Monday, February 21, 2011

Dino Dan's Awakening

There’s a wide range of TV selections available to my daughter now.  Some are terrible remakes, and clunky attempts to copy a successful formula, but on the whole I’m kind of impressed.  I’ve seen quality comedy writing, excellent and varied music, fun use of guest stars, decent computer graphics, and superhero adventures that respect the source material.  Even the educational ones, for the most part, have valuable content and well thought out lessons. (I do miss the pacing of the New York based children’s programs from my youth, though.  In the time between Dora asking a question and answering it, you could fit three Electric Company sketches and still have time for Paula and Carole to race you down the mountain.)

Then there’s Dino Dan.  My daughter started watching this recently and it renewed her interest in dinosaurs (which is always good).  As a life long dinosaur geek, I was excited to see it. From the ads, I first thought that it was a live action series about a kid who liked dinosaurs, and had imagination sections using CGI to illustrate what the animals would look like in current surroundings, providing a useful size reference. 

When I watched the show, it wasn’t surprising to learn that it does suffer from a few common problems of current live action kid’s television.  The child performers all behave in that super emotional Grammar School play style, apparently taught at the Nickelodeon/Disney Channel School of Overemoting.  There’s also the often seen “Carnivore Discrimination”, where plant eaters are constantly rescued from the “big bad” meat eaters. (Every time Diego saves this week’s cute baby herbivore fuzzball or whatever from the predator, I say something like, “And then the poor hawk and his little babies died horribly from starvation.” This nets unhappy glares and thrown pillows from my wife and child.)   

Oh yeah…and the dinosaurs are real.

This revelation definitely isn’t common, and WAS very surprising.  In addition, the surprise goes far beyond the unexplained mega-anachronism that dinosaurs from throughout the Age of Reptiles are really wandering around a modern small town.

The main problem is that in this town brimming with monsters missed by the meteor…Dan is the only one who sees them.  He’ll talk about his experiments and observations for the whole episode. The dinosaurs interact with Dan and his surroundings. Yet when he tries to show them to another person, they’ve left without a provable trace.

Back in 1985 the Sesame Street folks (who know more than a thing or two about children) decided it was very bad for kids to see another child (Big Bird is six, just like Grover is four, and Elmo is three.) constantly have adults not believe him when he is telling the truth.  Therefore, they made a big deal of having Big Bird introduce everyone to Snuffleupagus.  Apparently, a mere twenty five years later, it is peachy keen to have Dan live in Snuffyville without anyone complaining.  There is, however, a completely different and more chilling explanation than continuous gross examples of bad timing and missed opportunities.

After watching a couple of episodes, the true nature of the series started to add up.  Observe the following evidence:
Dan’s overwhelming obsession with meticulous experiments and record keeping. 
His secret stashes of cobbled together equipment.
The lack of damage from whole herds and families of creatures.
The way the dinosaurs seem to respond to, and almost communicate with Dan.
How no one gets angry with his constant crying wolf (asaurus).
Dinosaur species that appear in line with whatever is on Dan’s mind.

This is not the tale of a budding paleontologist fortunate enough to live in the Suburb that Time Forgot.  This is an Oliver Sacks level case study of a deeply disturbed individual living within a grand, all encompassing delusion.

I thought the show would be Sid the Science Kid meets Walking with Dinosaurs.  It turns out that it’s Jurassic Park meets A Beautiful Mind. 

No one but Dan sees the hordes of dinosaurs in town. No one’s ever had to detour around a carcass in the street. No one’s called an angry town meeting about giant foot shaped pot holes, missing pets, or flattened work sheds.  No one has seen any concrete evidence that can’t be explained by something mundane… or Dan being left alone, once again, when the dinosaur damages something. 

His relationships with both people and dinosaurs show what’s really going on.

Dan’s largely absent father, the paleontologist, is seen contacting his son through letters and souvenirs from his dig sites.  Dan has obviously created his fantasy world to fill a gap in his life.  The dinosaurs are not only friends that he can interact with, but also subjects that he can study and record, making him feel closer to his Dad.

