Follow TV Tropes


Series / Ghostwriter

Go To
Ghostwriter! (Word!)

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

Surreal, quirky mystery/educational series created by Sesame Workshop and aired 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 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.note 

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 "Ghost Story" 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 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.


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.

A reboot of the series began airing on the Apple TV+ streaming service on November 1, 2019.

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.
    • A general one that was present in the TV show but cropped up a lot in the books: your child will get kidnapped and/or locked up in a location no one but their attacker knows about and may be unable to summon help ALA an incident in the books where a blindfolded and bound Hector who the crook abandons in the middle of a forest tries to write a message but barely manages anything readable and it's only luck that the rest of the team figures it out.
  • 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.
    • While not exactly a younger sibling, Gabby sometimes treats Hector this way. The book "Disappearing Act" has her mentally comment that because Hector thinks so highly of Alex, she's always arguing two people instead of one.
  • Big Applesauce: The show takes place in Brooklyn.
  • Big "NO!": Gabby, in "Four Days of the Cockatoo", after hearing that Audubon Poulet and Honey Hawke about to perform taxidermy on her palm cockatoo, Calypso.
  • Black and Nerdy: Jamal.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Spoofed in one episode.
  • Breaking Bad News Gently: When a new kid first sees Ghostwriter, The team's first reaction is usually to tell the new person to sit down before beginning to explain Ghostwriter's situation.
  • 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 as Gaby's friend, but didn't see Ghostwriter until the second.
    • Rob is one as well in "To Catch a Creep". He is a suspect, but ultimately helps the team take down the culprit by getting information for a fake blackmail.
  • City of Adventure: Usually Brooklyn, once London, seeing as the BBC co-produced the series.
  • Cliffhanger: Many of the episodes ended with them due to the Story Arc nature of the show.
  • Clock Discrepancy: Jamal 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, loses his alibi in the process and ends up being the real culprit, as he was destroying 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
  • December–December Romance: Jamal's grandma seems to start a relationship with a Caribbean immigrant. "Who's Who" also implies that Golden Age movie star Lana Barnes will reunite with her first husband but we don't see it.
  • Dream Sequence
  • Drugs Are Bad: See Very Special Episode
  • 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 later in the series made it moot.
    • At the start of the series:
      • The Hero: Jamal. First person to see Ghostwriter, and the leader of the team.
      • The Lancer: Lenni. The second person to see Ghostwriter.
      • The Big Guy: Alex. Puts himself at risk the most, as shown in "Ghost Story" and "Over a Barrel".
      • The Smart Guy: Tina. All the team members are smart, but she thinks outside the box the most.
      • The Heart: Gabby. Shows the most in "Over a Barrel" when she becomes sick.
      • Sixth Ranger: Rob. Joins the group after being an initial suspect in a story arc.
  • Five-Token Band: Justified. The story takes place in Brooklyn, New York, where the population is diverse.
  • Foreshadowing: Every episode.
  • Forgotten Phlebotinum: Ghostwriter moves and rearranges existing letters to communicate. The team frequently has to guess at the gaps in his messages. And then in Who Is Max Mouse?, he possesses a computer, and in addition to surfing the 'Net, he gains the ability to write complete sentences at will. Guess how many more times this comes up in the series.
  • Functional Magic: Ghostwriter's abilities are precisely defined.
  • Gangbangers: The Thunderheads who show up in "Building Bridges"; they are a vicious Latino street gang terrorizing the neighborhood of the Ghostwriter team. At one point, they are suspects behind the vandalism happening at school but turns out to be someone else.
  • 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)
    • The Ghostwriter team and Catherine Canellan Flynn, who the team was helping in 1928 and met in 1993.
  • Jerkass: Calvin Ferguson.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Alex.
  • Just a Kid
  • Kid Detective
  • Knows a Guy Who Knows a Guy: In the book "Disappearing Act", this pops up twice in discussions about how people are distantly connected to the Russian throne. Lampshaded both times.
    • Example A
    Vladimir: "How do you know?"..."No one besides our family knows that Alexis is the descendant of the third cousin once removed of the second cousin of Nicolas II."
    Gaby: (to herself) The what of the who of the which?
    • Example B
    Alexis: "Leo Kropotkin-phooey!"..."He is only the descendant of the fourth cousin twice removed of the czar's great-aunt. Big deal!"
    Gaby: (to Tina) "I'm not getting any of this stuff."
    Tina: (with a giggle) "It's all relative."
  • 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.
  • Leitmotif: Tina has a four-note string piece that plays in scenes about her, including her appearance in the show's opening.
  • Lovable Jock: Alex.
  • Master of Disguise
  • Meaningful Name: The receptionist at the hotel in the "Who's Who" story arc refuses to help Lenni and Rob at first, and responds to them with derision and a mocking tone. His name? "Mr. Smarmworth".
  • 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, becoming 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 help sclear his name by communicating with him, and he later joins the team.
  • Morality Pet: Jerkass Calvin really loves his pet parrot Attila and is devastated when it dies. In fact, losing Attila seems to have been the catalyst for Calvin's Character Development.
  • Motive Rant: Played straight and spoofed.
  • Multigenerational Household: Jamal's grandmother lives with him and his parents.
  • 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 story?
  • Nosy Neighbor: Calvin.
  • Not Himself: Invoked by Calvin pretending to be Ghostwriter in "Get the Message".
  • Not So Different: When the team's nemesis Calvin is trying to figure out their secret, he uses methods similar to theirs. He even has his own casebook. This suggests that he could be a valuable member of the team if he was nicer and on their side.
  • 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.
  • Off-the-Shelf FX: The New Ghostwriter Mysteries simply used PowerPoint for when Ghostwriter communicated via computer.
  • One-Hit Wonder: invoked. Leif, the electrician for Lenni's 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.
  • 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.
  • 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: There are several:
    • 1997's The New Ghostwriter Mysteries, which aired on CBS, replaced the entire cast, and made a number of other changes to the series including the girl from Harriet the Spy being added to the cast.
    • The 2006's radio show.
    • Apple TV+'s Ghostwriter (2019).
  • The Rival: Calvin, especially to Alex.
  • Sassy Black Woman: Jamal's grandma. Jamal's older sister also applies but she doesn't appear much due to being off attending college at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: 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.

"Ghostwriter. What a trip!"
Alejandro "Alex" Fernandez, Ghost Story

How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: