The daily lives of young people in the social care system doesn’t exactly sound like the most obvious idea for a kids’ television show. However, The Dumping Ground is following a fine tradition of CBBC television shows (The Story of Tracy Beaker and Tracy Beaker Returns) which explore the experiences and perspectives of young people as they move in, and sometimes out of, Elm Tree care home.
In case you’re not familiar with the Tracy Beaker series, the basic premise of The Dumping Ground is that a group of young people, of varying ages and backgrounds, live together in a large care home with two main carers – Mike and Gina. Characters come and go, much as they would in a real care home. Usually, one particular character will be the focus of an episode which explores the story of how they came to live in the care home or of how they may eventually find their own version of happily ever after. The show doesn’t hesitate to tackle hard hitting and real life issues such as parental neglect, mental illness and the difficulties of reuniting families. In the first series alone, there was an episode which explored how a reunited family were unable to break the cycle of neglect and abuse which led to the youngest child returning to the care home. Another episode examined the conflicting emotions of one character as they had to decide whether they were ready to leave the care home and take a chance on a new foster family.
Following the style and content of its predecessors, The Dumping Ground continues to use cartoon sequences to emphasise a particular point or emotion. The sequences are sometimes humorous, sometimes sweet and occasionally very emotionally powerful. One sequence which stands out in particular concerned the changing relationship between Gina and her elderly mother. A few seconds of animation was able to illustrate how the task of care-giving gradually shifted onto the shoulders of the daughter as her mother became ill.
The cast is constantly changing but overall the characters are well crafted with their own distinctive personalities and life histories. None of the young people are portrayed simplistically as good or bad. They all have their flaws, whether it’s a ruthless and competitive streak, a tendency to play practical jokes or a tendency to be melodramatic. The relationship dynamics between the young characters are also believable as friendships come under pressure and differences of opinions arise on intensely personal issues such coping with bereavement or the imprisonment of a family member.
However, the show does suffer from same flaws as the original Tracy Beaker series. Although The Dumping Ground tries to explore some serious and emotional situations, it does sometimes tend to sugar coat things in an attempt to end the episode on a lighter note. This is understandable given the target audience but sometimes as a viewer I feel like they overemphasise the point that they are trying to make when really the message has already come across loud and clear. Some of the storylines are slightly unrealistic such as a teenage girl believing that she could simply jet off to Brazil with a girl she was friends with for barely a day. The attempts at humour can get slightly grating with too much focus on slapstick comedy and practical jokes. There are also limitations to working with a younger generation of actors. It is not fair to generalise, some of the cast are truly outstanding actors, but occasionally there is some rather hammy overacting which takes away from the overall enjoyment of the show.
Overall, The Dumping Ground is a great show to watch, regardless of your age group. It’s truly fantastic to have a television series which attempts to portray different family lifestyles in our modern society. It raises awareness of important issues facing young people and not just those who are currently in the social care system. It has some very heart-warming and poignant moments along with laugh out loud scenes. The overarching themes of family and belonging are ones that nearly everyone can relate to. The show sends a powerful message to its audience: everyone deserves love, acceptance and a chance at a better life. I can’t think of a better message for both children and adults in these messy times.
Red Hamilton (is off to drink green tea in celebration of peace, love and harmony)