Ah, screen time, the magical refuge of parents everywhere. Before I broke down and let my toddler watch TV, I had no idea how wonderful it could be. I also had no idea about the brave new world of children’s programming I was about to enter. Overall, I’ve managed to be incredibly picky about my kid’s television viewing habits. We stuck to classics like "Mister Rogers," and a few shows that came highly recommended from friends, like "Puffin Rock." Which is why I totally surprised myself when one day, I clicked on a brand new television program, called "Dino Dana," without even researching it first! "Dino Dana" is an Amazon Original Series, and it’s a spin-off of the "Dino Dan" franchise. It also somehow manages to be 1000 times better than "Dino Dan," for reasons that have little to do with dinosaurs. The first season of "Dino Dana" was released in May 2017, giving my toddler and I plenty of time to binge watch all 13 episodes. It follows the adventures of a nine-year-old girl named Dana Jain, who is obsessed with dinosaurs, and is able to see real live dinosaurs in her neighborhood with the help of something called A Dino Field Guide. (The Dino Field Guide is a sketchbook with a tablet embedded in the pages, which used to belong to Dan from "Dino Dan" and later his little brother Trek of "Trek’s Adventures.") It combines live action footage of Dana, and her family and neighbors, with CGI dinosaurs who roam the streets and eat lettuce and beef jerky.
Here is what my child loves about "Dino Dana"
There are a lot of dinosaurs! Dana excitedly encounters different dinos in each and every episode, and in order to perform her “dino experiments” she interacts with them directly. She learns how dinosaurs protect their young, and even teaches a T-rex to dance. Yet, because it is made with preschoolers in mind, the CGI dino scenes are never too scary for him. Even the most intense predator/prey moments are quickly resolved by luring the predator away with a tiny square of dried meat. And while I have some questions about why a large meat eating dinosaur would prefer a single bite of jerky over a baby triceratops, I do like that my two-year-old isn’t shaking with terror.
Here is what I love about "Dino Dana"
First there’s the matter of scientific information! Putting the weird dietary choices of the dinosaurs aside, the information presented is pretty accurate and up to date. This is important, because so much of the dinosaur stuff available for little kids is ridiculously inaccurate. If you are a nerdy parent who cares about science (I am) it can be frustrating to come across brontosauruses in kids’ books in 2017 (I’m looking at you, Sandra Boynton!). Also, the whole concept of experiments around which the show is based encourages scientific inquiry, which is awesome. Then there’s the cast of characters. Dana herself is pretty fun, you get that sense that she just can’t help but share her love of dinosaurs with everyone around her, because that’s just how excited she is. With her mismatched bootlaces and awkward quirkiness, she’s a kid I would have identified with as a child. Her family is blended and multicultural, and in one episode she turns to her sister Saara and says, “remember how my mom fell in love with your dad, and now we’re a family even though we look different?” The Jain family is affectionate and clearly tight knit, though they aren’t above picking on each other and squabbling. I’m especially fond of the father, who is “really into crafting.” They live in an apartment building with a shared lawn, and Dana regularly chats with her neighbors, almost all of which are people of color. Admittedly, the acting isn’t always amazing, the actors are sometimes stiff and unbelievable. But in the realm of children’s programming, diversity without resting on heavily overplayed stereotypes is a breath of fresh air, and it’s enough to distract me from the imperfections. But the biggest reason I adore "Dino Dana," her lovely family and friends, and the cast of CGI prehistoric creatures, actually has to do with the Bechdel Test. For those not familiar, the Bechdel Test is a fairly modest and tongue-in-cheek standard for female representation in movies (though it can easily be applied to TV, books, and other media) created by Alison Bechdel. The test has three parts: 1 | Does it have at least two women (in this case, girls) in it? 2 | Do they talk to each other? 3 | About something other than a man (or in this case, boy)? What is striking about the Bechdel Test is that it is an incredibly low bar, and yet many films fail to pass it. "Dino Dana," however, is soaring through the Bechdel Test. If we were to set the bar higher and ask for media to portray complex female relationships and female characters with rich inner lives (you know, like real people), Dino Dana would get an A+ at that too, even with the cheesy acting and constant string of dino facts. And this is especially refreshing given that it isn’t a show about traditionally “feminine” subject matter. Dana is not a show about princesses – it’s a show that is first and foremost about dinosaurs. Except, I don’t think it is. Dinosaurs may be the backdrop of every plot line, and Dana may constantly share her factual discoveries with us, but the real stories are about human beings. And the people we see the most in "Dino Dana" are two sisters (who never once use the term “step sister” to describe their relationship, though they are not biologically related) named Dana and Saara. Dana is the younger sister, with high energy and filled with a near-constant excitement which she desperately wishes to share with her sister. Saara is the older sister, a tweenager who is growing out of little kid stuff and often annoyed by Dana’s antics. She ultimately still has a lot of affection for her, and sometimes feels nostalgic. We’re even told that once upon a time, it was Saara who piqued Dana’s interest in the world of dinos. This relationship matters, and it’s one not often portrayed on screen. As a sister myself, I find everything from the bickering and “borrowing” of things without permission to silly nicknames and very sudden moments of tenderness to be incredibly familiar. Dana and Saara are two girls who love each other deeply, but who are also trying to navigate all the ways their relationship is changing as they both grow. And oh yeah, look over there, a microraptor! For little girls who like dinosaurs, this show has to be awesome. So why am I, the mother of a little boy, so excited? Well, to put it as simply as possible, my son needs to know that girls are complicated and whole people every bit as much as little girls do. And while he isn’t getting that message from the vast majority of children’s media, he’s definitely getting it on "Dino Dana." And seriously, the episode with the dancing T-rex is the coolest.