Why family no longer matters

Kids’ TV is now about young people in wild situations—with few adults

Why family no longer matters

A bunch of kids have gathered in a school on a Friday evening; they’re not here to learn, but to see the first and only live taping of their favourite Canadian kids’ sitcom, The Latest Buzz, about a magazine that hires five high school kids to write its articles. “How many kids here have jobs?” asks writer/actor Darrin Rows, who’s doing the warm-up. One kid puts up his hand; he works at Pizza Pizza. Another kid proclaims: “I work for the Buzz,” the magazine on the Family Channel show. He doesn’t really. But he wishes he did. So do a lot of the kids who watch TV these days. This isn’t the ancient time—five years ago—when kids’ comedy shows were about wholesome nuclear families. Today, a successful youth-oriented sitcom needs to be about a girl who’s secretly a rock star (Hannah Montana) or kids who have magical powers (Wizards of Waverly Place). The modern-day kids’ show starts with a premise that, in the words of Family Channel executive Kevin Wright, “is aspirational, meaning that kids would want to be in that situation.” Forget family values; today, kid comedy is about wish-fulfillment.

Like most entertainment trends, this one started in the U.S., where producers for the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon have been busy pushing kids’ fantasy lives as far as a TV budget will take them. Your kids can see Hannah Montana, or Wizards of Waverly Place, or Zoey 101, starring a pre-pregnancy Jamie Lynn Spears as a student at a luxurious boarding school where everyone lives like a Hollywood superstar. When you come across a traditional kids’ comedy—like Life With Derek, a one-camera show with no laugh track about growing up in a mixed family—it looks like it came from another generation. Suzanne French, a producer on Derek (whose first season, like the first season of Buzz, recently came out on DVD), says that on both Family and the Disney channel “it holds its own against the laugh-tracked lineup,” but adds that this kind of show is becoming harder to sell: “It feels like the world has gone into a higher-concept mode. I don’t know what it would be like pitching the show now.”

The Latest Buzz, which premiered last year, was the first Canadian show in the Hannah Montana vein: on videotape rather than film, with a laugh track and broad jokes, and above all, a premise that puts kids into situations that real kids drool over. In the live-audience episode, just about everything is escapist in one way or another except a brief moral message near the end: the kids form a band and sing pop songs, Hannah Montana-style, doofus gaming expert Wilder (Munro Chambers) does slapstick comedy while trapped in a magician’s box, and the kids never go anywhere near their actual homes or school. Brent Piaskoski, creator and showrunner of Buzz, says that it features “five teenagers who, after school, go to work on the coolest job ever. I hoped that would get the audience.” And it did: a third season started production even before the second season began airing, and Family Channel is making plans for other shows in the same vein, like Overruled, about a kid who gets to be a lawyer.

You didn’t always need that approach to make a family-friendly show. Network executives used to feel that the best shows for kids were the ones that captured what it felt like to be a kid. This goes as far back as Leave It To Beaver, where Jerry Mathers lived a humdrum suburban life and faced realistic problems, just with happier endings than in real life. Full House was another show that became popular with children by presenting sappier versions of normal family concerns. Even Lizzie McGuire, the Disney Channel’s biggest hit before Hannah Montana, starred Hilary Duff as a girl with a conventional family, school, and social circle.

There were occasional hits that took a more fantastic approach, but they were flukes: after ABC had a hit with Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, the network commissioned several other kids’ sitcoms about genies and angels, and they all bombed. It was assumed that kids wanted to see their own lives reflected back at them, albeit in an idealized way, like in the acclaimed ’90s series The Adventures of Pete & Pete, which introduced a few surreal elements into what was basically a realistic story of small-town childhood. But today, Wright says, kids’ shows can’t just start with the simple premise of kids living ordinary lives: “We tend to like shows that are high-concept, because they set themselves apart from other shows.”

