On Teletubbies

There's often a weird, dreamlike vibe to British childrens' television and none moreso than the works of Andrew Davenport, creator of hypnagogia such as Teletubbies and In The Night Garden. Adults love to read deeply into them, to the point where they acquire covert, even menacing dimensions. And in that genre, The Atlantic's Sophie Gilbert has posted a classic today: The Most Sinister Thing I Watched All Year. "Where do the Teletubbies come from?" she asks. "Are they prisoners? Are we complicit in their captivity? Why do my children love them so?"

Teletubbyland is a deeply disturbing place, and my weirdo babies can't get enough. (We let them watch two 15-minute episodes a day, unless it's raining, or they're sick or teething, or one of us has already chiseled HELP into the furniture by 10 a.m. on a Saturday.) There are four primary characters: Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po, each a different shade of headache-inducing fuzz. They live inside a dome built into the earth. Every day, a system of loudspeakers called Voice Trumpets wake them and dictate their actions ("Time for the Tubby Custard Ride," "Time for Tubby Bye-Bye"). An unseen narrator whom the tubbies can hear explains periodically how the characters are feeling. There's also an anthropomorphic vacuum cleaner called Noo-noo who cleans up endlessly after the messy, messy tubbies; rolls his eyes a lot; and, in one sequence, longs for the quiet of an endless sleep. (I identify as Noo-noo.)

Teletubbies began in the late 1990s, when I was at college. Its creepy yet soothing nursery vibe matched the emergent dismay and cynicism of first-time voters who had overwhelmingly voted for Tony Blair. Just as a generation (older millennials, more or less) were sent out onto the rotten bough, this pastel death-haunted nightmare was freakishly omnipresent, harmonizing earnest pedagogy with such blatant totalitarian imagery that it seemed like it must be satire of some kind. But the closer you look, the more sincere it becomes.