When PBS was Cool… No Really!

Hello g33ks, m33ks and everyone else make sure you have your casebooks ready we’re about to get into a time machine. Let me take you back to a time when MTV played music videos, computer discs were floppy, and the main competitors for Power Rangers and Batman: The Animated Series were on PBS. Yeah … the Corporation for Public Broadcasting at one point actually had high profile and anticipated series. Kids would go home and have to choose between watching Darkwing Duck get dangerous and a math based educational comedy series. If anything was a sign of the upcoming nerds = cool on TV trend it was this period of time. None of this stuff jumping out at you? Well this was a time when import TV and well made learning shows reached their zenith so lets get going.

Ghostwriter – Where else would we begin? This series was at one point the most popular show on TV at my grade school. Its concept? A group of teens are all gifted with the ability to see a spiritual entity called “GhostWriter”. GW can only communicate through words and the manipulation of letters. The kids he appeared to would join together to solve mysteries and help their community. Kids around the country would watch the show with a special GhostWriter Casebook to write down clues just like the sleuths on the show.

Highlights – The Thabto episodes featuring a group of teen thieves who wore double headed masks, code breaking and a team arcade cabinet game, ie X-Men or The Simpsons. This was for most kids their first introduction to cyphers and I’m sure the number of secret code letters passed in school quadrupled that week.

Final Thoughts – Teaching kids that words and reading are important while wrapping the show in mysteries made for must see tv. The episodes don’t really stand up too well but they will always hold a fond place in my heart at least.

Square One – Math based sketch comedy show which did all it could to take the pressure off of learning math and make it fun. Designed to fight what was considered by many teachers to be an American math crisis.

Highlights – MathNET: Every episode of Square One would feature a DragNET knock-off featuring two detectives solving math based crimes. The interesting element was always that on Monday MathNET was only a few minutes long and as the week progressed it would get longer until by Friday it was almost the entire episode of Square One.

Final Thoughts – As someone who has a much easier time with words than numbers I always remember this as the show that understood how I felt about math. It knew there were kids that needed more than the abstract to learn and by putting it into context it could make learning math more fun.

Bill Nye The Science Guy – Picking up the mantle left behind by my favorite ‘science guy’ Mr. Wizard. Bill Nye performed experiments and explained scientific principles kids could understand.

Highlights – All of the experiments you could perform at home. Writing down ingredients and instructions so you could suspend heavy objects in liquid or balance a brick on a sheet of construction paper was always a major element of watching the show.

Final Thoughts – I used to get up extra early as a kid to watch Mr. Wizard episodes on Nickelodeon. Then after a while they ran out of “new” episodes. Bill Nye stepped in at a time when these other shows were stimulating your brain about math or words and gave you a ton of things you could do yourself. Obviously, the legacy of this series can be pointed to modern bigger budget series for adults like Mythbusters and Brainiac: Science Abuse.

Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? – Geography themed game show, based on the PC game of the same name, in which three kids compete to find an artifact stolen by a cartoonish criminal. After retrieval of the object and the capture of the crook the winning “Gumshoe” would be given an opportunity to capture their leader, supercriminal Carmen Sandiego.

Highlights – The theme song by Rockapella and Lynn Thigpen as The Chief.

Final Thoughts – This show was a cultural phenomenon airing in several different nations and named one of the 50 greatest gameshows in TV history. If you didn’t watch anything else on this list and were a kid in the 90’s you probably watched this one. You probably even went to school with a kid who was on the show, I know I did. It’s spinoff Where in Time? was never as big of a hit, possibly due to the lack of Rockapella, but was still just as good of a game show, using similar games and keeping Lynn Thigpen as The Chief.

The fact that these four series were made with public money and actually able to keep audiences from the ages of 10-13 from leaving PBS, and in some cases bringing them back after years away. Should go to show that when you do things the right way it doesn’t matter if its educational TV or not. We really shouldn’t be surprised that shows like The Big Bang Theory, Myth Busters, and Look Around You are such hits with people our age. Anyone paying attention would know we were going to grow up to be nerds.

What are your memories of these series? Do you remember all the words to Where in the World’s theme song? (Without looking them up online?) Did you have a casebook or did you ever blow off your eyebrows trying to be like Bill Nye? Comment below.

Mr. Khon

Mr. Khon

Our own version of The Illusive Man, Mr. Khon's identity is kept secret until he sells a screenplay. Once that happens, he's taking us all to the big time.


  1. I loved all of these, especially the songs. I still get some of the Square One songs stuck in my head from time to time, like the haunted house themed probability song and the palindrome song. So good. And I totally miss Mathman, even if he was kind of a dope sometimes.

    And I can’t hear Morrisey without thinking of “The Faster You Push Me” from Bill Nye (I loved the crash test dummy in the video).

    Good stuff.

  2. You are missing! 3-2-1 Contact!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *