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Series / Ghostwriter

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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.

Although very popular, the show was expensive to produce (it shot on-location in NYC), and with increasing public funding cuts as The '90s wore on, PBS could no longer afford to foot the bill, even with the help of Viewers Like You. It didn't help that the BBC pulled out of co-producing the show by the third season.

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:

  • Alliterative Name: Jamal Jenkins.
  • Amateur Sleuth: All the kids are middle-schoolers with no formal training whatsoever, who go around solving crimes of all kinds thanks to their ghost pal.
  • Amicable Exes: Lana Barnes and her second husband Carlo Perretti, the father of her daughter Janine, stayed friends after they divorced.
  • 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 with two people instead of one.
  • Arc Number: The number 4 shows up a lot. There are 4 episodes per story arc, 4 founding Ghostwriter Team members, 4 Sixth Rangers, the story arc "Four Days of the Cockatoo", 4 THABTOs, 4 Thunder Heads, 4 husbands of Lana Barnes, 4 parts of the Hoodman contest, etc.
  • Big Applesauce: The show takes place in Brooklyn.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Alex to Gaby. Although they have a bit of a Sibling Rivalry, he's protective of her. When she is accidentally exposed to toxic waste, he can't stop worrying about her health. And when she's framed for the theft of a model spaceship, he's the only one who believes that she didn't do it, even when the rest of the team are willing to consider her a suspect when all clues point to her.
  • 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.
  • Bilingual Bonus: A fair amount of Spanish was spoken in the programme.
  • 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.
  • But Not Too Foreign: Hector had much more Spanish influence in his speech than the other Hispanic characters did. Further, Tina's mother had more of a foreign accent than her father.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: In “Who’s Who”, where Tina reads fan mail and answers phone calls for Lana Barnes, she begins to get phone calls, only for the caller hang up on her! Since Lana begins getting threatening post cards at about the same time, Tina thinks that the phone calls are also coming from the same person. In reality, Alex is trying to ask Tina to go out with him, only for this trope to take effect. Fortunately, he does find a way to ask Tina out at the end, when she realizes Alex had been the caller.
  • 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.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: 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.
  • 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.
  • Double-Sided Book: Each side of some books tells the story from a different character's viewpoint.
  • Dramatic Sit-Down: A Running Gag is that whenever the titular ghost appears in front of someone new (usually scaring the crap out of them), the current members of the gang will guide the newbie to the nearest convenient chair and say "Sit down!"
  • 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.
  • The Empath: Ghostwriter can sense the feelings of the team and says that that's how he knows where they are. In fact, in "Get the Message", when the team is in a nasty fight, their anger seriously hurts him.
  • Enemy Mine: In "Four Days of the Cockatoo", the Ghostwriter Team is forced to turn to their rival Calvin Ferguson for help because he's an ornithology expert.
  • Engineered Public Confession: How THABTO is defeated, with Jamal even using the tape recorder at the arcade tournament as further proof.
  • Feet of Clay: Almost every episode.
  • Feud Episode: The episode "Get the Message" featured one of these—when Mr. Fernandez, Alex and Gaby's father, inadvertently spirals out of control while driving and crashes into Lenni's father's music equipment, the families begin to feud; things only get worse when Tina, who would in most cases be a neutral party, is interviewed about the accident and says that she felt frightened by Mr. Fernandez's crazy driving. To compound the issue, resident Jerkass Calvin deliberately plays up the team's anger at each other to try to determine the secret they've been hiding. The trouble is that Ghostwriter apparently lives on The Power of Friendship, and the team's feud is slowly killing him. It takes Jamal and Rob (the latter offering a Big "SHUT UP!") to reconcile the team, save Ghostwriter, and solve a local art heist.
  • Fictional Document: A fictional series of British children's books called Sophie Madison.
  • Fictional Video Game: The Double Defenders video game, about a group of two-headed superheroes.
  • 555: Many phone numbers which prove key to solving cases.
  • 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.
