Back for another four episodes, the documentary-style series about toy lines and toy companies of the past The Toys That Made Us is now streaming on Netflix with its Season 2. As with the first four episodes reviewed here at borg.com in January, the series really isn’t a show for kids, but a behind-the-scenes account of the good and the bad of the history of the toy business. Because of the toy lines covered in this short Season 2–LEGO, Transformers, Hello Kitty, and Star Trek–expect a more international flavor to the show’s coverage than of Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Barbie, and Masters of the Universe. You can’t get around the fact that this is about business and business politics, with the added opportunity for those who just want to spot their very favorite toy of their youth to shout out during at least one of the episodes, “I had one of those!”
Back is the sugar-coated dialogue of the enthusiastic narrator Donald Ian Black. The series continues to be of value mostly for the gold nuggets nestled within its lighthearted framework. Excerpts of an interview with former Mego President Marty Abrams tops the list. Despite the high highs and the low lows of his days leading Mego, Abrams seems to have been in the middle of a great time for the toy biz, seen in the first of the new episodes, where he admits passing up the deal to secure the valuable Star Wars account, supposedly for being out-of-town at the time. The episode of Transformers is surprisingly emotional, including interviews with Optimus Prime himself, lo-o-o-ong-time animated film voice actor Peter Cullen (who was also the voice of Winnie the Pooh’s Eeyore), and the much revered Hideaki Yoke, the Japanese company Takara’s lead designer responsible for the brilliant puzzle-piece designs of the vast Transformers line of characters. As with Masters of the Universe, comic books were important to the development and success of Transformers, and viewers will learn Hello Kitty originated with comic book artists. The most unexpected storytelling may come from the Hello Kitty episode. Hello Kitty, a Japan-originated phenomenon turned international craze not tied to any book, TV series, or film, benefited from the coup of celebrities using the products publicly (without paying endorsement fees). The discussion of the Japan cultural concept of kawaii and its relationship to the development of the Hello Kitty brand, character, and mythos will come as a surprise to most.
For Star Trek fans the episode featuring the franchise’s toy pursuits might have a few surprises. Yes, that crazy Spock and Kirk helmet from the 1960s rears its ugly head again. It’s too bad the show feels the need to explain what each franchise is first (we probably wouldn’t be watching if we didn’t), because fans would probably instead rather hear more about subjects the show creators didn’t leave time for. We were looking for a discussion of the advance release of a line of Star Trek Generations action figures with costume styles that were changed before the film was released (a rare mishap), coverage of the very extensive (and once popular) line of attractive 12-inch scale action figures, the scope of the segment of Playmates company toys featuring characters from not only the series (discussed) but the movies through Star Trek: First Contact, and a little about the “why” of decisions behind toy releases, like why every NextGen line seemed to have two different Worf figures. From the LEGO segment viewers learn a comprehensive overview of the company, plus some interesting bits like the fact that the early color scheme was directly inspired by the artist Mondrian, and that the outer space series caused the modern line of toys to really take off. LEGO goes back some 80 years, and the history of the town that made it famous and impact of the brand is a great piece of history. As with the rest of the episodes business and marketing trends are a great focus, and the 1958 LEGO patent for the interlocking brick–and loss of the patent–is part of that.
We’ll reiterate what we said in our review of Season 1: We want more. Now we want to see an episode on Marx toys, including little toy soldiers and the large-scale action figure series. We also want to see a history of the broad Mego line of figures–Mego did much more and greater lines than Star Trek figures (as mentioned in the episode), Hot Wheels, Stretch Armstrong, and Big Jim. How season segment addressing 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? And how about featuring a current game company that’s been around for decades, like Wizards of the Coast?
After eight episodes one great takeaway is how useful a viewing of the series would be to students of any college business marketing overview course. A good throwback to the past full of fun nostalgia–even if it only has time to skim the surface of each toy line covered–and something for everyone, The Toys That Made Us, Season 1 and 2, is streaming now on Netflix.