The way to understand the Disney Channel is that it is a network haunted by the ghosts of Walt Disney on the one hand and Tom Miller and Bob Boyett on the other. The latter two are not dead, but you know what I mean. The network is basically making lower-budget versions of the shows M-B made, with many of the same people behind the scenes.
Their most recent show, Good Luck Charlie, which the Family Channel started showing recently, was created very specifically as an attempt to make a show that serves the same audience as a TGIF comedy of the past. Though the acting is broad and the plots are farcical, as on all Disney shows, it’s a fairly down-to-earth concept, centering on a middle-class family where both the parents work and therefore everyone has to pitch in and help take care of the title character (a baby girl). The idea is to make a show that can have a little bit of crossover appeal to adults, mostly by toning down the wish-fulfilment fantasy aspect of their other shows and giving the parents some actual storylines. The show also has some signs of influence from the show that allowed Nickelodeon to beat Disney at its own game, iCarly. The main character makes a video diary every week, sort of a low-tech version of Carly’s web show. And the fact that iCarly crushes Disney’s similar but more fantasy-oriented show Sonny With a Chance might be part of the thinking behind launching a more down-to-earth show. In terms of viewership, the show has been doing about as well as Disney’s more successful shows — The Suite Life and so on.
The other bit of Disney-related news that demonstrates their Miller-Boyett kinship (via Zack Smith) is that their new show, a two-girl buddy comedy focusing on a dance show (I’m actually not sure what current trend this is based on, though I guess part of the idea is to create dancing stars, not just singing stars) will be created by Chris Thompson, the weather-beaten veteran who started in the Miller-Milkis-Boyett factory on shows like Laverne and Shirley, and went on to create Bosom Buddies for the Miller-Boyett firm. (He also created Action, though Bosom Buddies remains his best work.) Thompson comes off as a mass of seething anger every time I’ve seen him interviewed — I have no idea if he’s like this in real life — so the idea of him working on a happy Disney show is kind of funny, but as he himself pointed out to Variety, he can probably do this kind of show pretty easily:
“I wanted to do a female buddy comedy for a new generation,” Thompson said. “It’s my wheelhouse. I did ‘Laverne and Shirley,’ I did ‘Bosom Buddies.’ I know how to do a buddy comedy, and I wanted to go back there.
Back to Good Luck Charlie, though: when I recently talked to the two teen stars of the show, Bridgit Mendler (as the spunky teen girl everyone’s supposed to identify with, and who gets to sing the theme song) and Jason Dolley (as the idiot brother), they both cited Full House as a model, even though the plot of the show isn’t anything like Full House. The idea — let’s get the family watching together — is the same, though. “Having a broad appeal is something that they aimed for, to see people of many different ages enjoying the show,” Mendler says, while Dolley says: “It’s aimed for the traditional family sitting down on the couch together,” and that “It’s sort of hearkening back to the good old days of Full House,” which both he and Mendler watched in reruns — being too young to have seen it when in first-run. Which makes me feel old, obviously, but everything does.
While interviewing them, I asked them a couple of questions about the performance style on these shows and the whole idea of the Disney “stock company,” where young actors are signed up and then promoted through multiple projects. Here’s what they had to say.
On shooting style, and why the performances are broad
Bridgit:It’s on a weekly schedule so we’ll have a table read, and throughout the week we’ll have rehearsal. By Thursday and Friday we’re going to be taping, and Fridays are our live audience shows. Sometimes if the episodes are too big to handle with a live audience, they’ll be taped without an audience, but mostly they’re live.”
Jason: Any time you’re shooting a multi-camera show, you have to communicate a little bit more through your body language and through bigger expressions of your emotions, rather than single-camera, which is often very close and zoomed up and you don’t have to really do much.
Bridgit: The nice thing about having an audience is that we feed off their energy and it improves our performance.
On the Disney stock company
Jason: After Cory in the House ended, Disney still wanted to have me around but they didn’t have a place for me at that point. Then this script came along, I fell in love with it, they brought me in to do some chemistry reads with Bridgit, and the rest is history.”
Bridgit: I think it’s so cool that they like to circulate their actors and really work with them. It’s never something that was told to me, like “you are going to work with Disney, you are going to get a show.” But it’s so great to see that they’ve done this.
Jason: I definitely think they do have a family and they love to work within the family. Once they find someone, they tend to put them in strategic places in order to explode their fame. I’ve been working with the channel since [the Disney TV movie] Read It and Weep a couple of years ago, and once I did Cory In the House, I did two Disney Channel movies without even auditioning. They just kind of sent me the scripts and said “here, do this.” I said “wow, that’s really cool.”