The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo ran for 41 episodes on Nickelodeon beginning in 1996 and I loved them all so much.
I have very distinct memories of lying on my grandmother’s bed watching this show. It was in that perfect 90s block of kids’ programming where kids generally looked like kids and main characters reflected the diverse audience tuning in. For a nine-year-old, it was amazing to see a teenage girl on TV who wasn’t blond and white, and who spoke in slightly accented English. Add to this teenage crime fighting hijinks, and I was obsessed.
Thanks to the Internet (and my accidental purchase of Amazon Prime after my reduced student price expired), I can revisit seasons 1 & 2 and see if any of the magic still holds. I’m fully aware that this is kids’ programming, so the quality almost surely won’t hold up. But who cares, because NOSTALGIA.
Episode 1 – “Hot Seats”
00:13 – We meet our protagonist, Shelby Woo, police department intern trying to sneak a peek at some case files because all good teenage spies are nosy and willing to bend rules. She’s there to solve problems like replacing shoelaces and go on coffee runs. Shelby has a Troll keychain. Shelby is also wearing a plaid shirt over a long sleeve logo shirt because it is the 90s, even though this seems like way too much clothing for Florida.
00:20 – Shelby talks directly to the camera. This will certainly not get annoying after a while.
01:15 – 90s FAKE INTERNET/COMPUTER CUT.
01:33 – Shelby and her friends are trying to get to a concert. They are mentioning a teenage scalper at their high school who sells tickets and is apparently legit. Their alternative is waiting at the box office. AND YOU THOUGHT IT’S ANNOYING WHEN TICKETMASTER KEEPS RELOADING THE SAME NOSEBLEED SEATS EVERY DAMN TIME? The 90s were a dark time.
02:02 – UH OH. The tickets were counterfeit. I don’t know why this is shocking since they bought them from someone who just happened to have a bunch of tickets in his locker. The angry ticket taker looks exactly like what you expect every Nightclub owner in Florida to look like.
02:39 – We meet Benny the teenage scalper, who swears his tickets are totally legit. There is a lot of plaid on screen as a crowd attacks Benny. As this angry plaid mob swarms this kid’s locker, I just want to know where are the adults. Are the staff at Space Coast High School as lax as the school name suggests?
02:59 – Why would Benny cheat his loyal customer base? Shelby interrupts this story to pose some expository questions to the audience. Thanks for the guidance, Shelby. Couldn’t do it without you.
03:15 – MR. MIYAGI SIGHTING. Shelby lives with her grandfather in his inn, which I’m sure helps introduce all sorts of colorful characters over the course of the show. Shelby is describing her grandfather as a criminal mastermind. Suddenly his take over of Arnold’s makes so much sense.
03:57 – “Shelby, please don’t talk about crime in front of the guests. I save that for my class on criminal science.” Pat Morita wears ALL the hats.
04:33 – Fun banter about her parents seeing her report card that pretty much serves to answer the question, “Where are her parents?” Shelby came to live with her grandfather in this exotic Florida bed and breakfast for educational opportunities. Her parents are still in China, which makes her one of more complex immigrant heroines of mainstream 90s kids TV. (Yes I realize that’s super specific, but representation!)
05:02 – Oh god, sleaze club owner has a ponytail because OF COURSE HE DOES. He is getting threatening notes to stop the Battle of the Bands. He needs police help. Question, since I am pretty much a shut-in, do Battle of the Bands even happen anymore, or is it a relic of a time before MySpace and Youtube discoveries?
05:40 – “Do you want to know how they got into my locked office?” “No.” “Well I’m going to tell you anyway.” Well, that’s one way to introduce some exposition.
05:46 – Shelby is super stealthy right now, spilling paperclips all over a cop’s desk to listen to the conversation between him and the club owner. Police are reluctant to help sleazy club owner because of his many violations (SLEAZE).
