'Bluey' is a kids show with lessons for everyone : Pop Culture Happy Hour The children's TV cartoon Bluey centers on a family of four anthropomorphic dogs. Each episode balances gentle humor with some kind of lesson about emotional intelligence. Bluey is an Australian series that first premiered in 2018, and is streaming in the United States on Disney Plus.

'Bluey' is a kids show with lessons for everyone

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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

Just a quick warning - this episode does contain mention of pregnancy loss.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPSON: The TV cartoon "Bluey" is a hit with young children, but it's also found a devoted following among their parents, who've embraced the show's emotional depth, as well as its messages about creativity, collaboration and learning through play. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we're talking about "Bluey" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPSON: Joining us today is Amil Niazi. She's a culture writer and panelist on the CBC's "Pop Chat." Welcome back, Amil.

AMIL NIAZI: Thanks for having me.

THOMPSON: Great to have you. Also with us is Kathryn VanArendonk. She's a critic for Vulture and New York Magazine who writes about TV and comedy. Hi, Kathryn.

KATHRYN VANARENDONK: I'm so happy to be here.

THOMPSON: It is great to have you both. We have much to discuss. So the setup for "Bluey" is pretty simple. There's a nuclear family with four anthropomorphic dogs. You've got mom Chilli, voiced by Melanie Zanetti. You've got dad Bandit, voiced by David McCormack. And then there are two girls, 4-year-old Bingo and 6-year-old Bluey. Both are voiced by uncredited children. Each episode runs about 7 minutes, and each balances gentle humor with some kind of lesson. But those lessons aren't about letters or numbers. Instead, they're about emotional intelligence - thinking about others, sharing, collaborating, making time for the people, or, in this case, dogs, that you love. It's also notably not just imparting lessons to kids. "Bluey" has just as much to say to the parents watching at home. "Bluey" is an Australian series that first premiered in 2018. It was created by Joe Brumm, and the accents and setting are very Australian. In the U.S., it's streaming on Disney+.

Kathryn VanArendonk, I'm going to start with you. Give me your general thoughts on "Bluey."

VANARENDONK: I have a 5- and an 8-year-old, so I spend a lot of time watching kids' TV. If I'm honest, I spend a lot of time setting up kids' TV and then walking away from it, right? But, like, there is a lot of the media that they encounter that I know is for them and is extremely not for me, which is fine. Media does not have to be for everyone. I think for kids, in fact, there should be a whole body of TV and movies that are designed for their developmental level and does not need to serve me at all, right?

And so when you see that happen over and over again, and then you happen to stumble on one that you think is not just, like, palatable to you but is so overwhelmingly effective for you as an adult, it has this sense of performing a magic act. And you can't quite figure out how they even did it. But I have sat and watched all of the "Bluey" episodes.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

VANARENDONK: And I think about my own response to them, and I am just blown back every time by how remarkable it is to have achieved something that's operating at that level.

THOMPSON: Yeah. How about you, Amil?

NIAZI: I mean, very beautifully said. I think magic is a great word. I feel like magic is a word that a lot of parents use to describe this show because it does impart this kind of surreal feeling because you sort of start to feel all of the pressures and tensions and headaches of parenting just slip away when you watch it. And it sort of inspires you to be a better parent. And it's very, very difficult to do that, especially for, you know, many of us hardened parents of children under 5. You know, you sort of have to really be taken out of your physical body to have that feeling - at least I do anyways.

And, you know, my husband and I have laughed out loud very genuinely at many of the episodes. But my almost 5-year-old laugh - regularly - he compulsively rewatches every single episode as soon as a new season comes out. And every time, he's just howling with laughter - the unbridled laughter of a child, to get that - to extract that from them repeatedly, I think, is something very remarkable.

THOMPSON: Yeah. You know, I had not seen "Bluey." "Bluey" didn't coincide with my kids being little. My kids are 18 and 21. I don't know that I recommend, as an emotional experience, sending your kids off to college and then mainlining dozens and dozens and dozens of episodes of "Bluey." I don't think that was great for my emotional health. I agree with you. There is a certain alchemy to this show because it is funny. It even has moments that I would say are uproarious for something that is still very, very gentle. And I was really curious. I wanted to talk to parents of young kids, like the two of you. I really couldn't not see it through the lens of parenting. This show has so much to say about parenting that, if anything, there were the occasional moments where I felt a little shamed. Like, oh, I would never let those kids do that (laughter).

