Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bouchard Buffet, Part 2: Science Court


Huh. This is a strange one. Until a few months ago I didn't even know it existed. Let's take a quick peek.

It's difficult to cover Science Court's development in detail because there aren't many details to be found. It debuted in 1997: after cutting its teeth on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, classroom software developer Tom Snyder Productions incorporated its educational ethos with its new TV production wing to create a Saturday morning edutainment show for kids. Beyond this, the fact are murky. Depending on who you ask, Science Court ran for either two or three seasons, and there's no definitive episode list to be found anywhere. Its Wikipedia entry claims twenty-nine episodes, but only twelve are actually listed. These are the same twelve that appear in the TSP product catalog—not as DVDs, but as the CD-ROM components of classroom activity kits. There are thirteen episodes floating around YouTube, most of which seem to have been ripped from the TSP classroom kits. As for the purported sixteen other episodes—who knows?

It also seems the show was retitled Squigglevision after its first season, and the courtroom dramedy stories were made to share episode time with vocabulary and math-focused content—which would explain why some of the extant episodes run for fifteen minutes instead of twenty-two. If you're able to dig up any full episodes of Squigglevision, you're a better sleuth than me.

Most of the substantial information about Science Court comes from magazine articles published during the show's run. Here's an excerpt from an interview with Tom Snyder in Imagine News:

We were going to limit TV to a little wing at TSP that did Dr. Katz. It turned out Spielberg was a big fan, and he actually made Science Court happen without even knowing it. He asked us to do a pilot, and we did a pilot and they wanted to change it a whole bunch, and we said, "Why would you pick a little company in Watertown, MA, to do a pilot for almost no money and then ask them to change it? Why don’t you hire one of your $2 million production companies that will do exactly what you want?" What a stupid thing to ask us. So we walked out on the deal. ABC had expressed interest in doing six episodes, Katzenburg said. He asked, "Will you work with us?" And I said, "I don’t think so."

So we walked out on the deal and there I was, unexpectedly, with a whole second animation team I put together to do this pilot. I didn’t know what to do. The last thing I wanted was another studio deal. In case you don’t know, networks don’t have enough to pay the fee for a TV show, since TV shows take years to make money, so ordinarily you have to deficit-finance it or you get a studio to be your partner. I realized we could make our stuff independently. While I had assembled the team at Chili’s in Harvard Square, we were watching the OJ trial, and we noticed that ignorant,, uninformed human beings were explaining how DNA testing worked.

I started jotting down some notes. I realized that the trial format is an extremely good teaching vehicle. We could use it. But instead of being about murder, it’s about something a lot lot less horrible. The solution each week would require expert witnesses that know a lot about gravity, condensation or earthworms. So we took that and we converted it to Science Court. But we didn’t have a studio, so I had to hoof it down to N.Y. and L.A. and we ended up getting a deal with ABC anyway, which was great. So now we have two TV shows.


So why are we looking at this thing at all? Well, our man Loren Bouchard appears in the credits as audio editor, producer, and co-director, which makes it required viewing for our little seminar. Fans might also think of it as a missing (or at least obscure) link between Dr. Katz (1995) and Home Movies (1999). Dr. Katz stars H. Jon Benjamin and Jonathan Katz reappear as regulars in Science Court, and are joined by Ron Lynch and Paula Poundstone, all of whom play major characters in Home Movies. Former Dr. Katz patient and behind-the-scenes operative Bill Braudis comes to Science Court as a co-creator, writer, and voice actor, and will later join the Home Movies team as one of its main writers. Science Court animation team members Chris Georgenes, André Lyman, and Kim O' Neil (the first two of whom are Dr. Katz veterans) are responsible for Home Movies' character and visual designs. Even Melissa Bardin Galsky (who was also involved in the production of Dr. Katz) was working on Science Court. In fact, considered in terms of their production teams, it looks a lot like the only major difference between Science Court and Home Movies is Brendon Small himself.

