Some reviews are straight-up celebrations: uncynical advertisements, attempts to say "Here's something lovely, how'd it get so good?" This is one of them. Offerings like Over the Garden Wall, Steven Universe, and Yonderland suggest that we've rediscovered how to make excellent television that can honestly be defined as family programming, after a long, dark dearth of same: we have a good thing going here.
Yonderland, which has just finished its second series, is a British Sky 1 show, written by and starring many alums from the BBC's Horrible Histories. The ensemble cast devises the scripts, and this writing process makes the most of a comedy team at the top of its game. It delivers almost uniformly strong episodes and performances with verve and energy. Like early Doctor Who, Yonderland shows vague traces of some kind of educational mandate. Like early Doctor Who, it also shows signs of having slipped that leash a bit to become an amazing all-ages program.
Yonderland follows Brummie stay-at-home mom of twins, Debbie, who, at the beginning of the narrative, is at a bit of a loss. Her children have just started school, and she's simultaneously occupied by a lot of domestic responsibilities and yet suddenly adrift. One day, while Debbie does chores and watches day-time TV show What's in the Box? (a Deal or No Deal joke), bored out of her skull, she is visited by an Elven representative from a parallel realm, who has arrived, in accordance with a prophecy, "by way of a three foot square larder slash utility area." Elf (he has a name but Debbie calls him Elf throughout—"Bit racist," remarks her guide) drags Debbie back through the larder to face Yonderland's High Council. Debbie is, as they inform her, the Chosen One, destined to save the land from the dark forces that have already claimed dominion over adjacent kingdoms. Precisely what that salvation involves, the Council is less clear on. The second part of the prophecy did say, but the member entrusted with it got really drunk and lost it, so.
Debbie eventually decides that she's committed to saving Yonderland, and to having it be a part of her life. During the course of the show's two seasons, she pops back and forth between her home and the realm she's supposed to (somehow) save. She makes a lot of good-faith efforts to tell her husband about her adventures/confess that the house is not in fact infested with rats or haunted—they just have a djinn problem—but random mishaps keep preventing him from hearing her. Her husband's dad, played by Antony Stewart Head (you know, Giles), makes some suggestions that Debbie's occasional mysterious absences are due to an affair, which is more plausible (her loyal, sensible husband doesn't bite). Though the interactions between the fantasy world and the mundane one become increasingly difficult to deny as the show goes on, you could plausibly do a really dark reading of the text in which Yonderland is all in Debbie's head—a product of her active, possibly under-utilized mind, a sort of awful Yellow Wallpaper, Haunting of Hill House, or "Normal Again" (Buffy) fable about devalued mundane women's work, limited opportunities, and the need to create narratives where one is special and important.
The show is marked by its talented, appealing cast, which includes really well-executed puppets—the most notable of which is Elf himself (voiced by cast member Mat Baynton). The actors double up a lot, relying on costuming, strong character work, and theatrical logic to establish that the guy you just saw/heard voicing a puppet in the previous scene is now someone else. Martha Howe-Douglas (who plays Debbie, Debbie's twin Imperatrix, and voices the puppet demon Rita) is the only woman among the regular cast members, which is obviously a bit weird. Despite that, the show actually manages to fix one of my major issues with Horrible Histories. As good as that program could be, it almost uniformly sucked at women, resorting to repeating "Elizabeth I isn't very pretty" over and over like that's . . . particularly funny? Or anything like as good as the character work as they did on Liz's dad, Henry VIII, who stands out as one of the show's best recurring Jackasses of History, mockable in many respects for his terrible personality and awful decisions? Horrible Histories' Ugly Elizabeth I and Old and Chubby Queen Victoria (she's old! and chubby! ahahahahaaaa) et al. are manifestations of insidious sexism, and like most examples of same in comedy, the treatment's limiting, and makes for sub-par jokes.
But even though every episode of Yonderland is Debbie Goes to the Sausage Festival (exceptions: Imperatrix/Debbie with a different wig, some one-off characters, puppets and many, many men in drag—thanks, Britain), I really forgive it because the narrative is centrally concerned with utilizing Debbie's skills. It's interested in treating her experience as a mother, not as angel in the house bullshit, but as labor and a part of her personality. Debbie solves conflicts by talking them out, and by making friends and calling on them when she needs them. Debbie is practical, innovative, funny, determined not to be taken advantage of, and really winning. She goes about Yonderland solving a series of catastrophes by applying her relentless sanity and feminized skillset, and the narrative says yep, she is valuable, and what she does is valuable, here and back home. Debbie is awesome.
Yonderland makes the mother's POV central, and her work visible, and suggests that when children go off to school their mom has her own life, and a magical destiny complete with quests. This is a fresh conceit for what is, in large part, a children's show. Debbie's problem-solving is also where the show's "edutainment" edge can be felt. Debbie never turns to the screen and asks you to describe the contents of her backpack in Spanish, but Yonderland is definitely asking you to think about its problem-solving mechanics and apply them yourself. Treating problem solving and emotional labor as real skills children need to cultivate, which you can convey via narrative, is an unusual and useful turn in educational programming, which can traditionally make rather phatic stabs at "Everyone should share!" banalities before moving on to tell you some basic shit about triangles (no hate for the Disney film Donald in Mathmagic Land, though).
