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Sporting its own special energy

Nick Jr.'s 'LazyTown' is a kids' import from Iceland that has zany appeal -- even to viewers who are no longer 'junior.'

August 14, 2005|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

TELEVISION is by nature a kingdom of the known; it plays upon our desire to return to a familiar place, for familiar fun, week after week, or even day after day, same time, same channel. Yet there is no pleasure quite like that of happening upon a strange program for the very first time, of being for an instant flummoxed, intrigued, disturbed. In such moments television gets a little of its mystery back.

So it was when I first stumbled upon "LazyTown." That it was meant for children was easy enough to tell even if just from the context. It appears daily at 11:30 a.m., as part of the Nickelodeon preschool programming block known as "Nick Jr." (and also on Noggin every day at 4 p.m. and CBS Saturday mornings at 7 -- Viacom being the common thread).

Nothing else about it was quite so easy to pin down, however. Although I am a television-watching professional, I somehow had not gotten the memo on this one.

Against a bulging Toontownscape whose preternaturally bright colors sang of Fisher-Price and extruded plastic, a tall man in a kind of blue sports suit, wearing a mouse-whisker mustache, a floppy cap and goggles that gave him the look of a French skier, was dancing with a little girl kitted out in a pink wig and a pink minidress such as one might find adorning a Japanese pop singer. The man was charmingly childlike; the girl seemed older than she was supposed to be. The music was the purest technopop, with lyrics of the sort that usually promise a high ranking in the Eurovision song contest.

Bing bang diggariggadong.

The first thing that I say after I wake up

Bing bang diggariggadong.

I say those words before I go to sleep.

Bing bang diggariggadong

Funny words I sing when I am dancing

Bing bang diggariggadong

Silly words that can mean anything

When the skier-man wasn't dancing, and even when he was, he was doing flips and cartwheels and twisty spins. And there was a villainous sort whose facial appliances and makeup recalled Al Pacino as Big Boy Caprice in Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy." The men spoke in lilting accents that were hard to place, which further cemented the impression that whatever I was watching was not from around here. Everyone glowed.

Well, I have learned a few facts since then, and it's a measure of the quality of "LazyTown," which debuted on Nickelodeon last August and quickly became one of the network's most popular shows, that demystification has not taken the fun out of watching it. (You'll have an extra chance to judge for yourself when Nickelodeon airs a prime-time hourlong special Monday night at 8.) That the series was not, as it seemed at the time, brought into this world merely to blow my mind but rather is meant to encourage little kids to be active, eat right, get enough sleep and play well with others has not made it any less strange, or any less appealing to one so far outside its target audience.

And the foreignness that informs it is come by naturally, for though LazyTown itself is located nowhere in particular, it is a product of Iceland, the land of glaciers, volcanoes and Bjork. Indeed, the show has something of the flavor of a Bjork video, if Bjork were to wear a pink wig and minidress and pretend to be 8 years old -- not so unlikely, when you think about it.

Professional athlete turned athletic entertainer Magnus Scheving is the man behind "LazyTown," as well as its star. He plays Sportacus -- a sports-oriented superhero who lives in a sort of blimp permanently hovering above the town and stocked with sports equipment and fruits and vegetables -- and he acts as a protector and good-health conscience to its citizens. (The character's Icelandic name translates roughly as "Sports elf.")

Besides the little pink girl -- Stephanie, played by American half-pint Broadway vet Julianna Rose Mauriello -- and the villain -- Robbie Rotten, played by Icelandic classical actor and stand-up comedian Stefan Karl -- the town is represented by six puppets. Robbie, who lives in a gray-blue semi-subterranean industrial space (its one spot of color is a fuzzy orange recliner), wants to be rid of Sportacus for reasons that are not really clear -- for someone ostensibly devoted to laziness, he stays fairly active making trouble. It may simply be that he wants to be the only person left in town over 5 feet tall.

'Lazytown' goes global

I talked to Scheving earlier this month, by phone from Iceland, one day before he was to leave for the United States to perform "LazyTown Live!" in four cities (or markets, as the industry likes to call them) as a lead-in to Monday night's special, "LazyTown's New Superhero," and the release on Tuesday of a DVD and CD. (Which will come as a great relief to those who can't go a whole day without hearing the "Bing Bang" song.)

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