Have you been asking “What’s good in theaters this summer?” “What’s on television that we can watch as a family? Steven Greydanus gets these questions annually and has some answers in this piece.
In a world of binge-watching, time-tested principles help parents choose shows for the whole family
As a Catholic film critic, one of the top questions I get from parents during the summer months — right after “What’s good in theaters this summer?”— is “Do you know anyone who does what you do, but for television?
As a father of seven, I sympathize. I love reviewing movies, but a movie is only a couple of hours or so of your life. TV shows play out over years, potentially waxing or waning in quality and content issues.
When I was a kid, my parents only had to keep an eye on a handful of channels, and the shows I wanted to watch didn’t get much more inappropriate than, say, “The Dukes of Hazzard.” (My mom nixed that one, disparagingly dubbing it “‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ with sex and violence.”)
These days, critically acclaimed network shows like “Hannibal” and “24” have brought disturbing R-rated themes to broadcast TV — to say nothing of cable fare like “Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad” and “Dexter.” All these series, regardless of origin, come to reside side by side at streaming services like Amazon, Net-flix, Hulu, Vudu, etc.
At the same time, there’s truth to the familiar observation that television has become better than movies. Take superhero fare. Too many big-screen installments feel obliged to keep one-upping the spectacle of earlier films; this summer’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is the latest example, though perhaps “Ant-Man” will buck the trend. For now, I’m having more fun watching “The Flash” with my family, and I hear good things about “Agent Carter” (both on Amazon Instant Video). I’m also enjoying Netflix’s “Daredevil,” with its Catholic trappings (not with the younger kids).
TV shows often become edgier and more explicit over time; movie franchises do the same. Your 10-year-old might love “Jurassic Park” on Blu-ray, but that doesn’t mean this summer’s record-devouring “Jurassic World” is age-appropriate. The 1993 film, terrifying as it was, depicted exactly one man being graphically devoured on screen; four others died off screen. The new film is far more violent, with many more on-screen chomping deaths — including a particularly harrowing, horrible fate for an innocent woman, the series’ first female fatality.
The TV landscape, in particular, is too vast for more than an impressionistic — and, based on my limited forays into TV land, idiosyncratic — survey. But here are some guiding principles and observations I’ve found helpful.
Pick programs to satisfy kids and adults
First, I believe worthwhile entertainment, even family fare, stands the test of time. This means both that a good movie or show should stand up to repeat viewings, and that it shouldn’t work only for younger viewers while setting older viewers’ teeth on edge.
Consider the Nick Jr. / Noggin lineup (Amazon Prime). Preschoolers often take eagerly to the likes of “Dora the Explorer” and “Go, Diego, Go!” These shows aren’t without merit, but after several episodes, many parents find the limited formulas and stupider story elements grating. Don’t feel guilty about gently steering your youngsters toward the likes of “Backyardigans” and “Blue’s Clues,” which are more parent-friendly and more broadly educational.
On the big screen this summer, Fox’s animated alien adventure “Home” might be passably entertaining to youngsters, but if parents have to check out and take a nap, I can’t recommend it, even for kids. Conversely, Pete Docter’s brilliant “Inside Out” is a throwback to the era of Pixar greatness of “Wall-E” and “Up”— films kids enjoy but parents appreciate on deeper levels that kids only come to understand as they grow older.
Trust your instincts. So what if the surreal, candy-colored universe of “Oswald” makes no sense? It’s lovely and gentle. Conversely, no, you aren’t the only parent who can’t stand the bratty protagonists of “Caillou” and “Franklin.” Your kids deserve better, and so do you.
I believe in watching shows as a family rather than plopping kids in front of the screen on their own. Unfortunately, family entertainment is in decline; content producers target particular age groups with demographic-specific shows and even channels. When you find something your whole family can watch and enjoy, treasure it.
