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Justice, Siegel and Boettcher in Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street. Amazon

REVIEW: An Amazon Kids' Show Far Better Than Normal

Nov 20, 2014

The rise of streaming TV has been a gift for fans of ambitious scripted shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black. Still, it's odd that this new video medium has got the most attention for giving us more of what we already have a lot of--comedies, dramas and dramedies for adults.

TV, of course, is a lot more than that--and, in fact, people who use streaming services use them for a lot more. Families, for instance, use the archives of classic TV shows and movies to fill in the gaps of new entertainment. (In my house, we've been having a mini film festival of '70s and '80s flicks like Breaking Away, which are simultaneously adult and kid-accessible, without being saccharine, in a way that doesn't exist as much now.) And kids, who've grown up accustomed to a grazer's buffet bar of media, are naturals for streaming: they watch what they want on their schedule, while their parents don't need to worry what they'll come across flipping channels. "Flipping channels," really, is one of those experiences--like searching for a pay phone--that my children only encounter now when watching the aforementioned '70s and '80s movies.

Amazon Prime Video has been the streamer that's most focused on original kids' shows, including the delightful, science-and-tech focused Annedroids, which premiered this summer and was quietly radical for advancing the idea that girls could get excited about robots. It also earlier this year debuted the preschool-focused Creative Galaxy and Tumble Leaf. Each of those shows was winsome in its own way, but they didn't fill a dire need; there's a surfeit of sharp TV for younger kids both on commercial and public TV. It's when kids get a little older that the quality choices dry up, the Disney Channel sitcoms multiply, and you find yourself searching for reruns of Malcolm in the Middle.

But Amazon's newest debut finally aims at that niche of original, non-obnoxious TV for tweens that used to be filled by series like Nickelodeon's Adventures of Pete and Pete, back in my younger days when nickels used to have bumblebees on them.

Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street, premiering its first season Nov. 21, is a kind of off-kilter, magic-realist hangout comedy. Amazon says it's aimed at children 6 to 11--which, in kids' aspirational math, means the lead characters are around 13--but this adult found himself gobbling the four episodes Amazon sent as if I were raiding my kids' Halloween candy.

The title character (Sloane Morgan Siegel) and his two best friends, Mel (Ashley Boettcher) and Ranger (Drew Justice) live in a neighborhood that is both totally boring and unpredictably enchanted. The summer days drag slowly, the fall days are a string of school projects--and then they're interrupted by the discovery of a mysterious pencil that has the power to erase memories or a menacing toad that has apparently placed a curse on an elderly neighbor (Fionnula Flanagan). Well-meaning Gortimer, brainy Mel and overenthusiastic Ranger throw themselves into the mysteries thrust upon them with the spirit of early teenagers, for whom the discovery that the world is profoundly weird is entirely unsurprising.

Normal Street's like a pleasant throwback, both in its attitude and its style. The stories, many of which involve eccentric but sympathetic adults, call back to a time when kid and adult culture wasn't so strictly segregated (as in Pee-Wee's Playhouse, recently re-released on home video). The humor is sophisticated, but with kid's-eye detail; describing a favorite luridly colored frozen treat, Gortimer remarks in a voiceover: "It's said that the peculiar sounds that the machine makes when birthing an Arctic Sludgie are the laws of physics screaming in protest." There's also a kind of indie-film gestalt to the show, down to the soundtrack music, which recalls Mark Mothersbaugh's for Wes Anderson's Rushmore.

The dream of the '90s is truly alive on Normal Street, and yes, that does make me wonder a little if this is a series designed to appeal more to nostalgic former kids like me than actual kids of the moment. But I have to believe there's a cross-generational appeal to the quirky stories from creator (and preschool teacher) David Anaxagoras as well as the instantly appealing characters.

The first episode, available on Amazon before the series premiere, is charming but a little sluggishly paced, but the following episodes only get better. A particular standout centers on Mel, the high-strung daughter of successful parents, who builds an artificially intelligent robot for a school science contest and finds her high-strung competitive attitude transferring to the machine. The story is far-fetched; the theme of early-onset stress is real. But above all it's inventive and funny, as when the robot shows up for the science fair dressed in a T-shirt that reads Wiñata: "A person or thing," the machine explains with deadpan cockiness, "that is stuffed so full of win that if hit with a stick it would spill win all over the floor."

Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street is exploding with treasures like that line. And regardless of your age, I defy you to take a crack at it and not end up getting win all over yourself.

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