In 1964, Louise Fitzhugh introduced the world to Harriet M. Welsch, an 11-year-old girl who wants to be a writer so she spies on her friends and neighbors, recording her thoughts and observations in a notebook. Harriet the Spy is a beloved classic followed by sequels (The Long Secret and Sport) and a 1996 film. Now, Apple TV+ has just dropped the second season of its animated series of Harriet the Spy, set in 1960s New York City, and proving that Harriet is still relevant.
The Apple TV+ series, however, veers from the original text. Harriet, who in the book throws temper tantrums and can be rude, loud, and mean—causing some controversy at the time it was published—is now softer around the edges. We see less writing in the notebook—granted, watching a girl writing for 24 minutes would hardly be entertaining, even for an older audience—and there are lessons to be learned. We meet up with the familiar characters of Harriet’s nanny Ole Golly and her best friends Janie and Sport, along with her nemesis Marion Hennessey.
The first episode is oddly all about why dental hygiene is important. The show almost lost me with that—and with its second episode in which Harriet tries to find out more about her boring neighbors at a party. Watching an animated game of charades is about as exciting as watching paint dry.
The season does pick up with the third episode, when Harriet gets separated from her classmates during a field trip to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City; however, a younger audience, and even their parents, probably won’t get the historical reference. And the fourth episode takes Harriet and her friends all over Manhattan in a scavenger hunt, the prize a coveted super ball—another throwback to the past.
It isn’t until halfway through the season that the series begins to follow the book—sort of. We meet Ole Golly’s boyfriend and when they marry and Ole Golly leaves, Harriet has to get used to a life without her. But then her friends get their hands on her notebook and are angry about the mean things she’s written about them. Harriet refuses to apologize, sticking to her belief that writers must always tell the truth, regardless of the consequences. This Harriet is more like the book Harriet.
Overall, the series is entertaining. The morals are not heavy-handed (brush your teeth, live in the present, say you’re sorry if you’re unkind). Beanie Feldstein brings the young spy’s voice to life, and Jane Lynch’s Ole Golly is as wise as the one we know so well. The animation is colorful, with clean lines, but nothing really special. Apple TV+ indicates the youngest target age is 6, but some of the action is slow and might lose an audience that young. I’d say it’s more for 8 or older. I’m not sure it alone will spawn any young writers or spies, but hopefully it will entice a new generation of readers to seek out the book.
Karen E. Olson is the winner of the Sara Ann Freed Memorial Award and a Shamus finalist. Her new book, An Inconvenient Wife, is a modern retelling of Henry VIII and his wives, and will be published by Pegasus Crime in Spring 2024. She lives in Connecticut.