Have adults been this eager to get their hands on something meant for children since the apex years of Harry Potter? Has there been this much fan excitement for a seven-minute piece of art since the 60s, and Hey Jude? Later this summer, when a third season of the Australian cartoon Bluey appears on streaming platforms in Europe and the US, parents and carers will usher their children in front of a convenient screen – and they’ll hang around to watch an episode (or two, or 10) themselves. This is an addictive, joyous, witty, smug, obscurely wounding piece of children’s programming; a show that since its launch in 2018 has inspired devotion from viewers of all ages, as well as a hit album, a touring play, an Emmy, threads of anxious sociopolitical debate, and a podcast for grownups that dissects each episode as if Bluey were the most prestigious of prestige TV.
A quick primer, for those not familiar with the 100-plus episodes that have appeared online to date, either via the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), where the show originated, or on BBC iPlayer and Disney+, where Bluey has lived in the UK, US and much of Europe since early 2020. The title character is a six-year-old girl who is faced each episode with a developmental event. Play date? Bike lesson? First bit of money from the tooth fairy? We have been through all this and more with Bluey. We’ve learned a lot, about perseverance in the bike episode; about the pressures of late-stage capitalism in the one about the tooth.
Bluey lives in a big house in suburban Brisbane with her four-year-old sister Bingo, her mother Chilli and her father Bandit. This family are all dogs, by the way. Bingo and Chilli are orange dogs and Bluey and Bandit are blue. Chilli drives a 4WD to work at the local airport and Bandit, the dad, is nominally an archaeologist. In fact, Bandit seems to spend much of his time at home, and much of that time immersed in the imaginary worlds of one or both of his daughters.
At which point we can go no further in this precis without pausing to say: fucking Bandit. Bluey’s dad seems to exist to give parents another reason to lose sleep. Bandit always plays the games right. Bandit invests in his daughters’ dreamed-up scenarios without stinting or sighing or checking the time. Bandit has neat, apt truisms and he’s ready to offer them at a moment’s notice. He’s funny. He’s creative. Bandit is heaven to his own kids and so, in the eyes of many parents I know, he is hell. “He makes DIY look sort of transcendent,” a friend texted, after watching a Bluey episode about flat-packed garden furniture. Other acquaintances admitted they dreaded the new series, aware that however toxic their fascination, they would have to keep watching Bandit’s exploits for the same reason they tuned in to watch Serena Williams or the latest Succession – to pay homage to the best of the best.
Bluey’s Australian creator Joe Brumm worked towards his cartoon while living in London in the 2000s. During the day, Brumm attended the University of Charlie and Lola (working as an animator on the drily funny BBC children’s show from 2005 to 2008) while at night he took classes at the College of Peppa Pig (he was mates with some of the creatives on the wildly popular cartoon). Returning to his home town of Brisbane in 2009, Brumm set up a small animation studio and started to toy with the idea of making an Australian Peppa Pig. There would be sensibility tweaks, Brumm decided, better to match his own deadpan humour. The characters in his Peppa knockoff would have biographies closer to those of his own family. Instead of pigs, he wanted dogs. Lastly, something would have to be done about the dad.
Peppa Pig’s dad is hopeless. He belongs in the lineage of Fred Flintstone and Homer Simpson, archetypes that Brumm has called “the dicks in the room”, positioned in their animated worlds to precipitate laughter or narrative action by being too vain, too thick, too status-obsessed to remember to perform the duties of a parent as well. If we ever see the Fred/Homer figure hunkered down to play with his kids on the carpet, it tends to come at a moment of episode-ending resolution. Perhaps he’s grown a bit into his domestic role because of some other adventure. In Bluey, Brumm decided, the hunkering down and the playing would be the adventure.
He read studies by child psychologists, trying to get a grip on the interior mechanics of play. He made notes on the games his two daughters dreamed up. Bluey would become a sort of personal time capsule, as he explained to an Australian academic in 2019: “The games … were so weird and bizarre and idiosyncratic, and those memories get lost in the sands of time.” Instead of letting them slip away, Brumm would write them, immortally, into the culture.
After a brief flirtation with the idea of making this an adults-only show (an early short was made that had jokes about mastitis) he created a one-minute sample of a kid-focused Bluey in 2016. A Brisbane company called Ludo Studios took it on, helping Brumm expand his demo to five minutes. Michael Carrington, a British executive who had bought Charlie and Lola for the BBC, was working at ABC and bought Bluey’s domestic rights. BBC Studios, the corporation’s money-making commercial arm, became its international distributor. Brumm and a creative team that included his wife, Suzy, got to work on a first season of 52 seven-minute episodes that were released in Australia in autumn 2018.
Disney put the show on US telly a year later, and brought Bluey to Europe and the UK via Disney+ at the start of 2020. No revoicing, no deleting of the original’s Brisbane accents (although Disney market-researched doing just that). As Brumm saw it, how his characters spoke was fundamental to the show’s sensibility. Bandit, voiced by an Aussie musician called Dave McCormack, is gravelly voiced, wry, a very chill bean. Chilli, voiced by Melanie Zanetti, is straighter-talking, sunnier. Suzy Brumm voices one of the many supporting characters. Several of the Brumms’ relatives and friends have made cameos. The children of various inhouse animators handle the kids. A sense of intimacy, an affectionate gang at work, oozes out of this thing.
