Classic Rock Corner

Raising a Toddler the Beat Bugs Way

My son, Oliver, will be two years old on New Year’s Day. He’s a good lad. He loves sifting through gravel, making barnyard noises (especially a duck, for some reason) and “flying” onto our bed pillows. He really loves both sets of grandparents, and they love him right back. Sometimes he loves our pets a little too much, resulting in a handful of unfortunate run-ins with the family cat. Luckily, none have yet led to any permanent scarring.

Oliver used to love Sesame Street but, as many toddlers do, has since moved on to a more stimulating source of entertainment. For the past three months or so, he has been crazy about Beat Bugs, a Netflix original series in which five young insect friends explore a huge, somewhat ill-tended suburban backyard somewhere either in Australia, where series creator Josh Wakely is from, or the U.S., because everyone on the show speaks with an American accent. Each episode, of which there are 13 so far, is divided into two 11-minute segments, and each one of those is based around a different song by the Beatles.

At first, it was Oliver’s parents who were enthralled by Beat Bugs. The novelty of animated insects singing Beatles songs was irresistible, and the show's animators have done an excellent job rendering an ordinary backyard into something out of Lewis Carroll: a bugs-eye landscape with sunflowers as tall as skyscrapers and a purple octopus-sprinkler, although it does seem like this particular family has a real problem getting rid of their garbage. The yard is littered with all sorts of discarded items, something the Beat Bugs have been able to turn to their advantage by converting all this trash into a village of elaborate houses and other bug-built structures. To parents' delight, many of the songs feature famous guest vocalists such as Sia, James Corden, Aloe Blacc, The Shins and Eddie Vedder.

Oliver, though, was mostly indifferent. At first if we lingered on the show for too long, he’d give us his familiar whine of displeasure — or use his hand to mimic a remote control, meaning “change it!” — and we’d switch over to Sesame Street or just turn the TV off. Our first sign that we might have a budding Beatlemaniac on our hands was when we heard him distinctly sing “wuv wuv wuv” (“All You Need Is Love” is the show’s theme song), one of those minor miracles of parenthood that made my fiancée and me melt like ice-cream cones. Now he can hardly contain his excitement when the Netflix logo comes up on the TV screen, and he knows “Help!” well enough to sing in key when the chords change. Last night his mother went in to check on him and caught him singing “help!” in his sleep.

So just who are these segmented creatures who have enraptured our son? There’s Jay, a skateboarding beetle (of course) who is cocky and a little insensitive at times; Kumi, a ladybug who is generally the most level-headed of the bunch; Crick, a bespectacled, resourceful cricket who can’t help evoking his Pinocchio ancestor Jiminy; Walter, a garden slug with a theatrical streak and the corresponding self-esteem issues; and Buzz, a younger, sweet-natured red ant who is basically the Elmo of Beat Bugs. Like the Beatles, the Beat Bugs don’t have a true leader, but it’s not terribly difficult for fans to detect a hint of the Fab Four’s likenesses in the brash Jay (John), sweet Walter (Paul), sensible Kumi (George) and childlike Buzz (Ringo).

That would make Crick, whose inventions somehow figure in the plot of most episodes, something close to the George Martin/producer’s role. Among the backyard’s other inhabitants are Postman Bee, who delivers packages and information as he flits about the yard; the artistically gifted Doris the Spider, a neat little wink at The Who; a colony of worker ants who show up whenever something needs to be carried; and a stink bug who powers a Ferris wheel-like ride by breaking wind. (You’ll just have to watch.)

The Beatles are uniquely suited for a series like this in a way that their contemporaries aren’t. Could you imagine a similar show based on the songs of the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin? But not only do the Beatles’ melodies hold up and even get better across innumerable listens, many songs — at least the ones Beat Bugs uses — contain imagery that is tailor-made for a children’s cartoon anyway; cf. “Rain,” “Good Day Sunshine” or “I Am the Walrus.” But Teletubbies this isn’t: The show is not afraid to take on more serious subject matter either, as when the bugs have to step in when Postman Bee’s granny can’t remember her recipe for “Honey Pie,” or when a freak accident leads to a colony of homeless ants in “Carry That Weight.”

It also has a light touch anytime one of the lyrics might brush up against a more adult theme, like the way the words “bottle of wine” simply evaporate in “When I’m 64.” On Beat Bugs, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is just the fairy who helps Buzz get over her nightmares about Bad Blue, a.k.a. the huge bug zapper on the back porch. Wakely is now said to be developing a new series based on the music of Motown, so it should be interesting to see how he adapts all the heartache and puppy love in that catalog for a pre-K audience. Given what he’s done with Beat Bugs, I wouldn’t bet against him.

If we let him, I’m sure Oliver could watch Beat Bugs all day. Of course we don’t; limiting their kids’ screen time, and using the time they do watch responsibly, is one of the main issues today’s parents face. Last month the American Academy of Pediatrics released a new set of guidelines that recommended limiting children between the ages of two and five to an hour or less, and none at all for those under 18 months. It’s a little more lenient on educational shows like his formerly beloved Sesame Street, which — as far as I’m concerned — is where Beat Bugs should count too. Besides teaching my son to appreciate great music, the show is loaded with simple lessons about being kind to your friends, helping those who are less fortunate and respecting those who are different from you. Maybe more grownups need to be watching Beat Bugs too.

The point the AAP guidelines stressed the hardest was that parents and children should always watch together, which certainly isn’t a problem in our household. Fortunately, the only thing Oliver seems to like more than Beat Bugs is playing outside or reading his books. It’s also allowed us to practice certain important teachable moments, like when it’s time to turn off the TV. His ensuing tantrums haven’t totally disappeared, but lately they've dropped off sharply. And one more reassuring thing about the show is that the only thing it’s really trying to sell him is the Beatles’ music. (His mother and I were using Netflix for American Horror Story and Orange Is the New Black long before Beat Bugs came along.) Watching Oliver do one of his self-choreographed dances to “The Word” or “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” that seems like a fair trade.

Netflix will roll out Season 2 of Beat Bugs this Friday, and not a moment too soon. As much as we still love them, we are about exhausted with the Season 1 songs, so we’re definitely looking forward to the day when Oliver can’t get enough of “Drive My Car,” “Eleanor Rigby” or “Yellow Submarine” instead. Just not at first; we’ve tried playing Beatles songs not featured in the show for him and so far he hasn’t been too impressed. Who knows whether or not Oliver will ultimately grow up to be a Beatles fan — that choice, of course, will be totally up to him to make — but already this show has really brought our budding family together. Even if we never watch another episode (which is unlikely), the Beatles’ music has been responsible for some of our fondest memories of Oliver’s early childhood. We hope he’ll have plenty of time to discover the more mature thrills of “Helter Skelter” on his own somewhere down that long and winding road.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray