The story you are about to see is a fib, but it’s short. The names are made up, but the problems are real.
I’ve written on here about the importance that fast food and cartoons played in my childhood, but until now I haven’t gotten into the holy ghost of that particular nostalgic trinity: PBS. We were a cable-free household well into my mid-teens, and that meant we watched what the antenna provided. During afternoons, that antenna mostly provided soap operas, which was not high on my sisters and my list of things to watch. Instead, we watched a lot of PBS. Sometimes this was boring, like Masterpiece Theater, but normally this meant children’s educational programming. We ate it up.
This is the first in a planned series of articles about the children’s programming I grew up watching on PBS. Rather than lead with the LeBron and Jordan of the genre, Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, I’m starting with Clyde Drexler: Square One Television. It was slick, entertaining, maybe a little underappreciated, but definitely a Hall of Famer.
Square One Television was a show designed to help children learn math, presented in the form of a sketch show. It ran from 1987 until 1992 on PBS, and re-aired on Nickelodeon’s Noggin from 1999 until 2003. I watched a couple of episodes to jog my memory; if you’d like to do that as well, or if you’ve never seen the show before, there are a lot of episodes available on YouTube. In watching an episode of Square One, the first thing I noticed is how slowly things move compared to children’s programming today. The second thing I noticed is the respect for the viewers’ intelligence. It’s a little ironic that I perceived the show as slow, considering that when it was developed the biggest complaint critics lobbed at it was that it didn’t treat the subject matter with enough seriousness, a criticism that was based mostly on the sketch format and tendency towards pop culture references. I say that it feels slow because even though the show is composed of several disparate segments, within each segment they take their time instilling the lesson. Nearly all modern shows, even those that are designed to be educational, follow the maxim that there should be a cut every three seconds. This symptom (or possibly result) of ADD culture isn’t present here: each segment presents the problem, and then the principals work through the problem using math. The pacing is practically languid.
The other impression I came away with was that Square One trusts the intelligence of its viewers. Granted, there is a very real possibility that I was better at math at age 8 than I am at 38, but a lot of the problems presented are actually challenging. One of the sketches was a Blues Brothers inspired musical performance about square numbers. I’m not even sure I knew what a square number was in third grade, and I definitely didn’t know that 12 squared = 144. We’re not talking 3 apples plus 2 apples equals 5 apples here.
A typical episode of Square One featured 5 to 6 sketches and nearly every single one was a take on something in popular culture. Here are some of the most famous recurring segments.
This one is obviously a take on Pac-Man. Mathman moves around the board eating numbers that represent whatever it is he has been tasked with eating, such as multiples of 2. If he chooses a number that doesn’t fit the requirement, Mr. Glitch eats him. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mathman is clearly wearing a Michigan Wolverines football helmet. The show creators were Michigan alums and inserted a lot of references to their alma mater.
For a moment I wondered why they opted to go with the Dragnet parody, and my assumption was just because Joe Friday is a well known and often parodied pop culture figure, but then when I looked up the date on the Dragnet movie it came out in 1987, the same year that Square One debuted. Thanks to Tom Hanks, Dan Aykroyd, and an insane(ly bad) rap song, Dragnet was in the public consciousness. Today it would 100% be Law and Order. As you could have probably guessed from the name, Mathnet was a cop show about a division of the LAPD (later NYPD) that focused on math related crimes. And James Earl Jones was the chief! It’s honestly a slickly done homage, with more thought than necessary put into it given that the target demographic was children.
Square One was way more fun and interesting than a show about math had any right to be, and was a better version of a sketch show than should have appeared as PBS children’s programming. It’s one of PBS’s late 1980s staples, and holds up as a valuable teaching tool today.
Were you a PBS watcher as a kid? Did you get into Square One? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.