BY DANA RUDOLPH
When Dottie's partner, May, takes their son Ollie to his first day of school, the stay-at-home mom feels lonely. Luckily, Ollie has left her a present—a sweater with magic pockets. Glitter in the pockets transforms Dottie's living room into a colorful, whimsical playground for herself and several new friends: James, a tea-loving French daisy, Motilda the Mouse, Randal, a slightly nerdy beaver, Wally the Wall and Uncanny the Singing Can.
That is the premise of Dottie's Magic Pockets, a new DVD-only television series aimed at 3- to 8-year-olds from LGBT families. The show's creator, Tammy Stoner, developed Dottie because she could not find any videos for her 4-year-old son that featured families like their own. 'If I wanted my son to have media to reflect his life,' Stoner says, 'then I was just going to have to do it myself.' Luckily, Stoner had worked in the film industry and knew people who could help realize her vision.
'We pulled in favors from everyone we knew,' she recalled. 'A lot of people put in a lot of time free.' She shot the first three episodes in her garage: 'That's why we have a lot of inserts, imaginative things that take you off the set even though you're still on the set.' Still, they faced some unexpected hurdles. The garage's seven-foot ceilings limited the height of their stage lights, causing trouble with shadows. And they had to stop shooting every 20 minutes during Oscar weekend because their Southern California location was on the flight path for many celebrities' private jets.
The show will cover a number of different educational topics, including problem-solving, basic word concepts, taste and manners. These serve to facilitate the core concepts of acceptance and diversity. Dottie uses a light touch, though. There are no heavy-handed discussions about diversity or 'issues' children of LGBT families may face. Instead, Stoner explained, 'We want to have good, clever stories that assume intelligence on the part of the children and really attract wanting to watch the show. We're going to have a lot of people come by and talk about their partners in everyday, ordinary situations. We don't want [ coming from an LGBT family ] to be a one-liner, where it's like 'It's okay! It's okay!' We just want to do a program where it is okay.'
Dottie's son doesn't appear except in the opening sequence, however, because of the financially draining requirements for having children on set. The show gets around this, though, by having Dottie talk about Ollie and May, and in one episode, reviewing a photo album of her family. Inserts also show other children who were filmed off set, or feature animated characters like a caterpillar named Princess who has two dads.
Overall, the formula works. Actor Jen Plante plays Dottie as upbeat and cheery, but has a wide enough range to avoid the constant chirpiness that makes some children's-television stars irritating. Her non-human friends, all puppets, are engaging and sympathetic. The songs have infectious lyrics and rhythms that should get most kids up and dancing, if my own 4-year-old is any indication.
There are a few rough edges. Uncanny's high-pitched voice is sometimes hard to understand. A few inserts don't seem to add to the whole, and others appear without enough transition, yanking us out of Dottie's house. Stoner could take a cue from Sesame Street's 'Elmo's World,' which has Elmo view videos e-mailed to him by other characters. A similar lead-in from Dottie ( maybe her photo album could magically bring pictures to life ) might work well to introduce scenes off the main set.
Dottie also isn't quite up to the pedagogical rigor of shows like Sesame Street and Between the Lions. In 'Beat Beet,' the characters discuss 'words that sound the same, but have different meanings.' This works for pairs like 'beat-beet' and 'flower-flour.' When Dottie explains that 'beehive' can mean both a home for bees and a hairdo, however, I scratched my head. The hairdo was named after the home for bees, so that isn't really a separate meaning. Still, my son loved Dottie's hot pink beehive wig, so maybe I'm being fussy.
If I am, it is in the hopes of being constructive. Despite some shortcomings, Dottie is more watchable than many mainstream children's shows, and has a unique and compelling message of acceptance for all families. It is also refreshing to see a show that hasn't yet swamped us with a wave of mass-market merchandising ( though you can buy 'Uncanny' t-shirts via its Web site ) . Still, it would be a certain sign of progress if Toys R Us started carrying posable Dottie action figures.
The first DVD, with two episodes, is available now at dottiesmagicpockets.com . Stoner is aiming to work up to three or four new DVDs per year, assuming the needed revenue comes in. One promising indicator is that they are getting 'a lot of great response' both within and outside the LGBT community. 'We've sold an equal amount to GLBT families and to traditional, straight families,' she says. 'We're selling to a lot of people who want to show their kids this is the way the world is, or here's Auntie Sue and Auntie Jane's family. It's just a really good tool for everybody.'
Center on Halsted will be hosting a screening of Dottie's Magic Pockets Sat., June 7, at 10 a.m., for $5/family. For further details, visit centeronhalsted.org or call 773-472-6469.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian, a blog and resource directory for LGBT parents. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .