Elizabeth Ito’s Neighborhood: “City of Ghosts” and the Rise of Netflix Animation




IN 2019, when Netflix canceled The OA (basically a psychedelic TikTok dance video about the afterlife and maybe the most unusual series ever produced for streaming), it let go of its last truly strange, truly difficult series.

That’s not to say Netflix doesn’t have compelling shows on its roster. There are the luscious, lavishly produced food docs, the satisfying prestige interiors of Ozark and The Crown, the discourse-gobbling period affairs of Bridgerton and The Queen’s Gambit, the pleasantly twisty imports of Lupin and Dark, occasional critical coups like Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, and, of course, whatever The Witcher is.

But, while most streamers produce reliable, replacement-level content in areas like these — some more successfully than others — Netflix’s rivals have also produced more and more conceptually risky series. (For more on the economics of that risk, see Kristen Warner elsewhere in this symposium!) Amazon Prime produces Bosch, but it is also responsible for Steve McQueen’s epic Small Axe anthology, the rotoscope dreamscape of Undone, and Barry Jenkins’s luminous masterpiece The Underground Railroad. HBO makes three identical series about obscenely wealthy white murderesses every year, but they also made Watchmen and co-produced Luca Guadagnino’s rambling, queer love letter We Are Who We Are and Michaela Coel’s blistering I May Destroy You. HBO Max, for its part, has given us the batshit tech-slapstick of Made for Love and Ridley Scott’s extremely hard, hardcore sci-fi Raised by Wolves. And Hulu — bolstered by the fact that they’re the streaming home of FX’s Atlanta, Better Things, and What We Do in the Shadows — has even taken some swings with high-concept, niche comedy series of their own like PEN15, Ramy, and The Great.

Netflix, meanwhile, has doubled down on titanic development deals with A-list, mid-career, middlebrow producers like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy. Fans of more niche televisual experiments at Netflix are currently anticipating new seasons from acclaimed oddballs Russian Doll and I Think You Should Leave, but, more often than not these days, when Netflix has made amazing, weird, beloved shows  — The OA, Tuca & Bertie, American Vandal, GLOW — it’s canceled them.

For grown-ups, that is.

At the same time that Netflix has creatively receded a bit relative to its streaming peers in the adult original programming department, it has produced some of the strangest, most visually, narratively, and thematically complex children’s animation you can find. Some of these shows are masterpieces of their genre; a couple of them are among the best streaming series for any age group. If the adult programming on Netflix right now seems to embody an ethos of tuning out, its children’s animation asks — even demands — that kids pay attention.

There’s Guillermo del Toro’s alternately thrilling and hilarious Tales of Arcadia, a trilogy of interrelated CGI sci-fi series, for instance. Binging the trilogy in its entirety, kids have to process a breathtaking amount of lore, notice dozens of self-aware winks across series, and become aware of the genre boundaries del Toro both expertly limns and gleefully breaks. Then there’s Hilda, adapted from Luke Pearson’s series of graphic novels. Hilda follows a precocious young girl living in an imaginary, quasi-Scandinavian walled city surrounded by trolls, ancient giants, teenage girls summoning nightmare spirits, meteorologists dabbling in dark magic, and enormous, furry, flying tadpoles. The sheer density of its overlapping mythologies is mind-boggling, and young viewers absolutely need to pay attention to it to understand the broad arcs of the plot. These series are complex in the way that Jason Mittell uses the term to denote the cumulative, attention-demanding narrative strategies of serial TV shows from the post-network era like The Wire or Arrested Development. If you’re not really watching, you’re lost.

Children’s programming has never been a mere side hustle for Netflix — 60 percent of Netflix accounts tune into kids’ content — but only in the past few years has the company decided to really make a creative and financial push in that area. Until recently, all of Netflix’s original children’s programs, including Tales of Arcadia and Hilda, had been either acquired— any parents familiar with the virtuosically stilted dialogue of Masha and the Bear or Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir will know of Netflix’s penchant for over-dubbed CGI series from Russia and France — or developed in collaboration with DreamWorks, Nickelodeon, or an independent animation studio. But, in 2018, the company founded Netflix Animation, an in-house production studio, and signed deals with acclaimed writers, directors, and animators like Jorge Gutierrez (The Book of Life), Nora Twomey (The Secret of Kells), Henry Selick (Coraline), and a host of other talents. In 2019 alone, according to Fast Company, the streamer devoted $1.1 billion — nearly 11 percent of their annual budget for original content — to developing and acquiring children’s programming.

