PBS’s live-action Odd Squad aims to ‘make math relevant’ for kids

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PBS Kids will expand the footprint of its math-focused programs with Odd Squad, a live-action TV series for school-aged children.

The new show, which follows the fall 2013 debut of Peg + Cat, a preschool series presenting math concepts, will debut Nov. 26. Creators Tim McKeon and Adam Peltzman, who previously collaborated as television writers on another PBS Kids series for school-aged children, The Electric Company, are producing Odd Squad through Toronto-based Sinking Ship Entertainment and the Fred Rogers Company (which also produces Peg + Cat and Daniel Tigers Neighborhood for PBS).

Odd Squad producers

Executive producers J.J. Johnson, left, and Tim McKeon with Odd Squad cast members.

Odd Squad stars sleuths Olive and Otto, members of a detective agency who use math concepts to solve unusual mysteries around their town. In addition to a 40-episode TV show, the production includes free online games and mobile applications designed to extend viewers’ learning — and love — of math.

“The approach that we’re taking is a transmedia approach, so that kids can participate in the Odd Squad whether they’re watching on television or they’re playing games online or using the app,” said Paul Siefken, a former PBS Kids programmer who is now v.p. of broadcast and digital media at the Fred Rogers Company.

Creators of Odd Squad took inspiration from Peg + Cat by approaching its curricular topic with “the point of view that math is fun and interesting and helpful,” said Linda Simensky, v.p. of PBS children’s programming. “As we started developing ideas for the early elementary-oriented show, we encouraged everybody to have a sense of humor about it and make sure the show had great characters [and] stories.”

Simensky credited Kim Berglund, content and curriculum director for PBS children’s programming, for her work with math advisors to develop an age-appropriate curriculum for the series. Unlike Peg + Cat, Odd Squad will focus more on connecting elementary math principles, such as the concept of zero and multiplication, to real-life situations.

For example, in one episode, the town’s pizza delivery person wishes she could clone herself to get more work done, Simensky said. Her wish comes true, and it turns into a lesson in doubling.

“She divides into two different people and they both start delivering pizza, but she starts delivering double of everything,” Simensky said. “You see that principle executed and you see it played out right there in live action in front of your eyes. You might not even know it’s multiplication yet — you just see it happening that way.”

“It’s very common for people, adults or kids, to say they don’t like math,” Simensky said. “But I think the real thing is they just don’t know why it’s useful.” As the Odd Squad detectives demonstrate how math skills can help solve problems, Simensky hopes kids in the audience will pick up on an overarching lesson — that math skills are important to learn. “We’re helping kids have a better attitude about it, which is the first step in getting them to understand it.”

Odd Squad will appeal to 5- to 8-year-olds, Siefken said. “There’s nothing about the show that’s trying to be any older or any cooler than your average 7-year-old really wants to be.”

“The things that the actors are doing in the series are great wish fulfillment for the audience,” Siefken said. “Who wouldn’t want to work in an organization that was run by kids and get to use all kinds of cool gadgets to solve problems? That’s what’s so key about that age group — you want to see yourself in the role of the characters that you love. And what makes it even better is that the characters you love are all interested in educational things.”

Odd Squad brings another change to PBS Kids’ animation-heavy lineup: live-action production. Simensky said the creators’ choice sprang from their sentimental connection to popular PBS live-action series of the past, such as Ghostwriter and Wishbone. Simensky’s own children enjoy watching live-action shows on other kids’ networks, she notes, as long as they’re funny. Humor is something that writers McKeon and Peltzman can deliver.

“The scripts are really funny,” Simensky said. “And the thing that amazes me is that each script manages to find math that’s relevant to kids this age and to do something really funny with it, to cause some quirky problems that the agents in the show have to figure out.”

Odd Squad is being shot in Toronto on a 25,000-square-foot set under the direction of J.J. Johnson, head of Sinking Ship Entertainment. Johnson is an experienced live-action producer whose credits include This is Daniel Cook and Dino Dan.

Siefken, who worked under Simensky when McKeon and Peltzman pitched Odd Squad to PBS, said the creative duo specifically designed Odd Squad as a live-action series. PBS questioned but ultimately supported the decision.

“There was some conversation whether or not this should be a live-action series,” Siefken said, but McKeon and Peltzman were very committed to producing in that format. “They both have a lot of experience writing for live-action series.”

After they delivered a pilot episode, PBS green-lit series production and ordered 40 episodes, Siefken said. “That’s a pretty massive order.”

Production of a season of live-action TV series takes up to two years, Seifken said. Since Odd Squad incorporates on-set and location shoots as well as special effects, the production requires a precision that is often absent from the process of producing an animated series.

“With animation you have a very regimented schedule in terms of how you go about production,” Siefken said. “Live-action goes at a different pace, where you have to make sure the scripts are exactly how you want them.”

“When you shoot it, it’s done and you can’t go back and tweak things as easily as you can with animation,” said Siefken. “But then once it’s shot, you’ve got what you need. Then you add the special effects, music and sound.”