On that note, let us pause to celebrate the ultimate summer vacation show, “Phineas and Ferb,” which just ended its eight-year, four-season run in June. (Seasons 1-3 are streaming on Netflix, with Season 4 available via Amazon Instant or DVD.) Though stylistically very much a product of the post-“Simpsons” era, the show is set apart by (among other things) its near-total lack of cynicism or mean-spiritedness, embodied above all in triangle-headed Phineas, whose irrepressible cheerfulness and goodwill sets the tone for the show.
Expand your horizons
Don’t stay stuck in the present. Have you and your older kids enjoyed “Monk” (Amazon Instant), Tony Shalhoub’s delightful series about a brilliant detective handicapped by OCD and a long list of phobias? Consider introducing them to older series like “Murder, She Wrote” (Netflix streaming) and “Diagnosis: Murder” (DVD). (I don’t know why murder-mystery shows can be so cozy and likable, but they can.)
Don’t limit yourself to fiction. Documentaries and other nonfiction can be just as engaging, or more so. Discovery’s “MythBusters” (Amazon Instant, Netflix, DVD), with its swashbuckling approach to experimental science, is not only compulsively watchable and educational but fosters critical thinking. “How It’s Made” is quieter and less explosive, but can be just as fascinating; so can nature documentaries, such as the BBC’s sweeping miniseries “Life on Earth” and “The Blue Planet” with David Attenborough.Older shows we’ve enjoyed include “Star Trek” with its spin-offs “The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine,” “I Love Lucy,” “The Twilight Zone” and the British spy spoof “The Avengers.” All these should be curated by parents for family viewing with an eye to their own family’s needs.
Evaluate and educate
Worthwhile entertainment isn’t necessarily without caveats; or, put the other way around, because a show has potential issues doesn’t necessarily make it off-limits. As children get older, parents should teach them to think critically about what they watch and recognize issues and limitations. For example, Gene Roddenberry’s secularist worldview is more glaring in some “Star Trek” episodes than others (there are also episodes, particularly in “Deep Space Nine,” that deal more positively with religion).
Or take the anime-influenced Nickelodeon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (Amazon Prime). It’s solid family entertainment, and the central conceit of “bending” — a blend of Jedi-like mysticism, martial arts and the Aristotelian four earthly elements — is a powerful imaginative concept that has made the series in some ways a Star Wars for this generation.
At the same time, the show includes motifs drawn from Asian spirituality, including reincarnation and the Chinese concept of “chi,” life-force or energy flow (mispronounced on the show as “chee” rather than “kee”). Catholic children should understand the incompatibility of reincarnation with the Judeo-Christian hope of resurrection — even if for the purposes of a story, we can imagine a world in which God created things differently.
There are limits. To live the values of the Gospel in a post-Christian world means to be aware of the disconnect between contemporary American social morals and Catholic teaching — a disconnect dramatically underscored, for instance, by last month’s Supreme Court decision on marriage. The Catholic writer Graham Greene said that film should show us both the world as it is and as it should be; in the face of conflicting visions of how things “should be,” at some point lines must be drawn. I haven’t watched ABC’s acclaimed “Modern Family” and can’t speak to it critically, but the fact that I haven’t watched it is probably not unrelated to where I draw lines.
Finally, limit screen time. Be especially wary of binge watching. The ever-ready availability of what you want when you want it has altered how people watch television, and this raises all kinds of concerns. Besides the negative health effects of all that sitting around, binge watching is addictive, concupiscent behavior; it messes with your self-control and is connected with depression and insomnia, among other psychological issues.
In general, I recommend sticking with a single presentation — whether a 90-minute movie, an hourlong drama or a 30-minute comedy (though not very short presentations, like classic “Looney Tunes,” Pixar shorts or “Shawn the Sheep” episodes, that were never meant to stand alone). At issue isn’t just the time spent but the ability to be satisfied with a beginning, middle and end, rather than needing to go directly from one thing to the next.
Enjoy your movie or show; then turn off the TV and go outside, read a book or play a game without a console or a Wiimote. After all, as even Phineas and Ferb had to accept in the end, summer vacation doesn’t last forever.