The Yonderland High Council's entertaining rubbishness never really gets stale. Maybe you would get tired of the Council nudist, whose perpetual, seemingly just-arrived-at suggestion in the face of literally any dilemma is "What if we were to cast off these cumbersome robes?", but no, I'm still good. (Shout-out to Council member who never learns to say "Debbie" right and pronounces it in this obnoxious "Dehbaaaaaay" manner forever.) Debbie's regular companions—Elf and Nick the Stick (an animate, grumpy, Dr. McCoyish walking stick)—are consistently fun. So are evil overlord Negatus and his not-very-competent demon crew, and the Jane Austen Novel Couple Who Are Perpetually Thwarted in Their Attempts to Get Engaged. The Series 1 finale does a lovely A-team job, sweeping together memorable people Debbie has encountered on her adventures thus far and using their talents to address its plot. Every character in the show is so sharply drawn it feels like they'd be easy and fun to write for—perhaps they have to be, given the doubling and the way the cast members swap around writing responsibilities.
Yonderland is a really enjoyable world, but it's more driven by what an episode needs than by any consistent vision. It appears to be made up of a clutch of random and very different city states, some of which are homogenous (the population shares a species or culture), some of which are cosmopolitan. What makes Yonderland a realm (with one largely-white-human-male ruling council—look I like this show, but I do have to say it) is a bit difficult to determine. Ah well. The mechanics honestly don't matter. I flipped shit when a late Pratchett book (Snuff) tried to recharacterize all the nobles of Ankh-Morpork as English-style landlords whose country estates were serious economic business, because this reshaped the politics of that world. It made Sybil, as well as Lord Rust et al., look like absentee-landlord bastards who majorly neglected their hitherto undreamt of responsibilities. But when Yonderland changes the rules, I go with it. The stakes are lower, and the world feels more flexible—though I do understand that Discworld novels are similarly governed by whatever Pratchett wanted us to look at in a given novel.
The show's patchwork fantasia is colorful and fun, drawn from a mélange of generic influences. Yonderland uses this loose relationship to its inspirations to present a very queer-friendly world, as well. One-off characters' queerness isn't the joke; it's just involved in the show's humor. A crack about how a couple interacts will often be about a gay couple, because well—most of the actors are men, but also the world seems to operate on the basis of something almost like queer normativity. Honestly, I've never seen so many gay couples outside of a Russell T. Davies program. There are even lesbians (GASP). It's brilliant—proof, if it were needed, that fantasy set in a faux-past need not necessarily slavishly recreate (our often shoddy modern popular grasp of) the social politics of whatever period it emulates, if the fantasy's not specifically getting something out of that choice. Thinking of copy-pasting bits of kyriarchy as a choice, with artistic and representational pros and cons, rather than a default, is key. Thus Yonderland ditched something it didn't need, and in return was able to be a really earnestly inclusive family program. The queer content isn't framed as a Lesson either, it's just presented as normal, and Debbie's comfort with it is taken for granted.
The show's humor is occasionally surprisingly adult. The innuendos et al. aren't crude; they're mostly very funny (and you probably won't have to explain them to any children watching—they don't drag you out of the action and stick out like sore thumbs). Yonderland takes Horrible Histories' awareness that people of all ages are tuning in and responds with bracing Thatcher jokes and Kraftwerk parodies as well as sex gags. Yonderland is also an incredibly British show. Not alienatingly so, but I've lived in the UK for seven years and I didn't get the joke about "the Little Chef"—I just thought it was intrinsically funny because there was a literal tiny chef setting up roadside diners serving all-day breakfast (but apparently "Little Chefs" do exist—restaurants, not tiny cooks. Alas).
I've seen the Radio Times compare Yonderland to Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, and the show's creators have likened their use of puppetry to that of Labyrinth and NeverEnding Story. This is only true as far as: there are puppets, and it's a fantasy realm. All you have to do is go to the Edinburgh Fringe one year and take in some of the shows that feature puppetry, and you'll see what a rich diversity of uses puppetry gets put to in modern theatre. Oranges are not the only fruit, muppets are not the only puppets. Not everything that uses puppets is de facto similar. I can see Labyrinth in the puppets' humor and in some of the visual qualities (the stick, the demons, Elf's slightly Hoggleish heavy face—one of them, anyway; they swap the puppet halfway through for reasons unknown). At least one joke—two (gay, of course) worms on a wall gossiping about the main characters—seems to be a direct nod to that film. But as a whole, Yonderland never meaningfully evokes parallels with either Labyrinth or NeverEnding Story, in part because the show never invests seriously in the "charm" of the fantasy genre. The show could be otherworldly and magical, but it constantly undercuts itself with humor. Humor isn't necessarily at odds with the fantastic, but Yonderland (filled with men dressed as women, absurd humor, and upbeat musical numbers) is more in tune with the topicality and sexuality of (the often fantastical) pantomime than it is with dark fairy tale Labyrinth. (OMG though, this team should do a panto; if you are reading this, guys, you have my sword, my £15 in theater tokens, etc.) In a way, Yonderland really doesn't trust its fantastic elements, or the quality of wonder. Mostly this is fine, but sometimes this hesitance or glibness can undercut the stories. For a show that's consistently cleverly written, I thought the finale of the second season (which relied on a sudden surge of sci-fi and an unusually cack-handed maternal metaphor to tie up an over-arching plot) surprisingly weak. It might have been the better for more authorial faith in Yonderland-qua-Yonderland, rather than simply using the realm as a framework for this week's wacky characters and jokes.
Yonderland is a strong program I want to see more of, as well as one I want my little niece to watch. My first-editor has suggested I call it "Yonderful," which suggests that her love of the show has overcome her judgment. I can only pray that my recommendation does not somehow result in a similar degradation of readers' once-proud minds.
I'd like to leave you with one of my favorite things to happen in this show, the deliciously OTT "Thank You, Debbie" song. I cannot watch it without cry-laughing. The disappointed drummer!! I also want this to happen to a variety of grim characters from other media, who would decidedly not appreciate it.
Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
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