The Jim Henson Company’s Lisa Henson and Titmouse’s Niko Guardia and Allison Craig discuss the show’s titular, ‘unapologetic’ 11-year-old amateur sleuth, the hurt feelings her secret notes cause once revealed, and how a show about New York, made in New York, was especially meaningful to the production crew.
There are many ways to describe the main heroine of Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 novel, “Harriet the Spy.” Harriet, the young, aspiring writer and amateur sleuth with a devil-may-care attitude, who rocks jeans and tennis shoes while most of her female friends sport the latest flats and skirts, has been referred to as inspiring, ground-breaking, witty beyond her years, and daring, especially for character born in the 60s.
But, to Lisa Henson, executive producer - on behalf of The Jim Henson Company - on creator Will McRobb’s 2D animated series adaptation of Fitzhugh’s story, Harriet’s most common title, “unapologetic,” is the most fitting. Specifically, regarding the upcoming second season, releasing today, May 5, on Apple TV+.
“When you say she's ‘unapologetically herself,’ that is definitely the case, but, ultimately, at the end of the second season, it all comes down to whether or not an apology can or should be made,” shares Henson, who read and loved the novel as a child. “The phrase ‘unapologetic’ is kind of an interesting one to hone in on in the second season, because there’s an interesting plotline that is very relevant to what kids go through today with social media and online bullying. Harriet’s journal, where she writes all her thoughts and observations about the kids in school and her friends and parents, is found and read out loud in a group setting. Everybody's feelings are hurt, and she is ostracized.”
In the series, like in the book, the curious 11-year-old Harriet, living in 1960s New York, seeks to learn “everything about anything” in order to pursue her dreams of becoming a professional writer. Though some of her secretive spy endeavors lead to positive and even beneficial outcomes, there’s still the matter of whether or not things done in secret and behind someone’s back could ever be in the right.
While Henson explains that Harriet the Spy’s first season - which was mostly meant to introduce the colorful people in Harriet’s world - took more of a departure from the original novel, its second season pays much more homage to the original material and the complicated core of a story that’s meant to both empower and educate young people.
“Harriet and her parents and the nanny Ole Golly end up having a very mature conversation about apologies,” explains Henson. “And it gets even more emotional in the second half because right while Harriet is struggling with being ostracized by the kids at school, she also learns that her nanny falls in love and decides to move to Montreal. So, Harriet is abandoned, basically. Suddenly, she has no friends and she's worried about her nanny moving away. But, interestingly, her parents, who are oftentimes viewed as a little bit superficial and oblivious to Harriet and her life, suddenly are the people she depends on.”
Of course, the series, which first premiered on the streaming platform in the fall of 2021, still has just as many comedic moments as it does serious life lessons. “Don't get me wrong, it's still really funny,” assures Henson. “There are two episodes that are heavily fantasy-oriented, and one goes very deeply into the fantasy of feeling the loss of a tooth that has to get pulled and not being able to live without that tooth. Some of the season is really silly and ridiculous.”
It’s an interesting dance to master, creating a series centered around a character that goes against the flow, is somewhat of a role model for young girls, yet provides a very real example of how unwise decisions can lead to unfortunate results. Then, it all must be tied together with ribbons of humor and heartfelt conversation.
A big part of nailing the tone, Henson says, has come from working closely with the animation team at Titmouse, a studio increasingly known in the animation industry for their expertise in designing teen-focused and coming-of-age series like Fairfax, Big Mouth, The Harper House, Pantheon, and many others.
“I have to give a shout-out to the Titmouse team in New York, which has a very dedicated crew that not everybody gets to work with,” says Henson. “We've produced very little 2D animation. When we got into animation in the early 2000s, when we started doing it in a big way, it was primarily 3D animation, either in the conventional way, as with Dinosaur Train, or our digital puppetry, as with Sid the Science Kid. So, the choice to do something in 2D was an artistic choice driven not by what we specialize in, but what felt like the right medium for this property.”
