We are all Elmo. Or maybe not. Last week, in a viral event that will surely seem as though it happened six years ago by this December, a clip of Elmo getting mad began to circulate on Twitter. In the clip, Elmo—the red, third-person-speaking, oft-betickled, second-generation Sesame Street denizen—is having oatmeal raisin cookies with his friend Zoe. When he asks if he can have a seemingly available cookie on the counter, Zoe refuses. That cookie, she says, is for her pet rock, Rocco. What follows is a Larry David-esque meltdown culminating in the now-iconic lines, “How?! How is Rocco going to eat that cookie, Zoe!? Tell Elmo! Rocco doesn’t even have a mouth. Rocco’s just a rock. Rocco’s not alive!” It’s a great meme: The video is GIF-able length, there’s a pull-quote that’s applicable in all sorts of situations, and fuzzy, nostalgic Sesame Street is about as universal a cultural touchstone as there is. More than that, it provides the people of the internet a friendly, furry rage avatar in a cultural moment defined by dumbstruck frustration at the preposterous intransigence of Other People.
The internet will find new avatars, new memes will replace this one, fresh discourses will be discoursed. But what strikes me about this particular discourse, what I find relatable about it, is how similar it is to the way that I, as a parent, watch children’s TV.
When Sesame Street debuted, it was revolutionary for addressing itself simultaneously to children and parents, encouraging the kind of co-viewing that developmental researchers have long said unlocks the possibilities of educational TV. The show winked to adults as it catered to kids, inviting and acknowledging care-givers as spectators, too. Over the years, that dual address led to a kind of split in the show, between the obviously kid-focused bits and gags and the obviously parent-focused ones like prestige TV parodies or guest spots from Jennifer Garner. Most kids’ shows now aim for this multivocal tone. And sometimes, a show like Bluey comes along that both keeps our kids giggling and offers maybe the most perceptive and dramatically interesting TV representation of active co-parenting since The Americans went off the air. But, most of the time, that parental outreach is notional at best. Especially for full-time caregivers, care workers, and parents fortunate enough to be able to work from home alongside their virtually-instructed wards over the past two years, there’s only so much mileage available out of watching Gonzo dressed up like a Lannister.
It’s not The Wire, but it’ll do in a pinch.
So we probe too far into the grim calculus of how it’s possible that Miss Elaina on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is the child of Lady Elaine Fairchilde—a puppet from the original Mister Rogers— and Music Man Stan, a human man. We develop elaborate, Lost Wiki-level theories about the precise nature of the magical island on Tumble Leaf. And we start to really fucking hate Rocco and resent Zoe for forcing the world to bend around the particular form of her psychosis. We over-read, we become fixated on marginal side-plots, we formulate ironclad opinions about the relative talent of dozens of child actors. In other words, we behave the way fans do.
And these are just the contours of my own personal fandom. Crowd-sourcing this question on Twitter, my mind was blown by all of the artisanal conspiracies and arcana fellow adult watchers of children’s programming have collected over the years. There were lots of vexing questions about finances (How has the Man in the Yellow Hat come upon his apparent fortune? Who’s bankrolling Ryder’s massive Paw Patrol budget?); perhaps self-reflective questions about parenting and parentage (Do the PJ Masks exist in a Neverland-esque universe without adults? How exactly did a T. Rex egg manage to appear in a Pteranodon nest in Dinosaur Train? Is nobody asking a follow-up question? Mr. Pteranodon? Anything?); more theories than I can count about the precise structure and composition of government under the rule of King Friday on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood; and, of course, perennial, vaguely disturbed queries about the existence of domesticated pets in cartoon universes populated exclusively by animals. A few years ago, McSweeney’s even came up with a strangely compelling program for the “Conference for the Association of Parents Who Watch Too Much Preschool Programming.”
For people who regularly watch kids TV with kids, the paradoxical truth is that these shows can take up as much if not more mental real estate than the media they consume for adult pleasure once the kids are asleep. Building out idiosyncratic fan theories, complaining in granular detail with your partner or fellow parents about particularly annoying characters or episodes can be a way of taking some control, managing an unbalanced screen diet. Or we can achieve something like transcendence, turning some small moment from the millionth rewatch—an argument about an oatmeal raisin cookie and a rock, for instance—into a high-intensity mental GIF, looping over and over in our heads. In much simpler terms, it’s a way to hold a middle ground between dissociation and total madness.
What I’m describing is something like a genre of deliberate misreading, and a very silly one at that. These shows might occasionally nod toward us, but they are not, in any meaningful sense, for their adult viewers. And, while I feel fairly confident that I could walk up to any parent or care-giver and immediately solicit from them a fully-formed, crackpot theory about a CGI animal, I feel equally sure that this practice is unique to the co-viewing experience. A few years ago in Slate, Ruth Graham protested the growing trend of adults reading young adult fiction for pleasure. For Graham, the mental gymnastics necessary to add extra levels of meaning and resonance to books written for teens was energy better spent simply reading books written for grown-ups. But this is not that. On lots of nights, I sit down with my partner on the couch at the end of a long day and turn on a TV that’s still set to what our girls were watching a few hours earlier. And I say—in a joke I’m certain she’s not tired of yet—“So, more Bluey?” But we do not, of course, watch more Bluey. I wouldn’t watch these shows by myself, but watching them as if they’re for me is how I’m able to remain an active spectator when I watch them with my daughters. The kind of generative co-viewing Sesame Street so prized doesn’t work the same if the co-viewer is asleep.
But it’s also a form of play. While it might seem like I’m positioning watching these shows as an act of unbearable drudgery, it can be undeniably fun, too. Facing down the sixth re-watch of the same episode of Doc McStuffins, we choose to tune in rather than tune out. Instead of doomscrolling or glazing over, we wonder how the McStuffinsville Toy Hospital is administered. Are the other elements of the McStuffinsville infrastructure run by Doc, or are other small children in charge of, say, the police or the fire department? Are the stuffies unionized? It’s not The Wire, but it’ll do in a pinch.
Preschool shows are especially responsive to this kind of opening-out. While shows for older kids like Phineas and Ferb or Hilda or even SpongeBob SquarePants are enlivened by their detailed, boundless, age-appropriate world-building, shows for the three-and-under set can start to feel claustrophobic. The foreground might be busy, but those endless CGI horizons can be maddeningly empty around the edges. So, when there’s not a lot of world to explore, we create worlds in our own image. My two-year-old is perfectly happy with the size of the Peppa Pig universe; me, I need to dig a little deeper into the office dynamics of Daddy Pig’s workplace.
Children’s TV series are supposed to expand the imaginations of children, to be filled with spaces of creative potential and lots of hooks that might draw in kids’ attention and engagement. And the best ones do. Maybe it’s my fault for asking too many of these questions out loud, or maybe it’s just a result of the shows’ effective outreach to their littler viewers, but my six-year-old has begun building out the extended universes of her favorite series. “Ask me questions about The Descendants,” she’ll say at random, and we’ll quiz her on the elaborate Westerosian family trees of the characters in that franchise. She’ll begin to speculate further about which of them might spark up friendships with characters from other shows and franchises, or even what new steps the King of Auradon might take to further his policy of prison abolition. (Perhaps I’m punching up her language a bit, but the outlines are there.) The point is that adult co-viewers aren’t inventing new ways to watch kids’ shows, so much as filling the deliberate gaps with their own interests and anxieties: most of the fan theories I heard in response to my Twitter prompt were about money, parenthood, healthcare, and politics. I’m not going to watch Bluey by myself, but if they want to make a show for grown-ups about how Bandit and Chili manage to remain such good parents without squabbling too much, I think I’d tune in.