By Cameron White
Episode 2: “Web Sight”
Original airdate: Jan. 18, 1999
In the years of So Weird‘s run (1999–2001), the Disney Channel was split into three broad programming blocks: Playhouse Disney, Zoog Disney, and Vault Disney. Playhouse Disney ran in the mornings and was devoted to programming for younger children. It included shows like Roly Poly Ollie (about a round robot boy and his round robot friends and family), Out of the Box (a Petri dish of “what do young children respond well to in their TV shows” set in a playhouse made entirely out of boxes), Bear in the Big Blue House (sort of a halfway between Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the Muppets with, you guessed it, a bear that lives in a big blue house), and television shows based on Winnie the Pooh, Madeline, and The Little Mermaid. All of these programs, with their intense focus on early childhood, skewed towards the youngest side of Disney’s demographic focus.
Vault Disney was the polar opposite. Set in the late-night hours soon to be dominated by Cartoon Network’s ambitious Adult Swim block, Vault Disney was a holdover from the channel’s premium channel days, when a Disney Channel Orignial Movie (then called Disney Premears before dropping the lame pun to become Disney Premieres) meant doing a sequel to the original Parent Trap or another Love Bug film. Programming consisted primarily of old and abandoned Disney films—Cool Runnings, the Mighty Ducks films, Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land—as well as reruns of classic Disney shows like Zorro and The Mickey Mouse Club. More often than not, Walt Disney himself would emerge from the ice in the form of his Walt Disney Presents features to talk about the process of creativity, the exciting future of the Disney theme parks, or the wonders of nature. The late-night setting meant that the programming pointed toward the grown-ups in the family, particularly their sense of nostalgia for the young and struggling Walt Disney Company before it became a globalized sensation.
That left primetime, which meant targeting the demographic Disney felt most sure would bring in viewers from all corners: teenagers. The “Zoogs” were introduced in commercial bumpers for Disney Channel in August 1998. Each Zoog and its primary function was defined in this full-length rap by lead Zoog Joe:
The goal was simple: by appealing to the increasingly technology-literate teenage demographic of its time, Disney Channel intended to bring in viewers to its original programming, as the primary focus of the channel’s original programming was dedicated to primetime. (Playhouse Disney took time to build, while Vault Disney programming already existed—it was simply a matter of budgeting the time per week.)
The great irony in this approach is that almost none of Disney Channel’s original shows during the time that the Zoogs were employed featured technology in any great capacity. The Famous Jett Jackson was partially hampered by its small-town setting, where technological innovations take longer to become widely accepted. One of Lizzie McGuire‘s signature scenes was its split-screen landline phone conversations, and for both Ren Stevens of Even Stevens and the adolescents in Lizzie McGuire, having one’s own phone line was considered both a point of pride and a small step towards independence.
A more intriguing contrast lies in the deployment of computers and the Internet. Both are present in most of Disney Channel’s shows, reflecting their growing importance in the average American’s life, but neither is significant to the characters on a day-to-day (or episode-to-episode) basis the way that both are indispensable to Fi Phillips. The other shows effectively had the same view of technology as Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner: there was no denying the growing importance of email and word processing to business and education, but putting the “personal” in personal computer was still a pipe dream.
While the question of how Fi Phillips pays for her website (or, for that matter, how Molly, a re-emerging rock star, can afford to buy a new laptop for Fi after the ghost-boy of “Family Reunion” possessed it to crash against a wall) is never properly addressed; it’s more significant that she has one at all, when only Lizzie McGuire characters and the Stevens kids had personal computers and used them for anything other than schoolwork.
Fi’s website has other purposes too—mainly as a storytelling device, a fact that is not lost on the writers of So Weird. “Web Sight” takes an old story trope, a Cassandra whose visions escalate into mortal danger, and gives it a modern-day twist: the Cassandra is an anonymous emailer who drops image, audio, and video files neatly into Fi’s lap. It’s all too easy for an episode premise like this to feel like cheating, or to dodge the inherent philosophical question of fate versus free will. “Web Sight” manages to avoid both by being about a specific set of biased circumstances while reinforcing Fi’s connection between paranormal events and her absent father.
Fi’s first vision from the future is a scathing review of The Molly Phillips Band at the Paramount Club. (At first she thinks it’s a fan page for her mom: “Cool! Primitive… but cool.”) When she shows it to her family (and Clu, who has a camera and little desire to “miss any action”), the objections begin: Molly argues that she’s probably played the Paramount before and that the review is probably an old one. She also gives the old line that she’s “probably going to get bad reviews from time to time, and it’s not a big deal.” Most significantly, she suggests that the person who wrote the review has already decided that Molly stinks and that he’s just trying to psych her out. Naturally, when Jack objects to the reviewer’s note of a violent thunderstorm in the area, citing “clear skies all day,” nature responds by kicking up said violent thunderstorm, cuing Clu channeling Keanu Reaves: “Whoa.”
