Hey-o! Welcome back to Millennial Misremembers, where I take a deep dive into the annals of the media from my childhood. You know, the kind of entertainment that might show up on a Buzzfeed quiz or Nick at Nite, for no purpose other to to make you feel old. This week, I’m rewatching The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo.
After telling you what I “remember” about the show, I’ll rewatch and recap the pilot. You’ll see that my memory is just as bad as yours, and you won’t feel as bad about yourself anymore. Not that you should, anyway. After all, the pilot of The Mystery Shelby Woo, “Fool’s Gold,” premiered March 16, 1996 on Nickelodeon, and is another one of those glorious Canadian-US co productions.
What I (mis)remember!
Obviously, the title of the show gives us a lot of context clues, so some of my memory here is likely conjecture, but yeah, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo is about a North American girl of Chinese descent who solves mysteries.
The thing I really remember is that Adam Busch played Shelby’s best friend. The first time Busch popped on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (he played Warren), I was like, Oh hey! it’s that guy from Shelby Woo! I really love seeing baby actors in these teen series, so I really hope he’s in the pilot. Speaking of …
Let’s rewatch the pilot!
Oh my! This is so 90s! We open on Shelby (Irene Ng) talking directly to camera while some twangy, surfy mystery music plays in the background. She tells us that today is a slow day, but last week was great! Last week, she solved a great case — there had been pirates and sunken treasure, even.
Oh. I guess she works at a police station. Her boss, Detective Whit Hineline (Steve Purnick), walks up to her. He’s got an assignment for her: She’s gonna be an elementary school crossing guard. In the background, a white cop snickers. Sounds about right.
Hahahaha! Shelby’s computer! Let’s see, in 1996, I was nine … yep, our computer lab PCs definitely looked like this, but we definitely weren’t dealing with security footage. No, we were doing Mavis Beacon and playing Oregon Trail. Good times. This does make me wonder, though, if twenty years from now (assuming no apocalypse), I’ll look back at computers from this era and laugh.
Oh! This is a sophisticated transition for a Nick show. We zoom in on the computer screen, and the cam footage becomes the actual on-screen action. A TV report about a fancy coin found at a shipwreck plays over someone smashing a skylight. I’m just gonna ignore the fact that it doesn’t make any in-world sense for the TV to be on …
The next morning, the police investigate the robbery. I guess this priceless coin was just chilling in some dude’s shop? Said dude, Mr. Pappas (Peter Paul DeLeo) informs the coppers that nothing else was taken. Shelby hides in a corner taking notes.
Det. Hineline asks Pappas if he knows the value of the coin and might have taken it. Pappas reminds him that his priceless coin is priceless, and like, who wouldn’t want a piece of priceless gold from the MacPhee treasure? Oh, nvm, maybe it was Captain Mac, he says.
Then, Det. Hineline victim blames because of course. He asks Pappas why he didn’t keep his priceless coin in a safe, if it was so priceless? Before I can get angrier, Shelby makes her presence known when she accidentally knocks down a row of oxygen tanks. The detective sends her home.
Shelby’s friends are waiting for her outside! Sure enough, Noah (Busch) is there, but so is Cindy (Preslaysa Williams). The more of these Millennial Misremembers I write, the more I realize that children’s TV has always been ahead of the curve with regard to diversity/inclusivity. Here, we’ve got a group of friends who are a Chinese-American gal, a Black gal, and a Jewish guy.
So, Shelby relays the info she gathered about the break-in. Cindy want the group to go treasure hunting themselves, thinking it’ll help them find the missing gold. Noah gives that a hard pass — he doesn’t dive; he’s a strictly above water sports kinda dude.
Now, Shelby doesn’t want to go diving either, but that’s because she wants to follow some tar-tracks that dead end at the docks. Well, that is until a cute guy named Nick (Scott Silveira) comes by to offer some diving lessons. As any good friend would, Cindy and Noah rib her about her sudden about face. But, they stop once they see an older gentleman taking photos of the dive shop.
Shelby’s back at the Coral Beach, Florida Police Station! She learns that that dude taking photos was Captain Mac (John Adjemian). Once she starts asking too many questions, Det. Hineline sends her away again. OK, so what is Shelby’s job? And if she’s such a PITA, why does he keep her around?
Back home, which appears to be a B&B, Shelby begs her grandpa (Pat Morita) to pay for scuba lessons. Time out. Morita was Japanese-American and Ng is a Malaysia-born American (though I believe Chinese-Malaysian). They’re playing Chinese-Americans here. It feels lazy. I’m not saying they should have cast different actors even. There was a way to cast these two actors and (mostly) use their authentic ethnicities. Perhaps Shelby make a quarter Japanese-American, for example? Or have Grandpa be her stepgrandpa?
