Wonder Pets

  • Unfinished: The Wonder Pets


    If I have a superhuman ability, it is almost certainly an extremely high threshold for children’s television, particularly those shows geared toward preschool children: Franklin, Little Bear, Dora the Explorer, The Backyardigans and Wonder Pets, just to name a few. Some of these (Franklin) I merely tolerate, while others (The Backyardigans) I actually enjoy watching with my son.

    Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that Kyle cycles through the shows he likes. His enjoyment of Blue’s Clues remains fairly constant, but whether he likes The Backyardigans one month and Wonder Pets another is entirely a matter of whim.

    About a year ago, Kyle was on a Wonder Pets kick, and I was being exposed to a high level of guinea pig, duckling and turtle antics. Something inside me snapped; I began to consider an alternative explanation for the trio of helpful animals living in their little schoolhouse. What if, I thought, the whole thing is just the fever-dream of a guinea pig who is the test subject of a laboratory experiment?

    The notion percolated in the back of my mind for a while and at some point I realized that, one way or another, I needed to get it out. So I sat down and wrote the beginning of a Linny (or Lynny, as it turns out) the guinea pig tale. Not long after I began, the winds of change blew through the International House of Johnson and Wonder Pets gave way to something else and without the regular exposure to Linny, Tuck and Ming-Ming, too, my mind wandered elsewhere and the story was abandoned.

    I have no plans to return to the beleaguered guinea pig, but I present the incomplete tale here as a cautionary tale: this is what can happen when the adult mind comes under the assault of children’s television.

    03 MARCH, 2006

    “The phone—”

    “The phone is ringing,” Dr. Selig murmured. “I know, Walter; I can hear it. Unfortunately I’m a little occupied at the moment. As are you.” He tapped the side of the syringe a few times, then slowly depressed the plunger until a thin stream of clear liquid geysered from the tip of the hypodermic needle. “Besides, that’ll just be Nick calling to tell us they’ve decided to turn down our grant application. Again. Now, if you’ll move your finger just a little…yes, that’s excellent.”

    The needle pierced the shaved skin at the base of the guinea pig’s skull and Dr. Selig injected what he suspected would be the final dose of the serum into the little mammal’s brain stem. A moment later, Walter returned the fidgeting rodent to its cage. Returned to the familiar bed of wood shavings, the guinea pig seemed content to sit motionless, peering out at the lab. It would have looked like any of a million other such animals living in similar cages in the bedrooms and living rooms of houses all across the country, were it not for the color-coded nodes that marked the location of nearly three dozen subdermal implants in the rodent’s head, spinal column and appendages.

    Dr. Selig stripped off his latex gloves and dropped them into a nearby trash can. “Go ahead and run the connectivity check,” he said. “I’ll be back in an hour. I trust you want your usual?”

    Walter nodded. “No celery this time,” he said.

    Dr. Selig sighed. This conversation was becoming a tiresome ritual. “I’ll tell them,” he said, as he always did, “just like I’ve told them a hundred times before.”

    “How hard is it for them to understand that some people like Buffalo wings without celery?” Walter asked, just as indignant today as he was last Friday when it was Dr. Selig’s turn to pick up lunch.

    “I’ll tell them,” Dr. Selig said again. “You run the connectivity check.”

    The lab ran a predictable lunch schedule, and there was no one more predictable about lunch than Walter. On Monday, everyone brought lunch from home and Walter ate his leftover lasagna cold. On Tuesday, Josh—the lab’s other intern—would run to Happy Burger and Walter would invariably order a bacon cheeseburger with no pickles. Wednesdays meant Dr. Oxley taking orders for Mexarito’s, Walter mangling the pronunciation of “quesadilla” when he ordered. Thursdays were the only days when Walter wasn’t likely to complain about a botched order, as it was his day to venture out to the House of Ming for Chinese food, and he always made sure there was plenty of duck sauce for his eggroll and that his General Tso’s chicken contained no vegetables. Vegetables as a rule were shunned by Walter, but green peppers especially he held in high contempt.

    Later in the afternoon, when they sent someone to Dairy Queen for their weekly ice cream treats, Walter would order a turtle sundae with no pecans. Anyone daring to argue that a turtle sundae prepared without pecans was simply a caramel-and-chocolate sundae would be loudly rebuked by Walter, and everyone in the lab had long since learned that it was folly to argue with Walter where food was concerned.

