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Are you the kind of parent who is afraid that Big Media is attempting to brainwash your child, or make him feel bad about slavery, or teach him that gay people are human beings? Conservative media organization the Daily Wire is here for you. Last week, the company launched Bentkey, a streaming network of children’s entertainment for, in the words of Daily Wire co-founder Jeremy Boreing, “Americans who believe in basic reality.”
Boreing has pitched Bentkey as a direct response to Disney’s perceived sins of wokeness, and in fact he made a point of launching the channel on Disney’s 100th anniversary. “Walt Disney loved America,” Boreing writes, but “the company he founded seems to think America is systemically racist.” Bentkey, he declares, is an attempt to save America’s children from the company that is attempting “to indoctrinate those children into the LGBTQIA cult.”
So what does a conservative children’s network look like? How do you create “the next generation of timeless stories that transport kids into a world of adventure, imagination and joy” but also make sure it doesn’t seem like Disney? Visit Bentkey’s site or download the app, and it looks quite a bit like every other collection of children’s TV on the internet. (There’s no mission statement proclaiming “traditional American values” or even any Daily Wire branding anywhere on the Bentkey portal.) But spend a few days sampling Bentkey’s programming—including the four series, so far, produced by the company—and you might pick out a few subtle notes cluing you in that something a little different is going on here.
For example, there’s what appears to be—at least from its primacy atop the app’s home screen—Bentkey’s pride and joy, the animated Chip Chilla. Put simply, Chip Chilla is Bentkey’s attempt to do an American version of Bluey, the critical darling of contemporary children’s entertainment, which streams on Disney+. As in the Australia-set Bluey, we have a nuclear family of animals (chinchillas, not dogs) living in a beautiful house, playing elaborate, imaginative games with the help of a clever, caring father and mother. Even the color palette looks like Bluey’s, though Chip himself is maybe two shades of blue darker than Bluey is.
But the action in Bluey is driven primarily by the children’s imaginations—Bluey and Bingo put their parents through their paces, making them pretend to be on an island, act out a visit to a hair salon, or spray an actual hose in their own face. As Phillip Maciak wrote in Slate, “When the games begin, Mum and Dad are entirely at the bidding of their children.” In Chip Chilla, conversely, it’s the parents—specifically dad Chum Chum, voiced by red-pilled former Saturday Night Live comedian Rob Schneider—who drive the action, because the kids in Chip Chilla are being home-schooled. So when Chip pretends to be an astronaut, or his big sister Charla becomes a reporter for the Chilla Times, it’s because fun-loving Chum Chum has told them to do so. (Mom Chinny, played by anti-vax former Broadway actress Laura Osnes, might get more to do in later episodes, but for now she’s mostly sneaking cookies and pretending to be the Chilla Times’ brassy receptionist. “What do I know, I’m just a secretary,” she says, filing her nails.) The result is that while Bluey feels a little like magic, Chip Chilla—though it has a fast pace and some good jokes—feels like school, since that’s exactly what it is for these kids.
Is it Republican? Not particularly. Chum Chum delivers a little riff on press responsibility that wouldn’t be out of place on the Daily Wire: “Real news isn’t just any bad thing you see,” he tells Charla. “That’s just tattling.” But really, they’re just kids learning things in a very traditionally gendered household, which I guess in the current climate may feel Republican to some people. I guess we’ll see what happens if the Chilla kids meet any friends with two moms.
Three other shows are identified as Bentkey Adventures, the company’s showcase productions. I liked A Wonderful Day With Mabel Maclay, in which Mabel (Katy Chase), a soothing woman in statement glasses, meets the nice people in her neighborhood and has fun with a Southern-accented dog named Jasper. At one point in the premiere, Ron Block, from Alison Krauss’ band, comes to Mabel’s back gate and shows her all the different feelings you can express using a banjo. It’s a conversation worthy of Fred Rogers himself, the obvious (and welcome) model for the series.
