Pub date November 25, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

FREE TO BE TV If you were a kid in the late 1960s and early ’70s, you were an integral part of the counterculture’s trickling-down influence. Hitherto square as a toddler’s puzzle peg, children’s TV programming radicalized not long after various sexual and social revolutions liberated their parents from larger strangulations.

Displacing innocuous slapstick pacifiers, shows were redesigned to educate and empower. Or simply be groovy, like the Sid and Marty Krofft Brit-popping Bugaloos or then-teen idol Rick Springfield’s Mission: Magic! Kid Power stressed multiculturalism. Schoolhouse Rock made homework fiendishly catchy. Fat Albert brought the inner-city ghetto to Saturday mornings.

But the most innovative stuff came from PBS, at its peak of funding, popularity, and adventure. Beyond Sesame Street, there was "Laugh-in for kids," The Electric Company, ingenious labors of grownup performers, puppeteers, child psychologists, and so forth.

ZOOM was something else — a show exclusively performed and largely created by kids themselves, with the adult staff credited as mere "helpers." From 1972 to ’78, the original ZOOM (excluding its 1999-2005 revival) was all about participation, on and off-screen. "Who are you? Whaddaya do? / How are you? / Let’s hear from you /We need you!" the cast sang before trilling the post office box that jokes, games, stories, poems, and whatnot could be sent to.

Producer WBGH Boston has just released two-disc ZOOM: Back to the 70s. This DVD flashback — encompassing a documentary overview as well as four complete episodes — remains very DayGlo Me Decade. But it dates surprisingly well.

The seven grade-school cast members were no Mickey Mouse Club lil’ pros but ethnically diverse, Boston-accented reg’lar kids who line-stumbled, improvised, sang, and danced without polish. They had unscripted "rap sessions" to discuss interpersonal dynamics. They quarreled over jacks. They performed viewers’ submitted mini-plays, recipes, and science experiments. "ZOOMguest" segments profiled other kids’ interesting lives — as a violin prodigy, expat Cubana, budding claymationist, girl hockey player, ham radio enthusiast, or developmentally-disabled student.

ZOOM imprinted popular culture in enjoyably silly ways, from Zoomer uniforms (loud striped soccer jerseys) to gibberish language Ubbi Dubbi. What still refreshes, however, is how the show treats pre-adolescents sans condescension, as people whose opinions and questions aren’t just cutely immature but worth respect and encouragement. Even the increasingly slick, disco-funky presentation by season six couldn’t render ZOOM showbiz-as-usual.

"Confidence in yaself … that’ll help you a lot" says a hereditarily reading-challenged teen in Back to the 70s‘ final 1976 full episode. ZOOM not only portrays him sympathetically, but as a role model — someone whose handicaps inspire him to excel wherever he can. Pity such positive-messaging rings so nostalgic.