29 September 2015

The communitarianism of Ghostwriter

Recently my family have been cleaning out the basement, and especially the boxes of old VHS tapes that we had recorded in the basement. These are from when I was seven or eight years old, the early nineties. Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGyver were still on the air, and Deep Space Nine had just barely started. My sister and I, on the other hand, were heavily into a children’s programme developed jointly by BBC One and Children’s Television Workshop: Ghostwriter. An educational television show about a benevolent ghost who can communicate with children only through manipulating written words, and who helps them solve various crimes and missing-person cases, would of course be a timepiece, but there are other elements which make it look distinctly retro, even hokey now. The wardrobes, for one thing: Jamal and Lenni routinely dressed in outlandish hip-hop styled outfits which were, at the time, completely unironically meant to be with-it. (And they were awesome.) But there was another distinctly nineties element to Ghostwriter which went significantly deeper.

I’m speaking, of course, of its communitarian moment.

It’s a show in which the setting is as much a character as any of the characters are. Brooklyn, New York is much more than just a backdrop; it’s the matrix out of which each of the young gumshoes arises and understands him- or herself, and as such it’s almost as much of a character as any of the kids are.

Jamal Jenkins’s experience is as the cool-headed analytical younger son of a middle-class black family, who live in one of the old brownstones of the neighbourhood. That house itself has a history as the former home of Irish immigrants and childhood sweethearts (and later married couple) Catherine Canellan and Frank Flynn during the twenties, and as the original haunt of Ghostwriter. Lenni Frasier is the daughter of a widower musician, whose own musical talents, positive attitude and good-natured generosity are heartily appreciated by her school, by the local community organiser and later by a local record company. Alejandro and Gabriela Fernández represent the poor immigrant experience. Their parents are refugees from the civil war in El Salvador (a timely issue in 1992), and their struggles to stay afloat financially with their bodega underneath the Frasiers’ loft are always hanging in the background. We get hints that Alex and Gaby actively retain family ties to the old country, and that at least Gaby is observant in her Catholicism. (The sometimes not-so-neighbourly noise disputes between the Fernández and the Frasier families are also a recurring theme.) Tina Nguyễn, the A/V-savvy daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, often finds herself negotiating a path for herself between her traditional, Confucian-minded parents and her rebellious elder brother Tuan – respecting her parents’ commitments, customs and history yet still wanting her own space. And introverted (though often quite brash and impulsive) Rob Baker struggles with the loneliness and defensive isolation attached to being a military brat who is uprooted every few years by his father’s career.

In short, the Team is (probably deliberately) a cosmopolitan microcosm of the New York cityscape they inhabit, occupying different social strata and different perspectives, facing different problems at home and at school. However, they are united by a set of shared, local commitments. At stake in these mysteries they solve is usually some permutation of ‘our family’, ‘our friends’, ‘our school’, ‘our community garden’. Even though these are often coupled with leftish moral sentiments about pluralism or care for the homeless or education or environmental protection, these commitments are not first-order ideological in the slightest. They relate instead to the concrete expressions of the immediate community they all inhabit and call their own. In Ghostwriter there is a streak which is profoundly conservative in a crunchy, urban, city-block-and-neighbourhood way, and which sees intrinsic value in the institutions and structures which underwrite the lives of the mystery-solvers it follows.

And then there is Ghostwriter himself – the one who actively brings these kids together through a shared experience, who is strengthened by their friendship, and who works together with them to defend his home against ‘injustice, intolerance and people with bad attitudes’. Ghostwriter is a fount of wisdom, much of it old-fashioned and even platitudinous, and he routinely comforts and appeals to the better nature of his young friends among the living when they are struggling emotionally. But there is an element to Ghostwriter which, to a mind conditioned to cost-benefit analytical individualism, ought to come as frighteningly pre-rational or even downright irrational. Ghostwriter chooses to trust and reach out to these youths based on what appears to be a leap of faith; it is common when a new member sees Ghostwriter for the first time to ask: ‘Why me? Why did you choose me?’

And Ghostwriter practically never answers this question in a straightforward way. To Jamal, he writes: ‘Some things, you just feel’. When he shows himself to Tina, he says simply, ‘I like your stories’, though for Rob he waxes slightly more philosophical: ‘We chose each other’.

Part of this can and should be chalked up to a storytelling choice. Ghostwriter is meant to be mysterious, and his past is a blank other than his gender and that he was a person – just enough for us to build a human empathy with him. His decisions are not meant to be available, though, to us the viewers, partly because it would spoil the story. But it does put a further communitarian gloss on the story, since he doesn’t invest himself in abstractions or in causes or in contractual, ‘voluntary associations’. As we see as the stories progress, his associations with the Team are never fully-voluntary for him: he is invested heavily in this group of friends, in these particular people, and their lives in this neighbourhood. And he is never able or willing to fully, rationally explain why this is so.

Even though with Alex, Gaby and Tina especially, the immigrant experience was at the front of Kermit Frazier’s mind when he came up with the concept and wrote the story for Ghostwriter, and even though the writers are occasionally able to talk with some measure of sympathy (in Tina’s family’s case) about the Asian values that were then ascendant in American immigrant discourse, it’s doubtful whether either philosophical communitarianism or the communitarianism of broader policy discussions at the time was at the forefront of their minds as they wrote the show. Even so, the signs of the times seem to have left a powerful mark, even if it was not a deliberate one.

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