The premise behind Nickelodeon's new cartoon, "Wayside," must seem deliciously subversive to a kid-size brain: a 30-classroom schoolhouse that was accidentally built vertically instead of horizontally, so that it teeters in the air, 30 stories high.
But a newcomer to the "Wayside" universe would need to know that back story already -- via Louis Sachar's book "Sideways Stories From Wayside School " and its sequels, or based on the exposition posted on Nickelodeon's website. The cartoon itself dives straight into plots and punch lines. It takes inspiration from the books, but delivers something decidedly more manic.
I somehow missed the "Wayside School" series when I was a kid (the first installment was written in 1976) , and I consider that a minor tragedy. From a cursory look, the books, aimed at 5- to 12-year-olds, seem absolutely charming. But a large part of that charm is in the prose: light, lazy passages that turn childhood insecurities into the stuff of artful fantasy. The original book, for instance, introduces the character Dana this way:
"Dana had four beautiful eyes. She wore glasses. But her eyes were so beautiful that the glasses only made her prettier. With two eyes, she was pretty. With four eyes, she was beautiful . . . . And if she had a hundred eyes, all over her face and her arms and her feet, why, she would have been the most beautiful creature in the world."
Dana remains one of the main characters in the TV version, but there's no time for that sort of explication. We learn quickly that she's a purple-haired ringleader with coke-bottle glasses who tends to get overemotional. But grasping the beauty of her eyes requires prior knowledge.
That's always the peril with translating books into TV shows, and "Wayside," understandably, dispenses with the nuance in favor of kid-friendly slapstick and goofy conceptual jokes. The episode Nickelodeon sent me, the second part of today's premiere, revolves around a classroom full of pets -- including a pet orange named "Red" who lives in a birdcage and a dead fish named King Arthur who show s up as an apparition, rising from a toilet bowl.
Amid such silliness, kids who haven't encountered the "Wayside School" books won't know what they're missing, nor will their parents. "Wayside" is fast-paced and sweet, and it taps into the surreal humor that infuses TV for adults and older kids these days, from the cartoonish asides of NBC's "30 Rock" to the postmodern jokes in Nickelodeon's live-action series, "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide."
And there's still a lot to like about the "Wayside" characters, who also include a nervous newcomer named Todd, a tomboyish girl named Maurecia , a lovable nerd type named Myron , and a scatterbrained teacher named Miss Jewls -- along with a kid in an elf suit who seems to channel Dwight Schrute from "The Office." They're pleasant enough companions for summer afternoons. And we can hope that kids with the inside scoop will pass along word to their friends: "Wayside" is also an inadvertent ad for the joys of a good book.