Despite some quizzical positions, Doug Unplugs is a charming kids’ show [Apple TV+ review]

By

The heartwarming 'Doug Unplugs' looks like a sure-fire hit for kids.
The heartwarming Doug Unplugs looks like a sure-fire hit for kids.
Image: Apple TV+

Powered by the formidable DreamWorks Animation, Apple TV+’s newest children’s show is frequently disarming and deeply cute. Doug Unplugs, which arrives on the streaming service this Friday, is likely to be perfect for young kids, and not too much for tired parents who’ll watch it over their shoulders.

Doug Unplugs review

Directed by Phineas & Ferb alum and one-time Disney animator Aliki Theofilopoulos, and based on the book by children’s author Dan YaccarinoDoug Unplugs is a fairly simple show. Doug (voiced by Brandon James Cienfuegos) is a robot who works at a shipping facility. He can read all he wants about the ways of human beings, but he doesn’t — and won’t fully understand what they do until he unplugs and goes out into the world and experiences them firsthand.

Helping him is Emma (voiced by Kyrie Mcalpin), the little girl across the way. Together they learn first-hand about shopping, farming, beach days, parties, restaurant etiquette and more. The show is frequently too adorable for words, thanks to the harmony of the voice performances and the sometimes cheap-looking but largely winning animation. The music by frequent TV composers Ryan Lofty and David Butterfield is catchy but not so wormy that you’ll never get the tunes out of your head (looking at you Helpsters).

Tune in, unplug, drop out

Doug Unplugs is here to teach kids to go outside
Doug Unplugs is here to teach kids to go outside.
Photo: Apple TV+

Though it’s undeniably good company, there’s a curious tug of war at the heart of Doug Unplugs that begs expression. The show is about an anthropomorphic robot whose parents work at a kind of Amazon fulfillment center. They dream up objects, and then a fleet of drones with voices deliver them to their human neighbors. So the show has to be pro-late capitalism to work at all, and wants to sort of humanize the robots working jobs that put humans out of business.

This is all odd enough without commenting on the fact that no humans work at this factory, as they would in reality, and frequently in such tragically grotesque circumstances that it would turn your stomach. Obviously a kid’s cartoon is no place to have this discussion. But it does seem odd that the conceit of Doug Unplugs is that kids should unplug from their devices and spend time outside.

That’s a kind of everyday hypocrisy. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but I suppose it’s odd to enter into the period in time where kids’ shows are asking children to feel something for robotic arms at sorting centers. It does feel a little on the dystopian side, aided by a subplot in which the leads feel bad for Safety Bot, who ruins a party because he was “just trying to do his job.”

There are worse ways to kill time

If you can get past that (and I’m not so crazy as to believe this will occur to anyone hoping for the TV to babysit their kids for a few hours enough that they’ll change the channel), there’s an awful lot to like. The world of Doug Unplugs is relentlessly positive in a very constructive way.

When, for instance, Doug’s robot parents mistake the dual meaning of the word “party” at the restaurant and play some techno real fast, no humans question it. Instead, they all shrug their shoulders and start dancing. Similarly, no explanation is ever provided as to why Doug has robot grandparents who run a farm. That one’s pretty far out, but hey, it works.

Doug Unplugs might be trying to very crudely indoctrinate kids to the horrors of capitalism, but what isn’t these days? Your kids will love it and you can have a conversation about the way Amazon treats its employees later.

Doug Unplugs on Apple TV+

Rated: TV-Y

Watch on: Apple TV+ (subscription required)

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.