Friday, January 22, 2016

Austin and Ally Retrospective

Wait what do you mean it's not January 10 anymore?

Yeah, I know, it's a bit late, especially when I gave Jessie like three retrospectives before the finale even hit the air. I'm slowly starting to get back into the whole blog scene (still trying to find a place to migrate to, though honestly the Blogspot thing isn't too bad - but I imagine we might be switching to Wordpress sometime, uh, this year. Maybe). Big, big thanks to Mike for this. He has said that I've made it possible for him to be on this blog - as it stands right now this blog wouldn't exist beyond some poorly-formatted ghost pages at this point if it weren't for him even just keeping up one or two posts in the meantime. I guess you could say I couldn't do it without him.

I know Mike was a big fan of Austin & Ally too (at least the first two seasons) so I hope he chimes in too.

Anyway, Austin & Ally....

There's a lot of debate in terms of what "eras" Disney Channel can be divided up into. There's general agreement that Lizzie McGuire pretty much stands in its own era more or less by default - then you have the That's So Raven era which...again, kind of stands alone by default. Then you have the Suite Life of Zack and Cody/Hannah Montana era where Disney Channel really started to become a hot property for tween/teen shows, and we all pretty much know about that one (even if we weren't actually around to see it). Then the Wizards of Waverly Place/Suite Life on Deck era. Then the Good Luck Charlie/Shake it Up Era. Right now I guess we would be towards the end of the Liv and Maddie/Girl Meets World era, into what's looking to shape up to be the K.C. Undercover era, with whatever show that show will share that title with still waiting for the jury to decide (it's pretty fallow ground and unless Stuck in the Middle or Blizzardvark ends up being a smash hit K.C. Undercover could likely end up being the sole dominant show of its "era'). Now naturally there's a lot of overlap between the eras - That's So Raven had a good chunk airing during Suite Life of Zack and Cody and Hannah Montana, including the first crossover that created the tangled-up ungodly mess of a canon universe called the Disney Channel Live-Action Universe that now includes friggin' Perfect Strangers and Spider-Man (thank you, combination of stunt-obsessed network heads and extremely anal detail-obsessed people on TVTropes).  Both Good Luck Charlie and Shake it Up, the lead shows of what is now considered a long bygone era, aired episodes concurrent with Liv and Maddie, one of the two lead shows of the current era I guess and just missed out on the other current leading show, Girl Meets World. And of course there are tons of other shows in the mix as well - Phil of the Future which was also a huge success somewhere in-between the HM/SLoZaC era and the WoWP/SLoD era, and Sonny With a Chance that just had too short a run to really lead its era (not to mention the controversy of Demi's departure) and "lesser" shows like Dog With a Blog and ANT Farm, but none of those shows were as high-profile as the mega-hit muilti-cams that really started to get recognition even beyond the network.

Anyway, between the Good Luck Charlie/Shake it Up era and the current-ish era, there was the Jessie and Austin & Ally era.

It might be a bit difficult to explain to an outsider just how much people went nuts for Austin & Ally unless they happen to be familiar with how people went nuts for Hannah Montana, at which case I can just say "yeah, it was pretty much like that." Hannah Montana was such a smash hit because, for good or bad, girls saw a relatable role model in Miley Cyrus. They felt she was relatable, but at the same time she had a combination of pure escapist elements and girl power elements through achieving superstardom on pretty much her own terms. Jessie was pretty much like that except for the escapist elements for the title character, which is probably why the show skewed at least a little older in demographics, at least at first. Austin & Ally had those Hannah Montana elements too, but again to a subdued degree. Again, at least, Ally (Edgar apparently?) Dawson was too secondary to Austin (Monica - yeah they were really tearing down gender barriers to middle names here folks) Moon to really pound home the girl power message that made Hannah -no middle name applicable)- Montana/Miley -middle name unknown- Stewart and Jessie -middle name still unknown- Prescott popular female leads. 

No, you go on most of the fandom's Twitter accounts and it's pretty clear they're drawn to their TV screens by Ross Lynch.

So yup, it's just disingenuous to claim that one of the big reasons this show became such a hit wasn't because of the eye candy that drew the girls in. I can't answer it myself, but Ross just pulls them in like a rare earth magnet. That said, at least on TV, he does have a goofy, disarming personality that I can see would be very appealing. 