A town full of friendly dinosaurs is a fairly significant delusion on its own. However, if we examine how Dan is treated by the other characters around him, we can see to what depth he is truly lost within himself.

For his interactions with other children, I have detailed experiences. As a former “dinosaur kid” I read every paleontology book in the school library within the first couple of years there. The town library didn’t take much longer.  While never claiming to have seen any (outside of a game my cousins and I played in their yard, where we all PRETENDED we saw them) they were a big part of my life.  Therefore, I can speak with authority when I say that a kid yammering on endlessly about extinct ecosystems is not going to become the center of excited attention.  He is not going to have the whole gang hang on every word of his stories. He is not going to inspire them all to help him on his crazy projects, especially after they have repeatedly been unable to confirm his sightings.  I was a pretty large lad, and my displaying anything close to this level of enthusiasm was met by the majority of classmates with derisive laughter, insults, and the occasional stolen hat.  Little Dan would be spending most of his days hanging in the coat closet by his underwear.  I believe either the other kids are as imaginary as the dinosaurs, or more likely, they are fellow patients (also explaining their constant over emoting) in the asylum that Dan sees as his Prehistoric Playground.

Still unconvinced? Look at the teachers. Again, they are always supportive, attentive and cheerful toward Dan and his unbridled, un-provable class disrupting obsession.  More importantly, listen to their tone.  They talk to Dan and his ward mates using the careful, overly friendly, clear and focused speech patterns that social workers and therapists use when dealing with difficult to reach, deeply regressed, or unpredictable and disturbed patients.  Although they may appear to be bad actors at first glance, they are really attentive caregivers working hard to reach Dan deep within his delusion.

Dan’s “mother” behaves in a similar manner toward him, however with more discipline, and also more of a personal touch.  She’s often shown in her police uniform.  I think Dan is very lucky that one of the security guards has taken a liking to him, and looks out for his best interests.  She makes sure he follows the rules and takes his medications, but the emotional tie and her focus on him is a great help to his therapy.

My prediction for the series finale is a shot of “Mom” opening the door to Dan’s bedroom.  The scene then dissolves to reveal the austere hospital room of the adult Dan. The floor is strewn with childlike drawings of dinosaurs and random junk assembled into “scientific equipment”.  He’s deeply focused on what he’s holding, and it takes a determined, yet gentle effort to get his attention.  She tells him it’s time for his next session, and guides him out the door.  As they leave, the camera zooms in to what he was holding…a dinosaur filled snow globe given to him as a child by his father.

On the other hand I could be totally wrong. (He said, trying desperately to avoid more glares, thrown pillows, and angry phone calls from his mother about the depressing ending.) 

The final episode could just as easily be Dan’s triumphant vindication as everyone in town wakes up one morning to realize that the “odd smell” they’ve all noticed recently is, in fact, myriad mountains of Mesozoic manure.


Linda said...

Children having an active play life is lovely, but I'm not generally a fan of the - is this kid hallucinating - style of kids shows.

And perhaps this is what happens when you're raised by teachers in the Bronx who don't want their kids to have a Bronx accent, but the show that makes me insane (at least the title) is Dora the Explorer. I'm sure the show is grand, but if we follow the rhyme it's Dora the Explorah a pronunciation my parents worked 18 years to keep me from having....

Unknown said...

Sounds to me like Dino Dan is schizophrenic and in need of therapy. Though, I'd probably allow my kids to watch this as I much prefer my children's characters to be blantly crazy (read: Candace from Phineus and Ferb) than to lie and say they're not (umm, hello WIGGLES!)....just a humble opinion.

Jeff McGinley said...

As long as its the good kinda crazy I'm all for it either way. We've seen the Wiggles Live twice, they are the awsome kinda crazy.

Anonymous said...

It was very nice. I enjoyed reading as much as you enjoy writing it. Great work Daddy! Love you. Anabelle.

Jeff McGinley said...

I wonder if I can get a comment bronzed?

Nick Leshi said...