In terms of its tone, its pace, the explicitness of its themes and the lack of any overt narrative signposting, Bluey is almost Sundance fare. It’s mumblecore. It’s the fiction of Penelope Fitzgerald. Short episodes are set up sparely and race along in a hurry. Viewers of whatever age are trusted to have the instincts or the intelligence to keep up. The first episode, about an elongated game of musical statues, conveys a profound truth about children at play. They know what’s pretend. They know adults know, too. They know adults know they know. But nobody is ever allowed to speak of this. Nobody can tip the wink, acknowledge pretence, otherwise a game falls apart. Episode one was a quiet masterpiece. No doubt it helped account for the speed with which Australia, the US, then the UK surrendered to Bluey’s charms.
Within 18 months of its Australian debut, a country of 25 million people had streamed episodes 260m times. Bluey’s distinctive soundtrack, which riffs on everything from Holst’s The Planets to Hans Zimmer’s score for True Romance, went to the top of the Australian album charts. By the time Brumm was sitting in a Brisbane theatre in late 2020, waiting for curtain-up on Bluey’s Big Play: The Stage Show, his creation was significant enough in the culture to inspire op-eds and tortured online arguments about its casting (quite white) and its gender politics (quite pro-dad). Perhaps in response to this, Chilli’s role seems beefier in Bluey’s second series, which debuted in Australia in 2020. In an episode called Sleepytime, perfectly told with minimal dialogue and that Holst score, the focus homes in on Chilli and her younger daughter Bingo. It surreally dramatises the challenge of getting a toddler to spend a night on their own, away from the cosmic bed-warmth of Mum.
The New York Times named Sleepytime one of the best TV episodes of that year. America’s most fanciable parents, Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes, announced they were devotees. Prime ministers and pro-wrestlers admitted they often had it on at home. Billy Joel threw a Bluey–themed party for his daughter. When episodes from the third season began to be broadcast in Australia ahead of the rest of the world late last year, it was no surprise to see Natalie Portman among the guest stars recording cameos. Portman had already been outed as a secret Blueyist, spotted reading to her kids from a spin-off storybook.
Perhaps we are drearier in the UK. Perhaps we like to torture ourselves more. But from the start, our relationship with Bluey has felt more conflicted. Friends of mine murmur about this cartoon in huddles, admiring and doubtful all at once, trying to sound each other out for our true feelings. Have you seen Bluey? It’s tremendous. Have you seen Bluey? I love it, but it makes me feel awful about myself. Have you seen Bluey? That Bandit, man!
For me, the creep of inadequacy began as soon I saw episode one. I have played well with my own children, I thought, but never this well. Bandit put me in mind of that line in the opening scene of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, when Scarlett Johansson’s character is described as a parent “who plays, really plays, she never steps off playing” – a line that surely made every minute-counting, phone-checking parent squirm. Bandit made me think of Barack Obama, coolly running the free world for eight years, while setting aside the time for a conversation at dinner with his daughters every day. Bandit rushed straight into that highest parenting bracket, a Premier Leaguer, a gold medallist, perfect and inimitable and utterly soul-crushing.
Bluey’s creator is not unaware of his Bandit dilemma, this problem of an adult viewership feeling slightly inadequate whenever they tune in. At early meetings with his collaborators, Brumm pointed out that (according to the child-psychology studies he’d been reading) kids developed better through play when their carers took a step back and let them steer their own games. Should Bandit become more of a background figure, then? The team thought it over. They decided they would lose too many laughs. Bandit being the king of carpet-time was just funnier. Brumm once told the Sydney Morning Herald that he didn’t know what to do about Bandit’s superiority problem, “other than go on some speaking tour and say: ‘You don’t have to play with your kids that much.’”
As an artist, it takes gall to embrace the least appetising aspect of your work: to draw attention to the one thing that makes an audience most want to turn away. Donald Glover and the creators of Atlanta do this superbly, heightening their stories about racial othering by making viewers feel disoriented, slightly left behind, “othered” themselves. Once, The Sopranos encouraged us to fall in love with a personable gangster, to make us question our tendency to be charmed by such criminals at all. It’s a measure of Bluey’s confidence and calibre that it can get away with borrowing such meta techniques. In my favourite episode of Bluey, a mid-second season wonder called Octopus, the immiserating effect of Bandit’s parenting skills are tackled directly.
We watch as Bluey invites a friend called Chloe over to play. They amuse themselves with a catch-me-if-you-can game called Octopus. Of course, Bandit plays, too. He’s catcher. Bandit goes method, disappearing into his octopus role, communicating with the girls in undersea gobbledegook, reducing them to kicking hysterics. You start to tremble and feel small, as a parent-viewer, all over again. But these brief episodes pack in loads, like Lydia Davis stories. After the playdate, there is an unexpected perspective shift and we follow Chloe home with her stiffer, straighter father.
She begs her dad to play Octopus, too. He agrees. Only he feels silly, bad at this. He keeps reflexively ruining the game with pedantry. At one point, he drifts away to his computer to read out Wikipedia pages on octopuses, or “octopi”, as this drag of a dad insists on calling them. When father and daughter fall out, the episode seems to have taken an unbearably depressing turn. Then, resolution! They decide to reject the Bandit method. They figure out a middle way, settling on a more factually informed version of the same game. Just before the credits roll, Bluey visits Chloe for a return play date. She seems to enjoy the evolved version of Octopus a little more, actually. It’s more flattering. More grownup.
I have pondered this episode often, as I wait, like other Bluey people, for 50 more episodes to appear. In the coming third series, there will surely be fresh demonstrations of golden-dadding from Bandit. There will be corresponding wobbles from viewers such as me. But Bluey is good art, maybe great art, and its provocations are worthwhile. We’ll watch. We’ll doubt ourselves. Then we’ll try to figure out a middle way.
Bluey returns to Disney+ later this summer.