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Children’s Television is Scarily Bland – A Look at ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’

Credit: Carl Palmer/Channel 4. The image has been cropped and compressed.

Staff writer Oisin McGilloway on how Channel 4’s new series “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” critiques the blandness of children’s television.

Journalist Sarah Larson recently published a piece in The New Yorker titled “The Unbearable Blandness of Barney” in which she breaks down the premise of a new documentary, “I Love You, You Hate Me”, on the infamous children’s TV show. This documentary examines how the kid’s show imbued “an acute degree of animosity” from the American people, its “blandness” – specifically in relation to its educational value – provoking frustration which, being directed at a children’s show, seemed wholly unjustified. Larson describes the enterprise that birthed Barney as “leading with safety and didacticism while insisting it’s having fun”. What we see in this “insistence” is a hidden dimension of children’s television production that disregards the ostensible morals of the medium and focuses, rather soullessly, on prioritising profit over educating future generations.

However, this isn’t a revelation. This critique of modern kid’s shows has been present online for over a decade, most notably in online videos like Garrett Davis and Kirsten Lepore’s “Story from North America” and the “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” series. With last month’s release of a new Channel 4 series expanding on the world of the latter, it feels right to revisit these ideas and criticisms, and to analyse how the show’s subtleties validate the frustration felt towards the “blandness” of children’s television shows while pulling back the curtain on the corporate motives behind it all

Starting with the original “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” video in 2011, the web series gained a following online, inspiring video essays and theorisation in the build-up to its enigmatic climax, “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared 6”, uploaded in 2016. Throughout this five-year journey to success, the message behind the videos has remained the same.

In the video, three now all-too-familiar friends, Yellow Guy, Red Guy and Duck, sit silently at their kitchen table. Suddenly, a notepad opens and tells them how to be creative in the form of a catchy song. Except, his song doesn’t really explain much about creativity, but instead gives weird instructions on what to do to “get creative”. When Yellow Guy decides to use green as his favourite colour, for example, the notepad interjects claiming “green is not a creative colour”, which feels oddly authoritarian and direct for an ‘educational’ video. It isn’t until just after the two-minute mark that the fourth wall breaks, and the video suddenly descends into a crazed barrage of insane dancing, violent string music, and characters cutting a cake filled with human flesh. 

What we are being shown in this dichotomy is the duality of children’s entertainment: the outset of a light-hearted, but weirdly empty premise, fuelled by an underbelly of cold corporate intent. The first half of the video is innocent, light-hearted and fun, however, we can see that what the notepad is positing is suspiciously empty. The second half of the video serves as a symbolic confirmation of our suspicions: what lies behind the viewfinder (and indeed, at the watershed moment of the video, the camera spins around to show us the presence of a production team) is the primal, id-like need for money and success, and the shocking means that children’s television productions will employ to satisfy this.

The subsequent five episodes follow a similar structure, however, it is not only in this structure that we see this façade of education that hides corporate hunger. For example, Duck’s voice is created using autotune, creating an air of fakery. Even a fun, fanciful manipulation like auto-tune puts a barrier between us and those behind the scenes, hiding their motives from our view. Whenever Red Guy points out a flaw in what is being said, he is quickly interrupted by more jargon. What we get with these examples is a very bold rift between the intentions of the educator in a given video, and what they are saying; series creators Joseph Pelling and Becky Sloan are very explicit in presenting the dry emptiness and suspicious directness of the educators, until the façade is dropped and we see the real intention behind the “lesson”.

This is the crux of the critique against the “blandness” of children’s television. But what cannot go unmentioned, is the format of this critique: the web video. “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” is one of an extensive library of videos on the internet, predominantly on Youtube, made to be weird (another example would be the videos on YouTube channel “Aamon Animations”). Indeed, the 2000 video “Rejected” by Don Hertzfeldt is, solely by its name, an example of the unappealing nature of internet videos as a format – it includes a fake disclaimer that the video was commissioned for the “Family Learning Channel”, who “rejected all of [the video] upon review”. 

Even in 2000, before the advent of Youtube, people were aware of the negative judgement placed on such weird online videos. These videos seek to flip this judgement on its head and instead point it at children’s television shows, which are often seen as an educational and formative tool for children, but are mostly just vehicles for profit. We can see this vividly in “Story From North America”, in which a boy talks to his dad about why he should or shouldn’t kill a spider. Despite its wide reception, many have deemed this video as nothing but weirdness for its own sake, yet actually contains a very nuanced critique of modern capitalist attitudes towards conflict and society – for example, the kid remarks wanting to “strike [the spider] first”, a Cold-War-era principle that the Dad quickly explains is “logically flawed”. Many of the ideas presented are still pertinent today, yet are all still framed within a seemingly innocent video. As this is much more than can be said about most children’s television shows, then why do we judge them as more beneficial to children than these weird internet videos?

This brings us to the new “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” series. As with the original, each episode starts with an innocent, educational premise, which is then juxtaposed with unpredictable mayhem. However, the new series structurally deviates somewhat from the original. Obviously, it has the addition of a theme song, but also the weirdness is drip-fed to us throughout the episode, removing this sense of shock (it is clear that this was done because the creators were aware of the popularity of the series, so a repetition may have been a tad dry and badly received by an audience who were eager to see what the enigma would reveal next). What this does to the show is bring the two dimensions – that of “blandness” and that of corporate hunger – and converge them closer than has been done before, to create a melange of the insane and the suspiciously innocent that invalidates everything that children’s shows stand for.

It isn’t until the final episode that we return to the old, “revelatory” format, but for good reason: when we meet the character of Lesley, she shows us that the whole world of “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” is contained in her little doll’s house. What we see, at the climax of the show, is a strong reminder that everything in a show or video must be fabricated; it must be created by somebody. We are reminded that somebody is in control, which makes us question why a lot of the show is empty, and often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What would be the point in investing in a kid’s show if it isn’t going to benefit the children? For the creators of “Don’t Me I’m Scared”, the point lies in the money-hungry realm of gaining capital, a reality much darker than the show’s contents.

So, the way in which “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared”, “Story From North America”, and a lot of other videos of the same vintage present their message is arguably through fear and disgust. But is this the best tactic? What it has undoubtedly done is entrenched these videos in an almost taboo sub-category, which doesn’t do a lot for getting their message out there; they are ruined by the very premise of their argument. However, they do sometimes slip through the cracks, as “Rejected” did when it was nominated for Best Short Film at the 73rd Academy Awards. In this instance, the subtext below the weirdness of these internet videos is enough for them to be regarded higher than the television shows that they critique, and therefore, the message has been successfully relayed. Indeed, the new series of “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” is a Channel 4 production, which in itself is a progression towards the mainstream, and the fact I’ve written roughly 1500 words talking about them must also mean something in the way of their recognition.

In conclusion, with the release of this new series of “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared”, we can see a brilliant continuation of the weirdly wonderful, yet articulate and nuanced critique of children’s television shows through this presentation of what happens when the frustrating “blandness” that Larson talks about reaches boiling point. The series ends, after a finale of metaphysical, mind-numbing revelation, with the characters returning back to normal in the most abrupt and frustrating way; a classically open and cyclical ending that tells us that this capitalist problem is not yet solved, and that – hopefully – the “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” story has not yet reached its conclusion.

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