VANARENDONK: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Like, sometimes you just got to get to work.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: You know, don't let your kids derail your day. I'm not surprised that your kids love it. I'm so pleased to hear it because, for me, this show really feels like it's made for parents.

VANARENDONK: Yeah. I mean, I think there are a couple things. One is that sense of parenting shame that you feel and which I certainly feel sometimes watching it and which I do think is worth digging into about this show because I don't think it is as simple as every single thing that these parents do is good, and we should emulate it.

THOMPSON: Sure.

VANARENDONK: Because it is a fantasy in a number of ways. But the element of it that I see my kids reacting to - that is sort of the games that they like to play, which my kids then play. Like, they will watch a game on "Bluey" and then play that game.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

VANARENDONK: And they will call it by the name of the "Bluey" episode, which - I mean, it is very hard to get a TV show which will then get your kids to turn around and not watch the TV show 'cause they play the game.

THOMPSON: How did they do that?

VANARENDONK: How did they do that? But I think there is a way that, as a parent watching it, you see yourself as a parent, and you also then - it asks you to see your kids in a different way. I think there is something about it that makes parent emotions visible to kids in a way that they often aren't because it says that sometimes a mom just needs 20 minutes and that that can be a concept that your 5-year-old can watch and be like, I don't know if I really get that, but OK, that's something that I'm now seeing is a thing that exists. Or that a parent can be annoyed with their partner, and then they figure it out together. Like, these are all ways that it presents that parenting reality in a digestible version for kids. And so I think that is part of what works in that double-vision way that is so special about the show.

NIAZI: I think I'm feeling a little extra annoyed at the new season, maybe just because it's been a long summer.

VANARENDONK: Yeah.

NIAZI: And I've been with my 4-year-old - thank God my 2-year-old is in day care full time. But, you know, I've been spending a lot of time with him, trying to work. The pandemic and working and parenting through the pandemic is still very fresh on my psyche. And the episode called "Whale Watching," where Chilli and Bandit have hangovers, which is great, you know, representation for all of us parents who still like to have a glass of wine every now and then...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLUEY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bingo Heeler) Are you sick?

DAVID MCCORMACK: (As Bandit Heeler) No, just...

MELANIE ZANETTI: (As Chilli Heeler) Sleepy.

MCCORMACK: (As Bandit Heeler) Yeah, sleepy. We went to bed a bit late last night.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Bluey Heeler) Because you went to the New Year's party at Muffin's.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bingo Heeler) She saw you dancing on her barbecue table.

ZANETTI: (As Chilli Heeler) What? Why wasn't she asleep?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bingo Heeler) She woke up when Uncle Stripe yelled cannonball and jumped into the pool.

NIAZI: You know, I'm watching the episode, and I'm going, this is great. This is great. Yeah, sometimes parents need to lie down and do nothing, and kids just have to play by themselves. And then Chilli doesn't want to perform the jumping duties of a whale while the children are whale watching. And then she turns on the TV. And, again, I thought, yes, exactly, sometimes screen time has to happen - zero guilt about it. Don't feel bad if you have to turn on...

VANARENDONK: Yeah.

NIAZI: ...A whale documentary, right?

VANARENDONK: Yeah.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

NIAZI: Like, these parents are still parenting at a very high level. And then the guilt just starts working overtime. The whale documentary is, like, laying it on so thick about how good whale moms are to their babies. And at the end, you know, Chilli jumps.

VANARENDONK: Yeah.

NIAZI: And Chilli did not have to jump. I just found myself shaking my head and going, I don't want my kids learning this lesson because - you know what? - when Mommy doesn't want to jump, Mommy's not jumping. And that doesn't make me a bad parent. It doesn't make me a bad whale mom. It makes me a very hard worker who's just doing her dang best.

VANARENDONK: Yes.

NIAZI: Something about this season - and, again, maybe it's just been a long summer for me.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

NIAZI: I felt the other side of that sword, where I was like, is this really actually kind of maiming parents and giving kids this idea that, you know, our job is to drop everything we're doing and play? And I think there is this real pressure, and I certainly feel it amongst my cohort of parents - is that we've convinced ourselves that we do have to make it that way for our kids. And this show really reinforces that to, like, the nth degree. And as much as I love it and I am glad that I have a wake-up call sometimes of, like, you know, I can just drop some of the things that don't matter, there are some things that do matter, and they do take precedence in the moment, and that's OK, too. And I don't have to feel bad about that.