06:26 – Jazzy interlude as Shelby tries to pick the lock on the cop’s desk to get to some files. It’s like producers said, “Hey, we need to lighten this a little bit, she’s our hero, but she’s going to commit at least a misdemeanor, how can we make this fun?” You know what screams fun? Elevator music.
06:48 – Shelby is caught. Time for a talking to from Detective Hineline and his terrible tie.
07:13 – Grandpa is what got Shelby this job at the police station. Pat Morita weilds great power.
07:31 – Shelby is chatting with her friend, Warren from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. His name is Noah, but to me, he is WarrenNoah. He is dressed like the 90s. WarrenNoah and Shelby’s other friend, Cindy, both work for a one hour photo store, which I’m sure was moderately cool in 1996.
08:09 – FLORIDA MONTAGE. Surfing statutes! Palm trees! Space Stations! Go-Karting! Windsurfing! Suburbs! Teenagers jumping into the middle of the road onto your windshield, screaming, “HELP, THEY’LL KILL ME.”
09:46 – Benny is begging for help and saying that he bought the tickets from the box office. Thanks to the 90s Internet, we can keep track of the suspects.
10:02 – Shelby is demonstrating why bangs aren’t a great idea in humid hot Florida.
10:29 – Another teenage scalper, Betsy. Thanks 90s Internet for helping us keep all these suspects in order.
11:30 – Shelby is getting hate mail from classmates against Benny, aka, her locker has been messed with. Oh, high school.
11:49 – Benny is suggesting that Shelby go talk to sleazy club owner by posing as a student high school newspaper reporter. You know, because high school newspaper reporters seem to have the credentials that get you everywhere in these types of shows.
13:14 – Kevin, Benny’s BFF, is introduced as a musician, writer, and electrical maven. He also pulls the cool guy stunt of shoving things off the desk in order to sit on it. Like a cool guy. Preteen me probably loved this. Adult me is saying ALERT, RED ALERT, NICE GUY (™) ALERT.
13:54 – IT’S ALL FUN AND HIGH SCHOOL GAMES UNTIL A SMOKE BOMB IS THROWN INTO THE WINDOW OF THE INN. WHAT THE FUCK? THIS IS A KID’S SHOW?? SHELBY IS JUST FANNING IT. WARRENNOAH AND CINDY DIVE BEHIND THE COUCH. I kind of respect that.
15:41 – They survive with no injuries from broken glass or smoke inhalation.
15:45 – WarrenNoah is tasked with asking the rival scalper for tickets. “You’re Betsy Rowan right?” “That’s what it says on my parole certificate.” WHAT A BARREL OF LAUGHS THAT ISN’T AT ALL MAKING ME SAD.
16:13 – Betsy doesn’t do tickets for the sleazy club. Even juvenile delinquents have standards.
17:19 – Shelby and Cindy are maneuvering their way into the club as Green Day fanclub presidents. The 90s were a simpler time. See also the billboard at this club:
17:46 – Good job to the production assistants who volunteered their band to be part of this episode. It was great exposure, I’m sure.
19:11 – Remember when people submitted audition tapes on cassettes? I mean, I never did that, because I played the clarinet and was nine in 1996, so I wasn’t auditioning for anything except first chair in my elementary school band, but that was a thing people did right?
19:20 – “These places look so different empty.” Cindy, welcome to closing time at every bar, minus the shame and guilt.
19:29 – Shelby is looking for clues in the seats that would’ve been theirs if their tickets were legit. That seems like a good choice. They find a convenient clue and talk to a maintenance man who says that those seats were empty except for one person last week. (Good thing we already established that Shelby isn’t a great student, because that clue is pretty obvious.) “Who goes to a concert alone?” CINDY, THAT SOUNDS LIKE A DREAM SITUATION. NO ONE SPILLING BEER ON YOU AND MORE ROOM TO DANCE? DREAM COME TRUE.
