Kids show Ask the StoryBots returns for new episodes August 24th on Netflix.
By Josiah Chiappelli
Ask the Storybots is an edutainment show about a cast of colorful robots who get asked a question by a kid, like, “How does night happen?”, and then go off on adventures to research the topic and come up with an answer. They screw around a lot along the way and waste a lot of time. Sometimes there’s music.
So, here’s some hypocrisy for you. About halfway through the first episode, I googled the show to find out what was up with its music (it sounds like an imitation of They Might Be Giants run through a filter or two). Apparently, the Storybots are already a massive Internet phenomenon produced by the guys behind Jib-Jab. I had no idea.
And yet despite not having much awareness of kid culture, I’m going to throw a giant brick-sized stone through my glass house at Ask the Storybots for not having enough awareness of culture. The humor in this show was often dated and cringeworthy. Storybots is the type of show where characters who use the word “dude” sound like old farts pretending to be young and hip.
It’s not like “dude” is even a particularly tough word to use. It’s fallen into mainstream parlance as much as “cool” and “lame” have. The only thing you have to do to not sound obnoxious is to use it casually. You don’t throw your weight behind a “dude.” You just let it slip out. I’ll show you:
WRONG: “Whoa, DUUUUDES! We’re having pizza for dinner!!!!”
RIGHT: “Dude, you wanna get pizza for dinner?”
This is my big problem with Storybots. There’s something about it that just feels off-kilter. Everything in it feels stale and a little bit condescending. The fact that it’s a 400-million-subscriber-strong Internet hit absolutely blows my mind. Who out there is so excited about Storybots that they want to share it with their kids? Do you guys not know about the rest of the Internet? (In fairness, I haven’t gone to the Storybots website. Maybe the original site is actually pretty good.
I’m also disappointed in how little educational content there is in a show that’s ostensibly geared toward promoting discovery and investigation. To put it another way: the Storybots are some lame-ass detectives. They don’t crack down and get to work when they’re supposed to be researching the topic of the day. Hell, they don’t even bother to ask more than one question at a time whenever they meet a subject matter expert. They just hang out and at like morons while a lesson happens in the background. The Storybots are utter shit at their jobs – no wonder their boss hates them. They are to academia what a guy who re-tweets a TMZ feed is to investigative journalism.
Sure, I can see the merit behind a show of this format and tone, but it just feels redundant. We have seen this exact kind of show already a bunch of times, but done much, much better and with much, much funnier or at least better-presented / researched material. Like Bill Nye or Beakman’s World.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to pull that old man “stuff from MY childhood was better than stuff from YOUR childhood” bullshit. I’m well aware that all of the “kids ask for answers and adults answer it humorously” stuff from when I was young has dated terrrrribly. Have you tried watching Bill Nye the Science Guy again? Some of that shit makes me shiver.
But where Bill Nye succeeded was in the scope and depth of content he provided. If the episode was titled, “Rockets,” then you’d learn a bunch of new vocab words like aerodynamic and you’d get a history lesson about the Space Race and you’d get an introduction to force and maybe a quick explanation on how it equals mass X acceleration and just for good measure, you’d probably also get a primer on the solar system. Bill gave a shit. If he said he was going to teach you about rockets, you were going to learn about some goddamn rockets.
By contrast, if the Storybots had an episode titled “Rockets,” the lesson of the day would be: rockets go fast.
Dudes, if you can’t be entertaining, you should at least be informative. You’re allowed to set your bar higher. Kids are smart. They’ll rise to the challenge. Go for broke – fill in an episode with enough content to last a full marking period at school. If you go for the obvious joke and cut all your lessons short, you’re not actually teaching. You’re just babysitting. And that’s fine, I guess, but I’d like my babysitter to have a better sense of humor.
How Did Lulabelle (my 20 month old) React?
She kinda perked up for some of the songs, but mostly she did not care.
How Did Sonja (my 2 month old) React?
She did not care.
How Did Stephanie (my wife) React?
Any Useful Ethical, Educational, or Thematic Content?
Yes… with a but. As you can tell from my rambling above, it’s really hard for me to get excited about the educational content. There are useful lessons in here, like, “Here’s how the rotation of the Earth affects day and night,” or, “Here are things that are red.” But the target audience for those lessons is all over the map and it kinda makes the show a little useless.
For example, that song about things that are red – it’s silly and fun and totally fine. But color recognition / vocabulary is something that my kids (both under 2) are learning, and Storybots is geared for an older audience, like 4 to 6. By the time my kids reach the target age, they’ll have “red” pretty well figured out.
I would have preferred a show that was more specifically intended for a single age group and which had some semblance of challenge. Hell, even Word Party teaches “turquoise” instead of “red.” Storybots has the right idea, it just needs to step up its game.
Trigger Warnings / Egregious Offenses?
Many bad jokes. Storybots not only goes for the obvious, it also pauses for a laugh, which means you have even more time to groan at your TV.
How Likely Are You to Cry In Front of Your Kids?
Very unlikely. There’s nothing heartfelt in here at all. But I don’t like to say “never,” since you might have some emotional landmine I’m not aware of, so let’s go with 5%.
How Likely Are You to Be Annoyed?
50%. I’m trying to find a diplomatic way to word this… if you live a sheltered comic life, you’ll probably not mind this at all. But if your finger is on the pulse of pop comedy culture – or hell, not even on it, just somewhere in the same city – then you’ll probably feel cranky if not outright annoyed. Don’t watch this when you’ve had a bad day at work, is what I’m saying.
I’ll give this just the slightest bit north of “middle of the road.” It wins a little bit of favor for its energy and attempts at humor, which I think will still have strong appeal to kids under 8, but it got no reaction whatsoever from anybody in my family even with all of its bright colors. It’s not one we’ll be revisiting any time soon, though I wouldn’t mind giving it a second shot if Lulabelle asks to see it again. I just hope she turns it off after one episode so we can go read a book and learn all the stuff Storybots forgot to talk about.