Wishbone is a prime example of something that could only exist as part of a commitment to the public good. Not, as some PBS advocates would have you believe, because of how much better it is than everything else on television by virtue of it being on PBS alone (it's not, by default, though it does staggeringly well for itself) but rather because of how forward-thinking, ambitious and ludicrously insane it is. There's a distinction to be made between public service and a desire for actual material social progress: Wishbone seems only superficially interested in the former, and very, very much interested in the latter. Wishbone is also a unique case of Soda Pop Art: PBS is famously publicly funded but also rather infamously underfunded as such, thus requiring it to essentially beg for donations on a regular basis-This means it is usually prevented from producing much in-house except children's television. Wishbone, however, was at least partially self-funded via merchandise and cross promotion and, throughout its three year run, pushed harder than anything else on PBS against the forum's inherent restrictions to become something unexpectedly bold, intelligent, mature, and refreshingly progressive. Just being on public television does not prove you're firmly acting in the interest of positive social change, but being this good does.
I'm pretty sure I'm starting from less than ground zero credibility-wise in my decision to take this show on. I suspect it has something to do with the talking animals, but no-one seems to have a problem with this in Peanuts, Garfield, Looney Tunes, Calvin and Hobbes or the Carl Barks Duckburg oeuvre, so I'm not sure why Wishbone is an exception here. And anyway, I'm the blogger who attempted a redemptive reading of Scooby-Doo that turned it into a bristling piece of displaced early 60s youth radicalism by way of German Expressionism so, you know, consider the source. Also, this is my site-I can write about whatever I want to. In all seriousness, Wishbone's seemingly juvenile sensibilities are actually important to note, as they serve mostly to misdirect would-be critics like me from reading too much into it and figuring out how giddily clever it's actually being.
It occurs to me, several paragraphs into what will surely end up being one of my more infamous missives, that it might behoove me to actually explain what Wishbone is for the benefit of those unfortunate enough to not be exposed to it in its brief original run. Wishbone was a children's television show produced in conjunction with Big Feats and Hit Entertainment as part of the mid-90s PBS Kids lineup, arguably the last real Golden Age of children's entertainment in the US. It premiered in October 1995, ran for two seasons and, following its abrupt cancellation in 1998, continued for several years afterward as a series of young adult novels. Both the TV and book series concern the titular Wishbone, an inexplicably talkative Jack Russel terrier who is equally inexplicably a media studies scholar (or at the very least a serious bibliophile) with a specialization in the Western canon.
This unique form of expertise gives Wishbone a special insight into the goings-on of the fictional Oakdale, Texas, a small residential community where he lives with his presumptive owner Joe Talbot and Joe's mother Ellen, upon which he comments for the benefit of the audience. Joe lost his father, a basketball coach, when he was quite young and grew up never really having known him. As a teenager, Joe enjoys sports, particularly basketball (perhaps out of a sense of solidarity to his father, although this is never really developed upon) and seeking out new adventures to go on with his two best friends David and Sam. Each episode the show would relate some issue or adventure going on in Oakdale that has preoccupied its human inhabitants. Wishbone would then arrive and, speaking directly to the audience, explain how the situation reminds him of some great work of literature or mythology, which he would then go on to summarise via flashback. These flashbacks, interspersed with scenes detailing the action in Oakdale, would play out like lavish theatre performances (or as lavish as PBS could throw together) and featured a regular group of “Players”, including, bizarrely, Wishbone himself, who would always cast himself as the protagonist (or deuteragonist in special cases).
These flashback sequences seem to be the biggest source of both acclaim and criticism for Wishbone: Fans praise the show for its loyalty to the source material: Though by necessity condensed to fit half of a 30 minute episode, Wishbone adaptations were always fiercely accurate and refused to sugar-coat the works' adult themes for children and, perhaps counterintuitively, to this day remain some of the best screen translations of these classics available. By contrast, the show's detractors attack it for not having the time or space to convey the full complexity of many of the stories it looked at, not reflecting the themes well enough in the Oakdale half of the show and forcing its cast to act around a Jack Russel terrier decked out in full period costume. For the record, while I fully admit Wishbone's structure doesn't always work as well as it could, I tend to be of the belief it succeeds far more often than not and that it hits upon a formula so elegant and had such a high average baseline of quality the vast majority of its faults can be, and ought to be, overlooked.
