Screen Time

The Children’s TV Canon

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock, NICKELODEON, Fox Broadcasting Company, Warner Bros., N Circle Entertainment, and Nickelodeon Animation Studios.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock, Nickelodeon, Fox Broadcasting Co., Warner Bros., N Circle Entertainment, and Nickelodeon Animation Studios.

What makes for great children’s television? We asked Slate’s critics to weigh in on one episode of TV that they would place in the kids’ kanon: the best examples of the art and craft of entertainment for human beings as old as 17 and as young as—[checks American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines]—precisely 15 months. Here’s what they had to say.

Gumby: “Moon Trip” (1955)

The pilot episode for Art Clokey’s clay animation series captures everything great about the show. The low production values only make Gumby seem like something your dad would make for you in his basement workshop, if you were lucky enough to have that kind of dad. The episode is nearly wordless, and Clokey manages to evoke an impressive range of emotion from the clay slabs that are his characters. The idiot satisfaction on Gumby’s face as he succeeds in launching a spaceship into the stratosphere was recognizable even to my child self as the prelude to both thrills and disaster. The moon, when Gumby arrives, looks like a badly frosted cake and is populated by salmon-colored pyramids whose eyes pop out on stalks when Gumby’s back is turned. Also, the low temperature there causes Gumby to stiffen and his eyes to turn to yellow X’s. This gets a bit scary, but fortunately Gumby’s father looks into a telescope and announces to his wife, “Yep, he’s on the moon. I better go get him,” as if his son had merely wandered into a neighbor’s backyard. Then he extends the ladder of his fire truck all the way up into outer space, rescuing the wayward youth and completing the ambient impression of benevolent dadness that pervades the whole Gumby universe. —Laura Miller

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of television’s most audacious masterpieces, a half-hour animated special about depression and the spiritual blight of consumerism that climaxes in a blanket-toting Linus reciting the Gospel of Luke from memory. Miraculously, every single second of this works perfectly, with nary a whiff of preachy moralism or ironic winking toward parents. Vince Guaraldi’s post-bop soundtrack, featuring classics like “Linus and Lucy” and the magnificent “Christmas Time Is Here,” sold more than 3 million copies and remained the hippest musical happening in the history of children’s television right up until Stevie Wonder arrived on Sesame Street. —Jack Hamilton

Muppet Babies: “I Want My Muppet TV” (1985)

The TV in the nursery breaks down, and our beloved Muppets in baby form at first freak out. Soon, though, they have a bright idea: They can entertain themselves by performing their own shows from inside of a cardboard box! Cue the cute Star Trek and Tonight Show parodies, which play even better now to my adult pop culture proficiency. It’s a great example of what Muppet Babies did best: render the loose, wild realm of a child’s imagination in the most referential way possible. It even inspired this writer, then just a kid, to dream up her own TV shows using a cardboard box. An MTV-like musical number about “TV maniacs” lightheartedly warns about watching too much TV. But in this case, the show actually enhanced and encouraged my playtime away from the screen. —Aisha Harris

Saved by the Bell: “Snow White and the Seven Dorks” (1992)

The pioneer tween sitcom Saved by the Bell first aired on Saturday mornings on NBC from 1989 to 1993 but lived for decades longer thanks to near-constant reruns, starring smart aleck Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), his giant cellphone, his habit of speaking directly to the camera, and his five closest friends. It’s easy to pick the most famous episode of Saved by the Bell—yup, the one where Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) has a caffeine-pill fueled breakdown, by far the edgiest episode in SBTB history—but hard to pick the best. It could be the amazing stretch of episodes set over summer vacation at Malibu Shore, the rockumentary episode about a possible future in which the Zack Attack becomes the biggest band in the world, one of the episodes where Zack and Kelly (Tiffani Amber Thiessen) break up or get back together, anything with Screech’s girlfriend Violet (Tori Spelling!), or even the PSA-ish episode in which a destructive oil leak threatens the football field. But if you want one that has it all, try “Snow White and the Seven Dorks,” a later vintage—the cast is mostly through puberty—featuring romantic conundrums, Mr. Belding, and a rapping theatrical production of Snow White. —Willa Paskin

