Case Study 57: Roobarb, Episode 18–“When Roobarb Did The Lion’s Share”

Original Airdate: January 18th, 1974 on BBC1

The most obvious point of reference for Roobarb in the Oryx Vault is Paddington: It’s another five-minute cartoon made by BBC in the 1970s to pad out the hour when other things ran short. But while one series is based on an iconic and beloved children’s book character, the other is about a badly drawn chartreuse dog with a misspelled name. (At least it makes him easy to Google.)

Strengths:

  • Cute. Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m hopelessly devoted to dogs. And, sure, Roobarb only bears an abstract resemblance to any actually existing dog. Sure, it does the same weird thing that Paddington does where all the narration and voices are done by one guy (Richard Briers, The Good Life) so Roobarb doesn’t sound particularly distinctive, despite Briers gamely putting on a silly voice. But, come on, a dog wearing a poorly assembled horse costume? I’m not made of stone, people!

Weaknesses:

  • Rock bottom production values. To say that Roobarb shares Paddington’s lo-fi aesthetic is to put it mildly. As mentioned, there’s only one voice actor, but that’s just the beginning. Everything is a shaky line drawing. The characters’ mouths don’t match up with the audio, and that’s when they move at all. At one point, Roobarb’s foil Custard observes Roobarb in a comically humiliating situation, and it’s not clear if he’s looking through a hole in a fence, coming around a corner on the side of the fence or walking through the gate of the fence, because they didn’t bother to colorize the backgrounds. And the theme song? Let’s just say it’s doesn’t rival “Spin It” from Talespin.
  • Story that goes absolutely nowhere. Here is the plot, such as it is: Roobarb encounters a sad lion. The lion is sad because he’s part of a circus and he’s lost. Roobarb tries to distract him from his woes by putting on an extremely shitty one-man circus. Then the real circus comes back, so the lion books. If you’re going to do a lazy circus thing, just have the characters go to the circus and have misadventures there. It turns out that watching someone attempt to be entertaining and fail is not, in fact, super entertaining on its own.

Final Judgment: 4/10. You know, if there’s one thing I’m learning here it’s that the vast majority of television doesn’t even try to rise out of the endless sea of grey mediocrity that floods every broadcast hour.

NEXT TIME: Hey, they made a TV show out of the movie Limitless, so that’s going to have to make up for the fact that I couldn’t find an extant copy of the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure cartoon.

Case Study 57: Roobarb, Episode 18–“When Roobarb Did The Lion’s Share”

Case Study 7: Paddington, Episode 4–“A Shopping Expedition”

Original Airdate: January 8th, 1975 on BBC

This is the first of three TV shows based on author Michael Bond’s beloved tales of a friendly anthropomorphic teddy bear living with a middle-class human family in London. The first Paddington Bear book appeared in 1958 and 25 books later the series is still going strong, with the latest entry having been released in 2014. The program under review appears to have been designed to serve as interstitial programming aired between full-length shows for kids, as each episode clocks in at about five minutes. It was also used for these purposes on various American TV channels to fill gaps in kid-friendly lineups. Paddington was later revived on television for a half season by Hanna-Barbera in 1989 and his most recent TV engagement garnered 117 episodes for Canadian TV in the late 90s, which were later rebroadcast by HBO. 2014 also saw the release of a Paddington feature film, which was well-received by both audiences and critics.

Strengths

  • Charming & sweet. I think this is a smart tonal choice for programming aimed at first graders. I remember when I was that age I was irritated that many movies and TV shows felt obligated to insert explosive conflict when I really just wanted to spend time watching fascinating characters in intriguing settings having fun and causing chaos. At five minutes Paddington can’t exactly build up a full head of steam on the dramatic front, and that’s just fine. That’s just enough time for a jolly, low-stakes misadventure. No one is in danger of being harmed and everyone loves each other. It’s warm and fuzzy, just like Paddington himself. Isn’t that what childhood should be, at least for a little bit? Maybe we can save the missile-shooting Gundams until they’re a little older.
  • A protagonist with a tangible, distinct personality. I think it’s a common—and totally understandable—misstep to make the main character of a kids’ show a generic child surrogate. There are two reasons people do this. There’s the common Hollywood fallacy that everyone wants to see people on screen who are just like them so let’s just go with the “default,” and there’s the fact that since the writers want the story to have silly hijinks, it’s easy to make the protagonist the sort of person who would seek out and create those hijinks. Of course, the perennial problem with the first line of thinking is that generic defaults leave quite a lot of people out, and the problem with the second line of thinking is that it’s lazy, and laziness is anathema regardless of your audience. Paddington is not your typical protagonist. He’s haughty. He’s proper. He’s understated. He treats a slightly insouciant department store employee to what the narrator (Michael Hordern, Where Eagles Dare)  refers to as “one of his special hard stares.” Of course, a “hard stare” from a teddy bear is fucking adorable regardless of how hard he thinks he is, but the department store guy visibly withers under Paddington’s glare. Lulz. Unlike your typical kid’s protagonist, Paddington isn’t driven by fears and emotional extremes. He’s pretty unflappable. The story, so much as there is one, is that Paddington needs to buy a new pair of pajamas, but he winds up in the display window instead of the fitting room. He tries them on, scarfs down one of his trademark marmalade sandwiches and goes to sleep in the display bed. When he wakes up, he realizes that a crowd of passersby are gawking at his antics. Instead of a hammy, broad reaction to this misunderstanding, Paddington just seems mildly surprised. The narrator notes that Paddington “suddenly wished he hadn’t bought such loud pajamas.” And that’s it! Maybe this reticence is a British thing, but the important part is that Paddington’s unique personality comes across in only five minutes. Well done!

