Hmm...is Sonny funny? Not a chance. Disney has released the first disc compilation featuring their newest tween queen wannabe, Demi Lovato, in Sonny With a Chance: Sonny's Big Break, Volume 1, a god-awful tween hybrid sitcom/sketch comedy show airing on The Disney Channel. Episodes included are Sketchy Beginnings, West Coast Story, Cheater Girls, and Sonny at the Falls. A bonus episode is also included (why not just call it a five-episode collection?), along with some other bonus material. Miles away from genuinely funny tween sitcoms like iCarly or Hannah Montana - both of which parents can actually watch and not feel like they'd rather have a root canal - Sonny With a Chance, at least as evidenced by these five episodes, is without a doubt the most annoying kid's show I've seen since I reviewed those two little cretins on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Unfortunately, with the obviously massive push Disney is giving this star and show, it will probably be around for some time.
The premise of the show is as underdeveloped as its comedy. Newly arrived from Wisconsin, teen performer/writer Sonny Munroe (Demi Lovato) has somehow snagged a job co-starring on the Hollywood teen sketch comedy, So Random! (we're never told how this came about). On the set of the show, Sonny (whose personality matches her name! Yow!) tries to make friends with the cast's blonde bombshell, materialistic prima donna Tawni Hart (Tiffany Thornton), but she's having none of that - particularly after Sonny proves to be just as talented a writer as she is a performer. Other cast members of So Random! include best buds/dorks Nico (Brandon Smith) and Grady (Doug Brochu), who supply the show's broadest comedy relief, and little 11-year-old forest sprite/weirdo, Zora (Allisyn Ashley Arm), who apparently is the brightest member of the troupe. The show is produced by avuncular Marshall Pike (Michael Kostroff), who takes an immediate shine to the bright, warm, helpful Sonny, while Sonny's mom, Connie (Nancy McKeon) keeps a watchful eye on the shenanigans going on the set. If constant trouble with vain, selfish Tawni isn't enough (Sonny unfortunately shares a dressing room with her), Sonny finds herself at odds with a competing tween show that shoots over in the next soundstage: Mackenzie Falls, a super-serious tween soap opera starring handsome creep, Chad Dylan Cooper (Sterling Knight), who manages to catch Sonny's romantic interest...even though she hates him.
I'm not going to waste a lot of time on this dreck. I've written before about both Hannah Montana and iCarly, and I have no problem at all watching them both with my younger kids. I find them genuinely amusing (iCarly in particular has an advanced sophisticated comedic sense for a tween sitcom), and unlike some other tween shows my kids sometimes catch, I don't immediately head for the escape hatch when I hear their catchy theme songs. Such will not be the case if I hear Lovato's cynically calculated, entirely plastic-enthusiastic "Yow!" at the end of her title track (what a cool, safe way to rebel, Tween Monster). Let's be clear first, though: I understand the show is aimed at kids. It's not meant for me. I get it. But neither is iCarly or Hannah Montana, and they make me laugh. So I'm judging Sonny With a Chance by the same yardstick. I'm not giving it a "break" because it's just for kids. SpongeBob is just for kids and it's one of the funniest shows on TV. Sonny With a Chance, however, didn't make me laugh once. Not once. So to hell with it.
God knows, though, that it's apparent everyone associated with this stinker thinks it's the funniest (Yow!) tween (Yow!) sitcom (Yow!) on earth (Yow!)! They must, because the producers and the writers have obviously instructed the kids, despite the desperate nature of the comedy, to act like a pack of chimps on crack. "Broad" doesn't even begin to describe this atrocity. And all for so little effect (Yow!). I could list a hundred examples of the absolutely flat gags and jokes that come down the pike in Sonny With a Chance, but one will suffice: for some reason, one of the kids is "baaing" like a sheep, which prompts one of the other little tykes to riposte, "I don't care if it's the best 'baa!' since Sheep Independence Day!" with the first performer unable to stifle a quizzical "what the hell does that mean?" double-take. Weighed down with flop-sweat lines like that, the performers (of various skill levels: from incompetent to downright offensive) are then forced to flail around as if the set has been pumped full of laughing gas, so desperate is the mugging and the physicality.
Of course, in today's world, a crappy little show like Sonny With a Chance has to have a "message" (remember when TV was truly, truly great, parents? When it had no messages - when it was just...entertaining), and that's summed up by Sonny's mother, who helpfully offers, "When you're chasing your dreams, there are always going to be bumps in the road." That insufferably clichéd, banal line is enough to make Casey Kasem throw another monumental fit off-mic. Of course, though, lest any tween get nervous, Mom only shows up for a second or two here and there, letting the kids and the writers and the producers and the directors of Sonny With a Chance get on with doing what they do best: vomit all over the history of TV comedy. But...not to end on a bitter note, I will concede that it's possible star Demi Lovato may have some genuine comedy skills...if she could just stop that constant gaping smiling of hers from breaking out (by about the 27th massive toothsome display from that maw, I immediately referenced the first time I saw Julia Roberts on the big screen, and my reaction was exactly the same: shut yer trap!). Time will tell if this show gets any better (how could it get worse?), but considering the insane publicity push that Disney has already devoted to the series (someone at corporate must have finally got a look at Miley's driver's license), I suspect it truly won't matter: Sonny With a Chance is going to be on all the time, and you had better like it, kiddies. Or the ghost of Uncle Walt, eagerly thumbing through the spreadsheets on projected profits for Lovato's merchandising, will come back and haunt you.
The full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfer for Sonny With a Chance: Sonny's Big Break, Volume 1 looks about on par with other tween sitcoms shot on video and upgraded with FilmLook. Colors are garish, but jaggies show up the bigger you step up in monitors. Kids won't care, though.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo track is certainly loud enough, given the constant screaming and yakking and guffawing and screeching and chortling of the cast. A Spanish stereo track is also included, as well as English and Spanish subtitles.
A bonus episode of Sonny With a Chance, Sonny in the Middle, is included (it's no improvement), along with a ten-minute season finale "cliffhanger" episode of the fictitious Mackenzie Falls program (it's marginally better than the actual show). There are also snippets of Lovato's original audition tape. If your kid enjoys the show, I suppose they'll like these extras.
Hideously grating. Don't get me wrong: if a tween sitcom is funny, I'll watch it (right now, iCarly is one of the brighter spots on any network schedule). But Sonny With a Chance: Sonny's Big Break, Volume 1 couldn't make me laugh once. Its writing is atrocious, and the cast is forced to mug mercilessly. Genuinely unfunny. I say "skip" Sonny With a Chance: Sonny's Big Break, Volume 1, but there's not a ghost of a chance that any kid is going to listen. So...you've been warned, Mom and Dad.
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 .