Why Your Children's Television Program Sucks: Thomas & Friends

A look at the awful children's programming you're forced to endure before you can finally kick the kids out of the TV room to watch sports for eight hours. Image by Jim Cooke.

The Show

Thomas & Friends

The Theme Song

They're two
They're four
They're six
They're eight
Shunting trucks and hauling freight
Red and green and brown and blue
They're the really useful crew!
All with different roles to play
'Round Tidmouth Sheds or far away
Down the hills and back again
Thommmas and his friennnnnds!

(NOTE: Sung by a chorus of British children. If you ever want to anger me, just hire a British children's choir to sing something. ANYTHING.)

The Mythology

Do you have five hours? Because this gets rather complicated. Thomas the Tank Engine was a character invented by the Reverend W. Audry for his son way back in the early 1900s. I have read some of the early Thomas books, and I can tell you that they make NO sense. At all. That Reverend was almost certainly liquored up on Scotch and Toilet Duck by the time he tucked little Christopher into bed every night. In the original books, Thomas is a DICK. Just a little shit to everyone. His last name may as well have been Bieber. And the stories were extremely wordy and nonsensical. One story might feature Thomas blowing steam in one engine's face and then getting in trouble hauling lumber. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BLOWING STEAM INCIDENT, REV? I need closure.

Anyway, Thomas now barely resembles the character you see in those old books, likely for the better. He's still the "cheekiest" engine (oh, you Brits) on the Island of Sodor, a very small island somewhere in Britain that, as TV critic Alan Sepinwall once noted, would seem to have no need at all for a series of elaborate interconnected railways. But hey, it's a kiddie show. You suspend your disbelief a bit.

Thomas and his friends live on Sodor and spend their days toiling endlessly, "shunting trucks and hauling freight." (Shunting, by the way, sounds like a great Urban Dictionary term for silent fucking—"We shunted while his parents slept next door!") The engines are only happy when they are being "Really Useful," which suggests to me that they have been brainwashed by fearsome tuxedoed railway overlord Sir Topham Hatt to accept the bonds of slavery without question. These poor engines have never known freedom, and so the very idea of it is alien to them. The whole story could have served as an allegory for life under the Russian czars before the rise of the Bolsheviks. But I bet the Rev wasn't that subtle. I bet he was just a man who thought trains were bitches.

All the engines on Sodor can talk and think and, in recent episodes, move their faces (more on that in a moment). And yet it's not clear that they have full control over themselves. After all, each engine has a driver. Can the engine move without the driver approving? And how does the engine feel about having a bunch of people hanging around inside its body? WHY ARE YOU PEOPLE INSIDE ME?!

Episode Format

Every episode features three stories about Thomas or one of his friends. A story usually goes like this: Thomas has an important job to do ("Oh boy, I get to haul this boxcar full of lead paint to the petting zoo!"), but then Thomas fucks it all up because he was too goddamn excited about doing menial labor ("Then there was trouble! Thomas biffed and bashed and spilled the lead paint all over the children's hospital!"). Then Sir Topham Hatt sidles up in his fancy car and chews Thomas out ("You have caused CONFUSION AND DELAY!"), then Thomas contemplates suicide, only to figure out some important solution and/or life lesson. Then Topham Hatt tells Thomas he's "Really Useful" after all (classic abusive-parent technique—diminish, then turn around and praise), and everyone's happy. Well, everyone except the 40 children at the hospital who were killed in a horrific train explosion. But let's not split hairs. You won't find a more incompetently run railway. The trains on this show are about as good at their jobs as the doctors on Grey's Anatomy.

The TV show started way back in 1984, with Ringo Starr (!!!) as the narrator. Those older episodes were shot using real model trains, so when you see those episodes, you don't see the faces on the trains move. Sometimes, only their eyes move, which gives you the impression that Thomas is actually a serial killer wearing a William Shatner deathmask. It's really unnerving. Although it is fun to watch a little model train get buried in a coal avalanche.

Later episodes were narrated by George Carlin (RIP), and I'd like to imagine that, off the mic, Carlin would say FILTHY things about Sir Topham Hatt and the engines. "Thomas, open your coal hole. Time for you to understand what REALLY happens to bad engines on this island."

Most Thomas & Friends episodes you see on TV now are narrated by Michael Brandon and animated using the same shitty dimestore CGI work you can find anywhere else on Nick Jr., PBS, and Disney Jr. I'd like to say I pine for the old days and that there is no substitute for watching real trains huffing and puffing through an imaginary British countryside. But again, those murderer eyes. Fucking creepy, man.

Characters

Thomas: "He's the cheeky one."

James: "Is vain but lots of fun." Read that again and tell me that it makes sense. "Oh, James? He's remarkably self-absorbed and catty. BUT SO MUCH FUN." I bet. Anyway, when I read Thomas books to my son, I do James in a comically fey voice. I have him lisp and everything. It's terrible.

Percy: "Pulls the mail on time." Percy is Thomas's best friend and likes pulling mail. And he's green. That's about it, frankly. Thomas is a brand short on complex characters and long on LOOK AT THE CHOOCHOO, DADDY!

Gordon: "Thunders down the line." Total cock.

Emily: "Really knows her stuff." The show does not present evidence of this.

Henry: "Toots and huffs and puffs." Oh, you mean like every train ever? Find a new gimmick, Henry.

