As Julia Hobsbawm recently wrote in a British GQ article, “it is in simplicity we will find some kind of security as this crisis rages on”, detailing the ways the pandemic has forced us to unite by simpler, basic impulses and recognise the unnecessary complexities of pre-pandemic life. Of course there are people who want to watch scientists in Netflix’s “Pandemic” solve a crisis supposedly eerily mirroring the one we face today, or those who use this time for documentaries like Tiger King- better to wonder whether Ms. Baskin killed her husband, than to count down the minutes to your next supermarket outing.
Yet, the advent of Disney+ means some will be re-watching shows like Hannah Montana and the Suite Life during this extended interlude. At a moment when we are recognising that we are surrounded by the uncertainty of concealed messaging and complex statements that require careful decoding, Disney’s brevity, simplicity and tendency to shove their messages at us full-tilt make them extraordinarily relevant and deeply comforting.
The distinction between 90s and 2000s Disney shows and which generation can lay claim to which iconic character might be as confusing as it is hotly debated, but you didn’t need to be in high school at the same time as Raven, Hannah or Alex to feel emotionally connected to their narratives. The reason these characters resonated with teenagers everywhere was because their messages were just direct enough for us to think their morals were aimed specifically at us. Telling just as much as showing, it wouldn’t be a Disney episode if a character didn’t have a realisation brought about by a thoughtful moral speech: think Moseby explaining the need for compassion to a superficial London, or Hannah learning that secrets have consequences even if they benefit her career. Right now, no one is heading out to return with piles of shopping like London or to give a concert like Hannah, but the re-hashing of lessons you took to heart as a teen are reassuring, marking a life that hasn’t been so deeply altered after all. While this may have felt cheesy, tacky or on the nose at any other time, the constant reaffirmations of positivity and the confidence of “it’ll be alright in the end, if it isn’t alright then this isn’t the end” is made tangible.
Yes, there are no real plot-twists or mysteries to uncover; the tension of whether Miley will choose Jesse or Jake– which once formed the crux of many a middle school snack break discussion– is undoubtedly missing. But when you aren’t sure about what were once everyday certainties like when you can return to the mall or go back to university, it’s nice to feel confident (and even triumphant) when the ending you knew was coming all along actually plays out on-screen. Further, you’re less likely to feel what the New York Times termed a “post-binge malaise” after finishing a show, linked largely to expectations or anxiety about whether the show will be renewed for another season, or if it’s been cancelled, the loose ends of plotline that weren’t fully tied up because they come to much more satisfying resolutions than the likes of Dexter and House of Cards.
It would obviously be a stretch to fairly compare these shows with even the more ‘serious’ dramas meant for slightly older viewers like One Tree Hill or Pretty Little Liars. Disney shows are cultural productions aimed at younger audiences; with plots rarely carried beyond an episode because all injuries are healed, apologies made and friendships restored in under a half hour. But there are benefits to the fact that no episode runs longer than twenty-five minutes, unless they’re one of the specials that so excited our younger selves, crossovers like “That’s So Suite Life of Hannah Montana”. The short length of the episodes means that binging is easier than ever: you can watch more content in shorter time and, as a 2016 study found, one of the feelings associated with ‘the binge’ is a sense of accomplishment at finishing milestones like seasons or entire shows. Moreover, their self-contained nature means you can avoid the trap of a cliffhanger requiring continuous watching or the start of the next season.
Disney+ is working on much more than the obvious desire for a world more like the 2000s- nostalgia for low-rise clothing and blinged out flip phones, and the accompanying adage that’s been repeated countless times by anyone who grew up back then, namely that “old Disney was better Disney”. More current and relevant than ever before in these ‘trying times’, Disney’s vault has opened up to give us cultural necessities in lockdown life: as a friend of mine recently commented, who during this crisis can’t relate to Cody sulking about being ordered to stay in his room, even though it was his brother Zack who played a prank? We’ve all been grounded through no real fault of our own, but Disney+ allows us to endure it with onscreen teens in similar predicaments for company.