But that's not to say that the show didn't build on that with its own merits. If you read my Jessie retrospective, you'll remember that a big part of the appeal of that show is just because the timing just ended up personally right. And if you've read the above, you'll know that these two shows were pretty much paired with each other to define each other's era (both premiered late in 2011). So again, the timing for Austin & Ally ended up being personally right. What I regard to be some of the best episodes of the entire series - Successes and Setbacks, Burglars and Boobytraps, Soup and Stars (yes really), especially Diners and Daters, and the first season finale, Aubums and Auditions - were all some of the first episodes of Austin & Ally I ever saw (a lot of these on the same day no less - gotta love how Disney Channel loves to marathon shows to death) and, incidentally, happen to be season 1 (the aforementioned first season finale, Aubums and Auditions, was actually the first episode of Austin & Ally I saw on its actual premiere night). 

If I saw Jessie and Good Luck Charlie as throwbacks to the kind of family and older tween/younger teen show I really missed from the 90s core TGIF era, then I saw Austin & Ally as a throwback to the kind of (then rather rare) live-action middle-late tween-ish show of the 90s, the type that maybe would've been sandwiched with animation on the classic Saturday Morning blocks. Especially in the first season since the Austin-Ally dynamic really wasn't so much a will-they-won't-they romantic scenario as it was just simply trying to appeal to both sex demographics or at least give something for everyone. 

Yeah, really. Go back and watch a bunch of first season episodes and you'll notice. The plotlines and antics were a lot more gender-neutral, and Austin tended to lead plotlines that might appeal to boys while Ally tended to do things that might be seen as tween girl-appealing. It wasn't until deep into Season 2 where the show really started to get the insane shipping reputation it ended with. 

And now that I'm thinking about it it was that kind of gender-neutral-ish plot dynamic I enjoyed the most, that brought back the most then-badly-needed nostalgia to the type of live-action comedy show I really enjoyed when I was actually the age of the show's intended core demo. Yes, it was goofy. Yes, it was embarassingly goofy at times. But as Mike can tell you, it pulled it off well. It pulled it off with almost an innocent child-like charm that perhaps you might hope from your own son or daughter when they reach their late tween years and navigate middle school (trust me, it's nowhere near as rosy as what Girl Meets World tries to picture, and it probably has the darkest, most realistic depiction of middle school in Disney Channel in that network's history - it is Disney Channel, after all). It's exactly the type of show you might expect your own tween children to be entertained by - hell, it's probably the type of show you'd want your tween children to be entertained by. A bunch of older teen friends having fun, being goofy and not straying from the path that could lead them into darker territory. It's almost physically impossible for them to lose their innocence. Even the interstital cards are of our four main cast members acting goofy, perhaps what you'd expect from a traveling Church youth performance group but with just enough coyness shaved off to be not just tolerable but outright charming. Charming, yes, even in a completely unironic way, which is just about as rare as personalized transportation and fully employed Millennials nowadays.

...and then the plotlines just became insultingly sophomoric (the low was when our fab four had to be taught a lesson on why they shouldn't fuck around with their manager's daughter's audio tracks - I mean, really guys?) and of course it went from being Austin & Ally to really being Austin & Ally - yes, when the show just became 30 minutes of shipping teasing. Just like friggin' iCarly.

So, yeah. At a certain point it was legitimately one of the best things on Disney Channel and quite frankly one of the best things that knew what it was. Just a charming tween show. It was goofy, it was entertaining, it had a cast that could carry the charm even if you gave them 12 blank pages stapled together and filmed it inside an empty warehouse. It may not have had the actual raw all-ages-appropriate quality of Good Luck Charlie or even Jessie, but, I guess oddly enough, it was a type of innocence lost that could be found in some sort of fascimilie in TV sitcom form. Before it just became tired and mired in shipping (but fortunately for the most part regained its footing just in time for the series to bow out in Season 4).

I suppose that's really all I need to say about it. Take it away, Mike!

Well said, Unknown. It almost makes me want to cry considering the fact that this show marks the end of an era. The last outlaw of Disney Channel, as it were.

