Friday, January 6, 2012

Final Farewells: Thoughts About, Reflections On, and Saying Goodbye To Wizards Of Waverly Place

As some may know, about a year ago I wrote a post about the end of Hannah Montana and how that ushered in the beginning of the end of Disney's latest golden age. And now, only about an hour ago as I type this, Wizards of Waverly Place concluded its run as Disney's longest running original series. As a whole the episode really allowed every cast member time to shine as the writing was as sharp as ever. It all built to a fairly predictable, but still emotionally engaging, conclusion that results with everyone happy.

But I'm not here to discuss the episode, I'm here to pay my respects to what is likely the channel's most accomplished series and to look ahead.

It's hard when talking about Disney Channel shows to take them completely seriously, and certainly Wizards is (I'm sorry, was) far from a flawless show. The laugh track was grating at times, the jokes were occasionally too simplistic, and there were breakdowns in the logic that the show created. But in a larger sense, I hope to remember Wizards for the risky moves it willingly made throughout its run. How many shows aimed at the audience that Wizards targets have an episode where most of the jokes and references relate to Charlie Chaplin, including a full on silent, black and white chase sequence? Not many.

Yes, it's the show that brought Selena Gomez to a wide audience, and I believe she's a Hell of an acting talent when given the chance, just look at Ramona and Beezus, but the entire cast was a coming out party of sorts. David Henrie, playing older brother Justin Russo on the show, is who I consider to be the most talented cast member, demonstrating a capacity to blend dramatic and comedic acting perfectly. He even started writing episodes as the show went on, and I can't wait to see what his next project is post-Wizards. Jake T. Austin nailed the Max character, but he showed acting ability in Hotel For Dogs, but since then he's seemingly grown as an actor. So who knows how his career will turn out? Hopefully great.

This is a show that blazed trails. In a world where it's simple to serialize programming, the Wizards vs. Vampires episode arc showed a willingness to tell continuous stories that had lasting impacts on the character dynamics and relationships within the program. A far cry from Alex's early spats with now forgotten rival Gigi, this turning point of the series established a running emotional thread where we actually were able to see Justin's romantic life grow and then collapse. Similar tactics were used with Alex and future werewolf beau Mason, and Justin and dark angel Rosie. The important thing is that once the show started telling stories, it made that commitment and formed an identity that set it apart from basically any show that had come before. These mini-arcs were contained to four episodes usually, but their impacts were lasting, a trait that transferred to contemporary (and now all concluded) programs Sonny With A Chance, The Suite Life On Deck, and Hannah Montana.

A characteristic that Disney would be smart to not forget if they are concerned at all with quality of their live action programming.

But as shows like Shake it Up, Good Luck Charlie, Jessie, ANT Farm and Austin and Ally seem to be suggesting, it has been brushed aside for the more traditional formulaic serials of Disney's past. And that's a shame because each of these programs at least had an actor to anchor the programs. Sure the times of the Sprouse twins, the Selenas, Mileys, and Demis has passed, and none of these shows have a cast quite as complete as even the worst of Disney's previous programs, but I don't want to lose hope.

Yet that's kind of how I feel right now. Yeah Bella Thorne and Zendaya have great chemistry, but Shake It Up has not grown since I last wrote about the show. The same can be said of Good Luck Charlie and Bridgit Mendler (who has a wonderful reappearance as Juliet in the final episode of Wizards). ANT Farm actually gives me the most hope, but I think that's just because the cast is basically talented all around, and there have been hints of a larger narrative, but a bit too early to call that show since it's still in its first season. Jessie is still young, though Debby Ryan brings a solid core for that show to build up even if all indications are that it shall remain a serial, and Austin and Ally is far too new for me to have much of a read on the show yet.

I don't want to get bogged down in these fears though, Disney is on the decline and I'm mostly concerned right now with saying a final goodbye to a magical show. Wizards was quite literally magical. The fantasy world allowed for anything to happen, but it never lost sight of the emotional core that tied the series together. Simple pleasures that reinforce the familial unit, a loving family and a heated rivalry. The world didn't always work out, there were fights, but in the end everyone helped each other through the hard times.

Yes, it's sappy and it's generic. No, it's not entirely realistic. But it's honest, it's comforting. But we all sappy and generic and cliche at times, so I hope you'll allow me to indulge in that right now. This show started in 2007, the first year I began college. I'll be finishing graduate school in May, and it seems fitting that as I close a chapter on my life I am able to firmly see a large part of that time come to a close as well. Everything becomes a memory, some bad and some enjoyable.

I'm rambling, as I figured would be the case. I didn't expect this to be as focused of a dissertation as my farewell to the Golden Age, partially because I never really cared for Hannah Montana. Now I just want to say farewell, I just wanted to write something for purely selfish reasons. Because I was satisfied, but I am also saddened.

But that's how goodbyes are, I guess. A thank you for everyone involved with Wizards of Waverly Place. You'll leave, I'll move on, and maybe even forget. But like all great art, I've been moved, and in the end that's the most important aspect. I didn't expect to find this seemingly innocent Disney program to shape the way I approach culture, but it did, and for that I am grateful.

Farewell, Wizards, we call can leave happy.


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© 2011 Richard James Thorne

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