"We can do whatever we want; we can say whatever we want."
Nickelodeon and Paramount have released iCarly - Season 1, Volume 1, a collection of 13 episodes of the smash-hit tween sitcom starring former Drake & Josh co-star, Miranda Cosgrove. Created and co-written by the prolific Dan Schneider (also of Drake & Josh, as well as The Amanda Show, All That, What I Like About You, and Zoey 101, iCarly - Season 1, Volume 1 is an agreeably silly, oftentimes funny tween-com that benefits enormously from Cosgrove's believably sweet teen awkwardness, as well as from goofball Jerry Trainor's Spencer character, who consistently delivers the show's biggest laughs.
The basic premise of iCarly is quite simple. 8th-grader Carly Shay (Miranda Cosgrove) lives in a funky Seattle apartment with her wacky, almost-irresponsible older brother, Spencer (Jerry Trainor). Spencer, a 26-year-old law school dropout-turned-artist (he mostly erects weird sculptures out of junk), is Carly's guardian since their father, a submariner in the U.S. Navy, is stationed overseas (no mention is made of the kids' mother - at least in the 13 episodes I watched). After taking the blame for her friend Sam's (Jennette McCurdy) prank on their hated teacher, Miss Briggs (Mindy Sterling), the girls' punishment is to videotape for Miss Briggs all of the try-outs for the upcoming school play. They enlist the aid of next-door-dork Freddie (Nathan Kress), a techie who has a massive crush on Carly. When Freddie makes the bone-head mistake of not only filming an unaware Carly and Sam goofing around in-between the auditions (and insulting Miss Briggs in the process), but also mistakenly posting that video on the web, Carly and Sam become instant web celebrities - and instantly in trouble at school. Still, once the heat dies down, they decide to start their own webcast, iCarly, where the stated goal is to do whatever they want, and to say whatever they want.
No doubt after the big flap caused by reigning tween-queen Miley Cyrus appearing semi-nude on the cover of Esquire last year (and the fact that the clock is ticking on her tween career....hmmm, I wonder if the two facts are related....), it's not surprising that Cosgrove's iCarly seems to be "the next big thing" with kids, getting solid buzz and some pretty heft ratings in the vicious tween cable wars. Those tween audiences have a nasty habit of growing up, and an even worse tendency to be fickle little TV watchers, so shows like Hannah Montana, which seem to dominate the internet buzz and the ratings so strongly, also, inevitably, fall by the wayside to make room for the next flavor of the month - and that could very well be iCarly. While the whole tween phenomenon has been studied and marketed to death by companies eager for all those sticky little disposable dollars, it still comes down, ultimately, to the viability of the product. And iCarly, despite some drawbacks, delivers. Yes, the show was probably created with one eye on producing a ratings-grabbing hit, and the other eye on cross-marketing the iCarly brand into potential billions. But no matter how skillful the marketing, and no matter how oppressive the exposure, ultimately, the kids and their parents won't stick with a show like iCarly unless it truly entertains them.
Watching iCarly, and thinking about other tween-coms I've reviewed and watched, it's striking to see how similar, in design and execution, these little cable outings are to the grown-up sitcoms that air in primetime and in syndication. Indeed, iCarly could very easily pass for a prime-time sitcom in its look, in its delivery, and in its timing and rhythm - the only difference being that the show's humor is relatively "clean" (although, somewhat distressingly, there are a couple of jokes here about "boobs" which are totally innocuous for genuine teens, but which may give pause to the parents of very young tweens who are the targeted audience). Sure, there's an emphasis on gross-out humor, and toilet jokes, and an incredible amount of silly screaming that young girls seem to love to belt out (trust me, I know from experience), but the intrinsic feel of iCarly is straight-up I Love Lucy processed through Friends.
Certainly Carly and her friend Sam have that same Lucy and Ethel vibe going on (in an ironic, hip, self-aware attitude that you would never find on I Love Lucy), and when iCarly sticks to the two of them goofing around on their iCarly webcasts, the show is surprisingly nimble. Cosgrove and McCurdy have a nice chemistry together, and they're amusing little smart-asses when they do their fast back-and-forth patter. Running around screaming, or suddenly spazzing out on the floor when "Random Dancing" is intoned by an unseen audio cue, you can tell these two girls are really having fun letting themselves loose for the viewers. Parents may question how much they'd want their kids to identify with the Sam character, though, who's problematic right from inception. Designed like some world-weary depressive straight out of the adult sitcom world, Sam is touted as a liar, a cheat, and a quite aggressive bully (in an age where overreacting schools unnecessarily freak out over simple school yard shoving matches, what kind of conflicted messages do Sam's "humorous" punchings send to kids?). iCarly is careful to never have Sam "get away" with any of her shenanigans, but it's also clear that the show's writers enjoy having her be a pessimistic, unruly little snot with not too many redeeming qualities (some may say that's "empowering" for a female character, but for the intended audience of under-10s, I'd say it's questionable, at best). Still, there's no denying that the character is funny (I particularly like McCurdy in iPromise Not to Tell, where, after hacking into the school computer, she reassures her guilty friends with, "Look, I promise it will get easier. Soon you'll be able to lie and feel nothing at all."), but parents would do better to steer their kids towards Carly's character.
