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Greetings and salutations and welcome to season 2 episode 16 of the Pop Culture Academy where we do all things pop culture with just a bit of an academic slant. I'm your host, MK Adkins, and what has happened in this last week since last we spoke? In the last week my wife and I finally caught up with Fear the Walking Dead. We've been behind on that one a bit. No spoilers, of course, but at some point I really need to put together an episode or a blog post or an article or something on the way that this last season offered this kind of post-apocalyptic reading of the Exodus story. It was really interesting. In general this is such a great series. It's certainly, I think, as good as the original. Right now it's got an amazing cast; so many people drawn from such other great series, I mean people that you will absolutely recognize and frankly, I don't know how they can afford this cast. It's become quite large. I mean, I'm expecting that very soon some people will have to go. You know, if you haven't seen season 5, you really should. And if you haven't seen the series at all, it's really good. I like the whole thing but you can start at season 4 and be fine really. I mean there's some continuity that goes over the whole series but really they do a kind of a reboot after season 4 and so you can start there and not be particularly lost.
Also I am watching, at the moment, Star Trek: Voyager. A good friend of mine, Ida Bostian, she started this, she did this, and I - you know I thought it was such a great idea that now I'm stealing it but she started with the original Star Trek and worked her way through it series by series, chronologically, and I know that she's been watching Discover and I know that she's been watching Picard. I'm up to Voyager and I'm enjoying it but the question keeps - I mean this doesn't really particularly bother me but why do Star Trek shows seem to become so dated so fast?
Watching this series, watching The Next Generation. Certainly if you go back to watch the original series it feels so...it just feels so dated. Is it something about the particular sort of future that they're imagining, that it just dates itself very quickly? I mean, if you compare it, for instance, to Star Wars, you know, that original trilogy, everything already feels very old, rusted, used and that's great because then you don't have to worry about it becoming out of date - the technology seeming to become out of date over time. I think one of the problems with episodes one, two and three in the Star Wars universe is that they were suddenly - we went back in time and everything was suddenly new and shiny and it felt a little wrong and it didn't have the same kind of allure. I mean, I don't know why you want your future to feel rusted and worn out but you do. Does all great science fiction have that kind of dated...I don't know. Battlestar Galactica is one that's coming to mind. The Galactica in that series is being retired so, again, there's a since that things are past their prime, things aren't new and shiny anymore. Is that what we need for a sci-fi series to stand the test of time and look good? People love Star Trek. People loved the original, The Next Generation. I'm really enjoying Voyager so maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it's some kind of suspension of disbelief involving aesthetics. I mean, just, you know, the uniforms, the bridge, the console. None of that looks like the future, right? But, anyway, I definitely am enjoying the series, about two seasons in, and it does something - I think each of the series have really added to the whole Star Trek universe in fascinating ways.
All right, so I want to talk a little this episode about children's television which I think is really actually a very fertile subject and one that we probably will come back to more over time. But you know, Sesame Street's ending it's 50th season, a very very big deal. I mean, 50 seasons. And of course Caroll Spinney who has played the beloved characters of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for all 50 years passed away this year. Sort of a sad milestone, I guess you could say. And so in some ways it seems like we have some good excuses to go into the subject of children's television with all these things going on with Sesame Street.
Before I get into children's television, I think I've got to lay out a theory of television that I've been working on actually for a few years now and it involves thinking of television as a kind of virtual reality. Let me see if I can explain this in a way that will set up the rest of the show. We've talked a number of times about this - the relationship of art to virtual reality. And my argument is that all art is meant to be virtual reality, essentially. We can get into some representational things, some abstract things in the 20th century, but that's a whole other episode-long story involving photography. Other than that, all art, I think, is meant to capture reality. And each generation of artist is trying to capture reality in a more and more realistic way to recreate reality. And so I would say art from it's very beginning, if you go back and again I've talked about this in other shows, you go back to cave paintings 32,000 years ago - all art from that point is trying to create a virtual reality, an alternative universe that human beings can walk into and feel like they are somewhere else. That's what all art is about. And television, this is the next part of my argument, television, at least scripted television, I would argue is the most sophisticated version of virtual reality that we have got at least so far. I think that video games could overtake it. I think that things involving what we term virtual reality like say the HoloLenz or something like the Occulus Rift, maybe that down the road will be will supplant television as the best version of virtual reality. And there are, you know, probably more things on the horizon that will show up but for right now television is the closest we've gotten to allowing ourselves to enter another reality, an alternative universe and exist. A television show is like a little world. You know this about the shows that you love; they've got characters, places, you get familiar with them, you feel comfortable, you move around to different parts of the world. I mean, you know, let's take an extreme example like Game of Thrones. Obviously, I mean, it's a whole fantasy other world that's realized and I love the opening credits to that show and the way that you get to see the world in it's all they do a very clever thing by making it all clockwork. But it's all there. The whole world sort of spreads out or pops up if you will over the map and you can see the whole world and the series does that. We're moving from one country to another country and crossing oceans and it feels like a complete whole developed world.
