COLUMN: Even Bob the Builder has it rough

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Even Bob the Builder has it rough
By Aaron J. Brown

In this dim economy, even Bob the Builder struggles. The animated Bob, found locally on public TV, builds and fixes ecologically friendly outbuildings with his sentient pieces of heavy equipment. Or at least he did, before the recession apparently swallowed his capital. Though still somewhat popular, Bob has been fading off the airwaves, toy shelves and consciousness of kids. Disney’s “Handy Manny” and his talking tools push Bob to the margins with a slick corporate message. To make matters worse, the exact opposite trend is happening in our house. Our twin 3-year-old boys can’t get enough Bob. Here we begin today’s elaborate, possibly strained Bob the Builder metaphor. Join me, would you?

First, a disclaimer. Yes, we’re those kind of parents, the kind that lets their children watch a “Bob the Builder” show instead of teaching them how to speak Chinese. We’re not going to stop doing this. Don’t write. Allow our actions to silently feed your sense of superiority. I’ve got the feeling we’re not alone. Maybe you have slightly older children, boys perhaps, and remember the Bob the Builder lifestyle we’re currently experiencing. You know the song, right? Can we fix it? Yes we can! Bob the Builder owned that catchphrase long before President Obama. In fact, Bob debuted in Great Britain in 1999, quickly emigrating to the United States and Canada not unlike the Cornish miners of my ancestry, but without the pasties.

“Bob the Builder” contains numerous holes that can only be filled with the phrase, “Well, it is just for kids, I guess.” Let’s start with how there is no money in Sunflower Valley or in nearby Bobsville (named for Bob’s father, a stoic patriarch whose unqualified love young Bob seeks but shall never receive). Bob acquires all the supplies from the building yard or recycle them from large, convenient piles of pristine demolition waste.

Periodically, some eccentric person will arrive in the new development and demand a deeply impractical customized home with no discussion of financing. The talking backhoe, cement mixer, crane and roller, never flummox these transients despite scant evidence that any OTHER talking equipment exists elsewhere. The homes become part of the backdrop of this town, which has no visible government other than an unseen mayor mentioned occasionally by the only real authority figure, a powerful capitalist named Mr. Bentley.

Naturally, a sunflower farmer named Mr. Pickles lives in Sunflower Valley, and he employs a sentient scarecrow named Spud and tractor named Travis. Spud is the single most destructive, inefficient creature that could be devised by man’s imagination. While he enjoys moderate, though inconsistent, results in scaring away crows, every episode usually involves him stealing, scheming, lazing, or accidentally incinerating key props in that week’s teledrama. Nevertheless, Mr. Pickles retains Spud’s services, indeed even going so far as to name his new house Scarecrow Cottage, sharing the space with his straw minion despite his loud snoring.

Then we have the aforementioned talking equipment. Scoop, Lofty, Muck, Rolly, Dizzy and other ancillary motorized characters dutifully obey Bob and his assistant Wendy, who loves Bob despite his detached unawareness of her affections. The assembled machinery are not paid, nor do they require food or anything but the most basic overnight storage. Yet despite being self-aware these characters do exactly what regular equipment would, only less efficiently and with more near-fatal accidents.

In other words (here’s the payoff), Bob the Builder’s rise and fall from top kid status explains the discontinuation of the Bob the Builder toy line my kids love so much. More than that, Bob the Builder is in its own way a metaphor for our economy as a whole. In Great Britain, the sluggish aftermath of the recession is actually being called the “Bob the Builder” recovery, criticized for depending too much on superficial construction projects. But sadly, one cannot feel joy for the pain of dear, sweet Lofty, or the collapse of Bob’s business, Wendy’s unspoken love or the Utopian dream of Sunflower Valley. Bob’s story is an American story, even though he’s secretly British. (Psst. So are we!) We’ve got to figure out a happy ending.

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer, blogger and an instructor at Hibbing Community College. Read more at or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

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