The Decline of the Disney Sitcom
Having grown up in the 80s where kid-centric sitcoms were a regular part of the television landscape, it is probably no surprise that I continue to look for similar entertainment in my adulthood. In my youth, colorful family programming such as Silver Spoons, Punky Brewster, Small Wonder and ALF, usually with outlandishly ludicrous premises, were an escape for those kids who enjoyed a little adventure and fun. In my "maturity", I find myself nostalgic for that kind of sitcom, a brand that is no longer found on network television. This is why I will often turn on the Disney Channel or Disney XD for some lighthearted entertainment reminiscent of those 80s favorites.
In the last decade, there have been some excellent Disney sitcoms that include terrific messages for kids, as well as witty writing and memorable characters/performances. What I always appreciate about a quality Disney sitcom is how it draws a viewer in with likeable characters who make you feel both safe or like they would have been great childhood friends, and how the show makes you want to be a part of its world. Though there are many favorites (I'm sure there will be some disagreement here) these are Disney's ten-best sitcoms to revisit for your time, money, and enjoyment.
Disney’s Ten-Best Sitcoms of All-Time
10. Kickin' It
Disney XD’s Kickin’ it is a particular favorite of mine. A group of kids study martial arts at the same dojo, a run-down, hole-in-the-wall establishment in a California shopping mall. The kids are a bunch of misfits, but under the leadership of their quixotic sensei Rudy, they come together as a tight band of friends who look out for each other. The friendships they build are great examples for kids, demonstrating how people of varied backgrounds and interests can find reasons to appreciate one-another. Jason Earles as Sensei Rudy and Dylan Riley Snyder as the braniac Milton Krupnick are particular stand-outs in this loveable cast.
9. Austin & Ally
The fantasy of becoming a pop star at is something we all dreamed about at one time or another, so Austin and Ally, where two teenagers work hard to become singers and songwriters easily related to viewers. That is the best message of Austin & Ally, that there will be hard work and daunting ups and downs in a creative field. The show is also buoyed by the goofy and charming Ross Lynch as Austin and the pleasingly understated Laura Marano as Ally. Better still is the comedic support of Calum Worthy as the spastic videographer Dez and Raini Rodriguez as the sarcastic manager Trish, the duo supplying some of the funniest moments ever from a Disney sitcom.
8. Best Friends Whenever
What I like most about Best Friends Whenever has less to do with the storyline (two girls accidentally stumble upon the ability to time travel), but rather in how the relationships are being cultivated between the two male characters. The scientific and detached Barry (Gus Kamp) and the eccentric charmer Naldo (Ricky Garcia) are demonstrably, and platonically, affectionate with each other. It is refreshing to see two male characters (especially on a Disney sitcom) hug each other and show each other emotional support. The show also hints that Barry might be on the autism spectrum (without really saying so) and Naldo is understanding and accepts Barry for everything that he is. Additionally, the two girls, Cyd (Landry Bender) and Shelby (Lauren Taylor) have a relationship that is often challenged by their differences, but they show determination and care in maintaining their friendship. It’s a special show predominantly for these wonderfully written relationships.
7. Hannah Montana
The extreme popularity of this show is, in-and-of-itself, a reason for Hannah Montana to appear on this top-ten list. The show was an enormous hit amongst an entire generation of pre-teens. This sitcom, about a teenager who has a double-life, disguises herself as a rock star, attempting to keep the two lives separate. The complications that arise from this duality lead to many farcical, comedy of errors-style, situations. Miley Cyrus, who would go on to be a pop music sensation in own right, played the two characters with a flexibility that could allow her to be raucously tomboyish one moment, and composed and collected the next. Mitchell Musso, Jason Earles, Emily Osment, and especially a devilishly sly Moises Arias give able comedic support.
6. That's So Raven
Raven-Symoné played the title character, a teenage girl who occasionally has psychic visions of the future and then acts upon them. Unfortunately for her, her visions seldom give her the complete story, so she misjudges the actions she needs to take (leading to ridiculously out-of-control scenarios). Symoné played her character with boisterous verve, especially embracing moments where her character would disguise herself, infusing them with comedic caricature that added to the show’s hilarity (it sometimes reminded me of The Carol Burnett Show). The show also inspired a spin-off of one of its supporting characters, Corey in the House, which was a also a hit for Disney.
5. The Suite Life of Zack and Cody
Cole Sprouse and Dylan Sprouse first gained attention when they appeared in an Adam Sandler film, and the two boys proved at an early age that they were capable performers. The Suite Life of Zach and Cody brought the two brothers together in the comedic situation of two boys being raised by their mother (a lounge singer) in a posh, Boston hotel. Zach (Dylan) was the mischievous one and Cody (Cole) was the overly earnest one. Together, their antics were always challenging the patience of the hotel manager Mr. Moseby (Phill Lewis). The show was so popular that it inspired a spin-off called The Suite Life on Deck that found the twins living onboard a cruise ship where they were attending a traveling boarding school. The likeability of the twin brothers and the fervor with which they embraced the lunacy in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, will keep this show an evergreen.
