I remember how every Saturday morning, I would sit cross-legged in front of my parents’ floor model television watching Saved by the Bell (and its various knock-offs) and dream of being as beautiful as Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani Thiessen) and dating the ever-dreamy Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Goselaar). I was twelve, and I truly believed that high school was exactly as the show presented it, palm trees and all.
Of course, in two years’ time I was severely disappointed, but I remember the ideal Bayside High School and use Bell as the standard to which I hold all ‘tween-geared programming. So, after a good ten-year drought, I was force-fed television programming that caters to the Belieber set once again when I started babysitting my 8-year-old niece on weekday afternoons. Some of the offerings from Disney and Nickelodeon hold water, while others make Bell look like it was written by the Bard.
People can say what they want about Miley, but Hannah Montana was one of the better shows that I was subjected to. Why, you ask?
Well, though some may construe Miley’s in-show double-life as Hannah Montana as fanciful, I’d like to argue that it is possible and at least makes sense. Billy Ray Cyrus played a believable widowed father and road manager with a dimwitted, but likeable son and a multi-talented daughter. Miley faced problems that were ‘normal’ for her age and though they were ‘Disnified’ (holding hands with another girl is considered cheating), they were concerns that were at least relatable.
Fast-forward to 2014 and the garbage that we are left with.
On the Disney Channel we have ANT Farm, a show about middle-school-aged students that possess particular talents in an almost savant form, and because of this, they are advanced to high school early. We have Chynna, the star of the show, played by Disney movie darling Chynna Anne McClain. Chynna is a musical prodigy who can play a long list of instruments and has a multi-octave singing voice. She is mercilessly stalked by her pal Fletcher, a ‘tween art prodigy who’s advances she constantly rebuffs or is oblivious to (this is the basis for about 25% of the show’s jokes). The trio of besties is rounded out by Olive, an annoying, fact-spewing know-it-all who memorizes written content upon reading. These characters are no doubt highly insulting clichés that cater to the lowest-common denominator of an audience.
Plotlines include Chynna dating a robot, Olive becoming a 12-year-old teacher to save the school money, a doll beauty pageant and climate changes between rooms. At least Bell taught us life lessons (never touched caffeine pills, EVER!) while this is just mindless drivel that is based more on nonsense and sight gags than anything of substance. It is trying hard to be a farce, but believes that it is actually serious (even with the ABC/Disney trademark ‘Awwwww’ moment patented by Full House). Then there is the predominant mystery about ANT farm. Why would a musical prodigy or an art prodigy be accepted into high school early? Their talents do not give them the ability to perform high school-level classroom work two years too soon. I digress.
Next comes Jessie, another Disney Channel submission starring Suite Life on Deck‘s Debby Ryan. If you recall from watching Suite Life, Ms. Ryan is only about a year out of high school herself, but in this masterpiece she is the nanny to four spoiled Manhattanites. However, I have to admit that Ryan’s Jessie is a likeable character because she is so unlikeable. She is confused, not very smart, always getting into trouble and has little to no acting talent or fashion sense (which is ironic because Jessie is a Texas-bred gal who moved to NYC because she fancied herself an actress and playwright).
The children are stereotypical characters, though the cast is diverse enough that it is not as noticeable as it is in other Disney productions. The basic premise is that the children are the product of a wealthy “Brangelina” type couple that is always hard at work on the road making movies, or promoting a project and Jessie is basically raising the children with the inadvertent help of the child-hating butler, Bertram. It should be mentioned that the oldest daughter Emma, the only child naturally-born to the swanky couple, is no more than four years younger than Jessie.
Though this is something I can get behind – Jessie promotes adoption, as the other three children have been adopted and are from various parts of the world. Wisecracker Zuri hails from Ghana and is the smartest character on the show at seven years old, but that’s the joke. Ravi hails from India and has a pet lizard who recently had babies (hilarity ensues!), while Luke is an American child, but has subsequently been revealed to be adopted also.
The most ridiculous wannabe-farce that I have seen from this show was the episode where Jessie, Bertram and the kids crashed an airplane onto a deserted island (not exactly a CGI Oscar-worthy), but I know that this was just a contrived set-up to impregnate the family lizard (see above – don’t ask).
Another mess that I can’t get behind is Shake It Up!, a show focusing on two preteen girls that join the cast of a locally-produced, yet syndicated program (do they still make those? Like Romper Room?) featuring apparently nothing but kids dancing in a highly-choreographed manner. Its another attempt at farce, since the typical situations in this sitcom include the girls dancing on the wing of an airplane in flight and becoming an overnight pop act in Japan.
Shake started out strong, sending “after school special”-like vibes relating to having confidence in yourself and even touched on the subject of dyslexia briefly, reflecting the real-life battle of star Bella Thorne (CeCe). It was great at the time because her best friend Rocky was played as the “smart one” and she was played as not as bright, and this plotline shed a whole new dimension on her difficulty at school and explained that she was not inferior, but struggled daily to do what came easily to her friend. My cousin watched this show and instantly identified because she suffers from developmental issues, and it was great that she had a role model. However, by the next episode, the writers were once again portraying CeCe as ditzy, and the characters never once mentioned her disability again.
Shake ended its run recently, and after seeing series star Zendaya make the semi-finals of Season 17 of Dancing With the Stars, I am glad. I believe the world has more to offer both Zendaya and Bella, and I am glad that they will be able to explore what is available to them without being pigeon-holed with Disney. Bella will be starring soon in a movie directed by General Hospital actress Kimberly McCullough (Robin). Zendaya is an accomplished singer and recently released her single “Replay.” They were lucky to escape a show that relied on absurd storylines and racially insensitive arch-type characters to advance the plot. Good for them.
The Disney Channel, back in my day (get out the Wayback Machine!) was a channel filled with documentaries about Walt, Roy and the parks with a sidedish of Justin and Britney. It wasn’t even worth sticking around for the KIDS Incorporated revival starring a young Fergie. I never really watched it, and my parents had to pay for it as a premium service like HBO. I never really thought that Saved by the Bell, which was on at the same time, and initially spurned by the Disney Channel, would serve as a business model for the whole network’s future line-up, but it seems to work for them.
What current Disney Channel shows can you tolerate as an adult?