A Really Useless Engine

Our son is two and a half, and like many toddlers, he enjoys watching the standard toddler/pre-school fare of such TV shows as Yo Gabba Gabba, Dinosaur Train, the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, (God help me) Barney the Dinosaur, and Thomas the Tank Engine (with his many Friends, of course).

For the most part these shows are (at least on the surface) lighthearted romps of childlike glee and amusement, blah blah blah. My son loves Thomas the Tank Engine and all of his locomotive friends, who work cheerfully on the Island of Sodor for the gruff but fair Sir Topham Hatt. The engines appear to be the primary mode of transportation and shipping for the Island’s residents. The apparent primary goal of any good Sodor-dwelling engine, according to the show, is to be “a really useful engine.”

Ironically, however, most episodes feature Thomas being the exact opposite of “a really useful engine.” One episode has Thomas being asked by a farmer to fetch some soft straw because the farmer’s pig is about to give birth to some piglets.[1] Thomas agrees, and sets off in search of the soft straw the farmer asked for. But along the way, Thomas wonders if there’s anything else the piglets might like. He runs into a few other allegedly “really useful engines” who tell him about the cargo they’re carrying. At each stop, Thomas decides that his friends’ cargo might be something the piglets would like, and he asks for it. And, for some reason, they give it to him.[2] For example, Thomas runs across his friend Percy, who’s tasked with delivering milk. Thomas asks Percy for some of the milk for the piglets, and Percy obliges. Another engine is at an orchard, waiting to deliver some apples; this one cheerfully agrees to hand over some of the apples to Thomas. Then he runs into a bunch of kids who are picking chestnuts, and the kids agree to give Thomas some chestnuts for the piglets.[3] After all of that farting around, he finally shows up—way late—at the farm where he was supposed to do his one job, collecting the straw. The straw farmer, understandably pissed off at waiting for Thomas to show up, points out that there’s no room for the straw thanks to all the other crap Thomas has piled up on his flatbed. Instead of trying to come up with some way to get the straw onto his flatbed and deliver it, he decides to blow it off, and “hope that the piglets like [the other shit] just as much as straw.” And off he goes.

He pulls up to the pig farmer’s place all proud of himself for bringing a bunch of stolen property no one asked for, but the farmer was distraught because what he really needed was soft straw to use as bedding for the piglets. Which is, you know, what he asked for in the first place. Thomas “felt very silly” for not doing the only thing he was asked to do, and then, after wasting time unloading a bunch of unwanted crap, took off to get the straw while the farmer likely lamented the fact that UPS had yet to set up a Sodor branch. While heading out (again) for the straw, Thomas says “I must hurry” and that “there can be no delay.” Bad enough that Thomas took so long in the first place, but he then almost immediately stops to talk to one of his friends, for the sole purpose of telling him he can’t stop. Thomas eventually gets the straw and pulls up with it just in the nick of time.

After about the six thousandth time my son watched this episode, it occurred to me: the shipping situation on Sodor is more inefficient and corrupt than the Detroit City Council. In fact, it’s kind of hard to keep track of how many people got screwed over and all the ways they were totally jerked around in this fiasco. From the farmer’s point of view, all he wanted was some straw to make a bed for his piglets, and he was told he’d get it right away. But then Thomas pulls up—late—with a bunch of shit he doesn’t need or want, and all Thomas says is “well, I thought your piglets would like this stuff the same.” Imagine ordering a laptop from, say, Amazon with two-day shipping, and four days later, they show up with a calculator, some underwear, and a book on pilates, and say “oh, yeah, we ran out of room for your laptop, but we thought you’d like this other stuff just as much as a laptop.” Pop quiz: would you be really pissed off, or super pissed off?[4] Now imagine you’re the one who produces and sells the milk or the apples. You entrust the shipment of your product to the local shipping company, expecting them to deliver your precious products to your valued customers who have a valid, contractual expectation of getting the goods they paid for. Except you find out that the shipper has decided to hand out some of your product to someone else because the shipper’s employees thought that other person “would really like it.” You know who else would have really liked it? The person who fucking paid for it, that’s who! There are so many crimes and civil breaches here that even the most sadistic law professor would think twice before using this episode as a final exam question.

You might think that this was an isolated occurrence, but apparently learning from one’s mistakes is not something the tank engines of Sodor know how to do. Almost every episode features Thomas making some pigheaded or arrogant mistake (often because he refuses to listen) only to realize at the end what he should have done. In fact, another episode featured Thomas deviating from his one assigned task and stealing stuff from the people who foolishly shipped their products on the Sodor railway. Thomas, after being tasked with transporting the famed statute the “Lion of Sodor,” doesn’t realize that the crate has a statue in it, and instead thinks it’s a real lion. So he stops and steals some maple syrup and fish because he thinks the lion might be hungry, and some straw (which he had such a hard time delivering to the one person who actually asked for it) for the “lion” to lay on. He has all of this stuff dumped into the closed crate, and when he arrives at the delivery location, the crate is opened only to reveal the beloved statue all encased in a sticky fish-straw-syrup disaster. Quiz question two: how enraged would you be to, say, order a large screen TV only to open it up and find a hellish mixture of syrupy fish and straw smeared all over it?[5] Other episodes feature Thomas causing damage and destruction because of his desire to be a hero by creating problems and then solving them (kind of like Congress, but with slightly better ethics) and causing damage and confusion by spouting off a bunch of nonsensical orders after being put in temporary charge of a railway building without paying any attention to feedback from his staff or to the mayhem resulting from his mandates (also kind of like Congress).

Basically, Thomas is kind of a jackass. Now, you may wonder why I continue letting my two-year-old watch this sociopathic asshole and his band of mechanical idiots. Clearly, you do not have children. If you did, you wouldn’t have to ask, because you’d know that you’d be able to broker lasting peace in the Middle East before making a two-year-old Thomas fan give up watching that show. Instead, I’ll have to watch him very closely to make sure he’s not picking up bad habits from it (“Why didn’t you brush your teeth like I asked?” “Well, Dad, I thought you’d like me picking my nose, shitting my pants, and pulling the cats’ tails just as much as brushing my teeth …”). And, well, it could be worse: he could be hooked on American Idol.


[1] If you wonder how it is that I know so much about the plot of this show, it is proof that you are not a parent of small children. Small children will watch something they like approximately ten billion times, with at least two billion of those viewings being consecutive.
[2] Yes, Thomas’s friends, the “really useful engines,” frequently hand out cargo presumably belonging to other people on a whim. More on that later.
[3] At least this wasn’t a train engine deciding to hand over someone else’s cargo this time.
[4] Either answer is correct. Also acceptable is “I’d be fucking enraged.”
[5] The correct answer is “Extremely,” although credit will be given for “homicidally” or something similar.
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