And once networks get into the high-concept mode, they keep having to top themselves. Cory in the House is a spinoff of an earlier Disney Channel show, That’s So Raven, about a girl who had psychic abilities but otherwise lived a dull life with her suburban family. Even that was too tame for modern kids, so the spinoff features a character who gets to live in the White House and have world-endangering adventures with his friends. And if people thought Disney had gotten as far away as possible from real life with The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, about kids who get to live in a luxurious metropolitan hotel, they were mistaken: the channel just unveiled a retooled version called The Suite Life On Deck, where Zack and Cody move from the hotel to a luxury liner. Disney is launching a boy-centric channel called Disney XD; one of its first new shows will be about a teenager who is secretly a superhero. Wright explains that the Disney Channel always wants a premise that’s more escapist than the last one: “‘We have two guys in a hotel, what could be better than that? How about a rock star like Hannah Montana? How about a cruise ship? You’ve gotta go up, you can’t go down.”

But even as the concepts of these shows get more bizarre, the idea behind them has stayed pretty consistent: to appeal to modern children, a show needs to feature kid characters who get the kind of independence that only adults have in real life. On The Latest Buzz, the kids not only get to act like grown-up journalists, but have problems that are usually reserved for adults on prime-time sitcoms: one character deals with a humiliating Internet video, another tries to pretend that he has a higher-ranking job than he really does. It’s like a pint-sized version of the Seinfeld gang, with their petty obsessions. Better yet, kids on these shows are almost free from adult authority. On Hannah Montana, the character has no mother, and her father is her manager, making him as much an employee as an authority figure. The only parent who appeared in the live-audience episode of The Latest Buzz was Wilder’s father, who is even dumber and more childish than he is. And Zack and Cody’s mother, who provided a bit of authority on the original show, was dropped from The Suite Life On Deck.

Piaskoski explains that a lot of the people who watch this kind of show are in the 8-14 age bracket, where for the first time in their lives, “the answer to ‘what are you doing on a Friday night’ is ‘We’re not going to the Old Spaghetti Factory with mom and dad, we’re going to this place instead with friends.’ ” When kids realize that they can go places and do things without adults, they naturally identify with characters who can do anything without having to ask a grown-up. True, the producers have to be careful not to portray their protagonists as completely alone and without guidance, since kids wouldn’t like that either; Wright says that when Overruled was focus-tested, “kids were concerned, saying ‘hey, we hope that there’s adult supervision.’ Kids in that 8-14 year-old demo do want to have that in their lives.” But they want just enough grown-up control to make them feel comfortable; they don’t want a Ward Cleaver or Carol Brady figure whose orders have to be obeyed. When they watch today’s TV, one of the things they’re imagining is freedom.

The trade-off for this is that by catering to kids’ fantasies, these shows may be losing the opportunity to make a greater emotional connection with children. The writers still try to have quiet moments and teach lessons; Piaskoski notes that “we’ve done stories about one of the characters’ parents being separated, and as much as you want them to try to get back together, they didn’t. I’d say we’re as real as any show out there, except for the Buzz thing.” But many of the stories can’t have much resonance for real kids: Zoey 101’s most popular character was a scientific genius who created robots and explosives; the Latest Buzz kids get to interview celebrities; Zack and Cody endanger the safety of passengers on what is, for all intents and purposes, the Love Boat. These are shows about kids who don’t have many family, money or social worries, and they appeal to kids who wish they didn’t have those worries either. For the comforts of an old-school, family-oriented kids’ show, they have to look to reruns.

Or maybe they can start looking to some of the shows that are coming; executives and producers already seem to be hedging their bets a little in case kids start getting fed up with fantasy. In the U.S., the ABC Family channel and actor-producer Shaun Cassidy are developing a multi-camera show called Ruby and the Rockits, about a girl who lives with her uncle and his family while her musician father is on the road; it’s aiming for a realistic take on children of the music business, and definitely not Hannah Montana. Canada’s own Family Channel also is not forgetting about the joys of the old-fashioned living room set: Piaskoski says that a proposed spinoff of The Latest Buzz, focusing on the character of Wilder at home, will be “very family-oriented, closer to Family Ties than Buzz, and I think kids are going to love that too.” But whatever kids might love in the future, what they love right now is the type of show where they get to dream of the cool lives and jobs that they’ll probably never know. Plus, escapist comedy usually means plenty of slapstick: “Any time Wilder gets a cake in the face,” Piaskoski notes, “you’re going to get a laugh.” How many cakes in the face did you see on Leave It To Beaver?

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