20:44 – Shelby is ordering coffee for the cops because she is a responsible student worker who is treated with the utmost respect. The restaurant worker keeps mixing up the order even though he said he wouldn’t and Shelby has it written down. Shelby, girl, just give him the paper.
21:22 – CLUE! Air vents are apparently a thing!
22:03 – Benny comes into the restaurant. By comes in, I mean he gets physically thrown into the restaurant onto the table Shelby and co. are sitting at. It’s part of his usual routine you see.
22:48 – Benny runs out, as he has apparently put together the clues.
23:10 – Benny confronts the perpetrator at some dock shed, threatening to reveal his secret. As expected, Benny gets pulled in and there are sounds of a fight. To Be Continued…
While I’m sure this was captivating to my preteen self, and that week was painfully long, I have the Internet so I can just move right along.
Episode 2 – “Hot Seats – Part 2”
00:03 – Recap of something I watched 30 seconds ago, also known as the eternal struggle of the binge watcher.
01:20 – Benny is still missing, and Shelby is being interrogated as she was the last person who saw him. Pat Morita is disappointed. Rule in life: if you’re doing something that will disappoint Pat Morita, stop right now.
02:21 – You know what was a questionable choice? The handheld camera. It’s a multi-camera teen sitcom, not an actual crime documentary.
02:39 – Ah more Florida montage. This time with airboats.
02:47 – Shelby is whitewashing the sign in front of her grandfather’s inn, all Tom Sawyer like. Kevin rolls up on his bike, and she just drops the brush on the ground and strolls over. Real casual, Shelby.
03:53 – Shelby shows Kevin the diagram, and he gives her the press pass. Now, the show isn’t heavily implying that Kevin is hiding something, but Kevin is definitely hiding something. He’s jumping in on the investigation.
04:15 – Uh oh, Kevin hates the music at the club. He’s got a lot of opinions about “the music.” He’s getting a little hostile.
04:34 – Shelby is apparently under orders to not work the case. Five guesses as to what Shelby is gonna do.
05:36 – Cindy is plotting a way to get into Benny’s house to talk to Benny’s sister. There is a lot of inventive storytelling here, but Shelby luckily has enough sense to say, “Pretend to be Benny’s friend.” WarrenNoah thinks the worst part of this plan is him having to pretend to be friends with Benny, not the whole lying to the cops, trespassing, and potential theft. High schoolers, am I right?
05:44 – “Playing Hamlet is a challenge, playing Benny’s friend is impossible.” WE GET IT, SOCIAL STRATIFICATION IN HIGH SCHOOL IS THE WOOOOORST.
07:10 – Shelby attempts to climb through the window into Benny’s room because she is impatient, and then of course is dropped out of the window because comedy.
07:54 – Speaking of comedy, that restaurant which is apparently going to be a thing on this show, is out of ketchup. WarrenNoah is distraught.
08:03 – Kevin is at the restaurant and puts his arm around Shelby. This chaste flirting is perfect for 4 p.m. on a Tuesday.
08:40 – Cindy is putting clues together. Thankfully we have 90s computer screens to help us recap the clues/replay a clip from last week’s episode. COMPUTERS ARE CHANGING EVERYTHING.
09:10 – The decor in this restaurant/shack is very confusing.
09:19 – Kevin identifies the dock shack seen in the previous episode. Apparently Benny used to go there to feed the fish. The more I hear about Benny, the sadder I feel. Shelby is off to investigate the dock while Cindy and WarrenNoah go follow up on a lead involving another teenage scalper’s dad.
09:53 – Shelby is stomping down the dock ADORABLY. Those overalls mean business. We see some catfish, and Shelby kicks a weird biscuit that was on the dock over to them. They, of course, swarm. This feels like foreshadowing, kids. I would say it feels kind of dark for a kids’ show, but the pilot also had a smoke bomb, so I could be horribly wrong.
10:37 – DANGER. Shelby is in the dock shack, and the ceiling collapses. She is now dangling dangerously over the catfish and screaming for help.