Netflix Animation has only released a few series so far. Kid Cosmic is a fun, 2D-animated, serialized sci-fi show from the creator of The Powerpuff Girls; Trash Truck is a surprisingly charming CGI series about a boy’s relationship with an anthropomorphic trash truck; and The Midnight Gospel is a trippy, philosophical comedy for adults from Pendleton Ward, the creator of Adventure Time. But it’s another series from a veteran of Adventure Time that represents the first genuine triumph of Netflix Animation. It might also, already, be the best television series of 2021. For anybody.

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The first thing we all know to be true is this: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is absolutely nothing like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. For all of its clever references to the original characters, for all of its wholesome and catchy tunes — if you have to go potty, stop, and go right away! — for all of its successful translation of Fred Rogers’s trademark decency and kindness, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, the show, is nothing like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the show.

Elizabeth Ito noticed this. In interviews surrounding the release of her stunning Netflix Animation series, City of Ghosts, Ito has talked about the strange disconnect of growing up with Mister Rogers only to be confronted by the “loud and bright” CGI landscape of Daniel Tiger when your kids get to be the right age. I too grew up loving the oddly slow pacing, the homemade aesthetic, and the easy transition between documentary and fantasy that characterized Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, only to be surprised by how little of that structural idiosyncrasy made its way into that show’s CGI inheritor. Daniel Tiger is a fine vehicle for Rogers’s message, even his vibes, but it’s by no means related to the singular style of his show.

City of Ghosts, on the other hand, is. The premise of Ito’s six-part series is that Los Angeles, the city, is haunted. This is both metaphorical and literal. Los Angeles, like any city, is layered with histories invisible to the newcomer or even the naked eye of the native. A store that is now one thing used to be another; a house where a family now lives used to be occupied by somebody else and somebody else before them; a neighborhood defined by the cultural presence of one immigrant group used to be defined by the cultural presence of another; gentrified areas once were not; contemporary buildings stand on the graves of old ones, lost to time for ordinary or nefarious reasons. Ito’s series endeavors to tell some of these stories, and the characters who do the telling are, quite simply, ghosts.

We meet these ghosts through the members of Ghost Team, a group of little kids who have an extremely inquisitive and unfazed relationship to the notion of a spirit world. Ito says she was inspired by a memory of having seen a ghost as a small child, telling her parents, and not being believed. The ghosts are a bit of a pre-text in that anecdote and in the show itself. The guiding question of City of Ghosts turns out to be, simply: what if we took kids seriously?

The Ghost Team find out about and investigate hauntings in the L.A. area. And so, the show takes the form of their DIY documentary about these investigations. Once I found out about Ito’s fondness for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the comparison became almost impossible to unsee. The kids speak direct to camera, much of the framing happens in their own homes, the tone is almost always gently didactic, and each episode is structured around a field trip to some haunted place, where inhabitants, both living and not, patiently explain their world to us. It’s easy to overlook how radical Rogers’ televisual style is until you see someone else do it.

The very first episode, “The Sort of Japanese Restaurant,” begins quietly, in the room of Zelda, the head of the Ghost Team. It turns out that Jo, a young chef working to open an “Asian-inspired eatery” in a storefront in Boyle Heights is dealing with a poltergeist who keeps turning on her bathroom sink and stealing her chili powder and throwing her commercial deep fryer into the alley. Jo is skeptical about the haunting — she’s never seen the ghost — but agrees to have a friend introduce her to Zelda.  

Everybody speaks so softly, but with such matter-of-factness, that when Zelda finally finds the ghost, it’s a bit of a shock that nobody is all that shocked. The ghost — Janet — is a fluffy, semi-transparent, cloud with two button eyes and a little mouth. She sounds like a regular person. She says “like” and “um.” She’s not there for a vendetta or because she has unfinished business. She’s just there, and she doesn’t like the way Jo is frying tempura. For Zelda, a small child who sees things like this all the time, this is just another part of real life. For Jo, it’s a surprise, but it makes her experience make sense. There’s no scene of her losing her mind or trying to explain it away. The next cut, she’s sitting with Zelda, interviewing the ghost in a booth. And they’re not talking about death or the afterlife or why and how ghosts exist; they’re talking about the history of Little Tokyo and the Japanese restaurant her mom used to run a long, long time ago in this same storefront and what her favorite food is, or, was. When adults meet these ghosts, they are not afraid. They think it’s fascinating, or they think it’s cool, or they think it’s beautiful. They do not react with anger or violence. They become, like Zelda, childlike in their wonder about the layer of reality that’s been peeled back for them.

