There Will Never Be Another Wishbone

I can’t stop thinking about Wishbone.

Y’all know Wishbone, right? The short-lived PBS series from the mid-90s that featured a darling Jack Russell terrier playing the titular role of Wishbone, a dog with an imagination so active he was able to recreate literary classics with just the power of his mind. That Wishbone.

Since last December, Wishbone and Wishbone’s literary adventures have been on my mind. Call it nostalgia for a less depressing and more joyous time in my life or a potential reexamination of the impact this little show had on my development, but I cannot stop bringing it up in conversation. At this point, every single one of my friends has heard me start a conversation with, “You remember that show Wishbone?” or “Wow, that reminds me so much of Wishbone.” I’ve had to defend Wishbone’s merits to my partner, who didn’t grow up in the U.S. and doesn’t quite get why I still have such a fondness for the show, and to a few other people who didn’t grow up watching it or didn’t have access to it where they’re from. What I’ve realized is that the people who get it, really get it, and the people who don’t will remind you constantly that Wishbone is “just a dog.”

For those who are uninitiated or don’t understand Wishbone’s whole thing or are too young to have experienced the true glory of the show, let me explain in a little more detail. You see, as I said, Wishbone is a dog. He lives in the fictional town of Oakdale with his owner Joe and Joe’s widowed mother, Ellen. Joe has two best friends, Samantha (“Sam”) and David, who are also in most of the episodes. There’s a few other characters who are around often — like Joe’s neighbor, Wanda; David’s dad, Mr. Barnes; the kids’ English teacher, Mr. Pruitt; David’s little sister, Emily; and the kids’ archnemesis, Damont. But the series really centers around Joe’s life and what he and his friends get up to. Every episode of Wishbone is set up the same: In the contemporary world, Joe and/or the people around him are experiencing some kind of conflict or are trying to solve a problem and then Wishbone uses his imagination to recreate the canonical classics of World Literature that most closely correspond with or relate to whatever it is the characters in the contemporary world are facing. Usually, Wishbone plays the lead role in his fantasies, but in the cases where he “can’t” (because of his sex or because it would be too technically difficult), he plays the sidekick.

Maybe that’s not enough of an explanation. Here, let me illustrate this for you using one of the episodes I loved the most as a kid…

The episode focused on Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc opens with Joe and David discussing their upcoming soccer tournament and how they’ll never win against a rival team because their star player sprained his ankle. Sam, a star soccer player herself (on the GIRLS’ team, of course), steps in to say basically, hey, I rule at soccer, too. I’m down to play for y’all. Joe and David are a little reluctant, but then enthusiastically decide to ask their soccer coach, Mr. Barnes, if Sam can play. Meanwhile, Wishbone imagines himself as Twain’s version of Louis De Contes, Joan of Arc’s page, and narrates the story of her rise to prominence from a farmgirl to the General-in-Chief of the French armies and her capture and untimely death at the hands of the English. In 28 minutes, we see both of these stories play out simultaneously, and the episode concludes as Wishbone’s voiceover narration leaves us with some bits of wisdom for us to take on our own journeys.

If you’re wondering, no, Wishbone’s mouth doesn’t move when he talks. And no, the characters in the contemporary world cannot hear Wishbone’s thoughts. And once again, no, Joe and the people around him have no idea what’s going on inside of Wishbone’s head. Only the characters in the stories Wishbone’s imagining interact with him as if he’s a real person, and to his credit, Wishbone (well, really, the dog actor named Soccer who plays him) does his best to seem like he’s a real person. I mean, when characters are speaking to him, he looks like he’s listening intently. When he’s involved in high stakes brawls or has to do something to get away from another character, he does the appropriate flips and backflips to get out of the situation. In the episode focused on the African American folktale of Anansi the Spider, he climbs a tree with a gourd on his back, and in his version of the legend of Robin Hood, he shoots a bow and arrow. He does it all himself while wearing period appropriate clothes in the process, and at the end of every episode, Wishbone’s voiceover narrates just how the stunts are done. Wishbone — ok, Soccer — was truly the Tom Cruise and Keira Knightley of children’s television.

The series played on PBS from 1995 to 1997 with 50 episodes in total that focused on everything from Homer’s The Odyssey to the plays of William Shakespeare to the novels of Jane Austen, Alexandre Dumas, and Charles Dickens to Sherlock Holmes’s mysteries to the biblical story of King David and Goliath and Juan Diego’s vision of the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe to Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West. All of the episodes are about 30-minutes long, and all of them tell two stories at the same time. Thinking about it — and writing about it — makes it feel like pretty standard stuff for kids’ shows in the 90s and, at the same time, it doesn’t feel like anything else at all.

What’s the deal with Wishbone? Why can’t I stop thinking about it? Better yet…what is the story, Wishbone?

In some ways, it feels like I was bound to be a literary kid. According to my parents, I started talking just before I turned nine months old, and I started reading early, too. My dad was a big reader and always had his trade paperback copies of the police procedurals and detective novels he loved to read laying around the house and in his car. My mom wasn’t a big reader but, in my very early childhood, she was insistent about ensuring my younger brother and I were engaging with art of all forms. I latched onto literature and visual art quickly and passionately, so much so that I begged her to take me out of dance in order to make more time for going to art classes and reading. I was seven when Wishbone first came on PBS, and even though I can’t remember the first time I sat down to watch it, I remember watching Wishbone a lot, both when the series was running and when it went into syndication.

Because of the animal element, I think it’s easy to see why kids were attracted to Wishbone, but I don’t remember ever fawning over the fact that Wishbone was a dog back then. Mostly, I felt like I was being let in on some kind of big secret, like I had access to stories that adults cared about. I’m not sure where it came from, but something felt especially furtive about Wishbone. Obviously, it was perfectly orchestrated to appeal to kids my age, but they weren’t telling kids’ stories or editing the stories to make them safer for kids either. (In the “Bone of Arc” episode I mentioned earlier, they show Joan of Arc just as she is about to be burned alive.) Wishbone made hard things — in both Wishbone’s literary dreamscape and in the world where Joe and his friends lived — accessible to kids without writing down to us.

The best episodes of Wishbone impressed on me the importance of storytelling and listening to other people’s stories. I can’t and won’t credit the show for instilling a love of stories in me, but I can certainly credit it with encouraging me to tend closely and thoughtfully to that part of myself that was beginning to blossom at the time. As I got older and graduated to the other sections of the library right before middle school started, I began reading some of the “adult books” that were featured on Wishbone first before any others. When my 8th grade English teacher gave us the daunting task of reading Romeo & Juliet the way Shakespeare intended it to be read, it felt less difficult because I could easily recall Wishbone’s own brush with star-crossed love. In college, one of my professors insisted we read all of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the first thing I thought of when she said it was Wishbone’s short run as King Midas.

Wishbone taught me, very explicitly, that the stories we hear and read and tell each other are directly connected to our lives in the real world. It showed me how we can take stories — even ones that are from outside of our own cultures and experiences — and use them to broaden our perspectives on and change our perceptions of the situations we face and the worlds around us. It was an example of what it meant to seek guidance in places other than who and what was right in front of you. Before this past year, I didn’t think too much about how Wishbone was an essential block helping me fill in the foundation to this literary life I’ve been building since I was seven-years-old. When I think about it this way, it’s obvious how instrumental the show was to my maturation. Mostly, though, it has just kind of existed there in the background of my mind like so many of the most impactful moments of our lives do. But I know it was brought back to the front of my mind for a reason.

Revisiting Wishbone and rewatching these episodes I considered favorites is kind of maddening in the same way revisiting a lot of 90s shows can be. The cast was certainly not the most diverse of the era, and most of the literature featured in Wishbone came from white authors, but the approaches to the stories that were recreated for the show would probably get some pushback in elementary and middle schools and on Fox News now. In the episode about African American folktales, slave owners are referred to as “evil,” they don’t shy away from depicting some of the violence enslaved people faced on plantations, and West African people are depicted as courageous and resistant in the face of that oppression. Robin Hood’s episode plays out how you expect it would, but then it also features Joe organizing a protest at his school and Wishbone reminding us that we should always do what is right even if convention and authority tell us it’s wrong. The creators of the show were dedicated to telling the stories as closely as they could to how they were originally written, which meant that they also couldn’t shy away from showing some of the harshest truths about the society we live(d) in.

It feels strange to think about moments like these from the show in context with everything that’s happening in children’s education at the moment. I’m not arguing that the 90s was necessarily some freer, more enlightened time but looking at Wishbone as a small case study definitely reveals a very big difference between the loud pseudo-intellectualism of today and the prevailing commitments to truth in story- and history-telling in that part of the mid-90s. Twenty-five years ago, it wasn’t really up for debate whether or not slave owners were malevolent and violent, they just were. It was important for kids to know that, oftentimes, authority needs to be challenged, and they showed them how. It can often be hard to empathize with people who do “bad” things but people knew “bad” actions didn’t just come from out of nowhere, so they made things that explained this reality to young people and taught kids how to question the world around them. The truth of our history and how we live our lives — the actual truth, the one that’s often painful to reconcile with — wasn’t some bogeyman that was coming to destroy children and tear our communities apart. It was just what it is: the facts of our lives and the lessons we needed to learn from in order to create greater lives for all of us.

Surely, I don’t want to thrust all of this meaning onto Wishbone alone, but as I said, it makes sense that it came rushing back to me so incessantly this year. It’s not because I’m a nudge or because I like to torture my loved ones with obscure media of a bygone era. It’s more than that. It’s a reminder of something I think we’re losing sight of, even when we think we’re not. Wishbone was, of course, just a supremely talented dog, but Wishbone feels like part of a bigger project, the one where we fully recognize the power and potential of stories and allow them to help us change and shape our lives, our futures, and our unlived and unwritten stories for the better.


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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 25 articles for us.

