“A continuing series, about the toys that we all know / plastic creations that last for generations / and we still cannot let go / little old figures that gave us big dreams / we’ll go back in time and behind the scenes / it’s the toys that made us! /the toys that made us is here!”
With those words begin each episode of The Toys That Made Us, Netflix’s phenomenal series that explores the hidden histories of the toy lines that changed not only childhood, but popular culture in general. The just-premiered third season of the show focuses on four of the most iconic concepts every to hit the toy aisle: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, My Little Pony, and toys based on professional wrestling.
Of these new installments, the most fascinating, if not downright touching, is the one based on the TMNT franchise. As unthinkable as it may seem now, the Turtles had a rough time transitioning from the pages of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s independently produced comic (which began in 1984 in their small apartment studio) to the global obsession that it is now. The episode is crammed with fascinating anecdotes ranging from how the pair initially bonded over a love of comics legend Jack Kirby to how The Big Bang Theory creator Chuck Lorre created and produced the forever earworm that is the theme song to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. Perhaps more than any other episode in the show’s three-year history, this segment offers not only the definitive guide to Turtle Power, but a genuinely moving exploration of how success fractured Eastman and Laird’s once airtight friendship. It’s powerful stuff that follows the series’ mission statement of presenting history with human drama.
The Toys That Made Us is the brainchild of writer/producer/director Brian Volk-Weiss. A toy fanatic himself (his collection includes over 2,000 items, including rare prototypes from LJN’s Dune and Galoob’s Star Trek: The Next Generation lines, as well as several coveted G.I. Joe pieces). What is so enthralling to viewers is how Volk-Weiss and his staff treat these playthings with the reverence they deserve, be it through examining how Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers brought an appreciation of Japanese tokusatsu programs to American audiences or how the My Little Pony franchise celebrates friendship and inclusion.
When asked about what the process of choosing which lines will be chosen to be featured in the series, Volk-Weiss explains the three-part criteria each possible subject must meet. “Does a toy line have at least one character that is iconic enough to be on a mount Rushmore of toys? Has the toy line been on sale long enough to have, at the bare minimum, two generations of fans that played with it? Is the actual story behind the rise of that toy line a good story? Does it have twists and turns, ups and downs?”
Now that we know how the lines are picked for the show, does its creator have a fondness for a specific toy range?
“It has been, and always will be, Star Wars,” he explains, “I’m as excited about my new Black Series IG-11 that I got last week as I was about my original R2-D2 that I got around 1978.” Furthering his belief that toys are much more than just diversions, he explains how the Kenner Star Wars line impacted his worldview. “This movie and toy line inspired my entire career and also many things about both affected my entire outlook on life,” he states. “Plus they have always been ahead of their time in terms of detail and playability.”
Given this knowledge, it’s little surprise that his favorite episode to date is the first one, dedicated to Star Wars. “Because we got to rebuild ILM,” he explains, before adding “it was the toy that I played with the most, and the ending I can never watch without crying.” (For those keeping score, Volk-Weiss says that “the TMNT episode is a very close second.”)
With the new batch of episodes just dropping, he reminds us that additional seasons could happen “only if the third does well and Netflix lets us make more.” We certainly hope so, as toys so much more than simply linked to our childhood nostalgia, they help shape not only who we are but the tapestry of popular culture. To this point, Volk-Weiss attempts to get at the core of why the show has been so well received:
“I think it has resonated because we have worked very hard to make sure every minute of it is simultaneously entertaining, informative, nostalgic, and either humorous/or dramatic. We work aggressively to find the right moments and people to interview that make anyone who is a fan or not a fan find value in the story telling that we try to do.”
Summing up his thoughts on the show’s success, he proves to us that not only have toys shaped his life, but irrevocably altered his own career path.
“Before The Toys That Made Us came out I was perceived as a producer of comedy, and producers get stereotyped just like actors. After Toys, I was seen as a producer of comedy AND Pop History, and thanks to it we’re now making Pop History type shows for Disney+, Amazon, and BET+, just to name a few. And it is a LOT of fun making these shows, to say the least!”
And to think all this entertainment was spawned by a few action figures. It seems that toys can not only impact who we are but take us to places in our lives that seem unimaginable. They really do make us, and that’s something we should all be grateful for.