Kids in control of environment in Amazon Studios' new pilots

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
Amazon's 'The Stinky and Dirty Show' is a 'Cars'-type cartoon about a garbage truck and a backhoe

It is already the fourth season of Amazon Studios pilots — they are having such fun that last year they did it twice — in which prospective series are paraded for public view and comment. It is now no longer an experiment, but a certified Real Thing, and it shows.

The grown-up series make the news — "Transparent" and its Golden Globes and all — but there is a children's wing too. Where the adult Amazon pilots have tended toward the slightly edgy quality tone of premium cable, the kids' shows, being aimed at young eyes and meant to be more or less improving, have tended to be more familiar, more conservative.

That said, the latest crop of pilots, released to public view on Thursday, are on the whole quite accomplished and ambitious and perhaps just a little bit crazier. (They are also presented as more finished products than in seasons past.) Half are directed toward preschool viewers, half ostensibly toward viewers ages 6 to 11, though the best will appeal to older kids as well.

What they share is the notion that children can, and often must, take control of their environment.

"The Stinky and Dirty Show" is a "Cars"-type cartoon about a garbage truck and a backhoe. They meet cute in the opening episode and quickly form an effective cooperative dyad. It's a problem-solving show, with an engineering thrust, in whose pilot we learn that melons do not make good wheels and that round rolls better than square. Can you deny it? Though computer animated with the usual suggested third-dimension, it has an attractive hand-made, crayon-and-construction-paper look I hope is not merely a function of an economizing pilot.

"Buddy: Tech Detective" is a computer-animated series in which the watching child viewer is invited to help the characters solve problems. (You can give the wrong answer, but the characters will do what they want — I tried it.) As an evidence-based show pushing the scientific method, I approve of it, though the characters giggle far too much — a tic of the preschool programming for which you can probably blame Elmo.

The third preschool pilot, "Sara Solves It" — a math-skills program with partial backing from WGBH — was also among the first crop of Amazon kids' pilots, and the most finished and accomplished of them; I liked its urban setting and semi-funky vibe. It's back with a different episode and more characters. Why they just didn't greenlight the original pilot, I don't know.

"Just Add Magic," adapted from a YA novel, is a live-action fantasy series in the "Gortimer Gibbons" vein, about three young girls, best friends, who discover a book of recipes that might be a book of spells, and key to an epic battle of magical suburbia whose proportions are suggested only in its closing moments. It's predictable, and a little too forward with the charm, but likable and promising.

The handsomely made "Niko and the Sword of Light" is an animated adventure with nods to "Lord of the Rings" — child warrior Niko is on his way to a Cursed Volcano to rid his land of "the darkness" — and some visual debts to Don Bluth. It handily mixes the epic and the vernacular (it has a streak of the Borscht Belt); the storytelling is solid, the lines good, the jokes land, and the creatures (a lot of what might be called American swamp mutants in the pilot) are memorable and memorably designed.

My favorite is "Table 58," a sparky, single-camera middle-school comedy, set among a group of misfits and reminiscent in tone of the great "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide." (Eating lunch at Table 58, says one, is "slightly better than eating alone in the bathroom — never mind it's the same.")

It includes a coach who can't keep his shoes tied and an angry lunch lady who ends her outbursts with "Namaste," and a bully with "a built-in rewards program" with a literal punch card. Lines like "It seems that jealousy, unlike a compounding integer, has no limits" and "I hereby declare this pep rally over — you are now assembled unlawfully" win my heart — and, I hope, those of whoever can make this pilot a series.

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