  • The Friends Who Never Hang: Some members of the Ghostwriter Team get little to no one-on-one time. For example, Tina and Rob rarely interact without any of the others around. This is ironic, since they probably have the most in common with each other: both are shy, introverted, creative people who start as outsiders before joining the team; Tina even once admitted that she can relate to Rob.
  • Friend to All Children: Ghostwriter. When he first appears, he is worried about "the children". It's not clear what children he means, but he cares about children in general.
  • Functional Magic: Ghostwriter's abilities are precisely defined.
  • Fun with Acronyms: The first arc has the Double-Defender group call themselves THABTO which is short for Two Heads Are Better Than One.
  • 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.
  • Gender-Equal Ensemble: Unless you count Ghostwriter himself (male), there are four founding members of the Ghostwriter Team, two girls and two boys. For the majority of the series, it's three girls and three boys. Casey's addition late in the series upsets the balance, but she's not always with the team.
  • Ghost Amnesia: Ghostwriter can hardly remember anything from when he was alive, not even his own name. It's hinted that he remembers more than he lets on, but it's never been enough to reveal his identity.
  • Hollywood Hacking: Who is Max Mouse? To be fair, it's a little more plausible than other examples.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Mrs. O'Boyle, the Canellans' housekeeper in 1928. She's convinced that Frank must be guilty of a series of local burglaries and that "Millard Fillmore Smith" is just a salesman trying to earn a living. Apparently, the idea that people aren't always what they seem never occurred to her.
  • 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.
  • Initiation Ceremony: Whenever someone new joins the Ghostwriter team, a black pen on a string is placed around their neck to make their joining official. The new member is then often encouraged to use it to ask Ghostwriter a question. The official Ghostwriter pen is like a team badge and lets them talk to Ghostwriter wherever they are.
  • 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.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Fannie Mae Banner. She hosts a show called Caught Ya where she helps regular people with their problems by finding and exposing anyone who's been caught doing something wrong, like corrupt landlords, stores overcharging customers, or people burying toxic waste.
  • 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 is 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 helps clear 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.
  • Motor Mouth: Gaby is a very talkative girl. After she's back from being sick and acts like her usual fast-talking self, everyone says, "She's fine."
  • 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.
  • My Nayme Is: Downplayed. Lenni often introduces herself, particularly if someone needs to write her name down, as, "Lenni, with an 'I'", to which the other person usually responds with "okay Lenni with an 'I'".
  • 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".
  • 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
  • Pet the Dog: Calvin genuinely loves his pet parrot Attila and is really sad when Attila dies. Calvin loves birds in general enough to once help the team crack the mystery of a palm cockatoo.
  • 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.
  • The Power of Friendship: The team solves cases by working together. Since Ghostwriter is The Empath, their friendship is also what keeps him from fading out of existence.
  • Promotion to Opening Titles: For Hector, Rob, and Casey.
  • 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.
  • Secret Handshake: Jamal, Lenni and Alex make up a team handshake in Part 3 of "Ghost Story".
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Rob's homeless friend Double T is strongly hinted to have PTSD from his time in the Vietnam War.
  • Ship Tease: There were several throughout the series.
    • Alex/Tina: The only one that actually did occur.
    • Lenni/Jamal: They were the first two to discover Ghost Writer and worked together early and later on.
    • Lenni/Rob: Lenni was the first one Rob truly warmed up to, and the two frequently worked together while Rob was on the team. Lenni seemed to be the one most upset about Rob having to move to Australia.
  • Shout-Out:
    Gooey Gus: "It's not easy being purple!"...and they always confuse me with that doofy dinosaur!"
    • The X-Men franchise, whose popularity was peaking around the time the show was airing, got a few scattered nods, seemingly thanks to a similar arrangement that had Spider-Man appearing on The Electric Company (1971). The arcade game shows up in at least the first story arc, and a rally call shows up on the cover of an issue of the comic book once.
  • Show Within a Show: Gaby is a huge fan of the Galaxy Girl TV series. There's also Caught Ya, a news show hosted by a reporter named Fannie Mae Banner.
