Even at their simplest, Dr. Seuss stories are carefully crafted bridges. For children figuring out how to read or anyone taking their first swings at the English language, the legendary author’s picture books are handy springboards into a bigger world. So it makes sense that “Green Eggs and Ham,” a Netflix animated series based on one of Seuss’ most quintessential works, functions in largely the same way for newcomers to TV.
Extrapolating out the few dozen words of the original story to a 13-episode season, creator Jared Stern manages to maintain the book’s elastic spirit, in all its visual and linguistic tricks. In the process, “Green Eggs and Ham” the series becomes the kind of show that could be a fundamental entry point for younger viewers learning how to follow a broader, episodic tale.
The Netflix series takes the two main characters from the story — Sam-I-Am (Adam Devine) and Guy-Am-I (Michael Douglas) — and sends them on a roadtrip comedy across the looping, asymmetrical roads riffing on the Seuss house style. As the two are tasked with guarding and transporting a wild Chickeraffe (a chicken/giraffe hybrid, naturally), Sam’s happy-go-lucky attitude and Guy’s gruffer exterior clash over more than just mealtime choices.
Along the way, they meet other sets of foils: an overly protective mother Michellee (Diane Keaton) and her daughter E.B. (Ilana Glazer) and a couple self-proclaimed Bad Guys, McWinkle and Gluntz (Jeffrey Wright and Jillian Bell) close on the Chickeraffe’s trail.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of “Green Eggs and Ham” is seeing the show indulge the absurd, exaggerated Seussisms that exists on the page. Sometimes that pops up in the show’s gleeful literalizing of common phrases (Michellee is an actual bean counter, while Guy watches paint dry). Elsewhere, the various rest stops on Sam and Guy’s road to Meepville are drenched in whimsical, vividly colored landscapes.
Against that backdrop, “Green Eggs and Ham” also deserves credit for finding a tonal sweet spot for Sam-I-Am himself to live in. Helped along by Adam Devine’s game-for-anything voice work, the show makes Sam into a character that blends mischief, optimism, and a sense of wonder. Rather than wearing down Guy through sheer force of will, Sam appeals to the dormant sense of daring he can sense deep down under the surface. And as Sam is more jester than pest, Guy’s evolving backstory shows that there’s more to his unhappiness than simply being a contrarian.
So kids watching this show will get characters that are clearly defined, but rarely thin. Even the interplay between McWinkle and Gluntz, the closest the show gets to outright goofiness, still has a somewhat grounded feel to it. In a series filled with odd couples, Wright (and especially) Bell seem to be having the most fun playing with their opposing personalities.
Each of the 13-episodes takes its title from a reason that Guy rejects the green eggs and ham dish in the original story. These chapters range from inventive to more entertaining fluff, but there’s an admirable attempt to make something serialized here. While so much of children’s programming is geared toward syndication and being able to be guzzled up on any random morning block of TV, “Green Eggs and Ham” serves as more connected counterpoint. (A kids-aimed analog of “The Good Place” for a world of “The Office” and “Friends” reruns, if you will.)
“Green Eggs and Ham” doesn’t just draw on children’s books. The series is practically a six-year-old’s starter kit for recognizing ‘90s film references, iconic musical theater ballads, and works as a solid intro to eventually digging into the greater animated feature canon. (After this story of a grumpy old man, overly enthusiastic sidekick, exotic animal in tow, and slightly overstuffed finale, “Up” would definitely be the automatic Play Next option if it was still in the Netflix library.)
Against those standard pop culture nods aimed for kids to finally recognize years after they’ve seen this show, “Green Eggs and Ham” gets far more mileage out of letting the personality of its writers shine in the way this world is built out. A vendetta against a certain fruit, a reveling in the weirdness of certain idioms, and a genuine desire for its characters to have a more open mind all mix together to provide something that seems just outside of programming-by-algorithm.
Along with that character building and winking self-awareness (Keegan-Michael Key’s Narrator gets plenty of that for himself), “Green Eggs and Ham” is also a fun Intro to Comedy course, too. With Sam, there’s a heavy dose of slapstick to keep the visual gags flowing, but the series also presents a fundamental toolbox for how jokes can be told. Using sound and framing for a reverse-shot punchline, playing with the rule of threes, those Narrator-shepherded fourth-wall breaks: “Green Eggs and Ham” draws on all of these without it feeling dumbed down or lessened for viewers encountering them for the first time.
There’s a lot of information, visual and spoken, packed into these episodes and it trusts viewers of all ages to keep up. It’s become a cliche to point out how much of kids-oriented movies and series are really for the ones paying for the ticket or the subscription. “Green Eggs and Ham” isn’t necessarily a corrective. Instead, it’s a prologue to the possibilities to come. It might be told with training wheels at first, but by the end it hands over the keys to the shoob-shubbler to anyone who wants to take the journey.
“Green Eggs and Ham” is now available to stream on Netflix.