Harriet the Spy

girl writing by window in Harriet the Spy series





Paul Asay

TV Series Review

A lot of famous writers were once spies. Ernest Hemingway. Roald Dahl. Julia Child. Harriet M. Welsch.

Well, perhaps Harriet isn’t a famous writer yet. She’s still working on the spy part.

On Her Manhattan’s Secret Service

Writers, you understand, need to be experts in observation. As Harriet would tell you, they need to know everything. “To know everything, you need to see everything. And to see everything, you need to be a spy.”

And so, tutored by her sage nanny Ole Golly, Harriet spies on everyone she can in Manhattan’s Upper East Side—sometimes skipping a class or two when necessary.

Her disconnected parents know nothing about their daughter’s espionage activities. Her mother’s engagement seems to begin and end with the worry that Harriet’s eating too many tomato sandwiches. But her friends, Janie Gibbs and Simon “Sport” Rocque, are familiar with Harriet’s extracurriculars, and they even sometimes lend a hand.

As for her arch enemy, Marion Hawthorne … well, whether she finds out or not remains to be seen.

No Time to Lie

Apple TV+’s Harriet the Spy is loosely based on the much-loved 1964 children’s book by Louise Fitzhugh. But rather than leaning into the book’s actual story arc (as the 1996 live-action movie did), this show seems far more interested in Harriet’s day-to-day activities at this early juncture.

Each episode features one of Harriet’s adventures at school or around town, and sometimes even includes a light moral. With each misadventure, Harriet learns a little something, and she always tries to fix whatever she might’ve messed up.

But that said, we should also remember that the original Harriet the Spy book was sometimes banned from schools because of the allegedly poor example Harriet set. And this show comes with a few caveats of its own.

Yes, Harriet can be a bad example, given that she cuts class and, y’know, spies on people. And in order to be an effective spy, she often breaks rules, disobeys adults and can be pretty precocious. Even the show’s theme song tells us that “we don’t want to be told what to do.”

Harriet doesn’t have particularly involved parents, either—quite true to the book and perhaps true for many a Manhattan-reared child, but still disappointing. And while the show doesn’t feature any profanity, the dialogue can be a wee bit rough for some, with characters flinging around words like “butt” and “dang.”

Harriet has inspired plenty of young girls (and boys, too) to be more observant, more thoughtful and even more courageous. She’s a fun character, certainly. But that doesn’t make her an ideal playmate for your kids. Invite her onto your screens with a bit of caution. Because you never know where Harriet might go.

Episode Reviews

Nov. 19, 2021: “I Am a Terrible Spy”

For weeks, Harriet’s been watching a former lawyer who quit her job to start a clothes-making company for dogs. But the woman, alas, is “so scared of starting her new life that she never gets out of bed.” Today’s the day, though: Harriet knows that she’s made a hair appointment—the first step in going to the bank and launch her business. She’s determined to see the woman take her very first step out of bed. But when the woman’s dogs spy the spy (who’s hiding in the building’s dumb waiter), everything goes awry.

Harriet’s nanny, Ole Golly, tells her, “Life is a struggle, and a good spy never quits.” It’s a nice lesson, as far as it goes, And it inspires Harriet to set things as right as she can.

But to spy initially and to set things aright eventually involves Harriet sneaking into a building she has no right to enter. (She torments a doorman while she’s at it, but both he and the woman’s maid prove to be pretty forgiving.) She also departs from her teacher’s history plan, telling her friends that history is “happening all around us!”

A classmate picks both his ear and his nose. Harriet says “butt” a couple of times, and the doorman shows off his yoyo-ing skills, including “walking the ding-dang dog.”

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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