“I’m all lost in the supermarket/I can no longer shop happily/I came in here for a special offer/Of guaranteed personality” — “Lost in the Supermarket, the Clash
Dan Schneider, a former teen actor who played the chubbiest nerd on Head of the Class, had developed five series for Nickelodeon when he was approached by the Nick execs to create a music-based show. Given the popularity of High School Musical, they charged Schneider with creating a new show that would “follow where the kids are.” VICTORiOUS, the story of a talented teen who joins her fame-obsessed sister at Hollywood Performing Arts High School, promised to speak to kids’ desire to express themselves musically just as iCarly, another Schneider-crafted show, spoke to every YouTube-loving kid who wanted to host his own web show. And while it’s gone downhill this season, iCarly was once fresh in its writing and performances, giving us quirky but realistic enough characters, especially in those played by its three likable teen stars. Miranda Cosgrove, Jennette McCurdy, and Nathan Kress are funny and believable as kids who produce a show we would all want to watch because they are kids we all want to watch. They are bright, attractive without being plastic, and their comedic timing is spot on.
VICTORiOUS , on the other hand, falls flat. Because despite its intentions, it’s not so much about talented kids with an awesome creative outlet so much as it is about annoying kids who want to be talented — or, better yet, to be famous. Schneider has said, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about kids today. . . it’s that they all want to be famous”*, and he developed the series when Marjorie Cohn was Nick’s executive VP for original programming and development. “Every kid thinks they’re five minutes away and one lucky circumstance from being famous,” Cohn has said, and with these thoughts in mind they began to develop the show, which also promised to provide the long-awaited showcase for Victoria Justice, who was signed in 2008 to work on what would become VICTORiOUS.
When Schneider cast Justice at the age of twelve to play a character attractive but otherwise devoid of personality on the execrable Jamie Lynn Spears vehicle Zoey 101, he told the bigwigs at Nick that he had just met their “next star.” And Nick cast the likable but unremarkable Justice in as many vehicles as they could, and on shows like iCarly and True Jackson, VP she garnered more special guest spots than even Heather Locklear in her heyday. Nick promoted VICTORiOUS relentlessly and gave it a sweet time slot for its “sneak preview” premiere — right after the Nick Kids’ Choice Awards on March 27, 2010, making it the most watched debut in Nick history. Critics gave it mixed reviews at best, however, and there is little evidence that fans have latched on to the show the way they have to iCarly or True or even Big Time Rush, Nick’s bid at a boy band sitcom.
This may seem surprising, since Nick and Schneider follow a winning formula with VICTORiOUS in concentrating on a small cadre of teen friends and a sibling or two on a fairly static set (an apartment with its web studio and an occasional shot at the lockers in school for iCarly; the offices of Mad Style and an occasional classroom for True Jackson, VP; a home and a movie theater where one of the brothers works on Drake and Josh). But unlike the charismatic teens those shows were built around (Miranda Cosgrove, Keke Palmer, Drake Bell and Josh Peck), Victoria Justice’s Tori Vega is a black hole personality-wise; she’s at best a straight (wo)man in her own life story as the wacky kids perform around her like she’s a circus ringmaster. Except she doesn’t direct any of the action at the circus, or even comment on it. Mainly, she passively witnesses it all.
Now in some ways, this narrative move or device, if it can be called that, makes sense. Tori is, in basic terms, a placeholder, the person we in the audience can identify with, the classic outsider or fish out of water – at least in the first episode. She becomes a student at Hollywood Arts by accident; when her diva sister, Trina (Daniella Monet), drinks some Chinese herbal tea and has her tongue swell up so that cannot perform her song at a showcase, the talented songwriter Andre (Leon Thomas III, who played another talented teen composer on iCarly) begs Tori to step in and sing in her place. Andre and his friends then encourage her to transfer to their school, despite Tori’s protests that she is just ordinary and they are so “crazy talented”, a premise that would, arguably, work better if she weren’t so ordinary, if we could come to believe that she deserves to be at Hollywood Arts, too, because she is both humble and crazy talented, but we don’t get to see much of that talent beyond her singing occasionally. In theory, though, we navigate the wacky halls of Hollywood Arts as an outsider like Tori and marvel with her at the assorted oddballs, which include a barefoot (!) acting teacher who likes coconuts because they”give [him] visions” and the Screechesque dork Robbie (Matt Bennett) who hides behind his more dashing ventriloquist’s dummy, Rex Power, even though everyone finds Rex even more annoying than Robbie. There’s the aforementioned wackily narcissistic sister Trina and the spacey redhead Cat, who spends obsessively on Skymall purchases in one episode, which sounds funnier than it actually was, and the supposedly tempestuous romance between the cute and down-to-earth Beck (Avan Jogia) and his nasty girlfriend Jade (Elizabeth Gillies), who just seems unpleasant for the point of being unpleasant. At one point in the unfolding season, Beck dumps Jade, and it seems like he will discover that he really belongs with his much less violent and bipolar friend, Tori, but the narrative backs off of that like it was on fire. Which is a shame, because that would have had some dramatic potential and given Tori some semblance of a character. As it is, she is only defined by what she is not: kooky, like Cat; bitchy, like Jade; or self-involved, like Trina. But Tori is not alone in this respect, at least in regard to what makes them anything BUT kooky or self-involved or bitchy. With the exception of Andre, it is not clear what makes any of these people talented, though they do seem to want to be talented. In a show about a performing arts high school, with actors that have appeared on Broadway and other venues in the roles, this seems sadly ironic. Since it was created as a response to High School Musical, VICTORiOUS could re-present the most positive message put out by Disney: with hard work and belief in oneself, dreams can come true. “You don’t have to be afraid to put your dream in action,” Tori sings in that fateful showcase number, “You’re never gonna fade/You’ll be the main attraction.” But the song continues to promise the young audience that even without hard work or talent (two elements that, say what you want, Disney’s Hannah Montana, High School Musical, and Jonas present as necessary to success) they can gain a kind of fame — at least, that’s how I interpret these somewhat cryptic lines — “You know that if you’re living your imagination/Tomorrow you’ll be everybody’s fascination” — that reduce the “dream” to a narcissistic fantasy that somehow everyone around you wants to celebrate about you. In this way the show cynically provides what Schneider and company say kids want most — the promise (at least vicariously) of fame, without talent or substance. (And one could snidely wonder why, in the era of reality tv and Balloon Boy, VICTORiOUS hasn’t resonated with more people).
