If ABC wants proof of the success of its new One Saturday Morning — a block of cartoons, ”educational” spots (I’ll get to those quotation marks in a sec), and brief comedy sketches — a significant measure of it resides in my house. There, an 8-year-old does something she never does during the school week: She sets her alarm, so as not to miss her favorite ”One Saturday Morning” shows, the cartoons Pepper Ann, Brand Spanking New Doug, and Recess.
The insidious cleverness of ABC’s campaign is that the network compels kids like mine to stick with one channel — no flipping, as Larry Sanders would say. Small viewers quickly learn that wedged between stuff like Recess (stories of a gang of spunky elementary-school tykes) and Pepper Ann (stories of a gangly, bespectacled redheaded 12-year-old) are other little minifeatures, like ”Monkey Boys” — live-action short silent films about a pair of slapstick dimwits — and ”Mrs. Munger’s Class,” a clever two-minute-or-so spot in which the photos on one page of a school yearbook talk to each other. (Which brings me to the aforementioned quotation marks: They’re also subjected to ”Professor Chris Williams,” who pops up to ask things like ”The Tasmanian devil is extinct…. What’s up with that?” Merely asking the question apparently fulfills the network’s FCC-mandated requirement for educational material.)
In TV lingo, suckering folks of any age into watching your channel just because it’s your channel — as in people saying they’re gonna watch some MTV, or check out Nick at Nite — is known as branding. Nobody has branded as successfully over the past few years as cable’s Nickelodeon, so it’s no surprise that ABC’s ”One Saturday Morning” — with its sleek, interstitial, welcome-to-your-own-personal-clubhouse graphics — is the brainchild of former Nick exec Geraldine Laybourne, now heading up ABC’s children’s programming.
Laybourne’s strategy — combined with pretty good programming — makes chief competitor Fox look lame. (The two nets are currently tied for first place on Saturday mornings.) At Fox Kids Network, you find no overarching theme and only fair fodder: Ned’s Newt (about a 500-pound, tediously obnoxious newt), Space Goofs (displaced aliens — 3rd Rock From the Sun animated, garishly), and Steven Spielberg Presents Toonsylvania (monster-movie takeoffs). One and all, they suffer from the by-now-exhausted influence of Ren & Stimpy: tritely surreal, pointlessly vulgar, and usually unfunny (though Toonsylvania does feature Everybody Loves Raymond’s droll Brad Garrett as the voice of a Frankenstein-y monster, and Space Goofs has a cranked-up theme by Iggy Pop).
Not one of them beats Pepper Ann, the most distinctive of any of the new kid shows. First of all, it rejects today’s most common creative crutch — relentless parodies of pop culture (memo to Fox: My daughter doesn’t get James Whale-Bride of Frankenstein references, and I’ve seen too many of ’em elsewhere). Instead, Pepper Ann does what all good children’s entertainment does: It offers the ideas of a single creator — in this case, executive producer Sue Rose — and, in so doing, opens up into a dreamy universality.
Pepper Ann Pearson is an ordinary little girl who fancies herself exceptional — ”much too cool for seventh grade” is her motto. But Pepper isn’t vain or bratty about it; she’s spunky and adventurous; she’ll try anything; and she dares to be silly. She’s a little like a female version of Doug Funnie, the charming Nickelodeon ordinary boy who migrated to ABC as Brand Spanking New Doug. Too often these days, however, Doug exists to teach little lessons, such as a recent episode in which his pal Patti Mayonnaise starts dieting so assiduously, she nearly succumbs to bulimia. This made for a dull, didactic story of the sort that Pepper Ann and her savvy pals would snicker at with bracing feminist pragmatism: Not eat because people tell you ya look better thin? Whatta dope!
The character of Pepper Ann is voiced by Kathleen Wilhoite, whom ER fans will remember as Sherry Stringfield’s druggie loser of a sister, Chloe. As Pepper Ann, however, she’s a total winner. The last-place ABC could use a lot more of her smarts — and Laybourne’s branding — in its prime-time programming. Pepper Ann: B+ Doug: B Recess: B Toonsylvania: C Space Goofs: C- Ned’s Newt: D