Monday, March 20, 2017

Liv and Maddie (and Cali Style!) Unknown's Retrospective

How ya doin'? (Yeah I don't know why I occasionally like to steal that line from Christian whom he in turn stole/homaged from, of course, Boy Meets World. Or for that matter why I'm opening up with that)

Unknown here, obviously. I imagine Mike would want to do his own post on Liv and Maddie although he's certainly more than welcomed (actively invited, in fact) to add his own words here if he'd rather do that. We've retrospective'd Jessie, Austin & Ally and Girl Meets World (more or less) when those series ended (along with Gravity Falls which is probably the biggest animated series on the Disney networks to end during this blog's lifetime so far - with P&F coming to an end just before I started this), and those series certainly were the major series on Disney Channel since this blog started being a thing. And we've covered those series differently - both Jessie and Austin & Ally were mixed bags but in different ways, and Girl Meets World at least for me (though it seems like for most people, even) certainly had a tendency to be a frustration-fest with plenty of venting about it on my part. So it's nice to be able to dig into something that I've universally loved.

...except not quite much. Looking at some social media posts I seem to be alone in thinking this (though maybe not so much) but I actually think the first season of Liv and Maddie was more or less garbage. Yeah, really. Given how much I've fanboy'd and stan'd the series this might come as a legitimate shock but I was kind of hoping they'd cancel the series after just the first season. The first episodes in particular were...well, just not very good. There were more than a few exceptions to the First Season Sucks rule (Move-a-Rooney was a pretty good, solid episode - and lay the groundwork for a lot of the series later on including the very foundation of Cali-Style; Skate-a-Rooney and Brain-a-Rooney were decent episodes; Sweet-16-a-Rooney was a good episode and Switch-a-Rooney, Moms-a-Rooney, Flashback-a-Rooney and Song-a-Rooney are good enough that I usually completely forget they're first season episodes) but there's a reason why I keep talking about how no Disney Channel series is invulnerable to the First Season Sucks rule (except for the few shows that come swinging for the fences out of the gate - and then begin long, suffering slides into declining quality ala the aforementioned Jessie and Austin & Ally - or even just get stuck as overhyped garbage-fests throughout their entire runs ala the aforementioned Girl Meets World - ok so GMW wasn't that bad but still). Twin-a-Rooney was ok for a pilot - if anything it's slightly better than what the Wonky Pilot Episode Rule would dictate. Team-a-Rooney was something straight out of a KidCom writing playbook from a decade prior, at least, and even then maybe for nine-year-olds. Sleep-a-Rooney was the first real effort by John Beck, Ron Hart and crew towards the slightly off-beat, more cutting but still warm, family-friendly comedy the show would be known for but man, was it still pretty wonky. Steal-a-Rooney I maintain was just garbage through-and-through. I mean, you can really tell they had a lot of things to iron out as they were working on this (see First Season Sucks rule and Wonky Pilot rule, so it's hardly unique to LaM) and looking through it I think it really shows in the back half of Season 1 (starting, say, with the 2014 calendar year) which, again, so closely resembles Season 2 I actually thought most of those episodes were Season 2. Needless to say, Season 2 (and the backhalf of Season 1) is a massive improvement. I think Space Werewolf-a-Rooney ended the season on a still wonky note, especially given the season finales that were to come, but it even surprised me looking through IMDb to see how quickly this show's improved in that first season alone, and I already thought it was one of the biggest turn-arounds in Disney Channel history.

Now, some if not a lot of that (both in how horribly I assessed Season 1 and how high I've assessed Season 2) might be situational on my part - and I'll get to that in a bit - but Hart, Beck and crew absolutely need to be acknowledged for the great, raw talent they've shown throwing this show together. They've had a lot of experience throwing together many great, more adult and traditional-style sitcoms in the recent past, many of which were solid mega-hits, and at a certain point it was only natural for things to click again and for them to throw that full talent into Liv and Maddie once they got a handle on it. They're certainly not alone in this regard on Disney Channel either - Pamela Eells O'Connell who was a producer on both Suite Life series and the big creative driver on Jessie along with Debby, has an even more impressive resume behind her stretching all the way back to Laverne and Shirley and threading through Married, With Children..., Mad About You and Just Shoot Me. All four of those shows deserve to be in some sort of Sitcom Hall of Fame as some of the greatest ever (they'd be, like, the Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and heck the Babe himself of sitcoms) and Just Shoot Me is one of my most favorite sitcoms of all time. Chris Thompson, who gave us Shake it Up, also worked on Laverne and Shirley and went through a string of one-and-done and two-and-through season wonders that nonetheless ended up being cult hits (Shake it Up would in fact end up being his very last show, even though he would live for one and a half years after SiU aired its finale and was actively shopping concepts and pitches around up until pretty much the moment of his death). And of course you had Micheal Jacobs and his crew who besides Boy Meets World gave us a string of notable sitcoms as well, most notably Dinosaurs (the one with the actors in the animatronic suits, the one who played Earl would later go on to berate Cory Matthews and the art teacher he hired and then get pretty much literally schooled by a hyper-active little pixie girl). 

