Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us is a joyous, wildly informative documentary series that examines the creation of the playthings that defined our childhoods…and forever changed the toy industry. Currently streaming, the first four episodes chart the genesis of Star Wars action figures, Barbie, Masters of the Universe, and G.I. Joe. (Installments dedicated to Hello Kitty, Star Trek, Lego, and Transformers debut later in the year). Given the niche appeal of the subject matter, it was a somewhat daring move for Netflix to even embark on this project in the first place. And one that has been a huge success.
Since debuting just before Christmas, the series has won acclaim among toy obsessives and regular folks alike due to the care in which it has been made. We all remember the dismissive manner in which shows like VH1’s I Love the ’80s discussed iconic toys, but such snark is completely absent from The Toys That Made Us — replaced by thoughtful comments from the pioneering men and women who helped make our adolescence such an unforgettable time. (As evidenced by the He-Man episode, it helps that many of these individuals are fascinating characters in their own right).
As of this writing, Netflix has not announced whether or not the series will get a second season. But this is hardly the first time series creator Brian Volk-Weiss has had to deal with uncertainty surrounding the show. Originally, The Toys That Made Us would have featured celebrities weighing in on toy properties for which they were associated with, but this permutation was passed on. Den of Geek recently spoke with Volk-Weiss and he shed some light on this (fortunately) abandoned concept and the problems it would have presented. “We would do a Star Wars episode, but we had to get Harrison Ford. We’d do a Transformers episode, but we had to get Mark Wahlberg.” After the networks passed, a sigh of relief was breathed because this jettisoned version of the series would have placed the emphasis on familiar faces instead of the unrecognized superstars who truly brought your favorite toys to life. In regards to the original rejection call he received, Volk-Weiss now views that as “one of the best calls” he ever recieved since it ultimately led him to do the series in the proper way, i.e. its current form.
So what sparked the idea of crafting a series about toy history anyway? “It just always to crazy to me that you could go to a book store and see three dozen books about the War of 1812, or there’s thousands of books about World War I, and you couldn’t find out about where did Transformers come from? Where did G.I. Joe come from? How did Barbie become Barbie? What is Hello Kitty?,” declares Volk-Weiss. “So that was the impetus. And as a producer you really want to , as much as possible, take your hobbies and your loves and turn it into a TV show.”
Being the billion dollar behemoth that it is, it is understandable if you would think that Netflix would have some creative stipulations on The Toys That Made Us. However, you would also be dead wrong. As Volk-Weiss told us, the network was an absolute joy to work with. “Once they bought it, it really was like ‘hey man, you know toys, looking forward to the first cut.’ So we ran off, literally almost seven months.” The production team would give Netflix reports on their progress, but there was no external pressure brought on by their bosses. “Creatively we just did what we wanted to do, and that’s what they wanted us to do,” he remarks.
As a toy expert and lifelong fan himself, Brian Volk-Weiss found himself adding to his knowledge during the production of the first eight episodes — mainly by having some longheld beliefs shattered. “I grew up my whole life, and I would say almost anybody my age, thinking that Lucas made a trillion, billion dollars and made 95 cents of every dollar on the toys.” A longheld toy urban legend, one that bears no more truth than the tale of Life cereal’s Mikey dying from eating pop rocks while drinking a Coke. When Volk-Weiss found out that in fact Lucas took a beating on his original contract with Kenner, he was incredulous. “That shocked me in something I considered myself to be an expert on,” he humbly reflects.
With the series being a success among fans and critics, and given that it has a low production budget when compared to say a Black Mirror or any of Netflix’s Marvel shows, a second seems a fair bet. But what properties would be featured? “We have 20 episodes that we feel are all A to A+ stories,” he remarks. (Including future subject fodder like Power Rangers, Turtles, My Little Pony, and wrestling toys). Fascinatingly enough, not all of these potential segments would be about successful toy lines. A proposed second season installment would focus on toy lines that should never have been made, a decision inspired by LJN’s notorious action figures based on David Lynch’s Dune. By shining a light on interesting failures, The Toys That Made Us would illustrate how even largely unpopular releases can still have a huge impact on the industry as well as the individuals who have taken these misfit toys to heart.
Whatever the future holds for the series, The Toys That Made Us will certainly remind viewers that — more than ever — playthings are a vital part of our shared experience. And yeah, they are super fun too.