I don;t think he's in an asylum, but I do think Dan's delusional. I think his missing Dad who allegedly is a paleonthologist is the key to the whole mystery and to Dan's obsession with dinosaurs.

Jeff McGinley said...

If he isn't in an aslyum, the kids behaviour is definitely part of his delusion. I was the "dino kid". In 3rd grade I was asked to give a talk on dinosaurs to a class of 5th graders. Trust me, impressed enthusiasm is all in Dans head.

Anonymous said...

jurassic park meets a beautiful mind!

I loved this article!

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx much, and thanx for commenting, come back any time.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to find that other folks have come to the same conclusion. My sister and I both have kids between 2 and 4 and our theory is that Dan goes to a 'special school' where all the children have various mental disorders, including Dan, who we've pegged as likely having Asperegers, a few of his classmates are likely similar, such as the girl who's obsessed with bugs. The loudmouthed boy definitely has some kind of hyperactive disorder.

Kudos for the story! It was very entertaining and again, I like knowing there are other 'Dan is crazy' folks out there. :D

Jeff McGinley said...

Many thanx for reading and for commenting, come back any time. Of course since Dan's responsible for awakening the love of dinosaurs in my daughter to the same levels I had as a kid, the little nutter is always welcome in our home. (Even if it leads her to pelt me with pillows as I continually say, "He's CRAAAAZYYYYY!")

Mir said...

This is hilarious. My son is a "dinosaur kid" - completely obsessed and knows every name, etc - and so of course he is obsessed with this show. My husband and I both think Dan is annoying, obnoxious, and likely insane. We constantly explain to our son that Dan's behavior is often "not good listening" and that talking incessantly about dinosaurs and not following adults' directions is not ok! Jurassic park + a beautiful mind + I want to smack that kid = sums it up just right for me.

Jeff McGinley said...

Many thanx. As much as I enjoy mocking the show and the little nutter who stars in it, it opened the floodgates for my daughter to follow in my footsteps as a dinosaur kid.

Thanx again for the compliments and posting in general.

Anonymous said...

My son just discovered this show, and we also are horrified. However, it clearly is not the case that Dan is hallucinating the dinosaurs. His dog, Doug, spends much of an episode by himself, contending with a baby dinosaur and a predator. Given that Dan is not present during this action on "Dino Doug," we must conclude that the ancient animals are actually present. Or that the dog is crazy, too.

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx for reading and sharing. My daughter is older now and gas stopped watching the show. However, I chanced upon it recently and noticed Dan's physical appearance has completely changed, though he remains the same approximate age. I can only conclude it is a new stage in his delusion which also encompasses Doug's actions occurring elsewhere than the primary delusion.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say that this article is hysterical and I'm relieved that other adults feel the way I do. I'm a nanny of a two-year-old girl who recently expressed interest in the show. We don't watch television terribly often, but when we do, this show always seems to be on. While she's smiling and walking around the room "roaring" like a dinosaur, I'm sitting next to her, confused, disturbed, slightly anxious, and desperately wanting to turn the channel. Why can't Yo Gabba Gabba be the show we happen to run into? That's the sorta crazy I can get behind. They should create an "Awakening" episode of Dino Dan. Maybe have it on there "late night" programming? I'd definitely watch. Anyway, thanks for the laugh!

Jeff McGinley said...

Thank you very much for your comments, and for stopping by.

Maybe we could start a petition for a not ready for prime time series finale.

Not sure if I agree with Yo Gabba Gabba being better. Sure you can't go wrong with Mark Mothersbaugh music, but some of those creatures are...unfortunately shaped, if you know what I mean.

Phrases involving "ribbed" and "pleasure" come to mind.

Dina Roberts said...

This post is brilliant.

I don't think I ever saw the show, but I think your interpretation must be the right one.

I'm also glad you spoke up for the starving hawk and her children.

Jeff McGinley said...

Many thanx! It was a really strange show. Out of everything I've written, this one seems to resonate the most, so I feel I'm not alone with how weird I think it is.

thanx again