'Company': Still Electrifying

"The Best of the Electric Company" DVD set includes 20 episodes of the '70s educational program. (Sesame Workshop)
By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 10, 2006

Almost everyone can tell you how to get to "Sesame Street." But many may have forgotten -- or be too young to ever have felt -- the power of "The Electric Company."

Thanks to a box set released Tuesday on DVD, a medium that never met an old TV series it didn't like, the PBS program devoted to reading education could make a cultural comeback. Though original episodes aired between 1971 and 1977, and reruns ceased in 1985, the show's mix of clever sketches and language lessons still brims over with energetic charm. As retro as it is (and the psychedelic graphics that spell out the word "groovy" make that retro-ness hard to ignore), "The Electric Company" remains decidedly hip. As author Dave Eggers writes in an essay in the collection's commemorative booklet: " 'The Electric Company' was so far ahead of its time, ahead of our time even, that it makes you realize how conservative we've become."

The four-disc collection, "The Best of the Electric Company" ($49.98, Shout! Factory), contains 20 of those half-hour installments, each introduced by cast member Rita Moreno and concluded with an interesting factoid about the series. (Did you know, for example, that "Company's" head writer was Tom Whedon, father of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Serenity" creator Joss Whedon? Well, now you do.) A smattering of extras, including reminiscences from various cast and crew, outtakes and a karaoke version of the song "Silent E," also comes with the package.

If this "Company" still shines, that's largely a credit to the impressive roster of talent on the show. In addition to Moreno, Bill Cosby, Paul Dooley, Mel Brooks, a very young Irene Cara and, most famously, Morgan Freeman all contributed in front of or behind the camera. Freeman -- who plays an array of characters, from smooth DJ Mel Mounds to Dracula -- is a particular joy to watch. The Oscar winner may cringe when he sees himself as swaggering literacy advocate Easy Reader, a part that, in the first episode, has him dressed in a fringe leather vest and a pair of salmon-colored bell bottoms with a butterfly patch sewed on the side. But when he grooves to the beat of his funky theme song ("Top to bottom, left to right/That reading stuff is out of sight!"), every viewer watching will come to the same conclusion: "Man, that dude is slick." As Moreno says during the featurette "Rita Moreno Remembers," Freeman "is and was the coolest man alive."

But Freeman wasn't the only cool thing in "The Electric Company." Other recurring features that will jog the memories of many children of the 1970s and '80s: the comic book-inspired heroics of Spider-Man; the silhouetted profiles that spit out syllables to form words ("C" . . . "At" . . . "Cat"); "Fargo North, Decoder," the cleverly named solver of missing-word mysteries; and, best of all, "The Adventures of Letter Man." That animated segment, featuring the voices of Joan Rivers, Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, gives props to a different kind of superhero: one who can solve problems by changing the spelling of certain words, all while leaping capital "T's" in a single bound. As they take all of this in, young viewers will undoubtedly learn a few things without ever realizing they're being taught; they'll be having too much fun.

"I think that what's missing from children's television is 'The Electric Company,' " Moreno says at one point. Few contemporary programs educate kids with the same smartness so prevalent on television during the '70s. Isn't there room for an updated version of "The Electric Company"? How about a spin-off with a more modern, socially conscious name . . . say, "The Solar-Powered Non-Profit"?

Oh well. Until those shows are born, at least we have this DVD, one that Easy Reader would undoubtedly agree is out of sight.

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