But while Girl Meets World ended up being bogged-down in its own nostalgia-prison and Jessie slowly turned into a schmuck-fest until by its final season it had just become a pale, going-through-the-motions shadow-clone of itself living down to the reputation of all the other sitcoms on its network (and Bunk'd, I still maintain, is almost unwatchable), and while Shake it Up is still regarded as a cult hit well, let's face it, it (like many of Thompson's works) is a cult-hit rather than a wide-appealing mega-hit for a reason, Liv and Maddie is one of the few shows in the entire network's history to really grab onto that elusive, near-universal appeal and grab at least a little cred in the wider pop-culture world in the same vein as Dan Schneider's peak works and not at all unlike exactly what they were hoping to grab again near-automatically with Girl Meets World. So the question to ask is, why is that? And I don't think it's unfair to ask why did Liv and Maddie succeed where Girl Meets World at least kinda-sorta failed at? (And yeah, I know it sounds like I'm just beating up on Girl Meets World here, sorry for that.)

I think it's because, well...just guessing here, I think Beck and Hart are entering into this whole tween-com thing with fresher minds and attitude if nothing else. O'Connell had been in the Disney scene since 2005 with Suite Life of Zack and Cody and while the first two seasons of Jessie were still fresh and able to hit it with the best of Liv and Maddie, Girl Meets World or Good Luck Charlie, I just think there was a lot of complacency that worked itself in. The final season of Suite Life on Deck...well, if not the final season and a half in fact, were a lot closer to being Jessie's later seasons than Jessie's earlier seasons. Plus, Jessie's first season had Doug Tuber and Tim Maile on its staff, the duo that gave us the bulk of Disney Channel's earliest successes including Lizzie McGuire, Even Stevens and Phil of the Future. As for Girl Meets World...I think Jacobs was just stuck in that Boy Meets World 90s mindset. I think there was just as much complacency and assumptions on things being automatic made on his part as there was on the fandom's and network's part. 

For whatever reason, Beck and Hart were just more willing to push things. If not necessarily boundaries (and while LaM didn't exactly flirt with what they acceptable envelope is, it's still a bit more edgy than the shows either still currently airing or having just recently ended - and yeah I guess that was a stealth-jab at GMW again but hey it shows I'm improving) they were at least willing to get outside the typical Disney comfort zone. In fact I think that right there describes exactly the problem with the earliest episodes - I think when they started out in this Disney Channel kidcom business they at first started playing it safe and just followed the typical network playbook - hence stuff like Team-a-Rooney and Steal-a-Rooney - but I think they quickly realized they have a particular style that's very successful and screw just following the kidcom playbook. If they had any reason to not have to worry about being too "edgy" for the network, I think they have no further to look than that edginess perhaps being the very reason why Disney Channel signed them on. 

Plus, I think you just gotta credit them for raw talent. I think O'Connell and Jacobs are perhaps just worn-out, while Beck and Hart can still pull more than a few tricks out of their hats. The least of these tricks being this uncanny, almost outright weird knack for getting serious star firepower onto their show, even if it's just in comparison to within the network. Laura Marano, Piper Curda, Jordan Fisher, Kevin James, even the ex-wife of a President now. And not just Patty Duke, but for what it's worth earning a footnote as the very last role she would do alive and as an homage to her most famous role no less. Even down to the show's main star, Dove Cameron, although it's debatable if she already was a rising star prior to LaM, if LaM helped her get there or if other projects mainly Descendants were more responsible. Sure, other Disney Channel shows were able to score some notable names here and there, but rarely were they able to outside of other mega-hits on the network and even then often in the case of network-wide and enforced special events. Liv and Maddie did it totally casual, and it not only boosted the quality of the show but gave it major cred too. And for that matter, it managed to get the best out of its regular cast too - I think Joey Bragg has the talent to pull it off at least as a real-life standup comedian but I don't think people are going to remember Tenzig Norgay Trainor like they do Parker Rooney. Just the way that character is written and perhaps directed, he's managed to really make an impression beyond the type of stock character of this archetype inhabits on other Disney Channel shows (see Ravi on both Jessie and Bunk'd or Bernie on Bizaardvark).

