Kids Love Boats


I don’t pretend to understand why some kids’ shows succeed and others fail. The Disney Channel/Family Channel has had a lot of shows that were better and smarter than The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, with more appealing stars than the Sprouse Twins. (It’s not just that they’re not very likable performers; they can’t, or at least don’t, convey different personalities even when the scripts call for them to be different — they are twins who project exactly the same character, which was probably useful back when they were actually taking turns playing the same characters.) But The Suite Life became one of the Disney Channel’s signature hits, and they’re continuing it this fall with a new location and a new title: The Suite Life On Deck, the same show except on a boat. And without the mother, bringing the kids’ fantasy element up another notch. (The appeal of the show was that it allowed two kids to run around a fancy hotel. Now they’re running around a fancy ship and they have an additional element that viewers will envy: no parents at all.) Basically this is just a way for the producers to continue the show even though they’ve passed the 65-episode mark, at which point Disney usually discontinues its kids’ shows. (The theory is that once you have enough episodes to “strip” the show and run it every day, you don’t need any more, because kids have an insatiable appetite for reruns.) But the only good thing about the original show was the odd-couple interplay of Maddie (Ashley Tisdale) and London (Brenda Song), and since Tisdale is no longer available to the producers — except for one guest-star episode — it’s all kind of pointless.

But I think I’ve already inadvertently answered my own question about why The Suite Life succeeded where better kids’ shows failed. Most of the really successful kids’ comedies are about kids who lead fantasy lives, where conventional parental authority is hard to find. The Suite Life is about kids living a fantasy life in a plush hotel; they had only a mother, no father, and now even the mother is being dropped. Hannah Montana is about a girl living the ultimate fantasy life as a pop superstar; she has no mother, and her father is practically her employee (since he’s her manager). Zoey 101 is about kids with expensive hairstyles who attend a glamourous boarding school; since it’s a boarding school, their parents aren’t around. Over on Family Channel, The Latest Buzz is about kids who live out the fantasy of getting to take over a magazine; most of the show focuses on their lives in the publishing world.

The most ambitious or acclaimed kids’ comedies tend to be the ones that look at the real things kids go through every day, namely school or family life. The hits, however, tend to be the ones where kids hardly ever have parents or classes to contend with, and live out glamorous fantasies. This hasn’t always been the case; it used to be that kids liked to watch comedies about nuclear families. But not any more.

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Kids Love Boats

  1. Wasn’t Lizzie McGuire a huge hit just a few years ago? The only fantasy element there was the little animated Lizzie expressing her inner thoughts. Other than that, it was pretty grounded in mundane reality.

  2. And yet, it seems like the entire genre of British children’s fiction, including the critically acclaimed examples, is grounded in an absence of parents, from Swallows and Amazons to Peter Pan. Boarding school stories, from Tom Brown to Harry Potter, are almost a genre in themselves. So there’s clearly something that can be done with the idea.

  3. I agree that LM was pretty grounded in the family/school experience, but that’s the thing — the new round of kids’ shows, for a new crop of kids, are much more about fantasy lives.

  4. What’s interesting is it’s really easy to track the evolution of fantasy/wish fulfillment in Disney’s shows.

    Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens while not realistic, still focused on seemingly banal family situations.

    The Famous Jett Jackson is pretty much a more low-key Hannah Montana without the “being famous and normal at the same time is awesome!” message.

    Then came That’s So Raven, which had a wish fulfillment concept combined with an entire family, although the mom disappears halfway through the show.

    Finally, we get The Suite Life, Hannah Montana, and that spinoff with Raven’s kid brother in the White House. With each new set of shows, the fantasy and wish fulfillment increases.

    In my defense for knowing all that, I’m only 17. But still, it’s kinda depressing.

  5. I think fantasy/secret lives have played well for kids for a lot longer than the last few years – Jem anyone? or even DC or Marvel classic characters.

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