“Here is a cup of tea, Ima.” My daughter mimed handing me a hot mug the other night as we sat on the couch together watching her favorite episode of the new Netflix series “Julie’s Greenroom.” This particular episode features Ellie Kemper (aka “the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) teaching a charming group of puppet children about improv. And thanks to an earworm song called “Yes, And,” I know exactly how to respond to my daughter’s kind offer: “Yes, and… it is very hot.” I took improv in High School, and so I’ve known the cardinal rule for a long time, but I never expected my 3-year-old to be able to use it.
Our daily adventures of watching “the puppet show,” as Ella calls it, began about two weeks ago, when my fried Leslie Taub, a disabled dancer and model, posted about being featured in a new show from Muppet impresario Jim Henson and Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews. So we started a few episodes in, and were enamored enough to go back to the beginning.
That fifth episode, plunked in the middle, had so much of what both me and Ella love about the show- inclusion, empathy, humor, and arts. In “Barre None” ballet dancers (and real-life married couple) Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild visit the “Greenies,” as the Greenroom Workshop’s students are affectionately known. Hank, who is in a wheelchair and unable to walk, worries that he may not be able to participate while, another Greenie, Spike, worries that ballet seems “mostly for girls,” until he meets Fairchild and rethinks his assumption.
Later in the episode, Spike and Hank check in about their concerns. Spike asks Hank how he’s feeling about it, and gesturing toward his wheelchair Hank says, “I’m still not sure I can even do ballet.” Fairchild reassures him that’s just not true. Dance, he says, isn’t just about “legs and feet” as Spike thinks. “It’s also about feeling the music and making it come alive.” To back him up, Gus shares a sort of video field trip to meet a troupe of differently-abled dancers, including my friend Leslie, who gets the last word in the segment.
“Dance,” she says, “is for everyone. And for every body.”
The five puppet children (kids, as opposed to Sesame Street-style puppet animals and monsters) are early school-age, so just “bigger” enough than my 3-year-old to stretch her to new things. And they are real kids in every sense that matters. It’s not just that are diverse in the kind of racial, gender, and ability diversity that,millennials are beginning to demand of ensemble casts. They’re also quirky in a perfect kid-like way. For instance Fizz, my favorite character, loves band aids, for insane.
“Julie’s Greenroom” is more than just likable, it’s groundbreaking. When a network like Nickelodeon begins each children’s program with an informational slide about the educational value of the show, it usually feels forced. I have been teaching media for over a decade, and I’ve watched more hours of “Paw Patrol” then I care to count. It’s fun, but I do not think my child is learning problem solving from it. Sorry, not sorry. In contrast, though, I’ve already seen my child put the things she’s learning about the arts from the Greenies into action, like that improv scene she started recently.
In addition to the messages about inclusion, the show notably has a pioneering non-binary character (an aspiring engineer named Riley) on children’s television. And the revolution isn’t just in content, but in form—like other Netflix shows, this one builds, episode to episode. For kids who are just starting to understand the concept of time progressing (tomorrow, morning, night, and so on) or build sequences (“and then what are we going to do Ima?”) a sequential show is a challenge. My daughter definitely still wants to watch a few episodes over and over again, and in doing so she’s beginning to slowly understand that first they wrote the play, then they are going to perform it. For any adults who have been stuck in a binge loop of repetitive Dora the Explorer episodes (which is age appropriate), 13 episodes that tell a story will be a welcome relief.
And the story it tells is certainly relevant for our times. In the finale, the Greenies put on the long-awaited “Mash Up the Musical,” for Edna Brightful (played by Carol Burnett!), an important patron. In “Mash Up the Musical,” an ogre (ahem) has stolen all of the arts after not being invited to yet another celebration. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will note how timely such a story is.
I run an Arts and Culture Organization, and I can assure you that my colleagues the field and I are looking at a huge loss if the cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities go through. And that threat is on top of what we’d lose in the support that companies like Sesame Workshop and Jim Henson receive from partnerships with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
As Riley, “Julie’s Greenroom”s charming future engineer says (in character as the Royal Jester) “without music, dance and stories, there is little I can do to amuse.” There’s also little we can do to inspire, engage and empower our young people to be the whole tiny humans we know they can be. An earlier episode finds Spike doubting his own writing ability because he’s never “met any writers that look like me or think like me.” Gus responds, “that’s why it’s so important for you to write! The theater needs all different kinds of writers with all different voices.” Indeed, if ever there was a time that calls for more art, our current climate is certainly one. More reason that this is a few hours you won’t mind bingeing along with your child.