Let’s say Pee-wee Herman had had a fever dream in the womb. He might have conjured up something like Teletubbies, the British kid-TV sensation that’s bound to both unsettle and soothe PBS viewers of all ages when it premieres here April 6. The Teletubbies are a quartet of roly-poly, soft-cloth, baby-faced creatures — Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Po, and Tinky Winky — who gambol over England’s green hills, chatter in baby talk, and periodically gather together for a group clutch, shouting in unison, ”Biii-ig hug!”
Oddest of all, there are television sets in their tubbies — I mean, their tummies. In the midst of playing, say, Dipsy or Po’s middle will begin to glow and fuzz over and suddenly there’s a little story about, oh, a real-life child grooming and riding her pony. We and the ‘tubbies watch this — it lasts only a few minutes — and when it ends, as likely as not, the ‘tubbies squeal, ”Again, again!” At which point we watch the same scene all over.
Teletubbies is aimed at pre-schoolers as young as 1 year old. Kenn Viselman, president of The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company (who helped make another Brit import, Thomas the Tank Engine, an American kiddie favorite), says the repetition of scenes and actions is ”crucial to a child’s development, an understanding of narrative and learning how to expect stories to unfold.” In other words, what may look to you or me like the sort of kiddie show Mr. Rogers might dream up after a hit of curdled acid is actually — yeah, sure, that’s the ticket — educational.
It’s also, for the grown-up viewer, a deeply lulling, meditative, sublimely ridiculous experience. (Even Viselman can’t help describing it as ”a very, very bizarre show.”) He’s not surprised it became a big hit in England — ”There aren’t many TV channels over there; at certain times of day, you either watch Teletubbies or you watch billiards” — but he was shocked by press reports claiming teens and twentysomethings were starting to use the ‘tubbies as eye candy while tripping on recreational drugs. Viselman discounts the reports: ”Don’t believe everything you read,” he says tersely. Nevertheless, even he cannot deny that the cult of Teletubbiedom extends beyond the teething set.
Whether Po and Co. become a hit export over here — or merely the kid-TV version of Oasis, without the sneering — is hard to say. There’s little precedent in our current pop culture for its whimsical silliness, but that quality may be just what endears it to Yank tykes. If that should happen, let us hope the very first ”big hug” the ‘tubbies perform is around Barney the dinosaur — it probably wouldn’t take much of a squeeze to suffocate that fat SOB.