Our A.V. Club Field Guide To Parenting is designed to guide you toward the best kids’ books, shows, movies, and music, just like we do with The A.V. Club for adults. Every month or so, we will feature a new subject with a few essential pop culture takes parents should know, saving you from the mountains of kids’ dreck out there.
Give us a break, Netflix: It seems like the streaming service unleashes dozens of new programs a week, many in the kid category. Yes, Netflix is an ideal option for screen time—no commercials, multiple episodes immediately available—but how can you plow through dozens of titles to find the ones your kids will actually enjoy? The ones that might actually be educational, or at least entertaining, and not just glorified toy commercials? (Looking at you, Barbie videos.) Once again, we turn to our A.V. Club parent panel, who reveal the favorite Netflix shows of their own offspring.
The Magic School Bus Rides Again
My daughter is obsessed with buses. In fact, she regularly informs me that she is a bus. While her twin sister busies herself with some fairly standard Frozen roleplaying, I often have to tuck the other one in at night by putting her into her “garage.” So naturally, she also wants to watch buses on TV. Of her two favorite shows, I simply can’t endorse Tayo The Little Bus, a borderline-nonsensical South Korean cartoon that boasts little to no educational value beyond a shaming message of working harder (along with one of the most annoying theme songs you’ll ever hear your kid singing at 1 a.m.).
So thank Netflix for The Magic School Bus Rides Again, which recently debuted its second season. I’m too old to be nostalgic for the original Magic School Bus, so I don’t really have an opinion on how the revival compares to its 1990s incarnation. All I know is the new show is lively, fast-paced, and exceedingly tolerable for adults, and it imparts just enough scientific minutiae to abate some of the guilt of parking the kids in front of it for a bit. In every episode, Kate McKinnon’s Miss Frizzle (the younger sister to the original Miss Frizzle voiced by Lily Tomlin) takes her diverse group of grade school charges on field trips aboard, yes, a magic school bus that can transform itself—and them—into just about anything, allowing them to explore fascinating facts about outer space, the ocean depths, and the human body. At only 3, she’s still a little young for the science lessons, but who knows? Maybe someday she’ll remember some of them when she finally grows up to be a real bus. [Sean O’Neal]
In a continuing effort to get my kids to cook (and eat non-beige food) more, we watch a lot of cooking shows, with MasterChef Junior being a big hit, for obvious reasons. But only one cooking show has made us laugh so hard it even brought my husband to tears: Nailed It! The show brings together amateur, admittedly non-expert cooks and gives them impossible baking tasks, usually involving copious amounts of fondant and Rembrandt-worthy art skill. Any non-professional chef would fail, but some of the efforts are so bad, you wind up cheering for the ones that are even halfway decent, and at least mildly resemble the jungle or castle the bakers were supposed to create. Host Nicole Byer and head judge Jacques Torres are nothing but kind to the competitors as they struggle with these Herculean tasks.
While the competition part is engaging for kids, it also teaches them a very important lesson: Failure isn’t always a complete disaster; often, it can be very, very funny. The show features adult people unafraid to undergo almost-certain failure in front of a wide audience, and the vast majority of them are pretty good-natured about it. (Even one of the most prickly contestants, an ex-cop, eventually just gives up and goes to hang out with the judges.) That valuable underlying moral alone makes the six episodes of Nailed It! a hilarious must-watch; our kids can hardly wait for season two. [Gwen Ihnat]
Spirit Riding Free
If there’s a show I’m going to have my son watch when it’s summertime, I’m going to pick one that at least emphasizes going outside and enjoying the weather. (I live in Chicago so we only get about two months of sun.) And that’s why Netflix’s Spirit Riding Free is the perfect show. Apparently it’s a spin-off of the 2002 animated film Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron, which starred the voice talents of Matt Damon, but I wouldn’t know. I never saw the film, and I don’t need to to enjoy this wonderful series. It takes place in the frontier times and focuses on Lucky Prescott—a tween girl from the city who moves with her dad to a small remote town in the middle of nowhere. While there she befriends locals Pru and Abigail while also forming a bond with Spirit, the aforementioned horse. If there’s one problem I have with the show, the title is Spirit, when really the show is about Lucky and her friends.
