Episode 2: “Web Sight”
Original airdate: Jan. 18, 1999
During the years of So Weird’s run from 1999 to 2001, the Disney Channel featured three distinct programming blocks: Playhouse Disney, Zoog Disney, and Vault Disney.
Playhouse Disney, which aired in the mornings, was dedicated to programming for younger children.
It included shows like Roly Poly Ollie, which revolved around a round robot boy and his round robot friends and family.
Another show was Out of the Box, essentially a Petri dish for identifying what young children responded well to in their TV shows, set in a playhouse constructed entirely from boxes.
Bear in the Big Blue House, somewhat resembling a cross between Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the Muppets, featured a bear living in a big blue house.
Additionally, there were television shows based on popular characters like Winnie the Pooh, Madeline, and The Little Mermaid.
All of these programs had a strong emphasis on early childhood and catered to the youngest portion of Disney’s target audience.
In stark contrast, there was Vault Disney, designed for the late-night hours that would soon be dominated by Cartoon Network’s ambitious Adult Swim block.
Vault Disney represented a throwback to Disney Channel’s premium channel origins when a Disney Channel Original Movie, then known as Disney Premieres before it dropped the pun, involved sequels to films like The Parent Trap or additional Love Bug movies.
The programming primarily featured older, lesser-known Disney films, such as Cool Runnings and the Mighty Ducks series, along with reruns of classic Disney shows like Zorro and The Mickey Mouse Club.
It wasn’t uncommon for Walt Disney himself to make appearances through his Walt Disney Presents features, discussing the creative process, the promising future of Disney theme parks, or the wonders of nature.
Airing during late-night hours, this programming was geared more toward the adults in the family, evoking nostalgia for the earlier, struggling days of the Walt Disney Company before it achieved global recognition.
This approach left primetime, which meant focusing on the demographic that Disney was confident would attract viewers from all segments: teenagers.
The “Zoogs” made their debut in commercial bumpers for Disney Channel in August 1998. Each Zoog and their primary function were introduced in a full-length rap by the lead Zoog, Joe:
The objective was straightforward: by targeting the increasingly tech-savvy teenage audience of that era, Disney Channel aimed to draw viewers to its original programming, as the primary emphasis of the channel’s original content was geared towards primetime.
(Playhouse Disney was still in the process of development, while Vault Disney’s programming was already established; it was mainly about allocating time per week.)
The irony in this strategy was that hardly any of Disney Channel’s original shows during the Zoogs era prominently featured technology.
The Famous Jett Jackson was somewhat limited by its small-town setting, where technological innovations took longer to become widely adopted.
Lizzie McGuire, one of its signature scenes, featured split-screen landline phone conversations.
For Ren Stevens of Even Stevens and the teenagers in Lizzie McGuire, having one’s own phone line was seen as both a point of pride and a small step toward independence.
A more intriguing contrast arises in the use of computers and the Internet. Both were present in most of Disney Channel’s shows, reflecting their increasing importance in the average American’s life.
However, neither technology played a significant role in the characters’ day-to-day lives, episode-to-episode, the way they did for Fi Phillips.
The other shows shared a perspective on technology similar to that of Disney’s then-CEO, Michael Eisner: recognizing the growing importance of email and word processing in business and education, but believing that the dream of putting the “personal” in personal computer was still some way off.
While the issue of how Fi Phillips funds her website (or how Molly, the resurging rock star, affords to purchase a new laptop for Fi after the ghost-boy from “Family Reunion” possessed it and smashed it against a wall) is left unanswered, what’s more crucial is her possession of one.
This is especially significant because, aside from Lizzie McGuire’s characters and the Stevens kids, very few had personal computers and utilized them for purposes beyond schoolwork.
Fi’s website serves other functions, primarily as a storytelling tool, a fact not lost on the So Weird writers.
“Web Sight” takes a traditional story trope, the Cassandra whose visions intensify into mortal danger, and gives it a contemporary twist: the Cassandra is an anonymous emailer who conveniently delivers image, audio, and video files directly to Fi.
It could easily seem like a cheap plot device or a way to sidestep the fundamental philosophical question of fate versus free will.
However, “Web Sight” manages to address both issues by focusing on specific biased circumstances while reinforcing Fi’s link between paranormal incidents and her absent father.
Fi’s first vision of the future consists of a scathing review of The Molly Phillips Band’s performance at the Paramount Club.
Initially, Fi thinks it’s a fan page for her mom and exclaims, “Cool! Primitive… but cool.”
When she shows it to her family and Clu, who is equipped with a camera and determined not to “miss any action,” objections arise.
Molly contends that she has likely performed at the Paramount before and the review might be an old one.
She also downplays the significance of receiving negative reviews from time to time, stating it’s not a big deal.
Most importantly, she suggests that the reviewer has already decided that Molly is awful and is merely attempting to psych her out.
