Ghostwriter (television series)

Ghostwriter (TV series)

Ghostwriter is a television series co-produced by the Children's Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop) and the BBC, originally aired on PBS in the United States from October 1992 to February 1995. The series features a group of New York City teenagers who solve mysteries with the help of an invisible ghost, who can communicate with the kids only by manipulating whatever text and letters he can find and using them to form words and sentences.

Overview

The series was designed to teach reading and writing skills to elementary and middle school children. Each mystery was presented as a story arc, covering four or five thirty-minute episodes; children were encouraged to follow each mystery, and use the reading and writing clues given to attempt to solve them just as the Ghostwriter team does in the show. Ghostwriter was critically acclaimed and honored for presenting a realistic, racially diverse world in its two-hour mystery stories. By the end of its third season, Ghostwriter ranked in the top five of all children's shows on American television. The program was cancelled after the third season, not because of a lack of popularity, but because of a lack of funding. Ghostwriter has been broadcast in 24 countries worldwide, and generated a number of foreign-language adaptations, including a dubbed-over version on Discovery Kids Latin America marketed as Fantasma Escritor. The show was originally funded by Nike, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the United States Department of Education, and PBS viewers.

Characters

Ghostwriter

The titular character of the series is an enigmatic figure. The mystery of Ghostwriter's true identity is never fully answered, although several clues are given during the course of the series in several of the mystery arcs. (The following facts are from "Ghost Story", the Pilot episode, unless otherwise stated.)

  • He was a man when he was alive, but is now a ghost.
  • He wanted to protect "the children."
  • At one point, he remembers he was chased by dogs. ("A Crime of Two Cities")
  • He can only be seen by those to whom he reveals himself.
  • He can read and feel emotions. He cannot hear.
  • He communicates by writing. He cannot talk.
  • He can travel through time. ("Just in Time")
  • He can travel across the Internet. ("Who is Max Mouse?")

The Ghostwriter team

When the show began, it was based around four main characters, all students at Zora Neale Hurston Middle School and Washington Elementary School in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York. The "team" later expanded to include six (later seven) active members, one MIA member, one member in Australia, two members in England, and three members in 1928.

To become a member of the team, a kid would have to be able to read the words that Ghostwriter manipulates. There was normally an induction ceremony for each new member that joined the team. At this ceremony, they would be given a special pen with a string to be placed around the neck so the members could write to Ghostwriter no matter where they happened to be. When a team meeting was required, one of the members would use Ghostwriter to send out the message "rally", followed by the first initial of the member that was hosting the meeting.

Jamal Jenkins

Jamal (portrayed by Sheldon Turnipseed) is level-headed and intelligent; the first person Ghostwriter reveals himself to and the de facto leader of the Ghostwriter team. In the first episode of the series, "Ghost Story, Part 1", seventh grader Jamal is cleaning out the basement of his family's brownstone, when a spirit emerges from a book that has fallen on the ground and begins communicating with Jamal through words.

Jamal lives with his parents and his grandmother (portrayed by Marcella Lowery); his older sister Danitra is away at college. Midway through the second season, Jamal's young cousin Casey also comes to stay with the family. Jamal's interests include karate and science; he dreams to one day be "a scientist that performs experiments in outer space." Jamal applies for enrollment in the High School of Science, and in the final episode of the series is accepted.

Major story arcs for Jamal include:

  • "Ghost Story": Jamal discovers Ghostwriter.
  • "Who Burned Mr. Brinker's Store?": Jamal is accused of burning a local video store, causing discord in the team following his covering up of the facts.
  • "Who's Who": In a secondary arc, Jamal's grandmother is sick.
  • "Get the Message": Works with Rob to get the team back together and prevent Ghostwriter from fading away after the discord within the team.
  • "Just in Time": Takes place in Jamal's home, circa 1928 . Ghostwriter is also working hard in this case due to the "future" of Jamal's family.
  • "Who is Max Mouse?": Jamal introduces the team to the Internet. Also, Jamal is a suspect for causing false fire alarms and changing grades at school.
  • "A Crime of Two Cities": Jamal travels to London and gets involved with a mystery that spans the Atlantic Ocean.