I know a lot of people are quite frankly butthurt over Cali-Style - they don't like the sudden addition of a new "sorta sister" in Ruby or the change of locale to literally right next to the Pacific Ocean (it does seem kind of OC-glamour-ish to be able to feel the sand between your toes right when you step off your patio compared to the down-to-Earth feel of the show's Wisconsin seasons) but I'm debating whether or not to consider Cali-Style the best of the show's seasons. They've managed to add many great dramatic moments to the show and add a lot of closure for the characters' plotlines along the way and answering a lot of questions the audience might have of their future after the finale, even before the finale even premieres - all the while not missing any of the comedic beats at all. I've been very, very impressed with Cali-Style and needless to say I have very high hopes for the finale.

That should just about wrap up this retrospective save for one thing - I've mentioned that there's some of my own situational attitude in play here, both that might've unfairly dinged the first season (or at least the back-half) while at the same time turning me into the LaM fanboy stan I am today. I mentioned how my own personal situation might've colored me into thinking that Jessie is a better show than it actually is in my retrospective for that show, and Liv and Maddie is no different. 2014 was a very stressful year for me and it was a big reason why I quit being a teacher and started pursuing a career in the book publishing industry instead, which was hard for me to do because I got into the teaching scene in the first place after soul-searching when I had cancer (see the Jessie restrospective where I talk about how that factored into my enthusiasm for that show) and I think a lot of that stress caused me to write a lot of the show off without seeing much or any of it at that point, especially since, again, I still maintain a lot of the first half of the first season was wonky at best if not outright garbage (at least compared to the show's turnaround). Come to think of it, I think I was already starting to get into the show by late in the first season, but I really didn't start to fall in love with it until early-mid in the second season in January 2015 when I was starting to come to terms with quitting and starting to not only have a lot of free time on my hands (again), but needing to use up a lot of that free time to destress and do some soul searching (again) and Liv and Maddie at that time provided a lot of that television comfort food necessary to help me get through (again). Which is probably why I have such a fondness in particular for the round of episodes that aired during that time - starting with Bro-Cave-a-Rooney and going through Detention-a-Rooney, Upcycle-a-Rooney, Gift-a-Rooney (which is probably one of the coziest episodes in the series' entire history) and especially Rate-a-Rooney which is not only one of the greatest episodes in network history but easily out-GMW'd actual GMW (yeah I'll quit that now) - and culminating through what I'll call "The Dream Arc" (Liv's band, not any of the characters going through a multi-episode dream sequence arc) and straight into and through the season finale, Champ-a-Rooney. And the show only continued to shoot further upwards from there. That whole situation and personal circumstance, just like with Jessie (and a lot of the shows airing during that general era on both Nickelodeon and Disney Channel too - which Liv and Maddie, incidentally and at least for Disney Channel, represents the very tail-end of) is probably why I'm not just so enthusiastic for, but outright emotionally attached to Liv and Maddie - and perhaps why I've found it so difficult to get into another Disney Channel series that's premiered since, like with Bunk'd and even Stuck in the Middle and Bizaardvark (though the latter two are starting to grow on me as I invest more into it) as fortunately (knock on wood) my life and health have been pretty stable since.

Yeah, cancer and a big emotional relationship break-up at the same time can do a number on you even after those events actually happen, in what's perhaps the greatest understatement I've ever made on this blog. 

But, I wouldn't have made those emotional connections if Liv and Maddie just wasn't a great show to begin with. Girl Meets World was well underway during that time, and despite being a fan of Original Flavor Meets World I haven't ever been able to make an emotional connection to it (in fact I think my rants against it are rather infamous now). Both I Didn't Do It and Best Friends Whenever outright lived and died during that time and while I think both of those shows are underrated they're still no Liv and Maddie. 

Disney Channel might be obsessed with trying to find the next Good Luck Charlie as Stuck in the Middle and even Liv and Maddie itself might show, but there will never be another Liv and Maddie. Perhaps just from dumb luck, a confluence of crew and cast talent collided to provide an all-too-few 80 episodes of wacky hijinks that just, somehow *sniff*...hits you right there in the heart.