Within minutes, Zelda, Jo, and Janet are addressing the camera again, this time sharing a gyoza recipe in the style of a cooking show. Janet’s not just there to haunt, she’s there to remind — or teach — the living about the past. And that’s not just the past of Los Angeles or this storefront, but a culture, in all of its everyday specificity. What are the local and global histories of the food that is served in this community? What are the legacies of the artists and musicians whose sounds fill the air or don’t? What languages are spoken where you live now, and what languages are spoken only among the last few who know? Who invented the skateboard trick you do in the skate park? Whose land are you skating on anyway?

None of these ghosts are malevolent, but their presence has to suggest — even in the back of the mind of this kind and optimistic show — that ghosts haunt for a reason, and that that reason isn’t always pleasant? Even if the reason is as simple as a ghost haunting a place because they’ve been forgotten, the show prompts us to imagine that forgetting can be an injustice if it’s done at a societal level. If only children are able to see — to remember — these histories, then maybe that’s something children are getting right.

Perhaps the most striking episode is “Tovaangar,” which is centered on the Tongva, the indigenous people of the Los Angeles Basin. After hearing a disembodied voice speaking in a language he couldn’t understand, a small boy named Jasper is put in touch with a Tongva poet who helps him translate. The episode is a gorgeous montage of the natural world, but it ends with a monologue from a Tongva ancestor, taking the form of a bird. She says,

All these people that you meet and all these lessons that you learn about how the world really works and who lives in it, that’s your gift for the future, because you can never forget who you are. When times change, you will never be lost because you always know what holds you and who holds you.

This feels like a mission statement for City of Ghosts. It is an imaginative counter-mapping of the world, an acknowledgment and gesture toward communities seen and unseen, illuminated and erased.

The show’s design reflects this. Visually, City of Ghosts is a mix of textures. The Ghost Team appears to be filming its documentary on iPhones. Their aping of editing conventions is plausible for a bunch of seven- and eight-year-olds, but their grasp of the technology is limited enough that graphics are usually done on corkboard with magic marker, and chyrons are cardboard signs thrust onscreen by unseen kids. Different episodes involve VHS tapes, security cameras, spirit photographs in Polaroids, copy machines, and all manner of technological ephemera. The kids record their interviews with what looks like a Fisher-Price cassette tape player, and they use a hairbrush as a pretend microphone for correspondents. (A necessary pre-condition of the show is that these are the children of Generation X and Old Millennial parents.) The show itself is mixed media too. Most backgrounds are photographs of the city taken by the documentary photographer Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin and painted over in stylized, moving geometrical patterns by animators at Chromosphere Studio in Los Angeles. CGI characters were then added by the French animation studio TeamTO. And, of course, all these film formats and animation styles stream at you wherever Netflix is calling from.

“My mandate,” Ito told Animation Magazine, “was to come up with something I couldn’t do anywhere else.” It shows. But, as of this writing, the series has still not received a second season pick-up. Netflix has ghosts too; they’re those one- or two-season experiments in form like The OA or Tuca & Bertie, series so unlike anything else around them that they hold you riveted to whatever screen you’re looking at. And they leave you baffled when they go away. If Netflix Animation wants to avoid the story of its parent — early experimentation leading to background noise — it’s going to need more City of Ghosts. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran for 33 years. You don’t run out of neighborhoods to explore.

City of Ghosts is a cute kids show about the history of Los Angeles neighborhoods, but it’s also a food documentary and a show about urban planning and gentrification and a decolonial exercise of counter-mapping and an oral history of niche cultural movements of the 1990s and a meditation on loss and a media archaeology project and a show that teaches kids to know how little they know about the world and why learning is thus the gift that it is. There’s so much in its simplicity that it’s almost avant-garde.

The two groups of people in the world who watch the same things over and over again, paying greater and more granular attention every single time, are little kids and cinephiles. Every time I stream an episode of City of Ghosts again, I see something new; so does the five-year-old sitting next to me.

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Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is also the author of a book about religion and early cinema called The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era(Columbia University Press, 2019), and his film, television, and literary criticism has appeared in Slate, Film Quarterly, J19, PMLA, The New Republic, and other venues.

 

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