A.N.T. Farm

Credits

Cast

Network

Reviewer

Paul Asay

TV Series Review

High school can be tough. There are classes to attend, tests to take and peer groups to navigate—not to mention parties, drivers’ licenses, dances and dating. High school is a time of high anxiety, where a misplaced decimal point could get you an F in math and the smallest social misstep could get you booted from your lunch table.

And if you’re a foot shorter—and a few years younger—than most of your peers, if you just got the training wheels taken off your bike, well, that makes high school all the more difficult.

In Disney’s A.N.T. Farm, Chyna, Olive and Fletcher are middle schoolers in a high school world. After exhibiting some stellar abilities in a particular field (Chyna’s a musical maestro, Olive has photographic memory, Fletcher is an art prodigy), they were slapped into something called the Advanced Natural Talent Program—or A.N.T. for short. As part of that program, they’re sent to high school, where they’re expected to take special classes designed just for them … even as they mingle with the big kids.

While all this may sound like a recipe for a John Hughes movie gone horribly awry, Disney has turned the concept into its latest situation comedy—and a star-grooming vehicle for the very talented China Anne McClain.

China, who plays Chyna, is one of the Mouse House’s latest singing, dancing mini-Mileys, sure to soon grace lunchboxes and toothbrushes everywhere. And she’s flanked by considerable talent: Sierra McCormick (Olive), Jake Short (Fletcher) and the rest of the cast are pretty funny, which makes A.N.T. Farm ever-so-slightly more likeable than the standard Disney sitcom (some of which can feel a bit tired and predictable to this jaded reviewer). And while the show still feels very Disney, creator Dan Singer says that it’s stretching the artistic boundaries a bit.

“I think—early on—when the Disney Channel was first getting into sitcoms, you could take advantage of the fact that kids weren’t really all that familiar with the form,” Singer told jimhillmedia.com. “It was that much easier to entertain them back then. But now—thanks to the success of shows like  Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place—today’s kids are far more familiar with the sitcom formula. Which is why you now have to work that much harder to stay ahead of that audience. Put together plots that entertain and surprise them.”

In one episode, Chyna tries out for the high school cheerleading team—an experience which turns into an exercise in slapstick comedy. She’s thwacked with pom-poms and eventually thrown into the air to land in a basketball hoop, surreal physical humor more akin to Goofy than Hannah. And when she drags herself, bruised and bandaged, into the high school musical tryouts shortly after this debacle, she staggers up to the aghast director and unleashes an Elephant Man reference: “I am not a freak!” she grunts. “I am a human being!”

But the violence in this sequence—silly though it is—hints at some of the less-welcome departures A.N.T. Farm takes as well.

While Disney’s starlets have occasionally come under fire for straying from their squeaky-clean images, the sitcoms they’ve starred in have reliably been among television’s cleanest, most family-friendly programs. And while A.N.T. Farm is still less problematic than most shows you’ll see, it’s a little edgy for Disney. Boys and girls don’t just “like” each other: They use pickup lines and moves that they might’ve learned from watching too many ’70s movies. One student undoes a button on his shirt, for example, when he tries to introduce himself to a girl. Nor are scriptwriters averse to jotting down a poop joke or two.

Most of the adults, by the way, are no help at all. While Chyna seems to respect her policeman father, educators stand out only because they’re either clueless or devious—sometimes both. In one episode, the female principal dresses in a sexy schoolgirl outfit, something we might expect to see in an MTV video rather than a Disney sitcom.

All that makes A.N.T. Farm a bit of a disappointment. While Disney is still one of the safer places to visit in televisionland, it’s not completely pastoral anymore.

Episode Reviews

ANTFarm: 6242011

“PhANTom Locker”

Olive has a locker next to Chyna’s brother, Cameron, and she’s driving him a little crazy. But when he learns that Olive’s scared of ghosts, he tells her that her locker sits above a tiny ancient burial ground and is haunted.

Principal Skidmore commissions Fletcher to paint her portrait—for no pay, of course. She describes the A.N.T. Farm as being “like a sweatshop, only we have smoke alarms.” Fletcher is horrified, however (as are we), when Skidmore arrives at the sitting in a sexually suggestive, torso-hugging schoolgirl outfit, complete with miniskirt and thigh-high stockings. She poses provocatively on a bicycle.

Another A.N.T. student tries to make a move on a fellow student, calling her a “hottie” and unbuttoning the top button of his shirt when he goes to talk with her. The “girl” turns out to be Fletcher in disguise. Cameron makes references to defecation. When Cameron shows up covered in glitter, Chyna asks him if a unicorn threw up on him. Someone gets a mouse trap snapped on his hands. Jokes encompass spit, horror movie violence, getting high on bus fumes and apparent ghostly ectoplasm.

ANTFarm: 6172011

“ParticipANTs”

The A.N.T. Farm kids sign up for extracurricular activities. Chyna and Olive try out for cheerleading, but only Chyna makes it. She’s then put through a brutal training regimen. She learns later that mean girl Lexi hoped to sabotage Chyna’s chances of getting a part in the high school musical.

Meanwhile, Fletcher joins the End Hunger Today club—but the club has only one member (Cameron), and club time is spent eating buffalo wings (thus ending his own hunger). Principal Skidmore uncovers the ruse, but is she upset because the club’s using school funds to buy wings? No. She just wants in.

Characters’ language doesn’t go beyond “gosh,” “darn” and “holy crabcakes.” But there’s comic violence and resulting injury (Chyna accidentally breaks a cheerleader’s nose), and a lovestruck boy redesigns the A.N.T. lounge to become a ’70s-era disco whenever Olive enters the room. Olive confesses that some nature programs show animals pooping.

Disney does squirrel away some morals here and there, including the value of friendship and the importance of giving your all. “My dad says if you really commit to something and do your best, you will never look like a fool,” Chyna tells Olive.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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