain points in parenthood, you foolishly think you have it all down? Having covered this beat in its various forms for more than five years now, I was pretty sure I knew all the good children's shows currently on TV. In fact, I figured that everyone else knew about them too, and that posts on this blog singing the praises of The Backyardigans, say, would be at best preaching to the choir, and at worst pointlessly redundant.
But as often happens in parenting—at least, to me—a recent event has shocked me out of confident complacency. Having long been vaguely aware of something called The Upside Down Show amid the sea of Nick Jr. programming, we finally stopped long enough to watch an episode. (No surprise: This adventure into the unknown was entirely kid-driven.) In an instant, it became everyone's new favorite kids' TV show.
To the similarly uninitiated: The Upside Down Show, a live-action program, stars two Australian "brothers," Shane and David (their real names, though they're not real brothers). They live in a house full of unusual rooms and creatures that they themselves haven’t fully explored; each episode is based around their efforts to find a specific room, which they do with some difficulty.
The viewer is invited to help them by using an imaginary remote control, about which David gives instructions at the start of each show. (The overall interactive effect is much like Blue's Clues as reimagined by Pee-wee Herman.) This "remote" provides the impetus for physical comedy: Sometimes the viewer is asked to use the traditional buttons—fast-forward, pause, rewind, etc.—and the duo responds accordingly. Sometimes David discovers a previously unknown button that has a special effect of its own—say, “humongous,” which makes everything really big. And always, there’s the button Shane warns the viewer not to push, which of course inevitably does get pushed. (Personal favorite: the “Irish dancing” button.)
I should add that Shane Dundas and David Collins originally made their name worldwide as the Umbilical Brothers, a comedy stage show for adults that was known for its imagination, stagecraft, and showmanship—precisely the qualities that make The Upside Down Show so remarkable. Their execution of the remote-related antics makes this the kind of kids' TV that stops parents in our tracks, mesmerizing us just as it does our children. I'm pretty sure our boys are more obsessed with the show than we are—we find them laughing over Shane and David's routines randomly at the breakfast table sometimes—but occasionally I do wonder.
And as if it weren't already hip enough, The Upside Down Show also has classic cult cred. Despite critical acclaim on its debut in 2006, it wasn't renewed, and so the one season of 13 sparkling episodes is all there is; it's just those 13 reruns that are turning up now on Nick Jr. (As the time slots it gets on the network become more and more desirable, I'm thinking that, like many a lauded but underwatched show, this one is having a successful afterlife; it's of course also available now on video.)
So, to sum up: endlessly clever and imaginative writing; performances that kids flip over; smart slapstick and humor that will make the adults in the room laugh out loud; and you can feel as cool and in-the-know for watching it as you did as an early adopter of Arrested Development (well, almost). How did it take us so long to find this show?
(Here's a short taste of the duo—from their Umbilical Brothers guise, but it'll give you a good idea what the kids' stuff is like too:)
[Image courtesy of Nick Jr.]