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Nick's `Ned's' got straight-A's all the way

The middle-school saga comes to an end, but it leaves a yearbook filled with smart characters, fun gags and real advice.

June 08, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

I don't suppose I need tell you that this weekend marks the conclusion of one of the best series on television -- a show that took genre conventions and ran them through unpredictable changes and whose audience now breathlessly awaits the long-deferred but at last reckoned fate of its main characters.

I refer, of course, to "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide," that epic of middle school madness, which ends its increasingly successful three-year run on Nickelodeon tonight with an hourlong, double-length episode, "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide to Field Trips, Permission Slips, Signs and Weasels." (It will be preceded by a marathon of cast-chosen favorite episodes and the series, happily, will continue to recycle daily through the Nickelodeon schedule.)

Finally, we will learn whether young Ned Bigby (Devon Werkheiser) is to wind up with longtime crush and sometime girlfriend Suzie Crabgrass (Christian Serratos) or best friend Jennifer Ann "Moze" Mosely (Lindsey Shaw), although anyone with a lick of sense can already see where that has to go.

Unless you share a house with a tweenager, or are a tweenager yourself, this will likely mean nothing to you. (I don't expect that you are a tweenager -- though if you are, the people who own this newspaper, or any other newspaper, will be very happy to hear it.) Or you may be like me, perennially watching what I'm supposed to be too old for. But you don't need a child around, or to be one yourself, to love "Ned's," any more than you need to be from New Jersey or in organized crime, or related to someone who is, to enjoy that other show ending this weekend. It may not have been made for you, but it has been made well, which is argument enough in its favor; and it may not be about you now, but it might well be about who you were; and in any case, it will show you something you really won't see anywhere else.

In part because it occupies a place out of the TV mainstream, and partly because its viewers hold it to a different standard of "reality," television for children offers increased opportunities for formal innovation; it is on familiar terms with the impossible, of effects without cause, or out of proportion to their cause. Created by Scott Fellows, whose other notable credits are all in animation ("The Fairly OddParents," "Johnny Test"), "Ned's" is built like a cartoon, all speed and exaggeration and sudden stops and starts -- there is more physical comedy here than perhaps anywhere else on television. Musical cues and sound effects underscore the action and dialogue at every step -- there is some sort of extra noise laid in every few seconds -- so that ordinary movement becomes a kind of dance and speech a kind of song. These tricks are not precisely new, but "Ned's" is committed to them to a rare degree. The effect is almost operatic.

And yet for all the cartooniness that surrounds them, and defines them -- unbridled geek Cookie (Daniel Curtis Lee), the series' third leading role along with Ned and Moze, seems to have swallowed whole the collected works of Jim Carrey and Bill Cosby -- the characters are mostly possible to care about in the ordinary way. While high school, as seen on television, has become college in dramatic terms -- those high school kids, played by college kids, get up to every sort of bad nonsense -- the theater of middle school gives you life on the cusp. Here love is still a matter of "liking" someone and a single kiss bears down with the weight of destiny.

With its use of the broken fourth wall -- Ned narrates -- its surrealist silliness, glimmerings of poetry and actually kind of useful life advice, "Ned's" is very much of a piece with such classic Nickelodeon shows as "Clarissa Explains It All" and "The Adventures of Pete & Pete." (The Nick aesthetic has sometimes jumped the bounds of the network -- Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle," for example, was a Nick show in all but venue, as will be the CW's "Aliens in America," coming this fall -- and "Ned's" star Shaw is in it.)

Among the subjects "The Guide" has addressed are secrets, shyness, revenge, Spirit Week, school plays, "When You Like Someone Who Is Going Out With Someone Else," bad hair days, "Your Body," "Gross Biology Dissections," daydreaming, nicknames, embarrassment, extra credit and hallways. The show gets a lot of mileage from small things and simple concepts -- the 11 minutes between the 3 o'clock bell and the leaving of the school buses, for example, or the unfortunate noises that escape from a human body. There are no parents to speak of in this world, because they are of no practical use in it.

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