Disney Channel Live Action Series - An Overview
In this post, I review all of the current Disney Channel original live-action series. As far as I can tell, the list is Hannah Montana, Naturally Sadie, Phil of the Future, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, and That's So Raven. In addition, there is Life With Derek, which is not a Disney Channel original series, but was originally made by a Canadian network and is being syndicated by Disney. I decided not to include Life With Derek in this continuum because it's not a Disney Channel produced series (and it shows), and they don't show it frequently enough that I've gotten a real impression of it. Some of my thoughts on the show will follow the main body of the post.
Some may ask what the purpose of all this is. I have always been a big fan of Disney TV shows, from when I was a kid. At that time, Disney would produce live action shows and option them out to other networks, like for example Boy Meets World and Sister, Sister. I would always watch these shows when I was a lad and still have fond memories of them looking back. Then at some point I became too awesome for the Disney channel and stopped watching. But then came another high period of Disney shows, when both Even Stevens and Lizzie Maguire were on the air. I've always really enjoyed both shows (as previously documented in this space), but then when those shows both were cancelled in 2003, that was the end. I just stopped watching the Disney channel all together and moved on with my life, slightly embarrassed by my past enjoyment of the network.
But now, my friends, I say NO MORE. I have no shame regarding my taste in movies, TV, or music any more (as one could easily tell with a trip through the blog archives), and I wanted to see how the new shows stack up to my old favorites. I've basically done nothing but watch the Disney Channel for 2 weeks straight, so I've been able to catch at least 5 or 6 episodes of all of these shows. I had never seen a single episode of any of these shows before. So, I can hardly be considered an expert on this matter, but these are my potentially uninformed opinion on the matter
To rate the shows (and other things) I will employ the following system:
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED - I would recommend that anybody watch this, regardless of whether it seems like your kind of thing or not.
RECOMMENDED - I would recommend anybody to watch it, who has some enjoyment of this type of show.
RECOMMENDED, WITH QUALIFICATION - For whatever reason (to be specified) I cannot deliver a full recommendation to watch.
NOT RECOMMENDED TO WATCH - Not agressively bad, but I just can't in good heart recommend to watch. If it really seems to be up your ally, maybe you should check it out.
RECOMMENDED TO NOT WATCH - Unsalvageable, don't waste your time (well, at least that's my opinion).
For this post, I have decided to rank these 5 shows against each other, and will present the shows in ascending order of goodness, in the typical countdown format. In addition to the quality of the show, I will rate two other things for each show:
1. The Theme Song - This should be self-explanatory
2. Hilary Duff-Style Future Disney Star(s) - Ever since Hilary Duff hit it big on a national scale, every live-action show that Disney has done has some kind of cutesy girl in it, cross-promoted through Disney movies and/or a music career for some desparate grab at future success. I will rate the future girl superstars as well.
In addition, in general, I've noticed one big thing that's changed is CONCEPTS. In the past, with Even Stevens and Lizzie Maguire you had two shows with no real concept, they just followed normal (OK, semi-normal) kids going about their hilarious lives. All of the current crop of Disney shows, for better or worse, has some kind of high concept over-arching them.
Like I said, I haven't had a ton of exposure to any of these shows (with one exception, detailed below), so if there is any show that you think I've treated unfairly and should give a little more attention to, drop a line in the comments and I'll check it out and revise if appropriate. Just note that these shows are all rated as to how they appeal to ME as a viewer and now how well I think they would or could connect to their target audience.
5. That's So Raven
The Concept: The main character is Raven, who is some kind of insane manic individual who also happens to be a psychic, in that she is able to sometimes foresee certain snapshots of future events. Her best friends are Eddie, a rapper dude, and Chelsea, and incredibly stupid/ditzy white girl. She also has a wacky younger brother and father, who oft appear in the show in pointless scenes.
The Show: This is Disney's most popular current show by far, but I just don't get it. As I see it, it's a collection of uninspiring talent playing one note characters. I hesitate to criticize the plots of any of these Disney shows because ultimately plots are never going to be the strong suit of a show like this. However, I feel like the plots of this show, even in comparison to the other shows on the list, are weak, and too predictable. Ultimately, I just can't get into it.
Credit where credit is due though: there were a few good jokes in these episodes that made me chuckle. In addition, Anneliese van der Pol, who plays Chelsea is a good actress. I do wish I could see her in a more challenging role though.
This is a show entirely built around one person: Raven-Symone. If you don't like Raven-Symone, you're gonna hate the show, and if you love her, you're gonna love the show. I find her to be very annoying/irritating, and so no matter how much I enjoy any other aspects of the show, I will never be able to sit through a full episode of this show painlessly.
Theme Song: An R&B tinged number sung by Raven-Symone called, appropriately, "That's So Raven". It's a catchy number that does indeed explain that Raven-Symone is supposed to be a kind of psychic on the show, in case you didn't already know. Quality song.
Hilary Duff-Style Future Disney Star: Hardly need to put the "future" qualifier on this, but it'd have to be Raven-Symone. Raven is already the signature Disney star of the moment, she's on their most popular show and has already released her mediocre music album that tears the hell out of the Disney Radio charts. She hasn't had any cross-promotion through Disney Channel movies, or alternate Disney channel fare, but given how she already stars in such a popular show, I doubt she needs the additional exposure.
Anneliese van der Pol, as noted above, I like a lot, but I haven't seen any type of promotion that Disney is expecting or wants her to be a future star. Branching out into the guys, Orlando Brown has started on the Disney music circuit, and has a chance to be one of the few guys to branch out as legitimate Disney stars, joining just Shia LaBeouf I think.
Room for Improvement:
1) Raven's performance is overly manic and very irritating.
2) All of the characters on the show apart from Raven are one-dimensional stereotypes.
3) The fake audience reactions are horribly annoying.
4) The plots are overly cliched and predictable.
5) Humor is of a very inconsistent quality.
6) "Psychic" concept is odd and unnecessary.
Ultimate Rating: RECOMMENDED TO NOT WATCH. Ultimately, I see nothing here to appeal to anything other than 'tweener girls. There were some funny jokes, and naybe it's just not my kind of thing, but I really did not enjoy this show at all.
4. The Suite Life of Zack and Cody
The Concept: Zack and Cody are identical twins who live in a fancy hotel called the Tipton with their mom, who is a lounge singer there. While there, they make friends with Maddie, who works the candy counter there and is friends with London the spoiled daughter of the hotel's owner. In addition they like to rattle the cages of Mr. Moseby, who is the uptight black british hotel manager.
The Show: Ah, the wonderful world of twins shows. I think most people above a certain age grow to be annoyed/creeped out by the cuteness of young identical twins. Zack and Cody are of age approximately 12-13 on the run of this show. Which makes it great for the younger set, but not too good for the older ones. One thing that makes it slightly more bearable is that the characters are not totally interchangeable. Zack is wacky and mischievious, while Cody is smart and responsible. However, that doesn't help enough to make these guys entertaining to watch.
And it's really a shame, because this show has a top notch supporting cast; possibly the best of any of these shows. Brenda Song and Ashley Tisdale, who play London and Maddie, work really well together and are funny in their shared scenes. Both have a lot of talent playing comedic roles. In addition, Mr. Moseby, though a kind of cliched character as the uptight British black man who is harrassed by the circumstances around him (think Benson or Geoffrey from Fresh Prince), provides welcome comic relief and is generally acted/used well. Again, it's a shame these people can't appear on this show more often.
But, in the end, the quality of the show is inextricably tied to the main characters, in this case the twins and their mom. And I just cannot STAND the twins, and their mom is a boring character. I could envision some very entertaining spin offs of this show, and if it lasted long enough for the twins to become older and less annoying, it could turn into a real good show. Unfortunately, these shows don't have a long shelf life, and I'm not holding my breath.
Theme Song: Kind of a rock tinged pop song, which doesn't explain the concept particularly well but has a catchy enough tune.
Hilary Duff-Style Future Disney Stars: This one has two, Brenda Song and Ashley Tisdale. Brenda Song is a Disney Channel veteran, having appeared as a semi-regular on Phil of the Future and in such Disney movies as Get a Clue (which was horrible, don't bother watching). Now that she has finally gotten a regular role in a Disney channel series, Disney is gonna milk it for all it's worth. She appears on the upcoming Disney Channel Battle of Stars this summer, and appears in the upcoming Disney film Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior. Over the past weeks, I have seen so many previews for that film that I cannot even begin to count them. So it's being hyped up pretty well. In any event, Brenda is really good in this role, though in prior roles she has tended to go a little over the top in her performances. She's already a rising star, and if she's learned to reign in her performances better, nothing's gonna stop her. This is one that I like a lot.
Ashley Tisdale meets more of the perky charming blonde mold that we normally expect to see from Disney channel stars. She's a really good comic actress, with good timing. I'm not sure how she would hold up in a more dramatic role, which this one is not, but for what this role requires, she does it very well. Given her appearance in High School Musical, the most successful Disney Channel Original Movie ever by far, and Disney's general treatment of its cute blonde female stars, an upcoming album seems like a near certainty. One to keep an eye on.
Room for Improvement:
1) Cole and Dylan Sprouse, as most twins on twin-based shows, are very annoying
2) Overly focused on the twins and their mom, to the exclusion of the more interesting supporting characters.
3) The jokes are cliched, and too predictable
4) Ultimately offers nothing new to the landscape of television.
Ultimate Rating: NOT RECOMMENDED TO WATCH. This is an OK show with entertaining side-characters, but I just really dislike the main twin characters. It's fine for kids, I guess, but I can't deliver a recommendation to watch.
3. Naturally, Sadie
The Concept: Sadie is the main character, she's basically an everygirl, but is very interested in nature. She tries to apply her knowledge of the actions of nature, to the study of the actions of humans. She has two best friends, one boy and one girl, and an annoying brother, and they ultimately just go through a normal high school experience. Or at least a "Disney normal" high school experience.
The Show: This show is very, very meh. I watched about 5 or 6 episodes of it, and they were all reasonably entertaining, but I was just ultimately left not having any particular desire to continue watching the show or to seek out new episodes. Really, I forgot about most of the episodes right after I watched them. Not a good sign.
In addition, the similarities to Lizzie Maguire are too numerous and obvious to let pass without comment. Virtually all of these shows crib from past Disney and other shows, but observe:
The main character of the show is female. She has two best friends, one male and one female, and one sibling, who is an annoying brother. OK big deal, that describes two of the other 4 shows on this list as well.
The show features internal monologues that serve as a bridge between scenes and to show what the main character is thinking but wouldn't say out loud.
The main character is an everygirl, intended to be related to by anybody, who oft gets crushes on unattainable guys and buts heads with the popular girl at the school.
The general plots to the shows, and the general feel to the show are very reminiscent of Lizzie. The show runs the course as a drama/character based show with liberal doses of humor. Most of the humor revolves around humiliating or belittling the main character.
Theme Song: A voice-over based theme song that describes the characters and their relationships with each other, but much like the show itself is very meh.
Hilary Duff-Style Future Star: None. Charlotte Arnold is the main actress, and she is very pretty, but I haven't seen any indication that Disney has been promoting her to be a future star at all.
Room for Improvement:
1) Way too similar to Lizzie Maguire.
2) Acting during the dramatic scenes is poor and clunky.
3) The concept of interspersing nature concepts and facts is annoying and pointless, and takes away from the main action of the show.
Ultimate Rating: NOT RECOMMENDED TO WATCH. Not a bad show, by any means, and certainly better than Zack and Cody or That's So Raven. But ultimately it's just too bland. You know, I was a full week into this process before I even heard of this show, it's promoted so little by Disney, and it's easy to see why. It lacks the "hooks" of their other shows and is much more drama/character based than their other shows. The most entertaining part of this show is playing a game wherein you attempt to stay awake throughout the entire running time of the episode.
2. Hannah Montana
The Concept: Hannah Montana is a huge pop star. But she also has an alter-ego, Miley Stewart, who is just a normal teen! Miley's best friends are Lily and Oliver, who are the only two people outside her family who know that she is Hannah Montana. Her dad is her friend, and also writes all her songs, and her brother Jackson is goofy and embarrassing, but ultimately loveable. Hmm, female main character, best friends are a guy and a girl, goofy but ultimately loveable brother....sounds familiar...
The Show: This show has only been around since March of this year, and has only produced 8 episodes total. That being said, I have seen all eight episodes, so am in a much better position to judge this show than any of the others on the countdown. I've really grown to love this show, and despite some kinks that exist in the early going of this show, I really expect it to ultimately be a great show.
I really think this is a case of the right actors playing the right characters on the right show. All of the actors get along really well and have great chemistry with one another. In addition, they are all very comfortable with the comedic requirements of the roles. However, when they try to throw in a character based scene for depth, it usually doesn't go to well. I expect that as the actors get more experienced, they will become more comfortable with the dramatic requirements of the show as well. In particular, Emily Osment, who plays Lily, has been really great in the last few episodes, after an overly manic performance in the first few episodes, and could really mark a turning point in the quality of the show if she can keep it up.
Overall, this show has had some pretty bad episodes, but also some really great episodes up to this point. The most recent episode, "Mascot Love", is possibly the best individual episode of any Disney Channel original series I've ever seen, as the humor made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions, and the character scenes weren't too clunky. Of course, that episode was immediately preceded by the very worst episode of the 8 episode run of the show, so one can never tell with these things.
The way the show achieves balance between Hannah scenes and Miley scenes is very impressive in this early going, as I feel like all the episodes have contained an appopriate amount of time for each aspect of the character. In addition, the scenes where Hannah performs her hit pop songs, though probably too frequently used in the early going, are fairly entertaining, and the songs on the show are good teen pop songs.
There have been some real clunkers in the first run of this, and it hasn't shown to be really consistent, but I don't think any other show delivered as many laugh out loud moments as this one did. I'd take the first 8 episodes of this show over the very beginning run of any of these shows, or any of the prior Disney shows. Will it pick up it's feet, improve on impressive early returns, and become a Disney Channel classic, or will it flame out? Only time will tell, but I think I've made it clear what I expect from the show at this point.
Theme Song: "The Best of Both Worlds" which is both a good pop song, and succinctly explains the premise of the show. Now if you can just ignore it's supposedly sung by a pop star who leads a double life, and it's REVEALING TO THE WHOLE WORLD THAT SHE LEADS A DOUBLE LIFE.
Hilary Duff-Style Future Star: Miley Cyrus. She's only thirteen years old as of this writing, but is obviously already being promoted by Disney as their next big star, as a backup in case Alyson Michalka (discussed at excruciating length below) either doesn't pan out, or leaves for greener pastures. Since she plays a pop star on TV (and does all the singing on the show, incidentally), it's a natural step for her to go into music, which seems to be the normal path for these type of stars now. In fact, there have been a number of Hannah Montana singles already released to date, and they've done very well on Disney Radio. This one is a watcher for the future, as she has a good chance to break out I think.
Room for Improvement:
1) Dramatic character-based scenes mess with the pacing of the show, and are not generally acted well.
2) Laugh track is extremely irritating and very over-used
3) Quality of the humor is very inconsistent.
4) Uneven allocation of time to supporting characters. I think Oliver and Rico are underused, and could/should be incorporated more and better into the plots.
5) Too many pop performance scenes.
Ultimate Rating: RECOMMENDED TO WATCH, WITH QUALIFICATION. I really expect this show to be great eventually. I want to recommend all fans of this type of thing to watch it, but ultimately can't do that unqualified because it's just not there yet. I will say that I personally have become a huge fan, and that this is a show that I will be continuing to watch even after this exercise is over.
1. Phil of the Future
The Concept: Phil Diffy and his family have been transported from the year 2121 to current time. Phil's parents are embarrassing but well-meaning. His sister Pim is a manipulative and scheming comic relief style character. Phil's best friend is a girl named Keely, a basic everygirl who is the only person who knows that the Diffys are from the future. This is basically a normal high school show of this type, except that the plots are often driven by the usage of future devices/technology in present day to perform some various task.
The Show: This show is basically executed perfectly for what it's going for. Not everybody is going to love it, but if this is your kind of show, then this is basically one of the shining examples. Not only is the humor often actually funny, but all the actors seem to be comfortable with the dramatic requirements of the role too, and the dialogue during those scenes is generally well-written.
The real centerpiece to this show is the Phil and Keely relationship. Although I've become frustrated that the relationship never seems to develop at all, it's a really beautifully done friendship with blatant sexual undertones. You can tell that they really care about each other a lot. If there's any show on this list that's gonna emotionally move you at all, this is going to be the one. I can't say that I've been too emotionally involved in the show myself, but some of the episodes, and some of the Phil/Keely moments are just really heartwarming. This is one of those super-ideal TV friendships that are totally perfect, and totally unbelievable, but they work because you want to believe these kinds of things exist in the real world.
Well, the show has been cancelled for good now, so we'll never know if it would have improved on itself or not, but I must say that this is one of the few Disney shows that has kept a basically consistent quality throughout. Watching a really early Lizzie or Even Stevens episode is often cringe-worthy, as they hadn't really found their comedic voice yet, but watching even the earliest episodes of this show is still entertaining.
The "future" concept to the show, which I worried would make it overly gimmicky, is fortunately not used in an over the top way. While the plots are often superficially driven by the usage of future devices and what not, this is at its heart basically a normal high school show. I'd liken it to the film Sky High which was basically exactly like any other high school movie, except the main characters were superheroes. Same with this show. It can lean on the crutch of the future concept for the comedy a little too much sometimes, but it's just heartwarming and charming enough to get away with it.
Theme Song: The theme song to this show, despite the fact that it describes the basic concept very impressively, is really, really terrible.
Hilary Duff-Style Future Star: Alyson Michalka. Okay, full disclosure, through this excercise I've really grown to love Alyson Michalka. She's just so cute and funny and charming on the show, that you really can't help but love her. Disney has been really promoting Alyson to be their big star (supplementing Raven), having her star in two of their more high-profile original movies (Now You See It..., which was surprisingly decent, and Cow Belles, which she starred in with her sister AJ. I never saw Cow Belles but it was probably the most heavily promoted Disney Channel Original Movie ever).
