Dear Rug Bugs,
I keep meaning to take a day off but then I find something I want to write down. Maybe tomorrow or Monday, since it’s a holiday. In any case, a couple months ago another dad who, like me, is living in perfect locked-down harmony in an apartment with his spouse and two young kids, recommended the show The InBESTigators on NetFlix as a warm and welcome distraction.
This is an Australian kids' TV show about four fourth-grade detectives: Maudie, Ezra, Kyle, and Ava. Maudie is a tiny Sherlock Holmes who just moved to town, and everyone else is her Watson (with some jealousy). Ezra is entrepreneurial and fussy, Kyle is sporty and impulsive, Ava is charitable and exhausting and always trying to throw parties. They start The InBESTigators Detective Agency at Ezra's house.
Each short episode is split into two crimes that the kids solve: “The Case of the Peculiar Pop Quiz” or “The Case of the Wrecked Rehearsal.” The kids narrate to the camera and the jokes are unforgivable.
Maudie: It was an aloe vera plant. The only thing it can kill is a rash.
Kyle: (Sarcastic) Yeah, pretty sure there's no such thing as an "aloe vera" plant. [British accent] "Allo, Vera. How are you today, Vera?"
Just great stuff. We're mostly through the second season.
Much of the show takes place inside an Australian elementary school that is clean and well-lit and managed by sincere teachers. It's nice to see a school right now. You learn about Australian kid things, like having to stay beneath a shelter at recess if you lose your sun hat.
The crimes the InBESTigators investigate are always kid stuff. (Spoilers follow.) Someone is scared to go and hides tickets to a concert. Someone rearranges a field in order to win a game. A notebook gets lost and someone is very upset. The “criminals” from a supporting cast of kids each act out in various ways—hiding things, taking things, sneaking around—but once a crime is solved, forgiveness comes easily. The perpetrators fess up, the motive becomes clear, teachers call home to empathetic parents, and punishments are light.
In the case of the missing notebook, by the way, the person who lost the notebook was Maudie. Usually collected, she was devastated—because her notebook contained a photo of her and her mother, who had died before Maudie moved to town. This death feels true to the character. The other kids accept it and rally around their friend. And then the show moves on; it’s not hidden, but it’s not the only fact about her, either.
Maudie is our genius, but also just a kid. In one episode she becomes obsessed with a girl group called the January Valentines and that consumes her life. We also see a lot of her dad, who is loving and kind and exasperated, and a neurosurgeon. He's too perfect, but what a nice fantasy. Let the kids have it.
At the end of season one—big spoiler to come—Maudie is tricked into solving a crime that didn't happen, so that everyone has time to set up her surprise party. It's attended by a dozen kids; we're told that Maudie didn't have that many friends in her old school. She sees the streamers and is filled with joy.
It's such a distinctive moment that I thought about it for some time. Why couldn’t I stop thinking about this kids’ show? I think it’s because so much children's entertainment is about solving puzzles, or killing enemies, or being about to get into trouble, but pulling off a cover-up before your parents get home. What this show does instead is show little aspects of kids' interior lives—their joys and their pettinesses, too. As Maudie's arc plays out, very gently, amidst a lot of silly detective cases and bad puns and visual gags, you realize that the creators have layered in a very kind story about finding family where you can. Which is, you know, the only real story in the world.
Most TV fantasies, for kids or not, are about power, and how people use and abuse it, whether you're a superhero or a cop or a secret rock star. Heroes, villains. How do you find friends when you have superpowers or terrible knowledge? But in this show the fantasy is much simpler: Everyone is basically good, just flawed. Everyone makes mistakes. Mysteries can be solved with thought and conversation. And when mistakes are uncovered, forgiveness can follow. That’s it. That’s the whole thing.
We learn, softly, and over time, that our brilliant and extremely tiny Sherlock is not unhappy, but she is very much in need of love. She’s human. We learn this because her friends learn it; they start out admiring her, but come to care for her. At the finale, their best qualities are drawn upon, and their love is given freely. In particular, Ava plans a party, and everyone runs around, and there is candy and there are balloons. Maudie, who has had some bad days, says it's the best day ever. Joy.
And that’s it: A good day for Maudie is the crowning accomplishment of the season. As this scene played out I looked over and saw that my own children were rapt and smiling—happy for her too—and that made me happy for them. I don't know a more important lesson. I wish there were shows like this for adults.