Edward: "Wants to help and share." Edward pretty much looks like Thomas. They're the same color and everything. It gets confusing.

Toby: "Well, let's say he's 'square.'" That part of the theme song is the kiddie choir telling you that Toby is old and useless. Toby gets stuck in things a lot.

Sir Topham Hatt: Oversized rail baron despot who always blames his trains first when they go too fast and pop all the champagne bottles they were carrying in their hoppers. He's just like Tom Coughlin. What about the drivers? Why do they escape blame when Thomas rocks and rolls over the big big bridge? Who's REALLY in charge here? Thomas & Friends just reinforces the notion that heartless corporate bigwigs like Hatt are job creators whose moral authority must never be questioned. I bet Rand Paul watches this show pantsless.

Cranky: The crane. Is cranky.

Harold: The helicopter. Can do pretty much everything the trains can't. It stands to reason that Topham Hatt should buy more helicopters and divest himself from anthropomorphic trains that disobey orders and are dangerously overcompetitive with one another.

Diesel: A diesel engine. Diesel engines are bad guys in the Thomas universe. I guess relying on efficient diesel fuel over coal makes you a real dick, eh? Whatever. By the way, the coal-powered steam engines on Sodor refer to themselves as "steamies." Try not laughing every time you hear that word. It's impossible.

Rheneas: Seems like a Utah baby name, but there you go. There are a LOT of engines on Sodor, far more than I can cover in this post. Suffice it to say, if there's a baby name, there is probably a corresponding Thomas train to go with it. And that will be true as long as parents like me are suckers enough to buy Thomas train toys. Mark my words, you WILL see a BAYLEN steamie in toy stores at some point within the next five years. It's just a logical market extension.

Victor: Has a Cuban accent. Runs the Sodor Steamworks. How can you fix trains, Victor? YOU HAVE NO HANDS. It makes no sense. Anyway, Victor often turns over supervision of the Steamworks to Thomas, who ALWAYS fucks it up. He's not gonna learn, Victor. Stop giving him the keys to the store.

Kevin: Victor's helper. The health of an entire railway rests on Victor and little Kevin. Again, this seems inefficient.

Harvey: Crane engine. Gets made of for looking funny.

Annie and Clarabel: Coach cars that Thomas always drags around with him. They do not speak. They're his concubines, essentially. Real Meg White-type feel to the whole arrangement.

Troublesome Trucks: Jokey freight cars that fuck everything up. Why are they allowed on the railway? "Yeah, let's employ those two trolls over there. It'll be fun!"

Mavis, Duck, Skarloey, etc: Whatever.

Best Episode

"Thomas and the Jet Engine." Thomas gets a jet engine attached to him and makes Gordon his bitch. It's great. Also, any episode where Carlin does a Scottish accent. It's mind-blowing.

Worst Episode

"Thomas and the Treasure." Thomas neglects his duties by following clues to a treasure trove, then finds it where everyone is already hanging out at the Sodor Maritime Museum. Did you people really not SEE the giant skull sticking out of the ground? Wouldn't that clue you into the fact that something was up?

Pros

Personally speaking, my son loves Thomas and is batshit crazy about trains. It's really cute, especially when he's pushing other kids out of the way at the Barnes & Noble train table. GO GET 'EM, TIGER. Also, he finds my lisping James voice to be rather humorous.

Thomas is a very gentle children's show. It's not loud. There aren't 50,000 jump cuts like you see on Phineas and Ferb or some other goddamn "kids" show that's really designed for 23-year-olds. I can let my kid watch Thomas without worrying that it will turn him into a meth-addled loon the second I turn off the TV.

Cons

As with American Girl dolls, having a child who likes Thomas means you will end up investing in a whole ecosystem of toy trains, train tracks, train signs, train bridges, replica plastic quarries, and all kinds of other crazy expensive shit.

My kid's train set has grown out of control. His stupid grandparents bought him all these track extension sets, so the kid can build a train track that engulfs the entirety of the North American continent. The train set is a CANCER. It won't stop growing. Meanwhile, I'm on my knees, trying not to trip over a goddamn rumble bridge as I move Percy around the track, only to get yelled at by my kid because I'm going faster than Thomas. Screw you, Thomas. Try to keep up. Playing trains for more than six seconds is exhausting, but then I try to stop and my kid gives me the puppy eyes and "Cat's in the Cradle" comes on in the background and I'm shamed into spending another 20 back-breaking minutes pushing a little green engine around a sprawling wooden track.

There are wooden Thomas sets, plastic narrow-gauge Thomas sets, motorized Thomas sets. There are Thomas birthday plates, Thomas T-shirts, Thomas condoms, and thousands of different character toys to buy. My son wants Rocky for Christmas. Who's Rocky? He's a tertiary character at best. No piece of Thomas equipment retails for less than $25. It's a massive scam, I tell you. Is this really what you wanted, Rev. Audry? For your bedtime story to be co-opted by the folks at BIG TOY and used to bleed me dry? No wonder you think Topham Hatt is a good guy. You monster.

Previously in WYCTPS: Super Why! | The Fresh Beat Band | Max & Ruby | Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! |Chuggington | Dora the Explorer

Drew Magary writes for Deadspin and Gawker. He's also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter @drewmagary and email him at drew@deadspin.com. You can also order Drew's new book, "Someone Could Get Hurt," through his homepage.