The “second” season of Lizzie McGuire is an odd beast, because Disney essentially treated it as two separate seasons. Season 1 aired from January ’01 to January ’02, but the episodes shot as “season 2” aired from February ’02 to February ’04. Its “finale” aired smack in the middle, in February ’03, a few months ahead of the movie’s release in May.
Further complicating things, a throwaway line in “Lizzie’s Eleven” reveals that the seasons don’t split, as I’d originally assumed, into school years. Gordo’s quest to be in the most yearbook photos and Lizzie’s campaign for best dressed both occur at the end of seventh grade, but early on in the second season. Lizzie’s quest to be in the most yearbook photos occurs at the end of eighth grade, later on in the same season. Episodes like “Just Like Lizzie” (episode 14) and “Movin’ on Up” (episode 17) are intended to mark the passage into eighth grade. I guess it makes sense if Disney wanted to air the series from ’01 to ’04 but only shoot 65 episodes (per their limit at the time) but it doesn’t really work for a show based around kid actors, as they’re all noticeably older in the second season. It’s a 2-season show about a 2-year middle school, so one would think that the first season would tackle seventh grade and the second would tackle eighth. I’m pretty sure viewers assumed that was happening anyway, since the actors all looked different!
There is technically an arc to the season – Gordo’s unrequited crush on Lizzie becoming requited out of nowhere – but that’s buried in an utterly nonsensical airing order. I’ve harped on that airing order pretty much nonstop since this project began, so let’s focus a bit on Gordo/Lizzie. I’ve harped on that plenty, too, but I think it’s worth noting again just how sloppily it was handled. Gordo’s interest in Lizzie waxes and wanes from week to week, with variations like him feeling jealous of Ronnie the Paperboy but encouraging Lizzie to ask Ethan to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. I just don’t understand why it was so inconsistent, since it seems like a Lizzie/Gordo relationship was always a possibility. We saw glimpses of it beginning all the way back to their goopy moment in the pilot and the more overt hint of Cartoon Lizzie’s confused feelings over Gordo dating Brooke. That all happened in season 1! So why did the writers ditch the drama some weeks and pick it up other weeks throughout both seasons?
Lizzie writer Nina Bargiel said that Lizzie and Gordo ended up together in the movie because the writers “knew fans wanted Lizzie and Gordo to get together.” Was that not the plan all along? Because of course the fans wanted it – it was teased to them sporadically for two seasons. The tension between Lizzie and Gordo is one of the most memorable aspects of the show. Viewers saw that Gordo was Lizzie’s friend who liked her for her. And Lizzie didn’t need to do any work to get a boyfriend – one day someone she already got along with decided he liked her. It’s a safe, nice, perfect relationship to little girls (who haven’t yet developed the skills to really analyze Gordo’s personality). I just can’t fathom how that central fascinating relationship seemed important to the scripts sometimes and yet was completely nonexistent at other times.
Otherwise the season is the same mix of fairly relatable middle school moments (dances, crushes, parties) with batshit nonsense (Spanish-language game shows, dating celebrities, interactions with Steven Tyler dressed as Santa Claus) that this show served up in the first season.
Because it is a personal obsession of mine, I have to mention that season 2 is noteworthy for a very different approach to costuming.
It’s significantly toned-down and much trendier. I’ve gone into the costuming in-depth before, but my basic criticism applies to season 2’s design as well: the costumes undermine the characterization by making Lizzie look confident and assertive.
That’s not the only production choice change. Because season 2 aired for so long, and because some of the most memorable episodes – “First Kiss,” “Best Dressed for Much Less,” “Dear Lizzie,” “Clue-Less,” and of course the finale – aired during this season, I imagine season 2 stands out in people’s minds more. For that reason, it might be difficult to remember that the original style of the show was much rougher and zanier. That gets toned down significantly in season 2 – everything from the writing to the directing to the camerawork seems much more polished. Problems like Gordo’s and Lizzie’s abysmal personalities got corrected, at least for certain episodes, with the actors turning in completely different performances out of the blue. I guess in that sense it was better than season 1, though parts of season 1 had a sort of scrappy terribleness that I prefer to bland After School Special-level serious episodes or dumb gimmick episodes we got in season 2.
The big accomplishment of this season was solidifying Lizzie (/Hilary Duff) as a girl to root for. That just didn’t happen in season 1 that much, which had weak plotlines like “Lizzie accidentally gets handcuffed to Matt” that didn’t resonate much. But season 2 comes in strong in that regard immediately, with Lizzie weeping in the library in the first episode after Ronnie broke her heart. Her character remained inconsistent and ill-defined, of course, because that’s a central problem on this show, but we got more moments that made her seem lovable and charming or vulnerable and real. Hilary Duff was clearly more comfortable with the character and with herself at this point, and she was able to make cute choices now and then that went a long way in making the character so beloved, especially when coupled with plotlines like “Lizzie can’t go to the dance because she did the right thing” and “Lizzie feels bad about herself because Ethan doesn’t like her” that force the audience to get on her side.
I don’t, for the record, think that most of these moments were handled masterfully. But they served their intended purpose.
Because although Lizzie McGuire was stupid and terrible, it was also a huge ratings hit and giant moneymaker for Disney. And they actually had plans to keep it going with a spinoff series following Lizzie through high school intended to air on ABC. That part is fascinating to me because ABC, though a Disney affiliate network, allowed more mature programming than the Disney Channel. What sort of plotlines were we going to get? Miranda trying drugs? Miranda’s pregnancy scare? Lizzie continuing to settle for Gordo like Topanga did for Cory until they got married in college? I’m not entirely sure how it would work, though, because this deal was supposed to include a sequel to The Lizzie McGuire Movie, which of course only existed to launch Hilary Duff as a pop star. How could they have a series about her being in high school after the events of The Lizzie McGuire Movie? Would it just be the exact plot to Hannah Montana? Or would The Lizzie McGuire Movie 2 retcon everything, presumably jettisoning Miranda and re-establishing Lizzie as an everyman?
We’ll never know, because Hilary’s mom felt that Disney’s offer of $35,000 per episode for the new series was “anticlimactic” and wasn’t able to negotiate moving up the payout of $500,000 bonus to get Hilary onboard for a second movie. Her quote at the time was “We weren’t feeling the love. They weren’t giving Hilary the respect she deserved,” which is pretty bananas. Disney clearly wanted to funnel a lot of resources into Hilary’s career. The whole thing is kind of odd, because at the time, Hilary had already done Agent Cody Banks, was already working on Cheaper by the Dozen and A Cinderella Story, and was about to release Metamorphosis. I can see how it would seem like she should move on, but my point here is that she was already taking on all of those projects while negotiating other Lizzie properties – she didn’t give up Lizzie to work on them. And Disney gave her a giant fanbase before she was out of her teens.
Most of my analysis is just looking at the events in hindsight, because Lizzie McGuire is still by far the biggest success of Hilary Duff’s entire career. I understand why she would have felt bored with a kids show and wanted a change at a time when it seemed like her career was taking off. But she was just a little too early. She directly paved the way for more successful child stars like Miley Cyrus (who has had six albums surpass a million sales, compared to Hilary’s one) and Selena Gomez (the most-followed person on Instagram in the world) and set a kids-show-to-pop-career blueprint for half the starlets working today, like Ariana Grande, Zendaya, Bella Thorne, Demi Lovato, etc. But maybe she should have stayed with Lizzie a little longer.
As it happened, we got two seasons and a movie. And I’m done with two seasons. Time to wrap up a few more loose ends before I get to the cinematic marvel that everyone’s been waiting for!