4. Liv & Maddie
Is there anyone more-talented in the world of Disney sitcoms than Dove Cameron? On Liv & Maddie, she plays twin sisters, one a confident TV star and singer who returns from Hollywood to her small-town home in Stephen’s Point, Wisconsin, the other a high school basketball player who is amazing on the court, but awkward where love is concerned. What is so impressive is how Cameron gives these two very distinct personalities, voices, and carriages. You keep reminding yourself that this is one-person playing two-characters. The storylines are a little outlandish, especially for a family sitcom, but the show works in its wackiness. Playing the girls’ brother Joey is Joey Bragg, one of the most delightfully awkward actors to ever perform on television. The hilarity he mines from each moment of Liv & Maddie clearly sets him up for a long career in comedy.
3. The Wizards of Waverly Place
Capitalizing on the Harry Potter craze at the time, The Wizards of Waverly Place was a sitcom set in New York City where three siblings are studying to be wizards: the studious nice-guy Justin, the clever but lazy Alex, and the dim-witted Max. They are all vying for the one awarded position per family to be a Wizard. The show was a great deal of fun, marrying the worlds of fantasy and comedy seamlessly (not an easy task). Selena Gomez became a star playing Alex, her sarcastic delivery giving the character an edge that is often missing in Disney sitcoms. Jake T. Austin, however, as the youngest-brother Max, is so absurdly hilarious that he makes every scene that he’s in a comedic tour-de-force.
2. Girl Meets World
Shame on Disney for cancelling Girl Meets World after only three-seasons. Though The Disney Channel typically runs its sitcoms for only three-seasons, Girl Meets World had the staying power of at least three more. A revisit to the popular 90s sitcom Boy Meets World, the show follows Riley Matthews, a naïve but sunny middle-schooler living in New York City. We witness as her life becomes more complicated from growing up and going out into the world even as she finds love and support from three good friends and her family. What was nice about Girl Meets World is that it tackled many topical teenage issues and had some especially powerful episodes regarding bullying and friendship loyalty. It was an important show because it was addressing issues that needed to be addressed and doing it in a way that was both poignant and relatable. We need this kind of television and Disney does a great disservice to its viewers to end it so soon. Rowan Blanchard gave an indelible performance as Riley, Sabrina Carpenter was heartbreakingly stoic as her best friend Maya, and the brilliantly quirky Corey Fogelmanis (a kid who deserves his own sitcom) steals every scene as the loving but uber-nerd Farkle Minkus. There was some hope that another channel might pick up Girl Meets World and keep it going, but it appears that will not be the case.
1. Good Luck, Charlie
Good Luck, Charlie is a classic family-style sitcom. A teenage girl named Teddy fears that, when she leaves for college, no one will be there to give advice to her baby sister Charlie, so she commits to creating a series of video diaries that will help teach her sibling how to how to survive the Duncan household. The family is far from perfect: Dad tells bad jokes and just wants some respect for his “pest-control” business. Mom is an aspiring television star and will run rough-trod over her kids to get in front of a camera. The eldest-son PJ is a simpleton with a heart of gold, and the younger son Gabe is known as the “Devil Child” by the neighbors. Their house is always a mess. The lack of perfection in their sitcom life makes them so much more relatable than many TV shows where everything ends hunky dory. Good Luck, Charlie feels like Roseanne, with less dire circumstances. Special mention needs to be made of the performance of Leigh-Allen Baker who plays the matriarch Amy Duncan: a bravura comedic performance that captures the real psychotic nature buried in every mother.
Though it did not make the list, Stuck in the Middle receives an honorable mention as it is maturing into something of substance, with a quirky lunacy and it's embrace of diversity. It needs a little more time to brew, but I think this show will be looked upon fondly in years to come. Jessie was also left out of the final cut, predominantly thanks to the character of Zuri Ross, an (often) mean-spirited child, who does an awful lot of bullying on the show. That is something that has carried over to the spin-off show Bunk'd, where she regularly terrorizes and demeans her kind-hearted brother Ravi. If her character ever evolved, Zuri might find some redemption, but with each subsequent episode we find her back at square one, hurling disrespect at everyone. Otherwise, Jessie is mostly whacky fun and can often have some touching moments. The cast is universally talented, even Skai Jackson who plays Zuri (cannot blame the actor for the writing, after all).
In the last few years or so, however, Disney has churned out some less-accomplished sitcoms. No production company can have all hits, but the cancellation of many of the above top-ten titles have rendered the channel dry on quality and content. New additions like Bizaardvark and K.C. Undercover just aren't filling the void left by Austin and Ally and (the most-egregiously cancelled) Girl Meets World. Though all Disney shows usually have some redeeming values, some are a challenge to sit through. Here are some of the hardest to endure.
