Nickelodeon and Paramount Pictures has released Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide: Special Field Trip Edition, a very funny compilation of three episodes from the charming Nick sitcom. Episodes include the longer, 50-minute special episode, Field Trips, Permission Slips, Signs and Weasels, along with two regular 11-minute episodes, Dismissal and The School Play. As a nice bonus, there's a 94-page softcover book, Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide: Book of Top Ten Lists, shrink-wrapped along with the DVD hardcase. My understanding is that the series has now finished its three-year run, and that there won't be any more new shows. That's a shame, because I found Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide: Special Field Trip Edition to be quite an amusing show for younger kids, tweens, and even their parents.
The series stars Devon Werkheiser as Ned Bigby, a student from James K. Polk Middle School who addresses the audience directly (not unlike Ferris Buehler's Day Off), giving out tips, in the form of a guide, on how to survive the terrors and adventures of middle school. Ned is (unlike so many other characters on kid sitcoms today), a well-adjusted, smart, polite, energetic guide for the audience, and with the help of his two best friends, Jennifer "Moze" Mosley (Lindsey Shaw) and Simon "Cookie" Cook (Dan Curtis Lee), Ned negotiates the rather outsized, often fantastical, yet still recognizable, obstacles that a typical student faces in a school day, such as "school bullies, insane teachers, and gross school lunches," as the opening narration states. As well, Ned's romantic life is complicated by the fact that he has romantic feelings for his best friend Moze - a complication that Moze feels for Ned, as well.
What I liked instantly about Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide: Special Field Trip Edition was the smart approach to the material, evident not only in the writing, but also in the direction and the performances. Unlike so many other TV shows aimed at kids today, Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide has a strong central story hook - a kid giving out tips to the audience, telling them how to get through a typical school day - that's then built upon with clever, genuinely funny scripting and production. There's a confident, genial air to Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide that makes it as enjoyable for adults as it no doubt is for young viewers.
A good case in point is the second episode, Dismissal, which plays like a mini-Sienfeld show. Ned, having only ten minutes until his bus leaves, must negotiate a serious of physical and emotional obstacles before he can get home. His girlfriend, Suzie Crabgrass (Christian Serratos) has "moved into" his locker, displacing his daily check-off list for getting to the bus on time. Everytime he tries to reassert his "manliness" by saying no to all the stuffed animals, or complaining about Suzie throwing away some of his survival guide tips, she breaks down crying, with Ned having to back off and restore order to his relationship. Gordy (Daran Norris), the school's lazy, wacky janitor, doesn't help by goading Ned to put Suzie in her place. Further complicating matters is Moze's fury at the long lines for the girls' bathroom, along with Cookie's terror at being pursued by arch-enemy (and soon to be girlfriend) Lisa (Rachel Sibner). And in a brilliant move, the episode has a countdown clock running on the screen for the duration; as we keep looking back at it, the tension builds over whether or not the kids are going to get on the bus. It's a beautifully integrated and executed 11-minute exercise in tension and comedy, put over by the clever production and the appealing cast.
One of the trademarks of each Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide episode is an exaggerated (and often hilarious) sound design, where every single hand gesture or head turn is punctuated by a silly sound effect, such as a "zip," "whoosh," or "crack." With the speedy editing scheme (and a commitment to upping the fantasy level of the show, including on-screen graphics during the funny, well-staged action scenes), some of those moments come off surprisingly strong for a kids show (There's a particularly hysterical moment when Rob Pinkston's "Coconut Head," a kid with an unfortunate bob hairdo, screams horrifically as he's trampled by other students rushing wildly off a school bus). It's moments like that one that often put Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide on a par with any adult network sitcom out there.
The cast is quite good, as well, with the three leads fresh and funny in their mugging. There's a fine line to mugging frantically; often, it comes off as forced or merely manic, but all the young actors here consistently hit the right tone. The adult actors are fun, too, with Hamilton Mitchell a standout as the Miami Vice-loving Vice Principal Crubbs, complete with pink shirt and white suit, and two pairs of sunglasses. Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide does exactly what it's supposed to do: it takes an experience all its young viewers are going through, and makes it seem fun, and fresh, and larger-than-life. We all remember school as something akin to prison, with the fun, outrageous moments coming in few and far between the general drudgery - if they came at all. Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide is the perfect fantasy antidote for kids coming home from such an experience.
Here are the 3 episodes included in Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide: Special Field Trip Edition, as described on the DVD's insert:
Field Trips, Permission Slips, Signs and Weasels
A field trip to Huffington Gardens and Gallery turns into one of the most bizarre days of the school year. While Ned looks for signs to help decide whether to date Suzie or Moze, Cookie embodies the role of a masked bird-man and must stop a band of international art thieves.
At the sound of the glorious dismissal bell, Ned shares his tips for making it to the bus on time.
The School Play
Moze has the most important role in the school play: stopping Ned and Cookie from ruining the production.
The full frame video image for Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide: Special Field Trip Edition is fine, with occasional compression issues that won't be noticeable on a small monitor.
The Dolby Digital English stereo soundtrack is quite good, with every "whish" and "whoosh" heard clearly. Close-captioning is available.
There's a 94-page softcover book, Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide: Book of Top Ten Lists, shrink-wrapped to the DVD hardcase. Two of my younger boys immediately grabbed it and poured over it, laughing at the silly jokes in it, so I would assume most buyers would view this addition as a welcome bonus.
With a real flair for creative, inventive comedy, along with an excellent production design and fun performances, Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide: Special Field Trip Edition was a genuine surprise for me: a kids sitcom as good as anything on prime-time network schedules today (in fact, it's better than most). With three excellent episodes, along with a nice bonus book, I highly recommend Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide: Special Field Trip Edition.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.