This Essay on Bluey is Called “For Real Life”

Drawing by E. Warren, age 37; coloring by N. Warren, age 7

[Listen to an audio version of this essay]


There’s a term used on
Bluey. It’s often voiced by Bluey Heeler, a six-year-old Australian Cattle Dog, but her four-year-old sister, Bingo, uses it, too. They pull it out when they encounter something so awesome it’s impossible to process all at once. Any time they’re offered a truly exceptional privilege or treat, they need to confirm its reality. Do their parents, Bandit and Chilli, mean it? Is it possible?

For real life?

*     

What is it about Bluey? Why has a humble Aussie cartoon that runs in seven-minute installments become a global phenomenon? If you’ve made the passing acquaintance of a preschooler in the last few years, you likely know this isn’t an exaggeration. Even if you don’t know any small children, though, perhaps you’ve seen the toys and books lining the shelves at your local big box store, a merchandise trove that earned the property a License of the Year nomination at the New York Toy Fair. Perhaps you’ve seen the episode of Abbott Elementary in which a student is so fixated on Bluey that it becomes the episode’s conflict. Perhaps you’ve even seen the stories about American children adopting Australian accents and slang after prolonged exposure. You could have read David Sims’s coverage in The Atlantic lauding it as “one of television’s most unexpectedly ambitious shows,” or even Stuart Heritage’s in The Guardian awarding it the title of “best television series in the world.” 

Bluey is kind of a big deal.

It could be the extraordinary level of quality control. Each of the more than 150 installments that have aired since 2018 is written by one man, animation veteran Joe Brumm. That sort of auteurist control is certainly exceptional in children’s programming. There’s the voice work from a stellar roster of child performers (all of their identities kept strictly secret to enable as normal a childhood as possible), none of them tipping into the saccharine, but instead bringing infectious joy to characters that might elsewhere be voiced by adults. There’s the soundtrack, too—rather than relying on a library of cues, every episode features original themes courtesy of lead composer Joff Bush, each with distinct style and flavor. Bluey cuts no corners. This is a show that fires on all cylinders consistently in a way for which there are very few comparisons in TV for kids or adults. There is no bad Bluey. Every episode is just as good as every other one, which is to say: basically perfect.

There are a lot of ways to account for the appeal of Bluey—if you care to, you could dip into the profound, as does Tim Harvie, co-host of the podcast Bluey Bros. A professor of philosophy and religion at St. Mary’s University in Calgary, Tim told me he sees some of his most cerebral work reflected in Bluey: “I’ve done a lot of work with what’s called intersubjectivity, and the mutual and reciprocal encounters of a shared space between two beings. In the show, there’s these moments where you have genuine encounters—all of a sudden, they animate it differently, the lighting shifts, the music shifts. And I found that my little one was quite entranced with it.” As for religion, Tim brought me a shocking trivia item: one episode, “Bumpy and the Wise Old Wolfhound,” is “actually just kind of a fun version of a little parable that the Dalai Lama tells in his dialogues with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.”

It’s easy to extrapolate pretty expansively on the appeal of Bluey. But ultimately, it does largely come down to the fact that the show is riotously funny in a manner equally appealing to children and caregivers. Much of the comedy comes at the expense of Bandit and Chilli, a reliable source of gleeful fun for kids and rueful amusement for the grownups in their lives. There’s “Sticky Gecko,” in which Chilli gives the kids one minute to be out the door only for her best intentions to be undone by an escalating series of one-last-things. There’s “Movies,” in which Bandit’s attempt to take Bluey and Bingo to their first movie is derailed as Bluey suffers a full-scale nervous collapse from the stress of the experience while Bingo runs madly through the rows leaving spilled popcorn in her wake.

