When Amazon Instant Video started introducing original TV series into its streaming library for Prime members, the most attention was (naturally) paid to its adult offerings: darkly whimsical Mozart in the Jungle and rightful critical darling Transparent. But Amazon also has a handful of kids programs that are just as progressive and entertaining.
While much of the preschool-aged programming (Tumble Leaf, Creative Galaxy, and upcoming pilot The Adventures of Knickerbock Teetertop) can be predictably mind-numbing for adults (but full of the wholesome fun that these shows need), it’s Amazon’s more tween-centric live-action shows that are wonderful surprises. Last year’s pilot season (Amazon’s second) saw the premiere of Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street, a fantastical depiction of abnormal normalcy, a hang-out sitcom with a slight supernatural twist. The series follows Gortimer and his two friends as they travel around their small-town suburb, occasionally stumbling into adventures and mysteries: helping a peer cure himself of the bad luck that ails him, helping a former model/currently blind elderly woman go toe-to-toe with a magical frog that may have cursed her.
Gortimer Gibbons can best be described as a mixture of Eerie, Indiana and The Adventures of Pete and Pete; there are the cool but creepy mysteries of Eerie combined with Pete‘s skill at turning the mundane into the bizarre and depicting the different — absurd and wild — ways that children view the world (Gortimer is told through our titular character’s POV). Both Eerie and Pete and Pete are, tellingly, still cult favorites with the adults who watched them, and Gortimer is a show that grown-ups can watch without losing their minds. It especially helps that the adults within the show don’t condescend or talk down to the children, but mostly treat them like shorter equals.
Even better is Annedroids, from Amazon’s first pilot season, which focuses on an 11-year-old genius scientist named Anne, her two friends, and an android named PAL. It’s a educational series that openly celebrates STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — through the world of an young girl who builds robots and does experiments in her junkyard backyard. It’s fun and engaging for young kids and actually masters the art of teaching — Anne provides scientific explanations to her friends and therefore to the audience — without being so overt that it takes viewers out of the narrative.
What’s more is that Annedroids has managed to be one of the most stealthily progressive television series that isn’t getting the attention that it deserves. None of the leads are white boys — there are two white girls and a black boy — and even PAL the android is genderless. Designer Matt Bishop says, in designing PAL, they incorporated proportions of both a boy and a girl and “modeled areas to attempt to mimic it because PAL hasn’t decided what gender it wants to go with” — giving PAL the chance to decide PAL’s gender in the future or continue to just be PAL. In addition to the kids’ racial and gender diversity, there is also a wide variety of families: single-parent households, same-sex parents. There isn’t much ado made about Anne being a girl — in the pilot, when Nick learns that the helmet-and-goggles-wearing weirdo he spotted on the street isn’t a guy, he exclaims “You’re a girl!” and Anne shrugs it off with an immediate, mocking “You’re a boy!”
This Friday, Amazon will debut another six new children’s pilots for full-season consideration. Again, the series for younger kids are perfectly fine, but the programming geared toward an older audience is what stands out. A History of Radness, from Hannah Montana co-executive producer Andrew Green, is a charming music-centric sitcom that relies heavily on themes of siblings and friendship, but not so much so that it gets cheesy. Twins Jack and Jessie move to a new town with hopes of starting a new band and slowly get one together with the help of fellow outsiders. It’s a show for and about outcasts; they’re not concerned with rising above that status to become cool, because they’d rather just to hang out and make music with people who “get” them.
A History of Radness is a more down-to-earth Hannah Montana, and certainly reminiscent of the majority of Disney/Nickelodeon shows that with musical elements, but it’s a little more gritty than those (well, as gritty as a show for six-to-11-year-olds can be), with music from Hutch Harris of The Thermals, narration from Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino and Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds, and a cameo by Henry Rollins.
The other two interesting standouts are Lost in Oz, an animated adventure comedy, that takes place in a “modern, metropolitan Emerald City” and succeeds in feeling fresh and inventive despite the numerous Wizard of Oz adaptations. It feels like a shoo-in for a full season, especially with music by Mark Mothersbaugh.
Finally, there’s The Kicks, another live-action series with a strong girl at the center, this one adapted by David Babcock (Gilmore Girls) from a book series by Olympic gold medalist Alex Morgan. Like History of Radness, The Kicks‘ catalyst is also a family’s move, this time with protagonist Devin moving from the East Coast to California and leaving her soccer team behind to join a new, worse team. The Kicks suffers from sometimes going a little overboard with its message (Devin opens up with a monologue about how she wears headbands, not crowns and cleats, not high heels), but it’s perfect for young girls — particularly tomboys — and encourages all girls be themselves.
Amazon has been on a quiet hot streak lately. Transparent‘s success is well documented but all of its other successes seem to be lurking under the radar, waiting to be discovered. While it’s not set to challenge Disney or Nickelodeon anytime soon, Amazon’s children’s shows are stealthily outshining their peers.