FEARLESSRiOT SAYS: A Liv & Maddie Retrospective

March 24th, 2017; the day of the very emotional Rooney Family curtain call. About four years ago on July 19, 2013, Disney Channel premiered the live-action sitcom Liv & Maddie, a creation of John D. Beck and Ron Hart. The second Disney Channel show to focus primarily on a set of twins, assuming you count both shows in the The Suite Life Franchise as one show like I do, this show was distinct from its gender-swapped predecessor in a major way. Unlike Zack & Cody, who were played over six hilarious years by Dylan & Cole Sprouse, the titular siblings on this show were both played by one person.

It may sound extremely gimmicky, but Disney is no stranger to this concept; they previously explored it with the Parent Trap movies in 1961 and 1998 featuring Hayley Mills and Lindsay Lohan respectively. Therefore, lead actress Dove Cameron has entered a very exclusive hall of sorts in the Mouse House. While modern Disney Channel programs don’t really have a reputation for being high-quality television, often looked down upon even by those who grew up with the network, an argument could be made that the recently-ended sitcom is not only one of their better recent offerings, but deserves to be regarded alongside That’s So Raven and Lizzie McGuire as one of the best live-action offerings they’ve ever aired. I’ve briefly mentioned how decent this show was on this blog before, but with the show recently wrapping up for good, I want to get a little more detailed.

Like Zack and Cody, Olivia “Liv” Rooney and Madison “Maddie” Rooney are opposites personality-wise. One is a flashy, charismatic entertainer who left to Hollywood at a young age to follow her dreams and returns home in the first episode after the show that made her famous (Sing It Loud, which she always, ALWAYS sings) wraps up. The other is an athlete who honed her basketball skills and led a normal life in Wisconsin, coincidentally also the home state of Sonny Monroe. I wonder if they’ve ever met. In order to fulfill the concept of one person playing multiple characters with different personalities on a TV show, a very skilled actress would have to be up to the task, even if the bar for acting on a show aimed at children and tweens isn’t particularly high.

When this show started, Dove Cameron was a 17-year old actress who’d been an aspiring performer from a very young age, but possessed very few credits to her name. A couple of episodes of Shameless, a cameo on The Mentalist, and a role on the short-lived Malibu Country. Pretty much your usual dues-paying cameo resume for a young rising star. Despite this, she was trusted with the lead roles on this show; needless to say they ended up being the roles of a lifetime and she went above and beyond the standards expected. Her use of different voice inflections and mannerisms for the characters, along with the contrast in wardrobe and even a few minor touches some viewers may not have noticed effectively make you believe they’re two different people. Even in scenes where the twins interact and it’s virtually her acting alongside herself with a split-screen (or her stunt doubles), her performances make it seem so effortless to portray them as opposites.

Some earlier episodes, especially the very first one, showed Liv to be a little spoiled and clueless, no surprise given that she’s spent years away from her family as an adored celebrity. But in doing so, the seeds were planted for her readjustment to a normal life and a reconnection with her family. Her progress into a more thoughtful, relatable character is increasingly evident; she retained her girly-girl fashionista demeanor throughout, but challenged any attempt to pigeonhole her into being just that. Refusing to be typecasted when returning to acting into being seen as just Stephanie Einstein, she branched out with Voltage and Space Werewolves and led by example to encourage other women to exceed expectations set for them. And though her more stubborn tendencies have still crept in on-occasion when helping others, she always manages to remain focused on coming through for whoever she’s helping. This takes nothing away from Maddie, who is far from complacent as a character. Though a generally kind tomboy (and closet geek), her athletic nature causes her to also show off a really competitive side. Whether it’s basketball, tic-tac-toe; really anything, Mad Dog Rooney plays to win. She’s driven, hard-working, and hopes that her skills will get her far in life. She also appears to be the character who has the biggest influence on Liv outside of their mom as the connection Maddie has with Liv usually influences a number of her slightly older twins’ decisions. After all, “Sisters By Chance, Friends By Choice” isn’t just a catchy slogan; there’s meaning behind it.

When I mention the influence of the matriarch of the family, I’m alluding to something I noticed recently. Liv and Maddie both seem to have scenes with one parent more than the other. More often than not, Liv interacts with mother Karen (Kali Rocha) while Maddie usually spends time with her father Pete (Benjamin King). Not trying to imply biases or anything, but I do wonder whether or not this was done consciously by the showrunners or is merely coincidence. Whatever the case, the bonds they have to the parents they’re seen most interacting with make perfect sense due to the similar personality alignments at play. Like Liv, Karen shows interest and talent in entertainment. She play the flute in Band-A-Rooney, referenced her love of the show Downton Abbey in Sleep-A-Rooney and Steal-A-Rooney, got hooked on a video game in Muffler-a-Rooney, and dipped her toe into modeling, acting, and flag-dancing in the final season. Maddie’s connection with her father definitely stems from their shared love of sports; Pete coaches the school’s basketball team and presumably has taught Maddie everything she knows about the game. Any time Maddie has any doubts or questions regarding basketball or even her future, her father is there for her with the advice she needs to hear.

And what is a Disney sitcom without siblings? Specifically either the on-the-surface dork (Jackson Stewart, Justin Russo, Lois Stevens) or the secretly-genius little sibling (Pim Duffy, Cory Baxter, Matt McGuire). Liv & Maddie has both and they both bring a lot to the table. Joey Bragg’s role doesn’t differ much from his Fred 3 role; Joseph “Joey” Gilligan Rooney‘s love for dragons, kitten shirts, and dodging Willow are not to be held down. Parker “Middle Name Unknown” Rooney (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), meanwhile, is an adventurous genius who is as handy with a shovel as he is with technology. They fall under the category of the typical Disney siblings mentioned earlier, but the hilarious quirks of the actors make them so fun to watch.

The supporting cast bring their own entertaining flare as well. Winifred “Willow” Cruz (Jessica Marie Garcia) is Maddie’s best friend who is also a stellar basketball player, but it’s her huge crush on Joey that makes for one of the show’s longest-running and most entertaining running gags. Maddie’s two love interests, aspiring sportscaster Diggie Smalls (Ryan McCartan) and fellow athlete Josh Willcox (Lucas Adams), contributed enough investment with the show’s fandom to create a shipping paradigm that climaxed in a highly-anticipated “Who Will She Choose?” episode. Holden Dippledorf (Jordan Fisher) is Liv’s charming crush, a fellow entertainer who she’s known since he jacked her Goodbye Puppy pen in 3rd grade. He’s made it clear time and again that the feeling is mutual and that he also has a thing for the young blonde. However, Holden is also romantically linked with Andie Bustamante (Victoria Moroles), Liv’s friend who is so tough that she’s the only female in a family with five other male siblings and she lived to tell the tale. Though they didn’t make it, she did rebound with Marion “Dump Truck” Truckberg (Shak Ghacha), a perceived troublemaker who has shown on more than one occasion there are definitely more layers to him than expected. Finally, there’s Joey’s incredibly over-the-top arch-rival Artie, who also has a crush on Liv that brings about some creepy, yet also amusing moments. While the bond of the Rooney family is strong, these supporting characters are definitely no slouches, managing to be hilarious in their own right and incredibly memorable in some cases. They manage to actually be interesting enough to invest in and want to see on screen time and time again rather than making you wonder why they were created in the first place.

Having sung the praises of the cast enough, what does it all add up to? Content-wise, what makes this show in-particular one of the modern Disney Channel shows worth remembering? Well, one consistent criticism of more recent Disney Channel sitcoms is that a lot of it appears to be lacking in actual life lessons and are mostly driven by musical numbers, mindless humor, and trendiness. Older Disney Channel audiences miss the days of more relatable characters like Raven Baxter, Lizzie McGuire, Alex Russo, or Zack and Cody. Hannah Montana may be fondly remembered, but the shows that were carved in its image afterward have been subject to criticism even by the network’s own former stars. Sure, questions can be raised about how believable shows about a teen psychic, a family of witches, and a family from the future are, no matter the actual quality. But the relatability of the characters, their situations, and some well-done humor made these characters watchable and lovable.

