My six-year-old asked my mom to give her a special blue manicure for last week in order to celebrate the biggest date in her calendar aside from the beginning of horse camp and the first day of school: the return of Bluey. She would have waited in line for it if there had been a line to wait in. One of the only things she and her younger sister can agree to watch together, the spritely Australian series (produced by the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, airing on Disney+ over here) about a lovable family of blue heelers is on constant loop in our house, so the premiere of the long-awaited third season was a big deal for them. Is it weird to say it was also a little bit of a big deal for me?
For kids, Bluey is a great show about the joy and heartbreak of childhood. In 125 eight-minute episodes across three seasons, Bluey and Bingo, two sweet little dogs, play and go to school and cause trouble. The games they invent and the lessons they learn are easily portable to kids at home. My daughters are fluent in Bluey catch-phrases (“For real life?”), they have adapted all the adaptable Bluey games (their favorite is the looping, circular, endless “Verandah Santa”), and I like to think they’ve internalized some of the show’s elegantly wrought messages about caring for other people as people and solving problems using their imaginations. It’s an exceptionally good piece of children’s television, educational without being pedantic, and, often, genuinely hilarious.
It’s also the best show about parenting on TV. Earlier this year, I wrote about what it’s like to watch kids’ TV with your kids, what kinds of deranged imaginative contortions parents and caregivers make to survive hours of Doc McStuffins or Daniel Tiger. Since the ’70s, most children’s television has been designed for co-viewing, offering adult viewers little winks of recognition in the form of inside jokes or cultural references. Parents who manage to get invested in their kids’ TV series do so by way of projecting their own imaginations on the shows, inventively misreading for fun and sanity.
But Bluey is different. The easiest way to describe this is that Bluey is a children’s television show happening inside of an adult dramedy about marriage, co-parenting, and middle age starring Bluey and Bingo’s parents, Bandit and Chilli. As anyone who’s seen any amount of the show will know, a large majority of episodes are built around some bizarre, complicated game that requires the intense involvement—and deep commitment to the bit—of one or both parents. The girls make up byzantine, frequently sadistic rules, and Bandit and Chilli follow them without question or hesitation. The very first episode of the series involves Bandit being compelled by a magic xylophone to hold a spraying hose in his face. A later episode features a magic asparagus that commands Chilli to leap over a hedge and attack their unsuspecting neighbor. Bandit and Chilli are prototypically thoughtful, measured, occasionally exasperated modern parents. Episodes are filled with boundary setting and engaged parenting. But, when the games begin, mum and dad are entirely at the bidding of their children.
As a parent, it’s easy to feel intimidated by the intensity of Bandit and Chilli’s involvement in their children’s play life. But Bluey doesn’t just present implausibly game, inexhaustible parents and leave it at that. Instead, the show often makes time to gesture at their worlds outside of the games: their loving relationship, their tiredness, their struggle to make the right decisions as parents and partners. And that’s because Bluey does something that hardly any other children’s shows for this age range do. It lets viewers hang out with mum and dad sometimes.
Bluey frequently makes the stylistic choice to begin scenes with Bandit and Chilli a few moments before the girls arrive, or end scenes a few moments after they leave. These fleeting moments aren’t even the outlines of a plot, necessarily, but there’s more than enough there to recognize, react to, and even identify with. Bluey, more than most kids shows, maintains a lively corner of its universe where there are no kids—whether that’s quick asides between Bandit and Chilli, overheard captures of conversations between other adults, or even references to work and life before the kids were born. Bandit and Chilli have lives onscreen as parents and partners, and those lives are full of small insights about what it’s like to be both.
But the show’s acknowledgement of parents frequently goes beyond the dropping of little morsels in passing. Often, an episode will be about the adults, but framed from the point of view of Bluey and Bingo, or vice versa, with Bandit and Chilli providing as the narrative and visual frame through which to observe the hijinks of their children. One early episode in the new season is structured by a series of private moments where one parent tells the other parent a funny thing one of their daughters said earlier. Near the end of the episode, the girls walk in on one of these exchanges, and Bingo asks, shocked, “Do you tell stories about us after we go to sleep?” Another new episode is entirely about the logistical and emotional fallout of a frazzled Chilli saying, out loud, “I need 20 minutes where no one comes near me.”
The girls’ awareness of and curiosity about their parents’ private relationship is also a frequent prompt for mayhem and mischief. One episode in an earlier season unfolds as Bluey’s crackpot scheme to get her parents to stop “squabbling.” Another episode is about Bluey and Bingo’s crackpot scheme to get their parents to “smoochie-kiss.” In this season’s “Faceytalk”—which may be the show’s comic masterpiece—we inadvertently watch Bandit’s brother and sister-in-law have an actual argument in the background of a video phone call. (She’s mad that he’s not around more; he’s mad that she makes parenting decisions without him.) This season, there’s even an episode that takes place, almost exclusively, from Bandit and Chilli’s point of view, with the girls only supporting characters in the lives of their parents.
Bluey is not nominally about parenting. But this show that my daughters mainline in our living room routinely makes knee-bucklingly trenchant observations about not just parenting, but contemporary masculinity, the dynamics of marital arguments (or “squabbles”), about labor distribution in modern marriages, about the social stigma of working mothers and the beatification of care-giving fathers, about things you likely didn’t think Disney Junior was going to tell you anything new about.
More than that, it’s a show about kids’ bottomless appetite for affection, attention. Of all the things Bluey observes about parenting, it’s the portrait of parents at the end of a long day of parenting that gets me most. What does a loving, functional, partnership look like at its tiredest, its most wrung-out? What does love between two adults feel like when both of them are funneling all their demonstrative affection into the emotional gullets of two little rascals? What’s it like to fall down on the couch with that person at the end of the day?
Bluey does not provide Daniel Tiger-esque parenting lessons to adult viewers. But it constructs dozens of pitch-perfect little scenes of parenthood, and those scenes are not just secret messages for adult viewers in the room. Bluey understands that kids watch their own parents at home. They tune in every day to the daily drama of their parents, so Bluey considers that drama fair game, too. It stages marital arguments but doesn’t always resolve them; it shows us parenting triumphs but recognizes that victory is not always assured. It shows us what affection and frustration in marriage look like to the kids in the house. It gives us one parent running interference for another, adults grappling with their own aging parents, mums who remember events differently than dads, husbands who sometimes behave as if they want to be parented by their wives. There’s even kind of a flirty neighbor situation I’m keeping my eye on—as, I suspect, is Chilli.
The world is unfailingly magical to Bluey and Bingo. We, all of us watching, get to see the world through their eyes. But sometimes we also get to see the love and the labor that enables that magic to happen. Sometimes it makes you feel good to be a parent; sometimes it makes you feel guilty for not sacrificing your time and your body the way they—these cartoon dogs—do. But either way, the show sees you, which is a pretty rare thing. It doesn’t wink at you lying there on the couch, worn out from a day of playing “sheepdog” or “chickenrat.” It nods, in recognition, in solidarity, in exhaustion.