Series: Ghostwriter

"He's a ghost, and he writes to us: Ghostwriter."
Jamal Jenkins, Ghost Story

Surreal, quirky mystery/educational series on PBS and The BBC from 1992-1995. A group of middle-school kids in Brooklyn, New York are the only ones who can see a benevolent, amnesiac ghost, whom they dub Ghostwriter. He can only see and communicate through writing, and he uses his abilities to help the kids solve mysteries. The show never made it clear who Ghostwriter was, or why he chooses to help people. Although some episodes implied that the ghost retained more memories than he claimed to, Ghostwriter's true identity was never revealed. (That is, until a 2010 interview revealed that he was a runaway slave that was killed while teaching other runaway slaves how to read.)

His abilities, by contrast, were extremely well-defined. For example, when the kids take a comic book as evidence, Ghostwriter can't see anything in it except the speech balloons. His spying often made the perp obvious very quickly, but the kids then had to find other evidence that would be admissible in court — with a few exceptions. Each mystery was a four-part episode, except for the premiere and "To The Light," which were five-parters.

Presumably because of PBS censorship codes, almost all violence on the show happened off-camera. This made the show painfully slow and talky most of the time. But some scenes were truly scary nail-biters. For instance, in the "Who Is Max Mouse?" climax, the only chance the heroes had to solve the case was making a high-stakes bet with the perp, and losing it would result in a guaranteed prison term for one of the kids. In an equally scary arc, one of the kids suffered chemical poisoning from improperly discarded dry-cleaning chemicals near a playground that the characters frequently visited and her friends discover in their research that the effects of this poison are potentially lethal. The villains ranged from eccentrics to raving nutcases, and were fascinating — too much so, as they made the heroes look bland. Some episodes managed elaborate mysteries without any villain at all.

Not recommended for anyone over the age of twelve, but worth seeing just for how the writers managed to come up with tension without much on-screen violence or if you grew up with the show and see well it was back then to now. And keep an eye out for Julia Stiles, Samuel L. Jackson, and Spike Lee in guest roles.

If you're looking for the trope that could have gone here, see Playing Cyrano. Not to be confused with a literary ghostwriter, defined by That Other Wiki as "a writer who writes books, articles, stories, reports, or other texts that are officially credited to another person" (which frequently overlaps with Extruded Book Product). Also not to be confused with the film The Ghost Writer.

Produced by Sesame Workshop.

This show provides examples of:

