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Series / The Puzzle Place

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The Puzzle Place is a Puppet Show for children that aired on PBS Kids, and was produced by Lancit Media (the same company behind Reading Rainbow) and KCET Los Angeles. It ran for 75 episodes over 3 seasons that originally aired from January 16, 1995 to December 4, 1998 (the pilot episode aired on KCET and KLCS, on September 15, 1994), with reruns airing until March 31, 2000. Created in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, it features a group of children from differing racial and ethnic backgrounds who hang out together at the titular Puzzle Place, where they learn to work out their problems and disagreements in a peaceful, constructive manner.

The Boys

  • Ben Olafson: European-American (German and Norwegian) from a farm in Flyover Country.
  • Leon MacNeal: African-American from New York City.
  • Skye Nakaiye: Apache from The Rez in Arizona.
  • Kyle O'Connor: Irish-American (and a wheelchair user). A Sixth Ranger who appeared late in the series' life.

The Girls

  • Julie Woo: Chinese-American who grew up in San Francisco.
  • Jody Silver: Lithuanian Jewish from Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Kiki Flores: Mexican-American from San Antonio, Texas.

Also in the cast: a cat and dog named Sizzle and Nuzzle, who were usually the focus of the B-Plot and spent most of their time in the basement. There's also the multicolored gibberish-speaking Piece Police who run the place.

"We're tropin' to the Puzzle Place!":

  • Aesop Amnesia:
    • In the episode "Butterfingers," all the kids tease Ben with the titular mocking nickname after he drops his baton in a relay race, but realize how hurtful they were being and apologize by the end. In the episode "Just Kidding," all the kids tease Skye with the nickname "Mr. Forgetful" after he forgets to bring the bat for a baseball game, and have to learn the same lesson over again. In all fairness, the latter episode explicitly references "Butterfingers," complete with a flashback.
    • Three different episodes had anti-sexism, "girls can enjoy and succeed at the same things boys can" lessons: "Train Driving Kids," "Yellow Belt" and "Spooky!"
  • Affectionate Nickname: Kiki always calls Ben "Benny." Also, Julie can't go to sleep unless someone tells her "Good night, Sugarplum" the way her mother does - at slumber parties, her friends have to say it.
  • Anchovies Are Abhorrent: The episode "Leon's Pizza" reveals that anchovies are Jody's favorite pizza topping... but no one else agrees.
  • And Knowing Is Half the Battle: Season 3 adds a segment at the end of each episode where the characters address the viewers and sum up the aesop.
  • Are You Pondering What I'm Pondering?: After Julie tells the others the story of Yeh-Shen:
    Leon: A wicked stepmother. The heroine loses a shoe. The king finds it and then tries it on all the women in the kingdom. Who does this remind me of?
    Skye: The Little Mermaid?
  • Art Evolution: The puppets all get obvious facelifts in Season 3, with each character looking a little different than in Seasons 1 and 2. Most obviously, Skye, Kiki and Leon's skin tones and Kiki's hair are all darkened.
  • Big Storm Episode: In "All-Weather Friends," a thunderstorm passes over the Puzzle Place and the kids help Leon overcome his Fear of Thunder.
  • Broken Aesop: In one episode they want to act out a story, and they find a fairy tale in a book where the accompanying illustration shows the main characters with light skin and blonde hair. Kiki, Leon, Skye, and Julie collectively decided that since only Ben & Jody look like that, those two are the only options to play the main characters. This makes them sad until they all decide to go find tales and myths from cultures that match their ethnicity. But it never mentioned that the parts didn't have to go to Ben & Jody and that it would be fine for any of the kids to play the Prince and Princess in a fairy tale. The Aesop came across looking more like a repudiation of the Black Vikings trope - telling kids that they should only ever act as someone of their own race on stage, and that people of color can't play leads in fairy tales of European origin.
  • Broken Treasure: In the episode "I Love Kiki," Kiki accidentally breaks Julie's new toy horse and angsts about how to tell her. But in the end, the toy turns out not to be broken after all – it's a puzzle toy, made to come apart and be put back together.
  • Captain Ersatz: The Mighty Magic Pigeon Pirates.
  • Cat Up a Tree: Cat and a dog rather; Nuzzle and Sizzle once get stuck up a literal tree, and the second time on a gear in the puzzle place. The first time, the kids rescue them using a ladder; the second time they use a wrench to move the gear closer to the ground.
  • Cold Turkeys Are Everywhere: When Jody was avoiding all bread during the Passover, everyone wanted her to try the special Apache fry bread Skye's grandfather had made.
  • Crossover: In "The Mystery of the Fabulous Hat," Leon contacts "The Chief" (Lynn Thigpen) from Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?.
  • Cute, but Cacophonic: Julie's obnoxious, off-key singing is a running gag throughout the series. She sings perfectly nicely in the show's big musical numbers, though; this trope only appears when she's trying to show off her voice. One hilarious moment is when she starts to serenade Skye's plant, with both Skye and the plant enjoying it until she hits the high notes.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Leon.
  • Death Is a Sad Thing: In the episode "The Ballad of Davy Cricket," Jody's pet cricket dies, and the others help her deal with the loss by sharing memories of their own lost pets, as well as the mourning and remembrance customs from their various cultures.
  • Disappeared Dad/Missing Mom: Ben's father died, while Jody's parents are divorced and she lives with her father.
  • Dream Sequence: "Ben's Bad Hair Day" is full of this, as a napping Ben repeatedly dreams that he has hair like one of his friends' instead of his own mangled locks.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: One early episode had Jody sporting straight hair instead of curls with no explanation whatsoever.
  • Female Feline, Male Mutt: Sizzle and Nuzzle.
  • Fear of Thunder: Leon has it.
  • Five-Token Band: Zig-Zagged Trope. Not only were there six human characters (and seven after Kyle joined the cast), the whole point of the series was to show an interracial group of kids getting along as friends.
  • Gag Haircut: The episode "Ben's Bad Hair Day" subjects Ben to this when his brothers' attempt to give him dreadlocks like Leon's goes horribly wrong. He tries to hide it from his friends with a Brown Bag Mask at first, but the bag flies off when he sneezes, revealing the mess.
  • Gender-Equal Ensemble: Three girls (Julie, Kiki and Jody) and three boys (Ben, Leon and Skye). Even if you include Sizzle and Nuzzle and the Piece Police, it still counts. They did add a fourth boy (Kyle) near the end of the series, though.
  • Gender-Concealing Writing: In-universe in "Yellow Belt". The boys don't know Jodi's karate instructor Grand Master Li is a woman, and contact "him" as confirmation that boys are better fighters than girls when they refuse to accept that Jodi beat Ben at karate more than once. They catch her in the middle of a sparring match and presume the male partner is Grand Master Li, only for the man to correct them and introduce her.
  • "Getting Ready for Bed" Plot: In the episode "Rip Van Wrinkle," Julie, Skye, Kiki and Leon have a sleepover, but none of them can sleep because they lack their usual bedtime comforts: Julie needs someone to bring her a glass of water and tell her "Good night, Sugarplum," Kiki needs a nightlight and music playing, Skye needs nature sounds, and Leon needs stuffed animals. But eventually they all help each other get what they need so they can finally fall asleep.
  • Girlish Pigtails: Kiki.
  • Go-to-Sleep Ending: Happens at the end of "Rip Van Wrinkle". The kids even say goodnight to the audience before dozing off.
  • Halloween Episode: "Spooky!" doesn't mention Halloween, but it aired in late October and revolves around spooky things.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: Kiki delivers one when the kids play a Mexican musician she doesn't like at her birthday party. They meant well, and she thanks them for the gesture, but just because she's Mexican doesn't mean she likes everything Mexican.
  • Hidden Depths: The kids all display this:
    • Julie is a talented musician who practices in her spare time. She also does ballet.
    • Jodi is a rising karate student.
    • Leon cooks very well. Everyone is impressed by his homemade pizza. He also can play drums.
