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“The Electric Company” to ride again

I grew up with The Electric Company – it was one of my favorite shows as a kid. I’ve got the “Best Of” DVD, which I can’t wait to start watching with Olivia and Audrey. So I’m pretty excited to hear that a new version of the show is in the works.

Steady work has been scarce for actors in gorilla suits since “The Electric Company” went dark in 1977.

But all that changes this week as shooting begins in Washington Heights and the Lower East Side on an ambitious reboot of the PBS literacy series that turned on a generation of schoolchildren to the rudiments of reading. The first graduates of “Sesame Street” found in “The Electric Company” a companion piece that relied on pun-filled sketches, Spider-Man cameos, and lots of primate shtick, all backed by a Motown beat.

Refitted for the age of hip-hop and informed by decades of further educational research on reading, the 2009 version of “The Electric Company” is a weekly, more danceable version of its former daily self. The series, which is expected to make its debut in January, faces challenges the original never did (trying to stand out amid so much children’s programming and to shake the stigma of educational television) as well as familiar ones (trying to make reading a positive experience for youngsters).

“It’s the old one mixed with ‘High School Musical’ and a Dr Pepper commercial,” said Linda Simensky, senior director of programming for PBS Kids, a block of children’s shows that will include “The Electricity Company.” There’s a touch of “Fame” to it, given its cast of culturally diverse city kids who sing and dance, as well as nods to the original series. (A cameo has been offered to Rita Moreno, a regular on the original “Electric Company,” remembered for her show-opening exultation, “Hey, you guyyyyys!”)


In keeping with the original show’s ties to theater (many in the cast, like Morgan Freeman, had stage backgrounds), the new head writer is a Tony-Award-nominated playwright and lyricist, Willie Reale, with experience in children’s theater (“A Year With Frog and Toad”).

In the first episode Mr. Reale establishes the show’s conceit: Somewhere in the big city lies a natural-foods diner that is headquarters to a not-so-secret society known as the Electric Company. The four semi-superheroes who meet there — Keith, Jessica, Lisa and Hector — have pledged not only to use their powers for good but also to eat sensible portions of healthy meals. The gang ranges in age from 13 to 20 and can scramble, recall, project and animate words in astounding ways.

Plotting nefariously is a clutch of comical misfits and poseurs known as the Pranksters. “They’re villains without being villainous,” said Scott Cameron, the show’s research director, “just neighborhood kids who cause chaos.”

The show will join an expanding lineup of reading-readiness shows on PBS Kids. It will differ from the original in that each episode will emphasize vocabulary from five “conceptual domains” (animals, the body, weather, ecosystems and the solar system) and tell a story in multiple acts, interspersed with splashes of animated and live-action lessons in phonics. As the last of the Pranksters was being cast in late April, taping had begun in a small studio near Lincoln Center in Manhattan on short segments. They will carry the show’s educational load, a curriculum forged over two years of research and testing. As has been done with previous Sesame Workshop series, “The Electric Company” will undergo extensive testing during production and after its first season’s 26 episodes have been broadcast.

I suppose I have some of the same reservations about the show morphing from sketch comedy to something plot-driven, but I think that’s reflective of today’s tastes. I’m going to TiVo it when it airs and see if I can get Olivia into it, and if I’m successful, we’ll delve into those DVDs for a little comparison testing. Those of you who remember the original, what do you think about this?

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One Comment

  1. Andrea says:

    If they can coax Tom Lehrer out of retirement to write some new songs, I’m all for it. “L-Y” anyone?