As a child of the ’80s, my television experience was fairly limited. Cartoons were limited to afternoons and Saturday mornings, a VHS tape could cost hundreds of dollars, and until we finally got cable, we had five rather than five hundred channels. Of those five channels, one of them was MPT, our local PBS station. I generally avoided MPT until discovering in the early ’90s that they broadcast Doctor Who, preferring instead to spend my afternoon television time with shows like Robotech, Starcom and Transformers. Of course, when my mother decided to return to her career after years of being a housewife and full time Mom, she found us the one neighborhood babysitter who abhorred violence and had banned anything even remotely violent from her home. Video games, toy guns, even Go-Bots were objects non-grata in their home, and in those afternoons spent at their house I discovered educational programming.
During that period, schools began to embrace television as a teaching tool. Once a week we’d spend a half an hour watching TV in schools. Most of the time it was mundane like a short science documentary; other times it was deeply profound, like when we watched the ill-fated Challenger launch live. Regardless of how TV influenced you as a child, it’s obvious that people have incredibly fond memories of their cathode ray tube teachers, so much that a Kickstarter campaign recently met its goal to resurrect the LeVar Burton classic Reading Rainbow with Seth MacFarlane offering to match up to one million dollars in donations, and Netflix recently announced a follow-up to the educational animated series The Magic School Bus. Of course, there have been failed reboots. Before making a cameo as a pimp in Black Dynamite, Captain Kangaroo was resurrected by Saban Entertainment in an effort that was so bad, the original Captain declined to make a cameo appearance.
There’s so much more in the lexicon of educational programming besides butterflies in the sky and enchanted cheese wagons. Here’s nine educational television shows we’re just dying to see make a return to the small screen.
9. The Secret City
Let’s face it…some of us are not content to draw happy little trees. In fact, the only thing able to inspire me to pick up a pen and paper and make a vain attempt at drawing was The Secret City. Produced by my local PBS station, Maryland Public Television, The Secret City starred Mark Kistler, an artist with fabulous ’80s hair, epilates, pornstache, and a wardrobe that looked straight from the Captain EO set. Each episode, Commander Mark would teach young viewers how to draw three dimensionally, culminating with him adding a chunk of new content to his Secret City mural, featuring that week’s technique.
Each week I watched, armed with a pencil and paper, hoping to be able to replicate the sci-fi images he was putting to paper. After weeks of dedicated viewing, I could barely manage to draw a cube. That was as far as I got under the tutelage of Commander Mark; no matter how easy he said it would be, I could never grasp the concepts he tried to teach. Then again, I’m also the kid whose parents were called in to see the art teacher in kindergarten because I gave myself a triangle head in the family portrait I was supposed to draw.
8. Picture Pages
I absolutely hated Picture Pages. Commercials were bad enough, but having Leonard Part 6 come out and teach little kids how to draw for seven minutes was absolutely nauseating to a kid who only wanted You Can’t Do That On Television to come on. That being said, Dr. Huxtable wasn’t the star of the show; the true hero of the program was Mortimer Ichabod Marker.
As much as I despised drawing and hated Picture Pages, I wanted one of those anthropomorphic Mortimer markers in the worst way. The bee-shaped marker seemed almost magical, “talking” as Cosby wrote with him. I would have sold my sister into an arranged marriage for a real talking Mortimer marker. Of course I didn’t realize that the bee’s vocalizations were just a sound effect, a fact pointed out by my mother after hours of begging her to sign up for the Picture Pages home service that included a Mortimer marker. Hence the need for a reboot.
Thanks for 21st century technology, we could have a real, talking Mortimer marker, and that is reason enough to reboot the series. With tablet and cell phone apps mesmerizing our children like Chinpokomon, a Picture Pages series with a subscription-based drawing app would have children the world over racking up their parent’s credit cards with in-app purchases. And perhaps I would finally be able to buy a real Mortimer marker…for my kids.
There was a time when HBO was known for more than dragon, vampires and emaciated Matthew McConaughey. In fact, their original programming dates back to the late ’70s, and often targeted children as the audience with shows like Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock. One of the forgotten jewels of HBO’s programming for younger views was Braingames, an animated series of puzzles and brain teasers.
The animation was unique and would have likely been more at home on a PBS station than a paid cable television channel, but the format was perfect for home participation, and I spent many an evening watching the show with pen and paper ready.
Viewers/players watched multiple animated shorts, each with a different theme or puzzle. There was a variety of puzzles including word scrambles, sound identification, riddles and more. While only six episodes were produced, the program won both ACE and Peabody awards. Like Picture Pages, a Braingames reboot could take advantage of modern technology and provide a level of interactivity that was impossible when it first aired. With HBO’s vast vault of content, the show wouldn’t even necessarily have to be animated. Game number 1: Can you count how many teeth the Mountain knocked out of Price Oberyn’s head with one punch? Game number 2: Put the actions The Mountain did to Oberyn’s sister in order. I see ratings gold!
6. The Electric Company
The original Electric Company was the educational comedy program PBS wanted kids to go to when they graduated from Sesame Street. The humor was for an older audience, delivered by such notable actors and comedians as Mel Brooks, Morgan Freeman, and Bill “Picture Pages” Cosby.
