In the afternoon hours of October 4, 1992, a new children’s program premiered on PBS. The series was designed to teach reading and writing skills to elementary and middle-schoolers, but for me (the child of an English teacher and an editorial proofreader), its impact had nothing to do with improving my grammar. What struck me from the very beginning was that it depicted kids like me (albeit several years older than I was), living in my city, in a neighborhood just a few miles from my own.
The name of this television program was Ghostwriter.
There are many things to potentially write about in reference to Ghostwriter: its well-crafted mysteries, its enduring educational value, its eponymous “ghost” which was really just a weird ball of light rendered by cheap, ’90s CGI… But I’m not interested in discussing any of those.
Ghostwriter is generally considered one of the most diverse children’s programs in television history. It didn’t focus on issues of race or social status, but it didn’t avoid them either. It was a complex show that possessed a remarkable verisimilitude that is as exceptionally rare today as it was back then, almost 25 years ago.
Images of the upper crust of American society have dominated our television screens since the early 1980s. The soapy sob stories of shows like Dynasty and Beverly Hills, 90210 were attractive, sensational, and easy to digest. Their realities were always picturesque and promising, even at moments when characters were placed in the most perilous scenarios. Simply put, they were pretty.
Ghostwriter was a children’s show through and through, but it was never pretty. It was very atmospheric, and the backdrop of a raw, unembellished New York City often seemed to function as a character in and of itself. There was an underlying layer of social commentary that presented itself visually, rather than through spoken dialogue. The streets were strewn with garbage and the junior high school seemed to get vandalized regularly, but those were not problems that needed to be tackled onscreen. That was just reality, and it was the reality that I grew up in as well. The characters on Ghostwriter were like me: poor latchkey kids, roaming the streets of a pre-gentrification Brooklyn.
Ghostwriter was set in the neighborhood of Fort Greene, and was unique in that it was shot on location. Many of the show’s settings were concentrated around the thoroughfare of Myrtle Avenue, which back then was known to us locals as “Murder Avenue.” To shoot a children’s program, or any production really, in that area, was atypical at the time.
It may seem strange, but although Ghostwriter was a harmless kid’s show, I have a difficult time watching it because it hits a bit too close to home. I can’t seem to sit through an episode without flashing back to my tender years, which were spent living in a housing project in a far corner of Brooklyn, attending a crappy, underfunded public school, and being the youngest member in a volatile household that often relied on food stamps. Unlike many other “millennials,” I do not have nostalgia for my childhood.
Personal crap aside, Ghostwriter is a great go-to if you’re ever searching for an unvarnished, but accessible, portrayal of Brooklyn in the early nineties, before all the hipsters and high-end boutiques poured in. It’s also just a great vestige of the decade in general, and the show has aged so poorly that it’s almost impossible not to snicker at it. The outrageous MTV-inspired attire is just cringe-worthy now. There’s also a “very special episode”that evokes memories of those ludicrous anti-marijuana PSAs, such as the ones produced by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, that were everywhere throughout the nineties.
Ghostwriter was canceled in early 1995, due to lack of funding. It’s unfortunate, as it received widespread critical acclaim and garnered high ratings for PBS stations across the country. The series was imperfect but smart, and it dealt with real issues facing relatable Brooklyn youth. It possessed a variety of family-friendly grit evocative of the early seasons of Sesame Street and the original The Electric Company. It utilized a science fiction premise in the pursuit of greater truths. It is a striking relic from a bygone era, and it’s definitely worth a gander.
Thanks for reading.