Last month Disney Channel renewed for a third season tween series Andi Mack, which has addressed topics including life in a military family, an authentic bar mitzvah and the network’s first coming-out story. This week, creator Terri Minsky (who was also behind the network’s hit Lizzie McGuire) talks with CynKids about how the show keeps pace with an increasingly sophisticated audience. Season 3 is slated to debut in late 2018.
Terri Minsky: I’ve never worked season three of anything, so I’m very excited. I‘m hyper aware of the fact that you have to keep moving or you die. It has to continue to have momentum, so that’s why we expanded out into other stories like Buffy’s family and things going on with Cyrus. And of course we want to keep exploring that mother-daughter dynamic.
CK: Does it feel like a freer time to explore family and friendship dynamics than it was during the Lizzie McGuire days?
TM: I think of recent TV as sort of being divided into two periods: pre-season 9, episode 1 of Game of Thrones, and post season 9, episode 1 of Game of Thrones. That, to me, was a game changer because they took the audience into this very deep expectation and then went the other way. When I saw that I was kind of, Oh my God, that is an incredible thing to do to an audience. It stayed with me. I don’t think a spoiler anymore to say they cut off Ned Stark’s head but when they cut off Ned Stark’s head it was all different.
CK: Did that give you a different level of permission in how you approach storytelling in Andi Mack?
TM: Yeah. Not only can we, but now we have an obligation to surprise the audience. I worked in multi-cam sitcoms for a long time and there definitely is a formula. And that formula works, and people have done great things with that formula. But you don’t want the audience to be ahead of you, ever. That’s what I’m trying to do, stay ahead of a really smart audience. The subjects have to be surprising and unexpected, Disney has been a great partner in terms of really letting just do things they had not done in the past. I’m constantly in conversation with the network. They’re the audience we can’t surprise, and it requires a partnership and a high level of trust.
CK: The tween audience is getting more sophisticated by the day, it seems.
TM: They’re growing up fast; unfortunately, they have had to. I do want to keep pace with them, but that’s tough too because of how fast they’re growing up. Many times when we’re sitting in the writing room and suggesting stories, it’s like, You know what, I’m not going to do the school election, I’m not sure I’m ever going to do a prom. I can’t do the things every single coming of age show has done unless I figure out a way to do it differently and take it in an unexpected direction. Because it feel like that ground has been covered, by Lizzie McGuire, by the way. We have flattened all the live plats growing on it, and we have to keep going and finding new territory.
CK: Among the territory you’ve covered this past season are life in a military family, a gay character coming out and an authentic bar mitzvah. Authenticity seems to be a big trademark for you. Is that where you start?
As far as the LGBT thing went, it was just the reality in my own home. My daughters have a number of close friends who are LGBT, kids who had known they were LGBT and had been dealing with their sexual identity many years. My kids went to a New York City private school, so it was no big deal to them. But the real goal, for everyone, is to get to the point where you can sit across the table from your friend and not be scared. So I feel like we had to at least take that first step. This next generation of kids, when they are writing television shows, this [topic] isn’t going to be on this fragile level. But for now it’s still hard, it still isn’t fully recognized or accepted. And I think if it’s on television, that will make a difference. If you have a 13-year-old boy saying, “I have a crush on a boy,” every boy out there who has a crush on a boy and still watches the Disney Channel wouldn’t have to feel like that’s weird and wrong. That’s what I want. I want people to see themselves and think that’s an amazing experience.
CK: Your characters tend to be multidimensional.
TM: Multidimensional is very important to me. We introduced this character TJ, who was seen originally as kind of the jerk captain of the basketball team. But then you find out he has a learning disability so now he seems vulnerable. My goal with that character specifically was to start him at beginning of season 2 with the audience hating him, and by end of season 2 loving him. I didn’t want to do a “very special” episode about learning disabilities, I wanted it to be one part of him, and how he deals with it in his life.
CK: Are there other topics that you’re interested in exploring?
TM: A lot of people in our writing room had experiences with panic attacks from a very young age, and we were discussing how scary it was to have to deal with. It’s a lot. It’s your body betraying you. You’re in some situation and suddenly you can’t breathe and you’re sweating. We actually put a panic attack in an episode with Cyrus—we like to do these great movie moments and we thought, let’s have Cyrus do the Albert Brooks movie moment [from Defending Your Life] where we starts sweating. So when we started researching and writing for Jonah, we realized we already had a panic attack in an episode, we just didn’t identify it as that. So when Jonah starts having them and doesn’t want his friends to know, we were able to remind people this wasn’t the first time they’d seen a panic attack on the show.
CK: And of course there was Cyrus’ bar mitzvah…
TM: There’s a lot of Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween episodes that have been beautifully done. What hasn’t been done? What can we do that’s specific to this family? Chinese New Year was obvious, and Cyrus’ bar mitzvah—that’s something right out of my life. If it comes from reality, you’re covered.
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