Wishbone had more than a few things working in its favour allowing it to not only successfully execute its unorthodox structure consistently, but regularly exceed its expectations and limitations as well. Chief among these was its incredibly talented cast, particularly those populating the Oakdale half. Wishbone was portrayed by the double act of veteran dog actor Soccer and former DJ and stand-up comedian Larry Brantley. Soccer is predictably adorable and pulls off some scenes and sequences so complex and deft you half-believe he's as into making the show as his handlers seem to be. Brantley delivers an appropriately high-energy, charismatic and crowd-pleasing voice over and also proves himself skilled at performing the huge spectrum of voices and characters he's expected to as he takes on the role of the various leads in the stories chronicled in the flashback half. His shtick as Wishbone sometimes runs the risk of slipping into becoming obnoxious, but Brantley far more often than not manages to avoid showboating and to keep the character endearing instead of annoying.
Ellen and Joe were played by real-life mother-and-son acting team Mary Chris and Jordan Wall. This method embellishment works quite well, as there is a clear bond between the actors that always manages to shine through even in the series' weakest moments. Mary Chris Wall in particular is truly spectacular: She has an earnestness that allows her to sell absolutely everything. Her portrayal of a single mother raising a teenage son is flawless, honest and heart-wrenching. She remains heartfelt and engaging even when she's not interacting with Jordan and has the same level of warmth and honesty with the rest of the cast as she does with him, treating them as a community of close friends and confidants who have become her extended family. It's magnificent and beautiful and one of the series' biggest strengths by far. On more than a few occasions this unflappable earnestness rides to the show's aid when it stumbles its way into a particularly stilted or unconvincing sequence or a truly half-baked series of ideas-Ellen comes in to ground the show and keep it on track. Knock me all you want for praising Ellen's realism: When she's onscreen it genuinely feels like Mary Chris Wall isn't acting and Wishbone isn't a TV show: She could be your next-door-neighbour. This isn't to say Jordan Wall gives a poor performance here by any stretch of the imagination; he's more than capable and far more talented and likable then a fair few other teenage actors I could name, but he does frequently run into the risk of being overshadowed by his mom's believability, Larry Brantley's bombast and, one more than one occasion, his other co-stars as well.
Wishbone's main cast is padded out by the Talbots' two neighbours, David Barnes, played by Adam Springfield, and Wanda Gilmore, played by Angee Hughes. David is Joe's best friend and something of a mad scientist who enjoys constructing robots and Rube Goldberg machines in his garage. David also possesses that innate, unmistakably 90s ability to do magical things with Windows 95 and America Online under the guise of “hacking” (yes, there is indeed an episode where David builds a virtual reality headset out of spare household appliances. Yes, he outfits Wishbone with it and dubs him CyberDog. Yes, it is gloriously stupid. It's the second episode). Adam Springfield is a fine actor, though when paired with Joe and Sam (whom we'll meet shortly) his character does sometimes end up seeming a little hapless. This is probably meant to be part of who David is though as he gets a lot of scenes where he's “the odd one out” so to speak, such as being distracted by the engineering of a marble maze in the middle of a mystery, rambling on about ghosts and ghost stories as the others are trying to investigate a string of vandal attacks and grinding the dramatic tension of a heartfelt scene about the importance of the environment and communal spaces to an absolute standstill by remarking about how much he loves fruit smoothies. Though he may be a bit awkward, David is far from pure comic relief and whenever a story has to hang on him he carries it quite competently.
