The Disney Channel Inevitably Goes Meta

I watched an episode of the new Disney Channel comedy Sonny With a Chance, premiering in the U.S. this weekend and on the Family Channel on March 31. The show is a vehicle for Demi Lovato (Camp Rock), whom Disney clearly sees as the next Miley Cyrus: she looks somewhat similar, acts super-spunky all the time, and sings the peppy tween-pop theme song (called “So Far, So Great”). The show itself answers the question: what’s the next step Disney can take after ratcheting up the wish-fulfilment factor with every successive show? The answer, and we might have seen this coming, is to do a show about kids starring in a show aimed at kids.

The ultimate fantasy of those who watch a show is to actually be on that show, and that’s what happens to Lovato’s character; she’s an innocent, sweet, wholesome girl from Wisconsin — why is that always where wholesome people come from on TV? — who gets to move to L.A. to join the cast of a tween comedy show called So Random, whose sketches are of the You Can’t Do That On Television variety (kids getting pelted with foodstuffs). And if you thought Disney couldn’t go any farther in eliminating all trace of adult authority from their shows, think again: Though apparently Nancy “Jo” McKeon appears as Lovato’s mother in at least one episode, the episode I saw had essentially no speaking parts for adults. There’s not even a producer or writer of the show around to tell the kids what to do, at least in this episode; they’re on their own, they’re TV stars, and they’re living and working on sets crammed full of every crazy thing that adults think kids like. I don’t know where Disney can go from here, but they always find a way to top themselves.

Actually, the show itself seemed, on the basis of this episode, to be a little funnier than most Disney product. Instead of their usual people, it was created by Steve Marmel, who has mostly written for their rival Nickelodeon (and before that, for Cartoon Network). The plot was about a feud between the cast of So Random and the super-pretty, super-perfect kids who make up the cast of a teen soap opera, and who look down on the So Random kids because they’re “drama snobs” and consider kids’ comedy to be inferior. Kind of inside-baseball, if you think about it, but at least it provided the opportunity for some shots at bad teen soaps, which is as close as a Disney show will ever come to having an edge. Also, while most of the characters are generic — the fat kid, the bitchy blonde airhead, etc — Allisyn Ashley Arm, the 12 year-old who plays the youngest member of the So Random cast, seems like she could be pretty funny; she plays every line with a seething misanthropic rage that makes her seem like a very young Carla Tortelli. Maybe tween shows should think about casting more actors who are actually tweens.

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