Screenwriter Andrea Seigel (Laggies) Talks the World of Toddler TV Shows

A mother's sideways look at her three-year-old daughter early small-screen viewing preferences.

I won’t play children’s music – no Wiggles, no Laurie Berkner, no Radio Disney, no Kidsongs – for my toddler daughter, Winona. Recently in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, a children’s band was used as a shorthand trigger for Naomi Watts’ panic attack. The truth is that you don’t need to play songs specifically designed for kids to your kids, because almost everything on Top 40 radio is just as stupid. Winona’s first favorite song was Katy Perry’s “Roar,” because Katy was singing about a tiger, a lion, a butterfly, a bee, and there was even a part where you could make sing-along animal sounds like in “Old MacDonald.” Katy is Laurie Berkner with higher breasts. We eventually let baby Winona watch the “Roar” video on YouTube, only because our pediatrician basically said that parents who let their kids watch TV before age two are miscreants, and like HBO, YouTube is “not TV.” But then Win turned two and it was time for real television.

Kid TV was unavoidable because, unlike Pitbull’s music, The Real Housewives is something kids don’t understand. They just can’t really track the character arcs, or interpret the action in a way that feels relevant to their own experiences. So our family’s very first kid show became Peppa Pig, which is like the BBC of children’s television because the characters have British accents. Peppa is a four-year-old pig who lives at the top of an exceedingly steep hill with her mellow mom, dopey dad, and dinosaur-obsessed little brother, George. I’d been watching the show for over a year when Win’s Big Pa, visiting, asked, “Why are both their eyes on one side of their heads?” I was like, “What are you talking about??” but then, in a flash of perspectival reorganization, I could finally see the Pig family as they really were for the very first time. Their heads are real messed up.

Here’s why I like Peppa as a character: she reads like an actual toddler. She can be petty, bored, annoying, and prone to making terrible jokes, but she retains that moppet-like adorableness that makes you forgive all these traits in your own kid. A lot of this has to do with the voice work of Lily Snowden-Fine (and Cecily Bloom and Harley Bird, who took over the mantle from her), who makes Peppa into the giggly boss of her family, friends, and household spiders in a way that, were she your real child, people would shake their heads, smiling, and say, “You’ve got a character on your hands.” This stands in contrast to another animated TV pig, Olivia, who reminds me of this little girl who once took my hand so she could spit a chewed brownie into it at the opening of a Studio City boutique. She was the owner’s daughter, and I was a complete stranger. Light megalomania that seems cute in the Olivia picture books becomes something much grosser through the TV interpretation. Again, voice work plays a crucial role here – there’s an entitled lilt to Olivia’s line readings that telegraphs how her parents need to work on saying “no.” And the computer-generated look of the show doesn’t help bring it down to earth either, whereas Peppa’s more crudely and broadly drawn world – and I mean this as a compliment – feels as though it could have come from the artwork of a child.

Once our family had exhausted every Peppa Pig episode (for reasons I don’t understand, considering the show remains a big hit and there’s even a U.K. theme park, the series appears to have stopped production), we tried the infamous Yo Gabba Gabba. I knew from Us Weekly that Brad Pitt’s kids were fans, and did my daughter think she was better than the Jolie-Pitts? Watching the show for the first time, Winona’s dad and I immediately began furiously Googling, “What is wrong with Brobee?” Not that something doesn’t seem wrong with the whole gang. I wouldn’t blink if you explained that Foofa is permanently rolling on MDMA. Muno is a one-eyed massage tool. Plex makes Vicki from Small Wonder seem charismatic. And Toodee is fine, I guess, but it’s got to mess you up when you’re born a cat-dragon. That parentage is very questionable to me. I hope her mom was the dragon.

But to return to this question of what’s wrong with Brobee, a green monster with arms too long for his body and a limited understanding of basic events, it turns out the Internet answer is that he’s four years old. He lives in Gabbaland, which appears to exist in the imagination of DJ Lance Rock, a man so committed to this role that you can’t find any good gossip about him online. When I’m watching Yo Gabba with my daughter, I can’t fully get into it. One, the characters are too dumb for me to embrace, and two, the show’s musical interludes are too cool, and kid life shouldn’t be about being familiar with the same bands as your twentysomething sitter from Silverlake. The show can often give me the same feeling I had when I saw Jaden Smith’s prom photos – it’s a feeling of being stuck in L.A., of being curated to death, of wishing childhood could be its own thing instead of colonization of adult interests.

Winona likes Yo Gabba Gabba OK, but the show that really changed how she saw the world was Doc McStuffins. Doc convinced Win there was something worthwhile about taking the imaginary scenarios she watched on TV and expanding them into her real life. For me, Doc is a cipher. I have no real sense of an inner life beyond her Pollyannaism. Probably the worst I’ve seen her behave is when she’s supposed to stay off her feet during an ankle injury and disobeys – this is basically the personality trait equivalent of telling the HR exec that your greatest weakness is being too much of a perfectionist. But for Win, Doc is a mentor. She saw Doc fixing various toys and she said to herself, “I should be fixing things too.” She became an extremely empathetic nurse around the house. She started doing that high-voice play wherein she’d get lost in two figurines talking to each other about check-ups. Once we got her a stethoscope and doctor’s bag, she began giving medical consults to our dog, diagnosing her with “fart-itis” (really good call!). And there was the bonus of taking her to her pediatrician – the pediatrician who is clearly lukewarm on TV – and her killing him with the adorableness of acting like his colleague.

I’ve now watched hundreds of hours of toddler television, and I think we’re about to graduate to more sophisticated fare, such as SpongeBob. It’s certainly been mind-numbing watching Doc’s stuffed snowman, Chilly, pull his hypochondriac schtick for the umpteenth time, but there are two pieces of encouragement that have kept me afloat. The first is that Winona definitely has the TV-enthusiast gene, so we are going to tear it up together watching Netflix’s 2028 season. The second is that children’s TV shows are just about as bad at plotting as I am, and I’ve found that deeply soothing. Minor incidents that don’t have real stakes, awkward character-driven asides, an antipathy for using antagonists/villains to drive up tension in any kind of real way: that’s all very me. Last week I was in a meeting pitching an idea for a film to a movie star, and when I finished after a half-hour, he said, “That’s all so great!! Now you just have to figure out what happens.” So there’s something really nice in knowing that if I were to go into the Peppa Pig people and tell them, “She gardens. She finds a worm. She’s very amused by how wiggly he is. She does some wiggling on the grass with her grandpa; they bond. They finish up by jumping in a muddy puddle. End of ep,” they’d be like, “Well done, Seigel! You’re a mastermind.” It’s no small comfort.

Andrea Seigel wrote the 2014 movie Laggies. She is also the author of four novels: Like The Red Panda, To Feel Stuff, The Kid Table, and Everybody Knows Your Name (co-written with Brent Bradshaw). Britney Spears read her second book.