Sarah & Duck – An Appreciation

Sarah & Duck is the best show currently on television.  Sadly, relatively few people watch it.  That’s because it’s a children’s show.  It is marketed towards people under ten, or maybe even under eight.  In the U.S., it airs on Sprout and in the U.K., it airs on CBeeBies.  Luckily, it is also available on Netflix.  My claim is not that it is the best children’s show on TV.  My claim is that it is the best show on TV.  All those awards that the major networks and premium cable channels won in the past few years should have gone to Sarah & Duck.

The show is not like anything else on TV.  The animation is in some ways like The Simpsons.  It is highly stylized and very clever.  It is somehow sparse with lots of detail.  Unlike the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons, there is always more happening than the speaking character’s mouth movement or the running character’s leg movement.  It really rewards repeated viewings.  In other ways, the animation is nothing like The Simpsons.  It is very childlike.  It reminds the viewer of children’s crayon drawings (although much better than the average child).  It’s a really lovely combination.

The show is also very British.  You can almost hear the extra U’s when the characters speak.  They have hedges instead of fences.  They have lifts instead of elevators.  It rains quite a bit.  The Britishness of the show doesn’t really matter to its quality, but for all the Doctor Who, Dowton Abbey loving Anglophiles out there, it should be a selling point.

Sarah & Duck is also innocent in all the best ways.  There is not even the smallest morsel of cynicism or irony in the show.  But, unlike Caillou, this never comes off as condescending or pandering.  It is simply a natural part of the world of the show.  Any other tone would ruin everything.

Sarah & Duck can best be described as whimsical.  But, remember the innocence.  This isn’t hipster, I’ll-curl-my-moustache-and-tilt-my-hat-and-call-it-whimsy whimsical.  It is childlike whimsy.  As a matter of fact, my two least favorite episodes both involve dream sequences.  In the dream sequences, the show walks up to the border where whimsical meets trippy.  That slight loss of whimsy throws off the tone.  Luckily, that only happens in two out of eighty episodes.  That’s a pretty good average.

Finally, the show is almost purely character driven.  Sure, there are plots, but they are very low stakes.  There’s one where Sarah and Duck are trying to find out why Donkey is sad.  It turns out that Donkey isn’t sad at all.  Donkeys just naturally have long faces.  There’s another where there’s a fair in the park and Sarah and Duck can’t find their favorite bench (they do manage to find it by the end).  The genius of the show is that these are all characters that are wonderful to spend time with, regardless of what they happen to be doing.  So, for the rest of this piece, I will try to give you a feel for those characters.

Sarah – Sarah is a seven year old girl.  She is kind, outgoing, helpful and inquisitive.  She makes friends easily.  Nothing surprises her.  She loves sea cows and lemon water (which she makes herself).  She enjoys all sorts of games, playing the tuba, having a “sit and think,” her favorite park bench near the pond and spending time with Duck.

Duck – Duck is a duck, most likely a mallard judging from his green head.  He is also Sarah’s best friend.  He is clearly intelligent, but only communicates with quacks.  He loves bread.  He really, really loves bread.  Often, when confronted with bread, Duck cannot control himself and gets admonished by Sarah with a, “Greedy Duck!”  He also likes toys, especially toys that move, like model trains, boats and robots.  And he plays a drum.

Narrator – The narrator is more than just a narrator.  He narrates the action, but he is also a character.  He interacts with everyone else.  He is never given a name, nor does he ever appear on screen.  He is friendly.  He is open to new ideas.  He steps in when an adult is needed.  He helps Sarah pay for things and put things in the oven.  And he has a wonderful voice.  He could read the dictionary out loud and I’d want to listen.

These three, Sarah, Duck and the Narrator, are the core of the show.  But, I would be remiss if I failed to talk about some of the secondary characters.

Scarf Lady – Scarf Lady knits.  That’s her defining characteristic.  Almost everything she has is knitted, by her, out of wool.  She even has a weeping woolen tree in her back yard.  She harvests and dyes all of the wool herself.  She has a sentient pile of scrap wool who refers to her as the “Scarf Missus”.  And she has a sentient bag, but I’ll talk more about him in a minute.  She is an Olympic caliber athlete, the bobsleigh is her favorite.  She is very forgetful.  And she participates in an annual hot air balloon race.

Bag – Bag is Scarf Lady’s tartan bag.  He is constantly correcting Scarf Lady when she misspeaks and reminding her when she forgets.  He puts on a show of being grumpy, but he is clearly fond of Scarf Lady.  Although, her adventurous nature does make him nervous.

Bug – Bug is a ladybug (however, Bug does occasionally glow like a lightning bug) that lives on a houseplant in Sarah’s house.  Bug collects buttons.  Also, Bug plays a very small trumpet.  The trumpet was Sarah’s.  It was made by Scarf Lady.  It shrunk down to Bug’s size when it got dirty and was washed.

Moon – Moon is the moon.  He is friendly and helpful and likes to paint.  He is a bit self conscious.  And he has a crush on Venus.

Rainbow – Rainbow is a rainbow that shows up whenever it rains with the sun shining.  He can never stay for very long, but he always enjoys the time he spends with Sarah and laughs frequently.

Flamingo & John – John is a friend of Sarah’s.  They are in some ways mirror images.  John’s best friend is a flamingo, named Flamingo, of course.  John plays the string bass.  Flamingo plays the maracas.  Flamingo is clearly intelligent, but only communicates with caws.  John lives in a bungalow and is afraid of stairs (although he learns to overcome his fear).

Plate Girl – Plate Girl is another one of Sarah’s friends.  She is almost always carrying a plate.

The Ribbon Sisters – The Ribbon Sisters are Sarah’s neighbors.  The are often playing with ribbons.  They wear oversized sunglasses.  They speak very quietly.  And they used to be circus performers.

Umbrella – Umbrella is a red umbrella with a wooden handle that doesn’t like the rain.  Sarah found him growing in the park (the Narrator was surprised that umbrellas grow) and took him home to help him keep dry.

Shallots – The Shallots are four shallots growing in Sarah’s front garden.  They are surprisingly mobile for plants, but they do stick to their plot.  The three that were planted by Sarah are roughly the same size.  The one that was planted by Duck is much smaller.  When they speak it is only one word at a time and goes something like this: Shallot 1, “Hello,” Shallot 2, “Hello,” Shallot 3, “Hello,” Shallot 4 (the little one), “Ahoy!”

There are some other characters, like Tortoise, Scooter Boy and Bread Man, but these are the ones that show up most often.  I’m not doing the show justice.  There is simply no substitute for experiencing it.  Each episode is less than ten minutes and it is good for your soul.  There’s really nothing better.

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