And for my own part, I'd like to examine and put in my two cents about Science Court because I'm something of a science dilettante (or wannabe dilettante), and I'm interested in how scientific thinking is and can be taught to young learners.

First: let's meet the cast.

Alison Krempel

Calm, logical, and ethical Science Court attorney. Plays defense. Always has science on her side; always wins her case. Fish earrings. Voiced by Paula Plum in a performance that sounds suspiciously like Siri.

Doug Savage

Arrogant, brash, flamboyant science court attorney; the Simplicito to Krempel's Salviati. Plays offense. Never has science on his side; never wins his case. Fish tie. Voiced by Bill Braudis, without whom Science Court wouldn't be half as entertaining.

Judge Stone

Presiding Science Court matriarch. Sees that every trial is conducted fairly. Rides a motorcycle. Enjoys fast food. Keeps a somewhat messy chamber. Voiced by Paula Poundstone, who sounds very uncharacteristically composed and authoritative here.

Stenographer Fred

Transcribes court proceedings, but is a slow typist. Also serves as the bailiff, but is kind of a milquetoast. Comic relief. Strangely feminine in his some of his mannerisms. Often doesn't understand what's being said and needs it explained in simpler terms. Voiced by Dr. Katz patient Fred Stoller, who does a great job playing Fred Stoller.

Dr. Julie Bean

Local expert. One of about four recurring characters voiced by children. We'll single her out to represent the child actor contingent because she plays the biggest role throughout the series (and we want to keep this section brief). Usually appears early on in the trial to introduce some basic scientific concepts and get the conversation rolling. Voiced by Amy Snyder, the boss's daughter.

Professor Parsons

Krempel's ace in the hole. An extremely overqualified science teacher at the state university (by his own description). Jovial. Eccentric. Polyglot. As soon as he takes the stand, Savage's case is done for. Voiced by H. Jon Benjamin in a performance that sounds sorta like Jason Penopolis on cocaine.

Unlike its squiggly brethren under the TSP/Soup2Nuts banner (i.e., Dr. Katz and early Home Movies) Science Court doesn't have the latitude for freeform story composition. This is an educational cartoon in the guise of a mock trial: each episode has a lesson plan to get through, and the courtroom format requires that there be a structure to the proceedings. And that structure looks something like...

ACT I: Some resident of Sciville (usually one of its more unsavory characters) throws a nasty lawsuit at another resident (usually an upstanding citizen). Before the trial goes to court, attorney Alison Krempel and her young assistant Tim confer with the defendant, and Krempel assures her client that the allegations can easily be dispelled by a proper scientific understanding of the events in question. (For example: in the "Water Cycle" episode, local plutocrat and grouch I.M. Richman slips on a puddle in the subway and breaks his ass. He sues Pip Peterson, the pipes' manufacturer, for making and selling defective leaky pipes. Krempel's task is to demonstrate that the water dripping from the pipes was actually condensed water vapor.)

ACT II: Krempel squares off against Doug Savage in Science Court. Witnesses and local experts are called to the stand. Scientific terms are introduced and explained, and short demonstrations are given. Krempel's testimony begins poking holes in Savage's narrative of the events. (In "Water Cycle," a demonstration is given in which water droplets are shown condensing on the outside of a cold glass of water.) 

ACT III: Trying to mount a counterattack, Savage uses incomplete or misleading scientific reasoning. (In the "Water Cycle" case, he performs a fairly elaborate experiment—too cumbersome to explain here—that might seem to bolster his case.) At this point, Krempel calls Professor Parsons to the stand. Parsons performs demonstrations and offers explanations that completely blow up Savage's case. (In "Water Cycle," Parsons uses a sealed pipe and an electronic scale to show that the water drops appearing on the pipe's surface must be coming from outside of it because the pipe is gaining mass, not losing it.)

ACT IV: Closing arguments. Savage flails. Krempel perfoms a musical number recapitulating what everyone has learned today.

ACT V: The jury arrives at a verdict. Invariably, Krempel wins and Savage loses. Case closed, class dismissed.

It's probably impossible to discuss Science Court without considering its effectiveness as a tool for teaching, and being neither a scientist nor a teacher, I'm probably not qualified to judge Science Court's merits in this respect. But I guess we'll try anyway—otherwise we could just stop here.

Well, since every episode is structured more or less the same, why don't we take it act by act?

ACT I: Exposition

I can't even imagine how hard it must be to write entertaining dialogue for an educational show designed for the elementary school crowd, particularly when the whole narrative must perform in the service of its didactic core. Science Court's writers (Bill Braudis, David Dockterman, Tom Snyder) do an admirable job, but this crew is generally much more entertaining when it's improvising, and the format of the show compels them to stay on script most of the time. Science Court is usually able to get by on its idiosyncratic charm and the animators' visual gags—and if that's enough to hold the interest of somebody well out of elementary school, I can't imagine it could do that poorly in a dim classroom.

The writers' brainstorming sessions must have been a blast, though. "How do we build a child-appropriate courtroom story around a lesson in how magnetism/gravity/sound works?" In most cases it's bad form to show obvious signs of plot contrivance, but since Science Court's stories were bound to be improbable, the writers just had as much fun with it as they could. (I mentioned the "Water Cycle" case earlier because it actually has the least complicated plot of the episodes I've seen. They get pretty silly.)

ACT II: The Trial Begins

This is where the kids in the classroom can start taking notes. The case against the defendant usually amounts to a scientific fallacy or misconception that Krempel has to dismantle and correct. I'm usually pretty impressed at the thoroughness and concision with which the facts are presented here. Doug Savage does most of the work towards keeping the proceedings amusing while Krempel and the witnesses offer simple, easy-to-understand lessons in the basic facts of mass, electrical current, atoms, etc. Even if they're not cracking jokes, the characters doing the teaching are colorful enough (without being obnoxious) to hold one's attention.

ACT III: The Trial Continues

About halfway through the trial, Savage tries to fight back. He usually begins by allowing that all the information presented thus far might be true, but then builds a faulty argument based on it. (For instance: when it comes up that the seasons are a consequence of the Earth's revolution around the sun, he tries to argue that it's the Earth's distance from the sun at given time that determines the season.) This is about when Krempel calls Professor Parsons to the stand.

Whereas the earlier witnesses tend to describe the general principles at play, Parsons usually shows how they are brought to bear upon the subject of the case while expanding on the concepts. (In this case, Parsons explains the role played by the Earth's titled axis in the changing of the seasons on the surface.)

Actually, the one major piece of criticism I have for Science Court regards the Parsons segments. If I were an educator, I might be concerned that he comes off as too much of a know-it-all (he's a bit on the smug side), and that he risks implying that the cart comes before the horse.

While it's important to convey to young learners that scientific thinking is generally the best way of approaching an understanding of the physical world's constituents, it is equally important to emphasize that scientific understanding is always a work in progress. Not only can scientists be wrong sometimes, they must be wrong—otherwise scientific advancement would be impossible. What we don't want is to unintentionally suggest that scientists are like some infallible priest caste, and that we should trust what they say because they're the scientists and they know; rather, learners should be made to understand that science is generally trustworthy because because generations of disciplined experimenters have been checking and correcting their predecessors' work for centuries. (But in a elementary schooler's mind, these shades may be too similar to differentiate.)

