TV Pick: ‘Teletubbies’ are back to say ‘Eh-oh!’

Teletubbies (Nick Jr., weekdays). The Teletubbies, Po, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Tinky Winky, are back – or perhaps it’s we who are back. They’ve doubtless been busy in Teletubbyland the whole time, eating toast and Tubby custard, going outside and going inside, not growing an inch or increasing their vocabulary a whit since 2001, when the original series went out of production after four years and 365 episodes. The show, which hails from the U.K., was revived there last year – the brand is now controlled by the Canadian DHX Media, which also owns “Yo Gabba Gabba!,” but is still produced out of England – and has now reached the States. PBS was its previous domestic port of call; now it comes in by way of Nick Jr. (Older episodes will air on Nick’s video subscription service, Noggin.)

Like all the best children’s television, it does not require the company of a child for you to watch it without shame. (It always had an unironic adult following.)

For any somehow unfamiliar with this global phenomenon, the Teletubbies are four pear-shaped toddler-creatures, differing slightly in size and greatly in color, each with a screen built into its stomach and an individually shaped antennae coming from its head: As their name suggests, they are not only on television, but part television. (Because this is 2016, the screens are now touch screens.) They live in a green world where it is usually time to play, unless it is time to eat.

To the extent that Dipsy and Tinky Winky are played by men and Po and La La by women, they have gender, which is not particularly important or even apparent, but which did lead to a brief kerfuffle back in the 20th century when Tinky Winky, who carries a handbag, sometimes wears a tutu and is purple, was accused of advancing a Homosexual Agenda; the late American evangelist Jerry Falwell was especially disturbed by that possibility. (“Tinky Winky is simply a sweet, technological baby with a magic bag,” said the BBC, clarifying.) Subsequently, of course, he became a gay icon.


What made the show radical in its time, besides its defining a new target market – the pre-pre-school set, a demographic whose age was still measured in months – was its simplicity, its slowness, stillness, its seeming lack of content, its numinous earthiness and original otherworldiness. With its baby-faced sun looking down upon Teletubbyland; the periscope-shaped, sprinkler-headed “voice trumpets” that wake the Teletubbies and send them to bed and in between regulate their day (Jim Broadbent is one of the voices in the new version); its real rabbits; its twice-played video interludes (repeated to cries of “Again! Again!”) and use of repetition, it is a children’s show as Samuel Beckett might have written it, in a good mood. “Eh-oh, Vladimir!” “Eh-oh, Estragon!”

Although it is dangerous to mess with perfection, reviving the series for a high-definition, widescreen world does makes sense, and it is substantially the same “Teletubbies” as before. The environment and action are marginally noisier – the giggling hardly stops, an unfortunate tic of contemporary young-children’s programming. (It must test well.) There have been some minor cosmetic upgrades: The ‘Tubbies dome home, which, then as now, feels like an unattributed work by Bruce Goff, has been brightened (its palette is pure 1970s – the Banana Splits would feel right at home) and the Noo-noo, a sort of sentient vacuum cleaner, has been turned from blue to orange. There are some new gadgets – a Tubby Phone (voiced by Jane Horrocks), and the Tubby Custard Ride, a sort of train with twirly bits. They have gotten some new furniture. This will matter to old viewers, of course, more than new ones.

Sadly the Teletubbies no longer gambol in the actual outdoors, having traded the variable light and often cloudy skies of Warwickshire for the reliable brightness of a digital landscape. This is nothing the barely-verbal-yet set will be bothered by, though I’m willing to believe, or hope, that on some pre-self-conscious level they can tell the difference. I understand the practical and even the aesthetic advantages of computer graphics – and thank goodness the Teletubbies themselves have not been converted to CGI -- but why replace the actual world with the virtual one, what’s real with what only seems to be? Knowing the difference, and caring about it, may pay some benefits down the line, when robots get the vote and declare nature obsolete.

I am a little sad, too, that (unless I missed it) Po no longer speaks any Cantonese and that the rabbits seem to have retreated into the opening credits. But Tinky Winky still carries a handbag, haters, and is still played by a man in a big purple suit. So we’re good.

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