I remember when Austin & Ally first came onto the scene. This was around the time Disney Channel was still entertaining across the board before it became a network only capable of grabbing my attention for one show. At first, I looked at it and rolled my eyes. I was getting burnt out on shows where all the kids wanted to do was become music stars and have instant success at whatever it is they happened to do. Even the name threw me off. 13-year-old me said, "Screw that. What a lame name for a show." But there was an underlying charm that the show possessed. Reminiscent of Big Time Rush, Austin & Ally was more than just a bunch of kids trying to become famous. The characters felt sympathetic and likable, their chemistry was as sharp as a Ginsu, and when I was watching the series finale, I realized something really important. These people really cared about each other. They met in the music store by chance, but ended up creating beautiful friendships with each other that never felt artificial. They acted like people you probably knew in school, or in my case, kids I know right now. Trish and Dez made a living out of antagonizing each other, Ally was sometimes called out on being a know-it-all, and it never seemed like any one of them had all the answers to everything. I'm genuinely going to miss this show, even though it ended because it had ran its course.

This marks a new generation of Disney Channel programming. When Austin & Ally first aired in December 2011, I was in eighth grade. Now I'm just a few months away from heading off to college and starting a new chapter of my life......hopefully. In the past four years, so many shows have come and gone. 2014-2015 marked the transitional period for Disney Channel. Shows like Dog with a Blog and Jessie came off as old school compared to stuff like Girl Meets World and Best Friends Whenever. We're in an entirely new era now. The oldest show on Disney Channel at this point is less than two years old. And chances are, we don't even know if this show will end up having the kind of fan support that shows like Austin & Ally did. With it constantly running into the same writing issues, and the lead star gradually losing her mind every time she ends up in the news, we might even see a premature end to a show that has yet to reach its full potential. 

Either way, Austin & Ally is going to be missed and the finale did a great job of letting us know where the Fab Four are headed, how their friendships ended up influencing their futures and how much they have grown to love each other over the course of four seasons. Even though things ended up becoming melodramatic at some point.........

.......which leads me into one of the things I wanted to talk about in a retrospective like this. When Austin and Ally first got together, I was in the camp who was excited for the new relationship. I was rooting for them to fall in love and make things work beyond being friends. They barely lasted 22 minutes before it felt like the writers pushed the panic button and started from scratch. After that, the tone of the series changed for good. It was no longer interested in just being charming and goofy anymore. It was all about relationships and romance and drama from this point forward. It just........didn't feel like the same show anymore. Disney Channel shows used to be entertaining enough that I saw them through to the end. Pretty soon, Austin & Ally was just a show where I would watch an episode or two at a time, instead of trying to keep up with what was going on and burning through several episodes with my sister. The show embraced this all the way to the end, but never really forgot its roots. It's the same thing that allowed it to make multiple references to the first episode where Ally destroyed the set of The Helen Show. Austin & Ally never tried too hard to be more than what it was. It was just a great escapist show you could enjoy for a quick laugh or a nice little heartfelt moment. In the end, I think we can all remember it for just being a decent-to-good show. We can remember Calum Worthy being comedically gifted enough to make such a stupid character work with his body language and natural charisma. We can remember the music that was almost never unlistenable, from the theme song to the last performance on The Helen Show. The decline could have been absolutely staggering and unbearable like Jessie, it could have just been caused by a number of detrimental changes like A.N.T. Farm, or it could have started becoming increasingly dramatic to the point where it seemed like every other episode was a big life or death spectacle like Wizards of Waverly Place. 

But Austin & Ally just became too focused on romance for its own good. I will give it credit for never being overly dramatic, and when it attempted drama, there were times where it came from a genuine place. I guess that's just a reflection of how great the chemistry was between the cast. There was no way they could make it through life without each other.

Another thing I wanted to touch on was how these people made each other better. The relationship between Austin and Ally is one of the strongest and most heartfelt that I have ever seen on Disney Channel. One of the most important reasons was that they gave each other a much-needed shot in the arm. Ally turned Austin into a hardworking, responsible, determined person with dreams he had to go through struggle to attain, while still keeping his dim nature. Austin helped Ally realize that she needed to become more self-confident and let the world hear her voice. We saw these people grow and become ready to face the real world through their experiences with each other. In all honesty, Austin & Ally was a more special show than people will give it credit for.

Or maybe that's just the critic in me. I don't know. R.I.P. Austin & Ally, thanks for the memories.

