Amidst all the pomp and circumstance that has surrounded recent streaming hits like Stranger Things, Luke Cage, Daredevil, and Black Mirrorr, most of you probably missed a small little production that aired via Amazon Kids over the past year and a half, called Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street.
Spanning a mere 39 episodes over two seasons (the final half of season 2 was released on July 15, 2016), it tells the story of a trio of friends- Gortimer, Mel, and Ranger- who live in an outwardly Hallmark-esque place called Normal Street. But its outward semblance of, well, “normalcy” is belied by a seemingly limitless supply of magical occurrences that our characters encounter in each episode.
Magic, sorcery, fantasy, sci-fi- there’s no one word that captures them all, as they’re pretty wide-ranging. Some of these things are objects, like a deck of wish-granting playing cards, a cursed coffee mug, or a pencil that can literally erase your memories. There are ghost stories and spirits, legends come to life, and physical transformations. And then there’s the outright futuristic; episodes featuring cloning, time travel, cross-overs between television and reality, and people getting trapped in pocket dimensions
On the surface, then, it appears to be a fairly random charm-of-the-week tale of white-bread, free-spirited kids having adventures that invariably end in the status quo restored. If the show had simply stuck to that premise- cute coming-of-age stories with a smattering of the fantastical- it would have been a solid enough children’s television show. Fun, good lessons for kids, definitely charming, but maybe a bit too childish or harmless to be really memorable.
Dig a bit deeper though, and it eventually reveals itself to have tremendous thematic and emotional depth that only slowly becomes apparent. The catch is that each of the magical happenings almost always reflects some sort of real-life challenge or growing-up obstacle that a character faces and has to overcome. This allows each episode to take what is, in the end, a complex, inward emotional or mental journey and making it explicitly physical- in one episode, Ranger’s internalizing of worries about his parents and the cares of others (“taking their burdens on his shoulders”) causes him to physically gain mass and gravitational pull until he can learn to let go. One characters’ anguish about a problem results in actual earthquakes that threaten the entire town. Another character’s sense of shyness and loneliness manifests in her being literally invisible to her classmates.
Most of the episodes have some form of brilliant conceit like this- a basic life lesson needs to be learned, or a more complicated issue related to growing up comes along, and the character most affected finds or discovers something fantastical that externalizes it, or that provides a conduit for handling a problem that character may have been trying to avoid.
Bit by bit, episode by episode, Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street reveals itself to be a far more complex, and adult, show about the simple fact of growing up, and all of the joys and aches and pains and awkwardness that that entails.
And as all of us in adulthood know, such changes don’t always end as we want them to. To its greater benefit, the show doesn’t shy away from much of the uncertain melancholy that accompanies a lot of life’s big changes. No one would have blamed or questioned the show’s writers for playing things safe, but boy, do they not- the second half of the series goes to some genuinely dark places, considerably raising the emotional stakes at various points for each of the main characters. The fact that some really jarring emotional gear changes never derail a show that remains determinedly kid-friendly to the end is a bit of a miracle.
The show very much exists on its own wavelength, defying any sort of genre categorization I could throw at it. There never seems to be much effort to create a timeline between the episodes. The weather is nearly always impeccably sunny (except when otherwise for plot-driven reasons), and the kids seem to have plenty of days where they don’t have anything to do, so what difference there is between summer or holidays and schooltime, and when and how the seasons change, is never very clear. Time appears to move quite strangely in Normal Street. Perhaps we’re hearing all these tales via Gortimer’s memory as an adult, where the glow of nostalgia even changes what he recalls the weather being. But that’s nothing more than pure conjecture on my part.
For all its clever ideas and solid writing, what anchors the show and allows it to soar to real greatness, especially in its final season, is the acting. Sloane Morgan Siegel (Gortimer), Ashley Boettcher (Mel), and Drew Justice (Ranger) are perfectly cast, with the sort of balanced dynamic between them that even experienced adult actors are hard-pressed to create. Their friendship, and their deep, abiding love for each other, is so superbly realized that it seems not just effortless, but natural; of COURSE these three found their way to each other. Of COURSE they instantly became the best of friends. It couldn’t have happened any other way.
By the time the show’s perfectly-constructed end rolls around- one of the most thoroughly satisfying endings to a children’s show since Danny Phantom, or Avatar: The Last Airbender- I felt like I had known these three my whole life. That their childhood was my own, and that their love was mine as well. I feel like I had this childhood too. I wish I had had this childhood too. Only the best stories achieve that sort of immersion, and from start to finish, Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street has some of the finest storytelling to offer we’ve had in years.