And then there’s “Take Away,” on my ballot for any list of funniest TV episodes. Bandit brings the girls to pick up dinner at the Chinese take away place, but when they’re made to wait five minutes for the spring rolls, chaos ensues—Bingo needs a wee, and Bluey’s turned on the spigot on the side of the building so that’s going everywhere, and Bingo’s spilled the food, and Bluey won’t stop pulling menus out of the little plastic thing by the door, and now there are birds swarming the spilled food. It’s exquisitely funny, but it’s deeply stressful, too. That’s the core of the specific strain of Bluey relatability. The first time Cory Wright-Maley’s kids watched the show, Cory, co-host of Bluey Bros and a professor of education at St. Mary’s University, was scrolling on his phone nearby. “But it got to the ‘Take Away’ episode, and I realized, Oh man, this is about me. This is my life.

I see so much of myself in Bandit. And I see so much that I can only aspire to.

*

Bluey is a show about playing. More often than not, the episode is named for the game the kids will spend the next seven minutes engaged in: “Space.” “Pirates.” “Keepy Uppy”—my two-year-old’s favorite episode, a blissful little morsel about keeping a balloon in the air at all costs. Brumm has cited a perhaps surprising reference point for Bluey: Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Specifically, when playing with his own two daughters, he realized that following a chain of children’s logic into the depths of their game would yield shocking surrealism that could only be called Pythonesque. Thus, when Bandit asks to play a game in which he can lie completely still (truly, the dream), the game is “hospital.” Uh oh, Bluey and Bingo discover a cat in Bandit’s stomach, so that has to come out. But when it does, it turns out to be an octopus! Oh no, put it back in! In another episode, Dad again attempts to play by lying still, but the ensuing game of “hotel” includes a bellhop (played by Bingo) who bursts in banging a pot and roaring “Who wants bacon?” When Bandit protests that it’s the middle of the night, Bingo shifts to a new roar: “Who wants night bacon?”

There is no bad Bluey. Every episode is just as good as every other one, which is to say: basically perfect.

Bandit and Chilli seem to spend virtually all their time playing with their children. Sure, they have jobs—Bandit is an archaeologist, and Chilli works in airport security (yes, he digs bones while she’s a drug-sniffing dog). We see them fulfilling the household tasks that go into keeping a family afloat, but they always have time to drop what they’re doing and play. And when Bandit and Chilli play, they play hard. They fully enter the magic-realist world of their children’s fantasy, inhabiting their roles as anything from train conductors to toddlers to sheep, regardless of how public the setting of their performance might be. It’s very funny, certainly, but it demonstrates a model of caretaking that some have struggled to meet. “Playing with kids as a parent is very hard,” Lucy Huber, an editor at McSweeney’s told me. Lucy’s particular challenge? “How relentless it is. After a while I really lose steam and get tired of being bossed around by a three-year-old who has wild ideas about what he wants to happen.” Thus, Bluey counts for Lucy as “a great fantasy of what playing with children would look like if you had unlimited time and patience and creativity. I think Bandit does seem to have a certain kind of parenting magic where he is able to not only be fully immersed in kid games, but also contribute to them in a way that pleases the kids. It’s definitely a skillset that most people don’t have.”

Due to a quirk of collective fate, Bluey’s growing stateside popularity happened to coincide with COVID stay-at-home orders, and as the show’s cultural footprint grew, some increasingly harried caregivers found themselves resenting Bandit and Chilli for setting an impossible standard. “Bluey Is Fun to Watch,” blares the headline of a 2021 article in Good Housekeeping, “But It Makes Parents Feel Like Crap.” The writer, Danielle Campoamor, notes that “a single episode of Bluey can make me feel like a walking meat sack of guilt and regret,” and quotes another mother who expresses frustration that the show had inspired her child to ask for more involvement in play time. In Vulture, meanwhile, Kathryn VanArendonk admits that as someone “not great at playing with my kids,” watching Bluey conjures “awe…and a dash of resentment.” 

This sentiment was parodied in Ellis Rosen’s New Yorker essay “Bluey’s Dad Thinks He’s So Great.” “Can we get one thing out of the way?” Rosen snarks. “It is much harder raising two human children than it is raising two cartoon dogs…Oh, and also? [Bandit’s] kids are four and six. Everyone knows that those are the easy ages. My kids are three and one. Much harder!”