Clarissa Explains It All: “Ferguson Explains It All” (1994)

Any number of episodes of Clarissa Explains It All would be great for the Children’s Canon: The show combines a sassy teenager who is thoroughly herself (and has a fabulously quirky/clashy wardrobe to match) with postmodern, fourth wall–busting effects. Clarissa is a young auteur who designs her own graphics and fantasy sequences to tell stories about the world. Her kid brother, Ferguson, is a wonderfully nerdy pest, and this episode—which gives him control over the show’s meta-narrative—tackles the theme of sibling rivalry in a particularly deft, funny, zany, ultimately insightful way. —Katy Waldman

The Simpsons: “Lisa the Vegetarian” (1995)

I first saw this episode when I was 8, and if you told me at that age that kids were too young for The Simpsons, I would have cried like a baby. The episode, a landmark in how vegetarians were represented on TV, opens with a perfect illustration of what us big kids call cognitive dissonance. After the Simpsons find themselves cooing over an adorable lamb at a petting zoo, they return home to scarf down a dinner of lamb chops. Lisa is the only one that seems to notice the disconnect (“This is lamb, not a lamb,” Homer explains), and she soon finds herself giving up meat. If the rest of the episode were simply animal-rights propaganda, I’m not sure I’d be recommending it so publicly. After all, I am keenly aware that, as Homer, Bart, and Marge put it, “You don’t win friends with salad.” But the episode’s true message isn’t vegetarianism; it’s tolerance. After just about everyone in Springfield reacts to Lisa’s personal dietary choice with a defensiveness that quickly turns into bullying (a phenomenon with which I am also acutely familiar), Lisa turns militant, flinging the centerpiece of Homer’s barbecue into the river. In the fallout, everyone learns that they must respect one another, regardless of how they eat. What Homer says of the waterlogged roast pig is also true of this episode, more than 20 years later: “It’s still good.” —Forrest Wickman

The Backyardigans: “Swamp Creature” (2006)

Like many programs for small children, this episode of a briefly popular Nickelodeon series is 24 minutes long, the exact amount of time it takes to play Words With Friends sitting on the toilet, then take a shower. So that’s not why it’s the best. It’s the best because it features the catchiest song in the Backyardigans catalog, the one minute and 17 second surf-rock masterpiece “The Customer Is Always Right.” It’s the best because it conveys the message that even a terrible day can be redeemed by something fun happening at the end, a lesson that all parents need their children to absorb. It’s the best because it’s one of the Backyardigans episodes that contains all five primary characters, so no one in your family will complain that Pablo isn’t in it, even though Pablo is inarguably the worst Backyardigan. It’s the best because watching it now, years later, will remind you with a sharp and complex pang of nostalgia that you, a professional person, once had strong opinions about this jankily animated children’s show because it made your life as the parent of a preschooler just a tiny bit more tolerable, even, dare you say it, joyful. At the end—oh! I remember—all the Backyardigans go to Uniqua’s house, because it’s time to have a snack. —Dan Kois

Phineas and Ferb: “Tri-Stone Area” (2012)

This is kind of a cruel episode to recommend, because it doesn’t stand alone—you have to have some basic familiarity with Phineas and Ferb’s many recurring tropes to get it. But this Season 3 episode in which the show’s characters are all reimagined as cave-people communicating in their own primitive cave-language, is something my daughter and I quote to each other in some form nearly every day, usually by breaking down our own utterances into Stone Age–style nonsense syllables. “Tri-Stone Area” encapsulates the best qualities of this classic cartoon: It takes creative risks, trusts in its audience’s intelligence, and is sweet and funny as hell. —Dana Stevens