Titmouse art director Niko Guardia adds, “I believe the show's look was both indirectly and intentionally reminiscent of cartoons from my own childhood, such as Hey Arnold and Recess. With Will McRobb being such an integral part of the show, I definitely found myself channeling my inner '90s cartoon fan. As a child of the '90s, of course I watched those shows a lot, and I'm sure that even back then I was studying them, knowing I wanted to work in cartoons.”
Guardia and the team also experimented with a new post-production/color correction process, playing around with adding certain grains and textures to give the final look a vintage feel.
“We drew significant inspiration from Fitzhugh's original illustrations in the book, particularly the raw, blotchy, and scratchy quality of the ink pen lines,” says Guardia. “Our aim was to infuse our designs with that same character and texture. We studied New Yorker covers from that era and, being based in New York ourselves, toured the actual locations. At the time, I was diving so deep into the 'grit and grandeur' of New York, as Will called it, that we were really just trying to make it look cool.”
What set this project apart for Titmouse, according to Guardia, and what made it “uniquely enjoyable,” was the opportunity to create a show about New York, in New York, by New Yorkers. “There's a certain authenticity that comes from being immersed in the setting of the story you're telling,” Guardia says. “I'm truly proud of how 'New York' the show feels.”
Henson adds, “This show is such a love letter to New York; Titmouse animated specific street corners, specific landmarks. One of the episodes that we're dropping in this new season is ‘Lucky Penny,’ which is about a scavenger hunt that takes place all over New York City. This New York crew just loved making this show because they got a chance to draw New York in an expressive way, a little bit like how 101 Dalmatians captured London.”
The series is like a trip back in time in background designs and setting, as well as in the design and style of the show’s characters.
“We wanted the show to convey that [60s] era visually, from the hairstyles, clothes, and cars to even the simplicity of the designs,” explains Titmouse supervising director Allison Craig. “Character lines, although textured, are pretty uniform and straight; clothing and hair aren't over-detailed, and sometimes we even used scribbly lines for texture. It ended up being a really fun style to work with.”
Aside from Harriet - the only kid in dungarees and canvas sneakers in the show - no other character designs from the book made it into the series. They were all completely redesigned, with Ole Golly receiving one of the most in-depth design - and storyline - makeovers.
“We really didn't understand the drawings from the book of Ole Golly,” notes Hanson. “She was sketched, like from a live drawing class. There was nothing we could work from for character design, except that she had dark hair. So, we started thinking about other references. Cher in Moonstruck was our main point of reference for our version of Ole Golly. We also decided to make her be from an Italian family who lives in Coney Island.”
Craig, like Hanson, read “Harriet the Spy” as a child and says the project has been one of the most unique for Titmouse in terms of aesthetics and nostalgia.
“We had a lot of discussions with the team at Jim Henson Company and Apple about what would make this show stand out,” says Craig. “Niko's art direction really came through with the beautiful watercolor style backgrounds and creating order in things being pleasantly askew. But I think the writing had a lot to do with it being a stand-out as well. Harriet, with her lovable and commanding personality, isn't your typical coming-of-age cartoon star. But I've seen a lot of reviews that mention it being reminiscent of childhood favorite cartoons and it's great to hear that Harriet succeeded in harnessing that nostalgia.”
She continues, “It was exhilarating to work on a story that was such a childhood favorite. Now I have a copy with the animated Harriet on the cover! What a fun series it's been.”
The project has also been a first for the Jim Henson Company which, historically, focuses on preschool programming. “I hope people discover it,” says Henson. “I think it's a gem and one of the things I'm most proud of that we've done. It's the kind of show I would have loved, and I hope kids get involved with Harriet’s character. I think all three of our shows on Apple are parent-choice-type shows. Harriet the Spy and Fraggle Rock are shows parents know from their own childhood but also, hopefully, ones that kids will hook into and want to watch on their own.”