Taking a page from variety shows of the day, the occasional guest stars filled in The Electric Company ranks, including actors like Carol Burnett, Peter Graves, and a pre-alcoholism Joe Namath. While the series ended in 1977 after six seasons, it continued to be rebroadcast until 1985, and once again reappeared on cable television in 1999 on children’s cable channel Noggin. A reboot appeared on the airwaves a few years ago, but its complete change in format made it The Electric Company in name only.
5. Read All About It!
There was something incredibly compelling about TVOntario’s science fiction/educational series Read All About It! The fifteen minute long program followed a trio of children who inherited a coach house, a pair of sentient computers and a transmat express lane to Trialvaron, as they try to uncover the an interstellar conspiracy by starting their own local newspaper, the Herbertville Chronical.
With special effects on par with early ’70s Doctor Who and ham-fisted acting, the show hasn’t held up well in the 34 years since its first airing. Most people will never get to experience the artery clogging amounts of cheese however, as licensing issues will keep the original two seasons locked away until it hits public domain.
With science fiction being so incredibly popular, particularly the quirkiness of Doctor Who, a rebooted Read All About It! would be right at home next to shows like The Sarah Jane Adventures. Of course, it would have to be significantly modernized; The Herbertville Chronical would be web-based, the kids replaced with teenage clones from either the Disney or Nickelodeon farms, and the pair of computers would likely be reduced to smart phone apps, but the concept could be largely the same.
4. 3-2-1 Contact
Let’s face it, science programming can get slightly long winded, especially for children. When the executive producer of The Electric Company decided on creating a science education program, he took the concept of the Australian program The Curiosity Show and converted it for initially American audiences. His brainchild, 3-2-1 Contact reached far beyond its original intended audience, with 225 episodes eventually being dubbed and shown in 26 countries.
The concept was simple, with a trio of college students researching and discussing science subjects of various disciplines. The program, like so many other PBS series, was broken down into segments, usually related to the main topic of the day. One of these more popular segments involved the science-based youth detective agency, the Bloodhound Gang; a team consisting of a pair of young detectives and Rembrandt from The Warriors.
With new science shows like Cosmos reaching new levels of popularity, now is the perfect time to bring back a high budget, multi-disciplinary science program like 3-2-1 Contact.
3. Square One
I can’t imagine anything that would make math entertaining for me as an adult, but as a kid with a limited selection of TV channels, Square One was hysterical. An unholy mating between SCTV and Algebra class, Square One was a comedy/math variety show that was actually funny. It consisted of a series of shorts based on a mathematical concept. Some of the more memorable segments included Mathman, a “video game” that blatantly ripped off Pac-Man and the education PC game Number Munchers, and Mathnet, a math detective series just dying to be rebooted by Dick Wolf. I still remember the Fibonacci sequence thanks to a Mathnet adventure involving a sequence repeating parrot.
Mixed in with the comedy segment were various math related game shows, math based magic instruction with famous illusionist Harry Blackstone Jr, and even the occasional music video, once even featuring Weird Al Yankovic. The series hasn’t been produced since 1994, though it remained in reruns on various channels until 2003.
2. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
As a child I absolutely loved game shows, particularly ones for kids. I still harbor resentment towards the rat bastard in middle school who got to go on Double Dare. Carmen Sandiego, based on the educational computer game that came complete with a copy of Fodor’s Travel Guide, had children testing their geography and history skills, catching criminals under the tutelage of the D.J. from The Warriors.
Rather than spend thirty minutes behind game show podiums, how about sending kids out in the world Amazing Race style? Sure, the budget would be significantly larger and the prizes would have to be more than just a deluxe set of Encyclopedia Britannica (do they even still make that?), but contestants could have the adventure of a lifetime, and it could potentially make for some great television. Sadly the Chief will have to be recast; Lynne Thigpen joined the big PI in the Sky in 2003. Do it Rockapella!
1. Mr. Wizard’s World
To be fair, there hasn’t been a shortage of science programs for children. Long before he was schooling religious fundamentalists, Bill Nye the Science Guy was educating the masses, along with shows like Beakman’s World and others. As bad ass as Nye is, his ass would be proverbial grass if he was met in a dark alley by Don Herbert, the infamous Mr. Wizard.
Rather than playing it safe, Mr. Wizard went far beyond everyday household science. Instead of showing viewers how to make their own Play-doh or playing around with food coloring, Herbert showed you real, volatile science. There were flames, chemicals, explosions; Herbert feared nothing. An episode dedicated to liquid nitrogen had me scouring comic book ads in hopes that one of the mail order vendors sold it.
Wizard wasn’t your typical, touchy-feely TV host either. He had no interest in pulling punches, particularly in regards to his youth assistants, and had no problem telling children how wrong they were. In fact, Mr. Wizard could come off as quite the douchebag, which made the program all the more fun. Unfortunately Herbert died in 2008, but all we would need is an equally crotchety scientist with a penchant for flames to take over the mantel of Mr. Wizard…perhaps Jamie Hyneman?
Previously By Jason Helton
The 10 Most Disturbing Episodes of Battlestar Galactica
8 Forgotten ’80s Live-Action Children’s Sci-Fi Series
The 10 Worst Cartoons Spawned By Videogames