I am just old enough for High School Musical to have been a threat to my personal dignity. Kenny Ortega’s kiddie megafranchise, which debuted January 2006, juggernauted into cultural relevance just as I turned 17 — frankly, only three years after Disney Channel ceased being the white noise of my everyday existence. I saw vulgarity in HSM‘s plastic funk and robotic pop, its earnest romance and “follow your dreams” hamminess. You see, I was far too mature and alternative for HSM‘s chintzy charms. I recall eye-rolling aplenty while babysitting my little cousins the summer before freshman year of college, bravely enduring the film’s ubiquitous cable repetitions.
Fourteen years later, this same recoiling mechanism seemingly propels my knee-jerk sneering toward Ortega’s new fantasy musical dramedy Julie and the Phantoms, an elevated (and sometimes existential) tween show that clearly has an ample budget for slick cinematography, but still maintains the flavor of a trite multi-cam sitcom. Indeed, the half-hour show, like its three teen punker ghosts imprisoned inside their own 25-year-old demo CD, is a Disney Channel showbiz comedy trapped inside a Netflix prestige project. But with an infectious guitar-infused pop soundtrack and a goofy-cute trio of kindly Emo Ken spirits to drive the fun, nine-episode Julie and the Phantoms rises from kiddie shlock to buoyant family entertainment.
The mid-2000s launched a tidal wave of children’s TV focused on the fantasies of fame and stardom: Hannah Montana, Victorious, Shake it Up, Sonny with a Chance, Austin & Ally, iCarly, Bizaardvark, The Naked Brothers Band, School of Rock, How to Rock, Big Time Rush, Jonas, Coop & Cami Ask the World, Game Shakers and True Jackson, VP, just to name the majors. This obsession with premature success and precocious performativity, spurred by the real-life advent of vlogging, DIY musical careers and self-esteem boosting clicks, made once-in-a-lifetime celebrity positively ordinary to young viewers. Maybe it’s not enough to be a glittering teen pop star anymore, however, because Julie and the Phantoms, adapted from a 2011 Brazilian kids’ series, has larger issues to contend with: namely, life and death.
Baby-faced teen singer-songwriter Julie (Madison Reyes) has the talent but lost the desire. Since her mom died not too long ago, she’s been drifting in a fog of dense grief and vanished motivation — music-making was their shared passion, so she can barely bring herself to open her mouth anymore, let alone sing. Recently kicked out of her high school’s music program for bailing, yet again, on a public performance, withdrawn and moody Julie is ready to excise music from her life completely.
But while cleaning out her mom’s music studio, she chances upon an old rock CD out of which spring three dead pop-punk teens who croaked the night before their big debut at L.A.’s Orpheum Theatre. (Their murderers? Three contaminated hot dogs they bought out of some alleyway car trunk.) The affable boys, three-quarters of a Green Day-lite 90s outfit called Sunset Curve, are barely distinguishable from each other, but their dopey banter pairs well with Julie’s hormonal scorn.
Luke (Charlie Gillespie), the flannel-clad brunet lead singer, is the group’s ambitious heartthrob. Blond drummer Alex (Owen Joyner), sporting a surfer-dude mane, is the most unnerved by their ambiguous place in the afterlife. Leather jacketed bassist Reggie (Jeremy Shada) can’t help but spit out snappy retorts. Edgy mid-90s alt-rockers? Hardly. But they are delightful. (“Dude, you’re a ghost, just poof out.” “Don’t tell me how to ghost!”) Eventually, they reinvigorate Julie’s confidence and invite her to join the band.
Uh, wait, what? The conceit’s rules: Only Julie can see the boys… except when they’re playing music together. Immediately, Julie’s meek solo performances turn into jubilant spectacles (complete with, I suppose, phantom instruments) — until the minute the songs are over, when the boys disappear from everyone else’s view again. She explains them away as her “hologram band.” Luke, Alex and Reggie have some limited real-world tactile ability, but otherwise a good portion of the show’s humors stem from “lifers” unknowingly walking through their ephemeral bodies. Unsurprisingly, these metaphysical laws only benefit the plot and do not serve a larger narrational or thematic purpose.
Hijinks ensue, naturally. Alex soon meets an endearing skaterghost/love interest (Booboo Stewart) who nearly traffics Sunset Curve to a sinister spectral magician (Cheyenne Jackson) seeking to enslave them at his supernatural nightclub. In the meantime, the boys pursue their inevitable “unfinished business”: here, their living fourth band member, who fueled a popular musical career plagiarizing Luke’s original songs. All the while, Julie deals with empty crushes and fragile best friendships. (In terms of realism, I was more incredulous that the high school provides endless gigs for Julie and her pop star wannabe rival to compete over than I was about the literal ghost concerts.)
Without the bubbly pop-rock score by songwriters like Doug Rockwell and Tova Litvin, among others, I don’t know if Julie and the Phantoms would surpass phantasmal predecessors like 1997 TGIF fiasco Teen Angel, about a boy whose dead BFF serves as his guardian angel. (Is there much functional difference between an angel and a ghost?) Julie’s world is lightly sketched instead of fully drawn: Her bestie Flynn (Jadah Marie) is merely a hype woman; her dad (Carlos Ponce) is barely present; her foil (Savannah Lee May) is another mean girl stereotype. But it’s hard to be craggy watching newcomer Reyes belt a percussive, guitar-powered ballad. Her prodigious voice keeps you bopping along, even if the mischief starts to drag.
One of the show’s best sequences features Jackson attempting to lure Sunset Curve into bondage with a dazzling big-band number “The Other Side of Hollywood,” complete with feathered showgirls and ominous swagger. Jackson expertly blends camp, creepiness and genuine enthusiasm in his role as a flashy showman. He, alongside Reyes, who’s still developing her acting skills but nails the musical set-ups, both lend the sitcom gravitas. In the joyful drumline-infused “I Got the Music,” Reyes’ curls fly free as she canters through the school during a fantasy number, introverted Julie imagining herself in a rainbow of sequins and confetti rocking out with her adoring classmates.
The boys spend some time confronting their long-past mortality, but Julie’s sorrow over her mother’s passing anchors the story more than the untimely deaths of its actual on-screen characters. Thus, the pathos comes off as mere sentimentalism. I don’t have a lot of patience for dusty “stand tall!” platitudes, but hot dog McGuffins will get me every time.
Cast: Madison Reyes, Charlie Gillespie, Owen Joyner, Jeremy Shada, Jadah Marie, Booboo Stewart, Cheyenne Jackson, Carlos Ponce, Savannah Lee May
Creator: Kenny Ortega
Showrunners: Dan Cross and David Hoge
Premieres: Thursday, September 10th (Netflix)