40 Comments

  1. I remember Wishbone fondly – enjoyed this!

    > “looking at Wishbone as a small case study definitely reveals a very big difference between the loud pseudo-intellectualism of today and the prevailing commitments to truth in story- and history-telling in that part of the mid-90s. Twenty-five years ago, it wasn’t really up for debate whether or not slave owners were malevolent and violent, they just were.”

    +1 — this really captured it for me; also feeling nostalgic for other great mid-90s kids shows (the magic school bus!!)

  2. This article mentions an episode depicting Joan of Arc rising to “General-in-Chief of the French armies”, which is not how she described it at her trial (she denied calling herself a commander since that wasn’t her role), and the Royal military records and eyewitness accounts show the actual command structure, which was composed of noblemen. Some of the commanders (e.g. the Duke of Alencon) said they eventually asked her for advice after accepting her as a valid religious visionary, but she didn’t have direct command.

    • Hi! Thank you for this. As you probably know, Joan of Arc is both a historical figure and a literary one. In Mark Twain’s book that I mentioned, which the episode is based on, her role was indeed “General-in-Chief.” That’s Twain’s take on it, not the actual historical record.

  3. Love this! My favorite part of Wishbone was when they showed the behind the scenes of how they filmed the episode. I specifically remember one with a building on fire and one where they used a green exercise ball for Altas holding the earth.

  4. Wish bone was on TV when I was a kid. I was 10, so I was just a little bit too old by that time. I remember Sesame Street and the puzzle place were on at a similar time. I love all of these culture reflections you all have been writing lately.

  5. I loved Wishbone so much! The theater near me recently put on a production of Cyrano de Bergerac and I was explaining the plot to my partner, but realized I was prettttty sure that I only knew it from Wishbone. We never did see the play, but we did go home and watch the episode.

  6. I think I found your article bc I was recently searching for a way to re watch Wishbone. What a great show! I watched it after school. I’d like my daughter to watch now.

  7. I think I found your article bc I was recently searching for a way to re watch Wishbone. What a great show! I watched it after school. I’d like my daughter to watch it now.

  8. Wishbone was what made me a reader and an English major/grad student. Thank you for such lovely coverage of that amazing show.

    I grew up near where it was filmed and actually have some artifacts from the set, including costumes and some prototypes. So much of that was actually just thrown away after season 2, which is a real shame.

    • Put me in the “gets it” category — absolutely adore this show and as an adult I’ve been hunting for every scrap of video I can get my hands on.

      Sadly the DVD’s are hard to find/limited in release and don’t cover the series and full.

      Has anyone thought of creating a petition? I wonder who has the rights these days and what can be done to bring it to a platform where it’s accessible.

      I know YouTube hosts some of the content, but having the series in full…I’d be happy to pay $100-200 for it in a heartbeat.

  9. I was too young to watch Wishbone when it first came out, but I loved the reruns. I had a hand-me-down Wishbone book of the Odyssey that was pretty much my favorite thing for a lot of elementary school.

  10. I was such a nerd, I was already a reader, so I loved this and Ghostwriter SO MUCH. The show was filmed in my area, which made it even better. Also, Sam was so cool, I wanted to be her and she’s very…well, let’s just say I think she’d fit with the Autostraddle crowd now lol. But I was obsessed with the show, and when I got a dog in 1996 (a Jack Russell/Beagle mix), we named him Wishbone. Thank you so much for this reflection, I need to go back and brush up on some of the old episodes. Does anyone happen to know if they’re available on a streaming service or for digital purchase somewhere?

  11. I loved this show as a kid and still think of it frequently as an adult. There are some shows I wish were still in syndication because so much of children’s stuff these days is crap, that I just want them to have a show that affects them on a entertainment and educational level. They just don’t make them like they used to.

  12. Wow Wishbone!! How I loved so much watching that show every week with my 7 yr old son Robert back in 1995 Huntington, NY. We raised a few Jack Russell dogs, Baxter, Pippi, Spot, Dexter, Dudley and the runt of them all was Dodger dog who stayed home with me while my son was away in college till 2014. My breeder raised them for yrs and her famous Jack Russel was ‘Toby’ on the soap opera show called, ‘Loving’ 1989. Actress Noel Beck bought my ‘Pinky’ 1990.
    So many yrs have past bye and I miss greatly all my Jack Russels. But, today Sept. 2022 Ive owned a very lovely adopted Corgi/Icelandic sheepdog, Lexi. She has been a great companion and so pretty too!
    I do hope that my grandkids today will be able to see the reruns of ‘Wishbone’ and a remake show or movie of ‘Wishbone’!
    Fond memories, Karen Molin

  13. Great written article! Very refreshing to not only see someone remembering this great show and wonderful face of children’s television, but in such a heartfelt manner. I can honestly say I appreciate Wishbone now as in what the show stood for and what it offered to children. The theme song hits me with a lot of nostalgia and makes me want to give my dog (who is also smaller, cute, and adventurous) a big hug, since I can’t do it to Wishbone himself.

    Rest in Peace, Scooter! Your legacy will last a lifetime! Look forward to the movie, until then I have no shame in reliving this show on Youtube lol

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