MICKEY MOUSE CLUBHOUSE
DISNEY JUNIOR, VARIOUS TIMES
Kid Appeal: Walt’s deal with Lucifer apparently intact, as Disney characters still rock solid eyeball magnets.
Fourth Wall: Routinely violated for counting, color choices, shape identification, pointing out things the characters somehow can’t perceive despite immediate proximity.
Magic: All problems are solved using one of four random “Mouseketools” provided by floating Mickey trademark symbol known as “Toodles,” which occasionally exhibits a personality but is usually a faceless but omnipotent automaton.
Adult Appeal: Historical interest in obscure Disney character cameos; main nemesis is Pete the Bear, whose lightweight current incarnation belies his Prohibition-era origin as a malicious bootlegger.
THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE
NICK JR., VARIOUS TIMES
Kid Appeal: Gentle introduction to narrative storytelling in a land inhabited by mechanical nitwits.
Fourth Wall: Ignored in favor of hermetically sealed and chronologically frozen Island of Sodor where action (such as it is) takes place.
Magic: All trains, vehicles, and industrial machinery are living beings enslaved by pompous English robber baron. Despite supernatural existence, the trains neither resent their slavery nor possess mental development beyond toddler level.
Adult Appeal: Nil. Repetitious nature of trains’ character flaws and pointless nature of their labor an unwelcome reminder of adult workday life. Occasional celebrity narrators somehow make it even more depressing.
DISNEY JUNIOR, WEEKDAYS 7:30 AM, WEEKENDS 6 AM
Kid Appeal: Takes the dreary Thomas the Tank Engine world and amps it up to 11 with bright colors and clangorous racket. Most bald-faced rip-off in cartoon history, with exception of Flintstones v. Honeymooners.
Fourth Wall: Ignored because there’s too much going on already.
Magic: Trains are alive a la Thomas, and they behave just as foolishly, but at least it’s acknowledged that most train characters are immature train-children. Also a godlike artificial intelligence, known only as “Vee,” who monitors and controls mechanical and human life through an Orwellian system of animated loudspeakers.
Adult Appeal: Minimal, though at least it lacks the sonorous monotony of Thomas’s world. Still disturbed by the way the trains tend to jump around on the rails when excited. Simmer down!
JAKE AND THE NEVERLAND PIRATES
DISNEY JUNIOR, 8:30 AM
Kid Appeal: Colorful pirate adventure drained of actual danger or adventure, including emasculated Captain Hook. Exotic locale. Boats. No actual piracy.
Fourth Wall: Violated when viewer assistance required to solve simple puzzles, plus sharing in group “reward” of pointless and unspendable gold doubloons.
Magic: Pixie dust for flying, supposedly used only in “emergencies” but used regularly and trivially. Various magical characters and beings with congenital inability to survive without help from flying pirate children.
Adult Appeal: David Arquette voices a parrot.
PHINEAS & FERB
DISNEY AND DISNEY XD, VARIOUS TIMES
Kid Appeal: Manic insanity of genius brothers who control space and time with their inventions while tormenting their sister with impunity. A gateway step to hyperactive post-toddler cartoons.
Fourth Wall: Some characters mug to the audience, or more specifically, to adults.
Magic: Science on a colossal superheroic scale, used by good and evil and incidental characters with no apparent limits. Indolent townspeople so inured to daily catastrophe that nothing appears to faze them.
Adult Appeal: Permanent side plot of super-spy platypus versus mad scientist that always touches on main plot tangentially, despite oblivious main characters. Possibly the most overt appeal outside of Pixar to placating parents.
THE CAT IN THE HAT KNOWS A LOT ABOUT THAT!
PBS, WEEKDAYS 8:30 AM AND 2:30 PM, WEEKENDS 7:30 AM
Kid Appeal: Goofy and weird pedagogy, usually about science and nature topics. Fairly high-concept; not shapes and colors, but more like microorganisms and minerals.
Fourth Wall: Occasionally violated for singing, gesturing, simpatico cheerleading to power one of the Cat’s outlandish gadgets.
Magic: The Cat’s existence, super-powers, machinery, minions, et cetera.
Adult Appeal: Martin Short voices the Cat and brings his Broadway musical yodel to various show-stopping numbers about diatoms and such.
DISNEY JUNIOR, WEEKDAYS 11:30 AM, WEEKENDS 7 AM
Kid Appeal: Undersea fun with various weird beings on a submerged base dedicated to helping injured animals. Predator animals usually given short shrift. Nobody helps the sharks.
Fourth Wall: Closing “Creature Report” song details what’s been “learned” about the ocean animal featured in the episode.
Magic: Other than the talking animals, there is a coterie of cutesy “vegimals” (animal-vegetable hybrids), possibly created by the other unexplained miscegenation on the base: Professor Inkling, who is allegedly an octopus but has the face and ears of a cat.
Adult Appeal: Despite the setting, disappointingly plodding and pedantic. But did feature what has to be the first cartoon appearance of blobfish, so there’s that.
SPECIAL AGENT OSO
DISNEY, 6:30 AM
Kid Appeal: A stuffed bear secret agent so incompetent he will make any child feel like a genius.
Fourth Wall: Completely rent asunder. Oso addresses the viewer constantly, both when pleading for help in accomplishing the most basic tasks (“how to blow your nose” is one lesson) but also for jokey asides or smarmy praise.
Magic: A roster of James Bond gadgetry, plus singing “Paw Pilot” virtual espionage handler, endless fatuous James Bond puns that without doubt go right past the child viewer to lodge uncomfortably in the brains of older viewers.
Adult Appeal: Sean Astin, aka Samwise Gamgee of hobbit fame, does the voice of Oso. Otherwise completely repellant.
DISNEY JUNIOR, VARIOUS TIMES
Kid Appeal: Group of mystery-solving, musically inclined children enter hallucinatory worlds composed of elements from classical artworks and inhabited by beings fueled with classical music.
Fourth Wall: Yes, your child must locate non-hidden objects, articulate obvious choices, and clap or wave or writhe in place to “power” a rocket.
Magic: The rocket, named Rocket, zooms the children around the universe and transforms into other vehicles, occasionally clashing with other super-powered vehicles whose motives are obscure. Is the sinister Big Blue Jet crewed by a foursome of evil tots?
Adult Appeal: Regardless of what you think of the Einsteins franchise, there is no appeal in this saccharine attempt to convert high art into the television equivalent of chewable vitamins.
NICKELODEON, WEEKDAYS 10:30 AM AND 12:30 PM
Kid Appeal: Colorful alien children in a primary-colored world who, as usual, require the child-viewer’s assistance. With math.
Fourth Wall: As is standard, the characters are unable to overcome any challenge, no matter how inconsequential, without abstract help from your child.
Magic: The two human child-characters and the robot-child character have various species of powers derived from mathematics. None actually involve solving math problems without help, of course.
Adult Appeal: None. Math is never fun.
PBS, WEEKDAYS 9 AM AND 12 NOON, WEEKENDS 8 AM
Kid Appeal: Fantastical journeys into the wonderful world of reading about stuff.
Fourth Wall: If you haven’t yet caught on, the child’s mandatory assistance is assumed as he or she is press-ganged into the Super Readers club of problem-solving fairytale characters.
Magic: The characters are from fairytales to begin with, but here they also have reading-derived super powers, use computers, and creepily interact with the occasional live-action interloper.
Adult Appeal: Very little, though it’s hard not to chuckle at “Alpha Pig,” the alphabet-powered swine who nevertheless seems like more of a beta personality.
Chris Mohney is editor in chief of Tumblr.