Wanda is Joe's other neighbour, a middle-aged woman who has lived in Oakdale her entire life, has never married and lives alone. She's portrayed as more than a little eccentric, though lovably so, and adores arts, crafts, poetry, history, environmentalism and especially tending to her garden and beloved collection of pink flamingo lawn ornaments. She's the chair of both the Oakdale Historical Society and the Oakdale Environmental Trust, neither of which we ever actually see. Early on in the series she has a friendly rivalry with Wishbone, who considers her soil to be of the best quality for burying things. Although initially distrusting of Wishbone, she doesn't typically stay mad at him and occasionally acts as Ellen's surrogate sister and a second mom to Joe. Angee Hughes definitely seems to be having the most obvious amount of fun with her character and is almost as manic and over-the-top as Wishbone. She clowns around, sets herself up for pratfalls and has a really unusual delivery style that accentuates odd parts of her lines. As a result, Wanda is the character most often in danger of ceasing to have a developed, faceted personality and falling into a pure comic relief role, but in spite of this the show doesn't hesitate to give her dramatic moments and she gets to anchor at least one episode early on. Unfortunately as the show progressed, this thread was largely abandoned and Angee Hughes slipped into a more straightforward comedic showboating routine that overplayed Wanda's eccentricity. Thankfully she remained at least always charismatic and entertaining in the part even if some of her subtlety got increasingly eroded, and she does get a major role in the finale movie.
Now we come to the final series regular and the third major teen character: Samantha “Sam” Kepler, Joe and David's best friend. Sam is an ace athlete; fluent in skateboarding, roller hockey, soccer and karate, among other things. She's on David's level when it comes to technical wizardry and has an unabashed geeky side, which usually manifests in allowing her to regularly be at the top of her class. In addition, Sam is also the most outgoing, confidant, adventurous, headstrong and independent of the kids by far. Her parents are divorced and she splits her time between her mother's and father's house, though we only ever see her father. And here is where I just flat out drop all pretenses: Sam Kepler is hands down one of the greatest characters ever to be on a children's television programme and Christie Abbott, the actor who played her, is an absolute genius. Sam has been an inspiration, a role model and a hero to me from the moment I first laid eyes on Wishbone and is without question one of the reasons I do what I do and my primary motivation for returning to the series in this fashion.
Actually explaining exactly what makes Sam such a fantastic character is unfortunately beyond the scope of this particular post, but rest assured tracking her evolution is going to be a major theme in any future Wishbone-themed essays I toss up on here. For now, let's just say a large part of what makes Sam so exciting is that she entirely avoids the children's television archetype of “The Girl One”. Were this any other show, it would be depressingly reasonable to expect Sam to be the responsible kid of the bunch, trying to keep Joe's and David's hijinks from landing them in trouble. Either that, or she'd be dealing with some painfully botched interpretation of “girl issues” and potentially bearing the burden of any romance plots, probably eventually ending up with Joe. There might even have been, god forbid, some awful, awful story about Sam contracting some existential crisis about her tomboyish nature which she'd ultimately have to move beyond to grow into a proper lady. This is, mercifully, precisely and absolutely not what Sam is. In fact, she's as removed from being “The Girl One” as is possible to be.
This is due to a number of factors, but one in particular is that Sam is firstly not the only female character on Wishbone (the main cast is half female and there are many female minor characters as well) and secondly the other two women in the main cast, Ellen and Wanda, are far from being stereotypical children's television parental authority figures. This means both the show's writers and Christie Abbott can get much more creative with Sam then they might otherwise have been able to (as is typically the case when you treat your female characters as people instead of as token chicks or generic moms). Sam is blatantly, unapologetically empowered in a way characters in similar roles from other shows are typically not allowed to be. Indeed this is true of Ellen and Wanda as well, but it's the most immediately obvious with Sam as she is one of Joe's closest friends and thus is generally more likely to be directly involved in any adventures the kids find themselves in. Furthermore, Christie Abbott is, as I've mentioned, phenomenally good and takes Sam so far above and beyond her roots it's magnificent to witness, and Sam starts at a very, very high level. Abbott charms, delights, beguiles and damn near acts everyone else offscreen.
It's also interesting to note that Sam is the only main character who doesn't live in or in the immediate vicinity of the Talbot household (she lives, apparently, either several streets down from them or “across town”, it's not entirely clear) and is the only main character as passionate about sports as Joe is. This may seem like a trivial observation to make, but it becomes eerily fitting and symbolic as Sam develops over the course of the series.