Alyson has now gotten into music now with her sister AJ, and if I may go on a tangent, I must say it's the best of the Disney star custom made albums I've ever heard. Not only it is entertaining to listen to, but 3 facts raise it above the others: the Michalkas have a least co-writing credit on all the songs, except the two covers; they are really good pop singers; they both play guitar on the album. Overall it's an impressive feat with some really good pop songs, but also a whole lot of filler. This one comes with high recommendation if you are a fan of teen pop though. "Rush" is a near lock for my top ten singles of the year.
Alyson, from what I understand, has pitched a pilot with her sister AJ to the Disney channel. For better or for worse, she seems to have hitched her star to AJ permanently, so where she goes AJ goes. I have read rumors that Disney will not pick up the show. For Disney not to pick up a show custom made for somebody they have been promoting to be their signature star, and who is on the verge of breaking out, I can only imagine it must be absolutely horrible.
Alyson I think has a really good chance of breaking out to be a star, but she needs to make better decisions as an actress going forward, and it pains me to say it, but just drop the sister thing. She needs to do solo work. I'm excited about their music career based on their first album but unfortunately general pop doesn't really have a huge market now, and I'm not sure what the shelf-life of this is gonna be. I'm abnormally nervous that her career is just gonna crash and burn after Phil but I really really hope that doesn't happen. Alyson is a really good actress and has an outstanding screen presence and I'd really love to see her in some more adult oriented work (not a reference to porn). If Disney has a future Hilary on their hands, this is her. Hopefully not with the spectacular failure of a movie career though.
I've always loved Hilary Duff, ever since her Lizzie Maguire days, but I'm here to say that Alyson Michalka is superior in virtually every aspect, at least in my opinion. More attractive, better actress, more charming screen presence, definitely a better musician. This is one whose future career I will be closely watching.
Room for Improvement:
1) Phil and Keely's relationship is supposed to be the centerpiece of the show, but showed no development at all, after she found out he was from the future (which was in the 4th episode of the show).
2) The caveman character was unnecessary and detracted from the more interesting plots and characters.
Ultimate Rating: RECOMMENDED TO WATCH. This is it. People may decry the Disney Channel for being really unoriginal and derivative, but this is the reason the formula exists. When a show is executed as near-perfectly as this one is, it's real satisfying to see it play out, especially when acted by a talented crop of actors such as on this show. Really, it's Alyson Michalka who pushes this one over the top. Definitely one I'm gonna keep watching.
BUT THERE ARE OTHERS:
Life With Derek is not a Disney Channel original show. It was originally made by a Canadian network, and is now being syndicated by Disney, and it shows, because it's nothing like any of the shows listed above. Like I said above, I haven't seen enough episodes to insert into the continuum above, due to lack of airings on the Disney Channel, but what I did see was real entertaining, and it's definitely one to check out if you get the chance.
Lizzie Maguire I enjoyed a lot. It would have ranked between Phil of the Future and Hannah Montana had I included it on the list. It's really interesting to see just how much the current crop of Disney Channel shows has cribbed from this show.
Even Stevens has always been my favorite Disney Channel show. It would have ranked above Phil, but I still think there's a good chance Hannah will meet or exceed this show if it lasts long enough. It's really close between this and Phil, and Phil would have had a good chance of catching up to this show in cumulative quality if it had been picked up for a third season, so long as it made some effort to develop the Phil and Keely relationship. But then again, my love for Christy Carlson Romano and the girl who played Tawny in the third season still carries over to this day.
SPECIAL NOTE: All Disney Channel original shows have the name of the main character in the title of the show. How odd.
Summarizing all of the above in convenient countdown format:
BASED ON QUALITY OF THE SHOW ITSELF (ranked as listed above)
BASED ON QUALITY OF THEME SONG:5. Phil of the Future
4. Naturally, Sadie
3. The Suite Life of Zack and Cody
2. That's So Raven
1. Hannah Montana (One of my favorite TV theme songs of all time)
RANKING OF THE HILARY DUFF-STYLE FUTURE STARS
4. Ashley Tisdale
3. Miley Cyrus
2. Brenda Song
1. Alyson Michalka (as if there were any doubt)
For completeness' sake, to fit in the others mentioned above who I liked but weren't being promoted as future stars, Anneliese van der Pol would rank between Miley and Ashley, and Charlotte Arnold would rank between Ashley and Raven (but much closer to Ashley).