Extra Thoughts

 - I really also have to give credit and special note to the rather large number of women on the production, writing and directing staff of Liv and Maddie, not the least of which include the pair that gave Linda and Heather their name. I don't know if this is really all that special for a Disney Channel series but given just how good this series is I feel maybe it'd be a service to make note of it.

 - This is also the very last surviving series (well, for the remaining week at least) on Disney Channel to have aired new episodes during the 2013 calendar year (save for perhaps some Disney Junior shows like, I dunno, Doc McStuffins) which means needless to say it's also currently the oldest. It managed to outlive a number of shows that premiered during the 2014 and 2015 calendar years. If you don't get why I make such a big deal out of the year 2013, go back and read the Jessie retrospective (or go back and read the paragraphs up above, for that matter).

 - I'm serious, if I didn't happen to have picked up both Disney Channel/Nickelodeon and young adult novels while recovering on the ample down time I had while under chemo, I probably would've gone stark-raving mad from boredom. It was helpful in that I could find ways to not only entertain myself but on stuff that I could perhaps at least somewhat literally stomach at the time, and I found out very early on how quickly I got sick and tired of overdosing on endless Pawn Stars marathons on "History" Channel and I just wasn't in the mood for more "adult" style entertainment for a long time coming. And it doesn't hurt that I picked up a new career path from it too even with a false start in between as it's how I decided to become a teacher and from there got into a career path into publishing. 

 - Speaking of Doc McStuffins, her voice actress is also the same actress who plays Priya!

 - Just as a piece of related personal trivia - this is also either the second or third show I've seen on Disney Channel that I've seen the premiere episode of during its first "live" airing and saw all the way through to its finale "live" airing that's managed to last more than two seasons (the fact that Girl Meets World entirely lived and died within the time frame Liv and Maddie aired complicated the exact nature of the order, although certainly Dog With a Blog is the first). It's also the first Disney Channel series I've seen period under such criteria that's lasted a full four seasons, even if it's way short of the magic 100 episodes.

 - And just in case John Beck and Ron Hart are reading this - yes, I did use the correct form of "premiere." I even double-checked with Merriam-Webster.

 - Oh, I promised reviews of Tangled the movie, Tangled: Before Ever After and even Hunter Street? Yeah, later. I can't even promise I'm going to review those before I put up a review of the Liv and Maddie Cali Style finale. Sorry.

3 comments:

  1. You said so much I don't have a lot to add. Yeah, L&M was good. Even my least fave eps weren't horrible, like the one i reviewed, although i havwen't seen a fair amount in awhile so i may be wrong.

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    1. Steal-a-Rooney is pretty much right there with some of the worst GMW or even Jessie has to offer - which is still perhaps better than at least a below-average episode of Bunk'd (though Jessie in S4 tended to really push that, as did SLoD in S3 before that). That's not to say that there weren't other episodes that were below-average or that even a below-average LaM episode is better than an above-average episode for the rest of Disney Channel - but it's a very high-quality series where even the few "below"-average episodes it has has at least noticeable effort in quality to it. Other than the very early issues I noted in the retrospective, yeah, I can't really name many episodes that are bad or for that matter I wouldn't watch over and over again.

      Yeah, I wish Disney Channel bothered with DVD box sets.

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  2. Resident Anon here. (I'll just start all of my comments like this from now on so I have some sort of identification - I'm the anon who asked for the D&J/Zoey 101/HM reviews as well as asked about L&M in the last blog post)

    I really enjoy Liv and Maddie. I got into it fairly late, though - I had seen an episode or two here and there in like 2014, but it wasn't until last year that I started fully indulging in it and keeping up with it. Honestly, when it ends, I'm not entirely sure what other Disney shows to cling to, since GMW also ended. I watched the first episode of Andi Mack online, though, and it looks very promising. I imagine you've heard about that show, Unknown? What are your thoughts on it?

    But yeah, I wish Dove Cameron and the rest of the cast the best after this show. I absolutely love Dove Cameron, she's such a talented actress to be able to pull a show like this off. Serious props to her. Unpopular opinion, but I even enjoy the music she's done for the show (though some may argue it's typical Disney pop fare, I can't help but enjoy it as a guilty pleasure). "As Long As I Have You" is easily my all-time favorite from the show, but all of the season 4 songs from Sing it Louder!! have been great too. "Power of Two" is criminally catchy.

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