Tuesday, February 23, 2010

TV Tuesday: Wizards of Waverly Place

Wizards of Waverly Place is an award-winning Disney sitcom about the life of three siblings. In it, the father is a wizard who had to give up his powers in order to marry a mortal, but continues to teach wizardry to his children. When all three children have reached the age of 18, they will compete with each other in a magical contest, and the winner will become that generation's family wizard, while the other two siblings will lose their powers. In the show, the children frequently use magic and have to navigate the challenges and pitfalls of life as a wizard-in-training, but also have to navigate life among mortals, especially in school and working in their parents' sandwich shop.

I personally think the premise is an interesting one, especially since it creates a purpose behind any sibling rivalry that arises.

Wizards is a pretty typical example of Disney Channel sitcoms. It uses fairly low-budget sets, and the acting is pretty stilted, both of which can be construed as good or bad for the Aspie audience. On the one hand, poor quality is poor quality; but on the other, it can help establish for the Aspie child a firmer grasp of the difference between fiction and nonfiction. It is easy for parents to find examples of how the show does not mirror one's experience of reality.

Unfortunately, as with many children's sitcoms, there is no "straight man." Most sitcoms overall have one or more characters who anchor the show. They often have humorous lines, but stay away from slapstick comedy or humor based on ill-conceived plans and actions. The more physically comedic characters are thus enhanced by the contrast. This dynamic also allows for occasional episodes that portray the goofy characters in a more serious light, while the more serious character embarks on some misadventure. And the resulting depth of character lends itself to plots that stretch over multiple episodes.

With Wizards, no character has the intellectual upper hand. They are all shallow, flat characters. Since stupid behavior is the basis of the show, consequences for that kind of behavior have to be limited. In one episode, for example, it comes to light that the daughter (middle child) is 14 assignments behind in school and has to take a science class during spring break. Meanwhile, her older brother wins an essay contest, landing him and his siblings a teens-only cruise. At first, the parents insist that their daughter stay behind and miss the cruise as a punishment for not doing homework. But on learning that the cruise includes a marine biology course, they allow her to go. In the absence of any adult supervision on the cruise, the daughter naturally talks a friend into taking the class for her so she can enjoy the cruise to the fullest. In the end, she is found out, but there is no consequence for her betraying her parents' trust.

The older brother (who won the contest) is supposed to be "the smart one," but he behaves just as stupidly as the other two children, just without getting confused about concepts or words. Meanwhile, the youngest ("the stupid one"), whom I suppose to be about 13 appears to be functioning several years behind his grade level (I'd say his vocabulary and the topics about which he gets confused place him at about the 4th grade level). No one seems to think the youngest's lack of ability is a cause of concern. Indeed, the intelligence of the eldest is portrayed as an anomaly.

The parents are hardly an improvement over the children. They openly show their confusion in matters of parenting, and do not present an authoritative or united front to their children. Basically, they are older versions of their kids.

I know this sounds like a really bad review, and you're probably getting tired of my recommending against shows here. Honestly, I don't like the show at all. I found it boring, predictable, and generally insipid. However, I think it does have a use for our Aspies. If parents watch the show with their children, they can use it as a social learning tool. All of the acting is exaggerated, and the misbehaviors are very obvious, making it perfect for pointing out problems to Aspies.

I recommend recording Wizards on DVR. Watch the show with your child, pause it when someone chooses a bad behavior, and ask your child about it. Discuss what appropriate alternate behaviors would be and what the realistic consequences would be to the poor decisions made by the characters. So many shows that can be used for such teaching today deal with more difficult topics than avoiding homework or lying to friends. There's no reason to teach responsible behavior through extremities. Our kids need to learn about integrity in everyday life. It's just as important as staying away from drugs and gangs.

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