Molly does end up flubbing a line from her song (the first snippet the audience gets of the full-length theme song, incidentally), but by adding a second element of disaster—one of the guitarist’s strings breaks at the start of a new verse—the show wisely keeps the audience on edge. And so it goes that when the bad review comes out as predicted, Molly recognizes the critic: Ty Spencer, who in Ned’s words got kicked off the Village Voice “but not before writing the worst review for you since Lincoln wa—ow!” (That was Irene, kicking her family under the table for not having any tact.)
Against Irene’s suggestions, Molly pays Spencer a visit and accuses of him of pre-writing his review, which is the focus of the second virtual premonition for Fi. It’s an audio snippet of the end of that argument, in which Spencer flames Molly for her “microscopic amount of talent” and Molly retorts with, “Well, I hope you’re happy, you big fat liar!” Destiny? Even if Fi hadn’t received word of Spencer’s review, the guitar string and the established history between Molly and Spencer seem to indicate that this sequence of events would have occurred regardless of outside intervention.
But while Fi and Jack are spying on Molly and Spencer’s argument, the anonymous Cassandra reaches out once more via a nearby computer with the most dangerous vision yet: a video clip of the Phillips tour bus crashing into an unsuspecting car, shortly after passing a road sign saying ROCKVILLE 30. Objections are raised again when Fi tries to show this to Jack and Clu. For starters, the site that linked to the clip is still up, but takes Fi to an animated GIF of a dog wearing a top hat with looped audio of a dog barking. Jack polishes off the argument by insisting that Ty Spencer was behind all of it in an elaborate attempt to psych everyone out. And Ned dispatches with the ROCKVILLE 30 sign by saying the only way the itinerary takes the bus near Rockville is “if you’re looking at the map upside-down.”
Except the bus very nearly crashes into a car anyway. At this point, all the elements of the episode begin to collide. The thunderstorm kicked up a lot of damage along the roads, which forces Ned into a detour. Meanwhile, after Fi lambasts Spencer for not understanding the feeling people get when they listen to Molly Phillips (soon to be repackaged as the hit song “Critics Just Don’t Understand”), he chases after the tour bus to apologize in his beat-up junker of a car. Due to the aforementioned storm damage, he takes a shortcut on good advice from his co-worker. Things are set for the two vehicles to collide; Fi only just realizes that the video clip she saw is coming true when the ROCKVILLE 30 sign passes her window, and manages to help Ned swerve the bus away from Spencer’s car in time.
So, like most mediums and fortune tellers, this virtual soothsayer was merely laying out a statistical likelihood of events based on the conditions presented. But Fi is a variable, someone who believes in the existence of aliens, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and the truth that is out there. After watching the bus crash clip, she gets a shot at emailing her mysterious connection, and she sends a question: “Can we change it?” The response doesn’t come until the very end of the episode, when Fi’s already answered her own question: “You can change anything.” Who was this anonymous person? Fi suggests it was her father, because she connects everything paranormal to her father. Jack, while doing a “rare big brotherly thing” in checking up on Fi after her attempts to convince Jack and Clu fail, suggests the more logical notion that it was merely someone who, like the thousands of others that regularly visit her site, wanted to believe in the extraordinary.
Jack’s answer goes back to an idea that all uses of technology on Disney Channel Original Series implied: connection. The split-screen phone calls of Lizzie McGuire were largely social affairs, sometimes moving the plot along but mostly to show that Lizzie, Miranda, and Gordo were all friends and thus spoke socially with each other on the phone. Conversely, Jett Jackson mined the space between the self and the community for drama in plenty of outstanding episodes, making it a perfect snapshot of how people connected and worked together before the rise of the digital age.
There are positives to having the world at our fingertips, too. Fi is noticeably alone in her beliefs on the tour bus. Jack is adamantly rational, Molly remains skeptical, and the Bells just keep things moving, adopting an admirably light view of the events that transpire in their lives. Through Fi’s website, though, she can connect with her friends (the show first mentions Candy in an unopened email here—she’s Fi’s best friend from the Phillipses’ hometown) and, more importantly, with people like her who believe in six impossible things before breakfast. This emergent form of socialization—the foundation of what we call “fandom” today—was only just beginning to power television shows like Babylon 5 and The X-Files. Ten years later, Community‘s Dan Harmon will watch a Jeff/Annie fanvid on Youtube that profoundly influences his views on fandoms and inspires an homage in season two’s “Paradigms of Human Memory.” The Internet is capable of bringing together disparate groups of people that share a passion, which has helped numerous seemingly unremarkable shows (like, say, So Weird) from fading out of memory. So however misguided the Zoogs seemed, at least they came from an honest desire to forge new connections between people—and at least So Weird was there to reinforce that desire… with fortune-telling emails.
Cameron White is a freelance writer currently residing in Arkansas. He writes about television over on his blog, Wayward Television, and tweets about mundane things like science and politics. His obsession with television was founded in 1996 by The Disney Channel and fostered by his discovery of Firefly in the summer of 2007. As a young boy, he once vomited at the sight of Jabba the Hutt on a re-watch of Return of the Jedi; a repeat performance was sadly not in the cards for his theatrical viewing of The Phantom Menace.