Tag Archives: tween tv

Mastertween Theatre: Nick’s House of Anubis

Nickelodeon’s House of Anubis is on hiatus this week, so I thought I’d get in a quick post about a series that has captivated many of the fifth-grade girls I know*.  Based on a Dutch-Belgian series (Het Huis Anubis), House tells the story of an American girl named Nina Martin who begins classes at a British boarding school and stumbles into a mystery surrounding treasures from King Tut’s tomb that may be hidden in the students’ dorm house  that involves possible mummies’ curses, kidnappings, sacrifices, and an elixir of life that prevents people from aging.  It’s the first Nick offering filmed outside the US , made in Liverpool during the summer of 2010, and provides American Nicksters with a good Brit-based soap/thriller, a sort of Masterpiece Theatre lite.  Like most Euro shows, its episodes come in 11-minute installments, and Nick has been showing two back-to-back, usually five nights a week.  This week, they’re letting the tension build as we wait to discover how Nina and her cohorts will solve the mystery after the only person who could help them has passed away.

The theme song gives us our first clue that this is not going to be a scare fest.  There’s no weirdo Dr.Who-style music or some kind of bizarro take on Egyptian sounds — just an upbeat tune that tells us we’re in for more of a romp than an exploration of the dark side.  (Perhaps the conspiracy theorists at vigilantcitizen.com should have waited to the hear the theme, if not to watch the show itself, before declaring it a dangerous means of luring impressionable American tweens into the world of the Illuminati that presents an “evil agenda” and represents “an abomination in the Lord’s eyes.”)

The show focuses on the eight students who live in Anubis House and offers realistic teen delights and dilemmas alongside the mystery — in fact, several of the students are not even aware that there is anything creepy going on in the basement of Anubis House (weird pseudo-Egyptian rituals with people in cloaks and dog masks?  Quite possibly. We’re waiting to see).  Mick, for instance, just wants to survive academics long enough to embark on a sports career, Mara wants to be liked (especially by Mick) as more than the house brainiac, Alfie is obsessed with aliens, and Patricia, at first, just wants to know why her friend Joy suddenly left school.  The first two to catch on to the mystery are Nina and Fabian and are encouraged by the addled Emily from the local nursing home, who turns out to be Sarah Frobisher-Smyth, the daughter of two of those involved with the opening of King Tut’s tomb.  When her parents died (presumably of the curse associated with the opening of the tomb), Sarah came to live in the home that became Anubis House, along with a slightly sinister young boy named Victor Roddenmeyer, who is now the housemaster for the students.  But why does he look as young as he did in the Twenties, while Sarah has aged?  Victor’s a malevolent sort, to be sure, and not just because he makes the kids go to bed at ten — he just may kill and preserve stray cats and seems to be the master of spooky ceremonies in the basement held with other faculty members like the headmaster, Mr. Sweet, and an English teacher, Ms. Andrews.

Francis Magee, well known to Brit TV watchers for his role on the long-running soap Eastenders, makes a wonderfully creepy Victor.  As many viewers have pointed out on message boards about the show, not all the actors on House are as convincing in their roles. Nathalia Ramos, who played teen model Dakota North on True Jackson, VP,  is rather wooden as Nina and as Patricia, Jade Ramsay seems to be working under the assumption that if she says everything really loudly and with great emphasis, it will take on some kind of import. But Eugene Simon brings some spark to the snarky Jerome Clark, who seems aloof and even cold but just may reveal hidden depths of sensitivity if he can get over his parents’ abandoning him at school, and Brad Kavanagh’s Fabian Rutter is the sort of kind, supportive, low-key and handsome boyfriend many viewers would want for themselves.  While her character is a bit schizophrenic — typical blonde mean girl one episode, sweet ditzy friend in the next — Ana Mulvoy Ten’s Amber Millington is probably the most amusing character, and a favorite of the girls I know who watch the show.  She schemes to get Mick back from Mara, believing that someone as pretty as she is deserves a boyfriend who gives out as many gifts as Mick does, but she’s also somewhat helpful as the founder of the sleuths’ group “Sibuna” (Anubis backwards) and seems dead right that Victor has to be the head baddie because “he has such evil hair.” The odd kids out, at least at first, are the students of color, Mara Jaffray and Alfie Lewis, and many viewers can relate to the struggles to fit in and be accepted that lead them, at times, to allow others to take advantage of them.  Consequently, we’re  happy when the smart, reserved Mara ends up with two suitors (Jerome and Mick) but we hold little hope that Alfie will either win Amber’s heart or discover the aliens he is convinced have taken over his school.

Check out the trailer at http://www.nick.com/videos/clip/house-of-anubis-promo-N13071-01.html and catch House of Anubis next week, two episodes at 7 EST.  It’s fun, a decent mystery, and an excellent introduction to the breadth and variety of English accents.

*This blog has been on a sort of hiatus as well, not that anyone has noticed.  Since I started it in part to establish a "web presence" and provide a sort of "platform" for myself as a YA writer, I thought I ought to get back to a little YA writing myself.
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iJump the Shark

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!