Having more or less sorted the main cast save Wishbone himself, to whom we'll return in a minute (there are other characters, but they're not considered series regulars and not really applicable to this particular entry), let's take a step back and get another look at the show's structure as a whole. It's worth remarking on how thoroughly weird the central conceit of the show is: Not for the superficial reasons, mind-Wishbone's surface level weirdness probably ought to be self evident. What I'm referring to is the fact Wishbone relies on the juxtaposition of ordinary Oakdale with the fantastic realms of literature and mythology retold via the flashback sequences. The idea is to show how interconnected the two spheres are, how literature reflects real life and how everyday life is a series of interlinking stories all unto itself. This is a genius central concept by the way, but what's interesting here is how these two halves at first almost seem like they could be two separate shows unto themselves.
One of the things that makes the Oakdale half of Wishbone so engaging is that, CyberDog aside, it's surprisingly realistic and believable for a show of its type (I suspect I'm going to get in some trouble for this remark, but I promise I'll try to make up for it in a few paragraphs). This is admittedly helped a great deal by Mary Chris Wall's genuineness, but the writing and overall construction of this part of the series all seems designed with accuracy and honesty in mind. This is, after all, a show that, no matter the depth of its edutainment pretensions, really seems first and foremost to be about everyday life and exploring it as fairly and as straightforward as possible. It makes quite a few embellishments (Oakdale is far more diverse and progressive than a lot of small towns I can think of for one) but the overall feel is one of a show mostly trying to be relatable instead of prescriptive (though it is certainly prescriptive as well, but in a very unique and peculiar way). To be blunt, I'd unhesitatingly put Wishbone up against just about any other scripted drama in this regard and fully bet on the little dog to come up on top more often than not.
But wait: That's only half the story, so to speak. The flashback part of the show is something else entirely. In complete contrast to the realism of Oakdale, these sequences are unabashedly and unapologetically theatrical. I don't mean this at all lightly: Everything about the flashbacks is deliberately, self-consciously designed to look and feel like a theatre production. The set design, costumes, camera work and acting style of the “Wishbone Players” (a handful of rotating regular actors who play the roles not filled by Wishbone in the flashback sequences) all overtly evoke the feel of a play. Indeed, the very name “Wishbone Players” calls to mind an old-fashioned travelling acting troupe. Even the way Soccer/Brantley acts here is a giveaway: We're not supposed to see Mr. Darcy as a talking dog, we're supposed to see a talking dog *playing the part of* Mr. Darcy. This is taken to extreme levels of metatextuality anytime Wishbone attempts a Shakespeare adaptation; here the flashback sequences don't just look like television plays, they're explicitly plays at an in-universe level (indeed the Tempest adaptation is particularly head-spinning as Wishbone imagines a performance of The Tempest in response to the kids...putting on a performance of The Tempest). Theatrical performances are by definition non-representational, which would seem to put this half of the show in conflict with the themes of the Oakdale one. Or does it?
See, one of the most interesting tricks the show pulls is how it uses the character of Wishbone himself, although it's also one of the most difficult to get a hold on. From the outset it seems almost strikingly clear that Wishbone absolutely does not belong anywhere on this show. After all, the show goes at great lengths to cast Oakdale as at least a somewhat believable setting for everyday life. The ironic end result of this is that there's no place for a character like Wishbone in this kind of setting-It seems for all the world that he's a character from an entirely different, and altogether more juvenile, show that somehow stumbled into Oakdale and inserted himself as the assumed pet of an ordinary suburban family. Additionally, though he gives the show his name as its title, is the first character we're introduced to in the pilot and the promo blurbs all describe the series as being about his daydream-induced literature retellings, from the very outset Wishbone goes out of its way to muddy its title character's role in its own narrative.
