Is there anything harder to find on TV than a “family show” you can watch with kids but can find in primetime? I can remember growing up watching “Seinfeld,” “Frasier,” a bunch of other sitcoms, and eventually “Lost” with my entire family, but what could you really say that about today? Cable TV has narrowcasted “the kids” into Disney Family, Freeform, or the CW (for teens) while adults may be watching TV shows that have more sex and violence than most R-rated movies. R-rated movies are still held to strict standards by the MPAA while all TV has to do is slap a “TV-MA” on something to show anything from softcore porn to disemboweling.
So what to watch with “the family?” Two series—one ending, one beginning—offer an answer…
Bill Nye Saves the World…In each episode, Bill tackles a specific scientific hot-button (climate crisis, designer babies, artificial intelligence) and even though it’s aimed at adults—the show at times seems to be a scientific, more interactive “Last Week Tonight”—there’s really nothing in it kids can’t watch (or, unlike Oliver’s show, hear) and they may especially enjoy some of the experiments and space-related stuff. Still, because of the varying topics (and occasionally uninformative panels), the quality of each episode fluctuates wildly depending on your interests. The pro-GMO episode is an embarassingly lop-sided advertisement for the ruthless Monsanto (Bill literally wonders why people don’t like Monsanto for creating a food monopoly, failing to mention genetically-modified seed patents, their crop monopolization bankrupting smaller farms, their shadowy lobbying to keep GMOs from even being labeled, or that GMOs only exist because they can sit on a shelf longer, not to solve world hunger). And it’s in episodes like that the series reveals a real blindspot, despite excellent episodes like “Tune Your Quack O-Meter” or “Malarkey!” that tear apart junk science and explain how it’s not much different than a placebo. Grade: B-
Samurai Jack…Cartoon Network cancelled this series more than ten years ago, but they clearly made the right decision to bring it back for a fifth and final season since this is—amazingly—one of the best TV shows I’ve seen this year. I didn’t expect to say that about a long-cancelled kid’s animated series centered on a time-traveling samurai hoping to stop a demon from monopolizing the future, but when the quality is this obvious it’s impossible to ignore, credibility be damned.
The reboot begins as Jack is demoralized, half-crazy, and barely hanging on in a seemingly never-ending quest to kill his arch-nemesis—one of the show’s many clever twists is that the demon Aku is just as depressed with their stalemate—and as they inch towards an inevitable showdown, each episode is visually distinctive, narratively compelling, and just downright cool. Among the many great ideas on display in this final season is an assassin trained from birth to hate a target she grows to empathize with, gorgeous snowy battle scenes against a cult of female killers, and an entire episode inside the unique body of a huge, monstrous creature. Do your inner kid a favor and enjoy one of the best told stories this year for any age. Grade: A