In an August 2023 interview on the podcast How Other Dads Dad with Hamish Blake, Joe Brumm addresses this strain of parental criticism. Discussing parents who say, as Brumm puts it, “‘Oh man, we can’t play that much, screw [Bandit], blah blah blah,’ I oscillate between feeling like ‘Yeah, fair enough,’ a bit of guilt, like, ‘Yeah, maybe.’ But also, like, look: these are your kids. You gotta put the work into this. Because they’re your kids! You’ve had kids! I know they’re hard, but…what else is worth putting more effort into?”

I mentioned these criticisms to Annie Berke, an editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and author of Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television. I can see that,” Annie told me, “but I seize on the moments when Bandit wants to check his phone or Chilli admits she needs some time to herself. I think the parents in Daniel Tiger are far more unrealistic, in that they are always so articulate, so perfectly robotic and prepared for any and all situations. Say what you will about Chilli and Bandit, they don’t always say the right thing!”

As for why Bluey works so well, Annie had one particular ingredient in mind: “I think the main thing is that it normalizes ‘big feelings’—both kids’ and adults’.”

*

When I say Bluey is relatable, I’m referring to the most minute details. When I see the back of the Heeler family’s car, I see the back of my own, scattered with bits of snack and abandoned reusable water bottles, coloring books and broken crayons. Discussing the Bluey phenomenon in the New York Times, Brumm says that with the show, “I wanted to get to the core of what’s in the engine room of a family.” If that’s true, the Heeler engine runs a lot like my family’s, and the fact that the show is so universally popular serves as a soothing, normalizing influence. If Bandit and Chilli are going through it, too, and if we all love Bandit and Chilli, then we must all be doing OK.

There’s one episode of Bluey that fills me with particular chagrin: “Bob Bilby,” in which Bingo brings home the class hand puppet, Bob the bilby (a creature native to Australia—for the American readers: imagine a bunny crossed with a mole). Tasked with taking photos of all the adventures they have with Bob, the Heelers unthinkingly let the weekend drift by, looking at their devices all the while—“That’s enough,” Bandit mutters, barely looking up from his phone, as Bluey, Bingo, and Bob look at the tablet for the umpteenth hour. But when the kids start screaming at him, he relents with an, “Eh, whatever.” The Heelers pull it together, of course, and bring Bob out for a whirlwind round of last-minute fun, but the first two acts of the story land with a palpable sting—how many weekend days have I let become a haze of screen time? 

Cory Wright-Maley sees a certain tension in watching Bluey as a parent, a feeling of “wanting always to be a better parent than we are. There’s no perfect parent. We all screw up. Sometimes–a lot of times–it feels like all the time. And so watching episodes wrap up so nicely is something to aspire to, but also something that lives in us, in our sense of, I would like to be more like that.” My first grader’s own class stuffy is coming home with us for the weekend soon (it’s a narwhal named, I kid you not, Bluey), and “Bob Bilby” lends a welcome reminder of what not to do. But there will definitely be tablet time that weekend, who are we kidding.

In the season two episode “Mum School,” Bluey asks Chilli to grade her parenting as she pretends a helium balloon is her child. While the six-year-old struggles to corral her balloon’s rowdy behavior, mother and daughter decide to secretly grade Dad, instead, and hide in the shower while he comes in to brush Bingo’s teeth. As soon as the brush is in the child’s mouth, the phone is in Dad’s hand and he’s checked out—he loses major points there. I’m embarrassed to say I recognize that moment, too. By episode’s end, Bluey must come to grips with the fact that she failed Mum school—she lost her temper with her balloon, and Chilli does have to mark her down for that. Bluey is disappointed with herself, but Chilli tells her not to feel bad. We all fail that particular course every so often, she tells her daughter. What matters is that we try again tomorrow.

*

Various episodes of Bluey begin with the word “Daddy,” and they tend to be episodes soaked in a certain amount of dread. In “Daddy Putdown,” Chilli is looking forward to attending a baby shower, but this leaves Bandit with the task of putting Bluey and Bingo to bed alone, a prospect that fills the girls with indescribable stress. We’ve seen Bandit play an active role in bedtime before, but a putdown without Mum in the house is more than Bluey can bear.

Perhaps that’s fair. It’s clear that Dad makes more mistakes than Mum. Dad needs a shave, and he farts. In the opening of “Fairies,” it’s Dad who snaps at Bingo when she bothers him during a call. It’s Dad who ruins keepy uppy by causing the balloon to pop—“Did I make that a little too fun?” he asks. “Sorry, squirts. It’s a hard one to get right!” There’s a lot that’s hard for Dad to get right. In “The Pool,” he blithely grabs the water toys and hauls Bluey and Bingo off for a swim, only to realize he forgot … everything. He doesn’t have the sandals (sorry, the thongs), the sunscreen, the floaties—really, what would Dad be without Mum? And thank goodness she shows up before it’s too late, bearing all the important stuff Dad forgot.

There’s a term I’ve come to learn in the past year or so: “default parent.” It refers to whichever caregiver kids gravitate to for comfort, help, or any other big need. And when you’re not the default parent, and it’s your turn to do default parent jobs, you can get hit with some pretty big emotions. So what does Bandit do when Bluey melts down over the prospect of Dad putting her to bed? Naturally, he validates her anxiety, and then helps guide her towards accepting Chilli’s absence on her own terms (he agrees to call Mum, then feigns an extra long ring time until Bluey realizes independently that Chilli deserves her night out). More than the ease with which Bandit plays, this is the characteristic I envy: his ability to stay calm, and emotionally intelligent.

“The future is emotionally intelligent” is a slogan used by Alyssa Blask Campbell, co-author of the 2023 book Tiny Humans, Big Emotions: How to Navigate Tantrums, Meltdowns, and Defiance to Raise Emotionally Intelligent Children. Alyssa shares caregiving resources on Instagram as @seed.and.sew, and this past summer, I noticed Bluey popping up as a positive example in some of her materials. So I reached out to ask whether the Heelers and their friends demonstrate a model for emotional intelligence.

“Totally,” Alyssa told me. “If I can provide a contrast to another popular kids’ show, in Daniel Tiger there’s a song that’s like, If you’re mad, turn it around and find something good. Every time I hear it, my insides bubble and I cringe. You don’t always have to find a silver lining. It’s also okay to just have a hard time and not find something good. And I feel like that has been messaging that’s been out there in kid shows, it’s like, you’re not supposed to be mad, you’re not supposed to have a hard time. And Bluey is changing that. I love that it’s not just, like, All feelings are welcome here, but truly seeing that in practice, that yeah, you get to have a hard time and not be shamed or punished for being disregulated. We all have a hard time sometimes.”

There’s one episode Alyssa cites in particular as a way of fostering family connection: “Musical Statues,” in which the family is so scattered—Bluey is in a bad mood, Bandit is hankering for a run, Bingo is being her chaotic self—that Chilli demands a round of the titular game. While one person controls the music, everyone else must dance until the song pauses. Then, they freeze until someone moves, at which point they’re out. The game brings the family onto the same wavelength and rescues the evening’s mood.

“This is something I love about Bluey,” Alyssa told me. “It highlights the realities of like–yeah, we come into different spaces and parts of our day with a whole range of feelings. And some people need some things for them, and somebody will need other things. When we’re in a dysregulated state, there’s literally alarms going off inside. And so when we can pump the brakes on those and get back to connection, it’s going to foster that regulation, and help kids feel safe and secure. And especially when we’re pairing that playfulness with movement, we’re going to have that connection happen in the playfulness, but then also be moving our body to get a little regulation. And so in ‘Musical Statues,’ Mum was able to see the dysregulation, and she pulls out this trick.”