Naturally, when Jack disputes the reviewer’s report of a violent thunderstorm in the area by mentioning “clear skies all day,” nature responds by unleashing a violent thunderstorm, prompting Clu to channel Keanu Reeves: “Whoa.”
Molly does end up messing up a line from her song (incidentally, the first snippet the audience hears from the full-length theme song).
Still, by introducing a second element of disaster – one of the guitarist’s strings breaks at the beginning of a new verse – the show wisely keeps the audience on edge.
As expected, when the negative review comes out, Molly recognizes the critic: Ty Spencer.
In Ned’s words, Spencer was kicked off the Village Voice, “but not before writing the worst review for you since Lincoln wa—ow!” (Irene responds by kicking her family under the table for their lack of tact.)
Against Irene’s advice, Molly pays Spencer a visit and accuses 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 their argument, in which Spencer criticizes Molly for her “microscopic amount of talent,” and Molly retorts with, “Well, I hope you’re happy, you big fat liar!” Is it destiny?
Even if Fi hadn’t received word of Spencer’s review, the broken guitar string and the established history between Molly and Spencer seem to suggest that this sequence of events would have unfolded regardless of outside intervention.
While Fi and Jack observe Molly and Spencer’s argument, the anonymous Cassandra contacts them again via a nearby computer with the most dangerous vision yet: a video clip of the Phillips tour bus colliding with an unsuspecting car just after passing a road sign that reads ROCKVILLE 30.
Once more, objections are raised when Fi tries to show this to Jack and Clu.
To begin with, the website that linked to the clip is still active, but it redirects Fi to an animated GIF of a dog wearing a top hat with looped audio of a barking dog.
Jack ends the argument by asserting that Ty Spencer was responsible for all of this, in an elaborate attempt to psych everyone out.
As for the ROCKVILLE 30 sign, Ned dismisses it by saying the only way the bus would be 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 start to come together.
The thunderstorm caused significant damage along the roads, which forces Ned to take a detour.
Meanwhile, after Fi criticizes Spencer for not understanding the emotional impact of Molly Phillips’ music (which would soon be repackaged as the hit song “Critics Just Don’t Understand”), Spencer chases after the tour bus in his beat-up car to apologize.
Due to the storm damage, he takes a shortcut on the advice of his co-worker. The stage is set for the two vehicles to collide.
Fi only realizes that the video clip she saw is becoming a reality when she sees the ROCKVILLE 30 sign passing her window.
She manages to help Ned swerve the bus away from Spencer’s car just in time.
So, like most mediums and fortune tellers, this virtual soothsayer was simply laying out a statistical likelihood of events based on the conditions presented.
However, Fi is a variable. She 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 chance to email her mysterious connection and sends a question: “Can we change it?”
The response doesn’t arrive until the very end of the episode, by which time Fi has already answered her own question: “You can change anything.”
So, who was this anonymous person? Fi suggests it was her father because she links everything paranormal to him.
Jack, while doing a “rare big brotherly thing” by checking on Fi after her attempts to convince Jack and Clu fail, suggests the more logical idea that it was simply someone who, like the thousands of others regularly visiting her site, wanted to believe in the extraordinary.
For the time being, the future of free will seems to be deterministically secure.
Jack’s answer harks back to an idea implied by all uses of technology on Disney Channel Original Series: connection.
The split-screen phone calls in Lizzie McGuire were primarily social interactions, occasionally advancing the plot but mostly showcasing that Lizzie, Miranda, and Gordo were friends who conversed with each other socially on the phone.
On the other hand, Jett Jackson explored the space between the self and the community for drama in numerous outstanding episodes, providing a perfect snapshot of how people connected and collaborated before the digital age.
There are also positive aspects to having the world at our fingertips.
Fi notably finds herself alone in her beliefs on the tour bus. Jack remains staunchly rational, Molly remains skeptical, and the Bells maintain an admirably carefree outlook on the events unfolding in their lives.
However, through Fi’s website, she can connect with her friends.
Candy, her best friend from the Phillipses’ hometown, is first mentioned in an unopened email here.
More importantly, Fi can connect with people who, like her, believe in six impossible things before breakfast.
This emerging form of socialization, the basis of what we now call “fandom,” had just begun to influence television shows like Babylon 5 and The X-Files.
Ten years later, Dan Harmon from Community would watch a Jeff/Annie fan video on YouTube that would profoundly shape his perspective on fandoms and inspire a homage in season two’s “Paradigms of Human Memory.”
The Internet has the power to bring together diverse groups of people who share a common passion, which has prevented numerous seemingly unremarkable shows (such as So Weird) from fading into obscurity.
So, despite the Zoogs’ misguided approach, they emerged from a genuine desire to foster new connections among people.
And at the very least, So Weird was there to reinforce that desire with fortune-telling emails.