Time was, I read really good literature. Being an English major and all, it was pretty much required. When I graduated, I continued my habit of reading critically acclaimed novels. I’ve written about the reading revelation I had on reading “The Shipping News.” In three words, I hated it. I hated it so much that, for the first time in my life, I left a book unread. I’ve been called negative, and certainly been depressed, but “The Shipping News” was too grim even for me.
So, I started reading fantasy. Vampire books, to be specific. But I soon branched out to werewolf books, then witch books, demon books, ghost books. When I got tired of fantastical characters, I started reading about fantastic realistic characters. This went on for years. Then, a convergence of timing, events and money made it seem reasonable for me to return to grad school and finish my master’s degree. I am probably the only person who would think the combination of helping care for a dying parent, working evenings, being home for my kids (did I mention it was summer break?) and attending grad school made perfect sense. Must have been a hypomanic phase.
It was one week into the course that I discovered I would be required to do in six weeks what ordinarily takes 11. That is, I was to research a topic in education, devise a research study around it, conduct the study, analyze it, write it up and present my findings to my classmates. I got through it with the help of a supportive family and caramel corn. My topic, predictably gloomy, was teacher attitudes toward classroom-based screening of students for mental illness. I got an A.
At the same time, I was working three evenings and Saturday mornings, teaching English and Math to over-achieving students. I spent Sundays at the nursing home with my dad, whose cancer crept out of remission, while his brain continued to decline. I spent my days either writing or corralling my kids. In other words, I was strung tighter Paula Deen’s Spanx.
That’s when my entertainment preferences when to the dogs. Literally. Influenced by my daughter and the search for something we could watch together, I found solace in Animal Planet. My son and husband deemed this far more appropriate after we were busted watching “Magic Mike,” before my daughter turned 11.
First, it was Animal Cops. Houston, Philadelphia, Arizona—it didn’t matter. As long as there were dogs to rescue from abusive owners and cats to confiscate from hoarders, my daughter and I were happy. Sure, some of the animals died, but never at the end of an episode. I nearly cried tears of joy this morning when the one-legged dog who’d been tied to a tree found a new loving family. And cow surgery?! Hell, yeah, I want to see a vet with her arm sunk pit-deep in a cow’s abdomen!*
Animal Cops lead to Pit Bulls and Parolees, next up in the Animal Planet weekday schedule. Who would watch such a thing? I used to think. I even jokingly called it “Pit Bulls and Pierogies.” But just one episode and I was addicted like nothing since General Hospital in the Luke and Laura years. Will Tia’s husband get out of prison? Will they reach New York in time to save the poor misunderstood pitbull on death row? Will I stop watching this long enough to get the breakfast dishes done? Yes, dogs died. No, Tia’s husband didn’t get out of prison. But the pitbull in New York was saved. Naturally, we didn’t find that out until the end of the episode.
It was only a matter of time before I stumbled onto the show I am most embarrassed to admit I loved, let alone watched: Too Cute. Too Cute was the antedote . . .for everything. It’s broadcast on Saturday nights. That worked perfectly into my kids/work/grad/dad schedule. Assignments were generally due Sunday. I needed a break by then, before the big push Sunday evening. Mind-numbing in its predictability, Too Cute is the perfect brain novocaine. And it is far less fattening than caramel corn.
Each episode of Too Cute is a coming of age story of three litters of puppies (sometimes kittens), or, as Animal Planet describes it: From their unsteady first steps, the beginning of their lives will be an epic journey for these adventurous pets.
The show details the lives of three litters of puppies from a couple of days past birth to the day they are adopted by their new families. It’s filmed from a close-up pup’s eye view and follows the little critters as they hit all the developmental milestones: opening their eyes, eating solid food, the first trip outdoors and visits to the vet. All with only the briefest glimpses of humans.
Watching puppies play could be akin to watching paint dry, but narrator Henry Strozier keeps the action rolling. According to New York Post writer Paige Albiniak, Strozier narrates the series “in the dulcet tones of the amused grandfather.” And while he does sound sweetly soothing, he also has the story-telling ability to turn a runt’s struggle to return to the puppy pile into a nail-biting adventure.
The best part about Too Cute, though? Unlike Animal Cops and Pitbulls and Pierogies, nothing ever dies. All of the puppies grow and thrive. All of them play and frolic. Some are more adventurous, some are trouble makers and, occasionally there’s a pup who identifies more with the family goat than his canine litter mates. But never, ever does a star of Too Cute die.
At the time I was most seriously addicted to Too Cute, my father was in the last weeks of his life. He had his lucid days and some times his typical sense of humor returned, but he was obviously declining. Only a fool would fail to see the reason I took comfort in what is arguably the most un-Janice entertainment available today. I am no fool. When everything was crap around me, an hour with packs of puppies (did I say they never poop, either?) was just what I needed.
My dad died October 1; I and my siblings were with him. While I’m not quite ready to write about his death, I appear to be ready to return to my regularly scheduled programming. I haven’t seen an episode of Too Cute in weeks. But I have discovered Sleepy Hollow. It’s trash, but it’s got enough witches, demons and time travelers to keep me coming back, at least until Game Of Thrones returns.
* I have since recalled that this appeared on an episode of The Incredible Dr. Pol, a program on National Geographic Wild. See? This animal-show-watching is addictive.