To be an uncle to a young niece and nephew means having to watch a lot of family-friendly programming, specifically anything on the Disney Channel and DisneyXD. I am certainly not one to judge considering the untold hours of Full House, Boy Meets World, Step by Step and Family Matters I watched as a kid. Despite what our nostalgia-blinded memories suggest, most of those TGIF shows were very not good, and their current Disney counterparts (e.g., Liv and Maddie, Girl Meets World, K.C. Undercover, Best Friends Whenever) are all brighter, bigger, broader and absolutely not made for adults. During one recent babysitting session, my nephew danced and laughed to his heart’s delight through a truly insipid episode of Jessie while I could merely mutter to myself, “What fresh hell is this?”
Beyond the questionable quality of the shows, the more you watch the Disney Channel and DisneyXD the more you start to notice certain things, like a visitor to a foreign land gradually picking up on the local customs. Also, as you watch the parade of kid/tween programming through adult eyes you inevitably make connections the kids won’t.
1. Reports of the Death of the Traditional Multi-Camera Sitcom Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
The multi-camera sitcom, once the dominant force in the land, has become a dirty word. Using three cameras on a sound stage with just two or three primary sets and a live audience to provide instant laughter is still the most cost effective option for producing a sitcom, and CBS still pulls in monster ratings for shows that follow that model, like The Big Bang Theory and Mom. However, every year when the networks announce their development slate they practically apologize if any of the pilots are traditional multi-camera sitcoms. Many are quick to argue that multi-camera sitcoms are more or less dead, putting an end to a format which dates all the way back to I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners.
Not so fast. For better or worse, the traditional sitcom format has been thriving on The Disney Channel for over a decade now. In fact, all of the live action shows on Disney or DisneyXD are traditional multi-camera laugh track sitcoms. If you disdain treacly sweet moralizing, inane hijinks, laugh tracks telling you what’s supposed to be funny and kid actors who are genetically predisposed to mugging for the camera then, um, maybe you should skip all of the Disney shows. However, stop saying the traditional sitcom is dead. It’s alive and…maybe not well, but it’s definitely alive on Disney.
2. These Shows Star People You Actually Recognize
To play an adult character in a Disney sitcom is often a thankless task (the shows aren’t about them), but it’s usually a guarantee of four seasons (i.e., how long each show tends to last) of steady employment and easy work. So you don’t necessarily pity any of the adults putting in their Disney time, but it’s surprising how many times that job falls to character actors you recognize:
Recognize Burns from those Enterprise Rent-A-Car commercials, Reno 911 and countless other TV guest appearances? How about Littleford – she was a freakin’ Daily Show correspondent!
Sparks was in Queer As Folk, hosted Talk Soup and had that elevator cameo in Spider-Man 2. For the past 4 seasons he played a billionaire genius responsible for several bionic superhuman teenagers.
Kramer was Little John in Men in Tights, and the puffy shirt-wearing enforcer for the stripper in American Wedding. He recently put in his 4 seasons as the patriarch of a family of five.
Hardinson was a series regular for all six seasons of the Cosby Show spin-off A Different World, but since early last year he’s been playing the dad to a teenage daughter who aspires to be an undercover spy just like her parents.
Former Talk Soup host Henson played the father in this sitcom about two aspiring teen musicians. Star Trek Voyager‘s Picardo was merely a guest star in the pictured episode, but even guest stars on these shows are played by recognizable character actors.
The Descendants was a TV movie, not a full series. However, it is similarly more interested in the kids than the adults, as indicated by its title. Chenowith’s clearly the headliner among the adults, but Jobrani is one of those “that one guy from that one thing” types. Robinson was a series regular in nearly 300 combined episodes of The Steve Harvey Show and The Game, and Najimy was on Veronica’s Closet, and voiced Peggy Hill on King of the Hill for over a decade.
3. Several of the Perky, Young Actresses Will Inevitably Have a Sexy, Image-Shattering Phase of Their Career
Kids rebel against their parents as they get older, but when Disney stars rebel they start calling themselves X-Tina (remember that Christina Aguilera was on the Mickey Mouse Club) and/or make out with Madonna. Other times they make Spring Breakers, or turn into Miley Cyrus.
