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16 Great TV Shows You've Never Heard Of
16 Off Your Radar TV Shows
Sure, SpongeBob makes the kids laugh, and So, You Think You Can Dance? is fun for the whole family, but there's a lot of television out there that doesn't get much attention and has something valuable to offer our kids. Taking the time to seek out quality programming -- shows with a unique perspective or the ability to expand kids' minds a bit -- can pay off. We're here to save you a little time. We've sifted through thousands of TV shows -- many available On Demand or streaming through services like Netflix -- to highlight some staff favorites that we think have merit and that might otherwise be off your radar.
Around-the-World TV for Preschoolers
Franny's Feet (local PBS stations/DVD), 3+
Adorable 5-year-old Franny takes magical adventures to far-off lands when she steps inside shoes from her grandfather's repair shop. Vacation sandals transport her to Jamaica, while zori take her to a Japanese tea ceremony. In each new locale, Franny meets characters who are very different from her. The show's messages about appreciating differences and being respectfully curious about others' lives are great for wee ones.
Kipper (DVD/streaming), 3+
This low-key series based on an award-winning book collection is perfect for kids (and parents) who prefer mellow preschool TV. No screeching characters here; instead, Kipper's British accent gently guides kids through stories that incorporate messages about being courteous, thoughtful, and kind -- great lessons for tiny tots.
Timmy Time (Disney/streaming), 3+
Fans of Aardman Animations' hit series Shaun the Sheep may recognize Timmy as the baby lamb who gets pulled into the fray of the herd's antics in that series. With charming stop-motion animation and dialogue-free interactions, these 10-minute jewels pack some pro-social lessons in with the funny stuff.
Learning and Growing TV for Tweens
Dragonfly TV (online/local PBS stations), 6+
This is one of those great shows that's both educational and relatable. Real-life role models from all over the United States investigate scientific topics, often stemming from their own life experiences. For example, a girl who was born with one arm learns more about how the body's electrical signals allow her prosthetic limb to function. With fun, flashy graphics and engaging young hosts, this show gets kids excited about science.
H20: Just Add Water (DVD/streaming), 7+
Mix mermaids with positive messages about being yourself, and you get some great tween television. Sure, the acting in this Australian import is cheesy, but tweens won't care. They'll love the fantasy of three teen girls who magically transform into sea creatures when they touch water but still have to deal with mild pressures from friends, teachers, and parents.
How It's Made (Discovery Channel/streaming), 7+
If you've got a curious kid, this no-nonsense up-close look at how different objects are made is a keeper. Through simple narration each episode follows the product – from waterbeds to marbles – through the production line, with brief information about materials, proportions, cost, etc. How It's Made might just inspire kids to look at the world with a different perspective.
Little House on the Prairie (Hallmark Channel/DVD), 7+
Yes, parents have certainly heard of this show, but most 7-year-olds haven't. This classic airs frequently on basic cable, and its nine seasons and multiple specials are all available on DVD. Young kids will be fascinated by the frontier lifestyle and the still-relatable issues of peer pressure, choosing between right and wrong, and managing family relationships. Kids might just be inspired to pick up the original books, too.
Good Eats (Food Network/Cooking Channel/DVD), 8+
Kids who are interested in food and science will find a goofy teacher in host Alton Brown, whose mix of curiosity and play-acting make him fun to watch. Whether he's talking about milk pasteurization or the chemical breakdown of protein, both kids and parents will likely learn something new. With more than 250 episodes available in reruns and on DVD, you'll probably never get to the bottom of this delicious series.
Expand Your Middle Schooler's TV Horizons
Doctor Who (SyFy, BBC America, DVD), 10+
Celebrated by nerds worldwide, Doctor Who deserves a wider audience. He uses his charm and quick-thinking to disarm his foes instead of weapons or violence. Honesty, loyalty, and integrity are the most cherished of traits on this long-running series that will have older tweens and teens (and adults) enthralled.
Nick News with Linda Ellerbee (Nickelodeon), 11+
Since this news-oriented show geared toward tweens and teens has received multiple prestigious awards, somebody has evidently heard of it ... but it doesn't get the attention it deserves. Legendary news reporter Ellerbee has a way of talking about serious topics like September 11, plastic surgery, war, and AIDS in a way that's respectful of kids and also helps them open up their minds about unfamiliar topics. Not just for kids, this fascinating show can be an eye-opener for parents about what kids are thinking about the world.
Everybody Hates Chris (Nickelodeon/DVD/streaming), 12+
Creator Chris Rock captures the agony of middle school and mixes in thoughtful and funny commentaries about race in this sitcom set in the 1980s and based on the comedian's real upbringing. Still in constant reruns and also available on DVD and streaming online, this smart show is one that kids and parents can enjoy together.
Psych (USA/DVD/streaming), 13+
Older tweens and teens who enjoy mysteries but who are too young or sensitive for the graphic elements of most mainstream crime shows will find this clever whodunit a winner. It mixes witty jokes and missing persons for a lighthearted but just complex enough story for something that older tweens/young teens and parents can watch together.
Thought-Provoking TV for Teens
Friday Night Lights (DVD/streaming), 13+
You don't have to be football fan to relate to this series' deeply felt stories and nuanced characters. The show had some true believers while on air, but it never gained enough of an audience to keep it going. While the mature topics aren't right for all families, Friday Night Lights provides lots of conversation starters (about race, relationships, ethical behavior, etc.) and a model of a healthy, functional family.
The Glee Project (Oxygen), 13+
Despite its connection to one of the most popular TV shows on air, The Glee Project hasn't attracted a lot of attention. But those who tune in will see a group of teens and young adults competing for spots on the hit show Glee. With an emphasis on being "different" and being true to yourself, the show gives the misfits and the underdogs a place to shine.
NY Med (ABC), 14+
So much of reality TV is just plain bad. Thankfully, there are the occasional gems like NY Med, where viewers get to see real people in real situations dealing with serious issues. While there are plenty of heartbreaking moments in this hospital series, the occasional humor lightens things up and helps create good television.
30 Days (DVD/streaming), 15+
From Morgan Spurlock, the director of Super Size Me, this docuseries follows a person as he or she spends 30 days doing something completely out of their comfort zone in the hopes of gaining important insights and teaching viewers something in the process. From the very uncomfortable experience of a conservative Midwestern farm guy who moves in with a gay roommate in San Francisco's Castro District to the materialistic Manhattanites who move to an eco-village for a month, this series is eye-opening, controversial, and thought-provoking stuff for mature teens.