Kids grow up fast. One day you’re carefully curating their television-watching (and watching along with them), the next you’re tapping away on your computer in another room when you’re hit with an obnoxious cocktail of synthy pop music, canned laughter, and smart-mouthed sassiness. In my household, the change seemed to happen overnight as my 9-year-old daughter finally succumbed to the Disney Channel’s marketing machine. She ditched Spongebob, Phineas, and Ferb—esteemed friends who had served as her bridge from childhood to that advertiser-targeted demographic known as tweendom—and loaded up the DVR with a bunch of live-action, original Disney programs I’d never heard of.
If she’d been born a few years earlier, I would have probably been facing a Hannah Montana situation. But Disney’s massively successful flagship series ended its run in early 2011, leaving the network and its chief rival, Nickelodeon, to cast about for new shows to inherit the mantle.
On Hannah, Miley Cyrus played Miley Stewart, typical student by day, bewigged pop sensation Hannah Montana by night. The conceit of the program had Cyrus’s character striving to live a normal life by concealing her celebrity from all but her family and her most trusted friends. What’s unsettling about many of the shows that have come along since is that the narcissistic courting of fame and attention is central to the characters’ existence, making them a sort of fictional counterpart to the ever-younger contestants on reality competitions like American Idol and The X Factor.
Some of the Hannah Montana-inspired shows have already come and gone. There was Disney’s Jonas L.A., which saw the Jonas Brothers playing pop stars moonlighting as secret agents; Disney’s Sonny With a Chance, which starred Demi Lovato as a teen who lands a role on her favorite sketch comedy show; Nickelodeon’s Victorious, which centered on an aspiring singer (Victoria Justice) at an elite performing arts school; and Nickelodeon’s iCarly, which starred Miranda Cosgrove as Carly, the creator and star of her own popular web series.
Among the series currently in production, tinkering with the kids-and-fame formula is still the order of the day. (One of the few exceptions, Disney’s A.N.T. Farm, is set at the Advanced Natural Talent high school program, and the characters are all child prodigies; other than the family comedy Good Luck, Charlie, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Disney show featuring ordinary kids.) I watched plenty of bad TV growing up; long after I should have known better, I still preferred Joanie Loves Chachi to MASH. But critics have observed a renaissance in children’s programming—which includes shows on Disney and Nick; meanwhile, it's now commonplace to suggest that scripted television for adults has surpassed film in terms of originality and risk-taking.
But a rising tide apparently does not lift all boats: the networks’ tween sitcoms are, on the whole, contrived and uninspired. Perhaps that will someday change. Until then, here is a brief guide to help you distinguish the celebrities and the wannabe celebrities from the kids of celebrities and the attention-seeking dog currently populating the airwaves.
If you could imagine, say, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie handing over their diverse brood to a teenager with no nannying experience, then the premise of the Disney Channel’s Jessie will strike you as perfectly reasonable. The title character is a Texas teen (played with goofy charm by Sweet Life on Deck alum Debby Ryan) who moves to New York to make it big as a singer and actress and falls into a job with the glamorous Ross family. The mostly-absent/borderline neglectful parents are a famous film director and a former supermodel. Their children are biological teenage daughter Emma; tweens Luke and Ravi, the former adopted from Detroit, the latter from India; and second-grader Zuri, adopted from Uganda (her name brilliantly evokes two of the world’s most famous celebrity spawn, Suri Cruise and Zahara Jolie-Pitt). The show was created by Pamela Eells O’Connell, who wrote for Charles in Charge and was later co-executive producer of The Nanny; she is clearly working this sub-genre for all it’s worth. Despite being the primary caretaker to four kids, Jessie still finds time to go on auditions.
Big Time Rush:
About to enter its fourth season, Nickelodeon’s BTR follows four hockey players from Minnesota who form a boy band and move to Hollywood to try to make it big. They live in Palm Woods, a residential hotel for aspiring young entertainers, where they are surrounded by a steady stream of love interests in a setting ripe for outlandish hijinks. (Think courting eviction by throwing parties and holding prank wars.) Through Nickelodeon’s partnership with Columbia Records, the band, cobbled together after a large-scale nationwide casting effort, also fills corporate coffers with studio albums and touring.
See Dad Run:
This Scott Baio vehicle, Nick at Nite’s first original scripted comedy, features the typical bumbling-father fare, but this father, Baio’s David Hobbs, bumbles because for 10 years he starred as the patriarch on a popular family sitcom and thus wasn’t around to raise his own children. When his show’s run concludes, David becomes a stay-at-home dad to his three kids to allow his wife, Amy, a former soap-opera actress, to resume her career. Like the family sitcoms of yore, See Dad Run offers its share of heartfelt life lessons. “It’s just what these people do, sweetie—they take pictures of celebrities and they try to make us look bad, for money,” Amy gently explains to her young son after an encounter with the paparazzi. Don’t we all have to tell our kids that at one time or another?
Austin & Ally:
On this Disney Channel show, Austin Moon (Ross Lynch) is a Justin Bieber-type who uploads videos of himself singing onto the Internet and becomes an overnight sensation. Ally Dawson (Laura Marano), an apt heroine for our age of anxiety, writes songs for Austin because her severe stage fright prevents her from performing them herself. (Ally’s best friend, Trish, is played by the funny Raini Rodriguez, older sister of Rico Rodriguez, Modern Family’s Manny; Marano’s sister, Vanessa, stars on ABC Family’s Switched at Birth.) Every now and then a boy named Nelson, who takes piano lessons from Ally, shows up to deliver his inexplicable catchphrase, “Oh, narts!” The first time your kid mimics that, you’ll be tempted to put your TV into deep storage. As of this writing, the show was close to jumping the shark by having its two leads get together.
Shake It Up:
This Disney Channel show stars Bella Thorne and current Dancing With the Stars contestant Zendaya as CeCe and Rocky, best friends who win coveted spots as background dancers on a local dance show, Shake It Up, Chicago. As if working as professional dancers and appearing on TV every week weren’t enough for the high school students, several episodes see them vying to be featured in the week’s “spotlight dance.” The lyrics the two sing on the heavily Auto-Tuned song, “Watch Me” from the Shake It Up soundtrack, give a fair indication of where their interests lie: “I’m just being me. Watch me do me (Me! Me!).”
Dog With a Blog:
Perhaps I’m stretching my thesis here, but it’s hard to pass up the chance to write about a show called Dog With a Blog. The canine star of this Disney Channel show is Stan, who’s brought into a blended family to help the bickering stepkids get along better. The three children are aware that Stan can talk, but they keep it a secret so that he’s not taken away for scientific experimentation. Nobody, however, knows that Stan also blogs—except, presumably, the legions of dogs that log onto their owners’ computers while we humans are sleeping. We never learn anything about Stan’s audience, but they must be out there. Why else would he bother oversharing on the Internet (sample post: “So, a new family bought the house across the street. I marked that property so many times it should be mine”) if not for the attention? Me! Me! Me!