I don’t think I could do a more entertaining job of explaining the premise of the old PBS Kids show, Wishbone, than this imagined version of the pitch meeting for it.
VISIONARY: So there’s this dog.
PBS SUITS: We’re listening.
VISIONARY: And he loves books.
VISIONARY: He knows all about classic books.
SUIT #1: Adorable.
SUIT #2: Like a cartoon dog?
VISIONARY: No, no. A live Jack Russell Terrier.
VISIONARY: He belongs to a boy named Joe.
SUIT #1: Nice.
SUIT #3: And Joe reads him the books?
VISIONARY: No, Joe couldn’t care less about books.
SUIT #3: Oh. Okay.
VISIONARY: Joe and his friends’ day-to-day scrapes resemble the plotlines of great novels, and Wishbone like, picks up on it.
SUIT #2: Wishbone?
VISIONARY: The dog.
SUIT #2: Oh.
SUIT #3: The name seems like more of a turkey thing…?
SUIT #1: Should we name him something literary? Something like Dogstoyev-
VISIONARY: No. His name is Wishbone. Unlike his human companion, Wishbone is a great lover of books. When Joe’s life reminds him of a masterpiece, as it so often does, our canine Virgil guides the audience on a journey into that book.
SUIT #3: So the dog can talk.
VISIONARY: Nope. Joe and his friends and Joe’s mom just think he’s a regular dog.
SUIT #2: …Joe’s dad?
VISIONARY: Ellen is a single mom. She’s a widow. This is a story about the limitless ecstasies of the imagination, but we want to respect the complex lives of our young viewers, so sometimes things are very real.
VISIONARY: Wishbone can narrate, though.
SUIT #1: So when we travel into the world of novel…
VISIONARY: Live actors, costumes, the works. Mini-Masterpiece Theater. Also, Wishbone is a character.
SUIT #2: Narrating?
VISIONARY: No, he is an actual character in the book.
SUIT #1: Ah, I get it. In the book part, all the characters are played by dogs?
VISIONARY: You get nothing. Wishbone plays a character, for example Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, and the other parts are played by adult human actors.
SUIT #3: But you said he can’t talk to humans.
VISIONARY: No, see, in the world of the book, nobody thinks he’s a dog and people understand him. Just not in the real world. But then what is “real,” right?
SUIT #2: Like they just never acknowledge he’s a dog?
VISIONARY: I mean he wears a costume, so.The whole thing is worth reading.
Despite the satirical tone of that article, there are a lot of people who look back on this show with fondness, even admiration. I like to believe there are even cultural historians who discover it as adults and become fans. I definitely got a kick out of it growing up and heartily agree with its philosophy that the greatest stories from hundreds and even thousands of years ago are still relatable today.
Besides Romeo, Wishbone’s illustrious acting career included such juicy roles as Cyrano de Bergerac, Sherlock Holmes, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, Victor Frankenstein, Robin Hood, Mr. Darcy, King David, D’Artagnan and Hercules. I thought it’d be fun to do a blog post on the three episodes of the show that adapt books by Charles Dickens. Despite the unwieldly length of Dickens’s novels, not to mention their preoccupations with legal and financial matters and the fates of fallen women, in many ways they lend themselves to short adaptations for young children very well. Not only do several Dickensian protagonists begin their stories as children themselves, but their plots have plenty of danger and suspense and they all have clear wholesome moral messages. Shakespeare’s characters and themes, on the other hand, tend to be open to multiple interpretations and while Jane Austen’s books also have clear messages that are arguably even more relevant to kidsMainly, don’t let your personal biases blind you to the truth., they lack adventure and excitement, especially for the stereotypical boy.
Besides which, Charles Dickens is my favorite Capital-C-Classic author and I love blogging about his work. Let’s dive in.
In this episode, Wishbone (portrayed by a dog named Soccer and voiced to perfection by Larry Brantely) imagines himself as the poor orphan boy Oliver Twist from Dickens’s book of that name. Only the first act or so of the story ends up being retold (it begins with Oliver asking for more food at the workhouse and ends, more or less, with him being cleared of pocket picking charges at the last minute) and few of its iconic characters actually appear. No Fagin, no Bill Sikes and no Nancy. There’s a certain logic to this as not only is the beginning of Oliver Twist the part with the least adult content, but the last act is really more about Nancy than Oliver. But despite adapting a very small, specific portion of the book, this episode really does convey the essence of it, mainly the feeling of poor Oliver being at mercy of a heartless world. The visual of him being a tiny dog actually serves the story well there. In fact, in some ways, this is one of the most accurate Oliver Twist adaptations ever. Despite him being nothing but an antagonist to Oliver in the book, roughly four fifths of the adaptations I’ve seen end up making the Artful Dodger (played here by Joe Duffield, son of Wishbone creator Rick Duffield)Fans of the series may recognize him for his recurring role in the “real world” storylines as local troublemaker Damont Jones. a good guy, sometimes by combining him with Charley Bates (Matt Zeske in this episode), a character in the book who is somewhat randomly redeemed in the end. Not so here.Of course, this episode was my introduction to the story, so maybe what’s going on is that it blinded me to whatever it is that other readers and adapters of the book find endearing about the … Continue reading While Wishbone’s smart-alecky personality is a poor fit for Oliver’s character, this adaptation retains his obliviousness to the Artful Dodger’s criminal intentions and his horror at seeing him pick a pocket. More cynical adaptations make him more openminded about thievery although the whole point of his character in the book is that he refuses to compromise his morals despite the good reasons he has to do so and is rewarded for it in the end. As a retelling of Oliver Twist, this episode may be pretty lame, but as an introduction to it, it’s quite good. And the fact that it retells so little means that kid viewers who went on to the read the original book had plenty of surprises.
In the “real world” storyline, Wishbone’s young owner, Joe Talbot (Jordan Wall), befriends a boy named Max (Marshall Ziemanski) from a group home where, we hear, he doesn’t get much to eat, and the other kids aren’t very nice to him. Well, that’s not quite true. There is Zach (Michael Edmondson), one older kid there who seems to be vying for Max’s affection-and for whose crimes Max nearly gets blamed. This ties in nicely with Dickens’s story and his message that if society doesn’t want homeless orphans to take up lives of crime, it needs to do a better job of taking care of them. It’s true that parts of this plot are really silly. (How many teenage hoodlums would steal plastic flamingoes from someone’s yard? Scratch that. How many adults would?!) But I feel like anyone watching a show like this is expecting something a little cheesy and this episode is vintage 1995 PBS Kids cheese.Can something be both genuinely cheesy and also genuinely good? I would say yes, but any examples I’d give would be highly subjective.
A Tale of Two Sitters
Where Wishbone only adapted the first act of Oliver Twist, it only adapts the last act of A Tale of Two Cities wherein former French aristocrat, Charles Evremonde (Wishbone), who has “broken from the pack”Wishbone’s words, not mine. and moved to London, is forced to return to Paris where the French Revolution is in full swing and eager to make him pay for his family’s cruelties. It’s likely that with both episodes, the motives behind the choices of what specifically to adapt were wanting to include the most iconic parts of the narrative. And to its credit, the episode does a good job of dramatizing those parts in a kid friendly way and conveying what makes A Tale of Two Cities interesting. Naturally, we don’t get all the dirty details of what the Evremondes did to Madame DeFarge (Jenny Pichanick)’s family, but it’s clear that the common people of France have legitimate grievances yet equally clear that they’re treating Charles and his wife, Lucie Manette (Sally Nystuen), unjustly. Unfortunately, Sydney Carton (Brent Anderson)’s final sacrifice ends up not making much dramatic sense since his only role in the episode prior to it has been to stand around looking depressed for no clear reason. I understand if the show’s creators didn’t consider a man’s love for another’s wife appropriate for kids even if that love was unrequited, but this really makes A Tale of Two Cities a weird choice for the show to adapt at all.
