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.