Film and TV

What Disney's Horrible Tween Shows Taught Me About Parenting — and Today's TV Comedy

It's hard out there for a TV comedy fan.

That's the case for network television, at least. Before All in the Family altered the TV comedy landscape, most sitcoms hewed closely to the formula of solving minor annoyances in 22 minutes (with the occasional “OMG Vincent Price in Hawaii” curveball). AitF dared to tackle issues like racism and sexism, and while the game didn’t change immediately, it opened the door a crack for other comedies to tackle weightier issues. That door is now the proverbial one attached to the barn, as the growth of original content on pay networks and elsewhere has exploded.

The Big Four’s feeble response to the threat posed by cable networks and streaming providers appears to begin and end with Melissa McCarthy and Jim Parsons making coy references to STDs and oral sex on prime time. Problem is, that still can’t compete with the likes of FCC-free HBO and Showtime. It also has the added drawback of driving away older audiences, increasingly the Big Four’s core demographic.

Meanwhile, kids these days (note to self: trademark that phrase) are reveling in a cornucopia of choices undreamed of by those who grew up on airwaves strangled by the Hanna-Barbera industrial-entertainment complex. With nearly a dozen cable options, not to mention On Demand and the aforementioned online streaming services, today’s children can glut themselves 24 hours a day on shows specifically programmed for them. This is a far cry from the hellscape of Saturday-morning-only cartoons, AKA Generation X’s Vietnam.

As a father of grade-school children, I adopted a brave and time-honored parental strategy to confront this reality: utter capitulation. Rather than forbid my kids from watching any TV and thereby turning them into Amish weirdos in the eyes of their peers, I elected to “get involved” — i.e. sit down and watch some of their favorite shows with them. As it turns out, I wasn’t careful and learned something before I was done. Namely, that children’s programming is actually the new refuge for old people who prefer TV like it used to be and have been driven away from prime time by Chuck Lorre and Kat Dennings’ bosoms.

The first exhibit in our traveling roadshow of parental defeat was Jessie, a Disney Channel offering that tells the story of a Texas girl who flees to the big city (New York) and — instead of becoming the subject of a Poison song — ends up hired as a nanny for the wealthy Ross family. The Ross children are four stereotypically multicultural kids whose mostly adoptive parents are mostly absent. There’s also a butler, who provides excellent joke fodder because he’s overweight, and a monitor lizard. The lizard belongs to Ravi, the boy adopted from India, and is named “Mr. Kipling,” presumably because the showrunners decided “Mr. Gandhi” was too on the nose.

There’s another adopted child, a girl named Zuri who comes from Uganda. Her skin color is the only thing setting her apart from the natural Ross children, which would seem to be a cultural slight, unless Disney is proposing all African children behave like the Cosbys.

Jessie was a bit of an outlier in my study, as the episode we watched was an almost note-perfect remake of the original Ghostbusters, the events of which turned out to be a nightmare brought about by Jessie eating all the kids’ Halloween candy and not, thankfully, a “men’s rights” answer to that Paul Feig movie.

Next up was Bella and the Bulldogs on Nickelodeon. Bella Dawson (Brec Bassinger) is a Texas middle-school cheerleader who becomes the quarterback for the football team. This kicks off (heh) two seasons of mildly sexist quandaries and dawning horror as the rest of the nation realizes they let 11-year-olds be cheerleaders and play football in Texas.

And although they’re fairly different shows, Bella and Jessie's mutual use of the Lone Star State was amusing (to me, as someone who lives there). For Jessie, it makes sense — few states set up the fish-out-of-water-in-NYC angle like Texas, while Nickelodeon undoubtedly figured using it as the background for a football-based TV show was a no-brainer. I mean, sports are big in California too, but you’d never set Bella and the Bulldogs there because hippies like Marcia Brady obviously can't catch a football properly.

Both shows are also fond of extended-length episodes, which are problematic when you tell your 7-year-olds they can watch “one more show” and they then proceed to lawyerball you by starting the 85-minute ep in which Jessie returns to Texas to make peace with her hard-ass military father.

More surprising than the overall banality of the shows in question was the almost complete lack of “very special” episodes. With almost no exception, no one in these programs ever deals with quandaries more challenging than an inability to connect with the opposite sex or easily circumvented school-district prohibitions against girls playing football. Routine problems like this also offer another reason for some to abandon prime-time TV and its insistence on acknowledging human ugliness.

Finally there was Bunk’d, because there are still summer-camp-comedy depths left unplumbed by Meatballs III. We watched this for five minutes before I realized I’d been had: It’s a Jessie spin-off, with three of the four Ross kids going to “Camp Kikiwaka” in Maine for further adventures in upper-class banality and laugh-track abuse. Mr. Kipling is gone and replaced by Tiffany, a Chinese-American girl who’s super neurotic about her grades and appeasing her overbearing mother. The eldest Ross child (Emma) is also forced to compete for the affections of the camp hunk with the head counselor (Hazel, as in “Witch”). These are all things that would’ve been rejected in the writers’ room of The Love Boat for being “too cliché.”

This is when I realized the solution to the Big Four’s sitcom problem is right here under their noses. In each of these shows, Disney and Nickelodeon have managed the insidious trick of reverting to a 1950s mindset by effectively leapfrogging the intervening decades and arriving in what older whiter audiences assume to be post-racial America. Three of the kids in Jessie’s charge are adopted from places like Uganda and India, but their problems are just as banal as any Wally and Eddie Haskell faced in Leave it to Beaver.

Obviously, these are children’s shows, and the closest they’ll get to real-world issues is the kind of arm's’ length you see when a boy and girl enjoy their first slow dance at the junior-high social. But isn’t that what the Big Four’s audiences want? Don’t the same folks who keep Blue Bloods and NCIS: Walmart (or whatever) in the Nielsen top 20 prefer their conflicts to be neatly wrapped up before the Mega Millions drawing?

It was an educational experience in other ways, as well. My daughters learned that people will always conform to comforting cultural stereotypes, rural Texas is very accommodating when it comes to equal rights for women and fat people are almost (but not quite!) worthy of human dignity. As for me, I came to realize those fears of my kids running off to the big city are wholly unfounded, that Jessie’s gluttony was probably a statement about America’s stance on resource consumption and that I should immediately drop my television from the top of the nearest football stadium.
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar