After releasing several scattershot compilation DVDs featuring various Hannah Montana episodes, Disney has finally gathered together Hannah Montana - The Complete First Season, a four-disc collection of all 26 episodes from The Disney Channel's tween smash-hit sitcom's opening 2006-2007 season. Although surprisingly skimpy on the bonuses (which is a strange move for such an important component of the Disney brand), I would assume that most young fans of the show (and their parents, including myself) will be happy enough with the chance to finally put a disc in and watch Hannah Montana for hours on end, without all those commercials and unending Disney promotions.
I've written several times before about Hannah Montana, and I've always found the show quite amusing and well-performed, but I didn't catch the show right from the beginning of its run. My six-year-old daughter, on the other hand, is obsessed with Hannah Montana, to the point where she now sports an official Hannah Montana book bag, lunchbox, various other Hannah Montana-emblazoned school supplies, as well as countless show-related toys. For lack of a better word, she's a "super-fan," and any product with Miley Cyrus' face slapped on it gets her immediate attention - which is precisely what Disney wants. And I don't begrudge them that brand recognition for a moment. Although I don't know where Miley Cyrus as "Hannah Montana" is right now on the music charts (I understand her concerts still sell-out), I really couldn't care less about any of that, nor about the never-ending debate that seems to go on anytime one of these merchandising-oriented shows becomes a hit. Who cares if Disney crafted Hannah Montana out of whole cloth to sell records, toys and a hundred other items? That argument was already ancient with The Monkees forty years ago. If a "product," regardless of its origins, is entertaining, that's all I care about. The Sopranos was "art," but it was commissioned with one purpose in mind, ultimately: to boost HBO's subscription rate - which it did spectacularly. I don't hear anybody complaining about that.
And Hannah Montana is consistently entertaining. If you're not familiar with the show's set-up, Hannah Montana tells the story of 14-year-old Miley Stewart (Miley Cyrus), the precocious daughter of former singer/songwriter star - and widower - Robbie Stewart (Billy Ray Cyrus, the real-life father of Miley). Living in a sweet Malibu beachfront home, Miley has a secret she jealously guards to maintain a relatively normal teenage life: donning a blonde wig, Miley becomes "Hannah Montana," a famous tween pop singing idol adored by millions of American boys and girls. Of course, complications arise as Miley tries to negotiate her real-life and fantasy personas, while her father has double-duty keeping "Hannah's" career on track, while making sure that Miley's career doesn't get in the way of her learning the difficult lessons all teenagers, unfortunately, have to learn.
Naturally, as with all sitcoms, Miley/Hannah has some wacky relatives and friends to provide plenty of comedy relief. Her older brother, Jackson Stewart (Jason Earles, who probably gets the biggest laughs here), is a fast-talking slickster who works down at Rico's Surf Shop, run by egomaniacal little troll, Rico (Moises Arias, who makes a great foil for the Jackson character). Miley's best friend, Lilly Truscott (Emily Osment, in a fun, quirky, deadpan performance) plays "Ethel" to Miley's "Lucy," becoming the first person to discover Miley's secret. She's a true friend, though, and she goes out of her way to stay loyal to Miley, not "Hannah," going so far as to don her own fantasy persona, "Lola Luftnagle," so she can hang out with Miley/Hannah at concerts and star-related events. Oliver (Mitchel Musso), is the slightly dorky next-door neighbor who initially has a crush on "Hannah," but when he, too, learns of Miley's secret, he works with his best friends Lilly and Miley to keep the secret. Helping out occasionally at the Cyrus home is Roxy (Frances Callier), the brash, abrasive bodyguard who also subs as a nanny from time to time. Episodes frequently revolve around Miley's complicated school and love life, and her equally complicated maneuverings between being an average American kid and a huge pop idol. At school, she has frequent run-ins with popular, evil teens Amber and Ashley (Shanica Knowles and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle), who regard Miley and Lilly as unpopular nerds, while the mid-season addition of TV action hero, Jake Ryan (Cody Linley), who also attends Miley's Seaview Middle School, provides the material for Miley/Hannah's necessarily compromised love life.
When I first briefly glanced at Hannah Montana back in 2006, walking through the family room as some point to find out what all the laughing was about, the actual format of the show didn't promise a lot to me. With that insanely happy laugh track and the cheap three-video camera look typical of other junkie tween sitcoms on cable, Hannah Montana looked like "business-as-usual" for these types of basic cable tween programs (such as that awful The Suite Life of Zach and Cody). But once I actually sat down and watched the show, and after getting into the rhythm of cast's performances, I was surprised at how much I was enjoying it. While the current conventions of the tween sitcom are painfully obvious and broad here (lots of mugging, lots of over-sold punchlines, moments of gross-out humor, and that god-awful laugh track), the self-reflexive nature of the show gives a nicely layered feel - which is complicated for the viewer even more by having Miley Stewart/"Hannah Montana" played by real-life Miley Cyrus...who has her real- life father Billy Ray playing her father, the ex-singing star (who's an ex-singing star himself). When you add to the fact that "Hannah Montana" is now in real life a big recording star (is it "Hannah Montana" as played by Miley as Hannah the "TV star," or vice versa?), you have a fun little game of pop culture semiotics you can endlessly ponder.
But all of that would be meaningless if the show and the stars weren't funny or entertaining. Prior to getting the Hannah Montana - The Complete First Season disc set, my biggest exposure to the show was the occasional chance to watch it with my daughter, or the compilation discs I had to review. Watching the series right from the beginning with this set, I was better able to appreciate the relatively smart writing (at least within the cable tween sitcom genre), as well as the rock-solid performances of the talented cast. When I first reviewed the show, I was particularly impressed with young Miley Cyrus. For a 14-year-old (I have no idea if she had previous show biz experience), she's a real trouper, with a marvelously open, free approach to the broad slapstick that I found quite striking. It's a cliché, but you're either funny or not; you can't learn it. And Miley Cyrus is funny. She has the same kind of instinctual fearlessness that Lucille Ball and Carole Burnett had. Despite the frequent silliness and forced mugging that seems to be de rigueur for tween cable sitcoms, Cyrus can put over a line with the best of them. Her goofy manner and appealing willingness to look foolish (as well as her quite adept vocalizing, with a funny low, guttural kind of growling that really sells a line) mark her as a comedienne to watch as she matures into her craft.
But as with any sitcom, the supporting cast is critical to the success of the comedy. And Hannah Montana's is uniformly excellent. Miley's real-life dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, may not be Noel Coward, but he's quite appealing, with his inexperience in front of the camera well-utilized in aid of a blunt, honest comedy style that suits his character perfectly. And watching all 26 episodes here, you can see him become more adept, more comfortable in the role as time goes on, consistently delivering big laughs along the way (in It's a Mannequin's World, Billy Ray unsuccessfully tries to limbo, exclaiming in pain, "My achy, breaky, back!" much to the obvious amusement of the other actors who "corpse"). I was also particularly impressed with Emily Osment as Lilly and Jason Earles as Jackson. Osment has a really tough role: being the sidekick to the charismatic lead (who gets all the songs and the love scenes, as well). But she pulls off her difficult duties well, with deadpan, askew line readings and an agreeable assortment of gorping facial expressions that make her Lilly delightfully kooky and fun. Earles, the heavy slapstick go-to guy in the cast, probably gets the biggest guffaws in the series, but you can tell he's theatre-trained, because it's controlled physical slapstick - he obviously knows just how far he can take a bit or gag before it's way over the top...which it usually is, anyway (and hilariously so). In one of my other reviews, I wasn't sure about Mitchel Musso's Oliver - not because of the performer, but because of the construction of the character. But seeing these episodes from the very beginning of the series, I understand better the purpose of his character (co-conspirator in the Miley/Hannah cover-up), and appreciate more the solid support Musso offers with his funny physical performance.
Standout episodes in the Hannah Montana - The Complete First Season include Miley Get Your Gum, which features a funny Freudian flashback sequence, showing the origin of Oliver's hatred of gum; It's My Party and I'll Lie if I Want To, where Osment gets to act like a star-struck dork as she acclimates herself to Miley's celebrity-side of life; Grandma Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Favorites, which has Miley's grandmother (Carol Burnett's Vicki Lawrence) engaging in a funny video dance-off with the Queen of England, Elizabeth II; Ooo, Ooo, Itchy Woman, which features a camping trip with Miley and Lilly that's in good company with a typical Lucy/Ethel outing; Torn Between Two Hannahs is a great Halloween episode, with Earles and Billy Ray Cyrus having some good moments scaring the crap out of a bunch of kids (occasional guest star Peter Allen Vogt, as rotund next-door-neighbor Mr. Dontzig, absolutely kills with his line-reading, "It's sick!"); Debt It Be, where Miley gets a big laugh when her father gives her a credit card ("My very first credit card...today I am a woman."); We Are Family - Now Get Me Some Water! has an hysterical moment with Moises Arias's Ricco, tangoing (that kid is a genius); and my favorite episode here: School Bully. While Hannah deals with a bully in school, Robbie Ray and Jackson, inexplicably, are snowed-in at a mountain cabin (which has been "modernized" for young lovers) with the cabin's bizarre owner, Gunther (the great Kenneth Mars - always brilliant), and his ventriloquist dummy, Franklin. The "snowed-in-at-a-mountain-cabin" is a never-fail sitcom standby (I recommend similar episodes in The Odd Couple and Bosom Buddies), and here, it works again, thanks to Earles' expert mugging and chemistry with solid Billy Ray Cyrus. A very funny show in a whole collection of bright, amusing episodes.
Here are the 26 episodes included on Hannah Montana - The Complete First Season:
Lilly, Do You Want to Know a Secret?
Miley Get Your Gum
She's a Supersneak
I Can't Make You Love Hannah Montana if You Don't
It's My Party and I'll Lie if I Want To
Grandma Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Favorites
It's a Mannequin's World
Ooo, Ooo, Itchy Woman
O Say, Can You Remember the Words
Oops! I Meddled Again!
On the Road Again?
You're So Vain, You Probably Think This Zit is About You
The New Kid in School
More Than a Zombie To Me
Good Golly, Miss Dolly
Torn Between Two Hannahs
People Who Use People
Money for Nothing, Guilt for Free
Debt It Be
My Boyfriend's Jackson and There's Gonna Be Trouble
We Are Family -- Now Get Me Some Water!
The Idol Side of Me
Smells Like Teen Sellout
Bad Moose Rising
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.