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A Ruby in the Rough: The ITV Series that Proves There’s Still Hope for Tween Culture

By Toby Burns

Few demographics are prone to as much scrutiny as tweens, that impressionable age group of nine to twelve year olds experiencing their first pangs of independence, yet still wholly reliant on mom and dad. Not quite past puberty, the tween, or “in-between” kid conjures up images of falsetto boy bands, ruthless social cliques, and heartthrob vampires.

Tweens are at the age of first assertions: romantically, stylistically, socially, musically, and even professionally. They’re constantly seeking out external influencers to help them create their own identities, making them extremely suggestible.

It’s why strong role models are important, and unfortunately why clever marketing campaigns suggesting highly coveted, but just out of range notions of violence, sexuality, and status are so effective. “Too old for toys, too young for boys,” as the aphorism goes.

In today’s interactive media landscape where virtually any content is accessible to any age group that knows where to look, gems like KoldCast TV’s Ruby Skye, P.I., an award-winning Internet TV series about a clever young detective and her equally insightful friends, is not only a qualitative departure from exploitative fare, but a vital one.

You are watching Episode 1 of Ruby Skye, P.I.
“Chapter 1: Animal Farm”

New age scams meet old school detective work.
Episode 2 of Ruby Skye, P.I. “Kay Eye Ess Ess…”

The series speaks in the idioms of modern tween culture without shooting for a lowest common denominator. Technologically savvy, emotionally complex, and intellectually substantive, Ruby Skye, P.I. gives us something that no other show does: characters that a young audience can admire for the right reasons.

Ruby is charming, self-motivated, and composed under pressure. She’s everything we expect from a compelling protagonist, but her traits exhibit themselves in light of her everyday pre-adolescent problems, unbecoming as they may be.

The rivalry with schoolmate Diana is one such typically tween-age dilemma. It’s peevish, it’s fault finding, it’s even a little irrational – often the case with interpersonal conflicts at that age. But the show’s writers never allow the tone of it to become ditzy, nor do they center it on the issue of social acceptance and rejection, which is a point of obsession for so many shows for this age group.

Rather, they downplay the cattiness of the conflict in order to focus on the question of what Ruby can actually do about it. And even though she maintains false assumptions about Diana and succumbs to a little aspersion (as any tween must), Ruby learns to treat her with respect and to apologize when she’s in the wrong.

The show handles romance with similar tact, construing it as the happy product of Ruby’s individual pursuits and passions, rather than a requisite for self-esteem. Not that her love interest, the dapper young Edmund, isn’t a prize in his own right. He’s smart, handsome, and his sleuthing skills are a match for Ruby’s own. Their affections are born of their penchants for solving mysteries though, and not an explicit desire to share a first kiss. It’s a great way to introduce kids to love, presenting it as an extension of self instead of as an end in itself.

Ruby’s self-assurance is actually a point of innovation for the show as well. Not only does she live the life of a character in the story, she also talks to the audience as an interactive narrator, pointing us towards clues, suggesting ways to solve problems, and reminding us to check out extra features of the show online and on our mobile devices.

Contemporary as Ruby may be, much of Season 2, “The Haunted Library”, deals with historical themes. Set in gothic reading rooms and infused with references to art and literature, “The Haunted Library” breaks yet another convention of tweendom with its mood of high culture. When’s the last time you heard a young character mention push notifications and first editions of Maurice Sendak in the same sentence?

No real appreciation of Ruby Skye is possible, however, without mentioning Madison Cheeatow, the gifted young actress who portrays her. Cheeatow’s emotional grounding within the role allows her to explore serious themes of maturation and responsibility while remaining an easygoing guide and companion. Her combination of youthful buoyancy and thoughtful elegance helps layer Ruby and the show as a whole.

Beneath its timely appeal, multifaceted storytelling style, and cool interactive design, Ruby Skye, P.I. is a simple tale of a girl forging her identity on her own terms, and this may be the single most rewarding feature of the show. Part of what makes tween culture a rather insidious phenomenon is the way it directs kids’ attention to things outside of themselves, telling them to focus on friends, enemies, parents, and the opposite sex. Ruby, on the other hand, is a girl committed to achieving and developing a stronger notion of herself. This inner sense of purpose is what makes her such a powerful role model.

Traditional yet forward leaning, accessible while adventurous, and a much-needed respite from popular tween culture, Ruby Skye, P.I. hits the zeitgeist of young peoples’ increasingly complex journey toward adulthood and simultaneously creates it anew. It’s a show that will speak not only for its age group, but also for its age.

Click to watch Episode 3 of Ruby Skye, P.I.

Buyer’s remorse is an understatement.
Episode 4 of Ruby Skye, P.I. “A Real Green Dress”

Toby Burns is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in LA Life, Pillow Talk, and others.

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Must Reads 8/22/2014