The eyes had been blue but he knew they were really gray. They stared at him as he climbed the hill. Music had heralded a beginning. Colorful, ineloquent, they had appeared, and instantly, he had understood them. Their faces were like babies’ so babies could see them; their bodies were lumpy and ill defined because babies could not mentally define a body. They spoke when prompted by the articulate loudspeakers, but only in half-formed, garbled baby speak, instantly recognizable to any toddler. The show implicitly demonstrated the difference between child and adult, the steps that its infantile audience needed to take to achieve their parents’ level of intelligibility. Levers. Buttons. Mechanisms. Tools.
Jim understood the Teletubbies, and he could not avoid the feeling that they understood him. They vibrated as he did, only he did so because of the hallucinogen in his bloodstream, and they did so because they needed to convey excitement without the use of words or facial expressions. Jim had seen excited children make small, insistent hops in front of their parents—perhaps they had learned it from this show.
The pinwheel spun, and the red one instantly knew that it was time to go outdoors and join its companions. Rules, thought Jim. They’re teaching children about the importance of rules. Children watching may not have understood why the Teletubbies had to go outside and lie down when the pinwheel spun, but they would have seen the Teletubbies cheerfully, instantly comply, and they would have been implicitly conditioned to do things, even when they didn’t know the purpose.
The camera went inside the yellow one’s stomach and suddenly it was a live action show. A child went with his parents onto a helicopter. How rich did a kid have to be to go on a casual helicopter ride? Were the Teletubbies trying to tell their viewers that this level of affluence was normal? That this was just an average—
“I’m an artist, Jim,” said John Lennon, “but not a conventional one.” John Lennon leaned forward on the couch, put another tab of acid under his tongue. Jim forgot about the television show and looked at the man sitting next to him. John Lennon paused for a moment, looking at the television as he felt the tab dissolve, eyes intense behind the circular spectacles. The moment passed, and Jim watched as John Lennon’s muscles uncoiled as the pop music legend sank into Jim’s shabby couch’s cushions. After an hour or two of silence, Lennon punctured the reverie. “I don’t create a product that anyone can enjoy and consider. I craft experiences for select individuals, experiences they will never forget.”
Jim sat next to John Lennon and watched Teletubbies. The helicopter’s view of wide, verdant vistas filled the screen. The child thought the helicopter was noisy. The child liked helicopters. Neither of these things surprised Jim. The flight attendant told the child all kinds of things about the airplane which the child would clearly never remember.
“You’re going to forget the meal you had yesterday, Jim.” John Lennon spoke again, apparently paying more attention to his own words than the show Jim was experiencing. “You’re going to forget the majority of movies you watch, books you read, paintings you see. But,” John Lennon made an extravagant motion with his hand, making eye contact with Jim, who could not help but notice that John’s eyes were made of fire, “you will not forget this. This experience is too unique, too strange, too illuminating to forget.” A self-satisfied smirk crept onto John Lennon’s face as he sank back into his seat. “How many artists can say that? That nobody forgets their art after they’ve experienced it?”
Jim had only met John Lennon a few weeks prior. John had had a different name then, but Jim couldn’t remember what it had been. They had become fast friends at a party, though Jim didn’t know how he had avoided feeling star-struck in the songwriter’s presence. At some point in the conversation—it was always difficult to say exactly how these things were brought up—it was mentioned that Jim had never seen an episode of Teletubbies as a child.
John Lennon had sputtered in disbelief. A tragedy, he proclaimed it to be, that Jim had never encountered the pinnacle of British children’s television. And so a plan was formed, to—
They were showing it again. Jim had thought the helicopter sequence was over and done with when the Teletubbies reappeared on screen, but the multicolored mascots had clearly cried out, “again!” And so, Jim watched in slack-jawed incomprehension as the entire sequence played again, exactly the same as the first.
The gall, thought Jim, outraged. The absolute cheek to so brazenly reuse footage to fill up the episode’s time. Did they think no child would notice? That their infantile audience would not grow bored with this tired, desperate attempt to make it to 23 minutes of runtime? They certainly didn’t think this particular content was so meaningful, so vital, that it had to be shown twice. Did they?