    Dr. Selig shrugged off his lab coat, then turned around to survey the lab. Dr. Oxley was out for the day, trying to drum up some more funding in the vain hope of keeping the lab running for another three months. Josh was multi-tasking, as usual, his phone cradled on his left shoulder while he wrote something on a yellow legal pad, pausing occasionally to run a finger over the touchpad on his laptop.

    Walter was crouched in his chair, elbows on knees, peering into the guinea pig’s enclosure. Dr. Selig wondered briefly which of the two mammals—the placid guinea pig or the wide-eyed, neurotic intern—was more intelligent, then cleared his throat. “Walter,” he said, pointing to the computer terminal that processed the data feeds from the wireless sensors implanted beneath the guinea pig’s dermis. “Run the connectivity check.”

    Walter swung the chair around and began tapping at the keyboard. Satisfied that the intern was following his directive, Dr. Selig left the laboratory, bound for Little Airplane Wings, an establishment that claimed to have “better Buffalo sauce than Buffalo!”


    An hour later, the guinea pig was munching away at one of the unwanted celery sticks from Walter’s lunch. Though there was no outward indication, the chemical cocktail Dr. Selig had injected was working its magic: simultaneously inhibiting the rodent’s ErbB4 receptors and GABAergic interneurons. The former affected her cells’ ability to process Neuregulin-1, while the latter inhibited expression of parvalbumin, the combined upshot of which was severe, chemically-induced schizophrenia.

    Her left eye twitched. An electric impulse was picked up by the sensor implanted near her left eye and a small packet of data was transmitted wirelessly to a nearby computer, where the strength and duration of the impulse were committed digitally to disc, along with thirty-three other data points that indicated other electrical impulses or lack thereof. Her left eye twitched again.


    “She’s falling asleep,” Walter said, his face so close to the enclosure that his breath fogged up the glass. “Do you think she dreams, Dr. Selig?”

    Dr. Selig wiped a dollop of barbecue sauce from the corner of his mouth with a napkin and considered the question for a moment before answering.

    “There’s sufficient evidence to suggest that she does, Walter,” he said, reaching forward to tap one of the jagged lines marching across the LCD screen. “She’ll be entering her REM cycle shortly, just as you and I do every night. Her sleep patterns are similar enough to ours—including observable alterations in brain activity—that it’s entirely reasonable to conclude that she does, indeed, dream. But you can rest assured that her dreaming, or the fact that she does dream, has nothing to do with what we’re doing here.”

    The answer seemed to satisfy Walter, who continued to stare at the guinea pig as he would do for what seemed like hours at a time if Dr. Selig didn’t find something else for him to do. This is what happens when you agree to hire your husband’s empty-headed younger brother, Dr. Selig thought, glancing ruefully over at Dr. Oxley’s empty chair and vowing for what must have been the ten-thousandth time to never again allow a colleague’s nepotism to supersede little things like talent and qualifications. Still, it was Friday, and in all likelihood they’d have to pack up the lab on Monday when Nick managed to deliver the bad news about the grant application and Dr. Oxley similarly reported her failure to find another backer, so where was the harm in letting Walter stare at a sleeping guinea pig all afternoon? It would certainly keep him out of Dr. Selig’s hair.


    The guinea pig slept, unmindful of the voyeur looming beyond the glass, and she dreamed. On the nearby screen, unwatched by anyone in the lab, the lines that provided a visual indicator of the various electrical impulses in her brain grew more jagged as new neural pathways opened to compensate for those the chemicals had closed. The rodent’s brain behaved in ways no one in the laboratory had predicted. Neurotransmitters that had been disabled by previous variants of the experimental serum were activated again, while those that had been functioning normally only an hour before suddenly went quiet.


    The alarm went off while Dr. Selig was in the restroom. Walter had no idea what it meant, nor what he should do. He looked to Josh, who was still on the phone. “I have to go,” Josh said quickly. “There’s an animal in trouble.” He fumbled the receiver onto its cradle and crossed to Walter’s workstation. “What’s going on?” he asked. “What’s the problem?”

    Josh, unlike Walter, had been hired based on those two little things Dr. Selig felt were more important than nepotism: talent and qualifications. It took him only a quick glance at the EEG readouts on the monitor to realize that something was going horribly wrong in the guinea pig’s brain. He looked over at the animal’s enclosure; she was sleeping peacefully, the rapid in-out motion of her breathing the only indication that she was alive at all.

    “This doesn’t make sense,” Josh said, frowning at the readout. “She should be wide awake and thrashing like an angry badger. When was the last time you calibrated these sensors?”

    “Yesterday,” Dr. Selig said from the doorway. He crossed the lab quickly; if either intern noticed that the fly on his trousers was open they didn’t bother to point it out to him. “I heard the alarm. What’s going on?”

    Walter stood mute while Josh explained that the guinea pig appeared to be having some sort of neuropathic seizure. “Except she’s not,” he said, confusion clear in the tone of his voice. “She’s just…sleeping.”

    “Comatose seems more likely,” Dr. Selig replied, “though these readings certainly don’t suggest it.”

    Walter stared at the guinea pig, as concerned about her welfare as anyone in the lab but utterly incapable of doing anything to affect it. He looked at the half-eaten piece of celery, then over to the discarded remains of his lunch, the corner of the styrofoam takeout box poking out of the trash can, more convinced then ever that the vile stalk was not to be trusted. He leaned in close to the enclosure again, oblivious to the conversation going on just a few feet away. He saw the guinea pig’s left eye twitch. Rapid eye movement, he thought, recalling his earlier conversation with Dr. Selig, and again wondered if she was dreaming.

  • TV Stuff: What’s on the DVR (March 2008)


    Greg Howley wanted to know what shows are filling up my DVR, so I thought I’d spill my digital, MPEG-encoded guts.

    My Shows

    • Stephen Colbert
      The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (Comedy Central) It’s probably not fair to lump these two together, but thanks to the technical foibles of DirecTV and/or Comedy Central, that’s the way I record them. Both are consistently funny, but the big laughs recently have come from The Colbert Report. When a guest remarked that Stephen clearly knew his Sunday school, Colbert quickly shot back, “I teach Sunday school, motherf***er.” The absolute wrongness of the statement had Laura and me nearly doubled over with laughter.
    • Top Gear (BBC America) This is a show I wish I’d been watching for the past four (five? nine?) seasons. It’s a car show that you don’t have to be a car guy to like. Part Motor Trend, part Monty Python, part Junkyard Wars, all awesome. The most recent episode I watched featured one of the hosts, Richard Hammond, pitting a Bugatti Veyron against a Eurofighter Typhoon in a two-mile race. While Hammond drove the Bugatti from one end of a runway to the other and back, the fighter pilot took off, climbed a mile vertically, turned around and raced back to the finish line. Hammond described it as “the best race ever”, and it certainly made for entertaining television.
    • Electro (Old School)
      The Spectacular Spider-Man (Kids’ WB) This just premiered last week, and I like what I see so far. As a Spider-Man fan, it’s good to see old villains like The Enforcers, The Vulture and Electro re-imagined. Some might call it an assault on their precious childhood memories, but The Vulture’s original costume was a cross between Cruella de Ville and Kermit the Frog, Electro had a giant electric starfish on his face, and The Enforcers (Montana, Fancy Dan and Ox) were rodeo hands. 1Okay, they still are, but The Vulture and Electro have both gotten a much-needed makeover The first two episodes were very satisfying, and viewers familiar with the wall-crawler will quickly pick up on the fact that nearly everyone Peter Parker knows will ultimately become a villain. Apart from the overtly villainous characters in the hour-long premiere—plus The Kingpin, operating in the shadows and voiced by Keith David, if I’m not mistaken—Pete encounters Norman Osborn (who will eventually become The Green Goblin), Harry Osborn (ditto), Eddie Brock (destined to merge with an alien symbiote and become Venom) and Dr. Curt Connors (who, injecting himself with experimental reptilian goo, is already well on his way to becoming The Lizard).
    • Transformers Animated (Cartoon Network) Here’s where I turn hypocrite, because this new version of the Transformers is an assault on my childhood. Optimus Prime is (sometimes) a fire engine! And he has a mouth! Optimus Prime and Sari from Transformers AnimatedYou should know how I feel about Optimus Prime having a mouth. 2To paraphrase B.A. Baracus: Prime don’t have no mouth, Hannibal! Ratchet, the Autobots’ medic, has had a personality overhaul from the old comic book days, and in a recent episode, Soundwave, the coolest of the evil Decepticons 3I should point out that classic Soundwave is cool in robot mode. Alas, he transforms into a boombox from which a number of transforming cassette tapes—including Ravage, Laserbeak and Ratbat, who … Continue reading was reduced to a bass-thumping, head-spinning, laser light-show, the kind used by wedding DJs or low rent discothéques. The Autobots hang around with Sari Sumdac, a young girl who has a key imbued with the essence of the Allspark. Sari uses the key to fix the Autobots after they scrap with the Decepticons, or to animate her father’s robotic creations (such as the Dinobots 4Okay, a word about the Dinobots: who are these guys supposed to be fooling? They transform from giant robots to giant dinosaurs! Dinosaurs that look like giant robots! Props to Transformers Animated … Continue reading and the aforementioned Soundwave, who was built to Megatron’s specifications. Megatron, by the way, exists (for the nonce) only as a severed head, hidden away in Dr. Isaac Sumdac’s laboratory until he can gather his Decepticon minions and build himself a new body. Performed by Corey Burton, the Decepticon leader has the best non-guest star voice in the series.

