New animated show Harriet the Spy takes one for the tweens [Apple TV+ review]

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Harriet the Spy review: The new kids show serves up some important life lessons.
This one's for the tweens!
Photo: Apple TV+

The Jim Henson Company and Apple TV+ teamed up to resurrect Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh’s teen sleuth who’s out to help her friends and neighbors.

Can new animated series Harriet the Spy, which premieres today, secure itself the fanbase other Apple TV+ kids shows have yet to accrue? And is there any way this show could be as big as the books that spawned the series?

Harriet the Spy season one review

Harriet Welch (voiced by Beanie Feldstein) is a little girl who simply can’t mind her own business. Between life with her nanny Ole Golly (Jane Lynch), her friends Sport and Janie, her bored parents and her archnemesis (Lacey Chabert), Harriet observes everything in her New York neighborhood.

She sees when people are having trouble, not living up to their potential, or hiding their emotional lives. And she writes everything down in her notebook. Harriet calls herself a spy, because she’s always seeing things other people don’t see. And that makes her uniquely suited to intervening when people need help and don’t know how to ask for it. (Although sometimes Harriet herself falls into that trap.)

Spies should not get caught

Will McRobb appears to be the head writer and creative force behind this show. McRobb’s is a name every ’90s kid knows. He c0-created The Adventures of Pete & Pete after a stint working on Rocko’s Modern Life and The Ren & Stimpy Show. Then he helped create KaBlam!, which led him to a brief career as a screenwriter (Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, The Tale of Despereaux, Snow Day). And then he went back to cult TV, which is where he find him now.

Harriet the Spy possesses some of the madcap energy of McRobb’s work on Nickelodeon, but also owes a little debt to the gentler fare that ran on The Disney Channel or PBS around the same time. It’s a well-rounded show, tonally coherent and concise. At times, it feels like a more hyperactive take on the likes of Hey Arnold! (also set in Manhattan).

Obviously, McRobb isn’t the only creative at work here, though his touch is detectable. Sidney Clifton (producer on the animated Black Panther show from 2010), Halle Stanford (The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance) and Nancy Steingard (Pound Puppies) produce, among many others.

Fun from top to bottom

The resulting collaboration is bountifully entertaining, splendidly drawn and nicely acted. Feldstein leads a very game cast of voice actors in creating a buoyant sort of entertainment. (I don’t know how I feel about Feldstein getting this gig because there’s currently a pretty public battle about famous people being given prime voice gigs over professional voice actors, but I will say she at least meets the assignment head on.)

If the new Apple TV+ kids show has a drawback, it’s that its easygoing nature lacks the immediacy of some modern cartoons.  (It also lacks the lived-in pastoral character of the 1996 movie version of Harriet the Spy, a relatively unheralded work today.)

Targeting the tweens

McRobb and Co. are clearly trying to hit a tween demographic by making Harriet and her friends aware of the concerns of popularity and the impending responsibilities of adulthood without taking them too seriously. I like that the show isn’t doggedly realistic. And I appreciate the effort put into making it kind of a junior riot grrrl-type affair. The theme song is by Courtney Barnett, after all, likely selected by composer Anna Waronker of ’90s alternative band That Dog.

Feldstein herself has been riding this same wave in her other gigs, as when she played music journalist Johanna Morrigan in How to Build a Girl, or less directly when she played Monica Lewinsky on American Crime Story. She’s plainly challenging the accepted understanding of female characters and using the ’90s as a kind of lens through which to view limiting definitions of femininity and womanhood. (Look at her turn in the ’90s-set Ladybird for further proof).

Harriet the Spy will probably go down in history as one of the softer efforts toward achieving this goal, but it’s a worthy one. And it’s one of the more fun and cohesive. Sometimes challenging the status quo can just mean outmaneuvering the popular girl at school one time.

Watch Harriet the Spy on Apple TV+

Harriet the Spy premieres on Apple TV+ on November 19.

Rated: G

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.