Though Grandpa’s not excited to give her money for the lessons, he exchanges it for some chores around the B&B. Shelby drops the bills on the floor just in time to see a guest’s (Terry Evans-Hays) dirty, tarry shoes. Of course, the guest is a British rare coin dealer. So, obviously, she is not the perpetrator.
Rare Coin Dealer (RCD) wants to urgently “re-shed-yule” her flight out of Florida, but Shelby isn’t about to let prime suspect number one get the heck out of dodge that quickly. So, she uses a crappy Australian accent to pretend to be a British-American airways customer service agent. Shelby tells RCD that all flights out of Florida “half bean” cancelled due to alligators. “Pip pip cheerio!”
Our budding detective wants to get into RCD’s room to snoop. But, try as she might, Shelby cannot get her to leave the B&B. Finally, she’s able to convince her to join Grandpa for a traditional Chinese tea ceremony at four o’clock. Oh, Brits and their tea.
OK! Now we’re at the scuba lessons. Noah’s freaked out about running out of air, but instructor Nick tells him no biggie, you can just buddy breathe. Noah does not like the idea of sharing a tank with a friend. But, Noah, sharing is caring!
Speaking of buddies, there are an odd number of students in the class, so when it’s time to pair off, Shelby selflessly volunteers herself to work with Nick. Her friends again tease her, but she insists it’s all for work. And oh boy, she’s not kidding. When Nick asks if anyone has questions, Shelby starts interrogating him about the priceless coin. He pats her arm in that patronizing, “Calm down, kid” way and clarifies that he meant scuba-related questions.
After the lesson, Noah is still annoyed his pals brought him along, ‘cuz he’s really, truly afraid of being underwater. Y’all, don’t bully your friends.
Meanwhile, Pappas is putting up flyers offering a $10,000 reward for information about his priceless missing coin, effectively putting a value on it? Shelby offers to help him with the flyers, but he tells her to scram.
The trio once again spy Captain Mac, but this time he’s disembarked to buy chowder. To Shelby and Cindy, that means it’s the perfect time to sneak onto his boat. Again, Noah doesn’t like this idea, and points out the dude left the motor running — he’ll be back any minute.
The girls don’t care and decide to check out the cabin, which is def a little sus. Cap’s got a cork board dedicated to info about the priceless coin. Unfortunately, as they keep snooping, they realize they’re moving.
Cap comes into the cabin, thrilled they all now have privacy. He wants to know what the kids are doing there, which means he actively and knowingly kidnapped them? Then, he threatens to dump one of them overboard to get a straight answers. Ho-ly crap.
Next, Cap tells them that the priceless coin that is priceless belongs to him because his real name is Kevin MacPhee, and his great grandfather was the famed Duncan MacPhee of the priceless MacPhee treasure. The kids are all, “Oh, your ancestor was a pirate?” But, Cap does not consider Duncan a pirate. In fact, he says privateers stole the treasure from his great Scottish clan. He was just taking back what was rightfully his, etc.
Then, Kev physically threatens the kids with a cane and verbally threatens to kill them. YIKES. Maybe he was just trying to scare them? ‘Cuz he does drop them back on land. I mean, in any case, it’s highly not OK.
At a burger shop, the trio argues about whether the murderous captain might be the culprit. Shelby doesn’t think so, but regardless, it’s almost 4:00 and she’s gotta get back to snoop. LOL. All of that happened in less than two hours? There’s also a weird interlude with a waiter (Joshua Harto) who seems to exist only as a joke about eating four bowls of spoiled chili? All right then.
Back home, the RCD and Gramps are already having their tea and a gay ole time. So, Shelby heads upstairs and pretends to dust. Oh my. This girl is the clumsiest. She knocks over a lamp and the lady’s luggage. From within the luggage falls a rare coin, but is it the priceless coin that is priceless?
Shelby calls Det. Hineline to tell him she found the coin. Cut to him interrogating RCD in the her room, with Shelby and Grandpa present. RCD insists her coin is from the British Museum, and she’d brought it to authenticate the MacPhee coin found in Florida. Grandpa thinks this is a perfectly reasonable explanation. Maybe, but the British Museum is pretty sketch. I mean, honestly, museums in general are sketch.
Finally, RCD and Det. Hineline take it down to the station to sort out. Shelby wants to know if her boss is mad about the mix up. First up, they don’t yet know if it was a mix up. It seems like the issue here should be more about her not following proper protocol whatsoever, right?
