My two year old was watching Diego for a few days; loved him, laughed while she watched, dressed like him and introduced herself as Diego, and then, one episode there was a big rodent with huge fangs and she walked away ... asked me to turn it off and claimed Diego was too scary for her and so ended the love affair.
And to the original poster - we like Curious George, she loves Blues Clues and I used to watch Charolotte's Web with my son (although I am not sure if that meets your requirements).
I do NOT like all those toys that come along with shows; I have been to birthday parties and the child who likes, Dora, for instance, ends up getting DORA everything for gifts. Ugh. This never happened with my son, and hopefully I can avoid it with my daughter (just don't tell anyone what her favourite show of the moment is). Although, from my day, I have a little Gumby & Pokey toy (from 40 years ago), and I kind of like it, Dora toy may become the retro toy in 40 years. ha
I'm checking out some of those suggestions because right now my DD (26 months) only wants to watch Barney as far as kids shows go. We also don't have a TV so we watch it on Youtube a couple of times a week. Barney creeps me out but hey, I'm not exactly the target audience.
This is not a show, but we watched "March of the Penguins" with her. She got really excited about all the penguins, baby penguins and snow. It has some sad scenes but I personally find it ok and from the looks of it, she didn't even get that it was sad. I've been also trying to show her snippets of animal documentaries on Youtube. Elephants, zebras, lions, all of these are super interesting to her and she starts pointing in excitement at the screen at all the animals and saying their names, what sounds they make...
The Big Comfy Couch was a popular one with my 10 yr old when she was little.
Veggie Tales is a Christian based cartoon but a really good one.
I see Dora mentioned a few times, but that has violence on it. It has swyper trying to swype things :p and sometimes they get in binds and in troubled situations.
The first time I ever heard DD (now 5) laugh at a show (we only do Netflix and occasionally some online networks) was at Pingu.
Some favorites when she was in the 3 y.o. range:
Youtube videos of "I like Elephants"--a song that is silly, and youtube segments of laughing babies, dogs and cats making noises, and the babies who sing about farting in the bathtub. Santa babies was on the playlist too. We had the number songs from vintage Sesame Street in the loop, as well as the baker and the count and the pinball machine, the ladybug picnic and some other counting songs. I found that most of the youtube vids about nursery rhymes and whatnot were lame, as were the kiddie songs on youtube. I really haven't found many that toot my horn. For a while, and I still scratch my head over this one, she really really liked watching a horrifying rhythmic gymnastics training video in which a coach was slamming the girl's legs backward. She got such a huge kick out of this, and trying this coaching on mommy, that I rolled with it. Really, I was showing her rhythmic gymnastics for the RIBBONS. yeah. "I wanna see bajastics again, mommy". We watched ballet and Irish dance videos and some other random stuff. It seemed that if we had an interest in something I could always find an interesting vid there (but caution--sometimes they are not what is expected!) And---she really enjoyed watching home movies of herself and family too.
After we picked up Netflix while she was about 3:
Caillou sucks. During a time that kids are starting to whine anyway, it was double-bad when dd "caught" the whine bug from that kid. The stories are great, but they really did a disservice to a potentially great show by using the whine voice. She loved it, I barely tolerated it, and over time I think DD got tired of me saying "Caillou sure does whine a lot. I wonder what he needs" (She'd say "he needs to start over, Mommy"...LOL)
The Backyardigans sing a lot, and dd likes that part. Same with yo gabba gabba--but dd doesn't reach for that one often. The Wonder Pets are a huge hit too. But they bring on the "me-wantees" regarding pets, for sure. She worked on a lot of "is that real?" with the Wonder Pets. As a parent, I found myself kind of anxious about the show....I mean, here they were singing endlessly while a poor puppy just had to get out to potty, or a kitten was helpless and in trouble! The suspense was terrible! It was cute when she once said to someone who needed a toothpick at a restaurant "you could ask a pulver to help!"
I found Dora and Kailan and Diego to be pretty equal across the board in terms of interest and some of the things the OP is trying to avoid, but there are some pretty typical gender roles running amok there too in the peripheral characters.
Someone gave her an Angelina Ballerina DVD, and while we were watching it, I was pretty disgusted. That said, a few of those shows have introduced some interesting friendship themes, and we've talked about them a lot. She has an Angelina and Alice doll, and they do "interviews" with each other when there are upcoming changes in our lives....but of course they have to have an accent and sigh a lot. So that part is kind of sad...but I think it's a better show for the olders.
Kipper is awesome. dd got inspired to make her own robots and aliens and such with some of those episodes.
To avoid the commercialism--a little experience works wonders. I'm pretty anti-pinkplastictvtoys, but dd has gotten some as gifts over time. She figured out, all by herself, that "junky toys" break. They are frustrating, they break and they don't have good clothes to change to, and her dog eats them, etc. She's spent some allowance on those kinds of things, and has already learned the lesson about sparkly plasticy things and the waste of money...and I see it as quite valuable. She says "I like it better when you make the toy, mom, because then you can fix it". True that, sister.
DD refused to see Disney movies until just this year. She did not like that there was a villian. I was ho-hum about the whole thing, really. I understand that little girls are just about assaulted with those pastel demons, but at the same time if she and her cousin wanted to bond over a movie, I wasn't going to freak out too much. I was pleased that she made up her own mind about the quality of the thing, and when someone gave her the princess barbies, she just named them whatever she wanted and had no real clue about who they were "supposed" to be. Even now they just don't get much action in play and I'm waiting for them to be just cast aside and ignored long enough so they can go in the holding bin for donations.
Doc McStuffins, Dora, Little Bear, Team Umizoomi, Kai Lan, Goodnight Show - pretty much anything on Nik Jr I have been impressed with.
My 28 month old learned how to count to ten in spanish when she was 21 months old thanks to Dora - she now says Hola, and all sorts of words even I dont know! I'm SUPER impressed with Dora, TBH.
EDIT: My DD loves swiper because he says "Oh Maaaaannn" - we made it a funny sort of game to say it at times around the house so she isnt scared of him. She was afraid of some robots in an episode once but that was a long time ago.
Pippi Longstocking movies - the ones with Inger Nilsson. Our son adores Pippi. It's all he's watched, besides TVO in Ontario, Canada (no commercials) when Dinosaur Train, 'Jack' (cartoon alien), or Dino-Dan are on.
Raffi in concert.
Both DS and I really love Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood. It's really the only show we watch with any regularity, other than an occasional Little Einsteins.