I will refrain from being too harsh about Broadcast Cal, aka 10-year-old Caleb Fulcher, the star of the history show Kid Explorer. Cal also appears in the fourth Bentkey Adventure, Kid Fit Go, alongside his older brother Elijah, and both series are made by their dad, Atlanta-based writer-producer Bubba Fulcher. Suffice it to say that Cal appears to be having a great time telling us about Abe Lincoln and the history of the telephone, and I certainly hope that’s true, given how much his dad seems to be depending on him for the success of his two contributions to Bentkey. Both shows are sort of comically slipshod, with Kid Explorer delivering such scrupulously nonideological nuggets of historical wisdom as “Lincoln faced many challenges as president” and Kid Fit Go’s interspersing of Presidential Fitness Test–type calisthenics (pushups, situps, jumping jacks) with shouts of boilerplate encouragement. “Now that is how you Kid Fit Go!” they yell, more than once. The Fulcher shows are the most obviously YouTubey of Bentkey’s productions, and the most desperate; I imagine poor Caleb boning up on historical figures between high-intensity workouts, a photogenic smile plastered to his face.
While yet-to-premiere releases take direct aim at Disney—most notably a Bentkey version of the Snow White story, greenlit and directed by Boreing in response to the brief conservative furor about Disney star Rachel Zegler benignly pointing out that the original’s message kind of sucks—none of the Bentkey productions available at launch seem to be responding to any particular brand of “woke” children’s programming. Unless I’ve missed some complaints about Bluey being an anarchist or something? Even on Woke Disney, the genres of Kid Fitness, Kid History, and Mister Rogers Type Gentle Chatting are not, as far as I know, full of people shouting “trans rights.” More’s the pity!
But four shows do not a $99-a-year streaming network make. To fill out the home screen, Bentkey has also licensed a dozen or so programs from other sources, many of them international. The experience of browsing Bentkey is not unlike scrolling through the children’s entertainment options on an Air France flight: Everything you see is sort of familiar but also a little unusual, rife with awkwardly translated dialogue. Amid the boring chum of midbudget children’s garbage, you’ll find the occasional treasure. I would rather endure a toddler’s mid-airport tantrum than watch the French-Spanish animated series Pirata and Capitano, which consists entirely of children yelling things at one another on a boat, or Yoko, a Russian-Spanish coproduction whose characters have all the elegance and wit of Minecraft guys. But I loved Jasmine & Jambo, a Catalan animated music show that looks and sounds like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and have high hopes for Runes, a French attempt at a Cartoon Saloon–style mytho-historical adventure set in 11th-century Normandy. There’s even a weird show where a gigantic yeti puppet reads French children’s books aloud. Not bad!
And I confess that 11-year-old me would have watched 1,000 episodes of How Ridiculous, in which jolly Australian bros take the piss out of one another while, like, dropping tungsten cubes onto sheets of bulletproof glass. The camaraderie! The accents! The super-slo-mo shots of things exploding! Granted, your kid could just watch How Ridiculous on YouTube, where the series originated and where it still lives alongside dozens of basically identical guys-trying-stuff channels, but it’s worth noting to parents that YouTube—not Bentkey—is where your child is likely to be subsequently shown some kind of horrible right-wing propaganda video.
For though I strove mightily to find political messaging in Bentkey’s lineup, I must admit that Boreing’s assertion that “Bentkey isn’t about teaching kids politics” is more or less correct. Some of the shows, not all, may be square or retrogressive, but none is overtly political. I wonder, though, if Bentkey’s target audience—hyperfocused as it has been trained to be (by outlets like the Daily Wire!) on the hidden messages in children’s entertainment—will reach the same conclusion. Will snowflake-disparaging Daily Wire readers turn off Jasmine & Jambo at the appearance of its initial trigger warning (for viewers with photosensitivities)? Will America First Republicans embrace tender Ernest & Celestine, which proudly proclaims at the top of each episode that it was partially funded by the European Union? Isn’t Mabel Maclay’s charming, walkable neighborhood part of the global elites’ “15-minute city” plot?
And for that matter, where does Chum Chum get off encouraging Chip Chilla to be kind and let baby Chubbly go first because she never gets a chance? Sounds like socialism, with a side of social-emotional learning, to me. Bentkey isn’t terrible, or at least isn’t more terrible than any other assemblage of children’s programming. But I’ll be very curious to see if the children’s network founded for the express purpose of eschewing wokeness can survive the current right-wing vogue for seeing wokeness everywhere—even when what they’re seeing is really just simple human kindness.