Lenni Frazier

Lenni (portrayed by Blaze Berdahl) is the second person to "see" Ghostwriter. A headstrong young lady, Lenni is an aspiring singer, rapper, and songwriter. Lenni lives with her widowed father (portrayed by Richard Cox during the first season, and Keith Langsdale afterwards), in a loft above the Fernandezes' bodega.

Major story arcs for Lenni include:

  • "Ghost Story": Lenni discovers Ghostwriter and meets Jamal.
  • "Into the Comics": Gets the team involved in a scavenger hunt so they can win the grand prize, and become characters in a comic book.
  • "Get the Message": Lenni's father and Alex & Gaby's father bicker over a car accident, causing discord within the team.
  • "Who is Max Mouse?": With Jamal, Lenni is a suspect for causing false fire alarms and changing grades at school.
  • "Don't Stop the Music": Lenni and the team are given the chance by Smash Records to shoot a video for Lenni's song "You Gotta Believe"
  • "Attack of the Slime Monster": When applied with a job at the prom for Hurston's prom, she teams up with Tina's older brother and even has him as a date.

Alex Fernández

Alejandro "Alex" Fernández (portrayed by David López) is the third person to be introduced to Ghostwriter. A first generation Salvadoran American, Alex is an aspiring detective and skilled basketball player. Alex and his younger sister Gaby live with their parents in the back of the family store (or bodega), which is located under Lenni's apartment. Alex is prone to a hot temper at times, but also displays a notable amount of courage and determination.

Major story arcs for Alex include:

  • "Ghost Story": Alex discovers Ghostwriter and meets Jamal.
  • "To Catch a Creep": Alex runs for class president and encounters much opposition.
  • "Who's Who": Alex begins a romantic attachment with team member, Tina.
  • "Over a Barrel": Tina & Alex have their first kiss.
  • "Get the Message": Lenni's father and Alex & Gaby's father bicker over a car accident, causing discord within the team.
  • "What's Up With Alex?": Alex's basketball teammate Kevin offers him marijuana, and Alex struggles to get Kevin out of a robbery scheme.

Gaby Fernández

Gabriela "Gaby" Fernández (portrayed by Mayteana Morales in the first two seasons and in "A Crime of Two Cities"; and by Melissa Gonzalez in "Four Days of the Cockatoo" and "Attack of the Slime Monster") is the fourth person to "see" Ghostwriter. She is Alex's younger sister, goes to Washington Elementary, and is best friends with her teammate Tina. She is 9 years old in "Am I Blue?". She is known for being quite talkative. However, she has a good sense of humor which usually manifests when she is teasing her brother, Alex. Of all the team members, Gaby is the one who appears closest to Ghostwriter on a personal level. Twice, she shows belated concern for Ghostwriter's safety ("Just in Time" and "Who is Max Mouse?"), she creates a word "bed" for him ("Who is Max Mouse?"), and she is shown playing a word game with Ghostwriter in "Lost in Brooklyn".

Major story arcs for Gaby include:

  • "Ghost Story": Gaby discovers Ghostwriter and meets Jamal.
  • "Over a Barrel": Gaby gets sick due to tetrachloroethylene contamination in the community garden.
  • "Am I Blue?": Gaby steals money from the bodega's register to buy a "Galaxy Girl" costume.
  • "Get the Message": Lenni's father and Alex & Gaby's father bicker over a car accident, causing discord within the team.
  • "Four Days of the Cockatoo": Gaby finds a rare Palm Cockatoo, treasured by a pair of dirty crooks.

Tina Nguyen

Although Tina (portrayed by Tram-Anh Tran) is present in the first mystery arc of the series, she does not "see" Ghostwriter until the second arc, "Who Burned Mr. Brinker's Store?". She wants to be a filmmaker, and is often seen with a camcorder in her hand. She attends acting classes, and lives with her parents and her brother Tuan and sister Linda in a traditionalist Vietnamese household. Her best friend is Gaby, and she has a romantic relationship with Gaby's brother Alex.

Major story arcs for Tina include:

  • "Who Burned Mr. Brinker's Store?": Tina first "sees" Ghostwriter.
  • "Who's Who": Tina becomes a "girl Friday" for classic movie actress, Lana Barnes, and begins a romance with Alex.
  • "Over a Barrel": Tina & Alex have their first kiss.
  • "Am I Blue": Alex kisses Tina for not accusing Gaby as a suspect
  • "Lost in Brooklyn": Tina begins middle school, and becomes friends with Safira, a new student from Africa.

Rob Baker

Rob (portrayed by Todd Alexander) is a shy transfer student from a military family. He wants to be an author, and thus writes many different short stories. Rob's family decides to move during the "Lost in Brooklyn" story arc, and Rob's place in the team is assumed by Héctor.

Major story arcs for Rob include:

  • "To Catch a Creep": Rob is introduced as a suspect, but later "sees" Ghostwriter.
  • "Into the Comics": After winning the comics contest, Rob joins the team.
  • "To the Light": In searching for his homeless friend Double T, Rob is trapped in a subway tunnel.
  • "Building Bridges": Rob becomes friends with a former gang member and is attacked in their hideout.
  • "Get the Message": Works with Jamal to get the team back together and prevent Ghostwriter from fading away after the discord within the team.
  • "Lost in Brooklyn": Rob's last story arc, moves to Australia.

Héctor Carrero

Hector (portrayed by William Hernandez) joins the cast mid-way through season two. He meets Alex through the Big Brothers mentoring program. He was born in New York, but grew up in Puerto Rico, and can't read English very well. Hector particularly enjoys playing handball.

Major story arcs for Hector include:

  • "Lost in Brooklyn": Hector meets the team and Ghostwriter.
  • "Who Is Max Mouse?": Hector defeats a bully.

Casey Austin

Casey (portrayed by Lateaka Vinson) joins the cast mid-way through season two. She is Jamal's younger cousin; a practical joker with a fondness for peanut butter. The book "The Book Chase" which is a novel based on the show mentions that she's 9 years old.

Major story arcs for Casey include:

  • "Don't Stop the Music": Casey is suspected of causing pranks on the set of Lenni's music video; and first "sees" Ghostwriter.
  • "Attack of the Slime Monster": Casey enters the team in a contest to write a scary story about "Gooey Gus the Slime Monster".

Craig Mitchell

Craig Mitchell (portrayed by Jeremy Miller) is an electronics expert, and only appears in the "Who Burned Mr. Brinker's Store?" arc.

Other cast members

Other cast members include Lt. Isaiah McQuade (Mike Hodge), and the team's enemies: Calvin Ferguson (Wil Horneff in "Ghost Story", Joey Shea thereafter) and Jeffrey Baxter (Jon Hershfield). The show's numerous guest stars included Samuel L. Jackson as Jamal's father, Mark Linn-Baker, Julia Stiles, Max Wright, Spike Lee, Daisy Fuentes, Orlagh Cassidy, Judge Reinhold, Melinda Mullins, Annabelle Gurwitch, Robin Leach, Michael J. Fox, Salt-N-Pepa, Madhur Jaffrey, Harry Connick, Jr., and Bo Jackson.

Storylines

Season One (1992-1993)

Highlights from the first season, which premiered in October 1992, include:

