Something very odd is happening over at your local PBS station.
To the delight of its devoted fans, the third season of Odd Squad is finally premiering. In the live action series, young agents solve mysterious cases and defeat hilariously goofy villains using math, science, and social studies skills. This season, four new agents travel the globe in a mobile unit to help wherever they are needed.
The new structure had the show filming in Toronto, Pittsburgh, Australia, and Times Square. “We hope that kids watching might see their own backyard represented,” says series co-creator and executive producer Tim McKeon. “We have this value of how can we show kids reflected back to themselves.”
The series first premiered in 2014, and most of the original cast are driving cars and getting ready to vote. The very nature of the show means that each season brings a whole new set of actors to Odd Squad.
“We wanted to create a show that was all about a world, not about specific characters,” McKeon says. “But I feel like it’s this gift that we stumbled into. It just breathes life into the show. Even if we found magical children that never aged, I think we would still want to switch it out. It just creates so many new stories to tell.”
This season’s agents include Opal (Valentina Herrera), Omar (Jayce Alexander), Oswald (Gavin MacIver-Wright), and Orla (Alyssa Hidalgo). While McKeon and DeAngelis create the characters, they say the actors themselves play a large part in what eventually makes it to the screen. “The goal is when you see that unique kid walk through the door, our job is to write to that kid,” executive producer and writer Mark DeAngelis says. “You want to just capture that real kid-ness that walks through that door.”
“We wanted to have a show where kids were in power” McKeon adds. “We never talk about the kids home lives. They just run this agency. A lot of the time the adults are the ones who have the problems. We kind of created this system where all kids are equal and all kids belong. You don’t anything about who’s rich and who’s poor. Boys and girls are both equal—it’s a world where kids rule.”
Hildago plays the 500-year-old Agent Orla this season. “She looks different. She speaks different. She definitely acts different. She’s really independent, strong character,” Hildago says.
In a children’s television landscape full of cartoons with often little redeeming value, Odd Squad, which is a Fred Rodgers production, stands out not only for being live action but for also being rooted in an academic curriculum that complements what its elementary aged viewers are learning in school. The writer’s room for the show regularly checks in with education consultants and this season even had a first grade teacher who sat in on the room. That way the show ensures what it is teaching supports what its audience is learning in school.
This season the show will branch out into STEM and coding concepts. One episode will focus on how shadows are made, while another helps children understand exactly how long a minute is. Not that its core audience (the show is geared to 5-8 year olds) will feel like they are in school.
DeAngelis emphasizes that the show never stops to teach. “The math is so baked into the storytelling. This is a natural part of the story. The kids watching it just feel like they’re investigators on the case,” he says.
There aren’t a lot of gray areas in math (2 + 2 will always equal 4 after all) which makes it the perfect base for the show’s plots. “The best thing about math for story telling is that there’s an answer,” McKeon says. “When people say math is boring I find myself getting furious. Math is not boring. There are boring ways to teach math.”
Its young stars, who are all currently in middle school, agree. “My hope is that kids learn that it’s fun to learn math,” Herrera says. “It can be hard but you can have fun with it.”
While new characters abound this season, Millie Davis, who has been with the series since its inception, returns as Agent O. “Millie is one thing to tie and bring the audience through,” McKeon says. “We’ve been working with her since she was seven years old and she is 13 now. As much as we want to change the show, we want to anchor it. She’s done over 100 episodes.”
Toni Collette, whose own children are fans of the show, will guest star in the season finale as one of the show’s trademark silly villains. McKeon says the adult actors on the show, many of whom come from an improv background, get a whole new experience when they guest on the show. “When you film on set there’s tons of children and I think that’s really unique for a lot of the adult actors. It’s a kid’s world on set. They’re a constant reminder of how fun this job is.”
The new season of Odd Squad begins February 17 on PBS.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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