VANARENDONK: Yeah, I think it's also worth noting, while we're going to air our "Bluey" grievances...

(LAUGHTER)

VANARENDONK: ...I am very sympathetic to arguments that I have heard and from a lot of the media that I have seen my kids watching where dads are not present, where there is something really great about the way that "Bluey" models fatherhood for kids so that they understand that this is what is expected of a father on some level. And yet I get frustrated by the way that the mom is still bearing the brunt of so much of the sort of emotional cost of what that level of parenting requires. I believe the people who make this show are cognizant of the way that it plays as a fatherhood story. It is made by a father whose kids - I don't know who does the voices for Bluey and Bingo, but, like, they are - these kids on this show are very clearly versions of his kids, right? And he - this is the other thing. He writes all of the episodes, which is an astounding work of art. And also you're like, what if a mom wrote a couple of these episodes - just a couple, you know?

THOMPSON: Yes. We've just aired some - we've just aired and shared some "Bluey" grievances. Working through the shame was probably my biggest challenge with this show, just 'cause I just put my kids off to college, and you start to just retrace every step of, like, was I as present for my kids as I should have been? Did I work through this as well as I should have? Did I avoid this as much as I should have? But I also want to just talk about favorite episodes.

VANARENDONK: Yeah.

THOMPSON: You know, because there are stretches of the show and individual episodes that just absolutely knocked me flat and that I think that every parent and really just, like, everybody should see. And so I just wanted to kind of go around the table and talk about favorite episodes of this show.

NIAZI: Sure. I mean, "Daddy Dropoff" is amazing.

THOMPSON: Yes.

NIAZI: It's sort of "Bluey" at its finest because, again, it can show you what can happen just in your everyday life and how much you can give space to your children to lead those routines and pull you out of what you think has to be this sort of monotonous urgency. And you can fill that with joy and love and curiosity, but it's also just nice to see them going about their daily lives and seeing how overwhelming those things can be. And it just accomplishes that so well.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLUEY")

MCCORMACK: (As Bandit Heeler) Bit of sunscreen - all right. Keep it real, Bingo.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bingo Heeler) Dad.

MCCORMACK: (As Bandit Heeler) Yes, mate.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bingo Heeler) You didn't do windup Bingo.

MCCORMACK: (As Bandit Heeler) Oh, I know. It's just - we're running late, kiddo.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bingo Heeler) But how will I get in the door?

MCCORMACK: (As Bandit Heeler) OK.

NIAZI: I also love "Rain" from this new season.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

NIAZI: It's so melancholy. And again, I think you see this interplay between Chilli and Bluey, which we don't get a lot of because we so often see Bandit interacting with the kids in these types of ways. And it felt very realistic when she does pull herself out of the drudgery of housework and decides to come and interact with Bluey and join in that fun. And I just thought it was such a beautiful way of putting it. And "Rain" and "Bedroom," which I also love, probably because I'm in the midst of figuring out if I should separate my two children from sharing a room into their own rooms and - bawled my eyes out.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

NIAZI: And then I love "Favourite Things." You know, the family's recounting kind of their highs and lows of the day, and Bingo manages to take a low, and the whole family helps her reframe it as a high. It's one of those lessons that's so much easier translated by four dogs than it ever could be by me. And so just - it helps bridge the gap. And I think that's what a show like this should do and can do so beautifully.

VANARENDONK: Yeah. I mean, those are all incredible. I think it is worth calling out "Sleepytime," which is sort of...

THOMPSON: Yes.

VANARENDONK: ...Often listed as, like, one of the best "Bluey" episodes. It's from Season 2. The general idea of that episode is that Bingo keeps waking up and coming to bed with her parents. And it's not fully wordless. There are lines of dialogue, but it is mostly a dream that is scored to the Jupiter theme from Holst's "Planets." I wanted to shout out Joff Bush, who writes a completely new score for every single episode. And yes, he does often incorporate, like, classical themes. This one, as I said, is Jupiter, but they are always very, very carefully shaped and reinterpreted for the emotional moments that they need. Many of them are completely original, and I think that it is an astounding piece of work that he has done for this show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLUEY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bingo Heeler) I have to go. I'm a big girl now.

