Very few things are as taxing as being cooped up inside with small children during the long winter months, as they and you are all ready to climb the walls. But thanks to the passing days of the calendar (as well as some global warming), the end is nearly in sight. To help you get through these last few weeks of winter, our A.V. Club parenting panel offers the following suggestions for some streaming series on days when you just can’t take it anymore. You have our full permission to have your children binge a few of these episodes to grab yourself some moments of peace and quiet (and you may even enjoy watching some of these with your offspring). Just have the kids watch less TV in June.
For more suggestions, check out our 2015 Inventory series on kids’ shows that parents can stand.
A lot of tween TV programming is made up of brightly colored multi-cam sitcoms on the Disney Channel or Nick Jr., featuring wealthy, sarcastic almost-teens and their unlucky friends and relatives. Fortunately, Amazon’s Just Add Magic stands out from an obnoxious pack. Based on a book by Cindy Callaghan, the series features three best friends who discover a mysterious magical cookbook. They then use the spells in the book (like “Shut’em Up Shortcake” and “Healing Hazelnut Tart”) to solve mysteries in their idyllic little town. The series has the perfect blend of suspense, mystery, and humor, making for a delightful binge-watch no one in your family will object to. It may even make your kids a little more enthusiastic about cooking themselves, because that involves a kind of magic anyway, even without special spells. Amazon has just released season two, in which one of the friends goes a little Dark Willow, offering a valuable lesson about secrets, personal space, and even addiction. Season three can’t come soon enough.
There are, to put it in terms that slightly older kids might understand, a metric fuckton of Pokémon TV shows. When my 6-year-old started playing Pokémon Go last year, I had no idea how deep this world went—in fact, I still don’t know if Pokémon originated with trading cards, video games, or what, and I honestly don’t care. But the iPhone game led him, via Netflix, to Pokémon XY, which—via shitty animation and incredibly stilted scripts—tells the story of a Pokémon trainer named Ash, who travels the world getting into Pokémon battles, usually winning and sometimes learning a lesson. There are some bad guys, too, called Team Rocket, who are usually trying to mess with him, and he’s got a nerdy toady named Clemont who’s always telling him how great he is. There are something like a gajillion seasons, along with a double-gajillion seasons of a show called Pokémon XYZ, which appears to be basically the same thing but with a slightly better theme song. But my boy loves it, so I love it, too, dammit. But not as much as I enjoy playing Pokémon Go.
Fifteen months passed between seasons of the Amazon kids’ series Tumble Leaf, but anyone who’s seen the show can probably guess why: Its handmade stop-motion animation takes a long time to create, particularly a variety so vibrant and detailed. A show this whimsical requires a rich visual palette, but the rewards of Tumble Leaf go beyond its visuals. The series centers on Fig the fox, a kid who lives in a beached shipwreck and goes on adventures inspired by items he discovers in a special “finding place” on the boat. Joining him are a coterie of other animal friends just as richly detailed as Fig and the world around them. Episodes often find Fig et al. figuring out some task, playing to children’s problem-solving skills, but the show doesn’t beat them over the head with a “lesson,” unlike most entertainment geared toward little ones. Unsurprisingly, Tumble Leaf has won multiple Emmys, but that quality takes time. Amazon released the latest batch of episodes in May 2016, and there’s no word yet on when another will arrive.
Trollhunters is fabulously fantastical, which is not a big surprise when you consider that it’s created by Guillermo Del Toro. His animated series features young adolescent Jim (Anton Yelchin), who discovers a magic amulet that makes him the new warrior for a race of trolls that’s trying to defeat a pack of evil enemies. The trolls resemble Maurice Sendak creatures, each one more bizarre than the next, and are voiced by the likes of Kelsey Grammer and Ron Perlman. But Jim’s story not-so-subtly deals with the challenges middle schoolers hurdle every day: When faced with a bully or the girl he has a crush on, Jim needs to be brave, even without his magical sword. So it’s easy to get caught up in his quest, especially as his magical companions captivatingly sway from menacing to humorous.
