Judge Adam Arseneau writes "RALLY A" on his hand, but no one ever shows up.
"He's a ghost, and he writes to us…Ghostwriter!"
Developed by the Children's Television Workshop, the creative force behind Sesame Street, Ghostwriter combines adventure and education into an award-winning formula that ran three seasons on PBS. If you came up in the early nineties as a kid, odds are, you've still got a copy of your old case book in a box somewhere, crammed full of clues to unravel the mystery of the week—along with some Hammer pants and some big gold chains. It was a funny time, the late nineties.
Now available on DVD, Ghostwriter: Season One is ready for a new generation of viewers. Has time been kind to this educational classic?
Facts of the Case
Jamal is just your average kid in Brooklyn, playing on a computer, when suddenly he begins receiving mysterious messages on his screen. He has no idea where they come from, but the strange phenomenon starts occurring to other neighborhood kids—Lenni, Alex, Gabby, Tina, and Rob all see strange letters floating in the air that no one else can see!
United by their experiences, they soon deduce the letters are the work of a Ghostwriter—literally a ghost who writes. They have no idea who or what Ghostwriter is, but he (if it is a he) seems to want to help them investigate strange occurrences and mysteries going on in the neighborhood. Before long, the Ghostwriter team is formed—a detective agency of sorts, as the kids piece together clues to solve the crime of the week!
Ghostwriter: Season One contains all eight cases (four to five episodes each) from the first season of the PBS show, spread across five DVDs:
• Case #1: "Ghost Story"
• Case #2: "Who Burned Mr. Brinker's Store?"
• Case #3: "To Catch A Creep"
• Case #4: "Into The Comics"
• Case #5: "To The Light"
• Case #6: "Who's Who"
• Case #7: "Over A Barrel"
• Case #8: "Building Bridges"
Creating educational programming for pre-teens is challenging. Older kids kind of inherently resist learning out of sheer spite. The trick is to bamboozle them; get them to watch a show and sneak in educational elements without anyone being the wiser. Enter Ghostwriter, a wildly creative and successful show developed by the Children's Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) that ran for three seasons before being cancelled—not out of disinterest or lack of ratings, but from lack of money. Hey, it's PBS. They don't have those pledge drives because they're bored, you know.
Shot on location in Brooklyn with a large and ethnically diverse cast, Ghostwriter was praised for its realistic portrayal of a secret detective gang of kids with a ghost sidekick. Well, they got the diversity party right. The titular Ghostwriter is, in fact, a ghost whose details remain shrouded in mystery throughout the show's three-season run. Outside of a few well-placed clues scattered here and there, we never really understand who or what he is, other than a dead spirit very interested in the well-being of its young charges. Each "case" has the gang get involved in strange mysteries that need unraveling, ranging from mundane neighborhood disputes and local school elections all the way up to foiling serious acts of environmental terrorism and gang violence. Hovering about as a guardian angel of sorts, the gang quickly finds that having a ghost on your side comes in handy for solving mysteries. Ghostwriter flies about and illuminates words, forcing the kids to read. Oh, he's a clever ghost!
Each case consists of four to five episodes, and the show encourages kids to keep a "casebook" of clues to help keep track of the plot points from week to week, as well as strengthen deduction skills. I wouldn't exactly call the mysteries in Ghostwriter worthy of the Edgar Award, but for an educational show, a fair amount of thought goes into the narrative, and things wrap up quite neatly each and every time. Some of the mysteries of the week are kind of bodacious—like tracking down environmental polluters and being framed for arson. These are pretty serious stuff, but nothing that a ghost can't help them out of. Speaking of the ghost, there's an unsettling element of Ghostwriter that as a kid, I always found…well, kind of creepy. Think about it: these hapless kids are being harassed by a weird linguistic spirit, insisting they put themselves regularly in harm's way to solve crimes, and no one can see the ghost but them. In the real world, this would be halfway between mental illness and back episodes of Scooby-Doo, Where are You! Being haunted by a weird ghost who encourages good grammar—you gotta give it to PBS for originality.
Wildly popular during its day with critics and kids alike, Ghostwriter is fantastic educational programming. The emphasis on adventure, deductive reasoning and writing skills is second-to-none, even by modern standards. The show's strongest elements are the characters themselves; each has a surprising amount of depth and development as we learn about their home lives, their family and their challenges. They have problems—romance, parents, peer pressure, school—just like real kids. Sure, the presentation is a bit dated by modern standards—okay, a lot dated; you'd be surprised how a synth bass and some neon clothes can chain a show into the nineties, but the themes of being a young teenager remain constant.
All told, Ghostwriter is a truly well-rounded and innovative educational program, one that teaches without actually beating kids over the head. The Ghostwriter gang is kind, benevolent, and caring, active in their community, tempted by peer pressures but always resisting; they work hard to have good and open relationships with their parents. And they have great grammar, because a ghost keeps harassing them about it. Kids may understand they're being taught literary and writing skills, but only the clever ones will understand they're being taught about life. At least, life in the nineties; which in retrospect was kind of weird.
As delightfully retro and dated as Ghostwriter is, from a technical perspective, the transfer is a mess: hazy, soft, and horrendously analog. Shot on video in 1992, the show simply never envisioned a world where DVD transfers or HDTVs. Time has been unkind to the standards in which we judge source material. To make matters worse, some pretty gnarly distortion and damage crops up periodically, like this magnificent magnetic wave that slowly crawls up the image in the first episode. Yikes.
Audio is a simple stereo presentation and it gets the job done—dialogue is clean and clear and there are no noticeable issues. The show has lots of music, most of it synth bass and that horrible kind of faux-rap that television executives think kids today listen to, but in actuality, no one does. You can't really mute it, so best learn to love it.
Extras are surprisingly slim for an educational show, especially one with so many discs. We get a trivia game at the end of the last disc and a Ghostwriter Casebook, which is just a few sheets of paper stapled together with a "Notes" section. Lame.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Overall, I think Ghostwriter holds up to modern scrutiny very well. I'm a fan of the show, and I'm glad it's on DVD for a new generation of kids to appreciate. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if quite a few of that new generation laugh their butts off watching over the fashion, the language and the rapping. Oh, yes, the kids rap. Did I mention that? Stab my eyes and ears, the kids rap. Ghostwriter: Season One is almost a lethal dose of nineties culture.
Boy, the acting is bad. It's really no surprise that none of the cast actually managed to use the show as a launching pad for a television or movie career. As a side note, we do get the occasional celebrity cameo, like Samuel L. Jackson as Jamal's dad, which is cool.
Ghostwriter: Season One is hilariously dated, but still pound for pound one of the best educational programs ever conceived, and long overdue on DVD. It's a shame the source material is so wonky, but that's videotape for you.
I've just got one question: Did we really dress like that in the early '90s when we were kids? Man, if I had a time machine, I'd go back and beat my own self up. That's what I get for wearing jams and a neon green Vuarnet shirt in grade school.
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