  • Adult Fear:
    • The "Over a Barrel" arc. Your kids helping out in an inner-city community garden can only be good, right? Except when they're getting sick from toxic waste and the government's dragging its heels over cleaning it up.
    • "What's Up With Alex" as well. Nothing more frightening for a parent than having to deal with the possibility of your son getting into drugs.
    • "Lost in Brooklyn" - in the process, a girl is missing in New York City. And to her, this is a completely foreign country.
  • Alliterative Name: Jamal Jenkins.
  • Amateur Sleuth
  • An Aesop
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Gabby.
    • Casey might count in a way after her introduction. She's only Jamal's cousin but she does act a bit like his little sister.
  • Black and Nerdy: Jamal.
  • Breaking Bad News Gently: This is usually the first reaction that the team has when a new kid first sees Ghost Writer.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Spoofed in one episode.
  • Brother Chuck: Craig.
    • The second episode (which was Craig's first, and only, appearance) was actually the pilot of the show; producers would later shoot a new premiere episode to better explain the origins of Ghostwriter.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin'
  • Chekhov's Gun: In the book "Steer Clear of Haunted Hill", the book is set up so that half is a diary written by Alex and the other by Gabby. You must read both of them to solve the mystery so naturally there are examples of this trope. The stand-outs are a pamphlet detailing the 3 chambers in the cave, allowing the Team to find the missing Max, Max eating plain potato chips while another character was eating sour cream and onion, revealing him to be behind a false trail and a set of maps (an old one Alex got from Max and a newer one Gabby received) holding the key to the missing Rob's location: an old treehouse listed on Alex's map but not Gabby's.
    • In "Into The Comics," the skywriting in the panels is mentioned as early as the hunt for the first location during the Hoodman competition, but it doesn't actively serve as a clue until the final one.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Tina was around in the first arc, but didn't see Ghostwriter until the second.
  • City of Adventure: Usually Brooklyn, once London, seeing as the BBC co-produced the series.
  • Cliffhanger
  • Clock Discrepancy: One of the main characters is accused of burning a one-man run electronic store. His friends were able to prove him innocent when they discover that the store's display clock was running one hour slow, meaning he has an alibi for the actual time of the crime. The store owner, however, doesn't, and he ends up being the real culprit, as he was trying to destroy evidence of a mass videotape duplication system.
  • Continuity Nod: In "To Catch a Creep," the team blackmails Calvin with embarrassing secrets, like the fact that he can't get to sleep without his stuffed booger bat. In "Am I Blue?" Rob calls him "Booger Bat" as an insult.
  • Cool Old Lady: Jamal's grandma
  • Cousin Oliver: Two of them.
  • Dance Party Ending: A few episodes end this way, particularly when a new member joins the team.
  • Deal with the Devil
  • Dream Sequence
  • Education Mama: Tina's parents, who especially won't let Tina's older brother drop out of school to join a band, and scold Tina herself for not helping out enough around the home.
  • Feet of Clay: Almost every episode.
  • 555: Many phone numbers which prove key to solving cases.
  • Five-Man Band: Briefly, before cast changes made it moot.
  • Five-Token Band: Played somewhat realistically.
  • Foreshadowing: Every episode.
  • Functional Magic: Ghostwriter's abilities are very precisely defined.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: After Jamal's Grandma interrupts his fantasy about the girl he likes, he's reluctant to stand up.
  • Hollywood Hacking: Who is Max Mouse? To be fair, it's a little more plausible than other examples
  • Hot-Blooded: Alex, at times.
  • Immigrant Parents: Alex and Gaby's parents are from El Salvador, and Tina's are from Vietnam.
  • Inexplicably Awesome: Ghostwriter is this.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Rob and Double T, a homeless poet and Vietnam War veteran. Tina and Lana Barnes, a Golden Age movie star. Most of the Ghostwriter team and Jamal's grandma (especially Lenni and Gabi)
  • Jerk Ass: Calvin Ferguson.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Alex.
  • Just a Kid
  • Kid Detective
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Rob has shades of this - he doesn't go in and disrupt a plan so much as he charges into dangerous situations on his own with no backup. Examples: getting trapped in an abandoned subway tunnel because he didn't tell anyone where they were going, entering a dressing room to find out what an unhinged stunt actress was up to and getting knocked out and tied up for his trouble, and finally going by himself to a gang hideout to look for a friend of his and nearly getting beaten up by the gang members.
  • Master of Disguise
  • Military Brat: Rob.
  • Missing Mom: Lenni's father is a widower.
  • Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold: Rob gets treated like this during his introduction, when he becomes a suspect for the Ghostwriter team for not much more than being unsociable and writing fiction (Granted, they didn't know it was fiction at the time). Ghostwriter communicating with him helped to clear his name, and he later joins the team.
  • Morality Pet: Jerk Ass Calvin really loves his pet parrot Attila and is devastated when it dies. In fact, losing Attila seems to have been the catalyst to Calvin's semi-redemption.
  • Motive Rant: Played straight and spoofed.
