By: Cameron White
From 1996, when Disney Channel first shifted into basic cable territory, to 2000, when Anne Sweeney took over as the grand overseer of the Walt Disney Company’s television presences, Disney Channel was in a state of experimental flux. The move out of premium cable prompted a desire to produce more original programming for the channel in order to ensnare a more diverse group of cable subscribers than the white, upper-class families that were the primary target demographic since the early 1990s. The result was a veritable hodge-podge of television shows, from Bug Juice (a reality TV series set at a youth summer camp) to So Weird (an X-Files descendant for general audiences) to The Jersey (a bizarre magic realism series that featured a magic jersey that could jump the wearer into the bodies and minds of famous athletes). Regardless of how successful they were, all of these shows were brought to a close after 65 episodes were produced as part of a mandate by the network to keep fresh content flowing through the channel. This five-part column will explore five select episodes from one of those lost treasures of Disney Channel’s past: The Famous Jett Jackson.
Created by Fracaswell Hyman and premiering on October 25th, 1998, The Famous Jett Jackson‘s main character was the titular Jett Jackson, played by Lee Thompson Young. Jett plays the titular action hero in a popular young adult television series, Silverstone (kind of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer with spies, a few years ahead of Kim Possible‘s premiere in 2002), but he wants to live a “normal” life as a teenager. So he convinces the network to move the show’s production from Los Angeles to his hometown: Wilstead, North Carolina. This allows him to, essentially, have it all, as he shoots the show, goes to school, and hangs out with his friends. Because of Jett’s unusual life as a teenage TV star and the contrast it has with the small-town problems of his family and friends, the show has a lot of natural conflict points to mine for potential episode ideas. This column will focus on five of these episodes in the context of how The Famous Jett Jackson was specifically built to discuss a number of big-picture ideas regarding American culture, focusing on issues of race (including mixed-race families, white appropriation, and the intersection of class and race), big-box businesses like Wal-Mart, and local politics. The latter in particular is the focus of the first episode, season two’s “Saving Mr. Dupree,” which centers around Ray Bradbury’s American literature classic, Fahrenheit 451.
Fahrenheit 451 is probably not the most challenged book in America—that honor is likely to belong to one of the Harry Potter books, or possibly Judy Blume—but it is one of the great ironies of American literature that a book whose subject matter is the censoring of independent thought through the burning of books is, itself, censored in a country that heavily promotes the freedom of speech. But in more recent years, before the author’s death, Ray Bradbury insisted that his book was not about government censorship at all (this despite the construction and publication of the novel during the McCarhty era of American politics) and that the true enemy of the book is the people, not the state. In an LA Weekly feature on him and his work, he elaborates: “Unlike Orwell’s 1984, in which the government uses television screens to indoctrinate citizens, Bradbury envisioned television as an opiate.” In other words, he blames a complacent citizenry for its problems, ignoring the fact that the government in Fahrenheit 451 fails to serve its people at all, instead compensating for their failures through government systems. An early scene in the book in which protagonist Guy Montag calls for “Emergency Services” after discovering his wife has overdosed on sleeping pills emphasizes the problem with relying too much on a broken bureaucracy: “You don’t need an M.D., case like this; all you need is two handymen, clean up the problem in half an hour.”
The Famous Jett Jackson is fully capable of leaning into the political nature of a book like Fahrenheit 451 without seeming too preachy or overbearing in its lesson. That was always the show’s greatest strength: it was set up as a delivery vehicle for Very Special Episodes, but it was exceedingly rare for the show to feel like it was imposing a viewpoint onto the audience, even though that is partially what it was doing. Even an episode like “Saving Mr. Dupree,” which is peanuts compared to some of the episodes this column will discuss later, has something valuable to contribute.
“Saving Mr. Dupree” was widely advertised on the Disney Channel as the episode in which Jett gets arrested by his father, and while it is a powerful moment of escalation within the episode, it requires full context in order to understand the meaning behind it. As a teen character, Jett is a surrogate for the target audience, thus allowing that audience to follow and sympathize with Jett’s thought process throughout the episode. This comes from his desire, stated in the opening credits at the top of every episode, to “live [his] life like a normal kid,” a tacit acknowledgment that, as a successful young actor, he doesn’t actually know what it means to live a normal life in a small town. Thus, Jett was always torn between the arrogant actor and the humbled young boy who came back home after living another life in another world. This duality will later serve as the thematic basis for the show’s wrap-up DCOM (Disney Channel Original Movie), also titled The Famous Jett Jackson.
So it’s not a surprise when Jett is eager to point out that, however oppressive the government of Fahrenheit 451 might have been, such heinous arrests and injustices could never happen in what Jett calls “the real world.” Later, too, he is hesitant to follow Kayla’s protests when she hands him a confiscated copy of the book, fearing repercussions from his sheriff father. But when Jett bails Kayla out of jail after her arrest, she rebukes him. “You really don’t get it, do you, Jett? People made a sacrifice out here today. We stood up for what we believed in.” Dejected, Jett turns to his Nana (played by the late, great Montrose Hagins) for help. This is a tactic the show frequently took; to put it in terms of The Beatles, when Jett found himself in times of trouble, Mother Mary (er, Nana) called to him to speak words of wisdom. She couldn’t have picked a better civil rights story than Rosa Parks, either, as her bus protest was a tangible act of protest by an individual, one upon thousands of acts of civil disobedience that successfully pushed the issue of race to the forefront of American conversation. Nana’s story inspires Jett’s own form of sit-in protest, and his gathering of students to read copies of the book that Jett himself lifts from the sheriff’s office leads to the marketable father-son arrest scene that caps the second act of the episode.
The third act of the episode is one of the strongest third acts in the show’s history in part because it mixes an aptitude for small-town politics–Jett uses a video camera to capture citizens of the town, including Mayor Beale, in violation of antiquated laws yet to be formally eradicated from Wilstead’s ordinances–with a simple pop-culture representation of classic literature. In the latter case, it’s Jett leading the accused in a recitation of a passage from Fahrenheit 451 from memory:
I saw the way things were going, a long time back. I said nothing. I’m one of the innocents who could have spoken up and out when no one would listen to the ‘guilty,’ but I did not speak and thus became guilty myself.
The Famous Jett Jackson dared itself to be more than just a show about a teenage action hero. Even more-so, the show dared the network, still young by cable television standards, to air it, despite the fact that encouraging such willful free thinking would inevitably lead people to an understanding about the downright shady practices and behaviors of its parent company, the Walt Disney Company. Never one to let low-hanging fruit turn to rot, the show uses its show-within-a-show as a reflection of the episode’s themes. In this case, Silverstone plants himself into prison in order to break out a political prisoner, a man thrown in jail for the same crime as the one that permeates Bradbury’s novel: speaking his mind.
A burning desire to be “more than” is undoubtedly what cemented The Famous Jett Jackson amongst its peers. The show took its racially-diverse cast on an exploratory investigation of race; it took its main character, a rich actor, on a journey of class politics both good and bad; and it used its small-town setting to skip past meaningless political labels and get right to the heart of some basic truths about power and its various applications in peoples’ lives. In its own way, The Famous Jett Jackson lived up to the epigraph chosen by Ray Bradbury for his book, a quote by Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez: “If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.”
Cameron White is a freelance writer currently residing in Arkansas. He writes about television over on his blog, Wayward Television, on This Was Television, and on Twitter. His obsession with television was founded in 1996 by The Disney Channel and fostered by his discovery of Firefly in the summer of 2007.