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.