Disney's Eight Hardest-to-Watch Sitcoms:
8. Dog with a Blog
Hate me for putting this Emmy-nominated sitcom on the “bad” list, but the insipid premise alone made me cringe when I first heard about it. A family gets a dog who can speak (he only speaks to the kids, the adults are cluelessly unaware) and said dog keeps an internet blog. That’s it, in a nutshell. The kids spend most of their time trying to cover up their secret, as the canine helps the kids with their day-to-day problems. G. Hannelius is such a talented young actress (Her guest spots on Good Luck, Charlie reveal her to be nuanced and funny), it is a shame that Disney didn’t give her a better vehicle for her abilities.
A spin-off of the popular Disney sitcom Jessie, Bunk’d follows three of the four Ross kids, wealthy and spoiled Manhattanites, as they go to Maine to attend summer camp. This isn’t exactly where we needed or wanted to see the Ross kids go after Jessie ended (in-fact, I’m not sure that we were ever interested in following them beyond that show), but nevertheless, we get to see them limp through every unfunny camp cliché in the book: going to the bathroom outdoors, bad camp food, animals getting into the cabins, arts and crafts gone awry, and canoes getting tipped.
6. Pair of Kings
Two teenage boys (Mitchel Musso and Doc Shaw) find out that they are the long-lost kings of a wealthy, jungle island and they must go there to rule. Once they get there, we find out that both of them have enough intellect and leadership ability to fill a teaspoon as they bungle everything they do. Every episode followed this same pattern, with almost no character development or plot twists to keep it interesting. The one saving grace of the show is the performance of Ryan Ochoa as their evil cousin Lanny who does his best to expose the kings for the useless monarchs they are.
5. Mighty Meds
Oh, Disney XD, I love a good comic book story just like any other sci-fi nerd, but Mighty Meds takes an already not-so-fun premise and drains what little joy there is in it. Two comic book nerds find their way into a hospital where superheroes come to be treated for their illnesses and injuries. The boys, who are experts on all these characters, become doctors who treat them. The idea of laid-up super heroes might sound fun at first, but the premise puts them in a position where they are their least-interesting. If you can’t fly, shoot lasers, use your super strength or X-ray vision, then Mighty Meds was just Grey’s Anatomy-lite without a discernible story arc.
Disney knew it had a cash cow in the Jonas Brothers. Their music, their good looks, their dedication to purity made them all the perfect Disney package. As a result, Disney created the sitcom Jonas, a comedy that loosely followed the story of these three superstars as they made their music and were ogled by fans. Where Disney went wrong was that they didn’t check to see if the three guys could act or deliver on comedy. Jonas is a painful example of putting the cart before the horse. Just because you can sing, doesn’t mean you can act, and every scene in the show feels forced and poorly timed.
3. K.C. Undercover
Zendaya Coleman is a pretty amazing role model for kids: upbeat, positive, hardworking. My assessment of the show itself is by no means an attack on her as a performer. K.C. Undercover is a show about a family of undercover agents and spies who are helping the government fight “the other side”, a nebulous organization set to do bad things. The performers are all very likeable, but their characters are written to be unpleasant most of the time, often at each other’s throats, and the adults are painted as ineffective parents who would actually be willing to compromise the safety of their children for dangerous missions.
Some of you might find it unfair that I put Bizaardvark on this list so early into its run, but there is so much about this property to detest, I could not overlook it. The show is about two girls who have their own web series where they put together crazy sketches (sounds a lot like the far-better iCarly). The problem is, a third of the show is dedicated to their so-called sketches, none of which have ever actually been funny. The two leads are earnest in their attempt to pull-off the mediocre writing and poor story development, but in the end, they look like they are being forced to pretend like they are having fun.
1. I Didn't Do It
The stinker of all stinkers was I Didn’t Do It, a sitcom that didn’t even manage to get the usual thee-season standard that most Disney sitcoms receive. The show revolved around five of the most unlikable teenagers to ever be written for television. Each episode started with them in some kind of ridiculous trouble, then flashed-back to the story that led to their asinine circumstances. The characters were often whiny, loud, and little was done to build their backgrounds outside of stereotypes: the weird-one, the fussy one, the dumb one, the compulsive one, the clueless one. Disney wisely shut the show down after Season 2, thought the writing should have been apparent on the wall at the end of Season 1.
If Disney would like to get back on the right track for creating watchable, successful family sitcoms, it needs to do the following: They need to focus more on character development within their writing of the plot, they need to capitalize on the best of their talents: G. Hannelius, Bradley Stephen Perry, Corey Fogelmanis, Dove Cameron, Joey Bragg, Gus Kamp, Rowan Blanchard, Sabrina Carpenter, and finally, they need to get back to the notion that kids are not stupid and deserve material that is topical, challenging, and dare I say it, funny!