To walk onto the set of Odd Squad is to be immediately immersed in the world occupied by the heroes of TVO’s kid’s show. A slide from the second floor here, a trophy room there, a hallway filled with a riot of coloured doors is steps away from a ball pit. It’s all designed, says co-creator Tim McKeon, to aid in the ease of filming, something he was inspired by when he was an intern on The West Wing during Season 2. Those legendary walk-and-talks brought viewers into President Bartlet’s world, so why not do it with Odd Squad?
TVO’s math-centred series is on a hot streakÂ of late: Season 2 just wrapped production in Toronto’s west end and the program won five Daytime Emmys last week and McKeon captured a Writers Guild of Canada Screenwriting Award for the second season script “Drop Gadget Repeat.” Not bad for what McKeon refers to as “a workplace comedy for kids” that incorporates the education angle to include math.
“You never see their home life,” McKeon says from Odd Squad‘s production offices. He’s just taken a group of families on a set tour in support of Make-A-Wish Canada. “That’s very deliberate and you never see them in school.” PBS approached McKeon (Adventure Time) and Adam Peltzman (The Backyardigans) about creating a math series for kids. Their first challenge? Not to make it lame. They sought to create a program about a secret world where kids were powerful and figured out strange, X-Files-esque math problems as detectives. Making the kids professional by dressing them in suits was the next step. The key for the pair was to have the agentsâ€”played by Millie Davis, Sean Michael Kyer, Dalila Bela, Filip Geljo, Anna Cathcart and Isaac Kragtenâ€”solve the problems for the adults rather than the other way around.
“Our secondary goal, along with PBS and TVO, was to put girls in charge and show diversity,” McKeon says. “This [second] season, we have four leads and three of them are girls.” What makes a program like Odd Squad uniqueâ€”and children’s television overallâ€”is how non-dramatic having female leads and a diverse cast is. Where primetime television is being criticized for a lack of those things, Odd Squad has been doing it for two seasons. It’s a natural part of the storyline and accepted by viewers without fanfare. Also natural? The math. There are no blackboards being pulled out with long division on them.
“I think the role of educational TV is to teach kids, but more specifically, to help them over bumps,” McKeon says. “We’re going to try our hardest to get across a concept so that kids can then go into the classroom and say, ‘I kind of already know this.'”
“It’s not only that Odd Squad is funny and has clever scripting, characters and wardrobe, they’ve made math the solution to all of the cases the agents have to solve,” says Marney Malabar, director of kids TV at TVO. “They didn’t make math a bad thing. They made it, organically, normal. It’s never a token learning moment. It’s of course, everybody should use math, rather than let’s just show you that math is important. Math is used to further the story because if they didn’t use it. they’d never be able to solve their problems.
Aside from working math into each episode, McKeon and Peltzman, knew one key to successfully writing for children is to never talk down to them or do “kid” jokes; strive to be funny for adults and the kids will get it too. The Odd Squad writer’s room has been an established core that includes co-executive producer Mark De Angelis and writer Robby Hoffman and a massive list of freelancers.
“Oddness is a pretty open idea,” Peltzman says of the writing process. “And once you’ve set this concept where there is oddness in the worldâ€”whether it’s dragons, dinosaurs or made-up creatures and weather phenomenaâ€”you’ve created a box where you can go to all of these different places.”
Odd Squad airs weekdays at 4:55 p.m. ET on TVO and online at TVO.org.