What defines a Disney Plus original? With the upcoming “Love, Victor” (née “Love, Simon”) moving from the nascent streaming platform to its older sister service, Hulu, and “Lizzie McGuire” regressing to development mode, what constitutes “family friendly” — a key component of Disney Plus’ overall proposition — has become a recurring a question mark.
The head-scratching started two weeks ago, prompted by the news about “Love, Victor,” which centers on a gay teenager figuring out life at a new high school while dealing with challenges at home. It immediately provoked whispers about whether the streamer’s definition of “family friendly” excluded LGBTQ storylines.
“I think they have concerns about how to present LGBTQ stories and themes,” said a top agent who works frequently with the service. “Certainly, in the modern era, family friendly values have to include room for LGBTQ characters, and obviously sexuality is part of exploring that.”
Those familiar with the situation are quick to dismiss the idea that featuring a gay teen romance had anything to do with it. Becky Albertalli, author of the book that the film “Love, Simon” was based on, tweeted that “Disney knew what it was when they got it,” and asked viewers to “give Disney the benefit of the doubt.”
That said, I completely get why many of us are wary of phrases like “mature content” and “adult themes.” They’re so often used as homophobic dog whistles, and these concerns are so valid.
But in this case, I do hope you’ll give Disney the benefit of the doubt.
— Becky Albertalli Updates (@beckyalbertalli) February 25, 2020
The issue, one source tells Variety, is that the lighthearted series was a good fit for the streamer when it was initially pitched, before the storyline soon drifted into more grown-up territory, depicting underage alcohol use among minors and parental marital troubles — as well as sexual exploration.
Notably, Disney Plus has not shied away from including LGBTQ content on its platform, including in its original productions. In an episode of Disney’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” one teen boy, Carlos, asks out another, Seb, to homecoming, where they share a dance. And an episode of another original, Marvel’s “The Hero Project,” focuses on a young transgender activist, Rebekah, who advocates for trans rights and inspires other trans youth nationwide. Then there are stories from the vault, such as the 2019 episode of the third season of Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack,” in which middle schooler Cyrus comes out to his friend Jonah.
Sources outside of the company stress to Variety that the executives behind Disney Plus programming are progressive, but have to be conscious of the Disney brand — which, generally speaking, is squeaky clean, light on grit, and mostly asexual.
“They’re being as bold as they can,” said one industry insider. “I think the executives there are hungry to be progressive to the extent they’re allowed.”
Multiple sources said Disney Plus is still sharpening the parameters for original series, particularly since the streamer houses a coveted, but very wide-ranging, set of properties from Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar, National Geographic and the flagship Disney brand, as well as titles from 20th Century Fox. They are often touted as complementary and part of a holistic “family friendly” package, though each studio’s programming is listed under separate “brand tiles” on the platform (except for Fox).
Combining so many brands on one service means that a deep well of shows and movies are available to audiences. It also means that 30 irreverent seasons of 20th Century Fox’s “The Simpsons” now share the same digital home as Disney Junior toy healer “Doc McStuffins,” fraying the edges of any desired comprehensive wholesomeness.
When it comes to creating new programming for the service, there has been internal debate on what a Disney Plus series looks like, exactly. And it is said that executives involved with the streaming service have limited authority over the creative processes at Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel.
“The filter of ‘What is a Disney [Plus] show?’ was very, very hard to agree upon for all of the different chieftains of the fiefdoms of the Disney empire,” says the agency source.
Disney declined to officially comment. Sources say its Disney-branded originals on the platform are intended to be an “elevated” version of its just-for-kids Disney Channel shows.
But it remains unclear how far series creators are allowed to push when developing originals for that flagship Disney portal, which do not feature any gun-slinging Mandalorians or angry Hulks, but “Glee”-lite high schoolers and pre-teens optimistic about the future.
The whispers around “Love, Victor” turned to louder rumblings when Hilary Duff offered pointed commentary on the series’ move to Hulu. Posting a screengrab of a headline noting the reasons for the shift on the ephemeral blink-and-it’s-gone Instagram Stories platform, she circled the words “family friendly” and noted that it “sounds familiar.”
Duff’s show, a revival of early aughts Disney Channel favorite “Lizzie McGuire,” had just a month earlier undergone a shakeup, when creator and showrunner Terri Minsky (who also created “Andi Mack”) was ousted after two episodes had already been produced.
The show is now in re-development, as Disney Plus tries to hit what it believes is the right tone for the platform. While a source close to the matter says “Lizzie” is still very much so attached to Disney Plus, Duff has publicly implored the streamer to let go of the series in a manner akin to “Love, Victor” and “High Fidelity.”
“I’d be doing a disservice to everyone by limiting the realities of a 30 year old’s journey to live under the ceiling of a PG rating,” Duff wrote in a separate Instagram post. “It’s important to me that just as her experiences as a preteen/teenager navigating life were authentic, her next chapters are equally as real and relatable. It would be a dream if Disney would let us move the show to Hulu, if they were interested, and I could bring this beloved character to life again.”
Hulu’s “High Fidelity,” like “Love, Victor,” was initially envisioned as a lighter, less adult romp for Disney Plus viewers. But bringing on board Zoe Kravitz as a lead and executive producer brought the series to a darker, decidedly un-Disney Plus place. She called “Sex and the City” a big influence, and said she was “very involved in writing, casting, editing, marketing, set design, everything” of her new show.
“I’ve always been drawn to the kinds of stories that revolve around people stuck in a place and the things they talk about, because it felt like what I do with my friends,” Kravitz previously told Variety. “You sit around, you smoke weed, you talk about movies, you argue about characters and actors and music. That’s some of my favorite shit to do.”
Tonally, Disney Plus is looking for more “Mary Tyler Moore” than “Sex in the City.” And drugs and alcohol are huge no-nos for Disney originals on the service. One source familiar with production of shows for the service says that in scenes that involve drinking, only water bottles and opaque drinking containers can be used.
Over on Hulu, that isn’t much of a concern. Much of “High Fidelity” takes place at a bar, where its 20- and 30-something characters drink openly and often. That’s more in line with real life, in Kravitz’s view.
“Making the show feel authentic was the most important thing to me and that requires me to have my hands on everything, because it all contributes to the look and the feel and the authenticity of the show,” she said. “This show may have given me a few grey hairs, but I think it was worth it.”