I get it. If you don't have a child, there's no way you're willingly watching Bo on the Go or Paw Patrol. But I have two children, 4.5-year-old Lucy and Neil Flynn, who turns 2 on Thursday, and I have seen a great deal of shows aimed at children. Some of it is terrible, like Caillou. Heyvi Kabisa this show is terrible. The main character is mind-numbingly annoying, and the moral lessons the show imparts on the viewer are lacking a great deal. In a nutshell, Caillou teaches you that if you whine and throw a big enough tantrum, the grownups in your life will suddenly bow to your superior wisdom.
Thankfully, not every show is terrible. Some of them are actually quite good, with great production values, a wry sense of humor, and a finished product that shows how much fun the creators had making it. Here is a list of shows, mostly unranked, that make the cut. The criteria for including shows on this list is that I've either watched them when the children weren't watching, or kept watching long after they've started a different activity.
First, the honorable mentions
Lazytown. I love the production values but that's about it
Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood. I LOVE watching this with the kids, but never continue watching after they've stopped.
Arthur. See Above. I really do enjoy this show, and the characters are great. But I clock out when the kids do.
And here's the list. Starting with my two favorites.
My Little Pony: Friendship Is MagicEpisodes to watch: Twilight's Kingdom Part 1 and 2 (great anime-style fight scene in this one).
I had heard of Bronies (adult fans of the show) long before Lucy started watching, and dismissed it as something weird and bizarre. Years later, it's still weird and bizarre, but a lot of fun. (Full disclosure, I consider myself a brony but do not have any costumes). What drew me in were the colorful characters. The show's artwork and production design is fantastic, with a lot of pop culture nods that grownups can appreciate.
Doctor Whooves and Rose
That's a reference to the rebooted season 4 episode Doomsday, in which The Doctor uses 3D glasses to look into the void.
David Tennant as The Doctor
Seriously, what other kid's show throws in a Doctor Who reference? There's been other nods to great films, such as Planes, Trains and Automobiles, The Big Lebowski, Back to the Future, etc. Part of the fun of the show is just looking for those things.
And the other fun part of the show is the six main characters. Each of them has such a distinct, defined personality, and over six seasons, the show has done a great job at showing each of the Mane 6 mature. The wide variety of episodes, ranging from dealing with personal conflict with friends, to saving the country from impending doom and gloom, ensure that there is truly something for everyone. And with such a negative society (I'm looking at you, 2016 Election season), it's so refreshing to see something truly positive and devoid of any hatefulness.
Speaking of that great anime fight scene I mentioned earlier, my 11-year-old nephew Brent told me he thought MLP would be boring, thinking it was just for little girls. I showed him that two-part episode with the fight scene. He turned to me and said, "Ok, that was actually pretty cool."
If you had asked me if another children's show would come around that would be just as good as this one, I would have said no, this is the pinnacle of children's programming. Until Disney stepped in with...
The Lion GuardEpisodes to watch: The Return of the Roar (Pilot-movie) and Can't Wait To Be Queen
I've always admired Disney for making sure that their products had the better production values than nearly everything. True, some of their direct-to-video stuff leaves something to be desired (well, used to: their new DTV stuff is really good), and they churn out their share of obnoxiously bad programming (Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is at the top of my list, despite my love of Mickey Mouse), but when they want something to be truly great, it will hit that mark.
Kion demonstrates The Roar, which channels roars from his ancestors.
Disney has a storied history of great TV programming. Duck Tales, Goof Troop, Gargoyles, to name a few. And while Lion Guard is aimed at a younger crowd than those aforementioned shows were, it is not short on fun. It's a spin-off of The Lion King (my second-favorite Disney film and probably, you could argue, their best film) featuring Simba's son Kion, who leads a group of animals, including a cheetah and hippo, called The Lion Guard. Simba has the power of the roar (think dragon shouts from Skyrim), which overpowers foes due to its strength.Their job is to protect The Circle of Life, which leads to run-ins with greedy Hyenas, crocodiles, and jackals, among other foes.
I've seen the show described as Avengers meets Lion King. Fitting since each character has their own power (Fuli the cheetah is fast, Beshte the hippo is strong, Ono the egret who has great vision, and Bunga the Honey Badger, who is fearless and is immune to venom and bee stings). Lion King meets Teen Titans is probably a better example, as the Lion Guard, like the TT, are fairly young and just starting to learn about their abilities.
The show has fantastic artwork, very reminiscent of the film, and the songs have a movie-quality feel to them. Here's my favorite, Hero Inside, and my God that baby elephant is beyond cute.
Like MLP, the characters have a lot of depth, and the show really nails the superhero aspect, including some great fight scenes. Do I like MLP more than Lion Guard? An impossible question at this point. I will say that I like the characters of MLP more, but I like the music from The Lion Guard much better (Much as I love MLP, the songs are something I'm always tempted to fast-forward through, and we own The Lion Guard soundtrack).
And here's the rest of my list.
Peg + Cat
Peg + CatEpisodes to Watch: The Pizza Problem/The Pirate Problem and Peg + Cat Save The World
A charming show on PBS with an elementary-level math focus, something I haven't seen since Square One Television went off the air. Peg and her friend Cat have such a wonderful personality, and I love that show is "animated" on graph paper. That little touch really makes this my favorite PBS show.
Elena of Avalor
Elena of AvalorEpisodes To Watch: Prince Too Charming and Spellbound
Disney does a great job with princesses, and this one isn't any different. I appreciate Elena's caring personality, and willingness to work hard to solve problems. A great role model for my daughter, and really great storylines. This should probably get the theatrical film treatment at some point.
OctonautsEpisode to Watch: Octonauts and the Snapping Shrimp
What if we made an undersea version of Star Trek for kids? That's the setting behind the book series by Vicki Wong and Michael C. Murphy and adapted into a BBC animated series. It's managed to teach me a thing or two about underwater life, and nobody is looking into the camera asking viewers at home to help.
Beat BugsEpisode to Watch: Blackbird (featuring Sia)
A Netflix exclusive series with a focus on bugs who sing Beatles tunes. The characters, one of which voiced by Ashleigh Ball (Applejack and Rainbow Dash from My Little Pony) are charming in their own right, and the covers of Beatles tunes are really good. It had me and my daughter singing Carry That Weight for an entire week.
Barbie: Life in the DreamhouseEpisode to watch: Episode 6: Best of Barbie
No doubt you've watched plenty of Barbie cartoons that take her way too seriously. Life in the Dreamhouse is much different in that it goes over the top with the characters (Ken invents things that don't work, Barbie has a ridiculous clothes closet, etc.) who know they are made of plastic. It is the funniest show on this list. The sitcom quality and Scrubs-style flashbacks show that with a little creativity, you can do something new with any group of characters.