As for whether Bandit presents an impossible standard of parenting, Alyssa had an answer that surprised me: “Not even is it an impossible standard, but it’s not an accurate depiction of how our nervous system works. No one’s regulated all the time. We’re gonna cycle in and out of regulation and dysregulation and connection and disconnection. It’s a part of being on planet Earth.”

*

Bandit and Chilli are lying in bed, savoring those last few minutes before parenting begins in earnest. And then Chilli reminds Bandit of something that makes his eyes spring open in distress: it’s a Daddy dropoff today. (Accordingly, this episode of Bluey is called “Daddy Dropoff.”)

Very quickly, a few things become clear about Daddy dropoff days: they’re going to be more rushed than anyone wants, the kitchen is going to be cluttered and messy, things are going to be forgotten, and Dad is going to be low-key freaking out, except when he’s high-key freaking out. This is the comedy of “Daddy Dropoff.” Like “Take Away” and “Movies,” isn’t it a riot to watch Dad struggle through the world?

My kids don’t like Daddy dropoff. It only happens once a week, but those are tough days. Not only is the kitchen messy, not only are things forgotten, but more often than not, Daddy forgets to be patient. He forgets how to be emotionally intelligent, because we are in a rush, and when he gets stressed, Daddy does something a Daddy really shouldn’t do: he yells. He does it way, way too often, way more often than he ever expected. Being a parent has brought out Daddy’s big feelings in ways he wasn’t prepared for. So Daddy dropoff is hard.

If anything, those days usually end up with me in the position of Bandit in “Duck Cake.” That’s the one where he blows it so bad all he can do is sink to the ground on the far side of the counter from Bluey, drawing his knees to his chest and shutting his eyes tight while she calls to him from her seat. Bandit needs a minute with his big feelings. You don’t often see that part of caregiving reflected on TV, especially not TV for preschoolers. But Bluey shows the world as it is, and all of its mess.

I’m sorry, Joe Brumm; I can’t help it. I think I learn lessons from Bluey.

If I see stress, chaos, and regret in “Daddy Dropoff,” Alyssa Blask Campbell sees something else, the one essential thing Bandit does in the episode: play “wind-up Bingo.” After all the rushing and forgetting, they arrive just in time to drop Bingo off at school and still make it to Bluey’s classroom on time. But Bingo needs something from Bandit: she needs to be wound up with an imaginary key and sent off into class like a mechanical toy. It’s a want, sure, but it’s more like a need, and even though they are now definitely going to be late getting Bluey to school, Bandit recognizes that. He winds up Bingo.

“That connection and playfulness are huge,” Alyssa told me “I think sometimes for us, we think that this positive connection is going to take a long time. Like, I don’t have 10 minutes, I’m running late. And sometimes it’s literally 20, 30 seconds. If I just slow down and connect with them with this silly game for 30 seconds or 60 seconds, then that playfulness helps the child’s nervous system start to feel safe and calm.”

In “Yoga Ball,” Bandit is working from home, parked in his office in front of the laptop, seated on the ball he needs for his aching back. The only problem is, Bluey and Bingo really want to play with the yoga ball—and play with Dad, too. So, as much as he protests that he needs to work, Bandit plays several games in a row. It’s easy to imagine some parents setting their teeth on edge—what lesson is “this heathen form of alleged ‘children’s entertainment’” teaching children, Danielle Campoamor begged in Good Housekeeping. “Even when [Bandit] does ask Bingo to hold on for one godforsaken second…he immediately apologizes for not dropping every grown-up responsibility he has to placate the fantastical whimsies of his children.” What might be easy to forget in “Yoga Ball,” though, is that it’s told in real time, as are many episodes of Bluey. So how much yoga ball time did Bandit give his kids? With warmup and wrapup accounted for, probably around five minutes. If that’s the impossible standard—five minutes of play before work—it’s hard to imagine what we’re equipping kids for. What do we want for them when we send them out into that head-spinning experience people call real life?

