PBS makes science fun -- again

Reality TV spoof puts an animated dog in the driver's seat


See whether you can get your head around this: An animated dog wins a contract to host a reality game show, retrofits a garage into a TV studio, struggles with a low budget, and manages the game with a supercomputer that's often on the fritz.

If you are a 10-year-old, accustomed to sensory overload and reality TV, then Fetch! With Ruff Ruffman, PBS's new preteen science show, is probably not so hard a concept to grasp. Once you get past the mildly confusing introduction, which introduces Ruff's back story in rapid-fire, you get a sort of Amazing Race for the tween set, featuring real-kid contestants and science-related challenges. (The show is produced, in part, with a grant from the National Science Foundation.)

As in all of the best educational TV, the science is central to the concept but incidental to the plot. The fun is in the mildly arch parody of reality TV and its self-important trappings. The director of Fetch!, Joshua Seftel, is a veteran of Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and both shows share a sense of perpetual motion and mild sarcasm.

Voiced by actor Jim Conroy, Ruff is a refreshingly flawed lead character, manic and egomaniacal; he gives one of the kids bonus points for saying "Ruff Ruffman" a lot. He's a would-be mogul who specializes in bungles and half-baked coverups, a portly dog whose eyebrows float considerably north of his head, and whose ears express deep shades of embarrassment and pride.

Ruff communicates with the show's six young contestants via closed-circuit TV, barking orders through a monitor in the garage. He sometimes reaches them in the outside world through a cell phone call or subway loudspeaker. The kids play gamely along; they are in on the joke, but they also seem to enjoy the make-believe. Ruff is so well-drawn - in every sense - that they don't seem to have trouble imagining he's real. "Ruff, I haven't been too happy with your electronics here," one girl sneers to the camera after a couple of technical difficulties, and the dog reacts with appropriate snarkiness.

Fetch! is produced by Boston's WGBH and the same team that created the Emmy-winning Zoom. Ruff's "garage" is actually in the neighborhood of Roxbury, and the challenges take contestants through the Boston area; the first episode has three kids racing from the Museum of Science to the Riverside T station to find a scale model of the solar system.

PBS has already given the green light to second season of Fetch!, which WGBH executives say is rare for a new show in the public television world. Judging from one episode - and a little imagination about how preteens might react - it's a good choice. Fetch! has a sense of humor about itself, and that's a good way to keep anyone, of any age, engaged.

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