It's both true and false to say Wishbone is the protagonist: He may be a protagonist and his name may be in the title, but from the very beginning the series seems to be trying to get us to accept Joe as the hero of at least the Oakdale show: In the first season Jordan Wall gets top billing in the opening credits, below only Larry Brantley, and Wishbone explicitly calls him this in the pilot. More than a handful of episodes hang on Joe as the emotional core and deal with events in his life, while Wishbone-centric episodes are actually quite rare. At the same time though Wishbone is also a very capable ensemble show, with each one of the characters getting at least one, if not several, episodes where they get to take center stage. That said, the implication that Joe is the show's de facto lead is one that lingers all the way to the finale and into the book series (he does, for example, get more spotlights than either Sam or David, and certainly more than Ellen and Wanda), and is something the show continually seems to be working with.
So, if Wishbone seems completely out of place and isn't even the protagonist of his own show, why even bother putting him in? The show could have kept the flashback/Oakdale structure and had a human fill his role, possibly Ellen (who is already a reference librarian) or even better, one of the occasional storyteller guest stars who come in, gather the cast around and share a traditional story inspired by current events, such as David's Uncle Homer or Joe's “third mom” Senora Julia. Well, I actually think Wishbone does have a valid, important and twofold reason to exist. See, this is the thing: The show was most likely intended to demonstrate how stories gain power from everyday life and that the realms of the mythic and the mundane in truth dynamically shape one another. It was most likely pitched as a way to get kids excited about reading by having a chipper talking dog go on at great length about how awesome books are. This is the fundamental tension at play here I feel: Wishbone gets to be progressive and mental because it's operating under the guise of supposedly providing something of educational merit to children (who will, naturally come for the adorable puppy and will hopefully stay for the literature and drama) and is likely to be kept on the air at least in part by virtue of that instead of because it sells. The show recognises it has an opening to go wild and runs with it, but it becomes weird and schizoid as a result: It sometimes feels stilted and heavy-handed and occasionally tosses out an entire episode that's embarrassingly crass, didactic and utterly tonally incongruous with the rest of the show. And oh yeah: It stars a canine literary critic.
But there's another reason we really do need the dog. He does something no other character can do. So what does Wishbone actually do on the show that's ostensibly about him? Far from being a heroic lead, in practice he's actually closer to the series' narrator. He's a very strange sort of narrator though; he can neither be safely called a third-person omniscient narrator nor a first person character relating his point of view of events. He's instead some kind of hybrid of the two: He has a role in the narrative to be sure, but he also seems aware a narrative exists and that he has a role in it. He's privy to more information than any other character on the show and is the only one who is medium savvy enough to speak directly to the audience. This is actually literalized by giving Wishbone the ability to speak, but also having him explicitly state that only the audience can hear his words. Not only that, but, in contrast to other works featuring talking animals, Wishbone is explicitly the only animal in the series to have this ability: We frequently meet other dogs and cats and while Wishbone does seem to be able to communicate with them, we're not able to see this. In just about every respect these characters are generic animals.
Then there are, of course, the flashbacks. At first glance it seems Wishbone doesn't belong here either: For one, there's the unavoidable absurdity of having a bunch of theatre players interacting with a dolled-up dog as an equal. But at the same time Wishbone seems to have a strong performative streak about him: He's definitely a ham and loves putting on a show. This becomes especially apparent in the way the character acts in these sequences: Wishbone is never subsumed by the role he's playing in the production; it's always clear this is still him. As before, this isn't Mr. Darcy as a small dog, it's Wishbone playing the part of Mr. Darcy. But wait a minute-this is just the same as in actual theatre: The draw is not to see actors disappear into their roles, it's to see what new and unique approaches specific actors can bring to familiar characters. This is most obvious with Wishbone because he's a dog, but the same goes for all the other Players too: Watch enough of the show and you'll start to recognise the same handful of faces and look forward to seeing their performances. So, when you watch Wishbone do Pride and Prejudice and see they cast the same actor who played Juliet and Joan of Arc as Caroline Bingley you can recognise this as an intriguing acting turn for her and can enjoy her playing delightfully against type.
