Revisiting ‘Ghostwriter’: Citizenship Doesn’t Start at 18

Writing about Captain Planet made me want to revisit one of the few television shows I watched on a regular basis as a kid after we got a television. Ghostwriter isn’t widely available: until recently, you couldn’t buy DVDs of the show commercially, though you could find a few of the story arcs on used VHS. So I spent a bunch of yesterday piecing together the mysteries of who was stealing backpacks from the kids at Zora Neale Hurston Middle School, who’s dumping toxic waste in the Fort Greene community garden, and, of course, who burned down Mr. Brinker’s store:

The show’s premise, that a ghost (in accounts from the show’s creators and writers, alternatively meant to be a great writer like Shakespeare or an ancestor of the main character, Jamal, who escaped slavery and educated himself ) who can only communicate in writing and who expresses a lot of confusion about elements of modern life ranging from cornflakes to copyright infringement helps a diverse group of Fort Greene kids solve mysteries, may have been a little goofy. But in spite of that, Ghostwriter works remarkably well.

The show makes effective use of the fact that it’s set in a dense urban neighborhood to create a believably diverse cast. Jamal’s the grandson of a postwoman (and the son of Samuel L. Jackson, who only appears in the show occasionally); Alex and Gaby are Salvadorian immigrants whose parents run a convenience store; Lenni and her musician father live in a loft above that same store; Tina, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who run a tailoring business, is Gaby’s best friend; Rob comes to Hurston when his father gets a military posting to New York. The kids’ parents have believable professions and incomes — where Lenni’s father might be a rock star in our Gossip Girl-ified world, but in Ghostwriter, he’s just a working musician with a regular series of gigs. Jamal’s sister is on scholarship at college. When Lenni’s father and Gaby and Alex’s father get into a car accident, it’s a big deal, enough so that the tension between them trickles down to their children.

Though the plots got more baroque as the series progressed, most of the problems the Ghostwriter team addressed were about on that scale: serious, but plausible. The kids aren’t immune from the consequences of things that happen in their community: Gaby gets sick when a cleaning company dumps toxic waste in the Fort Greene community garden, Victor’s brother is paralyzed by gang violence and Victor is suspected of vandalism, Jamal’s accused of setting a fire at a corner video store, Alex is offered marijuana. But they also take responsibility for trying to solve problems around them, and the adult characters in their lives tend to take them seriously. Whether it’s Rob staying stubbornly on the phone as he’s transferred through every environmental agency in the city until he finds a civil servant who will help him out in “Over a Barrel,” or Lenni insisting that Hurston move ahead with a community concert even as there’s a flare of gang violence in the neighborhood, Ghostwriter treats the team’s efforts to be good citizens with respect.

To a certain extent, it’s the inverse of a lot of today’s young adult fiction, which posit apocalyptic circumstances that can only be combatted by one or two unusually gifted young people. That may be an attractive fantasy, but it’s also a discouraging one. Katniss Everdeen might be admirable, but her feats are out of reach — she’s not really a role model. Ghostwriter might have extraordinary events as a catalyst, but the hard work — and it is hard: there are queues for toxic waste removal, FBI suspicion is not easily dispelled — is done by fairly average kids with fairly average resources.