As Deadspin explained/joked, “All current Disney Channel stars spend the first 10 years of their childhoods at the Oakwood apartment complex in L.A., forced by their divorced mothers to attend 18 auditions a day or else suffer the lash. As revenge, they spend the majority of their adolescent free time watching the ‘Wrecking Ball’ video and furiously scribbling notes.”
Disney manufactures these girls into sell-able commodities with carefully orchestrated squeaky clean images, and once they’re on the other end of the contract they might be desperate to take charge. All they have to do is compare the current states of Miley Cyrus and Hillary Duff’s respective careers to see how many more opportunities await them if they first demand our attention by stripping down.
Statistically, very few of the actresses actually fall prey to this, but to watch a Disney sitcom in a post-Aguilera/Britney Spears/Miley Cyrus/Spring Breakers world is to know that some of these girls are eventually going to do something extreme to shatter their Disney image.
4. These Kids Are All Franchisable Commodities
Similar to the way that every character of note in a superhero movie or TV show is a potential franchise with toy line and comic book possibilities, the kids in these shows are treated like franchisable commodities. For example, the kids in Jessie can do their four seasons, and then spin-off to their own show (Bunkd) without Debby Ryan. The girls (Rowan Blanchard and Sabrina Carpenter) in Girl Meets World can do special Disney Channel Original movies in-between seasons (Invisible Sister for Blanchard, Adventures of Babysitting for Carpenter).
As part of this eye toward franchise possibilities, so many of the shows center on a group of kids who either work in show business (Hannah Montana, Liv and Maddie, The Suite Life of Zack & Cody) or want to (Jessie, Austin & Ally) thus introducing an in-universe reason for all of the dancing and singing. As Deadspin joked, “The reason that every Disney sitcom kid character works in show business is so that YOUR kid will want to work in show business, so that Disney will have a larger pool of child actors to cast in more horrible shows about child actors.”
To be fair, there are also several shows which are more in the TGIF tradition of simple, family sitcoms (Good Luck Charlie, Girl Meets World, Stuck in the Middle), but even those will find opportunities to let their characters sing if one of their actresses happens to have an album to promote through Disney Radio (like Carpenter’s Eyes Wide Open).
5. They May Not Be Great for Children
A Deadspin writer joked, “Worst of all, these shows are like AP Sass Lessons for your own children. I don’t have a daughter anymore. I have an animatronic SassBot 3000, capable of rolling its eyes and saying ‘Seriously?’ eight times a seconds.” Furthermore, “any child who watches too many Disney sitcoms inevitably begins to treat life like one giant audition. You’re not a sincere kid. All of your lines are rehearsed. You amp up emotions simply because that seems more fitting for the TV show that is your life.”
Neuroscience research actually backs up the anecdotal evidence that a child’s behavior can be unduly influenced by prolonged exposure to TV, and when a mommy blogger authoritatively declared “Disney is Ruining My Kid” two years ago it went viral, shared on Facebook over 10,000 times, garnering 600 comments, 64% of which completely agreed with her.
The gist of the argument is that Disney sitcoms roll out horribly reductive humor, e.g., girls are pacified when you complement their looks, nerds have no business intermingling with the hot kids, fat people are to be laughed at, parents disrespected (until they hug it out at the end), etc. That might seem like the same basic stereotype-dependent style of humor from the TGIF days, but a lot of people think the Disney shows take it too far. While they might teach kids wholesome lessons they also teach them bad behavior along the way.
Among Disney’s active shows which I’ve encountered through my niece and nephew, Girl Meets World appears to be the least objectionable in terms of “Is it at least a decent sitcom?” Maybe the kids of the current generation will grow up to mock Girl Meets World’s earnestness and episodes devoted to bullying, single-parent households and white guilt the same way my generation ironically recalls Blossom‘s many “very special episodes.” However, for now they’re basking in the uncritical glow of a show which is genuinely trying to help them learn about life as they grow. Plus, you know, sometimes Topanga practically has a psychotic break and dresses and behaves like her old hippy self again. So, this is still a fundamentally goofy sitcom, but at least it’s trying to be more.
What are some things I missed? The focus group-driven diversity casting decisions? The painful laugh track? Let me know in the comments.