You don’t need to be a master spy to uncover why Harriet the Spy doesn’t work.
It’s baffling to me that Apple TV+ is still making kids-centered programming. In the streamer’s two years of existence, none of their family-friendly shows, whether they be Helpsters or Doug Unplugged, have left any kind of footprint. You’d think they’d realize Disney+ and Netflix have got this market cornered and would instead pursue programming the bigger streamers aren’t making by the truckload. Instead, Apple TV+ keeps on raging, raging against the dying interest in their kid’s programming, with shows like the new animated take on Harriet the Spy.
Based on a series of children’s books by Luise Fitzbugh, Harriet, voiced by Beanie Feldstein, aspires to be a great writer. For now, though, she’s a sixth-grader who figured out the perfect road to achieving her dream: snooping. After all, great writers know a lot of information. What better way to procure all that information than through spying on her various fellow residents of New York City? Encouraged by her nanny Ole Golly (Jane Lynch), Harriet uses her spying skills to get into trouble and learn valuable lessons.
From the first episode, it’s clear something’s a touch off with the writing and direction of Harriet. For one thing, so much of the dialogue, particularly the internal voice of Harriet, sounds like an adult straining to figure out how eccentric kids of 2021 talk.
For another, the show has an odd tendency to leave prolonged gaps between dialogue, throwing off the pacing. Typically, this would be to allow for laughter or audience participation, but Harriet the Spy seems to have no such discernible reason. This particular flaw weighs down the show as a whole like an anchor. It renders Harriet the Spy often too slow for its target demo of younger viewers and way too monotonous for anyone over the age of 8.
Also proving to be a peculiar shortcoming is how rarely Harriet pursues her titular interest. The first episode leans heavily on the spying nature of the program by having the story focus on Harriet’s obsession with an anxiety-stricken woman finally getting out of bed and pursuing her dreams. The second episode, “Coat Vote,” though, barely references Harriet’s “spy” pursuits at all. Instead, it foregrounds a generic storyline about Harriet getting into a school vote over her coat with popular girl bully Marion. It’s a premise that could exist in any animated TV show set in a Middle School.
Everyone in the cast is let down by Spy’s scripts, which never give them anyone interesting jokes or discernible personalities to inhabit.
Even beyond the lack of spy stuff, the story begs how this episode is special to Harriet as a character? What about it makes it a storyline in which only Harriet could star? The episode never figures it out. The plot plays out in a workmanlike manner that fails to reveal anything new about Harriet or her school companions.
While the storytelling faults vary from one episode to another, one consistent shortcoming of the show is Feldstein’s voicework. She’s largely fine, but she never sounds like a 6th-grader. Many adults, such as Kristen Schaal and any number of professional voice actors, can sound like a believable kid. But Feldstein never achieves that verisimilitude, primarily because she utilizes her natural speaking voice. I kept getting reminded of Booksmart and her other live-action roles rather than getting immersed in Harriet’s world.
The problems with Harriet’s voice acting do not fall solely on Feldstein’s shoulders, though. Everyone in the cast is let down by Spy’s scripts, which never give them anyone interesting jokes or discernible personalities to inhabit. Even voice-acting veterans like Grey Griffin and Kimberly Brooks can’t wring anything idiosyncratic out of their respective roles. The only true standout of the principal players is Jane Lynch. In a welcome departure from her default abrasive characters, Lynch portrays an endearing warmth as Harriet’s nanny.
If there is a saving grace to Harriet the Spy, it’s in the animation. Specifically, the backgrounds. This program’s New York City and the various interior environments look like hand-crafted illustrations you’d find in a picture book. The intentional imperfections in these visuals, especially the way some look outright incomplete, are more entertaining to absorb than any of the show’s gags. They’re all so lovely to look at and make for a nice homage to the images you’d find in children’s literature, the medium Harriet’s medium of origin.
Harriet the Spy’s greatest assets are its pretty backgrounds and a welcome eschewing of edgy humor. Unfortunately, those features can’t outweigh the oddly monotonous tone and generic storylines. There’s no shortage of thoughtful kid’s entertainment out there in the modern media landscape. Something as forgettable as this children’s book adaptation can’t hope to compete or even register as noteworthy. Our protagonist may watch everyone, but it’s doubtful many people will be watching Harriet the Spy.
Harriet the Spy starts watching you watching her November 19th on Apple TV.