Joe Strike investigates the behind-the-scenes mysteries that go into the creation of The Secret Show.
When it comes to cartoons, kids want to watch shows about kids -- or so the current thinking goes. These days Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney's schedules are swarming with comedies starring adolescent characters. Adults are relegated to supporting roles in these shows -- clueless parents or easily outwitted foils to the kids' plans, along with the occasional mentor figure thrown in to redeem the older generation.
The situation's slightly different when it comes to action-adventure shows. Discounting for the moment Avatar and Ben 10's youthful heroes, older figures -- specifically, mid-to-late teenagers and even the occasional twentysomething -- are often the stars; Nicktoons, Nickelodeon's younger sibling, has a particular fondness for these action-packed series.
The Secret Show may be a comedy, but it's a fast-moving, gadget-filled spy spoof starring a pair of fully grown, definitely adult (in years if not behavior) secret agents. The British-produced show feels more at home among Nicktoons series like Kappa Mikey, Martin Mystery and Skyland than Nickelodeon staples like SpongeBob or Fairly OddParents. For show creator Tony Collingwood, it was a deliberate decision to go against the grain of what the networks were asking for. "They all wanted kids in the center of the action," he explains from his London production company, Collingwood O'Hare Entertainment. "We called them 'Kid by Day' shows: kid by day, spy/ghost/scientist by night, where the parents were really kooky and didn't know what the kids were up to.
"We said if everyone is doing that, let's not. Let's approach it from the other angle: not a kid show aged up, but an adult show pushed down to kids. They said, 'Hey, that's original!' Well, that's because it wasn't what you were asking for."
To win over the skeptics, Collingwood and partner Christopher O'Hare produced an out-of-pocket pilot episode and presented it at the 2004 Cartoon Forum in Spain, an annual event for producers looking for European markets and financing. The show caught on with an audience of industry players who according to Collingwood "laughed all the way through" the screening. The BBC quickly acquired the series for its children's CBBC channel and for international sales via BBC Worldwide.
The Secret Show is filled with running gags, wordplay and silliness aimed squarely at a kids audience, starting with the blatantly cutesy Fluffy Bunny Show being hijacked (in a different manner every episode) to make way for Collingwood's series. ("The show is so secret," he says, "that it doesn't even have its own time slot.") The standard acronym-named good guys and bad guys (U.Z.Z. vs. T.H.E.M.) face off, with British agent Anita and her occasionally clueless partner Victor in the lead. Judging by his accent, the klutzy Victor is an American or Canadian, a creative decision probably based more on making the show saleable to North America than any kind of political poke in the ribs.
The formula worked for Keith Dawkins, Nicktoons' VP and general manager. "We love the show because it's witty, smart and funny," he says. "I laughed out loud when I read the first script. I can't get enough of the show open, the many ways the secret agents take over granny and her fluffy bunnies." His enthusiasm evidently mirrors the channel's audience, with Dawkins describing the series (currently enjoying its second season on Nicktoons) as a "top-10 ratings performer" for the channel's 2-11 and 6-11 demographics.
Those running gags are at the heart of The Secret Show, from catchphrases ("Yes, I'm still alive") to recurring, unexplained visuals like the spider crawling through one shot in every episode, or the occasional fugitive bunny who scampers through the agents' adventures without warning. "Even as an adult you can't help going 'I just saw a bunny!'" Collingwood says. "It doesn't matter how grown-up you are. You can't help being pleased if you spot a bunny in The Secret Show."
It's not just random tomfoolery. According to Collingwood, "Kids want to experience the same thing again and again, but in a different way every time. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but that's what you want in a TV series. It also encourages close watching. The running gags are like treats for people who watch regularly -- 'I know what that spider's about -- I saw the episode where we discovered...'" He pauses to recount the season two episode where the spider's raison d'etre is revealed, but adds "it's a secret -- you can't print that.
"Kids are flying around the Internet, they're grazing media these days, and we have to acknowledge that." Collingwood does more than merely acknowledge it: "There's a four-number code in every episode. We have the biggest website ever created for a U.K.-based series and if you feed that number into the website you can collect points and download ring tones. It's just for fun, not trying to make money off children."
The Secret Show is produced in CelAction2D, a Flash-style animation program (also used for shows like Playhouse Disney's Charlie and Lola and Nick Jr.'s Peppa Pig) that Collingwood sees as allowing more complex constructions than the better-known Flash. "It lets us do the whole series in-house, and not farm it out to the Far East. We can write subtle humor knowing we can stand behind the animator and make sure the gags work. The script in one of our previous series had a line about someone with a chip on his shoulder, and when the show came back, the character literally had a chip on his shoulder."
The show's flat- and bold-colored, cut-out look (the work of series designer and co-director Andrea Tran) is a nod to its roots in 1960s-era, 007/Avengers spymania. "The Secret Show could sit quite happily in the 1960s alongside those shows," Collingwood insists, "and not rely on being a period piece." However, he adds, "the first page of the show bible says 'This is not a parody -- do not reference any shows or movies you like.'"
Unlike so many animated series, The Secret Show has no secret plans to appeal to an adult audience while entertaining kids. "It's dangerous to try for that," Collingwood warns. "The show is absolutely aimed at 10-year-olds and up and down from there. Anything else on top of that is great, but danger that way lies if you try to do shows for your own peer group.
"Don't try to make shows for grown-ups if you're doing kids' shows. We did a show about grown-ups doing stuff kids would enjoy, for kids who are trying to be older, instead of adults who are trying to be childish."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.
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