11:03 – After the commercial break, Kevin arrives to help. He saves the day. Teenage romance is often built on a lot less.
12:02 – Everyone on this show is a terrible actor. Except Pat Morita, because he is a gem.
13:13 – Cindy and WarrenNoah are caught sneaking around a studio. Now Cindy has to play drums with the band as part of her lie. Hijinks.
14:28 – Ah, the adults were fucking with them. Crafty. Adults always can tell when teenagers are lying. Also, twist! Joe is really Jo, as in teenage scalper’s mom, not dad. That’s what you get when you’re being gender normative. You get caught in a web of lies.
14:42 – Shelby is searching in her locker because she just remembered Benny told her the evidence is in her locker, and in case the audience also forgot that, despite the two other times that clip has played this episode, 90s computer magic will replay it again.
14:54 – Favorite character alert: Curmudgeon Custodian. Shelby is frantically searching for evidence and talking out loud, and he just couldn’t give a single fuck. He is also the only adult we’ve seen at the school so far, so that’s concerning.
15:23 – Cindy and WarrenNoah are trying to save themselves. Cindy, as we now know, tries to create an elaborate lie, but WarrenNoah is a punk and tells the truth, sort of. They’re implicating Sleazy club owner.
16:30 – Betsy, the other teen scalper, has shown up with a pizza, because it’s kid TV and someone has to have pizza at some point. Cindy starts spilling a story but luckily (or not) we get a montage cutaway.
16:49 – Oh, I guess the restaurant’s name is CJ’s burgers.
17:01 – Cindy and WarrenNoah are encouraging Shelby to give up the case, but she is reluctant. You know what that means?
17:10 – TIME TO REVISIT THE SUSPECTS. Thanks, 90s computer!
17:29 – Shelby has no idea who kidnapped Benny because of all the layers of fraud, blackmail, and other shady business deals. Somewhere, Veronica Mars is laughing at this amateur hour peewee police activity.
17:59 – Okay restaurant waiter is now my favorite by basically kicking them out so he could go on break. Not enough teen shows stress how terrible loitering can be.
18:21 – WAITER HAS FINALLY CRACKED THE CODE OF THE CLUE. Apparently, it was important to establish that Shelby is here for her education in the past episode because Shelby had no idea that it was an electrical diagram. Shelby girl, are you allergic to the library? You couldn’t use your limited 90s computer? You couldn’t even ask the maintence worker standing beside you when you found it? Step up your game. I am ashamed of how much I adored you as a kid.
18:37 – EVERYONE STOP. THE WAITER’S NAMETAG SAYS “UNEMPLOYED.” I just. I cannot.
18:53 – Shelby has cracked it. She’s calling the cops to stop the Battle of the Bands. Who knew that the Battle of the Bands was this high tension?
19:59 – Shelby is confronting Kevin. But before we can hear why he kidnapped his friend, the entrance to the club explodes. THIS IS TOO MUCH FOR AFTERNOON FUN TV.
20:34 – Kevin is being arrested, but not before a 90s computer recap.
21:17 – I love so much that despite not knowing anything a few minutes ago, WarrenNoah, Cindy, and Detective Hineline all jump in to describe how Kevin did it. Time to go save Benny, but we’re pretty sure he’s fine.
22:01 – He’s fine.
22:16 – Shelby is having a minor crisis about her trust issues with dudes. Yeah, hon, you and Veronica Mars should definitely talk.
23:12 – Shelby recaps the episode neatly and thinks that Detective Hineline will treat her with respect now. Hineline responds by throwing his shoe at her desk demanding new shoelaces. LOL PATRIARCHY. LIKE SHELBY WOULD GET RESPECT, AM I RIGHT?
Tune in next week to see if I can separate Adam Busch in his role here from his role in Buffy (I can’t.), or to see if Shelby tells Detective Hineline that he is a grown ass man and can get his own damn shoelaces (She won’t.).