  • Ghost Story: Jamal releases Ghostwriter while cleaning the basement. Jamal, Alex, Lenni, and Gaby come together through the bond of Ghostwriter's mysterious messages to them all, and they all come together to solve a rash of mysterious backpack thefts and their connection to a group of gamers calling themselves the THABTOs. Samuel L. Jackson as Jamal's dad and Mark Linn-Baker as the policeman have cameos. This and 'To The Light' are the only stories to arc five episodes. The rest all conclude in four. This story arc was not the original pilot. The next arc, 'Who Burned Mr. Brinker's Store?', was produced first and was intended to be the pilot for the series.
  • Who Burned Mr. Brinker's Store?: Jamal is angered when Mr. Brinker, owner of the local electronics store, yells at him. But that night, when Brinker's burns down, the shopkeeper accuses Jamal of arson to cover up his own involvement in the fire. Ghostwriter reveals himself to both Craig and Tina. Guest-stars Max Wright as Brinker and Jeremy Miller as Craig. Craig does not appear again in the series and is never referred to again. It is also interesting to note that this story arc seems to have been filmed inside actual buildings and houses, instead of on a soundstage like the rest of the series. This arc was the original pilot, but the producers decided to add 'Ghost Story' at the last minute.
  • To Catch a Creep: Alex has aspirations to become class president, but one of his competitors starts a smear campaign, putting up fliers with embarrassing personal secrets. One of the initial suspects is new transfer student Rob, but that status changes once Ghostwriter reveals himself to him. Dulé Hill appears as a basketball player during two episodes. Rob joins the cast in this story arc. The actor portraying Calvin Ferguson is replaced beginning with this story arc.
  • Into the Comics: The team enters a scavenger hunt-style contest in order to win the chance to be drawn into an issue of Hoodman. Their efforts are hindered by an embittered comic book artist trying to win the contest on his own as his character, Stoop Dude. Meanwhile, Rob continues to be distant from the team, but makes friends with an eccentric homeless poet. David Patrick Kelly makes his first appearance as Double-T and Spike Lee cameos as Special Agent Pete in this arc.
  • To The Light: Rob takes Jamal to meet Double-T, but they find his usual spot trashed and the poet missing. After tracking down Double-T's daughter, she and Rob trace his usual hangouts, but wind up trapped in a subway cave-in. Rob relies on his wits and Ghostwriter to try to get help and continue the hunt for Double-T. David Patrick Kelly returns as Double-T; Kristy Graves guest stars as Lisa. This and 'Ghost Story' are the only stories to arc five episodes. The rest all conclude in four.
  • Who's Who?: Tina is over the moon when she lands a job answering fan mail to her favorite actress, Lana Barnes. However, when she starts reading threatening and disturbing notes, she begins to worry. Lana waves off her fears as just letters from a very devoted fan, until she narrowly avoids suffocating in a locked garage. The Ghostwriter Team begin a search for Lana's stalker before her acceptance of an award. Shawn Elliott as Mr. Hernandez, Gretchen Krich as Janine, and Patricia Barry as Lana Barnes guest star.
  • Over a Barrel: The team is hard at work at the community garden center when a series of health problems arise: Gaby passes out, several other kids and adults get sick, and even some rabbits die. It's soon learned that a highly toxic chemical, tetrachloroethylene, has been illegally dumped in the ground under the garden and is to blame. The team sets off to find the person responsible for such a dirty act. Caroline Lagerfelt as Sally Lewis, Orlagh Cassidy as Officer Cole, Melinda Mullins as Fannie Mae Banner, and Madhur Jaffrey guest star.
  • Building Bridges: Plans for the school's talent show are threatened when a gang moves into the neighborhood. Kids start coming to school with black eyes and bandages, and then the school's hallway gets tagged by graffiti artists. Rob's new friend, a former member of the gang, appears to be the prime suspect. Victor Sierra as Victor, Eugene Byrd as Walter, and Afi McClendon as Jasmine guest star.

Season Two (1993-1994)

