In rooting around for obvious antecedents to Life With Derek—a smart and agreeable Canadian import airing in the US on the Disney Channel – one stands out so glaringly in its obviousness that it’s almost not worth mentioning. But I’m going to anyway.
Blue-tiled tri-furcated opening sequence, featuring squared off family members? Check. Expository origin-story title song? Check. New blended family fused together from the fragments of previous divorce? Check. Girls with hair of gold, like their mother… um, not so much. But yes, gentle reader, I believe we are wandering into Brady territory.
Except, actually… not really. Sure, on the surface Life With Derek resembles the set up of the iconic cult ‘70s sitcom. Two divorcees, each with multiple children, marry and a new family is born. And the show does revolve, at least in the early going, around plot point in which the siblings try to get along in the face of this significant disruption to their previous lives. But there, really, the similarities end.
In style, attitude, and content, Life With Derek could not be further from the anachronistic (even at the time of airing), impossibly quaint and kitschy the story of a lovely lady married to a man named Brady. Chaotic, messy, loud and hewing close to a semblance of recognizable real world family life, Life With Derek resembles more a fusion of the similarly chaotic Malcolm in the Middle (though not as comically grotesque) and the late great Nick hit, Clarissa Explains It All.
The Derek (Michael Seater) of the title is the 15-year-old alpha dog among the kids on the father’s side of the family. Brash, inconsiderate and supremely selfish, he is set up to be the nemesis of show narrator Casey (Ashley Leggat), also 15, and the eldest of two daughters that the mother brings with her. Ostensibly the beleaguered heroine whom we are meant to identify with, Casey, who can be pleasant enough, is also a bit of a control freak and a priss. Though eternally vexed and beset by her boorish new step-brother, she often comes across as just as just as obnoxious in her anal-retention and her inability to just relax and go with the flow.
The initial sizing up, and subsequent mutual antagonisms, of Derek and Casey form a time-honored engine of antagonistic sibling rivalry, driving most of the show’s drama and hysterics. Much of the power struggle hinges on territorial disputes, as laid out in the opening episode, where the question over which eldest stepsibling will get the biggest bedroom opens hostilities (the solution – mom and dad will surrender the master bedroom to one of the kids, do over the basement, and basically cede the house to the children). From there, the war spreads to questions of manners, decoration and organization, with Casey singlehandedly trying to mold the new house – and her new family—in her image, and Derek mustering the forces of his younger brother and sister against this outside threat.
Though mostly entertaining (because of the winningness of the cast), these early episodes are similarly tired and predictable. About halfway through the first season, though, Life With Derek shows a marked uptick in quality and, if not exactly originality, then a willingness to not conform to expected patterns.
The chinks in Casey’s armor begin to show in the episode “Grade-Point: Average”, in which, tired of being teased as a “grubber” (harassing teachers for additional points on already highly scored tests), she decides to sabotage her schoolwork to better fit in. Saddled with working with Derek on a school project, she realizes she has stumbled in to the perfect situation to lose her reputation and sink her grade. Derek, on the other hand, needs a high grade to pass the class, and seizes upon the opportunity to have Casey fight for every point she can, to his benefit. Hi-jinks ensue, as does valuable lesson learning. And we finally see Casey get down off her high horse without actually getting a comeuppance (which wouldn’t really fit with the show).
In the excellent “Babe Raider”, Casey wages a war of militant feminist politics (both at home and at school) against Derek’s favorite video game, Babe Raider (an excellent lampoon of the cartoonish sexually charged video games like Tomb Raider, and its ilk), which extends further in to the overall gender dynamics of the household. And all works according to plan, until Casey herself falls prey to the lure of the game, and finds it strangely inspirational and empowering. Her eventual paper ends up being a rather remarkably sophisticated (for the show and its target audience) and balanced argument outlining the ambiguities of positive female role models who can be sexually charged and resourceful and smart.
If the parents’ roles in Life With Derek are essentially inconsequential (though they never serve as comic foils or present as doddering idiots, like on other shows of this ilk, they aren’t given much to do) to the proceedings, the other children are quite engaging as the grunts in the main war between Derek and Casey. Younger brother Edwin and Casey’s sister Lizzie serve as a nice tidy Exhibit B to the main theater of war, though more often than not they actually work in league together to use the main conflict to their advantage.
The wildcard in all this is youngest daughter Marti, a six-year-old tyro who is the true loose cannon of the bunch. Avoiding any cloyingly cute camera mugging, or obnoxious wise-beyond-her-years soothsaying, Marti is, in no gentle terms, a monster (there’s even an episode to that effect, called, oddly enough, “Marti the Monster”), a manic ball of chaotic energy who disrupts the proceedings more than Casey and Derek every could combined. Daft and bordering on insane, she is the real star of the show and steals just about every scene she is in, and makes you wonder how they could have gotten the title so very wrong. Plus, ‘Life with Marti’ just sounds better.
No matter, though. Life with Derek is, as constituted and advertised, a top notch family show, and, despite the fact that it is on Disney, is not really of Disney. Or at least it bears no resemblance to the current stable of obnoxiously shrill original programming on the Disney Channel, from the grotesquely awful Wizards of Waverly Place to the relentlessly unfunny Hannah Montana. Either by virtue of its “foreignness” (that is, not standard American-made fare), or, as is more likely because of its smart writing and even smarter cast, Life with Derek wins the day and salvages some respectability for the Mouse.
The first season of Life with Derek arrives on DVD with a bevy of extras, most of them skewing towards the target audience of the show (pre-teens and early teens, I’d guess). Some interviews with the cast, especially with stars Leggat and Seater, offer some insight into the dynamic of the show, but are overall unremarkable. The other features are behind the scenes tours of the set, mostly underwhelming, and which most seem like an inventory done by production staff than anything else.