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Art & Entertainment, Good Culture

Unpacking 'Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV'


The new documentary series “Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV” chronicles the years of abuse and exploitation that occurred behind the scenes of popular Nickelodeon shows in the 1990s-2010. The documentary focuses on “Nickelodeon's Golden Boy” Dan Schneider, producer of so many hit shows of the era like The Amanda Show, iCarly” and Drake & Josh and visionary behind the success of child stars like Amanda Bynes, Ariana Grande, and Drake Bell. In the series, we hear first-hand stories from writers and directors about the abusive work environment of the network which invited a cluster of sexual predators onto its sets.

As these stories come to the surface, it is hard not to draw a parallel to the #MeToo movement and ask now, as many of us asked then: how could such a thing happen for so many years with so many witnesses without any consequences?

The sad answer to this question may be a case of diffusion of responsibility, which seems to go hand in hand with corruption in Hollywood. As shocking as the stories of abuse in the docu-series are, what is almost more striking is the number of people who saw something strange going on but did not say anything for fear of losing their big break.

Jenny Kilgen, writer on The Amanda Show, remembers thinking to herself: “Don’t be a complainer. Do whatever you have to do to get this job.” Similarly, the mother of Amanda Show actress Brandi considered calling the police after her daughter was sent a naked picture by an adult male cast member but ultimately decided against it.

It’s easy to judge in hindsight, but let’s not forget that this was before #MeToo had set the precedent for calling out people in positions of power in Hollywood. It was also the 90s, a time when the fantasy of early Hollywood was still going strong in the American imagination. Not only was there a fear of speaking out, but also a distinct innocence and hopefulness surrounding the industry. Dan Schneider took the idea of a big Hollywood break and, for the first time in history, made that dream seem attainable—and like a whirlwind of fun—for children. As is clear from the docu-series interviews, Schneider inspired an entire generation of children and their parents to entertain the idea that they could be the next Amanda Bynes or Drake Bell, complete with red carpet interviews and all the slime they could handle.

As a response to the allegations made by the docu-series, Schneider, in an interview hosted by Boog!e, states that many of his inappropriate actions of the past “would never have been done today.” Although this fact doesn’t absolve Schneider of personal accountability, in a way he is right. It is hard to imagine a modern-day director getting away with asking a female writer to bend over the desk and pantomime being sodomized while she pitches her idea to the writers room, as was one of Schneider’s many “pranks” in the writers room. Why did directors and execs in the 90s and early-aughts do such awful things? The answer is more simple than many of us would like to admit: because they could.

There is yet another piece of this story that is uniquely unsettling, which is that much of the abuse did not just occur behind the scenes. The docu-series also features a wealth of footage from these kids’ shows which in retrospect seems blatantly sexual, but was aired on TV and enjoyed by families across America. These “in plain sight” moments include 16-year-old Ariana Grande laying upside down on a bed and dumping a water bottle onto her face, teenage Leon Frierson wearing a suit with phallus-shaped “noses” that “sneeze” gooey liquid onto his co-star, and many more unsettling scenes.

This is all from shows that were meant to be part of a network “by kids and for kids,” which causes anyone in their right mind to wonder: how the hell was any of this passed? Still, maybe the better question is: why was it a hit?

Though disturbing to watch back now, there was a time when these shows were embraced by parents and children alike. I remember watching iCarly and Drake & Josh with my whole family—part of the appeal of these shows was that there were little jokes in there for everyone. There really was just an extra something special in a Dan Schneider production, and in hindsight, it seems like this secret ingredient may well have been its sexual undertones. As kids, I think we were drawn to Nickelodeon the way kids are drawn to all things they secretly know are slightly wrong for them. What is it that was so exciting about watching someone get “slimed” with gooey liquid? What could it have possibly been that kept our eyes so glued to the screen as Ariana Grande “juiced” a potato? The reality is that Dan Schneider didn't create the interest in children’s entertainment with latent sexual content; he harnessed it in a way no one had the audacity to do before him.

And it wasn’t just kids who were hooked. It is clear from the dozens of interviews with Amanda Bynes at the time how fascinated the adult interviewers and audiences were with her youth, and how easily they laughed with delight at her delivering a joke with an innuendo too advanced for her age. Once again, the child star was not a phenomenon that was pushed upon the public; it gained traction only because it satiated a certain hunger at the time.

And so the thing that is hardest to stomach about all of this is that Dan Schneider's perversion also reflects a perversion shared by the culture around him. We can catch individual predators, but what is to be done about the culture that creates and protects them? As much as the #MeToo movement has accomplished in terms of taking down abusers, has it gotten at the roots of this parasitic hunger for youth in Hollywood and its audiences? One could argue no. We’ve since seen more child stars come out of the machine, including Justin Bieber, Billie Eilish, and Olivia Rodrigo, each of whom has spoken out about the trouble being so young in the spotlight has brought their way.

On the other hand, it could also be argued that public sensibilities have actually evolved, and that the rogueness of the 90s is being replaced by a shared sense of shame and disgust that we all seem to feel when watching this footage back. In this way, we can be slightly more optimistic about the evolving ethics of stardom. If there is one note of hope to take from this docu-series, it is that at least the tides are shifting enough so that these conversations are being had rather than passing on as another open secret that looms behind the curtain.

#Dan_Schneider #Nickelodeon #Amanda_Bynes #Drake_Bell #Quiet_on_The_Set #Ariana_Grande