New 'Electric Company' Doesn't Have the Original's Spark

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 2009

The thing about the original "Electric Company" was that if you squinted just right, it looked less like a reading show and more like a special that the cable company would yank if they knew you were getting it for free. Where else could you see Bill Cosby -- already a star from "I Spy" -- box it out with Morgan Freeman? (Or, in another scene, smoke an evil cigar?) Why else would Rita Moreno -- already an Oscar winner when the show began taping in 1971 -- donate her lung power and freakishly fabulous legs?

Giggles/Goggles, Here's Cooking at You, Love of Chair, Jennifer of the Jungle -- it was haphazard, winking comedy that casually featured a multi-culti cast and interracial couples while simultaneously teaching the difference between a hard and soft G. It was pretty much perfect.

Naturally, it needed an update. Tonight at 5 p.m., backed by 30-odd additional years of literacy research, PBS premieres "The Electric Company," the next generation. It addresses the alarming statistic that 33 percent of fourth-graders test below what the government considers a "basic" reading level, with an impressive-sounding strategy: Each episode has its own "curricular goals," including targeted "conceptual domains" and "decoding goals." (If we spend long enough sounding that out, will we understand what it means?)

It, too, has the multi-culti cast. It, too, has the choreographed power ballads. It's better produced, more technologically savvy, and the urban teen stars are clean and pretty. It feels very, very . . . good for you.

Being geared toward Gen-Hannah Montana (6-to-9-year-olds), the new show is also high concept: The "Electric Company" is no longer a loose collective of zany bookworms but a highly organized gang of superhero bookworms. Their main power is the "Wordball Skill," a.k.a. bouncing around letters in Day-Glo spherical form, then splatting them on the wall.

"This is a big responsibility, Son," cautions the father of the newest Company recruit, a teen named Keith who discovers he has The Power in the first episode. We don't get the chance to learn why playing consonant Ping-Pong is a huge burden; before Keith can be officially inducted, a member of the rival Prankster gang steals his skill. Company bylaws say he can't lie to get it back, but apparently espionage is okay -- the rest of episode features Keith's double-agent attempts to regain his power.

Interspersed with this story line, there are "High School Musical"-worthy songs about the silent E, plus CNN-worthy use of a high-tech wall. Anderson Cooper! Show us how easily "grip" can become "gripe"!

In a four-episode preview, which aired on Monday, even the Pranksters seem wholesome. All they seem to want are better reading skills.

Here, we could lament the corporatization of children's television. Here, we could wax nostalgic about Morgan Freeman's (frankly, kind of crush-worthy) Easy Reader. Uh, uh, unnnhhhh. Here, we could memorialize the original Company's forgotten heroes, like Trapeze Louise and her paralyzing fear of heights.

But that would imply that the new "Electric Company" is a bad show, when it's really not. With all the gadgets and magic and Wordball, it kind of reminds us of "Ghostwriter" (We loved "Ghostwriter!" Tina + Alex 4eva!)

What it does not remind us of is "The Electric Company."

New technology is good. The latest educational research is good. This new crew is a superhero team we could support -- even if we don't quite understand how Wordball solves crimes.

None of that was ever what the original "Electric Company" was about, though.

The original show -- low concept, high energy -- knew that words didn't have to have literal superpowers in order to be worthwhile and, occasionally, magical.

The Electric Company (30 minutes) airs today at 5 p.m. on Channel 22.

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