Author's note: As regular consumers of TV on DVD know, the marketing gimmick of splitting up complete seasons of TV series into two separately released volumes has become, regrettably, an increasingly common practice. Having written an in-depth review of iCarly - Season 1, Volume 1 last September, and since stylistically and aesthetically, there is no difference between the first and second half of that particular 2007-2008 season, I've rewritten my original review of that season to cover this Volume Two release - with additional commentary added at the end, discussing specific episodes from this set.
"We can do whatever we want; we can say whatever we want."
Nickelodeon and Paramount have released iCarly - Season 1, Volume 2, a collection of the final 12 episodes from Season One 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 2 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. Although...there may be troubling signs of where this tween-com is going....
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). 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 (the recent iCarly "movie special" this previous weekend was the number one rated cable show in the country, with close to 7 million viewers tuning in - an impressive number for a cable kid's show). 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 (Cyrus' first movie opened strong this past month...and then dropped precipitously). 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 to, ultimately, 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 (and by these last 12 episodes of the season, their comedic rhythms are getting fine-tuned). 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, but parents would do better to steer their kids towards Carly's character as a more appropriate role model.
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 (the hideous Suite Life of Zach and Cody). 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-yet-strangely cool surfer dude mentality, Trainor can pull off comedy scenes that run a wide gambit.
Episodes for this second half of the first season of iCarly are even more fast-paced than the preceding 13, probably because the production team and the performers have already worked out the kinks of the series' format and are getting adjusted to each others' performance styles, and strengths and weaknesses. What I found interesting though is the show's already-early preoccupation with the effects of fame on Carly and the gang, and more ominously, the side-effect rumination on "selling out." The aftereffects of the popularity of the show-within-the-show (Carly's little webcast) are seeping into the scripts with increasing frequency. iAm Your Biggest Fan shows Carly already encountering a creepy kid stalker; iDon't Want to Fight's plot revolves around a special crew T-shirt Carly makes for Sam - a T-shirt that becomes an instant, valuable collectible. Even more stated is the show's concern with "selling out," with iPromote Tech-foots's plot revolving around the moral dilemmas of Carly finding herself pushing a sponsor's faulty product, and iCarly Saves TV, where her show is taken over by a network (that looks suspiciously like TBS), has Carly fighting for creative control over her little webcast-turned-sitcom, while battling the temptations of all that money being thrown at her. Clearly, someone involved with the show is thinking about the effects of the actual show's popularity - it will be interesting to see where this thread goes in the future.
What I didn't care for at all is the ramping-up of the aggressiveness of the Sam character; she's beating up on someone or screaming or mouthing off to someone in almost every episode. She's undeniably funny, but little kids are watching her (and no doubt some are emulating her), and the producers of the show should take that into account, particularly since the show is growing so rapidly in the ratings. Parents, ultimately, are the minders of what their kids watch on TV (until someone in Washington changes that, too), and I always take dire warnings about how TV influences kids with a grain of salt. But I would imagine not too many parents out there would cotton to the notion of an episode like iStakeout, where young kids are calling police officers "stupid cops," "duff-butt cops," and "bigger morons than we thought," no matter how comical the producers make the officers in the plot. It's clear by the ratings that parents watch iCarly with their kids (it's that funny), but its enjoyably smart-assed tone will begin to sour with those same parents if it continues to evolve into something outright disrespectful, or mean-spirited, or even violent (Sam's character is built on her potential for violence - which the series often shows for comedic effect). Hopefully, the producers of iCarly won't continue to exploit this increasingly nasty streak in the series.
Here are the 12, one-half hour episodes of the two-disc set iCarly - Season 1, Volume 2, as described on its insert.
iAm Your Biggest Fan
Carly can't shake her biggest superfan, Mandy, while Spencer gets a gig playing drums for a band.
Spencer is devastated when he learns his idol doesn't like his sculptures. His solution? Become a dental hygienist.
iHate Sam's Boyfriend
Sam's new boyfriend Jonah is a creep. But Sam doesn't know that.
iDon't Want to Fight
Carly gives Sam a special commemorative T-shirt to celebrate their fifth year of friendship...which Sam promptly sells.
Carly gets a big-bucks new show sponsor. The only problem? The product is a disaster.
After Sam hits a teacher with a ball, she gets detention...which means she's going to miss iCarly's fiftieth webcast.
An old camp bully of Spencer's is now a cop, and he's holding a stakeout in their apartment.
iCarly Saves TV
Carly's webcast is bought out by a network...but will it still be iCarly we all know?
iMight Switch Schools
Carly has a tough decision to make: should she leave all her friends for a swank prep school?
Freddy finds out its fun hanging out with the guys...particularly when that guy is Spencer.
iWin a Date
Carly's friend Gibby is in love with a girl...who doesn't love him.
iHave a Love Sick Teacher
Spencer is attracted to Carly's beautiful teacher. But looks aren't always everything.
The full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfers for iCarly - Season 1, Volume 2 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.
Bonus features are a bit skimpy on the iCarly - Season 1, Volume 2 disc set. First, there are some short behind-the-scenes looks at the show, where the cast get a chance to let their hair down. And there's a bonus pilot episode of True Jackson, VP (which I didn't find amusing).
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. However...the producers need to keep a check on the show's increasingly worrisome portrayal of Sam, who's either threatening or actually bashing someone in each episode. It's still funny, but it's also getting to be a bit mean-spirited for the little kids who tune in, as well. I recommend iCarly - Season 1, Volume 2.
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.