BECAUSE OF MY LINE OF WORK and the company I keep, my six-year-old son, Henry, has met his share of famous Texans, from actor Lukas Haas to singer Don Walser. But I’ve never seen him as starstruck as he was on the spring day he met Wishbone—or rather, the Jack Russell terrier who plays Wishbone on the hit public television show of the same name. We had come to Big Feats! Entertainment in the Dallas suburb of Richardson to tour the ten-acre back lot and 50,000-square-foot studio where the show is filmed. First we walked among the standard clutch of trailers, each of which had a star on the door, just like the old movie cliché. Out into the bright sunlight stepped one, then two, then three teen actors, and Henry grew so quiet I thought he’d been stricken with a fever. Then we went inside the craft services hall, where the cast and crew eat. Henry looked up from our table and spotted the big guy—all fifteen pounds of him—padding across the floor. We’d seen Wishbone in episode after episode, but it was entirely different to actually see him, panting happily, just ten feet away. Henry swooned.
So did I. For the first time since I was in training pants, I’m excited by a TV show for kids. One reason is that Wishbone is the rare show that really is for the whole family. Like Sesame Street, Wishbone has enough adult references and inside jokes to hold the attention of those of us older than ten. Another reason is that dogs make for good TV. This has always been the case, from classics like Lassie to cartoon canines Astro ( The Jetsons) and Scooby Doo to sitcom pooches Eddie ( Frasier) and Murray ( Mad About You), but it’s especially true of Wishbone, who is more alive and engaging in any given episode than most small-screen pups are in a whole season.
But the best thing about Wishbone is that it’s a creative, high-quality show with a laudable goal: to get kids to read. If you’ve never seen it, the basic premise is that Wishbone has a penchant for literature. Whenever his owners, a widowed mother and her twelve-year-old son, Joe, leave the house, he nudges one classic or another off the shelf. He then gives a brief synopsis of the story (yes, he can speak, but only we can hear him) and daydreams that he is the protagonist, much like Mr. Magoo did in the popular sixties cartoon series. The daydream segments are interspersed with plot lines in which Joe and his friends wrestle with a moral dilemma that parallels the plot of the classic. In “Fleabitten Bargain,” for example, Wishbone daydreams that he is Goethe’s Faust; meanwhile, Joe learns a modern-day lesson about the pitfalls of temptation when a devilish huckster tries to sell him a bogus virtual-reality helmet. In other episodes Wishbone has played characters from Cyrano de Bergerac to Silas Marner to Quasimodo; in the first show