I’m continuing my series on kids’ shows with a look at a show that gained more of a cult following than anything else: Ghostwriter, which aired on PBS from 1992-1995. I was a heavy PBS watcher back in my younger days, but this show was always my favorite, and remains a favorite to this day. Ghostwriter followed a team of kids from New York City who solved mysteries by piecing together evidence that they find along the way. They are helped by a mysterious entity that they name Ghostwriter. Ghostwriter cannot hear or talk, but can read and arrange letters to communicate. The title sequence of the show elaborates more on Ghostwriter’s abilities:
The case stories are rich and complex. Each case unfolds over a 4-5 episode story arc, which means they can stretch out into well-developed plots. The show’s writers manage to avoid being too repetitious with the case subjects as well, so each plotline feels fresh. The team tackles mysteries as diverse as missing persons, finding a movie star’s stalker, investigating vandalism on a music video set, and even one where the team has to repair a rift that develops between its own members.
The team uses a systematic and scientific method to solve its cases. The nice thing about Ghostwriter is that, other than the titular character, there’s very little “magic” or deus ex machinas in the plots. The kids have to solve the cases the old-fashioned way, through looking at the evidence, making hypotheses, and drawing conclusions. I think this is a good message for kids, showing them that hard work pays off in the end, and that anyone can make a difference if they work together toward a common goal. The show even encouraged kids to get their own “casebooks” and make lists of suspects and evidence, following along to see if they could figure out “whodunit” before the team did. Some episodes even have the team venturing into the library to research a subject the kids are unfamiliar with, or to dig up old newspapers from the past in order to shed more light on a particular case.
The show is rather tech-savvy for its time. Continuing with the idea of Ghostwriter being a “smart” show, it was pretty cutting-edge technologically for the early 90s. To wit: one of the story arcs features Ghostwriter traveling across the Internet in order to track down a hacker who had been causing several mishaps at the team’s middle school. One of the team members, Jamal, has a modem and explains how it works. This arc aired right in the beginning of 1994; the World Wide Web was only a couple of years old, and the Internet was nowhere near as prevalent as it is today. This was just one of a few ways Ghostwriter was ahead of its time.
The show gets a gold star for diversity. The Ghostwriter team consisted of Vietnamese, African-American, Caucasian, and Hispanic members, and put many cultural touches throughout. For instance, Alex and Gaby’s parents regularly speak Spanish, and the store they own is referred to with the Spanish word bodega. Tina, the Vietnamese member of the team, often talks of her family’s culture and traditions.
It also doesn’t shy away from tough or controversial issues. The aforementioned hacker story arc (which is the best of the series, in my opinion) falls into this category, but the show also confronts other tough topics, such as teen drug use, pollution/environmental issues, and gang violence. The team does a good job of offering positive solutions to these problems, and encourages kids to work together to solve these problems through community organizing and activism.
IT WAS TOO SHORT!!! As you can probably tell, I don’t have a lot of negative things to say about this show. It was very well-done and had a positive message for kids. Sadly, though, it was relatively short-lived. The unfortunate fact of public TV programming is that it relies on viewer donations to stay afloat, and funding for Ghostwriter dried up, forcing the producers to cancel it in 1995. While it did run for 2 ½ seasons and aired 74 episodes, a show this good deserved to stay on the air for much longer. Some cast members have gone on to some interesting careers (for example, Blaze Berdahl, who played Lennie Frazier, is an accomplished voice actress, and original Gaby actress Mayteana Morales is in a funk band). Producer Kermit Frazier revealed in a 2010 interview that Ghostwriter was the spirit of a fugitive slave during the Civil War era who was killed by slave catchers and their dogs after teaching other slaves how to read and write. His soul was trapped in an old book and released when Jamal, one of the main characters, knocks the book open when moving several items in his basement in the pilot episode.
The remake was not very good. CBS tried to relaunch the series in 1997 with The New Ghostwriter Mysteries. The show debuted to mixed to negative reviews and was canceled after two months. The new incarnation had little in common with the old show, abandoning the story arc format and featuring new actors and a different appearance for Ghostwriter.