Monday, July 27, 2009

Jonas With a Chance

Thanks to Netflix on Demand, I decided to continue my never ending investigation of today's tween subculture by watching a couple of shows from the Disney Channel. I decided on the Brothers Jonas's latest attempt to dominate every single artistic medium out there simply titled Jonas and Demi Lovato's show Sonny With a Chance. Remembering the poor excuses for acting I witnessed in Camp Rock, I didn't have high hopes for either of them but both of them actually turned out better than I ever imagined.

I'll get Jonas out of the way first since it's obviously the weakest of the two. The show is about three brothers (Kevin, Joe and Nick) who--shockingly--are in a mega successful rock band but somehow find the time to go to a normal high school with students who have known them so long don't really care that they are famous and pretty much leave them alone. Joe's BFF Stella (the fabulous Chelsea Staub) is their wardrobe mistress and shoulder for the brothers to come cry on with their various (usually uninteresting and Disney show-specific) problems. If this sounds a bit formulaic and obvious, it is. Jonas is nothing more than Disney's most recent attempt to cash in on a hot commodity without regards to originality or more than six minutes of brainstorming. I know that this show is just another way for them to make money, but it's entirely obvious they don't want to be actors nor care about really learning the craft. They are musicians first and foremost so Jonas is, pretty much, a complete waste of time in that regards.

One of the biggest problems that Jonas faces is that many of the deliberate "jokes" that they write for the Jonases don't work and are simply frustratingly, jaw-droppingly bad. Take for example the moment when Nick comes rushing in to tell the guys that their favorite backup singer can't work on their new demo because she has a frog in her throat. No, literally, Nick explains, a frog in her throat; she has to get a "frogectomy." I mean, seriously? Who on earth writes rubbish like that and then expects any actor to try and make it work? The Jonases fair much better with jokes that play into the "it's a TV show" aspect of the show, such as when they repeatedly break the fourth wall and address the audience or when Kevin decides to spontaneously break into song and an extra walks across the screen to hand him a guitar while a spotlight comes on. For every two or three lame jokes that practically thud, there is one legitimate laugh that comes from its self-reflective nature.

Not surprisingly, the Jonases are the least interesting actors on the show. Kevin is definitely the most fun of the three with his dumb schtick (he has a comedic element that's actually reminiscent of Justin Timberlake at times). Joe occasionally gets some good lines and he's definitely better than he was in Camp Rock but it's hardly great. Nick, with his serious nature, is "The Kelly" in the show (named after the girl in my high school who every year had the lead role in the play but it was always as the dull straight person in a farce full of supporting nutjobs) but, with the right push, he could either develop that into a Buster Keaton-style stone face or a Victoria Beckham way of deadpanning everything (There was this great Beckham-esque exchange in the first episode where the girl Nick is crushing on tells him he has a great smile to which he replies, "Shh, it will ruin my image.").

Obligatory pause for a pretty picture of Nick.

The real star of the show, however, is Chelsea Staub as the perpetually crazed Stella. She has the sweetness around here that reminds me of La Tisdale on the few episodes of The Suite Life I've seen but she also really lays into the physical comedy bits she is given. When she bets her Jonas-obsessed friend Macey (a lovely Nicole Anderson) that she can go longer without texting than Macey can go without talking about the Jonases, she runs the gamut of usual withdrawal symptoms but she really goes for them and the moment when she finally gives in rings with genuine hilarity. When the Jonas Brothers finally grow out of this Disney crap and concentrate fully on their music, it will be Chelsea Staub that we will be watching and wondering what she will do next to impress us. C

I've heard Sonny With a Chance described as "30 Rock for the tweens" but I found it hard to believe that any show airing on the Disney Channel could be anywhere as good as the best show on TV currently. I was wrong. Don't misunderstand me, 30 Rock will always be leaps and bounds smarter and funnier than Sonny, but for a Disney show aimed at tweens, this show is impeccably well-constructed and acted.

The Liz Lemon of this show is Sonny Munroe (played by Demi Lovato), the fresh-faced newcomer from Wisconsin to the cast of So Random!, a teen sketch comedy show obviously based on my generation's revered All That. The pilot episode deals with Sonny's integration into the cast and ends up preaching some nonsense about getting along with people that I've been hearing since elementary school. Thankfully, that is as close as this show ever gets to moralizing. The rest of the episodes are jam-packed full of fun as Sonny, being the Liz Lemon, gets in trouble, makes said situation worse and then rallies the cast--which includes the Jenna Maroney to Demi's Liz, self-absorbed, delusional diva Tawni Hart (portrayed brilliantly by Tiffany Thorton), the usual duo of fools Nico and Grady (Brandon Smith and Doug Brochu) and the young oddball (Allisyn Ashley Arm, who's mugginess and child actor tics are irritating to say the least)--to solve the problem. The premise is oh-so-simple, but you can't even imagine how many laughs they wring from it.

