Does anyone remember, or did I imagine it, a brief spell when the Archie Comics became born-again? I was reading along, enjoying the trivial pursuits of the teens at Riverdale High, and suddenly one character turned to the other and asked if he'd read John 3:22. John 3:22?! Oh no. I reread the dialogue. Help. I flipped ahead—yes, there was it again—"gospel" and "good news" in the sporadically bolded comic caps. Betty, Veronica, Jughead, even Reggie—all of them were in on it. Then and there, I decided I could never look them in the eyes again. (Even on learning, just now from a colleague, that the comic had come from a tainted "spiritual" batch that creator Al Hartley had produced in the late '70s; he returned safely to profane themes in the '80s.)
I am not irreligious, but I felt betrayed. Discovering that someone is trying to smuggle a "message" of any kind into your fun makes you wary. Producers of educational television have faced this problem since antiquity. How can they entertain viewers, teach them, and—most difficult of all—keep their trust at the same time? Today this burden falls on the writer Amy Tan, whose thoughtful animated adventure show Sagwa: The Chinese Siamese Cat has become a breakout hit on PBS. The show's target viewer is 5 to 8, and, according to my informal survey, it's playing well with that market. (A 6-year-old I know named Zack takes an executive approach. "I'm a little busy right now," he tells his mother. "I have to see Sagwa.")
At PBS, however, hits are not the point. Neither is pleasing kids. The stated aim of the program is to help "children learn strategies for dealing with their fears, telling the truth in difficult situations, standing up for what they believe in, making friends and dealing with peer pressure."
Not too bad. But don't let your children read that.
Sagwa is set in ancient China, in a fishing village where a female cat gets in and out of trouble with her bat, cat, and human cohorts. Breaking up the animated action are live-action interviews with beautiful Gap Kids who give details of their own exotic cultures (menorahs, empanadas, hip-hop). Between the show and the interviews, a line or two of voice-over provides the day's lesson. These lines seem written in the desperation known well to grade-school teachers. How can we make this relevant—at all? "Chinese families remember their ancestors by keeping family traditions alive. … Traditions are important. …What about you?"
Sagwa's extended family includes her wise parents, her wise grandparents, her silly sister, and her arrogant brother (pbskids.org has a clip of Sagwa introducing herself). Local humans include the magistrate and his demanding wife. A typical episode issues soft warnings against lying, putting on airs, thinking narrowly, renouncing one's family. Some of these parables—like the one about the woman who banned worms and bees from the palace, only to find that without them she couldn't have silk or honey—have the air of actual folklore. Others seem to have originated in conference rooms.
Throughout, China is represented as the birthplace of paper, noodles, and inventiveness. In the meantime, the show's sponsor, Kellogg's, unabashedly pushes Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops in its mini-ads. (Sugared cereal on PBS. All is lost.)
Sagwa has some very good episodes. The best scripts are by Tan herself, in particular one in which the whole cast, during a hot day, gets hell-bent on inventing something—anything. The episode evokes those childhood days when you and a sibling come up with an idea at breakfast and execute it all day long, with the vague—but somehow deadly serious—idea that you are doing something that will have consequences in the adult world (you'll win a patent, for example, or a medal from the police!).
Tan moves quickly, and she writes excellently grandiloquent comic-book lines that would never fly on live-action kid's television. "It would take the constant rushing of a stream to quench our garden's thirst!" the magistrate wails. (They ultimately invent a sprinkler.) Another of the show's delights is the actress Holly Gauthier-Frankel, who does the voice of Sagwa. She has an uncommonly pleasing boy-girl voice—gentle, sweet but not treacly, the sound of comfort itself.
The show is uneven, and though the non-Tan scripts do slightly drag, the art may be its real defect. Unlike uneducational cartoons likeSouthPark or The Powerpuff Girls, Sagwa lacks a clear design sense. Its cartoon universe is stilted. PBS may be trying to avoid campy chinoiserie, but it has gone too heavy on the light touch. The magistrate's throne room, for example, did not have to be so spare; it could have been more exciting, more opulently colored, with a hint of the intricacy of Chinese patterns. For that matter, PBS might even have risked gongs and gilt. Visual clichés are at the heart of cartoons, after all. Don't animated prisoners still wear stripes?
Maybe in America—among the wisecracking, homework-shirking, law-breaking goofballs we know well from Hanna-Barbera and Looney Toons. Sagwa's scene is feline, and much finer; it is imperialist China, after all, home to high learning, propriety, and delicacy. When you're living this mandarin fantasy, even the good-hearted, communitarian, asphalt neighborhood of Sesame Street—PBS's quintessential learning environment—begins to seem dopey and coarse. Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat would certainly raise an eyebrow at Cookie Monster.
But somehow the show does not seem pretentious. Surprisingly, Sagwa gets away with refinement and high-mindedness, making a solid case for good cheer and good grades. For a full commercial-free half-hour, you almost forget about the other channels, your provincial tastes, and what a bunch of loafing, undereducated savages we TV-watchers can be.