by Robert Earleywine
She lies at the foot of our bed so she can be close to the big TV. Now she is the length of the width of the standard sized bed. She has her bottle. We expect her to give it up soon, rather like the way she potty trained herself.
I work the remote, looking through Netflix’ menu for a cartoon that could possibly help her get to sleep. I’d like to find an old Mickey Mouse, so well drawn, with a full story, but instead find Mia and Me: a pubescent girl transforms into an elf with wings and finds friends and unicorns. Or Tinker Bell, and though our girl looks much like Tinker Bell, she doesn’t much like her. (By the way, fairies can’t fly when their wings are wet.) All this great CGI, like Masha and the Bear, a Russian import. In each episode, this tiny green-eyed girl, usually wearing a headscarf, destroys the order in the huge bear’s house and yard, but he loves her.
I work the remote: “This one … This one?”
She shakes her head, says no, her mouthful of teeth clinging to the rubber nipple.
“This one.” She points.
I don’t like it. There’s a little cartoon girl and a duck, both too simply drawn and, though the duck has a pale green head, the two characters have no color. Even the background is white.
The girl’s face is white, her head a circle, like her big round eyes with tiny black dots for the eyes themselve. She has no nose and a small slit for a mouth. The duck, in profile, hardly looks like a duck. But I hit play.
If you want to practice your British, watch Sarah and Duck. It’s from the BBC. A Brit narrator says “Sarah and Duck” four times in slightly varying intonations as the two characters move backwards four times from a close up to a long view. The duck bends over and wags his short tale and the story begins. One episode opens with this sentence, “Today Sarah and Duck are in the park looking for patches of grass they haven’t yet stepped on.”
No big excitement here, and the computer-fed drawings lack color. Of course the grass is green, the bench is white. In each episode other characters wander in and out, like Scarf Lady, an old lady always knitting with a knitting bag that talks—though Duck only quacks. For Sarah’s birthday, Scarf Lady says, “Here you are, dear. I’ve knitted you some pastries.” Scarf Lady has a pet donkey. She says he’s a good porpoise. She calls the huge wandering tortoise, “Green Bean.”
There’s a significant cast of characters, but never more than four fill the screen at the same time. There’s Rainbow who talks. And Moon drops by when he’s not working, usually carrying his lunch box. Moon is an excellent painter, giving Sarah and Duck much more color and detail than the authors do. The narrator talks to the characters and they to him, but we never see him. Surprised he says, “My word,” or “Well, I never,” which makes me wonder, What’s the word? Or never what?
Until I watched and listened I rather hated the lack of color, the lazy looking drawings of most everything, although the black and white tiles in Sarah’s kitchen are in perfect perspective. She and Duck drink lemon water. Duck is seen eating only bread, with relish. No, not with relish, but he relishes the eating, shaking the bread in his simply drawn beak.
But to the point. No gunplay or swordplay. No violence period, not even the slapstick of early Disney. There is a problem to be solved, a journey down the street or to the park. For example, together they leave the house, in which of course there are no adults. “Come on, Duck,” Sarah says and Duck quacks and follows. His head is not quite as tall as her shoulder. He can fly, a little, like up to the top of her head or up to a tree house, but usually Duck prefers to walk. You’d think he’d have a name, or the show would be called Sarah and the Duck, but no.
But to the point. I Google, “how to draw Sarah and Duck.” But I don’t much care about Sarah. I care about Duck. His full profile can be drawn in exactly ten lines, apart from the pale green coloration of his head (he’s said to be a mallard) and the dark yellow of his bill, legs and feet, except for his eye, an oval inset with a black dot just like Sarah’s eyes.
What amazes me, if not the little girl at the foot of our bed, is what Duck does. As Aristotle says a character is what he does. In their house Duck’s room has a bath tub. He sleeps in the tub, but with white covers and sometimes his toy robot. On the floor are blocks and things and train tracks and a train he pushes with his head. The closest the program has ever come to an act of violence, though hardly that, is when Sarah decides to put a talking cake in his room and, not wanting to share, Duck throws a tantrum, quacking, beating his wings, shoving his toys around with his head, tossing them with his beak. When Duck misbehaves Sarah says, “Du-uck,” turning his name into two syllables. But what cracks me up again and again is when Duck looks head-on at the camera, his closed bill an ellipse. His eyes set on the side of his head like elliptical bubbles and the black dots of his eyes would look crossed if they were not so far apart. His expression is always of a kind of puzzlement, as if his name has been called and he’s looking at you as though you’ll tell him what you want. I’ve never seen a more ridiculous and endearing little face that is absolutely silly.
By now Grandma is slumbering beside me. It occurs to me that something deep in this isn’t necessarily funny, that “at the end of the day,” as politicians and commentators like to say on CNN, there is a relief—a quietness that can put a child to sleep, or show an adult how many things remain the same despite this administration, and what can be an impending war if this regime is not changed.
And something a little bit deeper: The voices in Sarah and Duck do not sound like adult voices imitating those of children. There are no blatant morals woven through or ending the episodes. In fact, there is no hugging and very little petting, so I come away from the show thinking what Saint-Exupery says, that love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.
Her bottle finished the baby sits up. There’s a problem to be solved. Or a journey.
A sample of “Sarah and Duck”: