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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

MARCH 1, 1999:  As a child, I was only allowed to watch PBS. Seriously. My sister and I got to see two hours of commercial television a week, and that was it. We'd pore through the TV guide each weekend, trying to decide how to expend our precious allotted time. We whined a little—I had to pretend I knew what the other kids were talking about in school when they made Dukes of Hazzard jokes—but mostly we went along with it. Which meant lots of Sesame Street and Electric Company and Zoom! and even Mr. Rogers Neighborhood when we were technically well beyond his target demographic. (A brother of one of my friends once saw Fred Rogers naked in a Carnegie-Mellon University locker room. But that's a different story...)

The rules relaxed as I got older, and by the time I graduated from high school I had managed to catch up on much of the stuff I had missed, thanks to the glories of syndication (I watched two M*A*S*H episodes a night for an entire year). Now, however, I find myself curiously drawn once more to PBS's toddler fodder.

Even before the right Rev. Falwell's recent exposé, there was obviously something odd about the Teletubbies. Weird giant babies with fluorescent fur and vowel-heavy vocabularies, they wander through an artificial landscape that looks like something out of Orwell. The British show—available in a variety of video compilations as well as on the air at 8:30 each morning—has a hypnotic rhythm. A typical plot will involve the Tubbies running up and down a hill while a disembodied voice from a speaker that rises mysteriously from the ground chants nursery rhymes (as in the recent video Teletubbies: Nursery Rhymes). At the end of each activity, the Tubbies unfailingly squeal "Again! Again!," and the whole thing repeats, sometimes three or four times.

The show doesn't tell us much about the Tubbies. We know they eat Tubby Custard, but not where they get it. The voice on the speaker seems to be some parent/god figure, albeit a different god figure than the laughing baby head in the sun. As for the Nu-Nu, the confused vacuum cleaner who keeps the Tubby hut tidy, it's never clear whether he's the Tubbies' keeper or their servant.

I've been told all of this has a disturbingly entrancing effect on 2-year-olds. I believe it. All I know is that switching back and forth between, say, Tinky-Winky and Al Roker first thing in the morning is maybe the most surreal experience you can have with a remote control. As for Mr. Falwell, I have just three words: Ernie and Bert.

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