I had to take remedial Zoey.
Logan: “Maybe I’ll take you up to the lake and we can make out a little.”
Zoey: “You know, I would, but it’s so hard for a girl to kiss a guy while she’s vomiting.”
At first glance, Zoey 101 struck me as another beyond cheesy bubblegum teen sitcom that cable channels like to crank out for young viewers. But then I noticed a familiar name in the credits: Savage Steve Holland. Never heard of him? As the writer and director of beloved ’80s comedies Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer, and also creator of early ’90s cartoons Eek the Cat and The Terrible Thunderlizards (“When will the hurting stop?”), Holland has a well-earned cult following.
After investigating further, I discovered Holland isn’t the only “savage” behind the camera. Former child star Fred Savage—he of The Wonder Years, The Princess Bride, and, uh, The Wizard—directed several episodes. Even more notable, to me anyway, is that Zoey 101 was created and executive produced by Dan Schneider, who played wisecracker Dennis on the ridiculous yet underrated ’80s sitcom Head of the Class.
So, knowing that three stars (okay, pseudo-stars) of ’80s teen comedy greatness were involved in the creation of Zoey 101, I knew I had to check it out. And, somehow, impossibly, it wasn’t until much later that I learned the show’s star is Britney Spears’ little sister.
For the first time in its history, Pacific Coast Academy, a prestigious and expensive-looking all-boys boarding school, is allowing girls to join the student body. Among these first-time females are Zoey (Jamie Lynn Spears, Crossroads), a fashion-forward girl-power type, Nicole (Alexa Nikolas, Revelations), an overly-enthusiastic and overly-emotional type, and Dana (Kristin Herrera, Freedom Writers), a cranky but tough-as-nails type. On the other side of the gender fence are the guys: Chase (Sean Flynn, Scorched), who quickly becomes friends with Zoey, even though he’d like to be more than friends, if you know what I mean; Michael (Christopher Massey), an athlete with a unending appetite for food; and Logan (Matthew Underwood, Web Journal Now), who does not like the idea of girls invading the school, and will do whatever it takes to undermine their efforts to fit in. Also along for the ride are Zoey’s little brother Dustin (Paul Butcher, Barnyard), a mischievous troublemaker, and Quinn (Erin Sanders, Carnivale), a absent-minded genius who makes life interesting with her many bizarre inventions.
It’s going to be a little tricky putting Zoey 101 through the usual “critical analysis” thing, simply because the show is fluff, and it makes no bones about being fluff. If you take a look at the episode titles in this first season, you can probably figure out the plots to most of them by yourself:
• “Welcome to PCA”
• “New Roomies”
• “Defending Dustin”
• “The Play”
• “Spring Fling”
• “Prank Week”
• “Quinn’s Date”
• “School Dance”
• “Disc Golf”
• “Little Beach Party”
The teen heroes of Zoey 101 certainly live an idealized life. This is best seen in the pilot episode, when Zoey discovers her dorm room has a view of the ocean. The characters seem to be short on money only when that week’s plot demands it. Otherwise, it’s not uncommon for them to pull out huge wads of cash to pay for whatever they want. Each kid is equipped with a laptop and cell phone, and of course everyone’s hair and clothes are stunningly perfect. This is a fantasy version of high school life, which might be fine for viewers in the mood for some cotton candy comedy. But if you’re more likely to respond with a “What the hell kind of boarding school has its own sushi delivery service?” then this might not be the show for you.
I’m not saying this is a terrible show, but it does have its flaws. Number one on this list is Zoey herself. After going through this entire two-disc set, I still don’t have much of a sense of who Zoey is. The writers have surrounded her with quirky characters, but Zoey remains something of a blank slate while the others steal the show. I understand that the creators want her to be an “everygirl” for viewers to relate to, but that doesn’t mean she can’t have a little more personality. All we really know about Zoey is that she’s nice to everyone and she’s into fashion. But just saying “she likes clothes” is not enough of a character trait on which to base an entire series . To be fair, though, some of this blame must be placed on Jamie Lynn Spears. Spears gives a mostly one-note performance throughout this season. She has that little cutesy smile on her face no matter what the situation, it seems. Again, she’s not entirely unwatchable, it’s just that I never really believe that this girl is the center of activity wherever she goes.
Fortunately, the supporting actors are clearly having a lot of fun here, and they throw themselves into their comedy with enthusiasm. As Nicole, Alexa Nikolas is a slave to her impulses, jumping from overjoyed in one second, to panicked the next, and then back to overjoyed. Her reactions are all hyper and over-the-top, but that’s okay, because that’s just what a show like this needs. There were many times when I found myself wishing this show was Nicole 101 instead. Sean Flynn is the “Michael Bluth” of the cast, a normal guy caught up in a lot of craziness, but not without the ability to comment on it all with a dry, sarcastic wit. Like Nikolas, Erin Sanders takes an “anything for a laugh” approach with her character, milking Quinn’s weirdness and social awkwardness for everything they’re worth. Matthew Underwood is a little less impressive; is his character supposed to be a full-blown villain, or just a jerk? The other regular members of the cast don’t get as much of a chance in the spotlight for us to really get to know them. This is especially unfortunate in the case of Kristin Herrera. I felt I never got to see her at her best, and that there is still much more to explore with her character.
The talent behind the camera also gets the occasional chance to rise above the confines of a substance-free kids’ show. Savage Steve Holland—who apparently is only “savage” when directing, because his screenwriting credit is merely “Steve Holland”—shows that he can still make with the slightly askew comedy he’s famous for. Even without checking the credits, I could tell which episodes were and weren’t Savage Steve’s. The ones he worked on definitely have a creative spark that I found somewhat lacking in other episodes. It’s not anything specific, like a visual or thematic motif I can point out for you. Instead, it’s just as if his episodes have a little more energy, and are just a little more quirky in their comedy than the others.
• For a low-budget cable series, there’s a remarkable amount of location footage throughout this series. Some episodes take place almost entirely outside. Has there ever been a teen comedy TV series that took the camera outdoors as much this one?
• Yes, that is Tom Wilson of Back to the Future fame guest starring as an obnoxious gym coach, not unlike the obnoxious gym coach he played on Freaks and Geeks.
• Here’s a juicy piece of trivia you can impress your friends with: the “101” in the show’s title refers to Zoey’s dorm room number.
The video and audio here are both good, with appropriately bright colors and peppy pop songs. A blooper reel starts off the extras, with the usual clips of the actors blowing their lines. Much more interesting is the “Before They Were Cast Mates” audition footage, in which the much-younger-looking performers give their lines a try for the first time. There’s also a bonus episode from the third season, after Nikolas was replaced by Victoria Justice (Unknown) playing essentially the same character. Despite these changes, this episode has the same slightly harmless, slightly quirky tone of the first season.
There’s a lot of bathroom humor in this series. Some of it is surprisingly witty, such as Nicole not knowing what to do with the urinals in the formerly all-boys school, and a bizarre prank involving a peeing statue. Other instances of this, however, just don’t work at all, such as an extended gag in the first episode about Dustin needing to urinate upon arriving on the first day of school. I don’t know how many other kids’ shows get this lowbrow, but overly nervous parents should know that this one does.
So, on the one hand, this is your typical made-for-kids sitcom, not very deep and not with a lot of surprises. On the other hand, there are some nicely energetic performances, and I have to admit I did laugh at least once an episode. If you’re curious about giving the Zoey 101 experience a try, I say play it safe and make it a rental.