Sunday, February 14, 2016

Stuck in the Middle Reviewed: S1E01 "Stuck in the Middle/Pilot"

And watch the premiere of Stuck in the Middle Friday, March 11!

...uhhh what the heck did I just watch then?

What is it? single-cam(!) kidcom, half-hour (24 minute) length
Where did it air? Disney Channel
Who stars in it? Jenna Ortega, up to this point greatest claim to fame being "young Jane" in Jane the Virgin. Kayla Morriset, who's a carryover from playing Avery's best friend on Dog With a Blog. Ronni Hawk who I don't know who she was before this but has a really badass name and well they certainly cast her right for the role. Some dude whose name I forgot but again they cast him right for the role, except it really seems like Harley and his character are kind of flirting, you know, a Justin-Alex kind of relationship from Wizards of Waverly Place. It's about a very large extended family so there's like a whole bunch of people in here. Kayla and Ronni are probably going to be the two most of the male audience is going to care about. Just sayin'.
Why are we reviewing this? Because this is the first single-cam series to actually be produced by Disney Channel for Disney Channel since JONAS LA went off the air. 

Well I've opened up reviews with rants about the time jump in the Austin & Ally finale, shows that aren't the actual show being reviewed, the U.S. higher education system and even my own tardiness before, and probably something about Jessie and/or Debby and/or GMW in there too, so why quit now? Yup, I've got a bone to pick even with these "sneak peaks" and "previews" on Disney Channel (and Nick, they've been known to pull this crap off too). Why would a "sneak peak" be such a load of crap to begin with? I guess it's not necessarily dishonest or disingenuous or what have you, but it can be confusing especially if you're someone new entering into Disney Channel or Nick for the first time (probably not an issue with most people who happen to be emotionally well-adjusted and thus wouldn't even be bothering to watch either network to begin with, but it likely would've been a source of confusion for GMW's premiere if they hadn't had the premiere hovering on the Disney Channel website for a whole month). 

And that's the whole questioning of whether or not Disney or Nick even understands what a "sneak peak" is or at least if they share the same definition that's held by the common convention. A "sneak peak" is just that - it's a little teaser you give to get people excited about the upcoming product. The tech industry pretty much thrives on it. So does ComiCon (seriously, if you have a chance to go to ComiCon, it's an experience just for the movie and series sneak peaks). It's an illustration of the basic idea or concept being communicated, but intentionally being withheld in its entirety for a variety of reasons (to buy time and funding; to advertise your product without giving away too much to allow the competition a leg up; to judge audience reaction without having to give too much away and fill the Internet with spoilers free of charge; or just as advertising and hype-building). The main thing is that a "sneak peak" is very much intentionally not made available to everybody, again for a variety of issues (massive trust issues with huge mobs of people; inviting only experts who actually know what they're talking or blogging about; people who are otherwise trained to spot specific problems, etc). In many ways it's an officially sanctioned, glorified rumor amounting to yes, it's exactly as great as you think it is. It's gonna be like The Force Awakens with Angelina Jolie, Kate Upton and J-Law are ninja-kicking a shark in the face on top of a volcano that's erupting because Chuck Norris just roundhouse kicked it in the crotch, and Dolph Lundgrin and Samuel L. Jackson are crash-landing a plane together in badass fashion. 

The point is that a sneak peak isn't something that's necessarily mandatory to watch, and relatively few people are meant to. If it's being broadcast network-wide it's typically only a partial viewing (say, the first 15 minutes) and often meant to bring viewers in to watch something else as opposed to being the main event itself. Or a more relevant example, much like how Nick aired the first half hour of the Season 2 Talia in the Kitchen premiere and then aired the whole hour in its entirety on its actual advertised premiere date (RIP TitK BTW). But the takeaway is that a proper "sneak peak" isn't necessarily mandatory to watch - you can catch the whole thing later in its full airing if you'd rather not be left hanging for however many months it takes.

It's not so bad with SitM since the "sneak peak" was heavily advertised (I don't even know if they called it that) and the next showing is less than a month later (trust me, compared to some other things that's timely - and yes I'm looking at you Nick with the six month lag time between the 100 Things premiere and first regular airing). But I remember for example the Liv and Maddie "sneak peak" after the first Teen Beach Movie in the middle of July and then waiting for later in August or even September (I don't care enough to look up the factual accuracy) for the first regular airing. Which, again, would be ok as this is how sneak peaks typically function anyway - except this isn't a sneak peak, it's the first actual episode in its full airing, and no, they're not going to run the first episode of SitM on March 11, they're going straight to Episode #102, so you damn well better catch it during the advertised "sneak peak."

