Judge Chris Claro is thankful this show was untainted by Enron's greed.
Our review of The Best Of The Electric Company (Volume 2), published November 8th, 2006, is also available.
They're gonna turn it on…
Without a doubt, the landscape of kids' TV was changed in 1969 by a little show called Sesame Street, springing from the astonishingly fertile minds of the Children's Television Workshop, headed by educator and producer Joan Ganz Cooney. Utilizing a then-revolutionary combination of fast-paced comedy, music, animation and puppets to educate while entertaining, Sesame Street would become the gold standard of children's television, influencing virtually every kids' show that came after it.
A few years after the launch of Sesame Street, CTW set out on a new mission: to teach reading to school-age kids. In the service of that assignment, the Workshop proceeded to produce one of the most subversive, substantial and entertaining educational programs of all time.
Facts of the Case
The Electric Company is one of those shows that invariably elicits a smile from viewers of a certain age. If you were even remotely familiar with it as a child, you can't help but remember it fondly. Its combination of sketches, songs and animation has been duplicated countless times by dozens of imitators in the last 35 years, but for sheer infectious enjoyment, it remains unmatched.
Indeed, one of the real strengths of is how much fun the performers seem to be having. For all the notice he's gotten riding the gravy train of gravitas for the last 20 years, in such dramas as Glory and Million Dollar Baby, it's a delight to watch Morgan Freeman cut up as the word-jazzed Easy Reader or the hapless stagehand, Marcello.
Bill Cosby, who was part of The Electric Company in its first season, is dependably funny and engaging, even though he often appears to barely know his lines. Cosby shares many of his best scenes with the performer who was arguably the heart of the show, Rita Moreno.
An Oscar-winner for West Side Story, Moreno reveals in an interview included in the boxed set that she was warned against signing on to The Electric Company due to the notion that working in children's television was a last resort. It's a blessing for everyone who grew up with The Electric Company that she ignored the advice.
With her gift for singing, dancing and comedy, Moreno's Electric Company performances gave the show a true touch of Broadway. Whether she was Cinderella's evil stepmother, an apoplectic film director—complete with riding crop and jodhpurs—or just talking about silent "e," Moreno personified the mission of The Electric Company: Entertain them and you'll educate them. Moreover, the fact that she was one of the only Latinas on television not playing a stereotypical role was a subtle reminder of just how progressive The Electric Company was.
The Best of The Electric Company is composed of 20 episodes, including its premiere, from the show's 7-year PBS run. Interspersed among the songs and sketches are animated pieces designed to reinforce the lessons being taught. Subversive yet substantial, they include "The Adventures of Letterman," about a superhero battling the evil Spellbinder and featuring the voices of Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel and Joan Rivers. Fans will also find such cultural touchstones as 2001: a Space Odyssey,"It's the plumber, I've come to fix the sink" and "what about Naomi?"
One of the remarkable things about The Best of The Electric Company is how well the comedy and music hold up 35 years later. Neither the scripts nor the actors ever talked down to their audience, with many jokes flying over the heads of kids, but splattering like pies right in the faces of their parents. (See: "Fargo North, Decoder" and local curmudgeon J. Arthur Crank.) Though the once-cutting-edge graphics now have a quaint, Powerpoint quality about them, the material and the way the performers embrace it is still transfixing and delightful.
Though I have no studies to back this claim up, I would wager that the instruction provided by The Electric Company is as effective, if not more so, than when the show premiered. With its killer combination of educators and comedy writers and the guidance of CTW, the alchemy that was The Electric Company still holds its charge as both an entertaining way to educate and an educational way to entertain.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Alas, the extras on The Best of The Electric Company disappoint slightly. The still-fabulous Rita Moreno introduces each episode and is the subject of a 10-minute interview. Short Circus member June Angela reminisces about her stint on The Electric Company and there is a conversation with CTW founder Joan Ganz Cooney which is enlightening, if pretty dry. The most dissatisfying interview—the one which should have really thrown a lot of light on the creative process—is with Tom Whedon (that's right, father of Joss), the head writer of The Electric Company. Whether it was the producer or Whedon, the segment is unfocused and lackluster and a missed opportunity on an otherwise nicely-produced set.
The video and audio quality of The Best of The Electric Company is as good as can be expected from 35-year-old source material. Colors are slightly washed out and the sound mix is uninspired. The set's packaging, though, is bright and evocative of the mod '70s look of the show. It also includes a booklet with reminiscences of The Electric Company from singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer ("Silent E") and author Dave Eggers.
The Best of The Electric Company is raucous, joyous generation-transcending entertainment that's as hip and relevant as it was in 1971. Watch it with some 21st century kids and see them get hooked just as viewers did back then.
The Best of The Electric Company is found not guilty and is free to go on delighting kids forever.
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