GENIUS: Kids in Brooklyn solve mysteries.
PBS SUITS: Cute.
GENIUS: A ghost helps them.
SUIT #1: Spooky.
GENIUS: It is not meant as such. Crime is the threat. Ghostwriter is an ally.
SUIT #2: So, a friendly ghost. Like Casper?
GENIUS: Casper is the grinning shade of a child. Boisterous, needy — he would be of no practical use on a crime-solving squad. Ghostwriter’s story is much darker.
SUIT #1: Is this like demons? We don’t want the faith-based orgs jumping down our throats.
GENIUS: He isn’t a Ouija board, Linda. Ghostwriter is here to solve crimes, not create drama.
When he lived, Roger H. Twist was a slave who taught other slaves to read, a perilous act of defiance. He escaped during the Civil War…
[collective sigh of relief]
GENIUS: …Only to be caught and killed by slave catchers and their dogs.
SUIT #2: Oh.
SUIT #1: Does the show…um, show this?
GENIUS: Not explicitly, no. But I’m sure most viewers will pick up on it after an episode or two.
SUIT #3: And Roger H. Twist…
GENIUS: Yes, it’s an anagram of Ghostwriter. Did I explain that Ghostwriter communicates mainly in anagrams?
He manipulates letters of text in books, newspapers, what have you, to form clues that help the youths solve mysteries. Ghostwriter can summon any nearby letters for his messages, and unlike traditional anagrams, they glow. Ghostwriter’s abilities transcend anagrammar. Most likely because he is a ghost.
SUIT #3: What does he look like?
GENIUS: Kind of like a feed icon.
GENIUS: Just a general web-logo kind of look. He can change color and like, whiz from word to word. There’s a sound. It’s very hip and dot-com.
[murmurs of approval]
SUIT #2: Sounds nifty, but… That’s not very ghostly, is it? Shouldn’t he be translucent, or have an eerie pallor or something?
GENIUS: You have to understand that his identity as a writer is more important than his condition as a ghost. There’s no spectral moaning or rattling of windowpanes. In fact, Ghostwriter is only able to communicate through the written word. The kids must write to him in order to be understood.
SUIT #1: Learning, that’s lovely. Tell us about these kids.
GENIUS: They attend Zora Neale Hurston Middle School and Washington Elementary. Jamal is the first to commune with our literate spirit. He is Twist’s descendant, and his father, Samuel L. Jackson, gives him the book that releases Ghostwriter’s soul.
The next to see is Lenni. She’s the kind of rapping eleven-year-old hippie who embodies the last days of the millennium.
SUIT #2: They’re animated? Claymation? Puppet? Muppet?
GENIUS: They are flesh and blood. How else would a story with a ghost make sense?
We also have Gaby Fernández, who is the tough and lively avatar of little sisters everywhere. In fact she is so ubiquitous and quintessential that if you had to replace Gaby with another Gaby mid-series, nobody would even notice. Or everyone would. One of those two things.
SUIT #2: Wait, what now?
GENIUS: And Gaby’s older brother, Alex, who’s a total fox. This will eventually be apparent to Tina Nguyen, child journalist and documentarian. I envision a role for one of Jamal’s female cousins, too. It just seems that, in the future of TV, ensembles without multiple young women of color will no longer be relevant.
SUIT #3: Ethnic diversity is neat!
[nobody looks at Carl]
GENIUS: We might add a token white male, maybe a poet in frequent need of rescue, but I don’t know. Guess it depends on Ghostwriter; he chooses who sees him.
SUIT #2: Given that a ghostwriter is an uncredited author for work attributed to someone else, won’t the viewing public be a tad confused?
GENIUS: [gently] No. No, I don’t think the children watching this will confuse Ghostwriter, a lettered phantom who fights crime, with whoever wrote Profiles in Courage.
SUIT #1: And what kind of “crimes” does he solve, exactly? Carmen San Diego already has geographical heists covered.
GENIUS: Anything that would fall under the jurisdiction of Ghostwriter and a diverse team of Brooklyn youngsters. So, for example, Alex is running for class president but someone is conducting a smear campaign against him in the halls of the school…
SUIT #3: Oh, okay. So by “crimes” we mean like, schoolyard scrapes. That sort of mischief.
GENIUS: Yes. Also arson, stalking, drugs, gang violence, rare bird smuggling, and time travel. Jamal will be framed. Gaby will be poisoned by toxic waste. The group will be nearly rent apart when a car accident seeds discord among their parents, but chasing down an art thief will restore unity. Craig will disappear forever and never be spoken of again.
SUIT #3: Who’s Craig?
SUIT #1: And they solve these cases through…anagrams.
GENIUS: The purpose of this show is to instruct young viewers in two things: literacy, and delayed gratification.
SUIT #3: Why delayed gratification?
[The GENIUS waits a long time before she answers, and everyone agrees Carl walked right into that one]
GENIUS: Each Ghostwriter mystery will be part of a serialized arc that spans four or five episodes. Kids will have to watch every episode in order to find out whodunit. Pretty much the only way they’ll be able to see the resolution is during teacher strikes, which will instill in them a lifelong appreciation for robust labor unions.
SUIT #1: Always something we’re looking for.
SUIT #3: Mm.
GENIUS: Ghostwriter rewards the patient, the loyal, the attentive. If that means some fans will reach adulthood without ever learning who Max Mouse is, so be it.
SUIT #2: Here’s my concern: Is this visually interesting? On a dramatic level? Watching kids write…and a ghost make words glow…like, it just seems that a ghost might have more interesting powers than making words glow.
GENIUS: [shaking her head with pity] The audience is no passive spectator, Mitch. It’s interactive. Kids will track the mysteries with their very own Ghostwriter casebooks, which they will definitely all get and keep for longer than a day. We also hope it will inspire them to learn touch-typing, as watching middle-schoolers poke a keyboard is torture.
SUIT #1: The situations you’ve described sound pretty intense. Maybe we can try to keep it light? Little kids will be watching; no need to expose them to gang violence and the like.
GENIUS: It is interesting to me the way adults speak of “protecting” children.
[A calm sip of water. Everyone waits.]
GENIUS: Doesn’t this very network proclaim that “knowledge is power?” And who are more powerless than children? “Expose them”? They are already exposed.
SUIT #2: Right, but. Arson. Stalking. Slavecatchers. Isn’t it a little much?
GENIUS: The world is not safer if you close your eyes to its darkness and its dangers. When we shield children from the truths of the world they share with us, we are taking away one of the only kinds of power to which they can lay claim. Ghostwriter gave his life to empower others with knowledge.
[Long silence. Nobody wants to be the first to dishonor Ghostwriter’s sacrifice.]
GENIUS: This is a transformational coming-of-age narrative. That’s why Ghostwriter is of course an anagram of “Growth Rites.”
SUIT #1: Look, educational mysteries are definitely our jam here at PBS. But we’re wading into murky spiritual waters here. The ghost stuff, concepts of the afterlife and the soul…. Does Ghostwriter have a mission? Is he in Purgatory? Can the show avoid these questions?
GENIUS: The series never delineates a theological perspective. No one speaks of heaven or hell or the soul. The show’s spiritual philosophy is obvious enough from context.
GENIUS: Words are souls.
[SUITS poise their pencils over their caseboo—sorry, notepads. They wait.]
GENIUS: They are ourselves, extracted from our bodies, and they live forever.
SUIT #2: I see.
[Not as the GENIUS sees. She speaks almost as if the words are being revealed to her in ready form by a sentient light. SUITS wait.]
GENIUS: After death we speak through words. It is the only way — but a potent way. Words live. They are real things in the world, and readers are not a passive audience, they are champions who take these words, our clues and promises, and with them shape the world. It is this, more than anything else, that Ghostwriter illuminates.
[She leans toward them, and it is as though her words begin to glow]
GENIUS: Words can touch you — physically alter your body — raise hairs at the nape, hollow the gut, send shivers shoulder to toe — and does this not change our understanding of presence and absence?
[SUITS look to each other. To the words of their notes. They see the other words their words can form, and other faces fill the room. Everyone is here, together, now. Words, they realize, are the salve of loss.]
GENIUS: I have written these things and you have read them, you have felt my touch, and there is no distance between us at all.