Kids shows, and in particular Disney shows, tend to be particularly contained. You can watch one episode and know exactly what’s going on in the whole series. Like, does everyone know Miley’s Hannah Montana yet? Nope? Okay, you’re caught up.
In that way, Wizards Of Waverly Place is rare. I’ve never, even seen the show, and I naively assumed that I would be able to just start right up and figure it out, and I’ll be darned if I wasn’t very wrong. I had to look up the show’s backstory online just to make heads or tails of the whole thing. Seriously. Five minutes in and I was like “okay, so that’s Selena Gomez, and she has a friend who looks old enough to be her mom and she’s kind of mean. And she may live on Sesame Street?”
But looking the show’s particulars cleared up the whole thing. Here’s the skinny: Selena Gomez plays Alex, who, along with her two brothers, is a wizard. She lives on Waverly Place in New York’s Greenwich Village — or at least what a Disney viewer not at all familiar with city living think that looks like. She has a friend, Harper, who apparently wears weird clothes, though I was never able to figure out why. Her dad was a wizard, but he’s not anymore. Her mom is a mortal, and her family owns some sort of restaurant that looks like a subway station. And, perhaps most importantly, her and her two brothers are competing to be the family’s sole wizard, because apparently there’s some rule that a family can only have one adult wizard or something? I don’t quite have that part sorted out yet.
It’s nice, kind of, to see Disney take such a departure from its normal fare. Sure, we’re dealing with a family of kids with secret identities who were born with special talents and insane wardrobes, not unlike that whole Hannah Montana thing. Alex, though, is pretty dark. She’s dry, lazy, and kind of a jerk sometimes. Her brothers and parents aren’t total buffoons and there was actual kissing in this episode, though it was between Alex’s old brother Justin and his angel (literally) of a girlfriend Rosie. Tween fans don’t have to wait ages to see a hug, a la High School Musical or Camp Rock. It might not seem like much, but to a 12 year old with a crush on Justin, it’s daydream fodder for years, as pervy as that might be.
Tonight’s Wizards was actually a special hour-long episode, “Wizards vs. Angels,” capping off a special set of episodes in which Justin starts dating an angel named Rosie, and then she turns out to be a dark angel, and blah blah blah. She makes him do bad things like steal the actual moral compass from the perky guardian angels, whose realm apparently anyone can enter just by knowing there’s a fake wall behind this angel food cake sign in an alley. Long story short, Justin goes bad, almost dies at the hands of some other dark angels, and breaks his wand. Alex has to steal the moral compass back with the help of a sassy little angel wannabe named Tina (total future Disney star. Calling it now.) Ultimately, Justin is saved by the love of Rosie who was just trying to trick him at first but apparently really fell in love with him. The good angels get their compass back and Tina gets her wings for real. The end. Oh, and for some reason — I never figured this out — the youngest wizard sibling, Max, is a girl named Maxine for the time being.
Unlike a lot of other Disney shows, this show does have a degree of heart, in a legitimate way. It’s overacted, for sure, but it’s not so “har har gawrsh” slapsticky. No one’s getting pied in the face. No one’s wig’s on backwards. Wizards is legitimately about morality in one way or another. These kids have to do what’s right and, because of the competition between them to be the family wizard or whatever, they do have to do things themselves. They can’t just rely on magic. Alex asks Justin at the end of the episode, “Why do we have to keep dealing with stuff like this?” Justin replies, kind of sadly, “I don’t think we have a choice.” That’s some deep shit for Disney, yo!
Maybe it’s because of this general sense of goodness and brief glimpses at universal watchability that Wizards has had such success. It’s won two Emmys for outstanding children’s program and habitually grabs big ratings for Disney. In 2010, the show’s first hour long special, “Wizards vs. Werewolves” drew 6.2 million viewers. That’s not small potatoes in any way, especially for basic cable. Yoplait even launched a Wizards Of Waverly Place Gogurt this year.
It must be kind of a kick in the pants for Disney, then, that this is the last season for Wizards. Apparently Selena Gomez wants to sing or do real movies or whatever and spend more time with her actual real-life boyfriend Justin frickin’ Bieber.
And, you know what? Good for her. Wizards is a well-done show whose audience hasn’t aged out of being interested anymore. It hasn’t lost its luster and people, I think, still maybe care who gets to be the family wizard. In kids TV, it’s always better to burn out than to fade away, and as long as Wizards keeps making episodes with even a modicum of depth and actual feeling, it should hold a place in a generation’s hearts for years to come.
• Todd VanDerWerff told me tonight that there’s apparently a lot of incest fan fiction about Wizards Of Waverly Place and, honestly, after seeing only one episode, I can totally see it. That’s kind of alarming, right?
• At Max(ine)’s slumber party, when they were playing Twister, it wasn’t actually Twister. It was some weird alternate version with pictures of items in a random grid, like, “Right hand, balloon.” Is Twister that copyrighted that they can’t even use it on a Disney show? Or is this an actual game that I know nothing about?