Betwixt and be-tween on the Disney Channel
How is there not an “Oh No You Di’nt!” awards show in real life? It exists on “Sonny With a Chance,” the new Demi Lovato vehicle on the Disney Channel (Sundays at 8 p.m.), and like many things on this sitcom, which sends up Young Hollywood in ways only Old Hollywood might appreciate, it’s modern and funny and knowing and, ultimately, true.
For Lovato, a rising Disney talent, “Sonny” is an uncomplicated retreat from what’s become an increasingly complicated public life, the latest in a long line of Disney Channel cleanses. Lovato’s BFF Selena Gomez stars in “Wizards of Waverly Place,” occasional Lovato/Gomez antagonist Miley Cyrus is the star of “Hannah Montana,” and the Jonas Brothers, for whom Lovato has opened on tour, debut this week with their own Disney Channel series, “Jonas.”
All of these young actor-singers have already transcended the tween base with which they made their names, but here they remain. It’s not so much a nod to the increasing sophistication of children as it’s a concession to the managers and handlers who would like to keep these stars infantilized, trapped in a barely pubescent amber, for as long as possible.
On “Sonny,” Lovato plays Sonny Munroe, plucked from the Internet to join the cast of “So Random!,” a kids-only sketch comedy show. She’s a Disney Channel archetype -- savvy and plucky brunets are often the heroes at the center of the action here. Lovato, with a sharp grin, an abundance of poise and no apparent need to take herself seriously -- thus far, she’s been on the receiving end of food-in-face gags at least twice -- is a winning lead.
There are rules for the supporting cast too. For example, blonds may be popular, but they’re also conniving. Here, Tawni Hart (Tiffany Thornton), the star whose authority Sonny usurps, is a pretty girl doing unpretty things: shredding other cast members’ fan mail and telling Sonny’s friend Lucy, who is visiting from out of town, “You must be the best friend I’ve heard just enough about.”
Chad Dylan Cooper (Sterling Knight), a well-practiced narcissist in the Zac Efron and Chad Michael Murray mold, is the star of a rival show, “McKenzie Falls,” a mature teen melodrama. At his birthday party, he serves Chadaccinos and Shish-ka-Chads, and brushes off a conversation by announcing, “Excuse me, I’ve gotta go schmooze the Bonus Jonas.” That would be Frankie, who is 8. And in fairness, probably worth schmoozing.
Knight plays the part with self-satisfied derision. “Let’s just get this over with,” he tells Sonny before their rival casts square off in a game of musical chairs. “I’ve gotta get my teeth bleached in 20 minutes. Did you know there are 80 shades of white?”
Also, there’s Nico and Grady (Brandon Mychal Smith and Doug Brochu), a black-white comic duo, and Zora (Allisyn Ashley Arm), the youngest cast member, who sleeps in a prop room sarcophagus and often eavesdrops on other cast members while hiding in an air shaft, simultaneously the cast’s id and its ego. (In one scene soundtracked by creepy violin, a curtain is pulled back to reveal Zora, fiddling away.)
“Sonny” bears many of the burdens of shows aimed at children: gags that privilege sights over words, plain camerawork, jokes about food and excretion, characters playing aggressively to type. But here, at least the types are clever.
Much as “Hannah Montana” before it unraveled fame in a manner savvier than its target audience could fully appreciate, there are glimmers here of grown folks grappling with how young people navigate the transition to fame -- or, more broadly, adulthood. In interviews, Lovato has called the show “ ’30 Rock’ for kids,” but really it’s “Kids Incorporated” with range and back story.
And often, there are genuine laughs, especially for the “So Random!” sketches-within-the-show. In one, Nico and Grady play grandmothers squaring off in a boxing ring, competing in bouts of moaning about old age and boasting about their grandchildren. In another, less funny but more bawdy, Grady plays Dolphin Boy, who spouts a stream of water every time he gets excited or nervous about a girl.
The best, though, is the Check It Out Girls, a conceit in the spirit of great “Saturday Night Live” sketches -- Adam Sandler and David Spade’s Gap Girls, or Kristen Wiig’s Target Lady -- and played by Lovato and Thornton as if in a reverie. Dressed in matching outfits and working (in the loosest sense) a register at a supermarket, they banter back and forth -- check this out, check that out -- oblivious to the world around them, shrugging off responsibility, and reminding how not all kids have to juggle identities.