Series Grade: B
Series MVP: Calum Worthy. This guy was the unsung hero of the show. Dez was just another stupid character, but this is one of the few times where the actor's performance elevated him above the everyday idiot you would see on The Thundermans or Game Shakers or A.N.T. Farm. Worthy reminds me a lot of Jerry Trainor, the type that could take the stupidest material possible and make it hilarious. In "Successes and Setbacks," when Austin was having trouble with his throat, Dez showed the guys this concoction with a bunch of weird stuff inside and one cup of mud. Austin asks him what that would do to help his throat and Dez says, "Nothing. It's just something I always wanted to try." With the biggest grin on his face, Dez starts drinking it and says proudly, "Yup. I was right. It's disgusting." I admit it, I cried at the end of that scene because it was just Worthy's picture-perfect delivery that made such a ridiculous scene hysterical. The series finale further emphasized why Dez will always be my favorite character on this show. There was just more to him than other stupid characters on similar shows. 

Ugh and here I go being tardy again.

Really, Mike said exactly what I wanted to say, except perhaps even a big more eloquently. Thanks Mike! The whole college application process is a very daunting endeavor (I really don't think I have to even say "trust me I know" at this point) and the essay portion is a smaller component than what a lot of people think, but it's still important, and I'd wager to bet that you'd do a great job on that at least.

It's interesting you mention first watching this show at 13 years old in 8th grade since that's pretty much right at the perfect target age demo for this show (and pretty much Disney Channel/XD and Nick as a whole). It's a very narrow window that lasts for at best three years from 12 to maybe 14 - and now you know why most Disney Channel/Nick shows only last that long. 

There's a variety of reasons why that's being extended to four as of late, and Austin & Ally is very much a part of the vanguard of shows bringing that in. Wizards of Waverly Place and Hannah Montana got away with it because it had a lot of raw early and even late tween appeal (and thus a slightly larger window for demo appeal), so much so that it convinced the network outright that it should age the average network demo up a bit permanently (though perhaps not as permanently as they'd like as we're now in a process of witnessing Disney Channel's demo being brought back down). Good Luck Charlie had a lot of overall family appeal, especially with older teens and even college-aged students of both genders who were nostalgic either for this type of show or for their own, actual family lives (which means it had a much larger window available, so much so it barely missed out on a Season 5). Jessie actually had some of its expanded window opportunity built into the very show as a result of Debby's semi-DCOM 16 Wishes having a surprisingly large demo of college-aged viewers, so they thought they'd split the difference by offering a relatively older female lead who would be relatable and appealing to similar-aged audiences and more typical Disney Channel-aged costars to appeal to the traditional demo (of course, they later nearly abandoned the former as it became just another Disney Channel show). Liv and Maddie manages to go both routes somewhat, by offering a lead that's relatable and appealing to relatively older female viewers (and younger ones as well) but wrapping that around a show that's got the old something-for-everyone Good Luck Charlie demo. And of course Girl Meets World more or less works down the same Good Luck Charlie demo, but also brings a built-in nostalgia audience that will last for either as long as Disney Channel says so or when their patience wears out, whichever comes first (again, short-runners aren't necessarily a bad thing, see most premium cable).

In Austin & Ally's case, it was a bunch of relatively smaller issues coming together. I think even Disney Channel underestimated Ross Lynch's tween and teen magnetism - again, seriously, girls go nuts over him. Older women talk about Debby Ryan, Dove Cameron and Rowan Blanchard being appropriate role-models for younger generations, and the tween core demo will talk about how awesome it would be to be either of those three women, but you only have to look at the KCAs to see how they'd put their actual voting power into play. 

But Ross wouldn't have a lot of star power to leverage if he couldn't play the part of boyband heartthrob and the show capitalized on that massively as Mike had touched upon and in much the same way they did with Hannah Montana. And as much as girls like to watch pretty boys on TV for, let's be honest, raw sex appeal (or more accurately, infatuation-fuel, or even "like-like" appeal), girls also legitimately like watching and admiring other girls that can also serve as role models - which is where Laura (and to a lesser extent Raini) comes in. And let's not ignore the gorilla in the room - yes, people went nuts over the shipping, just like on iCarly.

Some shows, like the aforementioned Jessie, Liv and Maddie and Girl Meets World, have a built-in four-year window and the network is essentially making a bet that said window will stick (and for the most part it's paid off). Other shows, like Hannah Montana, WoWP and A&A, earned their windows by justifying being appealing and good enough to make their audiences want to stick through it even as they get older and age out of the demo, necessitating the show itself age with them. 