I would have preferred that Science Court's scientist par excellence exemplify the dependence of scientific knowledge upon observing and experimenting; with Professor Parsons, it's the explanation, then the experiment. (Perhaps it's because the Nye/Ham debate still lingers in my memory, but I'd be wary of giving even the slightest impression that the purpose of experimentation is to verify a preestablished conclusion rather than challenge it.) H. Jon Benjamin would have been better cast as a more Socratic type of character: someone who doesn't claim to be smart, but has a talent for helping others arrive at enlightenment. Someone whose response to questions about the issue of the week would always be: "I have no idea! Let's do an experiment and find out!" Not only would it help foster in students an appreciation of the scientific method (which is of equal, if not greater importance than the mountain of knowledge it has yielded us), it would be much more faithful to the spirit of human curiosity, the very shakti of science.

...But this is a kid's cartoon that hasn't been on the air for about fifteen years, and nobody asked me. So let's move on.

ACT IV: Closing Arguments

This is the part you might want to skip through if you're watching on YouTube. Krempel presents her closing arguments—a summary of the day's lesson—in the form of a musical number, and is joined by the whole courtroom. It's perhaps the most ambitious fixture of the show, given that there's not a single person on the cast that can actually sing. After thirty seconds or so it becomes a kind of choppy group chant set to computer-generated tunes. From what I remember from grade school, this would be where the teacher would have to shush down the brazen snickering from the aisles.

(Postscript: okay, it's not very listenable, but at least one of these songs has proven its insidiousness as an earworm: "Work is not just how hard you push . . . it depends how hard and how far . . . work is not just how hard you push . . . it depends how hard and how far . . . work is not just how hard you push . . ."


ACT V: The Verdict

Acknowledging that the scientific evidence has proved the defendant's innocence, the verdict is always "not guilty." The jury usually squeezes in a few provisos, since life and the physical world in which it occurs are often complex. In "Water Cycle," the jury acquits Pip Peterson but suggests she look into insulating her pipes to prevent further accidents, since evaporation and condensation are ubiquitous phenomena.

Actually, this touches on Science Court's more subtle educational content, which I especially appreciate when I imagine it being shown in a classroom. Although the science lessons are plainly spelled out in the courtroom, the writers are pretty good at sneaking some other stuff in with it. For example: one of Sciville's more litigious citizens is Hollywood pastiche J.M. Cramwood. When the weightier characters in the show are generally less impressed by Cramwood's wealth and celebrity status than the ingenuity and accomplishments of the artisans he sues, a young learner's brain might make a note to place more importance on cultivating knowledge and skills than popularity. A defendant who happens to be an amputee permits a few asides to be made about misapprehensions regarding the disabled; another episode in which it comes up that the defendant absolutely doesn't care that the plaintiff bullied him in school years ago is a protip to students that the teenage pecking order nonsense they're experiencing (or are about to experience) doesn't have to matter in the long run. An episode about statistics seizes an opportunity to cite the number of cigarette smokers in a given population and the number of lung disease cases as an example of a meaningful correlation. This is all stuff one would expect to see a cartoon designed to educate, but I've got to give the writers credit for managing to fit in this sort of stuff without being obtrusive or putting too fine a point on it.

And that's Science Court. And that's all I got.

Sorry for not being able to muster a pithy wrap-up here. Again, it's hard to rate an educational show when you don't have any youngsters around to test it with. I wish I did, though; I've really warmed to Science Court and regret not being able to watch it with (or as) a member of its intended audience. In the unlikely event that there are any elementary or middle school teachers in attendance here, I heartily recommend taking a look at Science Court and perhaps putting it on reserve for the next morning you wake up with a hangover and decide it's a good day for an in-class video. (If you try it, do tell me the results!)



  1. I watched all of these recently looking for material for my little livestream channel. I didn't need to watch more than a couple, so obviously I enjoyed them.




  2. I admit I've never even heard of this show before. I'll have to check it out.

  3. Actually remembered watching this when I was younger, I seem to remember one episode about left-handed people being aliens, but it's pretty much all a blur now. Have always considered going back to check it out.

  4. I remember watching this as a kid. I can't attest too much to its educational value, given it typically was merely reinforcing something I'd already learned at school (I was maybe a grade or so older than its target demographic), but I certainly found it entertaining.