ZANETTI: (As Chilli Heeler) Remember I'll always be here for you, even if you can't see me, because I love you.

VANARENDONK: So yes, "Sleepytime" is, I think, one of our favorites. My kids love the episode "Escape." That's their favorite, which is one where Bluey and Bingo are mad that their parents are going on a date night. My 5-year-old's favorite from Season 3 is an episode called "Chest." It is uncannily like her own experiences playing any board game where we attempt to explain what the rules of any board game are - in this case, chess. She immediately says, no, these are the rules or lack of rules that I will be playing with and has a much better time than I personally think anyone's ever had playing chess. That's maybe my bias. Oh, the last one I wanted to shout out - "Bin Night," which is an episode where they have to take the recycling out. Bingo comes home from school. Bandit takes the recycling out with her. And every Thursday, it is a development of a problem that she is having at school with another kid. I think that episode just is quietly one of my very favorites. Yeah.

THOMPSON: I share some of your favorites. If you took the "Bluey" logo off of "Sleepytime," put a Pixar logo on top of it and put it in theaters before "Toy Story 5," it would win an Oscar...

VANARENDONK: Yes.

NIAZI: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...For best animated short film. It is a masterpiece. But I do want to talk about one second of one episode of this show that I think encapsulates so much of what is beautiful about it. And I'm going to try to get through this emotionally level.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: So there is an episode called "The Show," in which Bandit and Chilli are sitting there watching Bingo and Bluey give a little presentation, a little play, of how the two of you met. And it's a very child's eye view of, like, what courtship and marriage and starting a family would be like. It's a lot of, they're on this date, and then they - you know, and then they get married, and this is what their wedding is like. And Bingo comes out, and she's got a balloon tucked under her shirt to signify that Chilli is pregnant. And the lesson of the episode is about kind of rolling with challenges as they arrive and being able to deal with sudden negative changes. And how do you come back from that? And so the balloon pops.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLUEY")

MCCORMACK: (As Bandit Heeler) OK. Let's keep this moving.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Bluey Heeler) So then, they...

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLOON POPPING)

THOMPSON: When that balloon pops, they cut to the parents, and their faces fall, and Bandit puts his hand on Chilli's hand. It's very clear in that moment that they have lost a pregnancy. It's never commented on again. The kids have no awareness of it. It's just thrown in there as a little detail. And when we talk about how this show is made not only with lessons for kids but with nods to parents who are watching, I just found that to be such a striking moment of grace and empathy...

VANARENDONK: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...For parents watching at home.

VANARENDONK: Yeah. I had that same reaction to that moment. I think it is the kind of thing that is why I am willing to continue to call the show a masterpiece, even as I am perpetually railing against what I feel like are its blind spots. I'm still going to say that this is the best kids' show on TV and - for, like, the last decade - right? - probably longer.

THOMPSON: I agree.

NIAZI: Yeah. I mean, Kathryn, as you mentioned, it's a way for our kids to see the totality of our lives before children, before they were around. It's so wonderful to build that kind of empathy both ways. And it really speaks to who's watching "Bluey," and it's parents and children together. And it's so rare to - you know, as you mentioned at the beginning - very, very rare to have shows like that where you choose as a family to sit down together and consume it and get excited about the new season and get excited about a new drop. You know, it reminds me of when I was a young child, and there were only maybe three or four channels you could watch anyways. And the shows that you watched as a family just were so impactful and generated so much conversation and really were this amazing bridge to discuss things that you just maybe couldn't discuss before. And I think "Bluey" is doing that in a way that is surprising, exciting, joyful, wonderful and, yes, sometimes very frustrating and annoying for the older people watching. But again, it just - it's so rare that we could even have this conversation about children's shows that, how can it not be transcendent?

THOMPSON: Yeah, I think we can agree that this is a show every parent should have an opportunity to share with their kids. It is a real gem.

We want to know what you think about "Bluey." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Kathryn VanArendonk, Amil Niazi, thanks so much to both of you for being here.

NIAZI: Oh, thanks for having us.

VANARENDONK: It was a terrible, terrible burden, let me tell you.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Rommel Wood and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Stephen Thompson, and we will see you all tomorrow when we'll be talking about "Mo."

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