In the magical world of live-action Disney sitcoms, scenarios range from the far-fetched (the bionic youngsters of Lab Rats) to the glamorous (the titular nanny in Jessie lives with her young charges in a fabulous Manhattan penthouse). Kids may bond while in their karate class (Kickin’ It), performing for a Chicago-based dance TV show (Shake It Up), writing pop songs in Miami (Austin & Ally), or, in the worst possible scenario, when they find out their dog has a blog.
Only one of Disney’s current shows features just a nice, normal family, and sadly, it’s the one departing this week after four seasons. Good Luck Charlie’s premise is that the parents of a middle-class family of teenagers have a new baby. Elder daughter Teddy (Bridgit Mendler) creates a video diary for baby Charlie to explain their family’s quirks, and ends each week with an episode summary and the signoff, “Good luck, Charlie.” Even with such a soft hook (compared to bionics and pop stars), Good Luck Charlie is worth all those previously mentioned shows put together (although Jessie does have its moments).
Why does Good Luck Charlie have actual charm while so many other Disney sitcoms (and kids’ shows in general) attempt to grasp it with wise-cracking teenagers in glamorous outfits? The show gets so many things right, down to the minute details of the home décor. The Duncan house features pillows and wall drawings of insects (patriarch Bob is an exterminator, his wife Amy a nurse); the chalkboard on the refrigerator lists kids’ chores or jobs around the house for the dad to do. Toys overflow trays on the living room coffee table, adding to a reasonable amount of clutter rarely seen on sitcom stage sets. Sure, GLC features the standard stock characters: the doofus older brother, the smart-aleck middle child, the mother the kids are more scared of than the benevolent father. The plots could also have been pulled from a sitcom episode generator: Teddy needs to find a quiet place to study; Gabe (Bradley Steven Perry) gets invited to a cotillion. The kids lose the baby while their parents are out to dinner. Toddler Charlie locks P.J. (Jason Dolley) out of the house. The show even pulled out the classic “let’s add another kid and up the cuteness factor” in season three, with new baby Toby rounding out the huge family.
Somehow Good Luck Charlie rises above these generic trappings. The cast has expert comic timing, especially the parents (Leigh-Allyn Baker and Eric Allan Kramer), and even Charlie. The show also accomplishes the truly rare trick of establishing what feels like genuine familial chemistry. None of it appears pre-manufactured or pandering. When Teddy has her first breakup with boyfriend Spencer and her mother consoles her, Amy takes over the video diary and explains to Charlie that Teddy’s going through her first heartbreak. “First one?” Teddy yells. “There will be more?” Of course there will, but the heartwarming way Amy consoles her daughter reinforces that Teddy will always have this support behind her. It’s a thoughtful scene that shows just how rare an actually touching family sitcom is. I doubt I’ve ever genuinely cracked up at anything on Family Matters or Full House. Good Luck Charlie gets laughs out of my family a handful of times per episode. Mia Talerico as Charlie is especially delightful, a far cry from a toddling Olsen twin with a cloying catchphrase like “You got it, dude!” Instead, she wants to name her baby brother Hot Dog, like a normal little girl would.
I’ve tried writing down some of my favorite punchlines, but suspect they lose a lot minus the chemistry and the timing, like when the helpless P.J. says he’s hungry in the kitchen and his frustrated mother suggests he check out the giant thing packed with food right next to him. “You mean Dad?” Or when Gabe admits to his new young neighbor that he’s 14, who slams him with, “Go take a nap, Grandpa!” P.J.’s friend starts a food truck based on fish and gravy, citing other weird meal combinations: “What about bacon and eggs? Bacon from pigs, eggs from chicken, it’s like chaos on a plate!”
In GLC’s penultimate episode, “Down A Tree,” Charlie has a playdate with Taylor. Bob and Amy each think they’ve met Taylor’s mother: “Susan.” “No, pretty sure her name’s Cheryl.” And it turns out they’re both right. The dad reasons, “Oh, Taylor has two mommys,” and his wife deadpans, “Wow, nothing gets past you, Bob.” Not exactly earth-shattering dialogue, but nevertheless this marked the first appearance of a same-sex couple on a Disney show. (Unfortunately, it also led to a call for a boycott by the One Hundred Million Moms group and death threats against the show’s now five-year-old star.)
Good Luck Charlie even wove the family’s differences into the plotline, as the dad wonders which one of Taylor’s parents will want to go watch the game with him in the basement. Susan does, and he proceeds to bore her with exterminator stories. But her partner’s a sentence-finisher, so Amy pulls Bob aside: “I want to switch moms.” Turns out Bob’s stories are so boring both of Taylor’s moms decide to flee, and Amy summarizes to Bob, “Whether it’s a mom and a dad, or two moms, or two dads . . . nobody likes your bug stories.” It’s a far cry from Very Special Episode dreck; it’s just funny.
In the show’s last episode, “Good Bye, Charlie,” Teddy has trouble filming her final video diary for Charlie before she goes off to college, as she searches for a piece of advice that will wrap up her whole project. Everything else seems to tie up nicely: Mom Amy’s going to be the new co-host for Good Morning Denver, P.J. and Bob have started a food truck based on peanut butter and jelly, Gabe gets his prankster mojo back, Teddy and her ex Spencer reconcile as she heads off to Yale.
It would be hard to wrap up four years in a single (double) episode, but you still have to wonder why the show decided to spend soooo much time on Gabe’s pranskter rivalry with a new neighbor, and the Spencer romance just seems to be thrown in there to make the audience go “oooh.” The most entertaining plotline is former nurse Amy trying to vault into a new job as morning show co-host. Leigh-Allyn Baker is a gifted comedienne (she was Will And Grace’s neighbor, and I suspect she’ll land somewhere else very quickly), so the embracing of her character’s long-established starstruck side plays to all her best strengths. Also enjoyable is Bob’s enthusiasm at the now-successful food truck as he proudly tells everyone about the partnership with his son. As the Duncan parents, Baker and Kramer and set a high performance bar for this show, and all the kids rose to meet them.
But the final scene, Teddy’s last breakfast at home, is heartbreaking. She comes up with her last video diary message: She realizes that even though she started the diary to warn her baby sister about their crazy family, it turns out that the craziness is what she loves about her family most of all. Teddy then has the whole family say “Good luck Charlie” into the camera one last time (even Charlie), and almost everyone’s eyes are glistening: It’s a sweet final shot.
So long, Good Luck Charlie. I would rather have my kids watch your reruns into perpetuity (and they probably will) than view a single minute of that dog and his stupid typing.
Episode grade: B
Series grade: B+
Created by: Phil Baker, Drew Vapuen
Starring: Bridgit Mendler, Leigh Allyn-Baker, Eric Allan Kramer
Airs on: Disney Channel
Format: Half-hour sitcom
Eight episodes watched for review