Apple TV, New Show, Show

“Harriet the Spy” cartoon takes a new spin on an old story.

Harriet the Spy was a book that spoke to me deeply when I was a child. An awkward, writing-obsessed outcast? Count me in. So when I found out that they were doing an animated adaptation I was excited, even though it was made by the Jim Henson Foundation, which meant it was aimed at young kids as opposed to middle schoolers.

Undoubtedly I would have been all for an animated series that really dug into the angst and emotional psyche of what I’m now convinced is a neurodivergent girl in the 60’s trying to figure out her place in the world…But, I guess the executives decided that wasn’t something people would be interested in.

But, luckily, even though the same angst and anxieties aren’t present in Apple TV’s five episodes were comforting and adorable.

PLOT

The show follows 6th grader Harriet M. Welsh who lives in Manhattan in the 1960s. Wanting to know everything – she has taken up spying on a collection of quirky characters while also dealing with typical middle school woes. It’s sweet, lighthearted, and not much at all like its source material.

It’s fairly episodic – the events of one episode don’t really affect what happens in the next. Which was kind of disappointing, especially with so few episodes. Maybe the next batch will have more of an ongoing story.

THE GOOD

The show has a very classic PBS Kids art style to it; it was oddly comforting in a way. It reminded me of the shows I used to watch when I was younger; I think keeping the show set in the 1960s helped a lot, with keeping the show feel more timeless.

It’s not the newest or fanciest art I’ve seen but it’s one that suits the story really well. Very classic hand-drawn animation, which I think honestly, we could use more of. I know that hand-drawn animation is a ton of work – so I appreciate it and understand why there were only five episodes (even if I found that disappointing). 

At least they’re full-length 22-minute episodes, which are honestly sorely lacking these days.

The 11-minute format allows you to show more episodes but it really only works for comedy shows – unless you’re super talented like the writers of Infinity Train. Actually, I might have preferred 10, eleven-minute episodes with this – we could have explored a lot more different facets of Harriet’s life.

But back to the matter at hand. The character designs are nice; I like the added diversity. Sport is seemingly Asian and Janie is Black whereas they were both white in the books. Most characters were never explicitly described – but being in a rich New York private school in the ’60s, they were probably meant to be white in the books.

The show was uncomplicated – mainly focusing on Harriet’s adventures and grade-school angst like not wanting to attend dance classes or wearing the same coat as the most popular girl. While also spying of course.

It sits squarely in the middle of children’s television age ranges. There are clear morals and lessons that each episode but there’s still an actual story – an actual narrative. It’s unfortunately not an overarching one, as is my preference. But the episodic, slice-of-life narrative works really for the type of show and aura that they’re going for.

It may not be what I normally go for – but I did watch all five episodes in one straight sitting, so that’s probably saying something. There are more episodes due to come out in the spring, and I’m looking forward to what they do next.

Even if they aren’t very accurate to the book(s).

I’ve only ever read the first one in full – I tried the others, but they were too Nancy Drew Jr. for my taste.

THE BAD

I guess my main issue is that this adaptation really doesn’t get into the drama and angst of the book. And that’s what I related to so much. Harriet ends up at a therapist’s office during the novel (impressive for its time) and she faces some pretty serious bullying from her peers after they discover her notebook.

And most of the interpersonal and intrapersonal relationship drama is written out. Harriet doesn’t have an issue with her parents, Ole Golly doesn’t leave, and the issues with her friends and classmates are petty rather than outright malicious.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – considering the target audience, but it definitely feels like Harriet’s seriousness towards her spying and her reasoning as to why she wants to be a spy are never explored in the show.

Harriet isn’t an outsider so much. Just kind of quirky. I’m just a little upset they took this character who I related to so much and just stripped her of all those traits to make her more palatable.

A few things about the art style did throw me off; for whatever reason, I had always pictured Harriet as a brunette – so the blonde hair was a surprise. But other than that – she was instantly recognizable with her red sweater, blue jeans, utility belt, and fake glasses when the trailer came out.

She looked just like she did on the book cover. 

It’s Harriet the Spy in name and general premise – but not in tone or conflict. It’s not necessarily bad, I just don’t like it so much. I don’t get why they decided to aim this show at the young elementary-school-age set when this is a character they probably haven’t heard of. You wanna make a show about an awkward girl struggling to fit in with her peers for that age group why would you pick a book older than their parents, when the Junie B. Jones series is literally right there?

 Speaking of which, why hasn’t that series been turned into a cartoon yet?

All the little bits of her character are there: her hatred of dancing school, her love of tomato sandwiches, her curiosity and attitude but it definitely isn’t the same Harriet from the books. I wanted to see that Harriet in this show. 

CONCLUSION

While this adaptation of Harriet the Spy is in no way bad – or poorly made, I do think it has a lot of wasted potential. I mean even the “spying” aspect of Harriet’s character feels like it takes a back seat sometimes.

But that’s just not what this show was aiming for. I still enjoyed it though – I had fun watching it and I definitely think the target demographic will enjoy it: it doesn’t talk down to kids or become too preachy, the characters are interesting and it’s very light-hearted. 

I wonder what they’ll do with the next batch of episodes.

And that’s the scoop.

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Grade: B

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Year of release: 2021

Length: 5 episodes, 23-24 minutes

Executive Producers:  Lisa Henson, Halle Stanford, Nancy Steingard, Wendy Moss Klein, John W. Hyde, Will McRobb

Producer: Sidney Clifton

Editor: Greg Buracker

Voice actors: Beanie Feldstein, Jane Lynch, Lacey Chabert, Kimberly Brooks, Crispin Freeman, Grey Griffin, Bumper Robinso, Charlie Schlatter

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