Several years ago, reality television discovered that there was an untapped source of honesty and veracity: kids. By replacing their typical casts with kids—who were honest and vulnerable and hadn’t yet been shamed by society into packing their emotions and true selves deep down inside—shows found new life.
Kids challenged themselves and each other, and were relatable characters (because we’ve all been there) and inspirational (because they had talent or maturity that we don’t). Kids provided an easy way to make a franchise feel fresh again, became the solution to rescuing a dying shows, and drew big ratings.
The Toy Box ends all of that, because the kids absolutely ruin this show.
At the very least, The Toy Box (ABC, Fridays at 8) has proven that casting kids alone doesn’t make for a good series, and it also points out what works, because the series made one fatal flaw.
Toy Box starts strong, devolves into madness
The Toy Box is a pretty standard Shark Tank knock-off: It often starts with a bio of the toymaker that carefully avoids identifying the actual toy. Then it cuts to the person walking down a long hallway, though the producers have put an obstacle in the way: Eric Stonestreet, taking a break from America’s most mediocre sitcom to chat with the toymakers and later—well, we’ll get to later later.
Those conversations are fun, and while some might be disappointed that Stonestreet is not acting like Cam, he’s equal parts warmth and skepticism. After asking some questions, including decently tough ones, he sends the toymaker on to meet with a panel of judges. Wait, no, these are the mentors. The, ugh, judges come later—we’ll get to them later.
This is where The Toy Box demonstrates its potential. The toymaker introduces their toy and the mentors interact and play with it. This occurs at a standing table, so it’s up close and intimate. It’s also often quite fun, especially when the toy has potential. The mentors ask questions about everything from production to price point, and then vote whether or not to send the toymaker to the toy box, which they do not describe as the demon-populated hell on earth that it actually is.
Casting of the toymakers is very hit or miss; the best ideas seem like Shark Tank’s dregs. Although the winner of the show gets their toy produced by Mattel and sold at Toys ‘R’ Us, the whole ordeal seems to lack stakes. Those pitching Shark Tank, even those who are just using the show for publicity, show more passion and desperation. On the Toy Box, one person was so unhinged it felt like the mentors were looking off-camera for security to come save them.
In each episode, there are just five toys, and three make it through. That’s about the same number of pitches as Shark Tank, except here we see three of those pitched again to the actual judges, which makes the show drag somewhat.
Okay, it’s time to talk about the judges.
These kids, ugh
I’ve argued before that I wish Shark Tank had the ability to test its products on real people, not just Robert “THIS TASTES AMAZING I LOVE EVERYTHING” Herjavec.
So in theory, taking the toys to a focus group of kids is a fascinating idea. The execution, however, is terrible, because these aren’t kids in a room with toys who are asked questions. They’re kids who are playing judges and feel more heavily coached than toddlers Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen on Full House.
These aren’t random, unknown kids, and I think that’s the problem. The producers have cast two viral video and Ellen stars (Sophie Grace Brownlee, Noah Ritter) and two actors (Aalyrah Caldwell, Toby Grey). I’m imagining that those kids felt like proven talent and also more produceable.
But giving them canned questions and feeding them jokes makes for terrible television. They seem to be encouraged to hit all of the necessary beats by asking stock questions—even though Eric Stonestreet is standing right there and could ask questions of the toymakers instead of having of having to force those questions out of the kids.
And the kids, yikes. They’re all over the place, but not in a good way. Out-of-control kids having fun with a toy could make for great television—and there are a few moments here where that happens, and it usually involves Eric Stonestreet, who’s absolutely game for playing around—but there is so little about these kids that feels natural or even genuine.
They shout all of their forced lines, and it reminds me a lot of this mess.
Noah, poor thing, is the worst. He gained fame by saying “apparently” a lot in a local news interview, and here, like there, he is constantly looking off camera. That may just be the way he is, looking around when he thinks (I do that), but it has the effect of making him look like he’s searching for feedback or guidance.
Nearly all of the jokes feel written, like the “back of my hand” one here, which is a joke Gonzo tells Rizzo in The Muppet Christmas Carol:
It all feels forced, and loses the spontaneity and magic that other reality shows with kids have in abundance. These kids say the stilted, not the darndest, things.
By the end of all this, if you manage to not knock over your television and run into the street screaming that people need to stop reproducing, you’ll discover that their decision is not even explained. I’m not even convinced it is the kids’ decision of who to send on to the finale, starting with the fact that I cannot imagine them focusing long enough to deliberate and vote.
Also, the Magic 8 Ball decision makes no sense, except that it’s a Mattel toy that’s getting some product placement. That is, of course, what this whole show is, a commercial that will conclude with a product. That’d be okay if the show itself was entertaining. But it makes me just want a refund for my time—and a long, quiet break from these kids.