  • Instant Thunder: Averted in the thunderstorm episode. The kids learned to count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Several episodes have the kids dealing with being teased or bullied at school, while in several others they tease or pick on each other but realize they were wrong and apologize in the end.
  • Later-Installment Weirdness: Season 3, which was produced after a year-long hiatus and consists of only ten episodes, and where the puppets are obviously different than in the first two seasons (Kiki, Skye and Leon's darker skin tones and Kiki's darker hair especially stand out), Skye, Nuzzle and Jody have different performers (in Jody's case for the second time), and the episodes end with And Knowing Is Half the Battle segments that the first two seasons didn't have.
  • Men Don't Cry: The episode "Big Boys Don't Cry" deconstructs this mindset.
  • Nice Character, Mean Actor: One episode had Julie and Kiki meet their idol Penny Candy, a self-proclaimed "cute" singer. They later find out she's incredibly mean underneath.
  • Only One Who Likes Spam: "Leon Pizza" shows that Jody is the only member of her friend group who likes anchovies.
  • Out Of Control Popcorn: In one episode, Leon brings a package of popcorn, but when he turned it on to pop it, it doesn't pop. Later after they left, Sizzle and Nuzzle come across it and it finally starts to pop....and pop.....and pop; getting much bigger than the pets. Eventually, it explodes and rains popcorn all over the room.
  • Plot Allergy: In the Sizzle and Nuzzle B-plot of "Leon Grows Up," Sizzle can't stop sneezing. Nuzzle assumes she's sick and tries to act like a doctor to cure her, but none of his methods work. But in the end, once he stops affecting the doctor role, he realizes she's allergic to the sweater she's wearing.
  • Poirot Speak: Nicely averted with Kiki, who speaks strongly accented yet fluent English and whose forays into Spanish are complete sentences that always serve a purpose in context. It helps that her puppeteer is from Mexico.
  • The Runaway: One episode has Leon planning to move into the Puzzle Place permanently and run away from home after his brother James breaks a lamp and their parents will be furious. His friends are horrified and try to convince him it's a bad idea, with Kiki relating a story about a girl who worries her parents by doing the same. In the end, he and James talk it out, and James is a Cool Big Bro who ultimately agrees they'll tell their parents together.
  • Samus Is a Girl: In-universe. In "Yellow Belt" the viewers as well as Julie and Kiki know Jodi's karate instructor Grand Master Li is a woman, but Ben, Leon, and Skye do not. So when they refuse to accept that Jodi is better at karate then Ben even after beating him more than once, they video call Grand Master Li, who was in the middle of helmeted-gear sparring match with a male partner, and mistakenly ask the partner if boys are better fighters than girls. The man answers by introducing Grand Master Li as she removes her helmet and her hair falls down.
  • Shameful Shrinking: In an episode, Ben chews out at least two characters while he's trying to work out a puzzle. They visibly shrink as he yells at each one.
  • Second Place Is for Winners: In one episode, Ben enters his pet pig in a livestock show and is very disappointed when he loses, but the other kids are amazed when they learn he singlehandedly raised the pig from birth, and make him a special award just for that.
  • Sick Episode: The subplot of "Practice Makes Perfect" has all the kids except Skye coming down with the chicken pox.
  • Soap Within a Show: One episode in which Kiki accidentally broke Julie's horse figurine spoofed Days of Our Lives as part of an Imagine Spot.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: In the early episode "Train Driving Kids," the boys don't want the girls to join them in playing with an electric train set and suggest they make sandwiches in the kitchen instead. By the end they learn a proper Aesop about gender equality, of course, with Ben even realizing he prefers making sandwiches to playing with the train. Notably averted through the rest of the series, where several episodes that involve cooking feature one of the boys as the chef (e.g. "Leon's Pizza", or "Going By the Book," where Ben bakes a carrot cake), and where Skye's grandfather is the Supreme Chef in his family.
  • Sweet and Sour Grapes: Inverted here: In one episode about decision making, the Piece Police make different varieties of doughnuts for each of the kids, but they have to choose one at a time. Leon wants the cruller, but Jody has a hard time choosing which doughnut she wants, preventing everyone else from doing so. Through the process of elimination, she rejects the least desirable doughnuts until the cruller is left. Leon eventually tries to convince Jody that the cruller is "too plain" and trade with him, but that fails. After some thought, however, he realizes that the one he has probably won't be so bad, though all that is done away with when Sizzle and Nuzzle steal and eat it behind his back. When his friends realize he doesn't have a donut, they each donate a portion so he gets to have some cruller after all.
  • Take a Third Option: Leon is stumped when he makes pizza and everyone wants different toppings. There is only one portion of dough, after all. He decides to instead put one topping on each slice, so everyone gets what they want.
  • Tears of Joy: Discussed in the episode "Big Boys Don't Cry" where the lesson was it's okay for boys to cry. Skye mentions his grandfather crying when he first held his newborn granddaughter not because he was sad but because he was so happy.
  • Theme Tune Roll Call
  • This Is Reality: When Nuzzle and Sizzle gets stuck on the gear, the kids call an actor they know who plays a superhero on TV. He tells them that he doesn't have any powers and only plays a hero on television, but reassures them they can save the dog and cat.
  • Title Theme Tune
  • Trademark Favorite Food:
    • Kiki loves cinnamon, even putting it in her chili as part of a chili cook-off. It won first prize.
    • Jody seems to especially like fish: her favorite pizza topping is anchovies (defying their Stock "Yuck!" status) and her favorite picnic food is pickled herring.
    • Each kid has their own particular favorite pizza topping: Jody likes anchovies, Leon likes green peppers, Julie likes pepperoni, Ben likes onions, Skye likes mushrooms, and Kiki likes extra cheese.
  • The Unintelligible: The Piece Police.
  • Vague Age: As is often the case with puppet characters (see also The Muppets and Sesame Street), and enhanced by the fact that the kids sometimes display Ping Pong Naïveté. A line in one episode about Julie not having finished the third grade yet obviously implies that they're about eight, though.
  • When You Coming Home, Dad?: Jody's father, sometimes.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The Puzzle Place itself is described in one of the pilots as being "in a special place all its own," as somehow the main characters can access it despite living in different parts of the country.
  • Who's on First?: From "The Mystery of the Fabulous Hat":
    Chief: I needed help from another detective, and I called one, just in time.
    Leon: Who was it?
    Chief: I just told you. Justin Time.
    Leon: [Aside Glance]


Video Example(s):


Puzzle Place Opening

The cast of ethnically-diverse puppet kids is introduced by the theme song

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