Boy, do people fucking love Lizzie McGuire.
I knew that going into it, of course. One of the reasons I started this project was the overwhelming sense of “is everyone else in the world on drugs?” that hit me every time I had to see another listicle about how amazing this show was. But working on this blog made me have to care about things like that stupid People’s Choice poll and people celebrating the show’s 15th anniversary and now 16th anniversary and all other forms of the never-ending Lizzie nostalgia that I used to be able to ignore. It’s constant. People won’t shut up about it to this day.
It’s not just nostalgia, though. People loved it when it was on. According to this weird video I found that must have been created for some use in the industry, 25 million people watched it every month.
So what’s there to like about this stupid show? A couple of things, actually!
While the acting is shoddy in the early episodes, I think the main trio is perfectly cast. All of them seem more like normal kids than precocious child stars. And any single episode should show you why someone would want to give Hilary Duff her own show. She’s so adorable, with a bubbliness that’s never grating, and she seems sweet and innocent in a really genuine way. Watching it, you just want to be Hilary Duff – not even Lizzie but Hilary Duff. I still want to be Hilary Duff.
Lizzie McGuire was specifically targeted to 9-to-14-year-olds, a departure for Disney’s programming at the time, and that definitely contributed to its success. Shows set in high school had more experienced performers and were therefore tighter and better-acted, but Lizzie cast actors that kid viewers could identify with. Disney capitalized on that relatability by including a blooper reel at the end of every episode that showed the kid actors goofing around on set and by airing commercials featuring the actors as themselves. I think those were tremendously successful in creating an attachment for their stars, even if they now seem awkward/possibly horrifying in retrospect.
The show itself created warm, comforting feelings through things like the sunny set design of Lizzie’s quirky cute house and fun montages. Even though I dislike the series as a whole, moments like Lizzie lying in the grass in her backyard with her friends or sharing popcorn while they watch a movie together still work for me. Did kids really do that? I moved around so much as a kid that I never had best friends like Gordo and Miranda. The show exists in this weird universe where the kids never really do homework and no one needs to drive them to the mall or the Digital Bean or to each other’s houses. Lizzie is always hanging out with her friends or on the phone with them, and I think that friendship is what makes the show tick. The nostalgic part of my brain doesn’t have the same feelings toward Raven, Eddie and Chelsea or Louis, Twiddy and Tawny. On those shows the trios felt like actors playing parts. Something about the central friendship on Lizzie McGuire feels pure and real. I honestly don’t know why, because I’ve just watched 65 episodes of these characters treating each other like garbage. But somehow, through the casting and through some genuinely nice moments, the show completely sells something warm and sweet about the friendship.
And as much as I hate to say it, I think the clothes have so much to do with people’s impressions of the show. I’ve said before that it completely undermines the central point of the writing, but I’ll concede that the clothes and hair on the show made a huge impact on presenting the aspirational version of adolescence the show was going for.
On a weirder note, I think there’s a less obvious reason for the “Lizzie was so much better than other Disney shows!” or “Old Disney > New Disney!!” hot takes you see endlessly. Lizzie was a single-camera show without a laugh track, and it was shot on film (with interspersed montages on videotape). Right after that, beginning with That’s So Raven, Disney switched to using “filmized” videotape through the post-production company FilmLook. Raven, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Hannah Montana and pretty much every other show since (excluding only Phil of the Future) all use FilmLook, which creates a much faker look in general, especially combined with the fact that pretty much every show (that I know of) on Disney post-Lizzie has been multi-camera and with a laugh track. I think that’s a weird subconscious trigger for millennials, because the switch to FilmLook lines up pretty exactly with the end of our childhoods. Scrappy-looking shows shot on film feel like the 90s and Y2K and being a kid. FilmLook shows feel like the point at which we were old enough to start saying “Hey, this show sucks, right?”
My biggest frustration in re-watching Lizzie McGuire for this project was the realization that a good show exists somewhere in this pile of nonsense. In fact, that show exists – it’s the pilot. I rewatched it halfway through this project to get some screencaps for my costume rant, and I was surprised at how different it is from the rest of the series. It’s a prime example of the production-induced nostalgia I mentioned above, for one thing. It feels 90s as hell. (The reliance on ska and Smash Mouth in those early episodes doesn’t help). You can see a bit of the Run, Lola, Run aesthetic that – bizarrely – inspired the show’s look, but there’s also a lot of MTV in the manic editing ethos; some cuts and effects look like The State. Check out the opening scene:
See what I mean? It’s not just the look, though. Lizzie’s first monologue sets up a show without the problems that this one eventually had. Over a shot of the popular girls, Lizzie says, “I wouldn’t exactly qualify as one of those future Prom Queens of America. Not that I mind, but these are the girls who do book reports on The Pocket Guide to Jennifer Love Hewitt.” Over a shot of more edgy girls, she says, “And I’m kind of short on attitude. Is it just me, or do they all look like they’re posing for Gap ads?”