In short, these shows had a heart and charm to them. If any modern Disney Channel show had those two things woven into their fiber, it was this one. Granted it was not without its fair share of silly or outlandish moments; the Halloween episode featuring an alternate universe where a triplet named Olga exists, the send-up on ridiculous corporate pop songs with “Froyo Yolo”, and ANY TIME Liv or Maddie break out dances that would make even Taylor Swift and Mary J. Blige giggle come to mind as obvious examples. And yes, given that one of the main characters is a singer, we get plenty of songs out of the deal. But other times, they had more organic and casual storytelling at play. Right off the bat, there’s the lesson of remaining ground with your fame. Liv Rooney uses her celebrity for good whenever possible, including in the episodes I call the Liv & Maddie Anti-Sexism Trilogy. Once a season, they’d do an episode dedicated to fighting against sexism and gender norms. Team-a-Rooney gave us a glimpse of such activism, but Rate-A-Rooney, Ask Her More-A-Rooney, and Roll Model-a-Rooney went full-on featuring her wanting to show that the value of women goes beyond their physical appearances and that they shouldn’t have to be subjected to outdated stereotypes. That’s So Raven has a similar episode in it’s admittedly vast catalog of socially-conscious episodes and it’s often seen as the benchmark for live-action Disney Channel episodes with a message, and these could very well rank up there with them. Rate-A-Rooney especially drives the point home with probably the best song to come from this show, and it’s extended version featuring the late Christina Grimmie.

Along with their message of empowerment, there are also themes of selflessness when Maddie let’s Diggie go to accomplishment his humanitarian goals in Tundrabania. Liv also makes sacrifices, initially intending to forego a relationship with Holden so as not to ruin the friendship between her and Andie and later sacrifices her role on Voltage to spend more time with her family. This results in the biggest fight the twins ever have on the show, but the payoff is a solid lesson in forgiveness.  The girls are also given their own bouts with doubt and roads to redemption when Maddie breaks her leg in Space-Werewolf-a-Rooney and Liv comes dangerously close to losing her voice in Sing It Live!!!-a-Rooney, leaving their confidence shot and futures in jeopardy with the viewer cheering for their dreams to not come to an end. If anything on the show places an importance on understanding how unpredictable and troubling life can be at times and finding the strength to rise above, it’s those two stories.

They don’t even need to always rely on the twins for a decent storyline or episode. They barely even appear in Detention-A-Rooney with a sick note limiting their appearances, and the episode has to be carried by Joey, Parker, and Artie, and it was kind of an interesting experiment to give a go. Speaking of experiments, Joey’s reinvention into the mysterious Dump Truck-inspired Falcon upon moving to California is an entertaining way to add to the theme of trying new things and playing around with identity. This after he and Willow finally got together after the latter’s seasons-long pursuit of love from her crush, in one of the show’s most unforgettable and long anticipated moments.

After four years of solid storytelling, it all came down to one final grand finale. The final episode follows the Rooney kids as their lives take them all in different directions as their inevitable future come calling. For Liv, her journey is coming full circle; she starts the show returning home and ends the show having to leave them behind again. But for the other Rooney siblings, they’re entering into new, unknown territory with only the wisdom and guidance they’ve gained from their family, friends, and one another to lead the way. In between the deeply emotional moments, they make sure to throw in a few laughs and clever moments, such as the hilarious and sensible explanation for the docu-series format of the show where characters talk to the camera. By the time the final four minutes roll around and we hear “Better in Stereo” one final time, it will be a struggle to not shed at least a single tear.

Opinions when it comes to entertainment can be as varied as a buffet; not everyone will enjoy the same things. If this show isn’t someone’s cup of tea or they just have a preferred bias for the Disney Channel shows of yesteryear, that’s totally acceptable. But the point of this post is to make the case that over it’s four-year, 80 episode run, Liv & Maddie has proven that it’s definitely worthy of a chance and shouldn’t be regarded as just another tween show. Mysteriously, it was snubbed out of WatchMojo’s recent list of the Top 10 Disney Channel Sitcoms, failing to receive even an honorable mention. It wouldn’t have been out of place had it been included though. The heart that was woven into it pumped life into a show filled out with enough charming performances, positive vibes, entertaining moments, and encouraging messages that it’s value can be appreciated even beyond its target demographic. Not saying it was particularly groundbreaking or anything, but it gave viewers many laughs and a few tears along the way better than most other modern shows of it’s kind, and it also gave us an actress worthy of being consider one to watch; a multi-talented star worthy of a bright future that’s already off to a promising start.  If you haven’t watched it, give it a binge on NetFlix and you might be pleasantly surprised by the show about the girls who are sisters by chance, friends by choice. I know I was.

OK, one more time for the folks, Maddie.

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