  • Preview special: Katie Couric visits the set and interviews the cast during breaks of the re-run of the entire 'Over a Barrel' story arc, followed by Part One of 'Am I Blue?' Most PBS stations aired the special the week before pledge drive time, when the stations pre-empted Ghostwriter for two weeks.
  • Am I Blue?: Galaxy Girl, Gaby's favorite action hero, is coming to town, and Gaby 'borrows' some money from her parents' bodega to buy a costume. When she learns she can't return it, she realizes she must fess up. She gets into more hot water when a valuable model spaceship from the show is stolen and winds up in her room. Someone is framing Gaby, but who? And why? Eddie T. Robinson as Jamal's bully, Judge Reinhold as Brad Pierce, and Daisy Fuentes as Galaxy Girl guest star. Gaby has a dream where she hugs Ghostwriter in this arc, and he appears only as a hooded, shadowy figure.
  • Get the Message: The Ghostwriter team begins to fall apart when arguments and misunderstandings stemming from a car accident between Mr. Fernandez and Mr. Frazier start to form between the team members. The rift between them starts to make Ghostwriter fade away, and the situation is not helped when Calvin Ferguson tries to investigate who 'GW' is (he caught Rob talking to 'GW' in school). Rob and Jamal get the team back together in time to solve the mystery of an art thief. The arc ends with an unknown hand writing a distress call, causing Ghostwriter to abruptly leave the team behind. Joey Shea as Calvin and Bo Jackson as the security guard guest star. This is the only story arc to end with a cliffhanger into the next arc.
  • Just in Time: The hand writing the distress call to Ghostwriter belongs to Frank Flynn, a boy who lived in Jamal's house. The year is 1928. Ghostwriter's strength is pushed to its limits when he has to time travel from Frank and his best friend Catherine in the 20s, to Jamal and the team in the 90s, and back, in order to help Frank clear his name in the theft of a priceless tea set. Meanwhile, Jamal learns his dad is getting very sick. Louis Tadaro as Frank, Grace Johnston as 1928 Catherine Canellan, Cynthia Crumlish as Mrs. O'Boyle, Thomas Schall as Dr Canellan, and Stephi Lineburg as Lucy Canellan guest star. Ghostwriter reveals himself to Frank, Catherine, and Lucy in this arc. Grown-up Catherine is the only adult to ever see Ghostwriter during the series.
  • Lost in Brooklyn: Tina befriends a foreign exchange student, Safira, from Mozambique, whose father is an important ambassador. Their family has had a serious rift, and her brother fled to America after an argument with their dad. Safira intends to find her brother, having written letters to each other since he fled. Meanwhile, Rob learns he has to move to Australia. Cathy Rigby as Mrs. Dozier, K. Todd Freeman as Malenga, and Madalla as Safira guest star. Ghostwriter reveals himself to Hector. Rob leaves the series and Hector joins the cast in this story arc.
  • Who is Max Mouse? A hacker invades Hurston School's computer mainframe, causing frequent fire drills, threatening messages, and altering the grades of Jamal and Lenni. The team gets a 'crash' course in the Internet in its cruder and more basic form, including chat rooms and bulletin boards, sending Ghostwriter through the computer and phone lines in an attempt to catch Max Mouse and stop his reign of mischief. Ellen Foley as Ms. Kelly, Greg Lee as Mr. Aucoin, and Julia Stiles as Erica Dansby guest star.
  • Don't Stop the Music: Lenni gets the chance of a lifetime when a hip music producer wants to sign her to the Smash Records label and produce a music video for MTV. Lenni struggles to come up with an original song, but then nails one out of the park with a song called 'You Gotta Believe.' Lenni and the entire Ghostwriter Team get to go on-set for the filming of the video, but a series of strange accidents happen. Turns out the target isn't Lenni, but Jade, her producer. The team wrestles with the mystery of the accidents, as well as trying to babysit Jamal's cousin Casey. Robin Leach as Marlon, Annabelle Gurwitch as Jade, and Mia Korf as Sonia guest star, as well as cameos from hip-hop artists Salt-n-Pepa and MTV VJs Doctor Dré and Ed Lover. Victor Sierra also reprises his role as Victor Torres, and Dennis Starolselsky as Kevin and Oren Sofer as Spencer make cameos to foreshadow the next arc: What's Up With Alex? MTV is featured prominently in name and in logo during this arc. Ghostwriter reveals himself to Casey and she joins the cast in this story arc.
  • What's Up With Alex?: Alex becomes detached and moody with Gaby and the Team, and a series of drug-related locker break-ins make them worry Alex may be involved with drugs. This story arc aired both on PBS and in broadcast syndication with a preface read out by the actors portraying Gaby and Mr. Fernandez before each part. Victor Sierra reprises his role as Victor Torres. Dennis Starolselsky as Kevin, Oren Sofer as Spencer, Elan Rivera as Maria, Julia Jordan as Delilah, Jesse Moore as Mr. Johnson, Patricia Maurceri as Mrs. Michaels, Mike Starr as Big Ralph, Kelly Kristjanson as Mary Jo, Jesse Tendler as Arnie, Z. Wright as Jason, and Damien Leake as Mr. Oliver guest star. This arc never aired in repeats on Noggin due to its drug content.

