Animation may have taken over children’s programming in recent years, but for those who grew up in a time of Kermit and Ernie, it’s just not the same. Well, TVO, City Sasketchewan and the Knowledge Network (along with producer marblemedia) are turning to puppets once again with Hi Opie! Or specifically one puppet as Opie joins a class of real-life youngsters as they begin full-day kindergarten.
Also on board is Fraggle Rock alum Lawrence S. Mirkin as series producer, bringing his years of expertise and connections with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to the creation of Opie. He turned to Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street and The Muppets puppet creator Rollin Krewson for the final, nose-wiggling design, and put the emphasis on capturing children as they really are.
“Usually it gets shown from the adult point of view,” he tells The TV Junkies about children’s shows. “And we’re trying—although the teachers are important to that—but we’re trying to show it from Opie and the kids point of view, and I think that’s what makes it really an unusual show.”
In preparation for the series he got in touch with a friend of his who teaches up in Newmarket, Ont. and, along with executive story editor (or chief writer, as the kids call her) Kate Barris, went to spend a day in the classroom—contrasting that experience with how he went to school. “She doesn’t stand up there at the front of the room, she sits, and she goes from one place to another,” he says. “She sits so she can be on the level with them.”
It’s that philosophy that set the tone for Hi Opie!, moving the series away from pure instruction into teachable moments as the children go through activities.
“My glib kind of line about this is we really don’t need another show about how to count, but we could use a show about what do you feel like when you make a mistake counting,” he explains. “So although there’s an underlying kindergarten readiness intention about the series and there’s certain curricular things, they’re really more the soft curriculum and for me they’re kind of the real curriculum of kindergarten.”
And while the absolutely adorable Opie first catches the eye, Mirkin made an effort to capture just as many real moments from the kids on set. “You get more magic when they go places you don’t know they’re going to go,” he says, using an example. “One of the kids was changing his socks and he says, ‘I’m wearing my bare feet.’ You wouldn’t write that, you wouldn’t know to write that!”
“We’re with them when they’re all eager and interested and we’re just trying to be true to that,” he summarizes. “So we’re just trying to—in an entertaining way—tell a human drama from a five-year old point of view, which nobody is doing right now in North America. There are preschool dramas being done in Europe but I think it’s just a great opportunity for us to do something new.”
Hi Opie! airs weekdays at 10:30 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. ET on TVO, at 9:00 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. CST on City Saskatchewan and at 11:50 a.m. PT on Knowledge Network.