What Tween TV Teaches Kids

The insidious message of Disney and Nickelodeon

John Ritter

"I’m an ice-cream man. I am what the summer is.” Poetry, is it not? We’re at the end of a 1991 episode of Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and Mr. Tastee, his light and pressureless voice slightly muffled by his enormous ice-cream-swirl fake head, is standing by his ice-cream truck, explaining to Big Pete, Little Pete, and Ellen why he cannot stay in Wellsville and be their friend. The kids are deeply attentive, almost understanding; their solemnity is absolute. “Fireflies, thunderstorms, butt sweat on the car seat,” continues Mr. Tastee, his threnody running on. “And when it all goes, I have to go with it.” The lovely things, they melt, they are evanescent, they boom or flicker brightly in the lengthening shadow. Oh, grief and sweetness. Oh, innocence. Oh, ice cream. Bring me to my knees.

Well, it will tend to make you feel autumnal, turning from a gauzily off-the-wall show like The Adventures of Pete & Pete to the current crop of shiny, metallic tween sitcoms—the tweencoms. Your Henry Dangers, your K.C. Undercovers. College rock bands no longer flop and whirl on the front lawn. Mom no longer has a plate in her head that can pick up radio stations. That blurry hipness, that dream logic, has been suppressed, erased, vacuumed out by the corporate nozzle. Across the two biggest children’s networks, Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, the gags and obsessions are all the same, the characters and their glossy environments more or less interchangeable. Mechanized laughter reigns.

What happened? Whence this uniformity? Weren’t the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon once opposing brands—the former a squeaky-clean twinkle factory, the latter more splattery and indie-spirited—battling for the eyeballs of America’s children? Yes, they were. And Disney won, at least according to the veterans interviewed in Slimed!, Mathew Klickstein’s recent oral history of Nickelodeon. Having ruled the ’90s with programming rooted in what a former network vice president, Mike Klinghoffer, calls the “Us vs. Them” theory (“The kids against the grown-ups. It’s like the Revolutionary War.”), the Nickelodeonites lost their way or their nerve or both. “They got seduced by the success of Disney’s shows with older tweens and teens living fantasy lives,” laments Alan Goodman, who helped author Nickelodeon’s great 1980s relaunch. “Wizards, a rock star in disguise, twins who live in a palace. But you can’t beat Disney doing ‘dreams come true.’ ” Pete & Pete co-creator Will McRobb concurs: “We had tried to be the anti-Disney. Now they’re just trying to be Disney … Everything’s about wish fulfillment now.”

So it would certainly appear. It’s about being a superhero (Nickelodeon’s Henry Danger and The Thundermans), a secret agent (Disney Channel’s K.C. Undercover), a pop star (Disney’s Austin & Ally, Nickelodeon’s Make It Pop), or a nanny to the jet set (Disney’s Jessie). Make It Pop, which just completed its first season, is particularly shrill: three boarding-school girls—a compulsive tweeter, a fashionista, and an A student—get together with a lonely DJ kid to take selfies and whip up cheapo Katy Perry–style emancipation mantras. Let’s light it up / I see it all around us / One and all / The fire’s gonna guide us … etc. Indeed, the voice of Katy Perry, huge and exhortatory, as if running for office or declaring war, seems to roll through all these shows. Power is her theme, every Katy Perry fan a kind of private banana republic of self-affirmation—You’re gonna hear me ro-OOOAR!—and power is the major trope of today’s tweencom: hidden power, superpower, star power, money power, the proper usage and disposal of one’s electrifying potentialities. I am, you are, we are exceptional! goes the theme song for Disney’s A.N.T. Farm, which follows the gifted teens of the Advanced Natural Talents program.

Needless to say, I am not the target audience for these shows. Trespassing in the realm of the tweencom with my wonky grown-up mind, I was smitten again and again—as in some Black Forest fairy tale—by unconsciousness. It happened with dreamlike punctuality: five minutes into Bella and the Bulldogs (cheerleader becomes quarterback), a powerful stupor would seize me and I’d topple sideways into the couch cushions. The kids, on the other hand—the kids are watching this stuff like they’re on an Adderall jag. Have you observed the phenomenon of preteens in front of a tweencom? Pure scholarly intensity. They barely smile. No loose guffaws or assenting chuckles escape them. The sight gags, rants, and one-liners are received not with (to quote G. K. Chesterton) “pothouse applause” but “in silence, like a benediction.” They may giggle when they repeat them afterward, but rarely upon initial viewing. This is serious business.

Here’s why. The sitcom is an essentially conservative form. And the superpower/star-power shows, even as they seem to glorify the rogue and untapped energies of youth, are really tutorials on how to keep those energies within the iron laws of normality—on how to be special but not too special. “Kids, stop using your powers!” implores Mr. Thunderman of The Thundermans, as his children exchange playful mega-zaps across their bright suburb. “We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves!” Over on the Disney Channel, meanwhile, K.C. in K.C. Undercover has a dilemma: Should she accompany her parents and brother on a secret-agent mission to the airport, or go to cheerleading tryouts with her best friend, Marisa? The best-friend problem, a collision point between two worlds, is archetypal for the tweencom. Can Henry and Charlotte in Henry Danger trust their excitable friend Jasper with the information that they are superhero sidekicks to the indestructible Captain Man? Should Miley (in the pilot episode of Disney’s Hannah Montana) let Lilly know that she moonlights as a monstrously famous pop star?

Control your mega-ness, kids. That’s the lesson. In the endless negotiations of the main character with the various types—nerd, spaz, depresso, preening jock—that surround her, the gospel of tweencom is handed down: Avoid extremes of all kinds. Don’t be too rebellious, but don’t be a Goody-Two-Shoes, either. Don’t be too vain or confident, but don’t you dare be gloomy. Here rises the terrible Scylla of duncehood; over there is the ship-swallowing Charybdis of geekdom. By alternately incorporating and rejecting aspects of her co-characters, by teasing them without being mean (very important), by dissipating the tension with humor, by successfully managing her superpower, the main character cultivates self-awareness. She locates herself in the comic center. The joke, whatever it might be, the great and dreaded free-floating chorus of ridicule that cruises the school hallways and gathers by the lockers, is not on her.

And what does too much specialness look like? It looks like Madame Goo Goo, the rather brilliant Lady Gaga parody on A.N.T. Farm, whose creative process involves throwing alphabet soup at a whiteboard. It looks like Farkle Minkus, the prodigiously oblivious weirdo on Disney’s Girl Meets World, who mutters “Farkle farkle farkle” when he snores. His singularity is irrepressible but undesirable: his amorous overtures to Riley and Maya, the show’s two heroines, are steadily repulsed. But even Farkle is not the limit. That would be the girl known as Back-of-the-Class Brenda. Look at Brenda, in her red spectacles and goofy dress, waving at Farkle with a hopeful, lopsided grin. Sad world, sad world. Not even Katy Perry can save her.

“It is the summit of idleness,” Martin Amis once wrote, “to deplore actuality.” That’s a handy maxim for a middle-aged critic grumbling and nodding off in front of the TV. The fireflies and butt sweat may be gone, but the tweencom has reached some ultimate refinement, and its audience, the only audience it cares about, is locked in. A breed of socialization is being workshopped on these shows. They may even be helpful. The trials of adolescence loom, God knows. The journey is hazardous; guidance is not to be rejected. Steer the middle course, tiny Odysseus. And good luck to you.