Now, on the other end of the spectrum, we've talked about this recently, soap operas happen essentially every day, every week day and you've got people who play those roles in some cases for their entire lives and certainly for, you know, 40, 50, 60 years. We're talking about Sesame Street turning 50. A lot of these soap operas are that old and some people have been playing these roles that long. And so if you're watching that you're seeing the same people, the same characters, every day at the same time. It's like it's really happening in your life. That's as virtual reality as we can get right now. And there's this great bit in the old Phillip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which many of you know from it's movie title, Bladerunner. But in the novel there's a talk show and the talk show is always on. I think the talk show host's name is Friendly, something Friendly. It's always on, 24 hours a day. And that's one of the ways that you know something is amiss in this world. This guy never sleeps he's just on 24 hours a day. Dick in the way that he always did, predicting the future and predicting human behavior into the future. Projecting out what kinds of things we would love and what we would be attracted to. Dick gets it dead on. If we could have a television show, I mean, The Truman Show kind of plays on this idea as well. If we could have a tv show that was on 24 hours a day and never ended, that would be pretty close to virtual reality. Now I know it's not the same as putting on a suit and feeling like you're in, well go back to Star Trek, feeling like you're on the holodeck. We're not there yet. But television has gotten pretty close.
All right, so if you buy into the idea that a tv show is virtual reality or is trying to recreate an alternative space that we can go and visit, what's really fascinating is the connection between that concept (television and virtual reality) and children. In one sense you could say that children's tv trains us to be tv watchers. Think about that statement. It teaches us how to live in these television worlds. Kids aren't born understanding television. Just like, I mean we've talked about this recently, when movies were invented movie-makers had to teach us how to watch. We didn't know what to do with movies. We jumped out of the way when a train came on the screen because we thought it might be coming at us. We had to learn how to watch a movie and kids have to learn how to watch, how to understand tv. It's almost like its own language or maybe it'd be better to say it's own grammar. And children's shows do this. If you turn a child loose, I know, I've got a 3 year old, if you turn a child loose with television narrative they will figure it out. You don't have to explain it to them. They will pick it up. And I think a lot of these children's shows are designed to teach them how to pick it up, how to learn television. And we might say, well okay, that sounds awful. I mean, I know that all my teachers growing up would say that. We all know someone who will tell you how awful television is for us, right? Those people who would say, the old boob tube terminology that gets applied to television. It's still there. Even in this golden age of amazing storytelling, that's still there. That's hung on to television. And there's all kinds of studies about tv and the brain and screen time. Of course, all of that has to kind of go out the window during covid. We're all home now and we gotta work at the same time we're entertaining our kids who can't be at school and so...I mean even if they're going to school it's going to involve screen time. So a lot of that advice has now gone out the window. But frankly I've never been so sure about that advice, what they say about screen time. I don't want to take a beating from parents for this episode. And it's really a much longer argument but I don't think we know - are the studies right that it's probably changing kids brains? I have no doubt of that. I would also argue probably that when people learned to read and write 2500 years ago that also changed people's brains. And if you lived 2500 years ago would you be the one who was saying well let's not read and write because that might somehow screw up their brain chemistry? Television may be doing that. Screen time may be doing that. But that's moving them into something different, not necessarily moving them into something bad. Again, that's a whole other argument.
All right, so let's look at this from another angle. I've raised this question before - why do we as human beings have this desire to create virtual reality at all? If our entire history of art has been an effort to do this, why? Why are we obsessed with creating alternative universes? What is it that compels us to make art and to try to make art so realistic? It turns out there actually may be answers to that in childhood. A number of child psychologists including a great, important experimental psychologist D. W. Winnicott back in the 60s/70s argued that children exist in this very strange world. This isn't just speculation. We know this. When an infant is born, when a child is born that child sees the world as absolutely subjective. That is, the child thinks that everything in the world is a part of her. Her mother, other people she sees, the objects in her room, all of that is part of her because she has no other way of thinking about things. We're born with that total subjectivity. Everything is us. Now, over the first years of life we have to be pried out of that. We have to learn the difference between what's us and what's out there in the world, the subjective us and the objective out there in the world. We have to learn there's a difference between them. And really, who are we kidding? To some extent we do that our entire lives. We're struggling our entire lives to get over our sort of subjective selfish impulses and think about the larger world. But kids are doing that in extreme form in the very early stages.
One of Winnicott's great breakthroughs was when he discovered this thing, this in between place. He uses the word "liminal" which is really just a fancy way of saying in between places. He talks about what he calls magical objects. So the way Winnicott describes this - something that's not the child gets caught up in being part of the child. For instance, the child may have a stuffed bear and at some point the paw of the stuffed bear manages to get into the corner of the child's mouth. And so the child who is experiencing everything as subjective feels this bear as part of itself, this bear is in his/her mouth. It is part of itself. But then mom or dad comes in and takes the bear out of the child's mouth so that the child doesn't choke to death because they are good parents. When this happens, the thing that was part of the child is now taken away and the child has this moment of "this thing that was part of me is now away from me". Winicott says that those objects, that bear, becomes a very special object for the infant. What he calls a magical object because it occupies a space that is both inside of the child and outside the child. If you want to think about it this way, it is part of the child's world and it is part of the outer world.
Winnicott takes this further. As you grow, as children grow they keep this up, they continue to have these magical places that are in between, imaginary worlds, play worlds. And for kids those are truly places that exist in between what you might call the real world and the not real world. And it's not a stretch. Winnicott suggests to think that maybe this same impulse, that the idea that we want to cross the real world with some kind of other - the real and the not real - someplace in between. Winnicott suggests that might actually be the impulse for art. That might be where our desire for art comes from, this need to find a space in between. It's not our world but it's not completely other, it's an artificial world. It's an alternative world. So that if you think about it, if you've studied virtual reality, is what's leftover from our childhood impulses and you say television is virtual reality it actually turns out that television might be left over from something that we really needed in childhood. It's that search for a real/not real space, an in between space. And I think if you think of kids shows in this sense then they become a lot less problematic in terms of is it right to let your kids watch television. Is it not? If you consider that the whole reason tv exists might actually be because of children.
Let's go back to the earliest children's television show, Howdy Doody, there's a whole world they are trying to get there. You've got a kind of a ranch and there are buildings in this space and we move from place to place in the building. And what they are creating for kids is an imaginary space where you can play. Captain Kangaroo. All the shows have basically continued this. If you look at almost every children's show, they're always about developing a space for the kids to be in. An imaginary, in between space. Captain Kangaroo. And you may or may not know this, Clarabell the Clown from Howdy Doody (Bob Keeshan) becomes Captain Kangaroo and the space is different. This time it's the space of a house. But that house has many rooms and we go exploring and that becomes the imaginary space. The old Soupy Sales show, very popular kids show. Again, kind of a limited space but it was still a space that the camera explores. Bozo, there the space turns into the big top and carnival and circus. Peewee's Playhouse, another sort of space, a playhouse that has lots of different places you can go, lots of different components. And they all have this very familiar format. Almost all these shows include several small segments that are all united by the fact that they happened within the larger context of this world. So for instance, on Bozo which is one of the ones I grew up with, it was all about cartoons. The segments were all cartoons - Popeye and Tom & Jerry, whatever the cartoons were. The big top was an excuse to just show all these cartoons and you have Bozo as the host. Here's a cartoon, here's a cartoon, here's a cartoon. It was really just a cartoon show. But all of those individual cartoons are united by the particular imaginary space that they're in.
So within all of this, I think there are probably a couple of shows that deserve special recognition. First of all, Sesame Street. Right? Again, we talked about 50 years old. It's certainly a world in the way that we are talking about. It's certainly a space. I mean the whole idea is it's a street.
