In the “Stuck at Childhood” series, I’ll be taking a monthly look at the television shows and other pop culture items that shaped my childhood. Let’s see what made them special, why they appealed to me and if they hold up as art or entertainment.
I guess when I was about six or seven, I was completely obsessed with this show. Before looking at some episodes in order to write this piece, I didn’t remember much about Ghostwriter except its premise and some details. I knew it was a show about a group of kids that solved mysteries with the aid of a ghost that communicated with them through writing. I also remembered a character was named Jamal (which was, at the time, a name I had never heard before and that I found kind of funny) and that his grandma also played a role. I was right on both counts, but while Ghostwriter is, in essence, the show I remembered, it is also a perfect example of how our nostalgic memories can make us remember things in a very subjective way.
This was an educational show that had its original American run on PBS from 1992 to 1995. It was produced by the Children’s Television Workshop, which is a company most known for producing Sesame Street (it was actuallly renamed the Sesame Workshop). If you watched the video with the opening credits of the show I embed above, then you would have seen the fashion, music and racially diverse cast that make you understand what kind of show we’re talking about. I don’t know about you, but when I picture an educational show from the nineties in my head, I image is something pretty similar to Ghostwriter. The show’s main educational purpose was to strengthen children’s reading abilities, and I find the idea of a Ghost that communicates doing such things as using fridge magnets to communicate to be pretty cool. But having so much writing, and being aimed at a young audience also means the show had to give children the time to read, which means it is also really slow-moving.
As you might have already assumed, it was overall a very wholesome show, but being that its target audience was a little older than, say, the target audience for Sesame Street, it was also willing to indulge in some pretty dark stuff. As a kid, the mystery component was what kept me interested in the show (I think I didn’t even knew how to read when I first watched it), and I have to say that despite its slow-moving plot, these are some pretty well crafted mysteries. That is not to say you won’t be disappointed if you go into the show expecting to find some Sherlock-caliber twists and turns, but show this to anyone under 12, and I think they’ll be pretty interested in what’s going to happen next. It was also surprisingly good at building up tension. There are some episodes in which our heroes could go to jail(!) if their plan doesn’t work. There’s another one in which some chemicals are contaminating the playground to the point where it could be lethal for the kids playing there. That is some pretty heavy stuff, and yet, the show is never outright dark or violent. I give it kudos for being as exciting as it was without any violence whatsoever.
Even with all that good stuff, the reality is the show doesn’t hold up all that well for adults. The production values are cheap (although I’m sure they retain a certain charm for those who grew up around this period) and the acting by the children is almost uniformly bad. An exception is actually Sheldon Turnipseed, who played the aforementioned Jamal. He is quite charismatic and somehow manages to have a name my six year old self would have found to be even cooler than his character’s. Talking about Jamal, another thing I remembered about the show was my favorite story-arch (the mysteries were usually about three episodes long). I remembered it involved a slime monster and that it was towards the end of the series because there were a lot of characters involved in it and everyone was older. It turns out they were the last episodes of the show, the mystery was called “Attack of the Slime Monster” and it was actually about the kids writing a horror story. When re-watching it I thought it being only a fantasy, would lose any kind of momentum, but it’s actually kind of a nice thing they did, and that makes me appreciate what the writers of this show were up to. It’s kind of fitting that a show about children reading would end its run with an episode about children writing. I also think I can trace a certain period of my life in which I constantly wrote stories about me and my friends to this episode.
Almost every episode of Ghostwriter can be found on YouTube, in case you want to watch some. Here’s the first part of “Attack of the Slime Monster”
I actually wonder if Ghostwriter would even hold up for children today, because, it is actually really slow. I’m about to sound like an old person who complains about the speed and overstimulation of video games and television, but this can’t compete with the flashing colors kids are exposed to these days, can it? There’s an experiment right there, show this show to some small kids and report back to me, would you?
While you do that, here’s a little treat. If you watched the show when you were a kid, then chances are the following video will bring back a lot of memories. For those who’ve never watch the show, well, this might very well be the most nineties thing you will see in your entire life…
Next Month: Pokemon