Either way, the show is pretty great. For one, it’s probably the only animated show my son watches that has three female characters as the lead, showing him that girls can be just as funny, stubborn, adventurous, and silly as boys. Plus, each episode involves some outdoor excursion for the whole town. They’re in the middle of nowhere; they’ve got to go outside. From finding gold in them there hills to attempting to win a horse race, everything these girls do involves being outside and active—an ideal inspiration for summertime. Lucky for us, season five has just been released. [Eric Munn]
I’m not familiar with the considerable 1980s history (both game and TV show) behind Voltron: Legendary Defender, but as with Spirit, you really don’t have to be to enjoy the series. Five teens discover the giant robot/spaceship Voltron (made up of five separate robot lions), and become tasked with using it to defend the universe against the evil emperor Zarkon. As our own Oliver Sava put it in his review, “viewers who want to see the anime-inspired aesthetic of Korra and Avatar applied to a futuristic sci-fi series will be drawn to the evocative design work and dynamic storyboarding.” The action sequences are spectacular even in an earth-bound land chase, but the stakes rise considerably as the kids reach space and meet up with Princess Allura and Coran (voiced by a absurdly funny Rhys Darby), who aid them on their galaxy-saving quest. The futuristic graphics bring to mind everything from Tron to Speed Racer, and the zingy dialogue makes the series entertaining even when the teens aren’t involved in an intergalactic battle, but just learning how to bond and create a team that can win their destination showdown. [Gwen Ihnat]
True And The Rainbow Kingdom
It’s easy for stuff to get lost in Netflix’s content firehose. For instance, the service announced True And The Rainbow Kingdom way back in July of 2015, but the show only arrived, with little fanfare, last year. Helping the show stick was its prime real estate in Netflix Kids’ genius/dangerous search bar, where images of characters from shows appear so little ones who can’t read can still find what they like. My 5-year-old daughter, who loves cats so much she insists she is a cat, was immediately hooked by the image of True holding her cat/sidekick, Bartleby.
I struggle to explain the concept of the show to people: True is a little girl who lives in the Rainbow Kingdom, where she uses wishes from a wishing tree to solve problems or something. But my wife and I love that it basically looks like Super Mario World or Katamari, a blazingly colorful, delightfully cartoonish world that could double for cutscenes in a video game. (Credit for the look goes to the FriendsWithYou art collaborative and animation house Guru Studio, home of the popular Paw Patrol.) Luckily the show is also sweet and fun, the right mixture of whimsy, silliness, and messaging (without beating viewers over the head with life lessons). Only 10 episodes have come out so far, but here’s hoping more arrive soon—with a video game adaptation. [Kyle Ryan]
This series is definitely not for younger kids: An overwhelming darkness and theme of children (even a baby) in constant peril is disturbing. Middle-schoolers, though, likely will not be able to get enough of it. The Series series offers a storybook world as stylized as a Wes Anderson movie and as grim as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, as the Baudelaire orphans (Violet, Klaus, and baby Sunny) traverse an unwelcoming world, constantly hunted by the evil Count Olaf, who wants to get rid of the kids so he can have access to the fortune they’ll eventually receive. Neil Patrick Harris is downright revelatory as this villain, fearlessly dressing up in myriad hideous disguises from a crusty sea captain to a deranged doctor as he attempts to infiltrate the poor kids’ lives. Fortunately, they have some advocates, like Sara Rue as a resourceful librarian, Joan Cusack as a benevolent judge, and Nathan Fillion as a dashing secret agent, the brother of Lemony Snicket himself, our expert narrator personified by Patrick Warburton.
I asked my son what he likes about the series so much (despite—or maybe because of—such settings like “hostile hospital” and “carnivorous carnival,” my middle-school twins binged both seasons in about a week’s time, and continue to re-watch, even though season two ended on a literal cliffhanger). He says the real attraction is the resourcefulness of the Baudelaire children as they elude Olaf (and death) again and again: “It’s fun to see them get into problems and out of problems. They have great teamwork.” Bonus: The series might also get kids hooked on the considerable number of volumes of Lemony Snicket books for some non-screen time. [Gwen Ihnat]