Fortunately it's not quite that bad, but only by fortune of Disney Channel's typical quirks. They'll no doubt rerun the SitM pilot a billion times between now and then and they'll probably rerun it again just before the premiere block on the 11th. They might even still have it on Watch Disney Channel then. Nick isn't quite that kind. If you didn't bother to tune into the 100 Things premiere, missed the first week of reruns and didn't bother to watch it on and hoping that they'd let you catch up near the advertised "premiere" date - yeah, you were screwed.

So now that I've got that out of the way and now that most of you have no doubt tuned out  it's time to get into the actual episode review! Oh no wait another rant time. Sorry for the bait and switch.

I believe this is the first actual show pilot for either Nick or Disney (or at least a pretty high-profile one, excepting the unexpected breakouts like ALVINNN! And the Chipmunks and Miraculous) that has aired since I started this whole blog thing. The thing about pilots is that they tend to be wonky by evil necessity. Not entirely - it really depends on the type of show - but a number of factors come into play. For a show that tends to be extremely well and carefully mapped out and is following a very well-defined prior gameplan, whether by the writers/producers or from prior source material - like, say, Game of Thrones - the potential for wonkiness still exists but it's greatly reduced. The players may be trying to learn to mesh together, the players and directors may be learning to mesh together, the directors and writers may be learning to mesh together, etc., but for the most part people at least understand what they're doing. It's like, oh, I dunno...let's say a bunch of people are hanging out at the Disney Channel production studios (actually, that'd be It's a Laugh studios - but that's just my embarrassing nerdiness about kiddie TV showing) and say Danielle Fischel thinks it would be a good idea to get everybody at Disney Channel a giant ice cream cake from the local boutique shop and Sabrina Carpenter and Debby Ryan say, yeah, that's a great idea! So they look up the ice cream shop's website on their phones, pick out a cake from a pre-defined selection, and make their order. The ice cream shop is following a very specific set of recipes and instructions that they've followed countless times before in order to make a very beautiful piece of edible artwork that will no doubt be very much appreciated by Debby Ryan, Sabrina Carpenter and Danielle Fischel because I'm absolutely certain none of those three women are assholes.

And then you have the most popular kind of TV show out there - the procedural show and the sitcom. The procedural show is a more specific subset of the detective show - as the name implies the procedure is as much the main star as the actual billed players. This isn't necessarily a literal procedure to be followed CSI-style (though CSI certainly is very much archetypical of procedural shows) but rather a formula. If you've seen Castle, or Elementary, or even House (all shows I absolutely love BTW) you've pretty much seen them all (or at least know what I'm talking about). There's a mystery, and the mystery-solving team has to run through the numbers. The "numbers" can be anything - a list of red-herring suspects, red-herring clues, red-herring events - but they are consistent in that they are red herrings until the last 10 minutes when all can be revealed and consistent in, well, being consistent. You know Rich Castle and Kate Beckett are going to go through a decent list of suspects before finding the right one. You know Sherlock and Joan are going to navigate all the twists and turns before putting the puzzle together. You know Greg House, M.D. is, well, going to be Greg House, M.D. while his team keeps throwing out medical suggestions until House is forced to shout IT'S NOT LUPUS! 

Disney and Nick's bread and butter, the sitcom, naturally follows a similar sense of consistency. Parker Rooney is Parker Rooney, Jasmine Kang is Jasmine Kang, Jessie Prescott is Jessie Prescott, Riley Matthews is Riley Matthews etc. I can describe who these characters are, but for those who are familiar with them it's not necessary. These characters tend to act in pretty consistent fashion. Yeah, sure, sometimes they throw us a curve ball but there's a reason why the phrase "breaking character" exists, and nobody on Disney Channel is really all that likely to do it (except in extremely forced, contrived fashion usually in order to be extra anvilicious-y). And even so, the plots tend to be pretty consistent too. Regardless of what episode it is, chances are it's going to involve Parker inventing something wacky and putting his brother and/or sisters into or out of a munchy situation, Jasmine is going to follow her friends mindlessly into trouble but fashionably so, Jessie is going to end up a self-loathing pretty hot mess of fail (in both senses of "pretty" and "hot" which just tends to make the whole thing contradictory, something even TVTropes picked up on) and Riley is going to prove that Cory pretty much used My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic as a substitute parent. 

