Ask ten people to name an educational TV show, and chances are good at least nine of them will say, “Sesame Street.”
Fifty plus years of embedding itself in the American consciousness accounts for much of its dominance, but it does mean that other worthy shows get short shrift.
And not just American shows (you knew this was where I was going, right? Anime non-fans can tune out now.)
Allow me to redress the balance slightly by introducing you to Hataraku Saibou, better known in the US as Cells at Work.
The concept is simple: present information about the human immune system by anthropomophizing the types of cells in the body*. We follow them around in their daily lives and see how they interact. Occasional popup messages on screen give details that can’t be directly animated. Our main focus is on a red blood cell, tasked with delivering oxygen throughout the body and returning carbon dioxide to the lungs.
* Though it does raise some disturbing questions about whether the components of a cell should be seen as characters in their own right. Anyone up for a “Mitochondria at Work” spinoff?
Blood vessels are depicted as streets of various sizes: main arteries are wide roads, capillaries are alleys that Red Blood Cell has to squeeze through sideways. Platelets are depicted as small children, white blood cells of various types have pale skin and generally dress in all-white clothing–a less than logical choice considering their primary responsibility is the bloody dismemberment of invading bacteria.
What makes the show work is that it’s not a simple travelogue: Red Blood Cell visits a new organ, bacteria attacks and is repelled, end of episode.
Instead, the characters interact in ways that mirror actual body functions. We see, for example, that red blood cells are born in the bone marrow, grow up in groups, and are released into the blood stream to do their work.
The relationship between Red Blood Cell and White Blood Cell* is obviously one of mutual love, but the writers spare us any hint of romance. Cells don’t leave love letters in school lockers, fantasize about happy married lives, obsess over breast size and/or inappropriately fondle one another.
* All the cells have distinguishing numbers, typically displayed somewhere on their uniforms, but they’re rarely used in conversation.
The result is a show that stands on its own as entertainment, but still delivers a healthy dose (sorry) of education in each episode.
Check out an episode or two on Crunchyroll (see the link above). You’ll look at your next bout of the flu very differently.