Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Sofia’s world

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Sofia the First

When you’ve gotten into the habit of seeing television as a source of hot takes and think pieces, it can be hard to turn that mindset off. Consider the case of Sofia the First. Of all the shows that my daughter watches these days, it’s by far her favorite, and its easy availability through Netflix and Disney Junior means that we absorb three or four episodes on an average morning. (Like most parents, I do what I can to keep screen time under control, but it isn’t easy: we’re at the point where I can only talk her into brushing her teeth and putting on her pajamas with the promise of a Taylor Swift video.) Most of her shows tend to blur into background noise, largely because I’ve already been up since before sunrise, but I’ve ended up watching Sofia more closely. And I like it. It’s a show that benefits from having the full resources of the massive Disney studio mustered on its behalf: as the gateway into the princess franchise for an entire generation of toddlers, it’s a crucial piece of that machine, and you can tell that a lot of time, money, and effort have gone into making it as appealing a product as possible. The animation is great, the songs are cute, and the writing is reasonably sharp, even as it remains pitched squarely toward the kindergarten crowd. When I sit down to watch it, I have a good time.

But the strange thing is that I also find myself thinking about it at odd moments throughout the day. The premise, if you aren’t familiar with it, is spelled out with admirable efficiency in the show’s theme song: Sofia was a village girl whose mother married the king of Enchancia, making her a princess overnight and giving her a new royal brother and sister. She has a magic amulet that lets her talk to animals, and which occasionally summons a princess from another movie to give her advice, although their input isn’t always particularly useful. (When Aurora from Sleeping Beauty turns up, you have to wonder what she has to teach anyone about anything, and her only tip is for Sofia to listen to her animal friends.) Her world is populated by the usual sorcerers and magical creatures, including, delightfully, Tim Gunn, more or less playing himself. And if this all sounds routine, it’s executed at a consistently high level, with a light touch and just enough wit to make it all very charming. The writers are clearly having fun with the material. They aren’t afraid to let Sofia herself come off as prissy or smug, and Amber, her stepsister, has become a fan favorite for obvious reasons: she’s vain, spoiled, and self-centered, but she’s also the closest thing we have to an audience surrogate, and she’s often the only one who sees the underlying ridiculousness of the situations in which she finds herself.

Sofia the First

Yet the fact that I’ve devoted this much thought to Sofia at all indicates how my feelings about television have changed. I don’t think it’s possible for me to watch a show casually anymore: everything has to fit into a larger picture, as if I’m pitching some imaginary article to Salon. My wife and I have debated class issues, or their absence, in the kingdom of Enchancia; unpacked the character arc of Cedric the Sorcerer; made fun of the general incompetence of King Roland; compared the series to the plot of The Royal We; and joked about writing a crossover with Game of Thrones. (Honestly, James shades into Joffrey so imperceptibly that it isn’t even funny.) But we’re also being sucked into the show on its own terms, even if we can’t simply enjoy it in the way my daughter does—we have to justify it to ourselves. We’re used to seeking out shows to talk about, rather than having them sneak up on us: sometimes it seems as if we watch most shows these days so that we won’t be left out of the conversation online, rather than the other way around. And if we talk about Sofia at length, it’s because we’ve been trained to talk about every show this way. Thanks to my daughter, we basically binge watch it every morning. And even after she’s gone to bed, there are times when I’m folding laundry or doing other chores around the living room and I have to almost physically restrain myself from putting on an episode.

Of course, there’s a reason I’m writing about Sofia the First here and not Strawberry Shortcake: I’ve learned to value quality wherever I find it, and the show is an excellent example of how a branding strategy can yield something like real storytelling, however slickly packaged and presented. But it also reminds me of something that I’ve lost. A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post in which I referred to television as a reviewable appliance, generating a steady stream of content to fill the voracious demands of online critics and readers. After reading—and occasionally writing—so much of it, I find it harder to relate to shows purely as entertainment. (It may also have something to do with the fact that I’ve watched nothing but appointment television for the last decade or so: it’s been a long time since I’ve tuned into something simply because it was on.) Sofia might seem like the quintessential example of Renata Adler called a work of art that “inevitably cannot bear, would even be misrepresented by, review in depth,” and although I doubt that this is what she meant, I do think that it deserves to be watched through a child’s eyes. And so do a lot of other shows. I might not gain much by seeing Sofia as my daughter would, but it might be healthier if I watched, say, Mad Men that way. As Sofia herself says in her theme song, there’s so much to learn and see. And I’ve got to figure out how to do it right.

Written by nevalalee

March 9, 2016 at 9:45 am

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