Television

Inside the All-Consuming World of Paw Patrol

How a made-in-Toronto cartoon about superhero puppies became a worldwide hit

Illustration by Anoosha Syed

Illustration by Anoosha Syed

It’s a cool early June day, and in a sound studio in Toronto’s east end, Chase is having a little trouble barking. I mean the actor who plays Chase, of course, and by “Chase,” I mean the police-dog squad leader on the megahit cartoon series Paw Patrol. Chase’s bark is a signature sound, an exuberant yip familiar to millions of kids and parents around the world, but the actor—baby-faced, slightly goofy Max Calinescu—is thirteen years old and maturing by the minute. To the ears of the recording engineers and directors huddled in the control room, who have heard hundreds of barks in Max’s four-year career, something is just a bit off. Stephany Seki, the voice director, presses a talkback button and says to Calinescu, who’s standing alone in the recording booth, “Max, can you bark quicker?” Calinescu does so, more or less. Patton Rodrigues, who’s been the sound-recording engineer since day one of the show, monitors the levels. “He does sound older,” Rodrigues says eventually. “But not unusably older.” Calinescu yips some more. If necessary, Rodrigues says, he can digitally alter the teen’s pitch to match his voice to previous scenes. The crew decides to move on to other lines they need—quickly, before Calinescu’s voice changes.

It’s an occupational hazard, of course, in making a show for kids that stars real kids. Time passes, kids age out. The passing of time is also a problem for the audiences of those shows—every child grows up at some point, leaving childish things behind, even if that’s just to make way for other childish things. But Paw Patrol’s grip on its viewers is unusually tenacious. It was created as a preschool show—by Toronto’s Spin Master, which started out as a toy company—but six- and seven-year-olds still watch with genuine delight. There are such kids in pretty much every corner of the globe—now in its fourth season, Paw Patrol airs in 160 countries and territories around the world. In the United States, where it airs on Nickelodeon, it was the number-one-rated preschool kids’ show for the first quarter of 2017. A late March special, “Mission Paw: Quest for the Crown,” drew 2 million American viewers aged two to five, a series record at the time. A friend of mine, after catching an episode in which the Paw Patrol team (a.k.a. the Pups) becomes entangled with a pack of magical underwater doppelgängers—the Mer-Pups—suggested that the show had jumped the shark. As if. The Mer-Pups appeared midway through season two; Paw Patrol is just getting started. Few children’s shows have such a high level of recognition with adults, let alone encourage an investment in their plots and developments; but, for various reasons, Paw Patrol isn’t an ordinary show.

I’m getting ahead of myself. You’re probably not a child between the ages of two and five, and you may very well not be the parent of one. Maybe you’ve never seen a single eleven-minute segment of Paw Patrol, and if that’s the case, then a) please enjoy the bliss of your prestige-TV-filled ignorance and b) bear with me as I exhaustively describe the premise of the show. Paw Patrol is largely set in the fictional city of Adventure Bay, a bucolic waterside burg ringed by mountains, with key locations and landmarks including: City Hall, the beach, a farm, a café, Seal Island, and the Lookout. The last of these locales is inhabited by the Paw Patrol Pups, an emergency-response team of six sentient dogs, each with their own distinctive personality, skill set, colour-coded uniform, and vehicle. There’s the aforementioned police dog, Chase, who is a German shepherd; a bulldog named Rubble, who does construction; a chocolate lab and water rescuer named Zuma; Rocky, a mutt who specializes in recycling (to be discussed later; this is one of the show’s selectively tossed bones to the values of the adult world); Marshall, the clumsy fire dog (Dalmatian, of course); and Skye, the first (and, until later episodes, only) female member of the team, a cockapoo and aviation expert who cruises around in a pink helicopter. Each of them also has an oft-repeated catchphrase, from Chase’s “Chase is on the case!” to Marshall’s “I’m fired up!”

The Pups are led by a tech-savvy ten-year-old named Ryder—imagine a prepubescent Speed Racer, from the Japanese anime series, who is also the star of coding camp. In each episode, Ryder gets a call from a city local or visitor in some kind of distress—it could be Mayor Goodway, trapped in a hot-air balloon, or, more outlandishly, an alien stuck on Earth, far away from his mom. Ryder then quickly mobilizes his pack, designating a couple of Pups as mission leaders because of their respective specialization. (To rescue someone from a mountain or treetop, say, Skye’s helicopter is enlisted.) The beats and dialogue within each episode have the machine-milled precision or predictability—your choice—of the most lucrative of Hollywood franchises. Once the team’s in action, Ryder invariably calls out, “Paw Patrol is on a roll!” and at the conclusion of each mission, he’ll say, “No job’s too big, no Pup’s too small”—or some punning variation thereof.

It’s not clear why or how the Pups have become the designated protectors of Adventure Bay, but, Mayor Goodway aside, the city utterly lacks any real municipal infrastructure—there’s no police force, road crews, or elementary school. It’s also not clear why, exactly, Ryder’s been endowed with such authority, but, in any case, pretty much everyone else in Adventure Bay—from the nearly blind Cap’n Turbot to nefarious rival Mayor Humdinger (technically from neighbouring Foggy Bottom)—is thoroughly incompetent and perpetually in need of rescue. Goodway keeps a pet chicken, one of the show’s numerous lesser animals, in her purse—God knows the dog pack that basically runs an entire city would never consent to such degradation.

As children’s shows go, Paw Patrol is certainly not the worst thing you’ll see. It obviously encourages teamwork, collaboration, and public service. It gives kids—well, kids who can communicate with animals and run a high-tech, high-pressure, doghouse-cum-tree-fort like the Lookout—the not-unwelcome notion that they, too, can save the world. The computer-generated animation is decent, the Pups’ voices more or less uniformly adorable. Unlike other kids’ programming, it doesn’t even try to wink at the adults that producers know are also, grudgingly, half watching; in its dull repetition and gentle familiarity, the show is aimed squarely at a preschooler’s cerebral cortex. Give me Paw Patrol’s worst episode over the best of Dora the Explorer—I’d rather have Paw Patrol’s theme installed as my ring tone for life than ever again hear Dora’s map song, which sounds as if Map is mansplaining (mapsplaining?) its own existence: “I’m the map, I’m the map.”

But the show has certainly received its share of criticism—Maclean’s published an ambivalent explainer a year and a half ago, and BuzzFeed ran a listicle summarizing its defects under the blunt headline, “Here’s Why ‘Paw Patrol’ Is A Terrible Kids’ Show.” Critics have taken the show to task for its retrograde representation of gender (why must Skye wear pink?), for its aggressive cultivation of consumerism, and for the fact that no rescue team needs a member, canine or otherwise, whose notable responsibility is to up-cycle old spatulas.

These are fair assessments—sorry, Rocky—but in my more charitable moments, I like to think of Paw Patrol as an allegory of environmental collapse and recovery. Once again, please bear with me. Adventure Bay is a world in which helpless, ineffectual adults have ceded control to a child and the pack of dogs that he commands. Humanity is lost, adrift, and the only thing that can save it, basically, is a younger generation that has learned to work co-operatively with the natural world. Of course, the Pups still do serve a human master, and they require human ingenuity and technology to actually get anything done, but if you don’t think about it too hard, the basic messages—be less exploitative! Don’t let dumb grown-ups continue to screw stuff up!—are, more or less, convincing.

But the franchise has an opposite (and stickier) through line: shop till you drop. My son, Jack, who turned five this fall, has been obsessed with Paw Patrol for roughly half his short life. While I don’t think my wife and I excessively indulge him—I’m his dad, after all—he does have adoring aunts, uncles, and grandparents who do, and so he currently owns two Paw Patrol baseball caps; three or four Paw Patrol T-shirts; a pair of Paw Patrol running shoes that light up; several sets of Paw Patrol socks and underwear; Paw Patrol pyjamas and bedsheets; an untold number of Paw Patrol books (including colouring and activity books); a couple Paw Patrol DVDs; Paw Patrol playing cards; a Paw Patrol sled; Paw Patrol walkie-talkies; fruity-smelling Paw Patrol lip balm and foul-smelling Paw Patrol shampoo; a Paw Patrol Halloween costume (Chase, his fave); a Paw Patrol electric toothbrush; Paw Patrol Band-Aids; and, of course, a large collection of Paw Patrol stuffed animals, figurines, and other related toys (among them, a Paw Patrol plane and a cheaply made Hungry Hungry Hippos–inspired Paw Patrol game that I step on at least once a day). And with the addition of each new character and its attendant specialized vehicle—the original six Pups have since been joined by Everest, Tracker, and the villainous Sweetie—the number and variety of toys expands accordingly. In 2015, when people first started talking about the commercialization of the show, there were more than 3,000 Paw Patrol products for sale through Amazon; as of this writing, there are more than 12,000.

Jack has handed out Paw Patrol valentines and issued Paw Patrol birthday party invitations. In February, his aunt and uncle took him to see Paw Patrol Live at Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts; actors dressed up in Paw Patrol costumes played out various episodes onstage, but the experience of seeing his beloved Pups in the fur was so overwhelming for Jack that they had to leave halfway. He’s watched every episode of the show so many times that now he doesn’t even want to watch them at all and has turned his attention instead to the apparently infinite offshoots of Paw Patrol mania available on YouTube: unboxing videos where kids and/or parents tear open brand new packages of Paw Patrol toys or other clips in which figurines are drenched in slime or set up to rescue figurines from other shows and movies. He’s returned again and again and again to one video in which a kindergartener named Hailey cracks open a faux Kinder Egg that’s as tall as she is and extracts from it a new Lookout toy and related merchandise. An off-screen voice, presumably that of her father, provides inane but creepy narration. When I last checked, it had been viewed more than 25 million times.

