NEW YORK — With “Boohbah,” beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
But for grown-ups exposed to it, this new PBS kids show might seem beautiful in the same hypnotic way as a druggy midnight screening of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The intended audience — kids aged 3 to 5 — will experience “Boohbah” on quite a different level, its creator insists.
“We always get the adults who don’t understand what we’re trying to do,” says Anne Wood, the visionary behind the equally tripped-out “Teletubbies” of years past.
In contrast to the Teletubbies, a quartet of playmates who each seemed a blend of Roswell alien and teddy bear, the five Boohbahs (despite resembling assorted-flavor gumdrops clad in Astroturf) are meant to be magical atoms of energy.
They’re energetic, for sure — streaking through the heavens in an orb of light ... spinning, soaring and scampering about, all to a soundtrack of electronica and children’s laughter ... before charging through a set of calisthenics.
So, rather than anesthetizing youngsters with its candy colors and dreamy atmosphere, “Boohbah” is designed to have the opposite effect. It’s an exercise show for preschoolers.
“Their first response is to laugh at it,” Wood reports. “Then their second response is to get up and move about like the Boohbahs. This is not a mesmeric type of show at all.
“Kids are really entranced by the joy of movement, and with ‘Boohbah’ they get involved quite a lot with its symmetry, pattern and spatial order, along with problem solving.”
Two years in the works, “Boohbah” premieres on most PBS stations Jan. 19 (check local listings), when, if “Teletubbies” is any predictor, it becomes a cultural touchstone — and, for parents within earshot of the television, the bane of their existence.
But who can blame them, when the opening of the show sounds something like this: Boohbah, Boohbah, Boohbah, Booh! Boohbah, Boohbah, Boohbah, Booh! Boohbah, Boohbah, Boohbah, Booh! (Kids giggling) Boohbah, Boohbah, Boohbah, Booooooooh!
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Not that anything about “Boohbah” is spur-of-the-moment, as Wood explains during a phone chat from her Ragdoll Ltd. headquarters in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Even the title was carefully thought out to be a pleasing two-syllable word that rolls off the tongue with the same familiar intonation with which a mother might summon her child.
And since the 104 “Boohbah” episodes will be sold globally, that word had to sound comfortable to young viewers anywhere. Indeed, they are encouraged — alas, parents! — to voice it responsively during the show.
“It’s a command word,” says Wood. “‘Boohbah’ gives them the idea they are controlling things.”
Silliness and sight gags
During parts of an episode, the Boohbah creatures cede the screen to a multicultural human family called the Storypeople, who consist of such characters as Grandmamma, Grandpappa, Mr. Man and Mrs. Lady.
In a pastoral setting (these segments are shot in Spain, Wood says, “because we wanted a particular quality of light to make it look like a picture book”), the Storypeople explore a group activity, such as jumping rope.
A tinkly piano is heard, along with pointed comments from an off-screen narrator: “It’s a blue skipping rope.”
Then Brother’s blue rope magically fuses with Sister’s red rope (Narrator: “It’s a long skipping rope”). Soon everybody gets to jump, all at the same time. Then everybody falls down, laughing. Boohbah!
There is much silliness, plenty of sight gags. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Lady, her sweater snags on a tree trunk and unravels, progressively revealing her shirt underneath as she frolics across the grounds. Realizing her plight, Mrs. Lady discovers a pair of huge knitting needles and, retracing the path of yarn, re-knits it into her sweater.
Yet another feature, Look What I Can Do, finds a kid engaged in some simple activity like hopping in a circle on one foot. The challenge to viewers to try it for themselves is unstated, yet irresistible.
“‘Boohbah’ really connects with little kids and gets them up and moving,” says John Wilson, the PBS executive who worked with Wood in developing the show for U.S. viewers.
“It isn’t made to answer the question, ‘What will an adult enjoy?’ And that’s what makes it beguiling — or pick your own word — to the adult in the room. Anne is absolutely focused on the child in the room.”
Which, according to Anne Wood, is the way “Boohbah” should be. “When you see children responding to the show,” she says, “it kind of defies criticism.”
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