The things I mentioned were things that brought audiences to the show in the first place, but Mike mentioned other things - the characters themselves, how the characters interacted, and how the characters grew - that made them stay, and if nothing else helped the show age with the audience to keep the audience coming later in life - when they got their own real-life version of Ross that had been sitting near them in class all along, or when they just simply aged out of finding Ross appealing as a "like-like" fantasy, or found Laura no longer credible as a female role model, at least alone.

The show definitely engaged in shipping far too heavy and far too often, like a couple responding to the birth of a child and needing space by buying the largest and heaviest SUV they can find on the lot. More isn't always better, but it's an easy conclusion we've been too much ingrained into thinking. But I can save theories regarding Limits of Diminishing Returns, or for that matter on the rewrite process and Rowan Blanchard, for a later post when I talk more about Girl Meets World.

And without further ado:

Series Grade: C+, keeping in mind this is for the series overall. If I had to rate each series individually.... Season 1: A-; Season 2: C-; Season 3: C-; Season 4: A-. They certainly lost the plot and threatened to do some shark-jumping by Season 2 and panicked just as Mike described in Season 3, but finally got their heads screwed on straight again in Season 4. Sweeping away the Sonic Boom and Austin's entire career and establishing the Music Factory instead seems to have been the thing that did the trick, even if Jimmy Starr's reaction was a bit overdone (and again they were wise enough to even correct that too).
Series MVP: There's a lot of choices to make. Mike makes a strong point of Calum. I can make a strong point for Raini. Ross delivered the goods that made the show what it was, especially the songs, but Ross also needed Laura to really drive it home.

Aww, the hell with it. Like the theme song itself says, there's just no way they can do it without each other. Again, I promised myself I wouldn't cheese out by taking such conveniences, but I'm slowly learning there are times where it's legitimately justified.

(Trying this again) Series MVP: The entire Austin & Ally main cast: Ross Lynch, Laura Marano, Calum Worthy and Raini Rodriguez. Given one of the main themes of the whole series, including down to its very theme song, I just find it too appropriate not to pull off. 

2 comments:

  1. Fare thy well, Austin and Ally. You lasted way longer than I wanted it to.

    "With it constantly running into the same writing issues, and the lead star gradually losing her mind every time she ends up in the news, we might even see a premature end to a show that has yet to reach its full potential."

    I disagree here a little bit. As much media attention as Rowan gets, Miley Cyrus had that shirtless photo which got wayyyyy more hate than a couple of tweets. That said, the writers are insane and if what I've heard about Season 3 so far is true, I may put an axe through my tv set.

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  2. Haha, we'll have to see. As for Rowan, I'll address that at some time, probably during a GMW review where I feel I can fit it in. But long story short: 1.) eh, Rowan's fine. She's just opinionated, not necessarily crazy, and furthermore her opinions aren't even wrong, or at least they're both popular and easily digestible. What's hurting her is that she comes over extremely strong about them. And I don't mean for a 14 year old girl, I mean, she's running into exactly the same problems that might sink Hillary Clinton's chance at the Presidency...again. Even if they're right opinions, even if they're very popular opinions, she could stand to use some PR lessons on how to express them in a way that doesn't come off as off-putting or even downright scary (the whole thing about refusing to smile in pictures just makes her come off as creepy). She's also attacked Disney Channel itself for a variety of reasons - some of the attacks are justified, some of the attacks are aimed at Disney Channel just practicing good business decisions. It turns some people off, and for others it just makes her come off as very confused and aloof.Which brings up 2.) Disney Channel won't end the show because of Rowan. Rowan is smart and savvy enough to not engage in the type of behavior that would justify ending the show, not that she even engages in that behavior in the first place. Expressing a political or social opinion is very different from doing topless photos, especially for a company that has Gay Days, is slowly starting to do plotlines that openly feature homosexuality and has had openly gay actors and LGBT activists on shows (beyond just Perez Hilton - as in people who get regular roles on Disney Shows, if not necessarily starring ones). There's only been one instance of Disney Channel pulling the plug specifically because of an actress, and in that example it was only because Demi Lovato came up to Disney Channel itself and told them Sonny With a Chance was down right nearly literally killing her. It's likely going to take the same thing - a valid, provable medical reason - to make Disney Channel pull Rowan off the show.

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