A long time ago, Walt Disney chose a mouse as an avatar, put him on a Steam Boat, and then he let the stories tell themselves. And the world loved it, by the way. The last time I was in a Disney store, I could buy Mouse Coffee, Mouse Ears, and, tellingly, a Mouse Toiler Paper Holder.
It makes some sort of logical sense that eventually, through the distorting lens of time, the mice would become human again, change the avatar reference to “rats”, and a Disney company would make a show about it.
That show is Lab Rats, and watching it sort of felt like watching television with a toddler, if the toddler had the remote, and only wanted to watch the brightest images on TV.
Here’s the premise of the show, thoughtfully provided for us by Wikipedia: Siblings Chase, Adam, and Bree are high tech bionic teens who are part of a top secret development for the military. They each have unique special skills – Chase is most intelligent, Adam has the most strength and has heat vision, and Bree is the quickest. Their creator, hi-tech inventor Donald Davenport, keeps them in a secret lab isolated from the world. But when the three end up sneaking off to spend a day at school, they realize there is more to life and begin to question their willingness to be nothing more than military weapons.
The reality of the pilot episode is quite different. But more on that later.
I have not watched a Disney television show in a long, long time. I know they exist, and Hannah Montana, the Suite Life of Zack and Cody and the Wizards of Waverly Place are all huge hits. I also know that many television shows have bizarre elements, and the television shows aimed at children usually have the MOST bizarre elements. Like Nickelodeon’s sentient sponge show, or Hannah Barbera’s old stone age wife swap comedy.
I clicked on Lab Rats partly because it was free on iTunes and I love the shows that are free on iTunes, and also partly because the publicity image of the show looked too strange to pass up: a backwards leaning “cool kid” is resting on a kid in a tube, and that tube is causing a domino effect into two other tubes. I thought, like the premises suggests, that this kid would meet these 3 superheroes at school.
That’s not what happens.
Instead, the episode opens on Hal Sparks bringing his New Wife (played by Angel Parker, but I’m going to refer to her as New Wife because it heightens how weird this show is) and her son, Leo, to his house for the first time. They have JUST gotten married, and both mother and son have never seen his house before. New Wife and Leo meet the house, which is voiced by Will Forte and shown as a Mac Icon reject, when Leo falls backward accidentally. The show quickly reveals Hal Sparks as a man child, with a room full of toys and video games that is NOT Leo’s. Leo sets off to find his room, only to fall backward accidentally (sense a theme?) and open an elevator that plummets hundreds of feet underneath the house. That’s how Leo meets the 3 siblings, who are fighting with their super powers until Leo falls backward accidentally (yep. for the third time.) and reveals himself. He screams, and his mom comes down to the basement, where Hal Sparks reveals that he has created these three children, and then kept them a secret. New Wife can charitably be described as “not amused,” and uncharitably described as “not nearly as flabbergasted and horrified as she should be.”
There are so many strange things crammed into the 22 minutes of this pilot episode. If I listed them all, it would be as long as the pilot itself. So here’s 3.
1. Leo, who is a black child, plays against sitcom trope and reveals himself to be bad at basketball. The strongest sibling bodily throws him, holding the basketball, at the backboard, and Leo scores. Everyone suddenly decides Leo “has game.”
2. At the “crazy” high school party, Leo tells everybody to get “sexy.” The two boy super siblings eat cake and act like they are both drunk and high.
3. The 3 characters are fed in their chambers, and they are fed pellets. The pellets rain down on them, and they open their mouths and catch the food in their mouths. It’s hard to describe, but it’s exactly as weird as you think it is.
I’ve probably spent far too long thinking about this show. I’ve seen the pilot episode twice, once because it was free on iTunes, and twice, to make sure I wasn’t having some sort of fever dream.
Even after seeing it twice, I still don’t know what the show wants to be. It is not a superhero show, even though it could be. It’s not a comedy about marriage, or about high school. Every joke is either a sarcastic Leo remark or a visual gag with the three superhero siblings. The New Wife character is a terrible mom, and the Hal Sparks character is an egomaniac, referring to himself as “awesome” and a “genius.” And Leo has a problem with falling backwards.
Of course, the show isn’t unlikeable. The colors are bright, all the kids have perfect white smiles. Will Forte is in it, sort of. The sarcastic remarks and visual gags inch along at snail’s pace, so the jokes are easy to digest. But usually, the show isn’t funny. But it’s compelling, because it’s a show on television that doesn’t seem to care about the relationships between the characters at all. They are labeled “Dad” “Mom” and “Kid” but no one acts like their moniker. Leo is the most father-like figure on the show, constantly teaching the adults and Lab Rat Siblings lessons.
The version I watched was “Part 1″ of the two-part season premiere. The show is already on its 5th episode. I plan on watching the entire series, if only because I’m curious what tone the show finally settles on. See it for yourself, here (iTunes link).