Grandpa tells her as much. Except he also tells he supports her in solving her mysteries in a way that makes it clear he does not take them seriously or actually support them. Rude. Shelby tries to play it off like the discovery was an accident that happened while dusting. So, Gramps sends her off to dust more -— starting in the attic.
Then, the buddy trio goes back to Pappas’s dive shop. Apparently, RCD’s story did check out, so now they’re back to square one. Pappas’s post-priceless coin discovery interview is still on loop. When the reporter asks why he didn’t search for more, he said he wanted to, but he ran out of air. Hmm. That’s sus.
Just then, Nick comes in to grab the kids for their scuba lesson. Before Shelby leaves, she catches Pappas saying the wreck site is about 10-12 miles off the coast.
On the boat, poor Noah is double checking with his friends how to breathe properly (inhale, exhale, etc). Shelby’s unable to focus, ‘cuz something’s bugging her about the case. Aha! When Cindy reminds them that their air tank meter moves to the “Red Zone” when they’re running out, Shelby realizes that in Pappas’s interview (taken right after “finding” the coin), his air tank was in the safe range. Dude never even went diving.
But why would he lie? They don’t know yet. Shelby says they shouldn’t let him in on the fact that they’re on to him until they’re off the boat (he’s captaining). Too bad he overheard their conversation.
Pappas, who like MacPhee, thinks nothing of murdering children and releases the air from their tanks when they’re not looking. Nick — who is Pappas’s nephew btw — sees the tanks are empty and says something. But Uncle Pappas tells him to give them to the kids anyway.
Nick is like, Umm, no way, they’ll die!? Noah overhears that, and flips. Shelby realizes the jig is up and tells Pappas they dgaf about him and his weird relationship to his coin, which he then pulls out of his pocket. Cindy is like Oh, cool, there it is! The kids just wanna go home.
Nick is shocked and disgusted by his uncle’s hijinks. Apparently, Pappas made the fake coin ‘cuz to attract attention to his shop, but as soon as he heard RCD was coming to authenticate it, he had to get rid of it. Pappas says they’ll never be able to prove what he did without the coin and attempts to toss it overboard. Nick tackles him and takes the coin. I mean, I’d say four witnesses to his confession would have been pretty good evidence, but I’m not a cop, so …
The whole crew is rescued very quickly by Det. Hineline, ‘cuz apparently, he’s had someone watching the dock for a while. He’d called the coast guard as soon as they left. Cindy proudly tells the detective Shelby figured out the case, but he snidely remarks that the police had already solved it. Umm, so he knew these kids were in probable danger and let them get on a boat with a criminal anyway? Yeah, sounds about right.
Anyway, the police solved the crime because there weren’t any footprints inside the shop, which there should have been. Also, MacPhee was not a suspect, but rather the informant. And Shelby is like, Ohhh that’s why he
threatened to murder us told us to mind our own business.
So, we zoom out of the computer and back to the police station. Shelby addresses the camera again. She tells us everyone got what they wanted: Shelby, her mystery, Cindy, her adventure, and Noah, conquering his fear of water. EXCEPT THAT HE NEVER ASKED TO BE CURED OF THAT.
Does it live up to the nostalgia?
This was not it. Woah did this show made me uncomfortable. The way the adults treat and talk to the children is abysmal. I mean, I don’t expect much from the police, but I would, for example, think that even a tough-love grandparent would not be OK with the police putting their grandchild in danger like that. Or, like, how can the show just laugh off an adult kidnapping and threatening to murder children? I think I get that the show is trying to say that Shelby and co’s behavior has consequences and shouldn’t be emulated, but there are better ways to do that.
Also, Shelby and her friends don’t really learn their lesson, as is evidenced by the end of the episode, so any sort of potential value derived by the violent, problematic narrative is lost. Further, it seems like Shelby and Cindy aren’t motivated to solve mysteries because they want to serve the greater good, but rather because they’re bored and are seeking adventure. I hate it. Unfortunately, it’s reflective of our culture, but fiction doesn’t have to follow how life it is. It can set examples; why not show us what taking care of each other could be?
Further, notice that it’s Shelby and Cindy who are interested in the mysteries. They seem to just bully and drag Noah along while he whines. So, I loved that we have such a diverse friend group, but the dynamics within the group make me uncomfortable. I realize that this show came out in 1996 and maybe we weren’t having these discussions about diversity in media in the same way.
So, in the end, as much as I wanted to still like this show, I’m sad to report it did not live up to the nostalgia, though I can see why I gravitated towards it as a kid.