Season Three (1994-1995)

  • A Crime of Two Cities: Jamal's family is vacationing in London and they are staying in the bed and breakfast owned by the Wentwood family. Jamal befriends the Wentwoods' children, Sam and Becky. Using Ghostwriter to send messages back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, they work together with the rest of the team to uncover a plot to kidnap the son of a famous author. Ghostwriter reveals himself to Sam and Becky. Julia Stiles appears once again in this arc. This is Mayteana Morales' last arc playing Gaby.
  • Four Days of the Cockatoo: Gaby discovers a rare bird not realizing that it is sought by a smuggler determined to claim the bird as his latest taxidermy prize. Melissa Gonzales portrays Gaby beginning with this story arc.
  • Attack of the Slime Monster: No mystery to solve in this arc, but the final story finds the Team trying to help Casey write her own story for a contest.

Merchandising

Created as an integrated, branded, multi-media project, the Ghostwriter brand included magazines and teacher's guides, software (Microsoft), home video, games/licensed product, and other outreach materials that reached over a million children each month. There were many Ghostwriter books released, both novelizations of the TV episodes and new stories. They were released by Bantam Books.

Video releases

During the mid-1990s Ghostwriter was released on VHS by two different companies, GPN and Republic Pictures. GPN is the company authorized by PBS to release all its shows on video. They have the entire series except for the last two story arcs. These videos are in the original format with each story arc divided into four or five episodes. Republic Pictures released only three story arcs (all from the first season) : "Ghost Story", "Who Burned Mr. Brinker's Store?" and "Into the Comics." In Republic Pictures' version, the four or five episodes for each arc were edited together into a feature length movie. The Republic Pictures version is no longer available in the market, but can still be found in some libraries (US and Canada only). The GPN version was available to the general public for purchase through their website until 2007. Starting mid-2007, GPN is selling only to schools and libraries due to a change in licensing terms. However, the GPN version is still available in some libraries.

Awards and nominations

  • Writers Guild of America, USA, 1995
    • Won, WGA Award (TV) for Children's Script - Carin Greenberg Baker, for "Can't Stop The Music".
  • Young Artist Awards, 1993
    • Nominated, Outstanding Performers in a Children's Program: Todd Alexander, Blaze Berdahl, David López, Mayteana Morales, Tram-Anh Tran, Sheldon Turnipseed

After cancellation and The New Ghostwriter Mysteries

The show halted production in February 1995 due to a lack of funding. In 1997, CBS aired a new version of the show, The New Ghostwriter Mysteries, but it was cancelled after one season due to low ratings. The new show had little in common with the original, changing Ghostwriter's on-screen appearance, introducing entirely new characters, and getting rid of the serial format of the original series.

The original version was rerun from 1995 to 1999 on PBS. The UPN Kids block on UPN also ran re-runs for a short time in 1997. Then, in 1999, it was syndicated on ABC for a short time. Later that year it moved to the cable/satellite network Noggin, and subsequently on The N when The N became a part time channel/programming block on Noggin. Ghostwriter aired on The N until 2003.

Radio series

In Summer of 2006, BBC School Radio produced a radio series of Ghostwriter for primary school students. Character names from the TV show were retained, though voiced by new children. Music and the theme song were also kept, and a new musical jingle for children to recognize Ghostwriter's appearances was created.

External links

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