Netflix is now carrying a new documentary television series that delves into the creators behind some of our favorite toys from the recent, and not so recent past. The Toys That Made Us features four episodes in its first season of streaming, each focused on a toy line that should bring in a good cross-section of fandom. The choices for the first shows include Kenner’s vintage Star Wars action figures and playsets, Hasbro’s G.I. Joe, with an emphasis on the 3 3/4″ line of action figures, Mattel’s Barbie, and the Mattel’s Masters of the Universe. No doubt Barbie and G.I. Joe should pull in the older crowd, while the latter half of G.I. Joe and Star Wars will pull in the kids of the 1970s and early 1980s, and Masters of the Universe the kids of the 1980s.
Not a show for kids and not another show about toy collectors, the series devotes plenty of each hour to interviews with designers, marketing, other businessmen discussing the nuts and bolts of negotiating deals, like the lawyer for Kenner discussing the greatest toy deal negotiation ever, and the later not-so-great negotiation because of a loose-lipped CEO. The Barbie episode features a Barbie expert continually bashing the character as a “hooker” as if she has some sort of love-hate relationship with the doll. But the politics of toymaking is interesting fodder for the right audience. Should it be a surprise that toymakers have the same ugly corporate politics, the downsizing, the layoffs, and the takeovers, like every other company? Prepare yourself for several CEOs and designers as they tiptoe, or not, around decisions and employers they wrestled with in the past as toys and brands came and went. The creators look back both with nostalgia and anger at the former toy companies that eventually terminated their employment. So look for an unusual take on these toys and these companies.
The next four episodes will be launched on Netflix later this year, and include Hello Kitty, Transformers, Star Trek, and LEGO. Sometimes what the show chooses to tell is as interesting as how the show tells it. The eight toy lines chosen no doubt came from the producer’s own focus groups, like the ideas behind some of the toys they discuss. If The Toys That Made Us really is a one-time thing, someone else should come along and continue the idea with all the other major brands and influences.
We want to see an episode on Marx toys, including little toy soldiers and the 12-inch action figure series. We also want to see a history of the broad Mego line of figures, Hot Wheels, Stretch Armstrong, and Big Jim. How about companies like Fisher Price, Playskool, Playmobil, and Radio Flyer? A series like this needs to cover more “recent” but still classic toy lines, too, like My Little Pony, Cabbage Patch Kids, Strawberry Shortcake, and figure out a way to capture famous classic toys like Spirograph, Tinker Toys, Play-Doh, Etch-A-Sketch, Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, and the ultimate multi-license toy, Viewmaster. How about a tour of the Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers factories of the past? Who put out more great board games than these companies? It’s easy to imagine entire episodes on the history of games like Clue/Cluedo and Monopoly. And how about featuring a current game company that’s been around for decades, like Wizards of the Coast?
So far the series is full of interesting nuggets. The history of the G.I. Joe action figure has been explored in numerous shows and books over the years, but the primary focus of those shows was on the classic 12-inch line. This is the first time a documentary has honed in on the resurgence of the G.I. Joe brand for the 3 3/4-inch toy market. The best part of the series is seeing M*A*S*H actor Larry Hama and learning that he came up with the names of most of the G.I. Joe characters kids in the 1980s would grow up with. And how great is it that comic book legend Archie Goodwin created COBRA as the G.I. Joe villains almost as a spur of the moment idea in a meeting? Once and for all, the toy designers themselves confirm your memory is wrong: No kid on your block actually had a rocket-firing Boba Fett. If you saw one it was a fake.
Star Wars was the only toy line discussed based on an existing property, and viewers really can get a look at the toy industry the best through the other three toy lines, created solely for the companies to corner a segment of the market against competing brands or create an untapped market. Masters of the Universe had to create comic books and an animated series (which they admit were commercials with morals tacked on to convince parents they weren’t simply commercials), and G.I. Joe would use a similar approach to re-launch the brand in the 1980s. And G.I. Joe and Barbie were different strategies to get dollars from parents for both boys and girls.
Those who owned these toys as kids will either feel a sense of nostalgia or manipulation as a result of The Toys That Made Us. Either way, it’s fun and worth watching, and we’ll be back for the next four episodes once available. The first four episodes can be streamed now exclusively on Netflix.