This PBS series, created by the Children's Television Workshop, was the CTW's 1980s attempt to engage young viewers in science, the same way The Electric Company (1971) previously tried to engage young viewers in reading and how Square One TV would later attempt to engage young viewers in mathematics. The original series lasted from January, 1980 to November, 1988. Edited versions of older episodes were broadcast to 1992.
To that end, 3-2-1 Contact took the equivalent format of Sesame Street and adjusted it for a preteen audience with comedy sketches, cartoons as well as demonstrations of scientific principles not only on the set, but also in filmed segments in which the hosts went around America to explore interesting things about science.
However, the most popular section was "The Bloodhound Gang'', about a private detective agency staffed primarily by kids due to the seemingly perpetual absence of their boss, Mr. Bloodhound. In a world where nearly every adult other than the arresting police officers appears to be a gullible idiot, the young sleuths find themselves busting frauds and other nonviolent crimes all around them with their knowledge of science - and, in one episode, communication. (In one episode, the Gang visits a diner and the waitress appears able to read minds... until The Reveal, which shows that it was all due to non-verbal hand signals used commonly by diner staff.)
The show also had a tie-in magazine which ran about ten years longer than the original series, although it became rechristened as Contact Kids near the end of its publication run.
In 1992, a new spin-off series debuted as 3-2-1 Classroom Contact.
Tropes featured include:
- Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: The show explains why giant insects a la Them! are simply not possible.
- Animate Inanimate Object: Lampshaded in an animated sequence by a chart questioning the smugness of a "smart" scientist explaining human speech.Chart: Dumb.Scientist: What?Chart: Dumb. Charts can't talk. (chart comically rolls up)
- Balloon-Bursting Bird: The tie-in magazine would publish computer games written in BASIC to run on your computer during The '80s. One of the games, called "Pop!", carried an illustration of a computer blowing bubble gum and spotting a bird ready to pop the bubble.
- Cosmetic Horror: From Marc's point of view, this is Played for Laughs and for edutainment purposes when he has makeup applied to show how he would look as an elderly man.
- Mickey Mousing: The 83-86 version of the intro does this.
- Random Transportation: A regular feature in the magazine based on the show was "The Time Team" stories, in which modern teenagers Sean and Jenny have a hand-held "tachyon machine" that transports them to various locations in time. However, they can't predict where the machine will take them, and it has to recharge before they can reactivate it to go back home.
- Re-Cut: A condensed version of the series, titled 3-2-1 Classroom Contact, was produced in 1992, after the original series was dropped from syndication.
- Retool: The first version was of three college-age kids and a fancy college study house, then there was a second version with younger kids in a plain basement playroom. The show was retooled a second time in 1986 (season 5), being hosted by David Quinn and taking place mainly on-location.
- "Sesame Street" Cred: The first version had short spots of various stars and media characters explaining various scientific facts.
- And yes, Big Bird did appear once.
- Title Theme Tune: 3! 2! 1! Contact is the secret, is the moment...
The Bloodhound Gang sub-show has its own tropes:
- Adults Are Useless: Outside of the arresting police officers, most of the honest adults are gullible idiots.
- Catchphrase: Whenever the gang gets a call at the office, they answer the phone with "Whenever there's trouble, we're there on the double. Mr. Bloodhound isn't here."
- Gaslighting: "The Case of the Cackling Ghost" was discovered to be primarily this.
- The Ghost: Mr. Bloodhound, the team's employer, is never seen. Even in the episode where he's kidnapped.
- Iconic Outfit: Vikki's red windbreaker.
- Invisible Writing: In "The Case of the Secret Message," the Gang find a stolen purse that contains a seemingly blank piece of paper. The Gang suspects invisible ink, so they set out to discover how to reveal the message. They eventually discover that the invisible ink was concentrated salt water, which is revealed when a soft graphite pencil is rubbed over the writing.
- Kid Detective: The staff of the Bloodhound Detective Agency is primarily this.
- "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: The Bloodhound Gang exposed a few of these.
- Show Within a Show: "The Bloodhound Gang."
- Undercover Cop Reveal: In "The Case of Princess Tomorrow," one of a group of gamblers turned out to be a bunco squad cop who was investigating the titular character, who was promoted as a psychic.
- You Meddling Kids: The captured villains often ask, "Who are these meddling kids?"