Guppy is just a symptom. Plus, read on for exciting news about a great YA author!
Most mainstream news sources are in agreement: Nick’s Dan Schneider-created hit iCarly just keeps getting bigger (and, according to some logic, better). It first aired in September of 2007 and is now, according to tvguide.com, phenomenally popular; in fact, “On cable, iCarly is outnumbered [in viewers, presumably] only by sports and Jersey Shore.” And while I would still choose to watch Carly, Spencer, Sam, and Freddie any day rather than Snookie and her cohorts skanking it up down the shore, I think a little of the magic has been lost despite — or because of — its popularity. Yes, the show has spawned its own Silly Bandz and the spaghetti taco craze has been acknowledged by the New York Times, but I contend that the fresh anarchic tween spirit of the early seasons has been replaced by a sort of narcissistic nastiness, a refreshing lack of which once marked this show as a standout, especially among Schneider productions (see past posts on VICTORiOUS and others).
When my kids and I first discovered iCarly, we loved it. I thought it was one of the best written shows on television (all television, not just tween-0riented tv). The three main characters, Carly Shay (Miranda Cosgrove), her semi-delinquent friend Sam Puckett (Jennette McCurdy), and tech nerd Fredward “Freddie” Benson were well-drawn and believable, and the actors playing them have great comic timing. Middle-school-and then high-school-aged Carly lives with her older brother Spencer (Jerry Trainor, who worked with Cosgrove before on Drake and Josh) because their father is serving the country on a submarine somewhere. No mention is ever made of their mother, which is curious, unless you consider the underlying misogyny and motherphobia of many Schneider productions. Spencer, a law school dropout with no visible means of support, manages to keep himself and his sister in a funky three-story condo, makes sculptures out of found objects –and they often blow up or catch on fire — and encourages the three in their production of their own web comedy show, the eponymous iCarly. All of these details explain the popularity of the show — a lack of parents, seemingly inexhaustible financial and media resources, creative free reign over one’s life and one’s increasingly popular web show? What’s a kid not to like? And I liked it because Carly, Sam, Freddie and their friends were not easily classifiable in the pantheon of standard t(w)een tv cliches. They are not the most popular kids at school nor the “freaks” looking to fit in. They are intelligent but not necessarily booksmart (though Carly gets mostly As, which Spencer commemorated in a sculpture made of found As). They are attractive but not preternaturally beautiful, and they do not suffer traumas that are hastily resolved in the space of 30 to 60 minutes (can I get a holla for Brandon Walsh’s gambling addiction? Anyone? Anyone?). If they are smartasses and skeptical of authority, as all true tweens are, it is because most of the authority figures around them are buffoons. When they do meet someone worthy of their respect, like Principal Franklin, they generally treat him with respect, especially by tween tv standards. These things were all true of the first seasons and made the show a standout in the world of t(w)een tv.
And then it slowly started to change.
We all know the telltale signs of shark-jumping, beginning with the introduction of an ungainly character from out of left field (think The Flinstones‘ Great Gazoo, the Bradys’ cousin Oliver, or the execrable Scrappy Doo). But Noah Munck’s increased role as the shirtless Gibby only enhanced the show’s gentle wackiness in episodes such as the one in which the gang helped him try to impress a girl at a dinner date at the Cheesecake Warehouse (home of salads and slices of cheesecake that dwarf their consumers). The would-be girlfriend flees, but Gibby ends up dancing, gloriously shirtless, on the table, determined to just be himself. He is joined on that table by one of the rare appearances (before Groovy Smoothie entrepreneur T-Bo) of a black person, a young girl who “like[s] [Gibby’s] moves.” I know that “Be Yourself” is a stock message in kids’ shows, but it may be needed now more than ever as kids are deciding at an alarming rate that being themselves, particularly if that means being gay, just isn’t worth it — and can even prove deadly, if not simply soul crushing. But the beauty of the iCarlys, as their arch rival Neville calls them, was that they accepted themselves and their friends for who they are. Freddie may have an overbearing mother who insists he wear Cloud Block for skin protection and feeds him cucumber slices as snacks but he’s also smart and funny and even Sam accepts him, despite her constant ridicule of him. And Sam, in turn, is accepted despite her juvenile police record, disturbing love all forms of meat (she carries baggies of ribs, both beef and pork, in her bag) and her tendency to solve interpersonal problems by flying at her enemies and wailing on them with her fists and feet.
All of that has changed in the past season, during which the popular show has focused too often on the popularity of the iCarlys and their growing disdain for all people un-iCarly. For example, in the episode “iPsycho”, the gang reluctantly takes pity on a fan who invites them to appear at her birthday party because otherwise no one else will come. She locks them in her basement because they present her only chance at social interaction besides her chicken. In other words, she represents the hopeless dweeb who can never hope to be as cool as the iCarlys and she richly deserves it when she is TKOd by Gibby, who has brought along his shirtless but uncharismatic little brother, Guppy (played by Noah Munck’s real brother!). Last night’s episode, “iDo”, raises the stakes even higher in the game of cool versus uncool. When fans invite the gang to their wedding — the groom pays for their flights, including Spencer’s — they do little but complain about having to go to Wisconsin, home of cheese with beef in it, which you would think would be right up Sam’s alley. They sneer at everything, even the hapless groom whose bride-t0-be falls for Spencer at first sight, and they engage in self-involved complaining about fishsticks without tartar sauce and Sam’s insult about the flatness of Spencer’s butt when they should just walk away from the wedding they have derailed. But they can’t as the episode is essentially a setup so the once sweet-but-not-sticky Carly can sing the song the erstwhile groom wrote for his beloved, which is actually the next single off Miranda Cosgrove’s album — she is embarking on her first concert tour imminently.
Even more disturbing is the subplot, which like most of the subplots lately, is, to use an iCarly term, full of chiz. Gibby and Guppy discover a five-dollar bill in a tree and get a frail old lady to help them retrieve it. She collapses on the sidewalk, face down, as Gibby gloats over his new found riches. When he finally recognizes the dead or at east severely injured woman (she does croak at the end, “Aren’t we going for coffee?” so she might survive the fall), Gibby tells Guppy he saw nothing and they hightail it out of there. I am all for dark humor, particularly if it involves poking fun at the elderly, but this seems more mean spirited than funny, especially in the context of the recent Scientific American study that found today’s college students to be significantly less empathetic than their counterparts of decades past. Elementary and middle schoolers and other fans of the show are hardly likely to be any more compassionate, especially if we look at the evolution (or devolution) of sensitivity on iCarly from 2007 to the present as symptomatic of this general lack of concern for others.
Nonetheless, compared to other tween shows, iCarly is still superior, and by its own standards, certain episodes are still genuinely funny, especially when Jerry Trainor is given more to do than mug for the camera and throw himself on the floor or over a piece of furniture in the hope of gaining some traction in the laugh department. The cast is still likable and talented, though as the show’s writers acknowledge, lines are being written now less for the characters and more for the actors themselves, who are no longer anonymous tweens themselves but busy and successful young Hollywood stars. For this reason, fans were relieved and a bit surprised, perhaps, that Miranda Cosgrove signed on for more episodes, despite her other pursuits which involve movie offers (she’s a voice in Despicable Me), concert tours, and perusing college catalogues (she likes USC but may go to New York for a change of pace). The legion of fans grows, and no doubt will continue to grow, especially with the upcoming episode “iStart a Fan War”, based on fan responses on blogs and the iCarly wiki, in which it may or may not be revealed (again) whether Freddie’s love is really Carly or Sam — the Creddie and Seddie fans are somewhat evenly split on this and are “flipping out” on the blogs at iCarly.wikia.com. Jack Black will guest star on this one, adding even more cool cred to the show. (For Jack Black fans with younger kids or a high tolerance for preschool funkadelics, check him out on Nick Jr.’s Yo Gabba Gabba. It will blow your mind.)
Still, even a guest star like recent Emmy winner Jane Lynch couldn’t save the “iSam’s Mom” episode for me. Jane Lynch as Pam Puckett, Sam’s oft-discussed trampy mom, who once drove her car into the school while picking up Sam because she didn’t want to rest her eyes after Lasik surgery, who once packed Sam Cheezwiz for lunch, for which Sam was grateful she had even thought to pack anything? Seems like a winner, especially since Lynch plays the uber bully Sue Sylvester on Glee, a character whose sharp tongue could lacerate Sam and her tween friends into ribbons. But Sue Sylvester’s character, unlike the ones on iCarly lately, has more than one dimension. She’s mean, to be sure, but we are learning this season that her meanness is rooted in despair, that she cannot believe in God, for instance, because she cannot believe in a God who would allow her sister with Down’s syndrome to have been treated so abysmally by the kids around her. One can only wonder what the once affable Gibby would do with a woman like Sue’s sister and some money stuck in a tree.
It’s entirely possible that as a middle-aged mom I am too out of touch with what’s truly funny and that I write a blog that might as well, like Marge Simpson, demand that Itchy and Scratchy get along together and share a nice glass of lemonade. But I also live in a world in which kids who feel bullied and tormented and undervalued commit suicide — two of them did so in the past year in my part of New England alone, one of them famously and one not so famously (and as the Worcester, MA paper pointed out, it is no wonder that the famous case was the suicide of a pretty white girl, the less publicized the suicide of a gay black male). It would be absurd to lay the blame for such tragedy on iCarly or any other tv show, especially since iCarly is not irredeemable. But it is fair to say that what kids watch affects how they expect to be treated and how they expect to treat others. Maybe we don’t need Itchy and Scratchy sharing lemonade, but we could use something between that saccarine portrayal of friendship and delighting in the crushing of the unpopular or the death by falling of helpful old ladies enticed by coffee and the promise of friendship. Something like iCarly used to offer.
And now, for the big YA news!
A.S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz hits the stores today. It’s been praised by critics and writers like the venerable Ellen Hopkins and is her second novel for YA readers — her first, The Dust of 100 Dogs, was released in 2008 and nominated for a Spring 2009 Children’s Indie Next List Pick for Teens.
In a future post (soon!) the fabulous A. S. King will provide a video chat about her work AND demonstrate exactly how many Oreos she can stuff in her face in three minutes. You won’t want to miss it!