In the “real world” storyline, it’s Saturday and Joe and his friend, David Barnes (Adam Springfield) want to test out a new remote-controlled car, but they’re stuck babysitting David’s little sister, Emily (Jazmine McGill), and her friend, Tina (Katy Price.) The girls are left unsupervised in Joe’s house and naturally wreak havoc there. This…doesn’t really have anything to do with A Tale of Two Cities at all despite Wishbone’s valiant attempts to tie it into the book’s famous opening. I guess you could say that just as the chaos in France was a result of the upper classes’ neglect and abuse of the people, the chaos in the Talbot home is the result of boys’ irresponsibility, but that feels so forced. (I’m guessing the writers came up with the episode’s titular pun first and worked backwards from it.) There’s an attempted parallel at the end with an act of nobility on Emily’s part, but it’s not a very good attempt since Emily takes the blame for something she actually did whereas Sydney Carton takes on a punishment that had nothing to do with him.Though you could argue there’s justice in the substitution in that Sydney generally led a less moral life than Charles Darnay did. The fact that the girls aren’t the best actresses doesn’t help much. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this episode.
Groomed for Greatness
It’s very easy to do a modern-day story for kids that parallels Great Expectations. With that novel, Charles Dickens pretty much made the prototype for every kids’ story about an unpopular kid who suddenly becomes popular, betrays or neglects their good unpopular friends in favor of the evil popular kids, suffers a humiliating comedown and learns a valuable lesson. It’s a credit to the Wishbone writers’ creativity that they didn’t just do that.That may have been because the show had already done it in an episode inspired by Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage though the connection was somewhat forced. Instead, world class artist, Renee Lassiter (Shelley Duvall!) is enlisted to create a dog sculpture for the local park with Wishbone as the model. She, in turn, enlists David to be her assistant. This leads to him getting a big head and snubbing his friends. I consider it a particularly happy piece of serendipity that one of those friends is named Joe.I know I’m breaking my pattern by writing about the “real world” plot first, but it feels right to me for this episode.
While Wishbone wasn’t generally a show that people watched for great actingThough some of the cast members have had good careers. It was actually Amy Acker’s television debut!, this episode has an unusually good cast. Jenny Pichanick is solid as Miss Havisham, one of Dickens’s juiciest villains, male or female. While their characters don’t have anything like the depth they have in the book, Matthew Tompkins and Timothy Vhale are likeable as Joe Gargery and Herbert Pocket. If there’s a weak link, it’s Jenni Tooley as Estella who doesn’t exude the charisma to convince us that the main character, Pip (Wishbone), would fall in love with her despite her coldness. But, hey, it’s a very difficult part to play well. I can probably the count the actresses who have completely sold me on the character on one hand, though I find her and her relationship with Pip completely believable in the book. Unlike the previous Dickensian Wishbone episodes, this one gives a broad overview of its source material’s plot, not just the beginning or the end. The virtue of that is that it teaches kids a lot more about the story. The downside is that…well, it teaches them a lot more about the story, potentially spoiling the experience of reading the real book, including a major plot twist roughly two thirds of the way through. For what it’s worth, I saw this episode before I read Great Expectations, but my memories were vague, and I didn’t associate them with the book’s title, so it didn’t ruin anything for me. In fact, it’s probably my favorite of these three episodes. I’d like to conclude by mentioning something this episode gets right that most Great Expectations adaptations don’t. Forgiveness is a big theme of the original book but for whatever reason, most adaptations have Pip, in need of forgiveness himself, hold a grudge against Miss Havisham to the end or only forgive her begrudgingly. The Wishbone episode is one of the only adaptations, if not the only adaptation to have him immediately forgive her wholeheartedly.
Who’d have expected that?
|The whole thing is worth reading.
|Mainly, don’t let your personal biases blind you to the truth.
|Fans of the series may recognize him for his recurring role in the “real world” storylines as local troublemaker Damont Jones.
|Of course, this episode was my introduction to the story, so maybe what’s going on is that it blinded me to whatever it is that other readers and adapters of the book find endearing about the Dodger.
|Can something be both genuinely cheesy and also genuinely good? I would say yes, but any examples I’d give would be highly subjective.
|Wishbone’s words, not mine.
|Though you could argue there’s justice in the substitution in that Sydney generally led a less moral life than Charles Darnay did.
|That may have been because the show had already done it in an episode inspired by Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage though the connection was somewhat forced.
|I know I’m breaking my pattern by writing about the “real world” plot first, but it feels right to me for this episode.
|Though some of the cast members have had good careers. It was actually Amy Acker’s television debut!