Creature Feature

Is Boohbah the new Teletubbies?

The arrival of Boohbah, a new kid’s TV show from Anne Wood, the British child development guru who created Teletubbies and is one of the wealthiest women in the U.K., brings both good and bad tidings for parents across America. On the up side, you now have an extra half-hour to slurp your coffee (Boohbah airs on PBS at different times across the country, but can generally be found somewhere in the morning children’s lineup), without worrying that your offspring are either rifling through the medicine cabinet or cyber-beheading each other in a video game. On the downside, you’re in for a lot of shrill chanting that sounds like this: “BOOH-bah, BOOH-bah, BOOH-bah, BOOH! BOOH-bah, BOOH-bah, BOOH-bah, BOOH!” With a British accent.

This magic word, when chanted by a group of relentlessly cute children, serves as a rallying cry to summon the Boohbahs. These five creatures—played, like the Teletubbies, by human actors in plump foam-rubber suits—are identified on the show’s interactive Web site as “five magical atoms of energy, light and fun.” (Ah yes, the fun atom—there are two of those in the merriment molecule, right? Along with one radioactive isotope of mirth?) An unscientific observer might prefer to classify the Boohbahs as large chenille gumdrops with retractable phallic heads, identical but for their different colors (yellow, purple, orange, blue, and pink) and barely distinguishable names. The lineup goes, and I only wish I were kidding: Humbah, Zumbah, Zing Zing Zingbah, Jumbah, and Jingbah.

For a program intended primarily for preschoolers, Boohbah is a pretty high-concept show. Unlike the four Tubbies, who dwell in pastoral simplicity in their Astroturf cottage, the Boohbahs are at the center of a complex cosmology. These five live in a bubble called the Boohball that travels in a rainbow swoosh around the world—looping around the Eiffel Tower and between the Pyramids, skirting the Great Wall of China, frightening birds out of trees in the Serengeti—and is greeted in each locale by leaping, giggling children. (The significance of these landmarks will be lost on the show’s target age group of 3-to-6-year-olds, but homebound parents will appreciate the nod toward a larger world outside.)

The idea behind Boohbah was to create a program that would encourage young children to exercise while watching television—a laudable goal, given that, according to World Health Organization data, around 15 percent of the children in the United States are overweight. After a lengthy opening sequence involving the global trajectory of the Boohball, each episode begins with a five-to 10-minute warm-up dance, as the Fab Five perform gentle aerobics to music that always surprises: One day it’s easy-listening electronica, the next a kind of James Brown funk lite. This exercise sequence, like the rest of the show, is entirely dialogue-free, with children never explicitly encouraged to join the Boohbahs in their movements, as per Wood’s strict anti-condescension philosophy. The problem, of course, is that without spoken exhortation to get up and go for the burn, it’s all too easy to become mesmerized by the swirling colors and sink further into your chair, wondering hazily, “Wait, which one was Zing Zing Zingbah again?” Then again, I’m 37.

But not to worry— after the warm-up, it’s off to Storyworld, where a strangely post-Oedipal family (there’s Brother, Sister, Auntie, Grandmamma, and Grandpappa, but Mom and Dad have been replaced by an ambiguously related couple named Mrs. Lady and Mr. Man) is played by a multiracial set of live actors. According to the show’s developers, the Storyworld feature was designed to develop problem-solving skills by presenting a dilemma, as in this morning’s segment: “Brother and sister discover some squeaky socks.” The dilemma? The rest of the family, understandably enough, covets some squeaky socks of their own. But since the problems that arise in Storyworld can all be resolved by the children’s offscreen utterance of the word “Boohbah!”—Voilà! Squeaky socks all around!—the morals of these stories often seem dubious, if not outright irresponsible. Rather than using magic to conjure up everything you want, why not learn, say, to share the enviable hosiery? Still, adult Anglophiles will love Storyworld’s deadpan narrator (the only spoken voice we hear on the show, except for that incessant youthful chiming of “Boohbah”). As the family leaps joyously about in their socks, he dryly observes, “Everybody’s squeaking,” as if he were narrating a BBC documentary about sheepherding in the Cotswolds.

For all its earnest intentions, Boohbah lacks both the conceptual purity of Teletubbies and its sublimely silly sensibility. If Teletubbies is like the work of Andy Warhol, Boohbah is more like that of Jeff Koons, a latter-day wannabe with a savvy sense of self-promotion. The word “Boohbah” itself has the feeling of something cooked up in a pitch meeting or focus group—it was chosen to be pronounceable by very young children in any language, while the show’s trademark invocation—”BOOH-bah!” is spoken to the tune of a minor-third interval, which, according to research, most parents around the world use to summon their children. Try it: “BOOH-bah! Time for DIN-ner!”

I’m going to go out on a limb and wager that Boohbah doesn’t make it in the United States. Unlike Teletubbies’ toddler demographic, a 5- or 6-year-old can actually figure out how to change the channel, and it’s going to take more than the gyrations of five phallic gumdrops to reverse the great American tradition of watching television while sitting on your ass. But what do I know? I miss the old-school liberal humanism of Sesame Street, where characters who actually spoke sat down to talk about the joys and pains of growing up, and there was never a problem distinguishing between Ernie and Bert.