Holidays are relaxing and fun.
You arrive at your parents’ or grandparents’ houses and apartments. You sleep, if you sleep at all, on a dusty old air mattress that sits on the living room floor. You sniffle. Everyone sniffles. And no one can hear beyond the roar of everyone talking at once.
But I will always remember the winter vacation when my daughter and I shared every episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Thank goodness for the selflessness of libraries and their DVD collections. Trapped in my parent’s house, we sequestered ourselves in the room where I grew up (airplane posters still on the wall, but the Farrah Fawcett poster long since removed) and my then 12 year-old laughed and pondered and thought out-loud about the characters and the moral dilemmas and the love interests of the motley crew that piloted the Serenity through all sorts of half-legal adventures.
Firefly got us through the holidays, and when I wrote about this for psychology today, the blog received literally thousands of “reads.”
So, in the spirit of resilience through an often chaotic time (i.e. the winter vacation), may I humbly make some recommendations for television watching with kids of different ages? I implore anyone who takes these suggestions to first check out the shows themselves. What works for some families might not work for others. But this much I know for sure: watching a well-written show with your kids is a fantastic way to build parent-child resilience. One of my mentors even writes prescriptions for television shows for his patients. It’s in fact a lot easier to talk about tough stuff in the displacement that good television fiction affords. That’s why I feel so strongly about this kind of activity. And now, with Netflix and Hulu and Vudu and Amazon and countless other mechanisms of streaming video, some old favorites sit merely a mouse-click away. In the following paragraphs, I’ll suggest two options for little kids, for middle school kids and for teens. Please feel free to disagree or to add your own suggestions.
For the school aged crowd (age 6 to around 10 or 11)
- Avatar: the Last Airbender (not the movie – I will carefully suggest that the movie was pretty awful, but the cartoon series on Nickelodeon was amazing) – this show ran from 2005 to 2008; three seasons of magical fun and adventure in an impressively complex world that was the brainchild of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The show features beautiful art, the barely present romance that characterizes many stories aimed at this age group, lots of action, and wonderfully nuanced characters. If you tire of the clearly good or clearly bad guys that often haunt our kids’ viewing attention, then this is your show. The bad guys want to be better. The good guys struggle to resist the urge for revenge. When the show first aired, I was delighted to see such sophisticated stories presented in such developmentally appropriate venues.
- Kim Possible – this program aired on the Disney channel and is an animated series featuring a tough and thoughtful young teen protagonist (Kim), her boy pal, and their pet naked mole rat. (Who doesn’t love a naked mole rat?) Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer but toned way down so that little kids and adults are both smiling throughout. It’s also wonderful in introducing a strong female character. Like Avatar, the motivations of the characters are complex and the storyline is consistent and connected.
For the young adolescent (age 12 – around 15)
- The Wonder Years – I know. The music isn’t the same as on the original. Fans of the show when it first aired have long complained about the byzantine licensing agreements that have prevented the original soundtrack to be part of the series as it exists on-line. But for my money, this is one of the best shows ever made. Period. Kevin and his buddies mix the intense pathos of 1960’s social unrest (Vietnam, rock and roll music, and even sex) with the sure to bring tears on-again-off-again love that Kevin feels for his neighbor Winnie. The last episode always makes me cry.
- Parks and Recreation – all but the current season are now on Netflix and Amazon Streaming. Thought the show sometimes wanders into some risqué themes (one episode addresses “sexting” with well placed criticism as well as patented dry wit) the good will of the characters, the lessons about small town politics, and the extent to which different personalities reconcile their differences are perfect for kids who are just beginning to understand that there are different ways to ponder complex issues.
And for the teens and adults among us
- Firefly - As I mentioned, I don’t think it gets much better than this. The show is well written, funny, dark, and complex. There are some pretty violent moments, but the violence is never gratuitous and there is always thought behind the action. I think I could watch this show over and over.
- Freaks and Geeks –Along with The Wonder Years, maybe the best show ever made. I must warn you, however. Some of the show is pretty darn painful. Watching a confused 18 year old serenade the girl of his dreams with a cover of Styx’s “Lady” requires most viewers over 40 to get up and pace uncomfortably as the scene progresses. We’ve all been in those awkward moments, and those of us who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s will be even more nostalgically mortified.
There are of course literally hundreds of other shows to choose from. All of them carry the capacity to buffer winter vacation with thoughtful laughter and critical appraisal. Feel free to suggest your own choices in our comments section.
Steven Schlozman is the author of The Zombie Autopsies. He also is associate director for the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and Havard Medical School.