The reason why this consistency exists so much is that market research and hard decades of experience have shown that for whatever reason people just like consistency, in both their murder mystery dramas and sitcoms. I guess we humans just don't like being out of our comfort zone after all. These shows work because of formulas, not plots. Audiences care about the formula, not the plot. Hence, the plots can be interchangable but as long as Sheldon yells out Bazinga! people are happy. But this also means that they need to work double-time to get that formula nailed down. They can crank out a plot pretty much whenever they feel like, but it can take up to a whole season or even the show's entire run to try and nail down the formula and they still might miss the boat (this is what happened to I Didn't Do It BTW). This means that when it comes to pilots it's not only the cast and crew that's trying to mesh, but the entire show itself as they're still trying to figure out the very basics.

Or to put it another way: remember that weird ice cream cake example I used with Debby, Sabs and Danielle as customers? Now instead of those three, imagine this same exact ice cream shop just received an order for an ice cream cake from The Real Housewives of the Potomac (this is a real spinoff BTW, I'm not just pulling this out of my ass). And instead of just ordering up one of the cake designs featured on the website, they're making all sorts of insane demands about what the ice cream cake should look like, and what flavors of ice cream cake you need to use, and who's allergic to butter pecan so it damn well better not have any butter pecan ice cream in it or you'll be talking to my lawyer. And there's no way you can be sure their bespoke design is even physically possible. And when you're halfway through finishing it and finally confident of the engineering you get another phone call and now all of a sudden they demand serious changes - the raspberry sherbert swimming pool needs to be changed to a chocolate mint putting green, the bottom layer needs to be removed entirely because it makes someone feel sensitive about something or other, and again there better not be any butter pecan in it and I really mean it too. And then you spend all night sweating over it and finishing it and when you finally deliver it the customer just mutters something under her breath about never buying anything from this ice cream shop ever again and she doesn't even tip.

Yeah, that's pretty much what making a sitcom pilot is like.

Hopefully that explains why pilots, especially sitcom pilots, tend to be wonky as hell. You can watch the pilot of I Didn't Do It on Vimeo to see a very real example for yourself (there are extra characters that are clearly intended to be in it for the long-run that end up being one-time wonders, the friend dynamic isn't just changed, it flat out doesn't exist for half the group, etc.) Or how Disney Channel demanded so many changes to Bunk'd that it suddenly became a Jessie spin-off out of the blue and they had to find an awkward way to accommodate these demands, or how Disney Channel demanded so many changes to a pilot called Fairest of the Mall that it morphed into a completely different show with literally no resemblance to its former self save for the main actresses, eventually hitting the network as Best Friends Whenever. 

As a side effect of the wonkiness, pilots also just flat out tend to suck. Hell, entire first seasons tend to suck, especially since the 2012-13 premiere season for Disney Channel and to a somewhat lesser extent Nickelodeon. The first season of Girl Meets World, least compared to the second season kind of sucked. The first season of Liv and Maddie, again, by and large sucked. The first season of Dog With a Blog, again, by and large sucked. Kirby Buckets has seen meaningful improvements. While the first season of Bell and the Bulldogs was decent, the second season is much better, and yeah, compared to the second season the first season of Henry Danger sucked. The second seasons of Nicky, Ricky Dicky & Dawn and Every Witch Way were vast improvements. You pretty much get the point. I imagine the second season of K.C. Undercover is going to be a vast improvement, especially given how much of the first season of the show about a teenage spy was not about being a spy. Likewise, BFW is probably going to have better and more inventive use of the time travel element. Both Bunk'd and Game Shakers are just bottom-feeding horrid garbage, full-stop, so there's just nowhere else to go but up (or cancelation). Just about the only Disney exception I can really think of is Gamer's Guide, and mostly just because of how rawly funny it is rather than any actual, legitimate quality to it (100 Things, if you're wondering, does have enough legitimate quality to be an exception - so of course it's ratings are in the toilet -_-) Speaking of 100 Things, it's also a specially rare exception to a lot of the typical sitcom pilot wonkiness because it actually conforms to a game plan - the eponymous list of CJ's. And being single-cam doesn't hurt either.