Paw patrol is currently the most popular show for preschoolers in the US and, possibly, the world, and it is Canadian. Perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that its origins lie in a toy. In 2013, designers at Spin Master came up with a few prototype toys—one of them was a house that could transform into a truck—and took them to various preschool-TV-show creators. It was Bob the Builder’s Keith Chapman who came up with the concept for Paw Patrol. The development of original characters is much more lucrative than the licensing of other companies’ ideas. After Chapman conceived of the Paw Patrol franchise, Spin Master tapped Toronto animators at Guru Studio to animate it. By August 2013, it was on TVO in Canada and Nickelodeon in the US. I asked Ronnen Harary, Spin Master co-founder and co-CEO, which came first when they were conceiving new episodes: merchandise or storylines. He said, “Producing toys for kids is an art form, and writing and animating TV shows for kids is an art form. We’ve been able to mix those two forms together. It’s a very difficult thing to do because they’re different disciplines, but by mixing them together, you can have a potentially richer TV show.” He obviously meant a show of greater resonance, but the double entendre was undeniable. Paw Patrol has been very good to Harary and his partners. Spin Master went public a couple years ago, and its stock has performed enviably. In 2016, the company’s adjusted EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) was $205.5 million (US), up almost 30 percent over the previous year. (How much Paw Patrol itself has contributed to that bottom line is a matter of speculation, but one analyst has suggested the franchise represented about 25 percent.)

I don’t begrudge Spin Master its financial success, and it seems churlish to complain about something that’s given my kid so much apparent joy. But do we applaud medical companies for figuring out the alchemy that makes opioids more addictive? Exactly what makes the show so joyful for Jack remains a bit of a mystery. In real life, he doesn’t even like dogs. But he loves to help, and he loves the idea of superheroes who help, and he loves to think of himself, I think, as someone who’s heroically helpful. Like a lot of kids, he also likes to build stuff, and the Pups are often building things, or at least MacGyvering things, and observing and absorbing that kind of service seems to activate another pleasure centre in his brain. Ask Jack why he loves the show so much, and he answers with age-appropriate introspection: “It’s just cool.” But the show’s content aside, I think there’s just something undeniably narcotizing about the reliable, seemingly endless, refreshment of familiar, yet slightly different, amusement—just as there’s always another episode on Netflix or another video on YouTube, there’s always a new toy or branded article of clothing. They keep coming, and they will keep coming; play with one, lose it under the couch or at school, and another can immediately take its place. You could liken a lot of kids’ toys to fast food, I’m sure, but Paw Patrol, like McDonald’s or Coca-Cola, has perfected the formula.

In any case, at this point, I’d just love for Jack to expand his horizons, such as they are. I want him to find, at the very least, something new to obsess over, just as, in my own biography of seventies-era toy consumption, Evel Knievel was displaced by Big Jim, who was displaced by the Star Wars universe.

There have been hints of things to come. The other day, for example, he asked me to draw all 151 of the original Pokémon characters. But, hungover, I only ended up drawing a half dozen of them before he, bored, went back to his Paw Patrol colouring book. A few months ago, a couple older boys walked by him and, with the undisguised disdain of elementary-school kids everywhere, sneered at his Paw Patrol ball cap. “That’s a baby show,” one of them muttered. Jack looked pained, and though I felt bad for him, I also secretly hoped that this prick of peer pressure might be all that was needed to pop the balloon. Not so. Later he told me that Paw Patrol was, in fact, for big kids. “Dora’s a baby show,” he said with certainty.

When I visited the studio, a Spin Master executive gave me a framed letter penned as if from Ryder, “signed” by all the Pups—each paw print was different!—to present to Jack, as well as a couple of Chase toys. (I’m not in the habit of accepting such graft, but I’ve given Spin Master a lot of money, okay.) When I picked him up from school, I told Jack that the items were waiting at home. He was both thrilled and confused—had Ryder dropped by the house, Santa-style?—and insisted on skipping our normal post-school park trip so that he could get home straight away. He squealed when he saw the letter, though the toys excited him even more. The Chase “deluxe” police cruiser could transform, emit sounds—was that Max’s voice in there?—and scoot with impressive speed across the kitchen floor.

Ten minutes later, however, Jack had walked away from it all. I was sitting at our dining-room table, catching up on emails. He climbed into my lap and looked up at me with his immense dark eyes. “What else is there?” he said.

Jason McBride is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has appeared in Toronto Life, New York, Maclean's, and many other publications.

Anoosha Syed is an illustrator and co-host of the podcast The Art Corner.

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