    Laura’s Shows

    • Law and OrderLaw & Order (NBC) Voted “Most Likely to Put Laura to Sleep”, the original Law & Order is actually quite entertaining (though I do miss Jerry Orbach). Alas, my poor wife can’t seem to make it all the way through an episode of the police/courtroom drama without drifting off into dreamland, 5Sam Waterston’s voice is like warm milk to her, I guess. To me, he sounds forever on the hormonal rollercoaster that is the onset of puberty. which usually means that I see at least parts of each episode twice or more. Semi-interesting tidbit/filler: When Fred Thompson announced that he would consider exploring whether or not to announce his intention to possibly make a decision regarding a potential bid for the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination, his character, Arthur Branch, disappeared from the show and Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) became the District Attorney. Michael Cutter (Linus Roache) stepped in as Executive Assistant District Attorney (thank you, Wikipedia) and it took me a half dozen episodes to realize that Roache played Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas Wayne, in Batman Begins.
    • Without A Trace (CBS) One of the most depressing shows I’ve ever watched, Without A Trace chronicles an FBI missing persons unit as they attempt to locate, yes, a missing person. They succeed more often than they fail, but when they fail, it’s usually because the missing person is also a dead person.
    • CSI (CBS) Oh, dear. I don’t know that this is actually set to record. Excuse me while I correct that so we can get our weekly dose of forensic science and an entirely unrealistic expectation as to what can be done with a computer and some grainy black-and-white surveillance camera footage.
    • Monk (USA) The second best detective show on USA (the best is the next bullet item, so just hold your horses) has the absolute worst theme song of any show currently produced for television. 6 Worst theme song ever? Firefly. Oh yeah, I went there. Bring it, browncoats! After eleven and a half years of marriage, Laura’s hatred for Randy Newman songs has leached into me like so much hexavelent chromium into groundwater. Theme song aside, the obsessive-compulsive detective portrayed by Tony Shalhoub is very amusing to watch, but I can’t look at Captain Leland Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine) without thinking about the lotion, the basket, and getting the hose again.
    • Psych (USA) I probably enjoy this show more than Laura does, but I’m still putting it on her list. The non-stop barrage of (sometimes rather obscure) pop culture references from my childhood is almost as entertaining as the concept of the show: über-observant slacker makes a living as a psychic, helping the police solve all sorts of strange homicides.
    • MI-5 (BBC America) While watching Top Gear last week, we saw several advertisements for the new season of MI-5 ( Spooks) on BBC America. Laura thought it looked interesting, so I added it to the list. The season premiere was last night, but we have yet to watch it.