With its cookie cutter characters and tepid narrative center in the form of Tori Vega, the show manages only to deliver a paradoxical message typical of teen shows, and one that can be said to mirror the paradoxical message American culture presents to adolescents — be a rugged individual, but do try to fit in. This paradox of American and TeenNick identity can best be demonstrated in the “Bird Scene” episode. In this installment, Tori wants to try out for Andre’s musical but learns she can’t until she nails the “bird scene”; it is a rite of passage for all Hollywood Arts performers. She takes the script, rehearses, and presents her scene competently — it’s a monologue a la Trifles about a lonely prairie woman with only a bird to keep her company, though Tori, fortunately, doesn’t have to act out the part of a murderer as in Susan Glaspell’s play. She finishes the scene but no one says anything. Unnerved, she asks if she did it “right”, and that loopy coconut-obsessed teacher tells her she needs to do it again. She does, this time with a backdrop of a farm behind her, a fake bird, and a pair of glasses; again, she gets no response. She begs everyone to tell her the secret to the bird scene and they refuse — it is a gauntlet all Hollywood Arts thespians must run honorably. She pulls out all the stops for her third try, using scenery and costumes and props and even training a cockatiel to play the bird. Again, she gets no response. Finally, she gets fed up and insists that she worked really hard and that she thinks it was good. Everyone applauds. The lesson? It doesn’t matter what the audience thinks! Perform for you. This nice lesson in marching to the beat of one’s own drummer is undercut, however, by a subplot about another Hollywood Arts tradition, the decoration of one’s own locker to express something personal and, as Beck puts it, “deep.” Everyone mocks Tori for her plain grey locker,so she gets the brilliant idea to affix a white board with a cup of pens on it so people can doodle or write notes, and everyone gags at the banality of this. The single pink stripe she paints (or puts up with tape — it’s hard to tell) receives similar disdain. Clearly there is an audience in this case whose opinion does matter; decorating a locker is a form of performance, too, which eventually Tori recognizes when she paints a super cool nightscape on her locker with “Make it Shine” written in stars — there are even star-shaped lights she can turn on and dazzle everyone in the hallway. Again she receives applause for accepting this contradictory message of “be true to your art, whatever you think it is”/”give the people what they want.” The tension between the twin cultural imperatives of individuality and conformity is never resolved for Tori, and, in fact, never acknowledged. But one could easily argue that this tension underpins much of pop culture aimed at adolescents, going back at least as far as the first Beverly Hills 90210. It just seems particularly pernicious a theme on this show because there is little else happening. Maybe what VICTORiOUS ultimately tells its viewers is “We all know you WANT to be famous. Just don’t be tacky enough to look like that’s what you want.” Don’t look like you care, and don’t try too hard. These mantras are dissected so well by YA writers like John Green, who called “famous. . . the new popular.” Better to read his Will Grayson Will Grayson (coauthored with David Levitan) if you really want a teen story about musicals and alienation and love and friendship, all of the stuff this show hints at but can never really address. (And it’s a whole lot funnier, too).
Ultimately, VICTORiOUS presents kids as Schneider and the Nick execs imagine them, empty of personality (except some exaggerated approximations of personality in the gross caricatures of most of Tori’s classmates) but desirous of fame, as if fame itself could confer character. To this end, the show’s webpage is formatted as a version of “the Slap”, the social networking site for Hollywood Arts students to post continuous updates about their every mood and thought, as many kids (and adults) do on Twitter or Facebook. This tie-in seems especially apt for a show that sees kids as pathetically hungry for recognition, a show that takes to a new level of cartoonishness the self-consciousness and self-dramatizing of typical adolescence. As teens, most of us had, at times, the simultaneously horrifying and exhilarating feeling that everyone was watching us and were relieved years later to find out that no one really cared that much. If Schnieder and company are right, today kids want to be reassured that everyone is watching them, or, at least, that their every move or emotion or thought is worthy of capturing and presenting to the world as a status update. Or maybe they just want to be reassured that like Tori — who has yet to reveal herself as anything special, as far as we can see — that their stories and lives are worthy of attention, at least to the others around them.
Nick wants VICTORiOUS (and Victoria Justice) to be its next big thing, just as Schneider promised. But it’s going to have to acknowledge that “where the kids are” is a little more sophisticated than the one-dimensional fame-driven characters the show presents.