*

I’ve been listening to the newest OK Go single a lot. It’s called “This,” and it concerns the feeling of having gotten everything you could ever want and still struggling to fully appreciate your life. It just don’t get better than this, as lead singer Damian Kulash ruminates repeatedly. It’s all here right now, in your hands but still out of reach somehow. Then he returns to those words, again and again: It just don’t get better than this. It just don’t get better than this.

It’s really hard raising tiny humans with big emotions. But there are times when I have to stop and remind myself that these may well be “the good years.” These could be the ones I look back on and say, “It was so easy then.” Nobody’s sick. Our parents aren’t old yet. We can still get away with lazy Sundays at home without anyone asking to borrow the car, let alone calling to say they got in a fender bender. I need to appreciate that, I remind myself. Right here, right now—maybe that’s just what heaven is, Kulash sings. So why do I feel like such a failure when I struggle to enjoy it?

Most episodes of Bluey are celebrations of playfulness, but if we were to cite examples of the series’s ethos, I’d vote for “Flat Pack.” Bandit and Chilli bring home a new piece of build-it-yourself furniture, and as they become increasingly frustrated—with the task and one another—they throw bits of cardboard and foam packaging over their shoulders. Bluey and Bingo accept these treasures joyfully, pivoting their imaginary play every time a new bit of material lands in the backyard. Of course, we laugh as Bandit and Chilli grow clumsy and snappish, but the episode comes to a moment of quietly soaring catharsis: the deck swing is finished, and the family sits down to look out at the backyard, now strewn with trash that’s become a whole world. Bandit and Chilli each put an arm up on the seat, their hands touching behind Bluey’s head. “Ah,” Bandit sighs. “This is heaven.”

It just don’t get better than this.

*

“There’s not meant to be any education in Bluey,” Joe Brumm insists on How Other Dads Dad. “There’s no lessons to learn. It’s entertainment.”

Brumm doth protest too much. It’s obvious that episodes of Bluey will be many children’s first introduction to weighty topics, whether overtly (as with “Copycat,” in which Bluey must sit in the vet’s waiting room and be told the budgie she tried to rescue didn’t make it) or covertly (I’m in the camp that believes Bandit and Chilli have canonically experienced a miscarriage based on one brief, silent gesture: Bandit taking Chilli’s hand after Bingo’s “pregnancy” balloon pops, during the episode “The Show”). “It brings in grown-up problems, from break-ups to aging parents to infertility,” Annie Berke told me, “in the way kids tend to confront it—obliquely, indirectly. So kids are being introduced or reintroduced to these mature concepts, and parents are thinking about these issues but from a kids’–their kids’?–perspective.” Lucy Huber agrees. “I think Bluey remembers what it was really like to be a kid, the complexity and sadness and excitement of it, in a way other shows have never thought to explore.”

I’m sorry, Joe Brumm; I can’t help it. I think I learn lessons from Bluey. “Bandit is dad goals,” my friend the One Heat Minute Productions maven Blake Howard once told me, and I do find myself with a What Would Bandit Do? (WWBD?) mindset more often these days. It’s hard to muscle past my urge to bark, but when I’m hit with a freeze ray on the way up to bed, I’m getting better at remembering to freeze. I’m trying to be emotionally intelligent. We played musical statues before school the other day. It was pretty fun.

In a letter to fans posted on the show’s official site between seasons one and two, Brumm acknowledged that “real life rarely works out so neatly” as it does on Bluey. “My intention,” Brumm wrote, “wasn’t to show real life, but to create a seven-minute refuge from it, where you’re reminded of the joy of being a kid and hopefully of raising them.”

“The utopian notion of parenthood is impossible to achieve,” Cory Wright-Maley reminds me. “it’s certainly not possible for me to achieve. Nevertheless, the lessons I’m drawing from Bluey take me a few steps forward. And for me, that feels good enough.”

Bluey shows the world at its best. It’s not an impossible standard. It’s something to aspire to: basically perfect art about a world of realistically imperfect characters striving to be a little better one day at a time.

For real life.