PBS Relaunching Retro Fave "Electric Company"

HEY, YOU GUYS! That's not a desperate plea to read this article (mostly). For children of the '70s, it's the catchiest catchphrase from the hippest TV show this side of "High School Musical." "The Electric Company" was the first show to make a grade-school kid feel like a grown-up. It was basically a sketch comedy—a sort of junior "Carol Burnett"—filled with silly skits, pop-culture spoofs and snappy songs. It was so good that most kids never noticed it was really a reading booster shot. The amazing cast included Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno, but the real stars were the diphthongs, blended syllables and a pre-Dave guy named Letterman.

No PC-savvy, Wii-crazy kid would go near such retro stuff today, so why is PBS launching a new version of "Electric Company" next week? Because more than a quarter of public-school fourth graders are still below-level readers for their age. Because after kids graduate from "Dora" and "Sesame Street," there isn't a lot of literacy-oriented programming out there. And because any show that can take a song called "Silent E" and turn it into a lesson so infectious that you'll be singing it in the shower more than lives up to its legacy.

Still, boomers might be a bit disappointed to hear that the new "Company" stays as far away from the original as possible. "Are you going to remake a Beatles album? You can't take any of this stuff lightly," says executive producer Karen Fowler. The new version is less shticky and more narrative. It follows four kids with an unusual superpower: they can "throw" letters and words anywhere, like a paintball. The special effects are awesome, and the soundtrack has a light hip-hop flavor—the guys behind Broadway's Tony-winning "In the Heights" do the music. "We live in such a cacophonous media environment," says Fowler. "Kids aren't just going to turn us on. We have to become a playground, something they can touch and own." But there are a few shoutouts to the past, including the most important shout of all: "Hey, you guys!" is back.