  • Multigenerational Household: Jamal's grandmother lives with his family.
  • Murder Simulators: One mystery involved a cult of schoolkids who would meet in secret to reenact their favorite arcade game, and had taken to organized theft to feed their addiction.
  • New Transfer Student: Rob, later Hector.
  • Noodle Incident: Hector tries to suggest that a hotel that Tina's friend is stuck in might have once had a different name:
    Hector: When I was living in Puerto Rico, my grandfather told me about this old Hacienda hotel that started going broke. People stopped coming to stay there, and the food got really bad, and there were more animals inside the hotel than outside. (laughs) Once they found this donkey...
    Alex: Hector, is there a point to this?
  • Nosy Neighbor: Calvin.
  • Not Himself
  • Odd Friendship: Rob, the shy, bookish son of an Air Force Colonel and Victor, a poor, Hispanic former gang member.
  • Official Couple: Alex and Tina.
  • One-Hit Wonder: Leif, the electrician when Lenni makes a music video, was teen popstar in the 70s with a hit called "Girl". It's implied that the success didn't continue because he tried to follow the same formula and refused to branch out.
  • One of Our Own: The single most common plot on the show.
  • Only Sane Man: Jamal frequently plays this role. Whenever people start fighting, he's usually the one to attempt to try and make peace.
  • The Other Darrin: Sometime late in the series, Gaby's actress was replaced.
    • Minor characters who were also recast included Calvin, Jamal's dad, Lenni's dad, and Alex and Gabi's mom.
  • Parental Bonus: The only question is whether or not it was intentional.
    • Jamal on Rob seeing Ghostwriter:
    Jamal: It was his first time. We all know what that feels like.
  • Parent Ex Machina
  • Promotion to Opening Titles: For Hector, Rob, and Casey.
  • Playful Hacker: It's revealed that Max Mouse is actually Janice, who does it because nobody notices her at all.
  • Playing with Character Type: David Patrick Kelly is best known for playing creepy bad guys (notably in The Warriors). Here he plays Double T, a homeless man who many characters are afraid of until they learn that he really is a nice guy (and a talented poet).
  • Poirot Speak: Alex and Gaby's family, as well as Tina's.
  • Postmodernism: The anti-finale.
  • Put on a Bus: Rob moved to Australia.
  • Questioning Title:
    • "Who Burned Mr. Brinker's Store?"
    • "What's Up With Alex?
    • "Who is Max Mouse?"
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits
  • Revival: 1997's The New Ghostwriter Mysteries, which aired on CBS, replaced the entire cast, and made a number of other changes to the series (Hey, it's that girl from Harriet the Spy!).
  • The Rival: Calvin, especially to Alex.
  • Shell-Shocked Senior: Rob's homeless friend Double T is strongly hinted to have PTSD from his time in the Vietnam War.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Show Within a Show: Gaby is a huge fan of the Galaxy Girl TV series.
  • Six Student Clique
  • Sixth Ranger: Rob.
  • Soapbox Sadie: Lenni is a downplayed version of this. She never tries to force anyone else to think her way, thus avoiding the usual Broken Aesop about that comes with the trope, but she often speaks out about her beliefs, especially through her music.
  • Story Arc: Unusual for a serial kid's show. Every episode would begin with a recap.
  • Tagalong Kid: Casey.
  • Technology Marches On / Unintentional Period Piece: This show is almost painfully 90s in terms of technology (and fashion). Almost everything that the character(s) do can be handled with cell phones nowadays. (One would wonder what Ghostwriter would do if it happened today)
    • Fridge Brilliance: Ghostwriter is shown to be able to write anything while using a computer. He'd be able to communicate freely using cell phones and they wouldn't even need to be on.
    • Who did you think writes all the entries on TV Tropes?
  • They Fight Crime
  • Time Travel
  • Token Minority: Subverted; there are actually fewer white characters on the show than minorities. This is justified since it takes place in the ethnically diverse New York.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting
  • Unbelievable Source Plot: the basic premise of the show. The main cast is a bunch of teen Amateur Detectives who are helped by a ghost who can cannot see anything but words and can only interact with the world by reading said words and then rearranging letters and words elsewhere to show what he read. The team uses the information from Ghostwriter to solve crimes but they also have to collect conventional evidence to get adults to believe them since telling them that a ghost gave them the clue is not gonna help the kids or the victim.
  • The Unreveal: Ghostwriter's identity. Though Word of God can point out that ghostwriter could be the ghost of Jamal's great-grandfather Ezra.
    • A 2010 interview revealed that Ghostwriter was a runaway slave who was killed while teaching other runaway slaves to read. Whether he was Ezra is still up for debate, however.
    • Ghostwriter's amnesia could also be considered an Aborted Arc, since it is almost never mentioned beyond the first episode.
  • Very Special Episode: The episode "What's Up With Alex?" centered on Alex being accused of smoking marijuana by his father. It even aired with a warning that the episode would deal with issues that kids would need to ask their parents about for more information when it first aired on PBS. It never re-aired on Noggin.
  • Viewer-Friendly Interface: Complete with ridiculously slow typing.
  • Viewers Are Morons: What seemed to be the basis of many plot points/storytelling tactics.
  • Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Rob's father initially thinks he should be more athletic.
  • You Meddling Kids