Back when the world was young and my kids were small, my husband and I began the tradition of a family movie night. At first, it was simple: every Saturday evening we’d pop some popcorn, break out the root beer (that rare nectar of the gods), and find an online episode of “America’s Funniest Videos” or “Wipeout” to entertain the masses.
As my children grew, though, they put away their childish desire to see people face-plant and belly-flop. Now we had a dilemma on our hands: what to watch for family night? It’s a conundrum for many parents of young teens and so-called “tweens”: that awkward moment when you’ve outgrown cartoons and watched the classics, but you aren’t quite ready for rom-coms or action flicks. Hollywood isn’t much help: shows and movies written specifically for this age group tend to be mind-numbing dreck of the sort you see on ABC Family or the Disney Channel.
Last year, we had the happy accident of stumbling across an exception to this rule: Amazon’s “Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street.” The online series launched its first season in November 2014 with 13 episodes. Two additional seasons have followed, with the series’ final season out this summer. For Amazon Prime subscribers, all 39 episodes are now available on demand.
‘Gortimer Gibbons’ Is Full of Magic
“Gortimer” follows its oddly named hero through the same season of life my children are experiencing: the few short years where kids have one foot in childhood and the other in adulthood. Unlike most Hollywood offerings, “Gortimer” manages this transition well, overlapping the innocence of childhood with the growing responsibilities of adulthood—and infusing both with magic.
Literally: the show is full of magic. As viewers discover early on, life on Normal Street is “anything but normal,” with obscure curses, quirky legends, and enchanted objects surfacing in nearly every episode. Gortimer, along with his best friends Ranger and Mel, are something like the Muggle versions of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, with an occasional dose of the supernatural invading their otherwise ordinary world. They never quite learn to wield the magic; instead, they’re usually learning lessons about the unintended consequences of magical interventions in the affairs of men.
It’s that theme—regularly recurring throughout the series—that I find most appealing. For example, when Ranger finds a legendary gavel that makes everyone agree with him, he starts out by gleefully using his new power. Soon, he begins to see the downside of being surrounded by “yes” men: there’s no one to stop him from making foolish decisions. In another episode, Gortimer and Ranger learn a similar lesson with an eraser that causes the user to forget unpleasant memories. They quickly realize that with painful experience comes wisdom, and erasing one erases the other.
Throughout the series, the characters must often choose between their desire for a “quick fix” and their growing understanding that upsetting the natural order of things will reap consequences. It’s a theme that—intentional or not—is quite conservative. In a culture where young people are drawn to top-down, “magical” fixes for everything from income inequality (pass a $15 minimum wage!) to hurt feelings (speech codes for everyone!), it’s refreshing to be reminded to look for hidden effects and unintended consequences.
A Show Families Can Enjoy Together
Refreshing too are the respectful interactions between “Gortimer’s” middle-schoolers and the adults in their lives. While touching on themes of divorce, parental approval, and even (in season two) the death of a parent, the show manages a sweetness, authenticity, and snark-free humor in its treatment of parent-child relationships. The setting is modern, but ‘80s kids like me may think Normal Street more closely resembles the ethos of their own childhoods. Household chores are a regular part of these kids’ lives, balanced with plenty of free-range roaming.
Religious parents may want to know that a Halloween episode in the first season features a quasi-séance (a periodic table of elements stands in for the Ouija board). Seasons two and three also contain a few mild storylines about crushes and dating. On the whole, though, this is a show that parents and kids can watch together without squirming. The worst language you will hear comes from Ranger, who uses the names of foods in an effort to clean up his vocabulary, shouting “pasta fagioli!” at frustrating moments.
In the end, the best part of this series isn’t what it leaves out, but what it includes. Magic may be “Gortimer’s” focal point, but ultimately magic’s dangers are shown to outweigh its charms. The real strength of Normal Street is found in relationships: of the three friends, their wider circle, their families, and their community. As we consider the poignancy of children on the cusp of leaving childhood behind, we’re reminded that life is fleeting, fragile, and full of change—and too short not to love each other well. Let’s hope Amazon creates more kids’ shows in this mold.