Home > Martha Speaks, PBS, review, television, the ocean group > Martha Speaks; or, How Not to Dumb-Down Your Programming

Martha Speaks; or, How Not to Dumb-Down Your Programming

I spend a lot of time on this blog complaining. Like, a lot. Even when I review albums by my favorite bands, I seem to do nothing but disparage them. My reviews of U2, Metallica, or Tool‘s most recent albums are at least as much negative criticism as positive. But today… today I’m going to share with you something I whole-heartedly adore. But more introduction first.

As a stay-at-home dad (please, no jokes about being a house-husband; I deplore the term house-wife just as much), I watch a lot of children’s programming. A lot. Particularly on PBS, because we’re fairly poor and can only afford an internet connection. I’ve noticed there’s some trends in the genre, and the two major ones are:

  • Shows that assume children are idiots, and
  • Shows that assume children have brains.

As you can probably guess, I’m a bigger fan of the latter, with the former including things like Barney, Teletubbies, and Thomas the Tank Engine. These are, in my opinion, shows that exist to keep children quiet, to keep them docile and entertained.

Shows of the second type, the ones that assume children have brains, make up a painfully small portion of children’s programming. Sesame Street has long been a leader in this catagory, though I think the introduction of the “Elmo’s World” segment is a step in the wrong direction. Two other shows currently on PBS that follow in this trope are Curious George and Martha Speaks. Martha Speaks, in particular, is the one I’d like to talk to you about.

Martha Speaks is a cartoon show based on a series of children’s books of the same name. The protagonist, a dog named Martha (who I think might be a Corgi), speaks thanks to a freak occurance with a bowl of alphabet soup. The experience is impossible to reproduce in the show; other dogs try the same soup, with no effect. But past this incredibly preposterous premise—which is really no more preposterous than, say, a giant purple dinosaur in a classroom, or an anthropomorphized dump truck—the show works precisely because it lives within its own boundaries.

Note the use of the words “enumerate” and “elucidate” in a show aimed at kids.

Martha’s talking is seen as remarkable, even whimsical, by other cast members, but most people in the show are understanding enough to admit they don’t know everything and can accept bizarre situations. Even when Martha’s talking gets her into trouble or bad situations, most of the time, rational conversation and talking out problems become the focus of the show.

But the primary reason I like Martha Speaks is that Martha is a curious, positive character, and she is always trying to be helpful. She rarely gets in trouble without having good intentions at heart, and that is what makes the show endearing to me on a parental level. I am reminded that my daughter isn’t trying to be malicious when she does something wrong, she just forgets, or she’s trying to learn, or she’s trying to help. As it is with Martha.

From a technical level, the show is well-written. It rarely uses a big or new word without explaining it through natuarl dialogue (“No, ‘recouperate’ means to get better.” “Oh, I thought it was more like ‘Oops, I just recouperated all over the carpet.'”) The voice acting is top-notch, with Martha herself voiced by Tabitha St. Germain, and the rest of the cast culled from the Vancouver-based anime voice-over studio The Ocean Group. Considering the production studio that produces the show is also responsible for Curious George, I’m not surpirsed by the quality of the show, and I understand it’s been picked up for a second season. I can’t wait.

Also, the animation, for appearing to be mainly Flash-based, is surprisingly emotive and accurate for conveying mood, emotion, and the like. I find myself laughing at Martha’s facial expression almost as much the dialogue.

Finally, the reason for my love of the show is because it’s one of the few kids shows that my wife and I can watch after an hour of Family Guy and American Dad on Sunday nights and see a crossover in joke sophistication. People badmouth those two shows a lot, but the humor in them (generally) comes from situation more than individual joke/punchline formula. I’m not saying that Family Guy or American Dad is high-brow humor all the time, but when the shows are on-point, it’s hard to deny that they are the work of someone that knows how to make people laugh. The same can be said of Martha Speaks.

Yes, I just compared a kid’s show to Family Guy. Yes, I just said American Dad can be genius. Stop e-mailing me.

Anyway, when Martha Speaks introduces an episode with a sick little girl, and it spirals out of control to include chimney sweeps, a pizza delivery guy, the police, and the fire department, and the whole thing works, you know it’s the work of someone that knows what they’re doing. And, most importantly, they don’t pull punches. They don’t dumb down the show because they assume children are dolts. That’s a message that should go out to every producer of children’s television: treat your audience with respect and they’ll respect you back.

Really, you could say that for any medium, but television (and, by extention, film) seems the most egregious offender of audience disrespect. It seems like they’re always saying “Here, we know you’re going to watch this anyway, so we’re just going to give you this garbage, and you’re going to like it, because there’s no other choice.” It’s why I don’t even really watch network TV anymore. When TV shows move away from substance and put more emphasis on how the show looks (say, Who Want to be a Millionaire vs. Jeopardy!) then you lose out on the actual potential television has as a mass medium. Rather than enlightening, television has moved to pandering, and that insults viewers.

Even when your viewers are three years old.

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