Do you know how many different kinds of submarines you’d be able to drive if you lived on the fictional underwater mobile sealab, the Octopod? The answer depends on which season you watch of Octonauts, but I’m pretty sure the correct answer is 25. That’s right, adorable talking animals who live underwater and save other adorable animals from danger, have twenty-five different submarines they can drive around to accomplish their various heroic goals. This crumb of trivia is far from the only piece of information I have rattling around in my brain about the children’s show Octonauts. For the past few months, ever since my daughter became a fan of the series, I’ve noticed myself becoming mildly obsessed. And I think it’s for one very good reason.
Unlike most kids’ TV shows, Octonauts is not a show about feelings, and therefore it isn’t overly cloying. The characters aren’t having meltdowns because somebody spilled the paint or ate a cupcake or whatever other bullshit dominates the vast majority of shows aimed at toddlers. It is an action-adventure show in which the conflicts range from untangling the tentacles of a Lion’s Mane Jellyfish to locating and rescuing invasive species in the Florida everglades to attempting to reason with a Great White Shark while said Great White Shark is trying to eat you.
The titular Octonauts are all talking (mostly) non-aquatic animals. You’ve got Captain Barnacles (a Polar Bear), Peso the medic (a penguin), Tweak the engineer (a green rabbit), Dashi the communicator and photographer (a dog), Kwazii the former pirate (a cat), Shellington the scientist (a sea otter), and Professor Inkling, the founder of the Octonauts, a dumbo Octopus who wears a monocle and seemingly falls asleep in an armchair full of books every night. The Octonauts are assisted in their adventures by a crew of “Vegimals,” who are, naturally, half-vegetable and half animal. These things are my least favorite part of the show, but they beat Elmo every day of the week.
A typical episode of the Octonauts consists of an encounter with a real-life animal that needs help. Other than the existence of the mutant Vegimals, and the fact that all the animals can talk, all the creatures encountered by the Octonauts are real. During the “Creature Report” song that ends most episodes, you get to see actual, real-life footage of the real-life creature as the Octonauts chant “Go Yeti Crab, Go Yeti Crab!” or whatever the species de jour happens to be. However, this show isn’t annoying about slipping in these animal facts, and that’s because you’re always way too wrapped up in the adventure.
That’s why I’m truly obsessed with Octonauts. Unlike so many kids’ shows aimed at preschoolers, what impresses me about the show is that it fully commits to building a made-up world. In the first season, the aforementioned submarines are limited to the Gup-A, the Gup-B, Gup-C, Gup-D, and Gup-E. But, as the show goes on, more complicated vehicles are required, and those vehicles are always introduced with some awesome fanfare. When it’s time to rescue Tweak’s rabbit father from the swamp, the Gup-K is dramatically introduced — part submarine and part hovercraft. Similarly, when certain missions call a larger submarine that can separate into smaller parts, the crew busts-out versatile Gup-X.
We recently watched an episode as a family. Captain Barnacles, Shellington, and Peso were trapped by some angry Hippos and my wife scoffed at the line of dialogue in which Barnacles mentioned that the Gups wouldn’t be able to last in the swamp very long. “Okay, so they know the submarines are going to break, that’s convenient,” she said.
“No, you don’t understand,” I explained hurriedly. “The Gups all run on battery power, so they can’t stay in the swamp and wait out the hippos, because they’ll lose power. There are several other episodes that establish this fact.”
Now, I bet you can imagine my wife’s reaction to this. She’s used to this kind of nonsense when we watch Star Trek. In fact, she kind of even expects it. I’ve made a career out of writing about nerdy things by taking them seriously. Still, with my Octonauts obsession, even I recognize that I’ve maybe gone too far and I deserve any eye-rolls I get. But, I’m not sure I can actually help it. I’m already in too deep and am used to having delightful discussions with my daughter about which part of the Octopod houses Peso’s bedroom, and whether or not Shellington sleeps in his science lab, or if he has a room we’ve yet to see. (We have one Octonauts book with a cutaway schematic of the Octopod, by the way, and Shellington’s room isn’t depicted. So I think my theory stands: he sleeps in his lab.)
Unlike most shows I watch with my daughter, I feel like Octonauts respects me. I’m not saying Sesame Street doesn’t, but Octonauts, again, commits fully to its premise. It’s an action-adventure series set underwater that just happens to be kid-friendly. The scripts are silly, sure, but they’re also not bogged-down by much moralizing. The motto of the Octonauts is: “Explore! Rescue! Protect” which is not the same as “Elmo’s World”; a solipsistic view of childhood that I increasingly find difficult to sit-thru without wanting to day-drink. I recognize that social-emotional TV shows (like Daniel Tiger) have a purpose, but what’s so refreshing about the Octonauts is that it actually is entertaining outside of the context of being a show for toddlers.
Here’s a good example that proves why Octoanuts is perfect. In one episode about rescuing a bunch of Manatees, Captain Barnacles has his paw stuck in a giant clam, and, as such, has to manage the mission remotely. Basically, he tells his crew what they need to do to save the day, all while also fighting-off hostile fish and trying to pry himself out of the giant clam. The first time I watched this one with my daughter, I kept waiting for the episode to suddenly pivot and focus on the fact that Captain Barnacles was taking on too much work while also being attached to a giant clam. I kept waiting for the episode to subtly shame Captain Barnacles for not asking for help.
But that moment never came. Instead, the Captain’s hijinks were played for laughs, and at the end of the episode, when he did pry himself loose from the clam, the rest of the mission went smoothly. Captain Barnacles, the brave polar bear, I realized, was actually just awesome. No message. No shaming. No lectures. Just a cool-ass polar bear. Like many parents, he had something that was inconvenient to him, but in the face of animals that needed help, he was forced to multitask. There was no message. The fact that Captain Barnacles multitasked was just a feature. It was just something that happened.
In the end, along with the endangered Manatees, and the rest of the Octonauts, Captain Barnacles was just fine. The danger he was in had nothing to do with his emotions. Sometimes a giant clam is just a giant clam. And sometimes a toddler’s TV show can make everyone feel better without first making us feel worse.
Octonauts seasons 1-4 are streaming on Netflix. As of this writing, it is unclear if there will be a season 5.