What's also important to note is that Wishbone seems to know all these stories inside and out and loves retelling them for our benefit, and it is very clearly meant for us: Despite the fact his daydreams are inspired by events in Oakdale, recall no-one there can hear Wishbone or even knows he can speak; only we can. Interestingly however, the Players actually do understand him, which brings us to an interesting discovery. Perhaps counterintuitively, it would appear that yes, actually, Wishbone does belong here. His place is onstage telling stories and putting on a show, while at the same time making constant asides to the audience. What this means is that Wishbone surprisingly seems to work as a 90s children's television update of the classical Greek chorus; the character who can bridge the gap between the performance and the real world.
However, it gets even better: The most delicious thing here is that Wishbone actually does this on two different narrative levels: Recall that the core structure of the series as a whole is about comparing the flashback to the Oakdale plot and in one way or another demonstrating how they're the same story, or at least share a not-insignificant overlap. Wishbone straddles both spheres, the only character to exist in both simultaneously. This, combined with his ability to transcend the entire show to speak directly to the audience is incredibly revealing: By placing Wishbone here, the show is essentially saying Oakdale is really just as theatrical as the flashbacks. He's the character who can remind us that despite its intriguing and tempting pretensions, Oakdale is still ultimately a performative work that's partially children's entertainment and wholly a story of its own, just like the plays he and his troupe put on for us. Wishbone's not only the bridge between the world of the Players and the world of Oakdale, he's the bridge from Oakdale to us. None of the humans on the show could ever play a role this delightfully meta; they're too bound up in the idea of Oakdale as social realism. Nobody else could be this brazenly transgressive. After all, this is fiction and anything can happen in the realm of the imagination: So why not a talking dog? No wonder the show is named after him.
And really this is the only way Wishbone, with its mental blend of all these wonderfully mad and disparate elements, could ever really turn out. No matter how well-realised and believable Oakdale can get as a setting and no matter how wonderfully down-to-Earth Mary Chris Wall is, Wishbone-the-show was always going to end up at tongue-in-cheek theatrical performativity. Anything that features prescriptive utopianism, Wanda Gilmore, David bringing kitchen appliances to life or someone as dizzyingly meta as Wishbone himself sort of has to: None of those concepts are particularly representational or realistic (nor is, if we're being honest, the idea that two teenage boys and a teenage girl could be lifelong best friends while maintaining a strictly platonic relationship-it's certainly possible, but would most likely require several qualifying variables).
The show doesn't even attempt to hide this: At the end of almost every episode is a behind-the-scenes featurette that explains how all the various effects shots were done and gives kids some basic lessons in cinematography and filmmaking. The majority of the tie-in merchandise I can remember that wasn't stuffed toys or the novel line was centred in some way around the theme of relating how the series itself was made (and even the stuffed toys came in little stage-shaped boxes). There were trading cards of the cast, crew and even production techniques, press kits made freely available to the public and even one of the video games is apparently meant to take place, bewilderingly, on the show's own backlot. Wishbone not only made absolutely no attempt at any point to pretend it was anything other than an unusually well-made TV play, it went out of its way to skewer its in-universe “reality” in public any chance it got. I can't think of anything else remotely like it: This is a show that loves stories so much it has no qualms with being explicitly a storyteller. It takes suspension of disbelief, smashes it on the ground and gleefully jumps up and down on the broken pieces. It's a show by actors, literature fans and creators for actors, literature fans and creators.
And this is really how the show's fundamental schism resolves itself to boot. The theatrical/representationalist split between the flashback and Oakdale segments can be read as a metaphor for the show's own split between its public service edutainment obligations and its social realist ambitions. All in all, it's a series of plays-within-plays working together to tell the same story, and that story is about the magic of stories and how they become part of our lives. While far from the only thing Wishbone leaves behind, this is probably one of the most unique and overlooked aspects of its legacy-it proudly comes out of a theatrical model of television and media more generally that's become increasingly rare as a desire for more and bigger “cinematic” works has all but displaced anything that doesn't look like a Hollywood blockbuster. Watching Wishbone reminds us of what Alan Moore's ideaspace really means: The concept that storytelling is inherently performative with a changeable relationship with representationalism and, is also, above all else, magical. Stories can't be straight transcriptions of reality, but they can be shaped by it and help us to try and come to terms with it and what it means for living our lives. No wonder Wishbone is such a Shakespeare fan.
“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players...”