There are plenty of reasons to revisit the early-'70s children's TV series The Electric Company: nostalgia, cultural anthropology, its still-useful reading lessons for kids, or just the giggle factor of a young Morgan Freeman hamming it up in goofy hipster gear. But the series' greatest legacy may simply be as a reminder of how creative and clever television can get, even on a tight budget and with a dry educational agenda. On a macro level, The Electric Company is stiffly repetitive, with its cast constantly, emphatically displaying and reading words and letter combinations. But a talented, dedicated writing staff found an astonishing number of ways to play with that concept and keep the show brisk, fresh, and so entertaining that it still holds up today.
The four-disc box set The Best Of The Electric Company only contains 20 of the 780 Electric Company episodes produced during the show's 1971-77 run. But they're well-chosen for the range they cover and the highlights they hit, including live-action Spider-Man segments, Mel Brooks cameos, Chuck Jones Road Runner shorts, songs by satirist Tom Lehrer (including "Silent E," "OU (The Hound Song)," and "SN (Snore, Sniff & Sneeze)," though not "L-Y"), and episodes of "The Adventures Of Letterman," an animated superhero saga voiced by Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel, and Joan Rivers.
The show's first installment introduces a racially diverse, energetic, easygoing cast including Freeman, Bill Cosby, and Rita Moreno, and it launches memorable stock characters like Freeman's print-addicted Easy Reader and Skip Hennant's word detective "Fargo North, Decoder." Produced by the Children's Television Workshop as a literacy-focused older kids' alternative to Sesame Street, Electric Company concentrated on teaching basic punctuation and phonics, which it communicated through Hubley Studios cartoon shorts, Chroma-key video trickery, vaudevillian skits in Carol Burnett Show mode, and catchy, memorable songs. The video effects, cheap sets, and awful '70s clothing have aged poorly, but like Sesame Street, Electric Company still stands out for its idealistic innocence and its sheer inventiveness, as every week, the writers (among them, Joss Whedon's father Tom) found new ways to not only get letter sounds onscreen, but to make them a natural part of stories leading toward giggle-worthy punchlines. It's rare for a beloved childhood show to live up to its memories, but The Electric Company does better. In reruns through the mid-'80s, it made reading fun for kids. These days, it makes thinking about creative teaching fun for adults.
Key features: Outtakes, chats with Rita Moreno and some of the show's creators, "Silent E" karaoke.