The last-ever episode of Wizards of Waverly Place airs tonight, and I can safely say that I’m more emotional about it than most adult males.
I never had the Disney Channel growing up. It was a premium channel until the late ’90s, so the only glimpses I would ever get of it would be during those free preview weekends that used to happen. As a kid with plenty of entertainment options, it didn’t really seem worth it to me, even if my parents had been up for paying for it (which they weren’t).
By the time shows like Lizzie McGuire or Even Stevens started, I was in high school and far removed from the channel’s targeted demographic, even though I now live with the sad knowledge that I robbed myself of precious early moments in Shia LaBeouf history. Disney Channel was just never really something on my radar, especially compared to the indelible mark that Nickelodeon programming like Ren & Stimpy and Clarissa Explains It All made on my childhood.
That changed, drastically, at the perfectly normal age of 25.
Somehow, one of my close friends (also 25) got in the habit of watching The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, which at that point was winding down its run before being immediately repackaged as The Suite Life on Deck. That led to Hannah Montana, which led to me scoffing that he better hope that the police never seized his TiVo.
Eventually, I gave in to the most benign peer pressure of all time, and checked out some of the Disney Channel’s offerings for myself. What I found was a slightly sillier version of the family sitcoms from the “T.G.I.F.” lineup on ’90s ABC; soothing comfort food satisfying a nostalgic craving I didn’t realize I had. Soon, my friend and I would watch together, coming home from bars at 3 a.m. with bags of burritos and several Zack and Codys at the ready. This actually happened.
That alone would be weird, but weirder still is that nearly an entire group of my friends at the time— all in our mid-20s or older, and nearly exclusively male — also became similarly entranced by Disney Channel. We would discuss the latest Hannah Montana developments with the same sincerity as we’d talk about the final season of Battlestar Galactica, and eagerly await the debuts of Disney Channel Original Movies like Princess Protection Program. It was laced with a palpable amount of irony at first (I think), which soon mostly evaporated to genuine appreciation. Psychologically, I’m not sure what that said about us, but probably nothing especially healthy.
Wizards of Waverly Place was the third Disney Channel program I discovered after Zack and Cody and Hannah Montana, and, measurably, the best. It’s the one show from that era that I’d defend not just as “good if you’re 7″ but simply good in general, certainly no worse than most contemporary network material, however faint that praise may be.
It was able to achieve a thoroughly appealing blend of self-aware zaniness — there was an episode where Shakira, guest-starring as herself, was revealed to actually be a magically induced guise of portly, middle-aged Uncle Kelbo — and a refreshing amount of respect towards its own mythology. Parks and Recreation gets a lot of praise for being Simpsons-esque in the amount of memorable minor characters it weaves into its narrative, and Wizards managed something similar, not only with a large extended cast by kids’ show standards, but also in creating a world with wizards, monsters, vampires, zombies, angels and werewolves — who all almost always happened to look like Tiger Beat-worthy teenagers — that never felt stupid.
Wizards of Waverly Place presented such a fun take on classic fantasy and horror tropes — the series is full of very thinly veiled Harry Potter references — that it’s surprising it didn’t catch on more with genre fans, which would certainly have helped to make me feel less alone in my mindset. (Just look at the cult of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.) They even batted around comic book elements in a couple of episodes, one where youngest sibling Max attempts to become a superhero, and another taking place at a comic con. To make me feel at least a little better about my opinion on the show, it’s won two Emmys — for “outstanding children’s program,” yes, but validation nonetheless.
The main cast, likeable off the bat due to the inclusion of one of Dom DeLuise’s sons as the family patriarch, was of a conspicuously high quality for a Disney Channel production. Selena Gomez, as the ostensible lead Alex Russo, showed such keen comedic instincts that it’s surprising that it looks like she’ll become more famous for her music career. Jake T. Austin, who played Max, also stood out, offering an actually funny take on the “annoying little brother” archetype. The show also made good use of frequent guest stars like Jeff Garlin (the aforementioned Kelbo) and Andy Kindler, respected comedians not known for kiddie fare.
My personal Wizards of Waverly Place fandom came to a head in August 2009 at Disney’s inaugural D23 Expo in Anaheim. One of the marquee events of the show was a Wizards panel, with nearly the entire cast present to have a Q&A with fans. I was up close in the press section, rubbing shoulders with the tween media elite from outlets like Bop. Then, just a few month later on Curb Your Enthusiasm Larry David sent a text reading, “No, I don’t watch Wizards Of Waverly Place. I’M AN ADULT!” — something that was definitely funny, but still didn’t make me feel overly self-conscious about my entertainment choices.
Yet as the most recent season of the show has dragged on — Disney Channel has a knack for stretching these things out; the current season started in November 2010 — I’ve seen myself begin to lose interest. Episodes accumulate on my DVR, and are frequently deleted before being watched. Going into tonight’s series finale, I’m not necessarily anticipating the revelation of “who will become the family wizard?” as I am simply musing at the end of an era. I don’t watch any of the new crop of Disney shows like Shake It Up or Good Luck, Charlie; they simply seem too targeted towards little kids and too juvenile in their approach. Whether or not there’s actually a meaningful difference in content or just a change in my perception requires contemplative powers beyond my reach.
Ultimately, no matter how much I might want to justify my fondness for Wizards of Waverly Place as my ability to recognize quality entertainment no matter the perception, what I think it really stemmed from was a desire to earnestly embrace something that was decidedly uncynical, at an age where life becomes increasingly complicated. For at least a half hour at a time, I was able to revert my brain and enjoy something for kids in much the same way a kid would — and if that happens one last time tonight, for me or anyone else, that’s a pretty good trick.