When writing my article "The Golden Age of Science Fiction Television: Looking Back at SFTV the Long 1990s," (or revising it for reissue in my book After the New Wave) I specifically concentrated on North American-produced live-action television oriented toward adult audiences, leaving out animation, and children-oriented programming of both the animated and live-action varieties. This was partly because I'd seen very little of it since elementary school (certainly nowhere near enough to even think about writing anything comprehensive), but also because I didn't think that the scope I set for the article was overly narrow, and I didn't think that broadening it would have changed the picture it presented very much.
I'm still not sure that it would have. Given how long and how heavily science fiction's tropes have been mined, and how dependent the genre has become on Baroque handling of old concepts and inside jokes, TV aimed at a young audience seems an unlikely place for fresh ideas.
Still, in hindsight it does seem fair to note that fiction supposedly for children often isn't really that--fiction genuinely about children and their experiences, or at least engaging the way they really see the world. Rather it's just the same stuff written for the regular, "adult" audience, sanitized sufficiently to pass a more stringent censor. This isn't altogether new--the early versions of fairy tales children grow up were not the stuff of Disney films. Still, this seems to have become more conspicuous in recent years, partly as pop culture has gone increasingly metafictional. I remember, for example, an episode of Animaniacs that was an extended parody of Apocalypse Now (and even more obscure still, the making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness). Now on the Disney Channel they have a sitcom about a summer camp run by a family with the last name Swearengen, where one of the campers quotes Omar from The Wire ("You come at the king . . .") in an episode that is basically Scarface with candy and video games instead of the original product.
And as all this might suggest, I have noticed some relatively sophisticated genre content here and there. An obvious instance is Jimmy Neutron--which can seem like merely another iteration on the century-and-a-half-old tradition of scrawny boy genius inventors.1 Still, this theme, already backward-looking when it was first put into print, is notable for its consciously retro handling of that retro idea--Jimmy growing up in a household where everything from mom's hairdo to the design of the family television set looks like it came out of the '50s, in a town called, of all things, Retroville (complete with a Clark Gable lookalike for mayor).2 Steampunk has remained a genre of cult rather than real mass appeal--but Harvey Beaks included an eccentric steampunk enthusiast in its cast of characters, and served up an hour-long musical steampunk special.
Something of this has been evident in live-action programming as well. Television has been awash in superheroes for years--but Disney XD offered a more original take than most in developing a show about a hospital where they go when they need medical treatment and the two kids who stumble into it in Mighty Med. More recently the same channel's Kirby Buckets, for its third season, shifted from sitcom wackiness set (mostly) in the mundane, regular world, to a season-long, dimension-hopping adventure through alternate timelines.3 A good deal more tightly written than most of the season-length stories we get (arcs on American TV remain mostly about stringing audiences along, in my experience), it actually is a story with a real beginning, middle and end, and the experiment has been all the more striking for its 13 episodes being aired in a mere three weeks (an exceptionally rare move for broadcast television).
Whatever else one may saw about it, very little of the comparable stuff pitched at grown-ups in prime time as of late has been as knowing or risky or innovative or audacious. (And when it has been at its best, rarely as much fun.)
1. This all goes back to the original "Edisonade"--Edward Sylvester Ellis' 1868 dime novel The Huge Hunter; or The Steam Man of the Prairies.
2. While Ellis celebrated the young, lone amateur inventor, the red-brick universities and Land Grant colleges and Massachusetts Institute of Technology were promoting national science policies through their graduation of their first candidates, while scarcely a decade later Thomas Edison established the world's first big corporate lab.
Notes on Kirby Buckets Warped
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
The Small-Screen Superhero Boom
Just Out . . . (Star Wars in Context, paperback edition)
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
My Posts on Science Fiction Television