Thursday, November 18, 2021

Harriet the Spy, Animated on Apple TV+

Harriet M. Welsch was the original meddling kid, but there is only so much gritty danger an eleven-year-old could get into on the Upper Eastside in 1964. She still manages to generate plenty of trouble, while testing the patience of her friends. Louise Fitzhugh’s beloved children’s book character finally gets animated in an appealingly nostalgic style for the five-episode Harriet the Spy, from Jim Henson Productions and the Titmouse animation house, which premieres tomorrow on Apple TV+.

Welsch is probably too clever for her own good. She knows she is destined to be a great writer, so she hones her observational skills by “spying” on her unsuspecting neighbors and classmates. Her parents are more engaged and present than they were in Fitzhugh’s original novel, but her nanny, “Ole Golly,” is still the only person who can really talk to her. Yet, she largely encourages Welsch’s stealthy pursuits.

As in Fitzhugh’s books, Welsch’s long-suffering best friends are aspiring scientist Janie Gibbs and the Fraser Crane-ish “Sport” Rocque. Her nemesis is still Marion Hawthorne, but the Silk Stocking District scion has her occasional humanizing moments this time around. Regardless, Welsch is often a sub-standard friend and an annoying neighbor, but she will learn plenty of lessons during the course of the first season.

The first episode, “I am a Terrible Spy,” largely establishes the shows premise and characters. “Cross My Heart and Hope Not to Dance” (E3) probably most closely relates to elements of the original book. Arguably, the best episodes are “The Coat Vote” (E2), in which Welsch learns to stand up to Hawthorne’s bossiness and “The Origin of M” (E5), wherein we learn what her middle initial stands for—and Welsch learns what it means to her. However, Welsch’s enthusiasm for a Soviet woman cosmonaut in “Hermit the Spy” is drastically at odds with 1964 Cold War attitudes, even in Manhattan (and especially the UES, which was Republican back then).

In fact, one of the best things about the animated series is its return to the original setting. The look of the animation is likably retro, in a sophisticated and colorful way, not unlike vintage
New Yorker covers. It really evokes the vibe of the era and a wistful sense of the community’s spirit. This really seems like it was a good place to raise a family.

On the other hand, Welsch can be her own worst enemy, which keeps her faithful to the source novel. In the 1960s and 1970s, Harriet M. Welsch was considered a proto-feminist character for her tomboyish rejection of social conventions. Some even read gay and lesbian subtext into her and her friends (particularly Rocque). Yet, in the current cultural climate, nauseatingly predictable critics are sure to get hung-up on Welsch’s WASPy background. Mary, Mother of Mercy and all the Saints in Heaven protect us, but someone is still bound to call her a budding “Karen.”

Of course, for healthy viewers, it is pleasant to watch the young protag grow and mature. The animation also has a bit of √©lan, which is a nice bonus. Most likely, the show skews a little too young for adult animation connoisseurs, unless they grew up with Fitzhugh’s books. Recommended as family or nostalgic viewing, Harriet the Spy starts streaming tomorrow (11/19) on Apple TV+.