Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Pastoral Vision of "Shaun the Sheep"

(Shaun and friends)

(Bitzer, and the Farmer view the latest gardget)

Television is not interested in farming. The last regularly sheduled TV show that portrayed a farmer might have been "Green Acres," 1965 to 1971 (I am not enough of a follower of television to guarantee that). Since mainstream television portrays farm life as being populated by hicks, rubes, and simpletons, I was all the more taken with a BBC children's series called "Shaun the Sheep" "Shaun" is a production of Aardman Animation, who I hope will forgive my use of their handiwork.

"Shaun the Sheep" is a character introduced in the third award-winning "Wallace and Grommit" short, "A Close Shave." The newer show has Shaun retired from fighting killer robot dogs and living on a "typical" British mixed-use farm. The farm, tended by an unnamed "Farmer," features the antics of Shaun, several other sheep, chickens, pigs, a bull (and thus presumably cows), a goat, and probably others (I do not claim meticulous study). The Farmer has a tractor, from which we might hazard a guess that he also plants crops; we have seen cabbage, pumpkins, and other vegetables.

The show is not really about agriculture of course. The show has no spoken dialogue, and is marvelous at conveying emotion and thought through a series of grunts, gasps, and chortles. In various episodes, Shaun, the farm dog Bitzer, the meddlesome Pigs, and other farm denizens have various adventures which are either funny, outrageous, or just plain weird, but half of the situations involve keeping these events secret from the Farmer. Whether it is keeping a lost teddy bear out of his hands, not alerting him to a disco set up on the barn floor, or taking shearing day into their own hands, Shaun and his friends never let the Farmer see that there is far, far more than meets the eye going on at his farm.

I point this all out merely to congratulate Aardman Animation for having the courage to portray a farm in a positive way. I doubt anyone will be inspired to become a shepherd by watching "Shaun the Sheep." But there are some nice touches for those who appreciate the pastoral. There is visible sheep manure scattered around Shuan's pasture; sheep have to be kept clean, or "dipped" (washed); a farmer's job, ideally, is a multifaceted one - Shaun's Farmer slops pigs, sheer's sheep, welds, cooks, and cleans house.

I have read that the British as a group are probably closer to their agricultural roots than Americans. Americans, after all, invented the Factory Farm Monoculture, overcrowded feedlots, and egg factories. British television's "Shaun the Sheep" may have been created mainly to entertain, but, for this American viewer, has a few lessons for the pastoralist in so many of us.