Remember Cars? The film series from Pixar that is about to release its third installment? Wish you had a generic knock-off that your kids would love? Well, wish granted! My son loves Tom The Tow Truck. It’s a computer-animated show streaming on Amazon about a tow truck named Tom who lives in a small town inhabited only by other vehicles. Each episode a vehicle either breaks down or is damaged, and Tom comes in to help them. I don’t mind the series as Tom doesn’t really have a voice so much as he make little grunts and squeaks like a character in a Sims game. Hell, anything is better than the sound of Larry The Cable Guy. The only annoying character of the show is the faceless narrator who, like a god from a Greek play, never offers any help and only pesters the characters. On the plus side, my son now knows how to fix a broken-down police car, backhoe, dump truck, ambulance, and even a rocket. I still have trouble opening the hood of my car.
I’ve already talked a bit about my appreciation for low-key British children’s cartoons. But they’re not just good for enduring through a hangover; the best have an endearing calmness that you just don’t see as often in American cartoons. Sarah & Duck is one of the sweeter examples. It’s closer to the languid pace of a PBS cartoon (most notably Peg + Cat, which seems inspired by a very similar visual style), but without the driving mission to use animation to deliver an educational or developmental message. It’s simply about a young girl and her duck friend and the kind of low-stakes adventures a young girl and her duck friend would enjoy: putting on plays, delivering bread, learning to paint. It’s delightfully conflict-free and easygoing. Sarah & Duck fills out its supporting characters with a bed of talkative onions, the moon, and a narrator who regularly interjects with questions and suggestions for the duo. It’s the kind of show you feel completely comfortable letting your kid watch unattended, knowing that the worst habit they may be in danger of picking up is a desire for more whimsical bike rides to the art museum.
Children’s music and children’s TV are notoriously grating, but the Netflix original animated series Beat Bugs has an extraordinary advantage: The Beatles. Each 11-minute episode is named after and loosely based on one of the group’s songs, as five insect friends go on adventures, learn lessons, and sing (sometimes with the help of guest stars like Pink, Chris Cornell, Aloe Blacc, The Shins, Jennifer Hudson, and others). Creator Josh Wakely spent three years negotiating the rights to the songs, but the effort paid off in a thoroughly charming show that entertains kids while stealthily introducing them to rock’s greatest discography. Wakely also found his calling in the process: He’s currently developing another kids’ series based on Motown songs and a drama series based on characters from Bob Dylan songs. Hopefully those won’t delay a third season of Beat Bugs.
Patrick McHale’s Over The Garden Wall is difficult to describe. Its lush lyricism immediately makes it as magical as any classic fairy tale. Wirt (Elijah Wood) and his younger brother, Gregory (Collin Dean), get lost in a mysterious forest, where they come across various characters like a talking bluebird (Melanie Lynskey), an intimidating woodsman (Christopher Lloyd), and an eccentric millionaire (John Cleese) as they try to find their way home. Garden Wall is steeped in a cozy yet slightly scary autumnal palette, and the reveal, when it finally occurs, is satisfying in a reality-shifting way. Both you and the kids will be mesmerized by this series, which offers tons of conversation fodder, as well as ideas for future chapter-book reads (as well as the comic series this production is based on).
Yo-Kai Watch is another entry in the illustrious world of cartoon spin-offs of Japanese monsters battling video games. Like its more wealthy and successful cousin, Pokémon, Yo-Kai is about a boy, Nate, who captures bizarre creatures and uses them to battle other creatures. The twist here is the Yo-Kai Nate fights are undead spirits who afflict themselves on living people; possession by a Yo-Kai causes victims to act upset, lazy, or jealous. Nate uses the titular watch to scan the populace to see just who’s being manipulated by a malicious Yo-Kai. Yo-Kai Watch isn’t right for every kid. It’s crasser and more juvenile than Pokémon (one Yo-Kai named Cheeksqueek is essentially just an ambulatory farting butt). But it’s also funnier and pleasantly absurd. The creature designs are inventive (ass-monsters notwithstanding), and tying each one into an emotional state is a clever way to build a relationship with what could otherwise be an interchangeable list of one-off monsters.