Last month Disney Channel premiered something called Disney Descendants. You might have heard of it because iO9, er, warned you about it. Needless to say it wasn’t good and all the hype in the world wouldn’t have made it good. Yet over 6 million people glued their eyeballs to it, a pretty hefty number for any cable network. The network still premieres new promotional and tie-in material for it almost a month after the movie itself premiered. It’s got legs - horrible, crappy, singing and dancing legs and no amount of backlash and drinking games from movie critics on the Internet or otherwise can seem to stop it. So that’s it then, right? It’s just another crappy Disney Channel musical, proving that all you need for huge tween ratings are some sloppy musical numbers, weird costumes and copious amounts of tweenaged love angst centered entirely around issues that most people would grow over in the space of half a week.
Does this network ever come out with something good? And if they ever did how far back do we have to go? Certainly the tint of nostalgia dictates those cool shows you saw as a kid like Even Stevens and Phil of the Future were great, right?
First, let get some things out of the way
Ah, speaking of nostalgia, you also remember that Disney Channel has this thing called Girl Meets World which is the sequel to this thing that was on ABC called Boy Meets World that was awesome and beloved by everyone. They can’t mess that up right? I mean, critics actually love it! Someone from Forbes.com even compared it to ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for some really bizarre reason that I’m sure makes sense in that person’s head!
That person’s (Merrill Barr) point being that, actually, yeah, Girl Meets World did kind of suck as much as you’d expect a quick nostalgia-grab from Disney Channel to suck in its first season. It wasn’t just a typical Disney Channel show with Boy Meets World legacy names plastered on to it, but neither was it just a lazy rehash of a show that saw its last episode when Clinton/Lewinsky jokes were just finally starting to get stale. It occupied a bizarre, uncomfortable and awkward middle ground, a ground as uncomfortable and awkward for its own veteran writers as it was for the burgeoning pubescent teens that supposedly were to navigate this coming-of-age voyeuristic TV-scape. Jokes, plots and characters were too busy searching for something to scramble together for a good 22 minutes to be searching for themselves. Consequently the show’s storytelling was strictly the paint-by-numbers formula you’d probably expect from any other Disney Channel show and you can guess the entire 22 minutes of the plot armed with just the episode’s tagline plus the obvious tropes each character occupies: Maya (Sabrina Carpenter, YouTube singing sensation-turned-actress), the “bad rebel girl” learns a valuable life lesson about the importance of family and not stealing; Riley (Rowan Blanchard of Spy Kids 4D: All The Time in the World), the “happy-go-lucky yet shy wallflower girl” learns an important lesson about why hard work is better than easy dollars; the entire gang learns about the vale of friendship when that friendship is tested in a popularity contest, and also something about why bullying is bad. And so on. Yet, where other, more clever Disney Channel shows may either turn the lessons on their head or openly mock them with all the biting satire you might expect from Jon Stewart forced to write children’s shows in retirement, Girl Meets World’s first season met these storytelling challenges with all the nuance of a Reagan-era after school special. And sometimes Shawn Hunter would drop by.
Did things improve in the second season? Yes. Did it become its own show? Well.... That’s going to be a yes and a no. Yes, it managed to put together episodes that clearly found a voice and allowed the characters to be actual characters. But it’s hard not to admit that the best episodes were the ones that made the heaviest use of Boy Meets World reprisals to the point where it almost became a true rehash. Take Blake Micheal’s performance as Shawn Hunter’s (ghost) dad Chet - for all of 45 seconds it’s frequently considered one of the best moments of the show so far, at the tail end of the extremely controversial “Girl Meets Hurricane” which pretty much threw Shawn’s Boy Meets World-era love interest Angela right under the bus (not helped by actress Trina McGee’s own Twitter comments along the lines of persons of color not being allowed to sit on said bus either). Or how otherwise the greatest moments of the show so far all involve either Shawn (Rider Strong, also one of the regular directors of the show) or the great Eric Matthews (Will Friedle, himself a hefty Disney Channel veteran post-Boy Meets World) basically reenacting Boy Meets World nostalgia porn.
