'Ghostwriter' review: Making literature cool again, one story at a time

(Image: © Apple)


Ghostwriter (Image credit: Apple TV+)

Back in 1992, PBS and the BBC joined forces with the makers of the still-popular Sesame Street to create an innovative series that taught reading and writing. The original "Ghostwriter" featured a diverse cast of Brooklyn, New York pre-teens, and ran for three years until funding dried up.

The new Ghostwriter series once again comes from Sesame Workshop (once called Children's Television Workshop). Now, however, it has the backing of Apple (and its vast cash reserves). It's one of two Sesame Workshop series arriving on the new Apple TV+ web network, the other being the pre-school series, Helpsters.

This time around, Ghostwriter (produced by Sinking Ship Entertainment) is focused on teaching its audience about literature, including classics and new content.

At the launch of Apple TV+, the iPhone maker dropped four 30-minute episodes. Each story arc (at least so far) contains two episodes. New content arrives each Friday. This review looks at the first two episodes, which revolves around one of the most well-known pieces in literature, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland.

Enjoyable start

Ghostwriter follows the affable Ruben Reyna (Isaac Arellanes) who, along with his mother Amy (Niccola Correia-Damude), recently moved to New York to help grandfather Ernesto (Jay Santiago) run his neighborhood bookstore following the death of his grandmother.

Ghostwriter is intended to teach its audience about literature, and in our fast-paced digital world, this is a noble goal.

Unsure of himself in new surroundings, Ruben is the typical new kid in town who longs for his past life and spends time Skyping with an old friend. He complains his new city's too loud and he can't sleep. Despite this, he does his best to bond with his grandfather, even though next-door neighbor and fellow middle school student Chevon Redmond (Amadi Chapata) always seems to be there since she's close to the grandfather too.

At his new middle school, Ruben tries to stay out of the way (and not make new friends) by eating his thermos soup lunch at his locker. Unfortunately, after a run-in with the school's principal about his eating location, Ruben's lunch falls over, causing the school's star basketball player, Curtis Palmer-Moreno (Justin Sanchez) to slip and hurt his arm.

Great group of characters

Ruben, Chevon, and Curtis make up three of the four members of Ghostwriter foursome. The final member, Donna Palmer-Moreno (Hannah Levinson) is Curtis' sister and is quickly seen as the most outspoken of the group. All four characters are played by newcomers, although each could soon become familiar to millions.

This unlikely group comes together after they each see unexplained messages form, first in a puddle of spilled orange juice ("HELLO") and later, on a chalkboard ("COME TOGETHER"). The group merges further when The White Rabbit (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris from How I Met Your Mother fame) arrives with a story to tell.

Despite the rabbit's odd presence at the school (only the four of them can see him), it takes another message and a visit to Ruben's grandfather for the pieces to this first story to finally fall into place. After seeing the adorable rabbit, the foursome next finds the message, "Begin at the Beginning," inside Ruben's locker. The grandfather notes these are the first words in the Lewis Carroll's 1865 classic, Alice in Wonderland. (If you haven't yet figured it out.)

A copy of that book in the bookstore found by the foursome is entirely blank. Hence, the odd messages are apparently from an unknown ghost, who wants the young sleuths to figure out a way to get the White Rabbit (and other Alice characters) back in the book along with the words.

The rest of the first arc of Ghostwriter gives its creators a chance to flesh out the characters and preview how they plan on using technology to tell each week's stories. Both points are off to a great start.

Once we get past the forced competition between Ruben and Chevon for the grandfather's affections, it's clear all four main characters have been designed as smart personalities that are each open to learning about new things and people. Better still, there isn't any annoying know-it-all in the bunch. Each character comes with childhood baggage (Ruben's insecurity about being in a new place, for example) that will surely be explored in the coming episodes. The grown-ups, meanwhile, are presented as a support group that will make appearances whenever the foursome needs assistance on their weekly journeys.

The rest of the first arc of Ghostwriter gives its creators a chance to flesh out the characters and preview how they plan on using technology to tell each week's stories. Both points are off to a great start.

Finally, there's the title character, who naturally plays a central role. However, it remains to be seen whether this character will ever do anything beyond just offering messages (or clues) each week to set the pre-teens on their next journey. When in the first arc, it's suggested the ghost might be the recently deceased grandmother communicating from afar, there's a hint that the ghostwriter's actual identify will eventually get explored. My gut tells me this won't happen anytime soon and could be an end-of-series discovery, which is probably the right way to go.

On the creative front, it was nice to see how the series brought The White Rabbit and later, the Mad Hatter (Josh Cruddas), to life through the use of CGI and exceptional wardrobe and prop designs. Money is being spent here, and it shows in a fun way.

Don't dumb down the audience, Apple

Ghostwriter is intended to teach its audience about literature, and in our fast-paced digital world, this is a noble goal. However, I hope part of this storytelling doesn't somehow involve continuing to dumb down the experience like did in the first two episodes.

The Alice in Wonderland story is over 150 years old and has been the subject to countless films over the years, including the 1951 Disney classic and 2010 live-action film that starred Johnny Deep. And yet, we're led to believe our smart foursome have never heard of Alice or any of its iconic characters, which also includes the Queen of Hearts. This doesn't make sense. Hopefully, future installments won't spin this type of storytelling.

While we certainly shouldn't expect our characters (or the audience) to know every book title presented in the series, some would be more obvious than others. Being an Apple TV+ show, it would be like giving an iPhone to the characters and having them have no idea what the device was or what it did.

My final thoughts on the show

Ghostwriter has been designed for those 8-and-up, although the cleaver dialogue makes it work for the entire family. The series will ultimately get judged on how the characters are embraced and whether each literary arc is worth telling. Alice in Wonderland was perhaps the best way to start a kids' series about literature. It will be interesting to see how it handles less familiar stories going forward.

In the end, if Ghostwriter can convince kids to read more, it's probably going to become a win-win for everyone involved. Enjoy the journey.

Bryan M Wolfe
Staff Writer

Bryan M. Wolfe has written about technology for over a decade on various websites, including TechRadar, AppAdvice, and many more. Before this, he worked in the technology field across different industries, including healthcare and education. He’s currently iMore’s lead on all things Mac and macOS, although he also loves covering iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. Bryan enjoys watching his favorite sports teams, traveling, and driving around his teenage daughter to her latest stage show, audition, or school event in his spare time. He also keeps busy walking his black and white cocker spaniel, Izzy, and trying new coffees and liquid grapes.