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The Terror of PBS

There aren't many things that give me nightmares. The X-Files, "Alien" and Roseanne have all taken their best shots and not once have I ever awoken, screaming and covered in sweat, with visions of face-sucking monsters or Roseanne and John Goodman having sex lingering in my subconscious.

That has all changed now. I got a look at Teletubbies, the latest PBS show for kids, and there is no way in hell I'm going to sleep for a week. There have been many bizarre TV programs throughout the history of the medium, but not one of them -- not even the Miami Vice episode that featured James Brown as an extraterrestrial televangelist -- comes close to the mind-warping sensibility of Teletubbies).

A couple of clarifications are necessary here. First of all, Teletubbies is pronounced the British way, so that it sounds like "Telly Savalas-tubbies." Secondly, the show is aimed at the pre-Mister Rogers set, which clearly means it doesn't have to play by the same rules as regular television.

And it certainly doesn't.

The show opens with a sun rising over Teletubby Land, a tranquil landscape with lots of hills, day-glo bright flowers, and real live bunny rabbits. There's only one problem with the scene -- the sun itself. It's big and yellow and all that, but it's also a real baby's face, laughing and giggling.

This is mildly disturbing at first, and as the show goes on and we are treated to repeated shots of the sun-baby reacting to the Teletubbies, the image becomes downright freaky. Remember the chill that ran down your spine when you first saw the starchild at the end of "2001?" Just imagine if it were laughing.

The four Teletubbies themselves are almost as alarming. They're brightly colored, pear-shaped humanoids with rodent-like faces. Each one has a gray patch covering its stomach and a distinctly-shaped antenna on its head. The purple one is named Tinky-Winky), the highlighter-green one is Dipsy), the yellow one is Laa Laa), and the small red one is Po).

The most disturbing feature of the Teletubbies is that they are played by actual humans in suits, like Barney. Puppets have never bothered me, but put a suit on a person and have them dance around and it's queasy time. Except if you're at a ball game, of course.

It's the face that does it to me -- frozen in an ear-to-ear grin, there's an unmistakably evil glint in the Teletubbies' eyes. It's the kind of disarming smile people in movies use when they're reaching under the table and grabbing a machete to hack the unsuspecting victim to pieces. I never trust people who smile all the time, and when you put that same expression on a roughly-human animal, the effect is chilling.

It would not surprise me in the least to find out the Teletubbies are actually serial killers. If I'm Barney or Tickle-Me-Elmo or whatever other competition the Teletubbies have, I'm going to be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life.

Maybe all of them aren't vicious murderers, but Dipsy certainly is. He -- or she, as there are no apparent sexes among the Teletubbies -- is obviously the troublemaker of the group. If the Teletubbies were the Simpsons, Tinky-Winky would be Homer, Laa Laa would be Lisa or maybe Marge, Po would be the adorably sweet baby Maggie and Dipsy would be Bart.

When the Teletubbies are doing their exercises, it's Dipsy who is obviously half-assing his or her way through them. And when they say goodbye at the end of the show, Dipsy doesn't look like it could give a rat's patootie about the home viewers. Maybe I was imagining it, but it sure looked like while the other Teletubbies were waving goodbye, Dipsy surreptitiously gave everybody the finger.

The Teletubbies live in a large AstroTurf-covered house that looks a lot like one of those impossibly-hard miniature golf dome holes, the kind where you have to putt the ball into a hole in the middle of an upside down salad bowl. The interior of the dwelling is spacious and decorated almost exactly like the inside of the "Lost in Space" space ship. There are plenty of flashing colored lights, slot machine handles and things that make funny noises.

The Teletubbies spend a good amount of time in the house, doing little dance numbers that resemble drunk baseball fans with no sense of rhythm trying to do The Wave. They also hug a lot, usually after shouting, "Big hug!"

They wake up and hug, they exercise and hug. They fall down and hug. Come to think of it, they fall down almost as much as they hug. Infants must love slapstick. Maybe when I have kids, I'll have them watch Teletubbies and those old Saturday Night Live skits with Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford.

The thing that makes the Teletubbies very special -- and by that I mean very nightmare-inducing -- is the gray patch on their stomachs. It is, in fact, a TV. Whenever the strange pinwheel-looking windmill above their house starts spinning and spewing pixie dust, the antennas on the Teletubby heads being to glow and a picture appears on their tummies. This seems to me to be a spectacular failure on the producers' parts. After all, this is the '90s. Why can't the Teletubbies get cable?

On this particular day, Tinky-Winky was the only one getting good reception. His stomach featured a 4-minute video of a little kid riding a tricycle and going on a bike ride with his father. When it was done the Teletubbies decided it was so much fun, they wanted to see the whole thing again. ("Again-again!" they cried.) So the entire piece was repeated, and at the end, the Teletubbies started talking to Tinky-Winky's tummy, wishing the child well.

It was incredibly unnerving.

To round out this grand day of adventure, Po discovered a flag with a worm design on it near the house. After a thrilling 45-second exchange that consisted of Tinky-Winky saying "What's that?" and Po saying "A flag!" the two of them marched around Teletubby Land, carrying the banner aloft as proudly as an Olympic flag-bearer at an opening ceremony.

Well, of course Laa Laa and Dipsy saw the flag and wanted to join the parade. But -- and here's where my theory of Dipsy as the black sheep of the Teletubby family gains even more credence -- Po and Tinky-Winky ditched them and headed straight for the salad bowl. They put the flag on top of the house, where Dipsy and Laa Laa eventually discovered it and confronted the other two. There was a half-hearted group hug at the joy of reunion after two minutes of separation, but you could tell Tinky-Winky and Po were in no mood to celebrate. You could almost read Tinky-Winky's thoughts: "Dammit! I thought we got rid of that Dipsy punk."

Then, as the group hugs and falling down continued, the flag disappeared from the top of the house. Literally just popped out of sight. The Teletubbies were obviously confused, and then sad. This led to heartbreak and fisticuffs as Tinky-Winky accused Dipsy of stealing the trophy and Dipsy questioned Tinky-Winky's parentage. There was some blood spilled and I think Po's nose was broken in the scuffle, but eventually order was restored thanks to a nice group hug.

As the forgiveness embrace continued and the day came to an end, the camera tilted up to the sun-baby -- who was laughing, as if to say, "You little bastards think you deserve a flag? Ha! I am the wrathful sun-baby, and I will give and take flags as I choose!"

Crap. I'm going to need a night-light for the next month.


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