Weaknesses

  • Aesthetically hideous. I was recently flummoxed when someone at a party advised me that they couldn’t bring themselves to watch Bojack Horseman due to its allegedly shoddy animation. They said it ranked even lower in their estimation than the animation on South Park. Reasonable people can disagree about where these shows and other animated efforts should fall on an aesthetic hierarchy, but for the most part I’m willing to meet animation where it’s at. If the story is compelling and I can tell what’s supposed to be happening, we’re good. But it turns out there is a lower limit to what I can tolerate and it’s Paddington. Here’s an example. I suppose I should applaud the show for being willing to experiment—it’s a strange admixture of a stop-motion puppet (Paddington) in what I hope is an intentionally sloppy 2D environment. The non-Paddington characters look like storyboard sketches and no attempt is made whatsoever to make them look like they’re of a piece with the stationary aspects of the environment. The thought process is a bit befuddling here. I get that stop-motion animation is expensive and labor-intensive. I get that the cuteness of the teddy bear that we’re all here to see would be blunted if he was rendered in this ghastly 2D style—it does in fact do the show a lot of favors that Paddington is an actual teddy bear wearing actual little pajamas and you want to give him a big hug. Nevertheless, this feels like an ill-begotten compromise executed by a committee. Look at what Hanna-Barbera was able to cough up in the 1980s. Nothing earth shattering, but it’s also not remarkably shitty. The characters’ mouths don’t even move—no, not even the titular puppet—and they’re all voiced by the narrator, who does a fine job, for what that’s worth.
  • Irretrievably dated. Now, I’m going to talk a bit more about how the utility of my rating system is going to differ a bit for kid’s and YA programming below, but for the most part I’m more forgiving of faults in children’s programming. It might drive us nuts that it really makes no sense that it would be this easy for a customer to mistake a fitting room for the entrance to a display window, or that there’d be a display of fragile kitchenwares right in front of the door to that display window positioned in such a way that no one could actually enter the display window without knocking those things over and breaking them into a million pieces. (Which, of course, is exactly what Paddington does.) Kids don’t mind this—it’s funnier if crazy mix-ups happen. It’s funnier if Paddington is a furry little engine of destruction and mayhem regardless of the practical considerations. But when the basic premises of the story aren’t comprehensible, things start to fall apart. There’s no way the creators of the show could know that 40 years after the short aired that retail commerce would be so completely transformed that a small child would have no point of reference for a department store with a display window facing a heavily trafficked city street. I mean, sure, that’s still a thing on Fifth Avenue or whatever. But almost everywhere else it’s mall sprawl, and even malls are now on the descendant. There was a time when every town big enough to have any kind of department store played host to a shop window like this, making it an instantly recognizable scenario for the show’s target demographic. Now? Not so much.

Usually my ratings are meant to serve as an index of whether or not and to what extent a show is worth your time, where you are a majority-aged consenting adult of wide and varied interests. Of course, there are not many adults out there contemplating whether or not the next thing they binge watch should be Paddington. So if I’m rating a kid’s show or a show for teens, the rating will reflect whether or not it’d be worth watching with your kids or teens. I thought about attaching this disclaimer to So Little Time, but no one of any age should watch that, so it was a bit of a moot point.

Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. It’s definitely not bad and at five minutes it’s hardly an extensive time commitment. Many, if not all, of the shorts are available free on YouTube. I’m also pretty confident that there have been many things released in the intervening 40 years that your kids might find more compelling, and you won’t have to explain how different Macy’s once was.

NEXT TIME: Major Crimes. We break the seal on TV’s endless supply of crime dramas with this spinoff of The Closer.

Case Study 7: Paddington, Episode 4–“A Shopping Expedition”