  • Soapbox Sadie: Lenni is a downplayed version of this. She never tries to force anyone to think her way, thus avoiding the usual Broken Aesop that comes with the trope, but she often speaks out about her beliefs, especially through her music.
  • Stable Time Loop: the team solves their case in "Just In Time" by finding a newspaper article about the crime they're trying to solve in 1993 and relaying the key information to Catherine and Frank in 1928 so they can make sure the events described in the article happen. It reaches them the day before, and they convince Catherine's father to help them capture the crook.
  • Stepford Smiler: Safira, a Mozambican girl who is actually the daughter of the Mozambican ambassador and his wife and whom Tina later befriends, is this as despite her apparent wealth and privilege, she is actually unhappy because she misses her older brother, Malenga, who walked out on the family after a very bitter and nasty feud with their father. Even sadder, however, is that her father has forbidden both herself and her mother from mentioning Malenga's name ever again.
  • Story Arc: Unusual for a serial kid's show. Every episode would begin with a recap.
  • The Team:
    • Big Good: Ghostwriter: He's the whole reason the team exists.
    • The Hero / The Leader: Jamal. First person to see Ghostwriter and the de facto leader of the Ghostwriter Team. Often the Only Sane Man who makes decisions for the group.
    • The Lancer: Lenni. The second person to see Ghostwriter and Jamal's implied Number Two. She's headstrong and outspoken, while he's more grounded and practical.
    • The Big Guy: Alex. A jock who puts himself at risk the most, as shown in "Ghost Story" and "Over a Barrel". After his growth spurt, he towers over the others.
    • The Heart: Gaby. She seems to be the emotional center of the group, especially when she saves Ghostwriter with The Power of Love.
    • The Smart Guy: All the team members are smart, but mainly Jamal (the best with science and computers), Alex (the expert on all things related to detective work), and Tina (she thinks outside the box the most).
    • Sixth Ranger: Tina, Rob, Hector, and Casey. They all join the team later, in episodes 8, 17, 50, and 58 respectively.
    • Tagalong Kid: Casey, the youngest team member. Gaby was this at first but grows out of it.
    • Guest-Star Party Member: Craig in "Who Burned Mr. Brinker's Store?", Frank, Catherine, and Lucy in "Just in Time", Becky and Sam in "A Crime of Two Cities". They're all technically members because they can see Ghostwriter and have helped solve cases, but they all only appear for one mystery arc.
  • Team Hand-Stack: The Ghostwriter team sometimes do one in the form of the Ghostwriter cheer, which is finished with them all saying "Ghooooost...WRITER!".
  • Time Travel
  • Token White: Lenni. Given that the show takes place in ethnically diverse New York, the other main characters are of Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Vietnamese and African-American descent.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Calvin Ferguson to Jeffrey Baxter. More than once, Calvin ropes Jeffrey into his schemes to cause trouble for the Ghostwriter Team. However, "What's Up With Alex?" implies that Calvin is also the Cloudcuckoolander's Minder. When we finally see Jeffrey without Calvin around to tell him what to do, he causes problems for Jamal in other ways.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting
  • Unbelievable Source Plot: The basic premise of the show. The main cast is a bunch of amateur teen 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 going to 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.
  • The Watson: Tina serves this role in what was originally the pilot episode where the team explains to her what they know about Ghostwriter, what he is and what his powers are. Footage from this scene was adapted into the series intro so that anyone tuning in for the first time would know it through Tina.
  • When All You Have Is a Hammer…: Reading and writing is the characters' solution to every problem. Justified when Ghostwriter is involved because he can't hear, speak, or see anything besides writing, but since the show was designed to encourage literacy in kids, the creators seemed to go out of their way to create situations that reading and writing could solve.
  • Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Rob's father initially thinks he should be more athletic.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Ghostwriter is terrified of dogs due to one of the few memories he has left. The thought that they might be nearby almost stops him from helping save Jamal. Since Ghostwriter can't even see or hear dogs, and they can't actually do anything to him, his fear must run really deep.
  • You Meddling Kids

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


Video Example(s):



By the way, this is an edutainment show about reading and writing.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

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