Lizzie eventually turned into both of those things, though. The lack of substance she rolls her eyes at the popular girls for became her only defining character trait besides screaming and snapping at people. Her only interests are superficial. She talks about lipgloss and clothes and hair and she gushes over celebrities and her favorite location is the mall. That’s all she cares about. There’s nothing wrong with liking girly things, but it does nothing to differentiate her from the popular girls, and her interest in style counteracts her self-consciousness. And Lizzie had nothing but attitude later on. You see it in her edgy clothes, in her frequent rebellions (crashing the set of a music video, sneaking into an R-rated movie, lying to her parents to go to a party she wasn’t allowed to attend), and in her constant bitchy snarling at anyone she’s mad at.
But Lizzie in the pilot is aching with vulnerability. She’s obviously insecure in a way that positions her as an underdog, especially since Hilary Duff’s natural sweetness shines through. Her clothes are average, as if she hasn’t quite figured out her style yet. She has a built-in history with Gordo and a real friendship with Miranda. And the rest of the world is solid, too. Kate isn’t an overbearing bully, just a former friend who ditched them for a cooler crew, which is more realistic, more touching, and less obnoxious. And the pilot focuses more on her relationship with her mom, something Disney tried to tamp down in favor of more trio moments after the pilot was shot but which makes both Lizzie and Jo seem more real. All in all, Lizzie ACTUALLY feels relatable – that word that’s constantly thrown around about this show – and the episode contains so much promise for a show about an average girl navigating middle school.
But that’s not the show we got, for whatever reason. And I think that’s a shame.
So the central conceit of the show doesn’t work. But Lizzie’s bad in all kinds of other ways. Its constant stream of mistakes are so unprofessional I can’t fully fathom how Disney let them slide: things like mispronouncing a main character’s last name in five different episodes or centering an episode around a brooding Scottish character but forgetting to hire an actor who could do a Scottish accent. It’s usually noticeable when a guest writer has penned an episode because of an abrupt shift in humor or a slightly off depiction of a character or relationship. There are nonstop directing problems, almost always with kid actors delivering lines bizarrely because they clearly don’t understand what they’re saying and no one has explained it to them. I can’t believe that Disney’s juggernaut show was so sloppily slapped together. While a chunk of the problems from the first season are smoothed out by the second, enough mistakes and inconsistencies still abound to make me wonder what on earth was happening behind the scenes.
For every legitimately touching episode, there are ten nonsensical piles of garbage with plotlines ranging from completely unrealistic (Lizzie becomes a famous model!) to absolutely absurd (Steven Tyler infiltrates the community charity drive dressed as Santa and builds a parade float for Lizzie!). The sheer amount of batshit plotlines that accrue over the course of Lizzie’s two years in junior high makes her about the least relatable kid on the planet, especially in terms of celebrity interactions. I can understand one or two stunt casting episodes to draw viewers, but the way they used their three (!) celebrity guest appearances makes no sense for the context of the show. Why couldn’t they have Frankie Muniz play Ronnie, for fuck’s sake? That actor was god-awful and the Ronnie plotline was much more realistic than the Frankie Muniz one. Why was Steven Tyler a guest star on a show geared towards 9-to-14-year-olds? Why did the Aaron Carter episode happen at all?
The show doesn’t use its main cast particularly well, either. The fun, punk energy that Miranda’s costuming and Lalaine’s spunky performance seems to suggest doesn’t actually materialize in the scripts. There’s little to differentiate Miranda from Lizzie in season one, but by season two they mostly solved that by making Miranda more “troubled” than Lizzie, with downer plotlines about shoplifting and anorexia. The very last episode was the first one to make me really understand and appreciate Miranda and Lizzie’s friendship, and I’m sad we didn’t get more of them being girly and goofy and fun without Gordo around to snark on it. Fucking Gordo, man. What a disappointment he turned out to be. Gordo is petty, condescending, stubborn, and petulant… except in episodes where he’s depicted as a lovesick sadsack just hopin’ to get the girl. I mentioned above that the Lizzie/Gordo tension fluctuated wildly, but one would think that the characterization of Lizzie’s best friend would at least remain consistently positive. But Gordo is often the most infuriating character on the show! Gordo is Lizzie’s oldest friend and eventual love interest, but actual Gordo plotlines include Lizzie being afraid to talk to him lest he blow up at her or Lizzie pretending to lose a challenge to make Gordo feel better about himself. It’s just depressing. Elsewhere, two capable performers are mostly squandered as Lizzie’s parents, and a gifted child actor was relegated to obnoxious, grating bits. Matt’s character was probably intended to captivate younger kids, but my brothers were about Matt’s age when this aired and we all hated him.
Overall, the show just never quite came together. The jokes were never particularly funny. A lot of episodes felt like fluff or filler. The central will they/won’t they barely existed. It had some intriguing moments and production elements, but it was pretty weak as a whole.
So here we are at the almost-end. I’ve devoted about a year and a half to yelling at this show, but I don’t know that I’ll be able to convince anyone who loved it that Lizzie McGuire was bad. If it hit you at the right time, it tapped into something strong and real in your heart. But if I got some readers to realize that Gordo was actually the fucking worst, then this project was worth it.