    Kyle’s Shows

    • Sesame Street (PBS) Children’s television simply doesn’t get more old school than Sesame Street. The show has certainly changed since I last watched it with any regularity, but I think I miss Kermit the Frog’s fast-breaking news stories from fairy tales and fables the most. The story of why Kermit no longer appears on the show (except in the occasional older bit, such as “Do the Rubber Duck”) is a bit convoluted, but I’m sure if Jim Henson were still around “green frog” (as Elmo used to call him) would still have his Sesame Street press credentials.
    • Max and Ruby (Nickelodeon/Noggin) Ruby is a seven-year-old bunny. Max is her younger brother. Where are their parents? Who can say? Grandma shows up from time to time (often for her own birthday party; bunnies must age fast) and there are plenty of Bunny Scouts around, but mostly it’s Max getting in Ruby’s way somehow. This show annoyed me at first, but has really grown on me.
    • Blue’s Clues PawprintBlue’s Clues (Nickelodeon/Noggin) We prefer Steve to Joe, thank you very much. Steve actually drew in his handy, dandy notebook, whereas Joe’s notebook is entirely animated. Sometimes, after I’ve found all three paw prints, I sit down in my Thinking Chair and think, think, thiiii-ink…about where to hide Joe’s body. We will not discuss the travesty that is Blue’s Room.
    • The Backyardigans (Nickelodeon/Noggin) Quite possibly my favorite of the bunch, The Backyardigans features the adventures of Tyrone, Uniqua, Pablo, Tasha and Austin as they create imaginary worlds in their backyards. Each episode features several songs (showcasing a particular musical style), many of which are very clever and catchy, some of which are earworms, getting into my head for hours (or even days) at a time. “Racing Day” and “Mystery Lifeguard” both fall into this latter category.
    • Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!
      Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! (Nickelodeon/Noggin) Another of my favorites has become one of Kyle’s favorites, too, much to Laura’s dismay. Wubbzy is a frenetic, furry, fun-loving critter (voiced by Grey DeLisle, who also voiced The Wasp in the recent Ultimate Avengers animated movies) who loves his kickety-kickball. Widget (Lara Jill Miller, who played Sam on Gimme A Break!) is Wubbzy’s bunny(like) industrious inventor friend, always building some fantastic machine (“The Sun-Blocker 3000!“) that doesn’t quite work as she expected. Walden (voiced by the incredible Carlos Alazraqui, who plays Deputy Garcia on Reno 911! and was the voice of the Taco Bell chihuahua as well as Rocko on Rocko’s Modern Life) “is their friend, he’s really smart; he knows about science and books and art”. He’s also the most level-headed of the three, though he has been known to cut loose from time to time. The show is Flash-animated and has an artistic style that appeals to me for some reason. I also like the music.
    • Wonder Pets! (Nickelodeon/Noggin) If there’s a show I wish Kyle would just suddenly decide to stop liking, it’s Wonder Pets! I’ve already discussed my feelings about the show in some detail, so there’s really no need to get into it now.
    • Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go! (Nickelodeon/Noggin) These two get lumped together because they’re cousins and—like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report—the latter is a spin-off of the former. I’m not sure which Latin American country these two precocious youths live in, but they both have an unusual rapport with animals and an amazing satchel: Dora’s backpack is actually a Bag of Holding, while Diego’s Rescue Pack (“¡Al rescate!“) has some sort of polymorph spell cast upon it.


    Most of these were recorded during our free Showtime/The Movie Channel weekend. That I stooped to recording Cyborg 2 should give you an idea about the quality of fare offered on Showtime and The Movie Channel. Suicide Kings and The Prophecy were played back-to-back on IFC during a recent Christopher Walken mini-marathon.

    • Suicide Kings
    • The Prophecy
    • The Man Who Cried
    • Employee of the Month
    • Cyborg 2
    • The Man Who Fell to Earth
    • The Descent
    • Capote
    • The World’s Fastest Indian

    More Movies

    Fresh from the free Showtime weekend, DirecTV is dishing up another four days of premium channel goodness starting on Thursday, 20 March. This time it’s HBO and CineMAX, and a quick glance at the schedule for Thursday and early Friday reveals several movies that I’d like to see:

    • John Adams
    • Notes on a Scandal
    • The Last King of Scotland
    • Fracture
    • The Good Shepherd

    1 Okay, they still are, but The Vulture and Electro have both gotten a much-needed makeover
    2 To paraphrase B.A. Baracus: Prime don’t have no mouth, Hannibal!
    3 I should point out that classic Soundwave is cool in robot mode. Alas, he transforms into a boombox from which a number of transforming cassette tapes—including Ravage, Laserbeak and Ratbat, who turn into a panther, a condor and a bat, respectively—are launched. This is decidedly not cool.
    4 Okay, a word about the Dinobots: who are these guys supposed to be fooling? They transform from giant robots to giant dinosaurs! Dinosaurs that look like giant robots! Props to Transformers Animated for actually creating a semi-feasible plot around their introduction (as animatronic dino-beasties in a theme park).
    5 Sam Waterston’s voice is like warm milk to her, I guess. To me, he sounds forever on the hormonal rollercoaster that is the onset of puberty.
    6 Worst theme song ever? Firefly. Oh yeah, I went there. Bring it, browncoats!