Apparently the not-entirely-awful Austin & Ally was created by two writers who’d previously worked on another Disney Channel sitcom called Sonny with a Chance… so when I saw a DVD of the first seven episodes of that show going for a quid in a charity shop, curiosity got the better of me.
For those who don’t know, this short-lived series stars Demi Lovato as ‘Sonny Munroe’, an eager new cast member of So Random!, a fictional sketch show for tweens, who has to cope with the kneejerk resentment of the show’s resident “Queen Bee” ‘Tawni Hart’ (Tiffany Thornton), as well as the snobbish disdain of ‘Chad Dylan Cooper’ (Sterling Knight), the narcissistic star of Mackenzie Falls, a fictional teen drama series shot in the neighbouring studio. The rivalry/class conflict between the two shows is a solid running joke, and I thought the budding friendship between Sonny and Chad was handled very well, emerging organically from their interaction over several episodes, rather than being awkwardly fast-tracked in the pilot (a la Austin & Ally). And who can blame the guy for being charmed by Sonny’s irrepressible perkiness and eccentric sense of humour? I wasn’t really familiar with Lovato before watching this, but she’s clearly got a natural knack for comedy, and is capable of projecting a lively, occasionally manic energy without ever over-egging her expressions (unlike some other cast members, who shall remain nameless). In fact, she’s straight-up adorable and super-cute to boot, which makes it all the more heartbreaking to discover that the show was cancelled (or drastically retooled, depending on your perspective) after its second season, as a result of Lovato leaving to seek treatment for an eating disorder and self-injury. I’ve no idea what the causes of such maladies might be, or even if there’s a “cure” for them as such, but one year on she seems to be making a comeback, and recently returned to her treatment centre, Timberline Knolls, as a guest speaker. In a related tweet, she asked her fans to “please say a prayer for all of those struggling with eating disorders, self harm, mood disorders, and substance abuse”. Amen to that. There aren’t any guarantees in the entertainment industry, of course, but from what I’ve seen I’d say she had a very promising career ahead of her as a comic actress, and I wish her all the best.
As for the show itself, I found it far funnier, and far less frantic, than Austin & Ally… although it’s not without its flaws. You’ll often hear critics talk about how certain actors or characters seem to be appearing in a totally different show to their cast-mates, and here that’s almost literally true. More-often-than-not the So Random! troupe will split into two distinct “teams”, according to gender, with Sonny and Tawni getting the “A-plot” and all the emotional arcs, while their male counterparts (Brandon Mychal Smith and Doug Brochu) are stuck with the inconsequential, slap-sticky subplots. Perhaps that was intended as a satirical comment on the notion that girls mature faster, while boys never really grow up? Either way, you could quite happily skip all the guys’ scenes in these episodes, and not miss a thing story-wise. It’s probably heresy to suggest that this kid’s show could be in any way superior to the mighty 30 Rock, but one thing that does give Sonny the edge over its adult equivalent is the way it handles the “show-within-a-show” element of its premise. Several episodes kick off with authentically-staged sketches (or full dress rehearsals of same), and the struggle to craft and sell new skits seems far more central to the storylines here than it is in 30 Rock, where TGS is more of a flimsily-staged MacGuffin. I think it’s telling that after Lovato’s premature departure, Disney chose to keep the rest of the cast in gainful employment by spinning So Random! off as a bona fide half-hour sketch show in its own right.
Note: The DVD also features several fake trailers for upcoming episodes of Mackenzie Falls, which are actually pretty hilarious bite-size nuggets of soap opera parody. Value!