“The Puzzle Place” is in the Sesame Street neighborhood. But in this new weekday PBS series for children, the lessons are less ABC and more PC politically correct.
Cultural diversity, tolerance and self-respect are what “The Puzzle Place” aims to teach children, says executive producer Cecily Truett. And she makes no apologies for the curriculum.
“We don’t teach our children about their humanity,” Truett says. “This show does that. That’s its mission in life: to help children be good human beings in the 21st century in America, let alone the world.”
It’s the kind of education many youngsters are missing, she contends.
“Where are children getting messages to share their feelings, stand up for yourself? What do they say to somebody who excludes them because they’re a different color?
“Children have those conflicts every day. Where are children getting enough of those lessons?”
At the same time, she says, the show is “sweet and funny and charming. Children will love the color, the music, the animation and the real kids who talk about their own experiences.”
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting believed enough in “The Puzzle Place” to give it the largest single program grant ever for a young children’s series, $4.5 million.
Another $3.5 million was contributed by the Los Angeles-based utility, SCE Corp.
The series airs weekdays at 10 a.m. on Spokane’s KSPS-Channel 7 and at 9:30 a.m. on both KCDT-Channel 26 out of Coeur d’Alene and KUID-Channel 12 from Moscow. It is a coproduction of public television station KCET in Los Angeles and Truett’s Lancit Media Productions of New York.
Puppets are the heart of “The Puzzle Place,” as with “Sesame Street,” but viewers won’t find a Cookie Monster clone.
The six puppet “stars” of the new PBS series are childlike and ethnically identifiable: Kiki Flores, a first-generation Mexican-American who hails from San Antonio, Texas; Leon MacNeal, a young black who lives in New York; Skye Nakaiye, an Apache from an Arizona reservation; Ben Olafsen, a farmboy from Renner, S.D.; Jody Silver, a Jewish girl from Cincinnati and third-generation Chinese-American Julie Woo.
They represent the different pieces that make up society’s big puzzle, hence the series’ name.
There are personalities behind the rainbow of faces, Truett insists.
“The hallmark of the show is that the characters are individuals first, as well as members of groups of which they are very proud. The purpose of the show is to get to know people and appreciate them for what they are.”
Although ethnicity is important, other differences are explored as well, Truett says.
“People who live in a different region, who talk a different way. People who have a different level of physical ability,” the producer says. “Human being lessons is what it is.”
“The Puzzle Place” features real children in film segments such as “kid-on-the-street” interviews, but the emphasis is the puppets. Truett explains:
“Puppets have a three-dimensional quality that makes them lifelike and an animated quality that makes them magical. There’s a whimsy and humor that allows us to apply life lessons that are immediate and real without being graphic.”
Children are immediately taken with the puppets, says Truett and puppeteer Noel MacNeal, who brings Leon to life.
“One little girl who visited the set referred to us as the puppet’s parents,” MacNeal says.
Also on hand are Nuzzle and Sizzle, a puppet dog and cat who comment on the action away from the kids but are mum around them. Keeping law and disorder are the Piece Police, akin to filmdom’s classic Keystone Kops.
Experts in education and other fields serve as advisers, helping develop and review scripts. They include Sherryl Browne Graves of Hunter College in New York and University of California Professor Aimee Dorr.
Truett, along with co-producers Larry Lancit and Stephen Kulczycki, have been working for three years on the series, which so far numbers 40 episodes. Another 25 are in production.
“We’re hoping that will be the beginning of a long-term presence on public television,” Truett says.
The series comes at a crucial time for public television, which is facing vocal criticism of its federal funding. New House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has said he wants to “zero out” the funding.
Public broadcasting has come under siege before but has maintained bipartisan support, Truett says.
She urged legislators to recognize that public TV’s viewers mirror America and are not an elitist few - especially not among the children who watch shows such as “The Puzzle Place,” she says.
Her series could help bolster public TV’s cause, Truett says.
“This show will articulate the vision of public television and its importance to children.” she says. “Its heart and soul is a broadening of the public television vision of quality for kids.
“I think the American public will stand up for public television, particularly for children’s programming.”