‘Odd Squad,’ a whimsical new PBS show, makes math fun

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If you smell smoke in your home, you call the fire department. If a crime has been committed, you notify the police.

But what if dozens of unicorns and dragons are on the loose, causing havoc?

That’s a case for the “Odd Squad.”

The latest educational offering from PBS Kids, “Odd Squad” is a whimsical live-action series about a couple of pint-sized, suit-wearing secret agents, Olive (Dalila Bela) and Otto (Filip Geljo), who work to save the day whenever something unusual happens in their town. And, yes, something unusual is always happening in their town.

The trick is that they solve their cases by using math concepts. Created by veteran kids TV producers Tim McKeon (“Adventure Time”) and Adam Peltzman (“The Backyardigans”), “Odd Squad” is designed to help children ages 5 through 8 get excited about addition, subtraction, division, geometry and the like.

“It’s a really great age group because I think there’s still a real openness to learning at that age and an openness to curriculum,” McKeon says of the show, which premieres on Wednesday “But it’s also a really fun age for pushing story and for telling jokes. You don’t have to always be a hundred percent literal.”

McKeon and Peltzman, who attended high school together in Westborough, Mass., admit they were no math whizzes as students. Still, they didn’t see that as a deterrent.

“The challenge was how do you teach this stuff and still have a lot of fun? We just wanted to make a funny, action-packed show,” Peltzman says. “I think, in a weird way, it helps that we’re not math whizzes. You look at the menu of ideas you have to communicate to our viewers and we have to kind of relearn them a little bit. So it might be a little easier for us to communicate it.”

Taking their inspiration from absurd comedic fare such as “Get Smart,” “Men in Black” and “Police Squad,” the writing partners sought to envision a world run by kids. Thus, the colorful, fantastical “Odd Squad” set in Toronto features extremely low ceilings that force visiting adults to hunch over, and slides that whisk agents from one level to another. As for the meeting room? It’s a ball pit, of course.

And no case is too odd for Olive and Otto, who have to deal with, among other things, a dog that has doubled, disappearing zeros and weird time loops. It’s a good thing their agency is brimming with the latest high-tech gadgets.

A screen capture of a video at http://pbskids.org/oddsquad/

A screen capture of a video at http://pbskids.org/oddsquad/

The idea behind “Odd Squad,” says McKeon, is largely about wish-fulfillment. In this particular town, “the kids are in power. They solve the problems, not the adults.”

Besides, adds, Peltzman, “There’s something appealing about the image of little kids dressed in suits.”

PBS hopes that appeal is widespread. It has given a huge commitment to “Odd Squad” — 80 stories in 40 half-hour episodes, spread out over the next two years. The show is co-produced by Toronto-based Sinking Ship Entertainment and The Fred Rogers Company, and is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready to Learn grant.

In the Philadelphia area, “Odd Squad” will premiere at 9 a.m. Wednesday on WHYY, according to http://www.whyy.org/tv12/schedule.php,  For more, check http://pbskids.org/oddsquad/.

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