5 Kids Shows For Adults

When people ask me what shows I’ve been watching, I never know what to say. It’s not that I haven’t watched anything good; it’s just hard to explain that all my favorite shows from this year are targeted at nine year olds.

The thing is, these shows are good, even from an adult perspective. All of the kids shows I’ve watched this year manage to pull off character arcs that put most adult dramas to shame. I’ve laughed more, teared up more, and just had more fun watching kids shows recently than I have watching anything age appropriate.

They’re not perfect. You have to put up with cheesy dialog, characters acting like, well, kids, and silly filler episodes. But if you think watching a kids show means you sacrifice things like horror, complexity, themes, or meaningful stakes, you’re absolutely incorrect. Some of these shows have the most subtle and most interesting messages I’ve seen on TV. Almost all of them have had moments that had me on the edge of my seat. And there is a surprising amount of dramatic, on-screen death. But because these are kids shows, all of that is handled in a context where you know everything will be alright in the end. I don’t always go in for that, but, well, this year I sort of needed it.The problem with feeling self conscious about watching shows aimed at a younger audience is that I really do want to recommend them to people. So here are four you might want to watch.

Avatar the Last Airbender

If you’ve seen one show on this list, it’s probably Avatar. It’s the cornerstone of the “kids-show’s-adults-like” genre, coming out in 2005, coming out five years before the next major entry, Adventure Time

Avatar is set in a world with four types of elemental magic, called ‘bending’, and follows 12 year old Aang and his two friends as they try and bring an end to a hundred year long war against the Fire Nation. It’s a thematically complex show, exploring the evils of war and the role violence should play in resolving conflicts. Almost presciently, the most compelling subplot in the entire show is one character’s struggle with toxic masculinity.

The characters didn’t grab me right away, but I got more and more attached as time passed. By three quarters of the way through the first season I was completely invested in them. The villains in the show are great too; the creators include an interesting, sympathetic antagonist for us to relate to along with a girl named Azula who is just the worst human being. The fight scenes are great. Bending is a combination of magic and martial arts, and each element is paired with its own distinct fighting style making each fight have its own unique character.

My one caveat if you’re going to check it out is that the first half of the first season is a little on the juvenile side; I got pretty tired of Aang’s twelve year old antics. That dissipates pretty fast towards the end of the first season as the characters are forced to interact with actual war. So if you’re interested, be sure to commit for at least that long.

Unfortunately, despite Avatar’s popularity, there are no spinoffs or movies.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

I know the title isn’t super promising, but bear with me, this is probably my favorite show on the list. I’m tempted to justify this by explaining all the technical strengths of the show, but I think it’s really just that I fell in love with the characters the second I met them. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten invested in characters as fast or as deeply as I did with She-Ra. It’s totally possible that the show happened to click with me in a way that it might not for you. But they all feel so vibrant and alive and fun that it’s hard to imagine anyone getting through the first six episodes and not wanting to see more of them.

Okay now all the other stuff. She-Ra is actually a reboot of an 80s show, in the sense that they took a bunch of the names and then changed almost everything about it. Which, thank goodness:

It’s set on the magic planet of Etheria, where the titular character and her band of magical princesses fight an army of bad guys using their various magic powers. Standard kids stuff. One nice thing about it is that a lot of the filler episodes still feel like they’re going somewhere, either teaching us more about the lore or further developing the characters and their relationships. If I had to pick an underlying theme I think it’d be something about friendship, but it doesn’t go nearly as deep as any other show on the list. It’s just cool, colorful characters beating up bad guys and undergoing satisfying character arcs and it 100% worked for me.

The Dragon Prince

Unlike the other shows on this list, The Dragon Prince is intense. If you want to relax and watch something morally unambiguous, watch She-Ra. If you want to be confused about what it even means to be evil, watch The Dragon Prince.

While Avatar’s main focus is on pacifism and the rejection of aggressive violence, The Dragon Prince (by the same creators) is a meditation on cycles of revenge and hatred. On one level it’s about two princes traveling through magical lands to reunite a baby dragon with its mother. On another, it’s the story of a younger generation trying to break free of hundreds of years of violence and distrust. The creators here are taking on something incredibly complex; the unstated villain in this show isn’t the human antagonist, it’s the broken trust and understanding between humans and elves.

On the more practical side, Dragon Prince’s plot drives forward, avoiding filler. The characters feel real, and while I didn’t fall in love with them at first sight I’m certainly invested now. I’m absolutely invested in seeing more human dark magical clash with the Elves’ primal power. The only major failing is the animation. I don’t know if they didn’t have a budget or were only passingly familiar with the whole “pictures that move” thing, but the first three episodes look like garbage. If you make it through those, it graduates to looking bad up until season 2, where it manages to lodge itself around “okay”.

If you have a low tolerance for goofy but still want something animated, The Dragon Prince is probably your best bet.

Adventure Time

I don’t actually recommend Adventure Time, despite the fact that I’ve seen the entire thing. I’m including it in this list because odds are that if you tell an adult you’ve been consuming kids shows and they don’t react with confusion, they will ask if you’ve seen Adventure Time.

Adventure Time came out about five years after Avatar, making it one of the earliest cartoons that was wildly popular with adults. Cartoon Network didn’t intend it that way; in fact the network seemed mostly bewildered at its success. Set in the fantastical Land of Ooo, the show follows 12 year old Finn and his magical dog Jake as they explore a truly bizarre universe.

Like a lot of kids shows Adventure Time starts silly and gets more serious. But unlike the others, Adventure Time doesn’t find a thing and stick to it; it pinballs back and forth from serious to silly to character driven to mind-bendingly surreal. You might get a cute episode about Finn and Jake being teleported into a video game right next to a tear-jerking episode where you watch someone deal with a loved one’s dementia. To make matters worse, the two main supporting characters, Marceline the Vampire Queen (a horrifically powerful entity with impulse control problems) and Princess Bubblegum (an adorable pink autocratic tyrant) are way more interesting than Finn and Jake. The writers seem to know this, and the show is at its best when they find an excuse to hare off and follow their adventures. But it’s never long before you’re forced to return to Finn and Jake making fart jokes. Unless you have a high tolerance for things at both ends of the spectrum, I’d give this a skip.

Steven Universe

Steven Universe manages to be a lot of different things over its nearly 200 episode run. The show is about Steven, a 13 year old boy living with what appears to be three magical girls who protect Beach City from monsters.

I didn’t much care for the first episode. It was childish, with not much in the way of plot. The second episode went down the same way. I pushed through, and a few episodes in, I started to really like it. The characters grew on me, I wanted to find out more about the lore, and as a bonus, there are some pretty fricken horrifying moments buried inside the kid fluff. In the first ten episodes Steven tries to learn to shape shift and accidentally turns into a writhing mound of cats in front of his crying father. 

This looks upsetting, but the show’s tone throughout the early episodes is happy and upbeat. If you don’t think too hard about what’s going it feels like a wacky adventure and the weird combination of cutesy and dark kept me engaged long enough to get hit by the real hook. I’m struggling with what I want to say about it though. I had a delightful experience with this show, and I think part of that involved going into it knowing nothing, with no expectations. I think what I’ll say is that after the first dozen episodes it kept pulling me along, changing from one thing to another and keeping me from having any idea where it would end up.

I know that’s vague, so I’ll try and add some more concrete details. The cast is a set of likable, compelling, deeply flawed characters that grow and evolve as the show goes on. The lore is sure something. It contains my single favorite TV moment in it (Jail Break, obviously, if you’ve watched it and are wondering). And it’s a musical, with some pretty legit songs along the way.

There are some decent criticisms of the show. The pacing is wild, bouncing from intense plot oriented episodes to little introspective ones focused on the town. The animation isn’t for everyone, and I think the show’s at its strongest in the first half, which can be unsatisfying. It’s by no means perfect. But there’s a solid core of emotional truth that the creators manage to shoot like an arrow from the very first episode all the way to the last. The characters are great, the lore is cool, the writers knew how to tell a story. But this is the only show on the list that I wish I had seen as a kid. It’s about love. Loving others, but more importantly loving and accepting yourself. And that’s something worth being reminded of at any age.

Review: The Bone Shard Daughter, by Andrea Stewart

After years of reading, I’ve developed an idea of what makes a quintessential high fantasy novel. From the first page it immerses you in its own unique world. You meet a cast of damaged yet likable characters and watch them grow and learn into better people. There may be degrees of good and evil, but you can tell which is which. And you know that in the end, things are probably going to be okay. I grew up on this sort of novel. 

The Bone Shard Daughter is a great example of this sort of story.

That’s not to say its derivative or boring. The characters are engaging, the world is cool. And after reading so much darker, grittier fantasy, it’s nice to come back to something that feels safe. Sure, bad things happen over the course of the book, they’d have to, but it wasn’t challenging the way some of my recent novels have been. I just sat down and enjoyed it, and I’m excited for the rest of the trilogy.

Review: The Locked Tomb Trilogy

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

The slug printed on the cover of this book is “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!” I have to point out that, as far as I can tell, there are zero lesbians. There isn’t a palace, and a vast majority of the book does not take place in space.

It’s spot on about the necromancers though.

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Review: Strong Towns by Charles Marohn

I don’t usually read non-fiction, but “Strong Towns” by Charles Marohn turned out to be surprisingly readable for a book about city planning. It piqued my interest because his reasoning fits so neatly into how I’ve come to see the world, but he applies it in an area I haven’t really given much thought. The conclusions he reaches are fairly dire, but I have been finding dire conclusions less and less surprising.

American cities, Charles Marohn tells us, are Ponzi schemes. Detroit’s collapse wasn’t special; it was just early.

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Yo mama Turing-completes me

You’re so statistically illiterate you thought p-hacking was when you cheat on a drug test

Yo mama is so religious she thought cross validation was asking what would Jesus do

You’re so clueless you thought a standard deviation was when you’re just, like, a little bit kinky

You’re so idiotic, you ran your epochs in a public school to increase the dropout rate.

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Review: The Stars are Legion

By: Kameron Hurley
Genre: Science Fiction

This book was recommended to me with the nickname “the ooey gooey book” and it did not disappoint. The Stars are Legion is a science fiction novel set inside entirely organic world-ships. I don’t mean like, ‘a Star Trek spaceship but it is slightly green tinged,’ I’m talking people drinking the ceiling mucus and doing surgery on their vehicles. The writing and story were both enough to keep me engaged, but didn’t really go beyond that for me. If you’re desperately searching science fiction for novelty and like the idea of bio-ships, I’d definitely say pick this book up! Just…be ready for it to be gooey.

Am I the Asshole?

If you aren’t familiar with “Am I the Asshole?” you should check it out. It’s a subreddit where people go to, well, find out if they’re assholes or not. They post a description of their situation, and the rest of Reddit judges them. The posters can be anywhere from outrageous villains (“Am I the asshole for telling my adopted brother that he’s not entitled to my time because he’s not my real brother?”) to clear victims (“Am I the asshole for taking back the beer I bought for a party from which I was uninvited?”), and it’s up the readers to decide which is which. The most common judgements are YTA (“You’re the Asshole”) and NTA (“Not the Asshole”), with ESH (“Everyone Sucks Here”) and NAH (“No Assholes Here”) making rare appearances. Once judged, people will do anything from listening and trying to make amends to yelling at the people who called them assholes.

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Review: Online Works

Friendship is Optimal (Short)
Author: iceman

Friendship is Optimal is an interesting little short story you can find online about the potential complications one can have with a misaligned AI. If you’re not used to thinking about “what might happen if an artificial intelligence wasn’t _exactly_ aligned with our goals,” you might find it interesting. If you are familiar with the concept, you might laugh at My Little Pony take on it.

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Review: The Aeronaut’s Windlass

Author: Jim Butcher

This book is fun. It’s pure Jim Butcher goodness. Things blow up, there’s cool magic, the good guys are all stand up people, the bad guys are hateable. If reading N. K. Jemisin is like eating lemon roasted salmon on a bed of quinoa and then sitting and meditating for an hour, this is like eating an entire chocolate cake and then jumping in a bouncy castle. There’s a wizard who can’t handle doorknobs. There is steampunk sky ship naval combat. There are sentient cats who are at no point explained but are somehow plot critical. It is wonderful chaos.

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Review: The Goblin Emperor

Author: Katherine Addison

Did you know there is a genre called “Fantasy of manners”? I sure did not before reading this book. And you know what? I’m okay with it. The genre uses a typical fantasy setting, but is centered around high society and social conflict. And that sure describes the Goblin Emperor to a t. There were maybe two action scenes in this entire book, and I think the narrator fainted during one of them. I’m not even clear if there was any in the world. One of the main conflicts in the book is getting a legal body to vote on building a bridge. Not passing the vote mind you, just getting them to vote on it at all.

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Review: Spinning Silver

Author: Naomi Novik
Genre: Fantasy

It’s hard to describe the thing I liked most about Spinning Silver. The best I can do is say that Naomi Novik set out to make a brand new, novel length fairytale (think old-school, not Disney) and she absolutely nailed it. It’s the kind of story I could imagine an old woman telling her village over the course of a winter’s night. Nothing about it is derivative though; it’s brand new and familiar at the same time.

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Review: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

Author: Hank Green
Genre: Science Fiction?

“An Absolutely Remarkable Thing,” follows April May, a walking collection of the worst millennial stereotypes, and her life after getting famous via a viral video. At some point there are also aliens, but that’s almost background to the actual story. In fact, for me the science fiction elements were the weakest part of the story. I was there to watch April May self destruct under the sauron-eque gaze of the public eye, and I was not disappointed.

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Review: The Broken Earth

Series by N.K. Jemisin
Audio book: Decent

So sometimes I go to Goodreads to make fun of one star reviews for books I like. It’s kind of a vapid way to spend time, a way of feeling superior to people you disagree with without any of the actual risk of having to engage with them. You can skim what someone wrote and go “ugh, she just doesn’t get it,” and that can sometimes be fun.

The reviews for The Broken Earth Series were different, though. The primary complaint people seemed to have was that the books were too dark. “Too much child abuse to be acceptable.” “the book is just too darkly misanthropic.” “Why did she have to have so much senseless violence?”

Because the book is about systemic oppression. Because you can’t write a book about an entire people being hated and dehumanized without children being beaten to death. Jemisin isn’t deciding to perpetrate these atrocities; Jemisin is telling the story, in her way, of things that have actually happened. And finding reviews that are either asking that she not tell these stories, or that she somehow make them more palatable, infuriated me. (One review was a woman saying she was glad the books existed, she just simply didn’t have it in her to read them; that I can understand)

The Broken Earth series is a set of three fantasy novels, following a woman named Essun after discovering her son dead. It’s a good story, with plenty of interesting background, world building, and magic. The prose is good, but isn’t perfect. The plot makes sense, but feels a bit meandering. Some of her choices, like telling the story in second person, can be a bit hit or miss. But all of that is unimportant compared to how much substance there is to this book. Few fantasy novels have made me think about the real world as much as this one did.

I’d love to say “you absolutely have to read these books,” but some of the issues I had with the writing prevent that. If you’re a fantasy reader though, I think you should definitely check them out (especially if you sometimes think “I’d really like a book with a mostly female cast”).

Review: Children of Time

Adrian Tchaikovsky

If you’ve ever said to yourself, “It’d be really nice to read a series of disconnected shorts describing the path social spiders might take on their journey to civilization, and perhaps, the stars,” then this novel will do a fantastic job scratching that particular itch. Otherwise, you’re probably safe skipping Children of Time.

Review: Born a Crime

By Trevor Noah.
Audiobook: Narrated by the author. I’d prefer to listen to it.

Born a Crime is fantastic. Trevor Noah somehow manages to blend together musings about racism, a picture of South Africa under apartheid, and some truly ridiculous childhood stories into a consistently funny series of essays. I laughed a lot. I learned way more about the apartheid than I did in my U.S. public school. I cried at one point.

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