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TELEVISION REVIEW

Wordplay's the name of game on new 'Electric Company'

Shockwave (Chris Sullivan) takes a turn as a language butcher. Shockwave (Chris Sullivan) takes a turn as a language butcher. (Sesame Workshop)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / January 19, 2009
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To understand how version 2.0 of "The Electric Company," PBS's resurrected reading-skills show, has changed since its '70s heyday, look no further than the talent roster.

Back in the day, Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, and Zero Mostel decoded scrambled words and sang the praises of the "st" sound. Musical satirist Tom Lehrer contributed tuneful tongue-twisters. There were miniature vaudeville revues between sketches.

The revamped program - which debuts today with a two-hour, four-episode marathon and begins in its regular Friday afternoon time slot later this week - has scheduled appearances from Ne-Yo, Jimmy Fallon, Whoopi Goldberg, Common, Mario, and Wyclef Jean. The cast includes Shockwave, a beat-boxing short order cook. The show's musical supervisors are the team behind the Tony-winning urban musical "In the Heights," with contributions from the hip-hop collective Freestyle Love Supreme.

While the message remains the same - language is power - the sounds, visuals, and reference points have been updated for today's youth, who have already been shaped by pop culture at the tender ages of 7, 8, and 9, the show's target demographic. Lehrer's spry tribute to silent e has been replaced by an R&B anthem sung by a big-boned schoolteacher. Special Agent Jack Bowser solves reading challenges before the clock runs out.

Appealing to a super-sophisticated generation of kids is likely to be the biggest challenge for Sesame Workshop, which is producing "The Electric Company" for PBS.

Part of their approach is a literal one: The power of words is rendered literally, in the form of linguistic superpowers. In the debut episode, "Skills," a young cast member named Keith (who happens to be a killer free thrower on the basketball court, i.e., a cool kid) discovers during a game of HORSE that he has another power. If he visualizes a letter in his head, it appears in his hand and he can throw it onto the ground or slap it on a wall: into the world, as it were.

He's the envy of the block, and is invited to join singers/dancers/wordsmiths Jessica, Hector, and Lisa, each of whom has his or her own special skills, in the Electric Company, whose de facto clubhouse is the Electric Diner. A clan of neighborhood no-goodniks called the Pranksters tries to steal their powers, but as we know (or will learn watching this show), crime doesn't pay.

All well and good, but second- and third-graders are a far more plugged-in bunch then their 1970s counterparts, well-versed in video games and cutting-edge special effects, computer graphics and interactive technology, not to mention a plethora of competing television shows. Yes, the Pranksters have their own Prank Cam. Alphabets hover magically in the kids' hands and hand-drawn turntables materialize during DJ sessions. In other words, the visuals are likely to strike some kids as downright quaint. It's like "High School Musical" with a bit of fairy dust and a dictionary.

That cuts both ways. While the show must first capture the attention and the imagination of its sophisticated young audience, it must also fulfill its mission as a wholesome learning destination. The trick, as ever, is in finding the sweet spot between education and entertainment. The good news for "The Electric Company," and struggling young readers, is that - lo and behold - scratching is a natural format for repeating vowels and consonants. And rapping, as any kid will tell you, is all about the wordplay.

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com

THE ELECTRIC COMPANY On: Channel 2

Time: today at 4 p.m. before beginning its regular slot

Friday at 5:30 p.m.

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