There are tenement buildings, there's an apartment where Bert & Ernie live. There's an apartment where Elmo lives. There's a little store, a bodega. All of these things - there's a trash section where Oscar lives. There's Big Bird's nest on part of the street. All of these things are part of this world. If you go back and look at the music, the original opening credits to Sesame Street they are always going down a road, they are going to a place, they are entering this magical in between space. And that's what Sesame Street was and so it definitely works in the same way. Think about it, in the segments you've even got "Elmo's World". That's a whole world within the Sesame Street world. But I mean here's the thing about Sesame Street that was so cool - and it's not like this anymore, it just isn't. I grew up, I think I was 2 - no, I'm sorry - Sesame Street preceded ME by two years. So I grew up with Sesame Street very very earliest days. I have a 23 year old daughter who I watched go through Sesame Street and that's sort of in the middle years, around year 25. Now I've got a 3 year old daughter, I'm watching again. It is not the same as it was and that's fine; shows evolve over time. But once upon a time Sesame Street, its purpose, you can go back and look at interviews with the creators - its purpose was to imitate television. One of the cool things about Sesame Street was that there were educational commercials, "This episode is brought to you by the letter B". And the number 7. And the little clips inside were all educational. But it imitated television. It gave you everything that television has. It even, now, you get an awful lot of parodies. Game of Thrones parodies on Sesame Street, or Orange is the New Black parodies. Again, the whole idea is this recognition that Sesame Street is a world that exists on television and telling kids that and teaching kids.
In a lot of ways Sesame Street was the ideal show, I mean, we can talk about it as one of the first really important educational shows. Kids shows weren't educational. Howdy Doody wasn't educational. Howdy Doody was full of commercials. It was entertaining as hell but it wasn't educational. Sesame Street set out to be educational, to give all kids, even kids who weren't going to preschool, that same kind of educational advantage. And it was an amazing show for that reason. But it also served this really interesting function of teaching kids how to understand the television world. And again, you say, well that's awful. I don't know. I don't know if it's so awful. Teaching kids how to survive in the media environment as opposed to being manipulated by the media environment - maybe that's an important skill. Maybe Sesame Street is the antidote to Howdy Doody. Howdy Doody is not teaching kids, Howdy Doody is just manipulating the kids, "Come on kids, we know you love imaginary spaces, come on into this one and we'll sell you some candy." It's creepy. Sesame Street was different; "Come on into this tv space and we'll teach you how to navigate this tv space. We'll teach you how to understand this tv space."
The other show that's coming out at roughly the same time, same time era, is Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. Kind of a companion show for Sesame Street. And again, definitely a world. Think about what that show's opening credits are. It's very Game of Thrones, right? You move down these streets, there's nice music playing but you move through these neighborhoods and it's pretend but it's a world. It's spread out beneath you, you're going through this world. You're going to Mr. Rogers' house.
And Mr. Rogers was all about moving you from the real world into this imaginary world. You come into the house, it's obviously a fake house, it's obviously a play house. The walls don't look real. The door doesn't look real; nothing looks real. He comes into this house. He changes clothes to remind us that we are moving into the world of play; we are leaving the real world we are going into the world of play. There's the trolley that takes us from the real world, such as it is, to the really imaginary world of puppets and that exists somewhere else. But Mr. Rogers, and it does this more than Sesame Street I think, really teaches kids how to handle that. There are moments in Mr. Rogers where he steps outside - you'll be in this fantasy zone and then he'll step outside. You'll see him, for instance, holding one of the puppets and you'll see "oh, he's the voice behind that puppet". There's a great episode, and there are a lot of episodes like this, where he goes to the set - the old show back in the 70s, early 80s, The Incredible Hulk. Mr. Rogers takes the kids to the set of The Incredible Hulk and one of the things - one of his goals in that episode is to show kids that you don't have to be afraid of The Incredible Hulk. And so you see The Incredible Hulk and then he takes you behind the scenes, behind the cameras and you talk about how do they make this? How do they put this together? How is this created? And it certainly teaches kids that adults are all about imagination too. Adults are all about creativity and about pretend spaces just as much as kids are. But it also right from the very early development of a kid it teaches that kid television is an imaginary space and that's great but we also need to know how to step outside of that space. And so you have these two shows kind of happening at the same time on PBS that are really addressing the issues of children and television in a fascinating and different way.
Now, I'm especially fond of the Teletubbies which my oldest daughter grew up with and she was right at the height of Teletubbie mania. And if you've never seen a kid watch the Teletubbies, if you don't have a kid who's in their 20s, and believe me, my daughter is still quite devoted to the 'tubbies. Even today. But there were some amazing, I don't know what it was about that show, it was absolutely, again, the word I can think of is a little creepy. My daughter would play - the tv might be on, you know she liked Barney and she'd watch a little Sesame Street and there were some other shows, and she'd play while those shows were on and she'd you know, she'd notice what was happening. When the Teletubbies came on, the world for her stopped. It's the only thing that she sat still for, she stopped what she was doing, she put down her toys, she sat still and she was glued to and mesmerized by the television for that 25 minutes that Teletubbies was on. I don't know if it has to do - again, it's a very interesting space. There's that sun baby and there's something very hypnotic about that and so maybe there's something going on there. But kids just love Teletubbies. But Teletubbies is a really interesting thing, again, thinking about shows like Sesame Street, shows like Mr. Rogers that were actually thinking about television. They were television and they were thinking about television. Teletubbies, I mean, think about the name of the show. I don't know if you've ever watched this but the point of the show is that these creatures have televisions in their bellies, right? They are tele-tubbies. It's so incredibly post modern. It's what Bozo would have been - you know, the cartoons, again Popeye and whatever we were watching, if they had shown up on Bozo's belly. Instead of the segments being something that are shown on a screen and just introduced by the host the televisions are actually embedded in these things bellies. And each episode, you know, you go through the episode and then at some point in the middle, one of the 'tubbies gets a television signal in his belly and we watch the show, the film that comes onto his belly. I mean talk about, it's so post modern. The tv show that's about watching tv shows. Except that here's the really mind-blowing thing about the Teletubbies, the videos that are shown on their bellies are actually real life. They are videos sent in from kids who are showing you slices of what their real lives are like. It's a chance for you to see how different kids in different parts of the world live. So, you're watching this show and then in the show you go to watch television but what's on television isn't actually television, what's on television is the real world. And so there's this reversal between, I don't know, it gets very confusing. Where's the real world, where's the fake world? It's a real world within a fake world. It's very post modern. It's awesome.
Of course, you know, as with all pop culture, things now have become so incredibly glutted. There are whole kids universes now with multiple shows. I mean, as soon as Disney had it's own channel, I mean and Nickelodeon to some extent, you get these umbrellas of imaginary worlds and they all fit within the Disney world. But, you know, it's not just Disney anymore. You've got the Star Wars universe. My 3-year old is heavily into Star Wars. I know I make it sound like we watch television all the time - we don't. We limit her screen time. But there are Star Wars cartoons - the big thing is the Star Wars Lego cartoons and there are these whole different universes of Lego cartoons and they all kind of fit together in this larger universe. So it's not just - and there are a ton of other stand alone shows. All of these kids shows that are out there just tons, every channel, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon and - they've all got their own set of shows. And there are all these exotic kids channels. Right? Like Baby Bum. And YouTube is full of kids shows, all kinds of kids channels. My daughter just kind of surfs between one YouTube channel and another. And there are literally there are hundreds. And I'm fascinated by the things that she discovers. She used to watch this show about cars and it was - I don't know how to describe this and you can probably find it on YouTube - you're looking at real cars. I guess it's a little bit like Robot Chicken except that it's less animated. You're looking at real cars and somebody's hand is moving these real cars along a road or along a track and narrating as we go. So, you know, the car comes to a railroad stop and we see, you know a hand comes in and puts the railroad crossing signs down and then the train comes through and all of this is being narrated, "oh, look at the train coming through. We better wait on the train." And these little segments, these little five or ten minute episodes where you just follow along with the cars. And I was thinking about this this week - it's very video game like, right? Instead of just watching the action you are kind of with the cars as they go through which is the way a video game works. The great advancement of video games over television is the first person aspect. You can actually be the character. You don't get to do that in the same way in most television. But if you're a kid and you're watching this television show, that is kind of what you get, is a first person moving along with the cars feeling like you're in the world where these cars and these trains, like a little train set. Is this a bridge - I mean, the way these things work - kids grow up with something and they take whatever it is they grow up and they are so used to it and so attached to it that they make it the whole world. Is kids watching these kinds of first person videos on YouTube, is it a bridge to a day when video games will be tv? And the kids, right, the kids will already be ready. They'll already be there ready to do that. The rest of us may not. But they'll be ready to have a show with a narrative like a television show but where you get to play the character and you get to move around the way that you do in video games. Is that the future of narrative? Now, as usual, I can probably go on about this subject indefinitely and maybe at a future point we'll come back to it but I think that's enough for one episode.
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