In 1964 author Louise Fitzhugh introduced readers to an 11-year-old wannabe spy named Harriet M. Welch. Despite the success of the books, pop culture certainly took its time monetizing Fitzhugh’s character, with Nickelodeon only bringing Harriet to the big screen in 1996 with a more up-to-date sensibility. Now, Apple TV+ has returned to Fitzhugh’s character, and her illustrated aesthetic with their new animated series, “Harriet the Spy.”
With just five episodes in its debut season, and another five set to come out next spring, writer Will McRobb’s series isn’t so much a standard television adaptation of Fitzhugh’s novel as it is individual standalone stories. The look and feel is similar to other animated Apple fare, particularly Apple TV+’s “The Snoopy Show.” Harriet (voiced by Beanie Feldstein) lives in an indeterminate time — where cell phones don’t exist and pay phones are still a thing — with her mother, father, and nanny, Ole Golly (Jane Lynch).
The first episode, “I Am a Terrible Spy,” is one of the only episodes within the five that is actually spy-heavy. Harriet has a desire to know everything in the hopes of becoming an amazing writer, which leads to her breaking into the home of a shut-in in the hopes of catching the woman’s first steps outside. It sets up the conceit of Fitzhugh’s work, but is far from the best episode of the series. That’s reserved for the season’s final episode, “The Origin of M,” which focuses on Harriet having a mini-existential crisis in trying to find out what the M in her name stands for.
The animation style is directly inspired by the illustrations in McHugh’s original tome, but feels similar to “The Snoopy Show” and, to an extent, Netflix’s “Carmen Sandiego” reboot. The animation is bright and colorful, with a style that feels similar to Disney’s 1960 Xerography process, emphasizing hand-drawn lines. It would be nice to see the platform try to change things up, though, as at this point their animated series are easily identifiable as Apple product, with little to differentiate them from an animation standpoint.
As with all of Apple TV’s children’s programming, there is an emphasis on lessons, but these feel more nuanced in comparison to other kids shows. Episode 4, “Hermit the Spy,” is about Harriet just wanting to be alone and finding it in the home of Harrison Withers, a man with 26 cats. Harriet desires the isolation, but only momentarily, finding that sometimes it isn’t necessarily about being alone but finding people who understand boundaries and help when needed. The aforementioned origin of Harriet’s middle name is also wonderful in how it’s written, since Harriet feels that if her middle name was just an accidental scribble, as her dad says, then what does it say about her identity?
“Harriet the Spy”
Beanie Feldstein’s voice is perfectly suited to Harriet, capturing her humor and immaturity. In the last two episodes, where Harriet is frustrated, Feldstein has such a way in straining her voice to show the exaggerated defeatism Harriet experiences. Lynch’s Ole Golly doesn’t feel like she has as much influence on Harriet as she should, but in the final episode — wherein her and Harriet visit Ole Golly’s mother — there’s a warmth and richness to her voice that shows why Golly is one of those practically perfect nannies.
The humor, what little there seems to be of it, comes mostly from Feldstein’s vocal work. However, there are a few humorous moments that feel like they’re aimed at adults watching. In the episode “Coat Vote,” where Harriet and pre-teen queen Marion Hawthorne (Lacey Chabert) fight over wearing the same coat, there’s a very funny jingle for coat creator Smithers of London that’s hard to forget. Just typing that out leaves me hearing the electric guitar and the wailing of “Smithers of London.” It’s sad that the humor doesn’t go for deeper cuts like that more often.
For all the warm fuzzies found within “Harriet the Spy,” the series lacks the rebelliousness Fitzhugh created with her novel. Harriet is only a spy of sorts, with episodes focused more on extracurricular activities between Harriet and her two best friends, and her issues with Marion. Since the show lacks the cultural ubiquity of something like the Peanuts gang, it’s difficult to see where newcomers to the series would be interested, especially with each episode serving as a bite-sized look at Harriet’s life. It’s hard not to wonder what this could have been if it was live action.
“Harriet the Spy” is another cute entry into the expanding roster of animated content for Apple TV+. It’ll be interesting to see whether a new generation of fans take to a less spy-heavy Harriet, especially with only five episodes to go off of. Regardless, Beanie Feldstein’s charm certainly helps keep Harriet engaging for fans new and old.
All five episodes of “Harriet the Spy” will stream on Apple TV+ starting November 19.
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