So is the series good? Well, overall yes. I’m not going to deny that all that nostalgia porn is a bad thing and it clearly works. After all, if it works why not go with it? But is the series great, as great as its pedigree and the nostalgia hype machine promises, is it really the best thing on Disney Channel? I can only give a mixed answer leaning towards no. I’m going to further defer to Christian and Sean of the Girl Meets World Reviewed blog and point out that, if you look through their own scores and average everything up, their own conclusion is that the series is pretty - average. Probably around a B or even a C+, and the bulk of the episodes from either season so far not really worth going out of the way to rewatch. Sure, there are a few that score high and might be worth watching again and again, but hardly a good majority of the series and again these tend to be the episodes most reliant on nostalgia porn.
And what about Teen Beach Movie? That turned out to be pretty decent, right? They made a sequel and everything, so how’s that? Sure, it has nice girl power messages which are always good I suppose, unfortunately the plot loses much of the time-travel cheesy surfer charm that made the first movie work in favor of more high school teen romance drama. That all gets wiped away through time travel in the end, along with the first movie (oh, spoiler warning). It’s a bit of a clunky plot solution to a plot that was clunky with teen angst to begin with and only helps fuel cries of how they went overzealous with the girl power message as the expense of plot. Nice try, a bit haphazard in execution.
But still better than Disney Descendants.
So what’s good in the neighborhood then?
Besides Girl Meets World (by the way, feel free to just skip the first season entirely except for “Girl Meets Maya’s Mother” and “Girl Meets Master Plan”)? Try this series called Liv and Maddie for starters. Created by two veterans of According to Jim and The Hughleys (for what it’s worth) it provides a surreal twist on the everyday rather than the fantasy fueled star-gawking of high-concept shows usually associated with tween networks. Yes, one of the characters, half of the title cast in fact (Liv, played by Dove Cameron - yes the same Dove Cameron starring in Disney Descendants - yes the same exact and only Dove Cameron who plays the other half of the title cast, Maddie) is a former child star turned singer herself, but the series just doesn’t make much of a big fuss over it unlike say, Hannah Montana (a.k.a. That One Series So Permanently Linked to the Network People Think is Still on The Network Even Though Miley Riding that Giant Wrecking Ball Naked Should’ve Been Their First Clue it isn’t Anymore) or crosstown rival Nickelodeon’s own attempt, VicTORious (a.k.a. That One Show With RaNDom CapITal LeTTers and also pre-crazy Ariana Grande). Instead the show focuses on good old honest storytelling and jokes based around the characters themselves.
If you’re really adventurous you also might want to try - wait for it - Dog With a Blog. Yes. A show about a talking dog. Who blogs. THE PLOTLINES JUST WRITE THEMSELVES! Hold on there a minute! This series comes to you from one of the executive producers of Fraiser - as in that show with the guy from Cheers with the call-in psychology radio show known for its multiple award-winning dialogue-based surrealist humor before Modern Family made all that cool. Again, not every episode is good (in fact chunks of the first season can be skipped over entirely) but it succeeds in pushing what would otherwise be odd, incomprehensible and even awful humor into material that works. It’s probably as close to Dadism as Disney Channel will ever get (except for the one time Disney Channel actually tried Dadism).
Past series like Good Luck Charlie, Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens stay far away from the template of “tween wishes to make it big as a celebrity, then makes it big as a celebrity” formula too. Oh yeah, and they’re pretty good too.
As for the Disney Channel Original Movie (or “DCOM” for short), maybe about a quarter of the network’s output is actually in the annoying musical vein of High School Musical. Most recently was Bad Hair Day starring Austin & Ally’s Laura Marano, and the Disney XD sister network’s Pants on Fire with Good Luck Charlie’s/Might Med’s Bradley Steven Perry is a nice throwback to more of what floated around Disney Channel and Nickelodeon in the 90s. But I’d suggest you might try How to Build a Better Boy starring A.N.T. Farm’s China Anne McClain and Lab Rats’ Kelli Berglund. Ok, so it has an angsty tween love story in it, but wrapped around the charm and goofy production values people fondly remember of DCOMs from the Lizzie McGuire days (think Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century) and the celebration of those STEM topics people keep pushing nowadays. Yay girls in science and math! No, seriously, it features two young female protagonists who are into science and math and not total dorks or morons or cartoon caricatures about it.
And you can always fall back on the classics young hipsters fondly remember in between sipping fair trade lattes or whatever it is hipsters do nowadays - the aforementioned Zenon or the Halloween DCOMs like Halloweentown and...uhhh...Halloweentown 2: The Subtitle Spoils Both the First Movie and This One Too!
Meanwhile...eh, let’s hope Invisible Sister is decent at least.