The characters on Sonny With a Chance are nothing more than stereotypes we've seen countless times before, but part of what sets the show apart is how committed these actors are to them. Demi starts the show off kind of rough, relying on that huge smile of her through much of the first episode to project niceness. As the season progresses, however, she starts to let loose and get into the (anarchic) spirit of the show. With a lesser actress than Tiffany Thorton, Tawni would have ended up as big of a travesty as Meghan Martin's diva/mean girl in Camp Rock. Thorton knows exactly when to go all out for the big laugh and when to pull back so she doesn't become obnoxious or overdone. But no one deals more with stereotyping than Sterling Knight (whom you may remember as Zac Efron's son in 17 Again) as narcissistic tween heartthrob Chad Dylan Cooper, star of the hit tween drama Mackenzie Falls which shoots in the studio next to So Random!. Given all the douchey characteristics he is given, it would have been easy for Knight to cop out and try to sneak some sympathy every now and again to make him more likable. Thankfully, he doesn't and plays the jerkiness for every laugh possible.

Obligatory pause to admire Chad Dylan Cooper (you know he would demand it).

I'm also impressed that any single episode of Sonny With a Chance is more structured than any Disney Channel movie released in the past four years. Take for example the episode titled "Battle of the Networks' Stars." The episode starts with Demi sitting at a table in the cafeteria with what she thinks are her co-stars. It turns out that they are simply look alikes so she heads to another table and runs into the same problem. Finally the real castmates come in and they have no idea what is going on. It tuns out that Chad is directing the biopic of his life (appropriately titled Chad Dylan Cooper: The Chad Dylan Cooper Story) and is holding auditions for people to play the members of So Random!. The castmates protest and eventually Chad gives in--partly anyways. He still makes Sonny tryout for the part of herself but in the end chooses Selena Gomez (playing herself) to play Sonny in the movie. So, Selena decides to study up on Sonny, following her and mimicing her every move, and decides to call her out on her love for Chad. Sonny, of course, denies this and when Selena brings it up again with Chad, citing that she needs to know for "character motivation," he denies it as well. The episode comes to a head when Sonny comes on the set of the movie and starts giving Selena direction on how to play her. When she starts overstepping the boundaries and yells "Cut!" during a scene, Chad gets angry at her and they proceed to have a shouting match through their megaphones while standing not more than 10 feet apart. Selena then stomps off the set after they both turn on her and mentions something about doing Camp Hip Hop. Chad then offers the role back to Sonny and she ends up taking it. At the very end of the episode, the castmates are all gathered around the TV watching Selena in Camp Hip Hop and it turns out to be a thinly disguised version of Demi's Camp Rock, complete with Jonas Brothers look-alikes and everything! The layers of comedy that Sonny consistently builds on never less than impresses me. The way that the show is able to laugh at itself and not take itself so seriously is one of the reasons why I think this show will appeal to people beyond its target demographic. The show may not be completely perfect (I could live without the dumb sidekicks even if I understand their purpose) but when it's right (that being anytime Demi, Tiffany or Sterling appear in a scene) it's damn close to being one of the funniest shows on TV, Disney Channel or not. A-


Vance said...

What are we on the same wavelength or something? Just caught the Frog in throat ep of Jonas yesterday at the gym.

Personally, I say Nick Jonas has the Chace Crawford potential and should guest on Gossip Girl. stand there, look pretty, say ridiculous lines with a straight face. Think of it, Leighton Meester schooling Nick Jonas? Oh the potentials!

And yah, I can't believe Sonny is far better than I thought it would be.

Marcy said...

I watched two episodes of Jonas (ep. 1 and 6). The first episode was better than I expected and I thought Nick Jonas did a decent job carrying the episode along but the sixth episode was painfully ridiculous. Many of the jokes on the show are just not funny.

I've only seen the first few episodes of Sonny with a Chance and it's a mixed bag. Some episodes are relentlessly breezy and funny and others are just sort of mediocre. Allisyn Ashley Arm is the most annoying child star...ever? But I've heard that the more recent episodes are funnier, so I might start watching it again. And, I love the Sonny/Chad relationship.

Monsieur Cinema said...

Always trusting your recommendations, I gave Sonny a chance. Color me surprised, you did not go overboard one bit. The show is legitimately funny and remarkably well designed for a tween show. Plus, the adorkable-going-on-cute Sterling Knight definitely has the chops to keep his career going.

Dame James said...

Vance: The thought of Leighton Meester schooling anyone makes me giddy with excitement. I would feel bad at first since Nick is so freaking adorable, but I'm sure Blair's verbal smackdown will be so spot on and witty that I will end up cheering her on as I usually end up doing.

Marcy: You see, I thought Nick was pretty terrible carrying the romantic plot. He's much better when he can just sit there with his stoic face and react at either the bad stuff happening to him or the stupid things his brothers are doing or saying.

Stick with Sonny With a Chance and, trust me, you'll be rewarded for your patience. By the end of the first run of episodes, they find an amazing groove. And, yes, Allisyn Ashley Arm is the reason child actors get such a bad rap. A horrible concoction of overeagerness, shameless mugging and obvious parental coaching. That's why the episodes that she's not on are often the best (including the one I mention with the Chad Dylan Cooper movie).

Mr. Cinema: I'm glad you enjoyed it so much and it wasn't just my inner 14 year old girl speaking for me. Sterling Knight really has something and can't wait to see what he does next.

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