I’ve never felt older than when I watched the premiere episode of Disney Channel’s newest sitcom, Sydney to the Max. This father/daughter comedy juxtaposes what Sydney is going through in her first year of middle school with flashbacks of her father Max at the same age in 1992. Nevermind the fact that I vividly remember watch Disney Channel in 1992, back when this kind of programming was still almost a decade into the future on a network that mostly got by on rerunning legacy studio content and TV productions from Canada.
The after effects of NBC’s This is Us can be felt in this series, where the only actor that remains a constant between present day and flashback is Caroline Rhea (ABC’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch). Rhea plays Max’s mom/Sydney’s grandma and the comedy stems from the fact that she is so drastically different as a mom vs. as a grandma. She’s a strict disciplinarian in flashbacks but a sassy workout-a-holic hip granny in present day. The modern scenes remind me of Valerie Cherish’s Aunt Sassy on the show-within-a-show from Lisa Kudrow’s cult classic HBO series, The Comeback. My point is that Caroline Rhea deserves better material to work with.
The debut episode, “Can’t Dye This,” finds Sydney trying to make a big impact with her first middle school picture day when she defies her father by dying her hair with help from her best friend Olive. Max is upset when he finds out what she did, but her antics are mirrored in a flashback from when he was her age and tried to bleach his hair behind his mom’s back. When Grandma reveals that Max did a similar thing, father and daughter realize just how similar they are.
Overall, the show grasps for cheap laughs. The majority of the characters are intentionally loud as if that will make the bad jokes any better. But the worst comedic insult is when they make Caroline Rhea Jazzercise in her living room in a colorful tracksuit (like Aunt Sassy!). She is a wonderful comedian and on Sabrina, her finest moments came from clever dialogue, not physical comedy. She needs snarky quips, not bad choreo.
One thing the series does well is the set decorations and costumes in the 1992 flashbacks. Unlike a lot of shows set in this era, they strive for more authenticity with the furniture and clothing. It’s not just a bunch of confetti zigzag patterns, neon clothes, and trapper keepers, but instead looks like the school and living rooms of your youth (if you’re in your 30’s). Not lost on fans of Portlandia is the fact that the series takes place in Portland, where the spirit of the 90’s is still alive (their Disney Store still has a “Coming Soon on Disney VHS” display near the entrance). Ironically, the modern segments look too modern in comparison to the real Portland, which becomes the most unbelievable part of the show.
I always try to approach Disney Channel shows through the eyes of my younger self. When I was the same age as Sydney, I was watching a healthy rotation of Lizzie McGuire, Even Stevens, and So Weird (plus re-watching Zenon and Brink!). Would I have liked Sydney to the Max? I feel like if it came on between any of the previously mentioned shows or DCOMs, I would have waited through it. But I wouldn’t have gone out of my way for it and your kids probably won’t either.
I give Sydney to the Max 2 out of 5 bad hair days.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.