There’s more to life than Elmo.
When multigalactic hero LeVar Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign two days ago to raise $1 million to help expand Reading Rainbow from an iPad app to a free educational program for public schools, a majority of us here in the Nerve offices were instantly nostalgic for the days when all it took was a butterfly in the sky to take us oh so high. And seeing that in just two and a half days, it’s reached almost $3 million? That’s juts pure, unadulterated, book-loving joy. As someone who has seen children’s programming more recently than I care to admit, I can tell you that children’s shows these days are basically an LSD flashback (looking at you Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood – I know my niece loves you, but get the fuck out of here). ’90s kids grew up in the heyday of quality educational programming, with challenging, smart, and non-seizure-inducing shows to plunk our little butts down in front of every Saturday morning, as well as some nonsense. Here are some of your favorites, ranked.
15. Shining Time Station (1989 – 1993)
Are you kidding me, Shining Time Station? I have now watched four episodes of this show, and it still makes no sense to me. For one, it exists solely to share episodes of it’s far more popular friend and TV show, Thomas the Tank Engine. Seriously, 15 minutes into each episode, we melt away to Thomas and his locomotive pals. And on top of that, the conductor in the first season was Ringo Starr. And then they changed it to George Carlin! George Fuckin’ Carlin. The man who taught me to curse is the one teaching young minds about life, love, and train schedules? I don’t think so.
14. Zoom (1999 – 2005)
Much like Shining Time Station, I have no idea what this show is even about, though I know I hated it with arduous fervor as a child. It’s vaguely urban theme music signifies that it’s “cool and hip” (especially with those sweet unsynchronized hip hop dance moves from its cast of adorable children), but every time it invites me to “come on and zoom!” (which is literally the only phrase in the entire theme song), I’m wondering what double entendre these sick PBS bastards are really trying to play off. I do not want to come on, or zoom on, anything on this day-glo set. Ever.
13. The Puzzle Place (1994 – 1998)
The Puzzle Place is more or less a very horrifying version of Avenue Q, but for children. Its premise also makes no sense: according to its Wikipedia page, “the show followed a multi-ethnic group of kids (puppets) from different parts of the United States who hung out at ‘The Puzzle Place,’which is a teen hangout themed around jigsaw puzzle pieces.” Oh. Okay. Because the one thing teens love more than anything is jigsaw puzzles.
12. Barney & Friends (1992 – 2010)
A giant purple foam dinosaur with a disconcertingly androgynous voice, singing to children about how much he loves them while kissing them? Absolutely not. Also, how have we not discussed that with his semi-upright posture and short arms, the dinosaur Barney most closely resembles is a tyrannosaurus rex – which, no joke, means tyrant lizard? On second thought, if Barney & Friends had been a show about an actual tyrant lizard teaching children survival of the fittest in the playground animal kingdom, it would have ended up much higher on this list.
11. Lamb Chop’s Play Along (1992 – 1997)
This is a show about a woman who speaks to a dingy sock that she wears on her hand. (It was not as good as this one.)
10. Wishbone (1995 – 2003)
The two things I hold most dear in this world are adorable dogs and the Great Illustrated Classic series, in which classic novels are broken down into fancy chapter books for seemingly smart but still kind of dumb children, so it stands to reason that Wishbone would be right in my wheelhouse – but this Jack Russell Terrier is a real asshole. His voice is obnoxious, and watching a terrier act out “The Hunchdog of Notre Dame” doesn’t really feel like it’s doing Alexandre Dumas or the complicated story of an outcast’s misery any sort of justice.
9. Arthur (1996 – Present)
I’m actually really quite a fan of this little aardvark that could, but for much of my child and young adult life, I thought he and his sister D.W. were some kind of animated mice, and when it comes to animated mice, children’s author Kevin Henkes has that covered (looking at you Chyrsanthemum, the greatest children’s book of all time). But as far as aardvark’s go, this one isn’t half bad. Bonus points for the fact that they cover not only tough issues like mental health and cancer, but also timely pop culture issues: a real episode from 2014 was focused on whether Muffy starring in a reality series was a bad idea. (It was.)
8. Mister Roger’s Neighborhood (1968 – 2001)
Oh get your panties out of a bunch about Mister Roger’s Neighborhood not even cracking the top five. I mean, yes, empirically no one, including your parents, will ever love you as much as Mr. Rogers will love you, but let’s be really honest: at the age of four, the only reason to watch Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was because it aired after Sesame Street. Even though it was sinfully boring, it meant an extra hour of television disguised as education. With its old-timey look and low production value, it wasn’t really competing with animatronic monsters living in trash cans, was it? And hipsters didn’t choose to get into cardigans until almost a decade after the show went off the air. Mister Rogers is a gem, but in the same way that youth is wasted on the young, so was Mister Rogers and everyone in his neighborhood.
7. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (1991 – 1995)
Gumshoes! While including Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego is a little bit cheating (if we’re including game shows, this list would be one show long, and begin and end with Legends of the Hidden Temple because what else is there in life, really?), but it aired on PBS and the questions were the best possible prep for a 4th grade geography bee. And let’s be honest, The Chief is a boss ass bitch. (Just found out she passed away 11 years ago and I’m inconsolable right now.) Unfortunately, the Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego game show suffered from one fatal flaw: it would never, ever be as good as the CD-ROM game it was inspired by. I once voluntarily spent a summer in Indianapolis solely because my parents, ever the patrons of education, refused to buy it for me, and my cousin’s parents harbored no such delusions. It was no Microsoft Encarta Mindmaze, but a solid computer game turned into TV show all the same.
6. Sesame Street (1969 – Present)
Again, relax about the top five. Sesame Street now is, obviously, par excellence. That Cookie Monster “Call Me Maybe” parody? Fuck yeah, I listened to it until my roommate threatened to move out, and then about 100 times more after she did. But Sesame Street before the 2000s? It was fine, at best. I mean, Big Bird, Oscar, Elmo, vaguely closeted Bert and Ernie, great, the gang’s all here, but other than that, it was a show whose most generous sponsor was the number 6. What is that teaching children about capitalism, really?
5. Blue’s Clues (1996 – 2007)
Aside from uncovering the mystery of host Steve Burns’ disappearance (he didn’t die, he went bald), Blues Clues was one of the finest educational programs on television that I was a little too old to watch, but I didn’t even care. Even though the clues, demarcated by big blue paw prints, were so obvious, I still learned so much: a general excitement for mail delivery, the earnest adorability of white boys in khaki pants, and most importantly, how to draw. Seriously. To this day, the only doodle I incessantly scribble in unnecessary staff meetings that isn’t my own signature in case I get famous is a very well-drawn camera. And for that, I have my good pals Steve and Blue to thank.
4. Reading Rainbow (1983 – 2006)
This is what Wishbone should have been – a soothing voiced gentleman encouraging you to take a look because it was in a book. Even if LeVar hadn’t won my heart this week with his tear-filled video when the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter reached $1 million of funding in a day, I would have still put Reading Rainbow this high on the list. As someone whose only friends growing up were of the paginated variety, Reading Rainbow was a reminder that I wasn’t alone in letting my book-loving nerd flag fly. It also lent itself well to years spent prepping to be a librarian, in hopes that I could inspire kids to love reading as much as LeVar inspired me, which ultimately was just me holding books wide open in my left hand and turning pages dramatically, but you know, reading!
3. Bill Nye the Science Guy (1993 – 1998)
Bill Nye was unequivocally a national treasure, and not just because of his excellent theme song. (Though let’s talk about that theme song for a second: its thumping bass line and digitized sound effects were basically the forefathers of EDM, the guy shouting “Bill! Bill” is easily Disney Channel’s best hype man, and having a background vocalist share fun facts about inertia? Science does rule.) Between his devil-may-care blue lab coat, his commitment to teaching you why things blow up instead of just how to blow them up, and the fact that he often opened his shows doing a standup routine looking like a goddamn young Bob Saget, Bill Nye is basically the reason a bunch of kids my age loved science as kids and have grown up to be the assholes causing hypergentrification in San Francisco. And have you seen Bill Nye lately? He is a stone cold silver fox, fighting for climate change and inspiring the best Twitter parody account of all time. Step aside, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill’s still got it.
2. Ghostwriter (1992 – 1995)
Was there a show with a more original premise than Ghostwriter? A group of racially diverse friends solved local crime via the help of their invisible friend, Ghostwriter, who would only appear via text and letters. Through any other lens, it’s a gonzo horror story, but thanks to the programming geniuses at PBS, it was both smart and very multiculturally hip: I’ve never wanted to be friends with people more than I’ve wanted to be friends with Jamal Jenkins, Lenni Frazier, Alex and Gaby Fernandez, and Tina Nguyen. Ghostwriter is also the reason I’m obsessed with the following things: serialized crime dramas, felt tip black pens, and oversized composition notebooks – all of which bring great to my otherwise empty life. Plus, it was shot in Fort Greene, before Adrian Grenier moved there and made it cool.
1. The Magic School Bus (1994 – 1997)
You know the clichéd euphoric feeling Buzzfeed listicles like to talk about, when you’re in elementary school and see a TV being rolled into class? The only thing better than that was when your teacher would turn the TV on and it was an episode of The Magic School Bus. Miss Frizzle remains, to this day, the coolest teacher of all time. Not only was she fearless, but every day was a field trip. Every damn day, those lucky bastards. And what didn’t you learn from The Magic School Bus? Astronomy, anatomy, physics, oceanography, architecture: there was nothing Frizz, Liz, and the coolest animated class on television didn’t get into. Plus, they once went into Ralphie’s body through a cut in his knee, before getting attacked in his body by white blood cells. If that’s not good television, I don’t know what is.