That's because Cosgrove is one of the more natural performers I've seen on this kind of show. Whereas Miley Cyrus amusingly has the chutzpah of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine rolled into one, Cosgrove seems remarkably....normal for a teen. While she's certainly funny (as well as being multi-talented: she sings the terrific iCarly theme song), she's very straight in her performance (and as well, her character is very "straight," too - she's unfailing honest, thoughtful, good-natured, and even polite). Often times, when waiting for another actor to finish their line, she looks not unlike a non-performer - a regular teen, so to speak - awkwardly setting herself up to deliver her next line. That sounds like I'm saying Cosgrove isn't a professional or that she's not a "good" actor - far from it - it just means that she's refreshingly not over-polished, over-trained, and over-processed like some of these nightmarish, rim-shot-producing automatons you see on these kids' cable shows. Even though she's been working for years, she still has that innate reserve and tentativeness to her performance - in-between her scenes of screaming and running around - that's quite appealing.
Linking iCarly to the adult sitcom world even more closely is the Spencer character, played with admirable restraint by Jerry Trainor. Watching laid-back/spastic Spencer thrashing around his apartment and mugging up a storm when called for, one might not find "restraint" as the first word that comes to mind to describe his performance. But in comparison to say, the "Lewbert the Doorman" character (a horribly overdrawn, grating performance by an actor I won't name), you can see the discipline in Trainor's approach to Spencer. What could become a quickly annoying character, is parceled out in small doses, with Trainor as often quiet in the role, as he is screaming his head off. Clearly, though, what big guffaws one gets out of iCarly, one gets from Trainor. With his combination Jim Carrey, go-for-broke physicality and his dorky surfer dude mentality, Trainor can pull off comedy scenes that run the gambit from deadpanning, "Who's the dude playing in our toilet?" to screaming in agony when he thrusts his hand into a storage bin and pulls it back out, studded with pushpins. In the best episode on this collection, iHatch Chicks, he plays the majority of the episode stuck in a ventilation shaft, and still manages to be the center of attention - even when the only part of him that's visible are his legs sticking out. That episode, a fast-moving laugher with multiple lines of action juggled within the story, is quite sophisticated in its delivery (some of these tween shows can play like horrible school plays) - which is a fairly good assessment of iCarly on the whole: fast-moving, funny, and surprisingly well-put together.
Here are the 13, one-half hour episodes of the two-disc set iCarly - Season 1, Volume 1, as described on its insert.
Carly and her friends Sam and Freddie start their own webshow, iCarly, where kids can do and say what they want!
iWant More Viewers
Things get a little crazy when Carly and Sam compete against Freddie and Spencer to see who can get more kids to watch iCarly.
Carly and Sam hatch chicks for a science project, but the chicks escape from their incubator, sending the girls on a wild chase to find them all!
iDream of Dance
Carly, Sam, and Freddie each have a crazy musical dream after watching hundreds of dance videos that were submitted to the show.
Carly's crush, Jake Krandle, wants to be on iCarly, but he's a terrible singer! Can Freddie's amazing tech skills save Jake from a dreadful performance?
iWanna Stay with Spencer
Carly and Spencer's granddad thinks Spencer is too irresponsible to be Carly's guardian and decides she should move to Yakima with him instead!
Carly discovers that the man who runs Nevelocity, a popular website that reviews other sites and webshows, is actually an annoying 11-year-old boy with a crush on her.
iScream on Halloween
Carly, Sam, and Freddie broadcast iCarly from an apartment that's rumored to be haunted and soon find themselves wondering if the rumors are true!
iSpy a Mean Teacher
Carly and her friends do a webcast featuring mean teachers outside the classroom and accidentally get trapped in Miss Briggs' apartment!
iWant to Date Freddie
When Freddie begins filming his new girlfriend's webshow, he finds himself torn between her and his best friends.
iWant a World Record
Carly, Sam, and Freddie try to break the world record for the longest continuous webcast.
iRue the Day
Carly and her friends must stop Nevel from sabotaging iCarly before their special guests, The Plain White T's, perform on the show.
iPromise Not to Tell
Sam stumbles upon the school's records system and changes her friends' grades! Promising not to tell, can Carly and Freddie live with the guilt?
The full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfers for iCarly - Season 1, Volume 1 look quite good, with a sharpish picture, correctly valued color, and few if any compression issues.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track is entirely adequate, with a good loudness level, and occasional directional effects. Super-clean and picked-out dialogue is a plus. Close-captions are included.
There a couple of bonus features included on the iCarly - Season 1, Volume 1 disc set that the kids might enjoy. First, there's the music video for Cosgrove's theme to iCarly: Leave It All to Me, featuring Drake Bell on vocals and guitar, and the rest of the cast clowning around in the video. It runs 2:47. Next, at a 6:39 run time is an extended look at the making of the Leave It All To Me music video, which features Cosgrove and the rest of the gang talking about the song. Finally, there are ten short featurettes, with a combined run-time of a little over 16 minutes, where the cast goof around while discussing the series. They're fun, and it's obvious that the cast seems to be having a good time making the series.
Surprisingly adept, with an agreeably fresh, natural performance by Miranda Cosgrove marks iCarly as a tween show you probably won't mind catching now and then with your child. Jerry Trainor gets the biggest laughs with his funny turn as Carly's goofy artist brother Spencer. Lots of girls screaming and smart-assed (but good-natured) riffing when Cosgrove and Jennette McCurdy as morose, violent Sam get together for their iCarly webcasts, those central sequences are usually the episodes' high points. I recommend iCarly - Season 1, Volume 1.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.