When School Of Rock was released in 2003, it was just a silly little Jack Black vehicle about elementary school kids who can play guitar. Though it was a box office success, grossing about $131 million worldwide, no one would have guessed it would have since grown into a reasonably sized marketing juggernaut, launching not only an Andrew Lloyd Webber-helmed Broadway adaptation, but also a documentary (Rock School) about The Paul Green School Of Rock, as well as a British reality series (also called Rock School) in which Gene Simmons, of all people, attempts to turn a class of school kids into a real-life rock band. And now, there’s even a live-action Nickelodeon series launching this very weekend.
In Nick’s School Of Rock, Tony Cavalero plays Dewey Finn, the character Black originated in the movie. (Actually, to be fair, Cavalero doesn’t so much play Finn as he plays Black playing Finn, aping everything about the Kung Fu Panda star, from his cadences to his wide-legged rock ’n’ roll stance.) A down-on-his-luck frozen yogurt salesman whose mom is a substitute teacher, Cavalero somehow stumbles into a temp job in a private school, where, over the course of the show’s first episode, he decides his middle school-aged students need to eschew boring stuff like history and math, instead learning about life through the virtues of rock ’n’ roll. The students, driven to madness by the donuts Finn has stolen from the teachers lounge, agree, even though a) they need to learn things to get jobs, or whatever, and b) at least one of their parents has already decided they will be attending Yale. The bumbling principal doesn’t seem to notice and, because of some nonsense about the intersection of life, learning, and rock—and, presumably, excellent soundproofing between classrooms—Finn’s plan seems to work out. The kids are going to form a band, all with the goal of winning the big Austin, Texas battle of the bands down the road.
Naturally, there are spanners in the works. In the show’s second episode, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz appears as a member of Finn’s old band, ultimately challenging the kiddie gang to a bet over who’ll win the whole battle of the bands. Finn’s prized guitar, Joan Jett, and his van, Van Halen, are now up for grabs, though—considering it’s Nickelodeon—it’s probably safe to say that the School Of Rock kids will emerge from the battle victorious.
There’s also interpersonal drama between the kids. Sandy-blond girly girl Summer (Jade Pettyjohn) has a crush on skateboarding cool kid Freddy (Ricardo Hurtado), and is convinced that the only way she’ll get him to notice her is by either learning to like everything he likes or by faking her way into becoming the band’s new singer, despite the fact that she’s fairly tone deaf. The singing gig doesn’t work out, with Summer’s pal Tomika (Breanna Yde, who is also the band’s bitchin’ bassist) getting exposed in a kid-friendly Cyrano situation centered around a Meghan Trainor song. Still, the hijinks are charming enough, albeit loaded with icky “but he’ll never like me for me!” undertones.
That’s the whole thing about kids’ TV, though: It’s not always revolutionary, and that can be okay. There are going to be stories about girls who can’t understand sports and guys who don’t want to take showers, and those might be true to some viewers’ experiences. And, to its credit, School Of Rock has a relatively full spectrum of central characters. Yes, Mr. Finn is a boring white guy, but the class’ previous teacher was an African-American woman, Mrs. Kalpackus, and the school’s principal is both young and female. You’ve got your Summers and your Freddys, sure, but you’re also got your Tomika, who, for instance, is into skateboarding and doesn’t seem to care about boys in the least. There’s also your requisite computer nerd, plus a smart Asian kid, a character all children’s programming must have. (In this case, it’s Lance Lim’s Zack, who plays guitar and is the aforementioned Yale candidate.)
Provided you don’t mind hokey secondhand Jack Black impressions and Kidz Bop versions of songs you know and maybe love, School Of Rock does its best with what it’s been given. It’s mildly charming, not totally offensive, and really does seem to have a sense of heart. And while it’s not one of those rare kids’ shows that adults will want to watch solo, it is one of those shows that parents both won’t mind their kids watching and won’t mind watching with their kids. For something like School Of Rock, that’s all anyone can really ask for.