Perhaps it had to do with the budget. This was public television—the producers were probably given very little money and then asked to delight children of all ages. The network undoubtedly didn’t even pay attention to the actual content of the episodes, only whether they were age-appropriate and delivered on time. If Jim were given creative control of a twenty-minute program with only enough budget to cover fifteen minutes, what would he do? He pondered.
The blue-gray-blue eyes again. There was something decidedly pandering in a children’s program showing the image of a baby rising as a sun, smiling over the land. Then again, maybe it was in the name of empowerment. Look, child, see your brethren rise as a god above the green rolling hills. You, too, can reach such heights. Would a child raised on Teletubbies grow up to be more ambitious than others?
When had the second helicopter sequence ended? Jim had lost track of time. The yellow one had a ball. She threw it into a tree. She? Thought Jim. How could he be sure the Teletubby was gendered? He chastised himself for imposing binary genders on the round figures which clearly lacked genitalia. Each one, Jim noted as they all gathered around the tree holding the ball, displayed specific signs of gendered behavior, but no explicit traits or features. The yellow and red ones were feminine, while the purple and green were masculine, but he wouldn’t go so far as to say they were female and male. There had been some uproar about their sexuality and gender in the past, but Jim couldn’t remember what had been the exact nature of the argument.
The ball had been too high to reach, but the smallest Teletubby, the red one, threw the purple one’s purse to knock it down, an obvious representation of cleverness being more important than one’s innate physical abilities. The ball could be played with again, not because someone was tall enough, but because the smallest of the family was clever enough. Here I come with the assumptions again, thought Jim. Why do I assume they’re all related?
The pinwheel spun again, and more sweeping vistas of the green hills followed. Jim assumed it would be another calm, peaceful segment about the little lumpkins playing, but his eyes widened as he saw the grassy hills fill with water, becoming a lake. A boat’s horn sounded, and Jim stared in bewilderment as three huge ships appeared on the horizon. Gracefully, they grew bigger and bigger, moving towards the shore, which, only moments ago, had been mere grassland. Serene music played, and Jim finally understood the allure of Teletubby-land: it was a place where children could watch their avatars live in perfect harmony with magic and technology that they did not comprehend. For a toddler, the ocean might as well have sprung up out of nothing, for all they could understand it. As far as infants were concerned, there might well be a child inside the sun, a friendly narrator advising them every step of the way, magical televisions that operated without plugs, ships that came to visit them and only them. This show let them know that they need not fear these things they could not understand, these things that seemed to run on rules and magic unknown. There need be no anxiety around these grand happenings, for they never threatened the Teletubbies, and thus would never threaten the children.
“Jim! I’m talking to you!” And he had been. John Lennon had been talking the entire time, and Jim had not listened. The ships departed, back over the horizon. They had not even stopped for the Teletubbies. The water receded with the sound of a drain. That was enough playing with toy ships; bath time was over.
“Pay attention. You are a child, Jim, and you are watching Teletubbies. I have given you childhood, but not your own. You watch this television program through the eyes of another person, through the golden haze of their childhood memories.” John Lennon sank bank into the couch again, apparently exhausted by the effort it took to explain himself.
Jim did not see any golden haze. If anything, he felt that he had finally pierced through the haze and understood how society tries to teach and help its children. He did not feel like a child. He felt like an observer, watching an alien race and methodically, anthropologically figuring out why they did what they did.
Turning, he saw John Lennon, and understood him, too. He was not John Lennon, he was a college dropout named Richard, who used half-baked artistic theories to justify his and others’ drug use. He looked like John Lennon, with the circular glasses and long hair, but he was only Richard, and he was not the genius he thought himself to be.
Richard no longer spoke. Bunnies hopped. The sun smiled. Loudspeakers heralded an end. The four pear-shaped creatures were saying goodbye, each waving in turn.
Jim felt as though he had discovered something. He stared at the creatures’ odd heads with shapes growing out of them, and caught a vague hint of something to do with children, something to do with how this show made them feel. He couldn’t remember exactly what. He turned to Richard, to ask him about it, but saw that the man was now snoozing peacefully. Oh well, thought Jim. The credits rolled.