Which finally brings us to SitM. You've probably noticed yet another side-effect of pilot wonkiness - going hand-in-hand with establishing a working formula is establishing just the basic premise of the show. The very best shows manage to simultaneously establish their worldbuilding and completely ignore it - yes it sounds contradictory, but it's quite commonplace (again GoT is a good example). It's nonchalantly faking it like you're making it in scriptwriting form - you're introducing new concepts, new plot elements and a whole new world if not universe to an audience, but doing it in such a way as to not be as big of a deal as the actual plot elements you want the show to focus on (again, GoT does this excellently). As far as Disney or Nick shows go, probably Gravity Falls is the best example, but even there establishing the basic premise and worldbuilding on a fundamental level is necessary (in fact, they remain critical plot points throughout the show).

On SitM, we have Harley literally pulling the fourth wall out of the way to clearly explain to the audience in plain language what the show's premise is. It's immediately clear that this episode is as much about just establishing the basic premise of the show and the show's formula as it is about introducing characters, plot points or even telling jokes and gags. How does it fair? It', decent enough I guess.

Again, all this episode does for the most part is establish, establish, establish. But it manages to wrap a halfway decent plot and episode around it. 

And for all that long-winded talk about "sneak peaks" and pilots, uh, this is all you get I guess. It's a decent pilot to what looks like a potentially decent show about family that's mostly about introducing who all these characters are and how the show justifies its name.

The End.

...that said, I'll cover the whole family dynamic thing in a later, dedicated post.

Episode Grade: C+-ish. The typical pilot wonkiness and explanatory exposition make it hard to reward it higher, but it's not a bad grade for a pilot.
Episode MVP: Kyla Moriset (I know I'm not spelling that name right, sorry) for proving she has a much wider acting range than just being the upbeat goofy one on Dog With a Blog, even though for the most part she's just being the upbeat goofy one on Stuck in the Middle. I really didn't think there were any standouts otherwise - including the much-hyped Jenna (? Yeah I even forgot her first name already) Ortega of which Disney Channel is frankly taking a decent risk making someone this young a lead no less (but hey it more or less paid off the last time they went so young with G. Hannelius, and before with Bella Thorne and Zendaya - wow, hard to believe a 19 year old actress has been with this network since she just started being a teenager).

Stray Observations

 - Mike is a friggin' genius for ripping this feature off of AV Club implementing this new idea. I wish I thought of it first!

- speaking of which I agree with Mike's idea of picking and choosing shows more strategically. When I tried to do literally all Disney and Nick shows, it became so overwhelming it was actually taxing my basic health. Daily blog updates took up to 6 hours per day, vastly unsustainable for this blog's readership. Right now I'm thinking of just shooting from the hip and doing it randomly - I'll try to give Mike fair warning but nearly everything should be viewable from Watch Disney Channel or after the fact.

 - the gym teacher from Jessie/Janice the Librarian from Gamer's Guide always makes for an awesome, umm...annoying antagonist lady? She just plays the role very well.

 - So Chevy Suburbans are vans now? 

 - Also they beep?

 - Is it just me or are promos for Disney Channel shows just getting infinitely worse? It's like they hired someone recently fired from the GOP's social media team to put them together.  

 - Further Adventures in Babysitting is coming in the freakin' summer? I was actually expecting it to be paired with today's SitM premiere. The last time (and perhaps even so far only time) the year's first DCOM premiere was all the way in the summer was in 2013 with the first Teen Beach Movie, and that was also that year's only DCOM. Then again, TBM rocked, and I'd rather have one really good DCOM than 2015's DCOM suckfest (one decent DCOM in Bad Hair Day, a complete and utter bomb with TB2, the popular and mehtastic Descendants and well I'm sorry I'm not changing my opinion on Invisible Sister).

 - Sofia Carson is soooooooooooooo pretty. Seriously she's probably one of the most beautiful actresses to ever appear on Disney Channel, not to mention a hell of a lot closer to my own age than what most people might expect of Disney Channel (especially compared to Jenna Ortega). 


  1. I thought the pilot was typical but saved by some charm and the format. I'm just glad they are trying out a single camera show again. Nick got to do another one before they did!

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