Wholesome memes are post-ironic, meaning that they convey love, affection, and genuine friendship by recontextualizing classic meme formats. The creators of these memes are aware of the jokes that widespread image memes represent but use them to display warmth and empathy. […] If ironic memes play on the viewer’s knowledge of the memescape in order to provide some critical distance, wholesome memes use viewer knowledge to foster genuine communication. —Brian Feldman, New York Magazine
Disney Channel’s newest and most post-ironic bellwether series, Andi Mack, which the network renewed for a third season Monday, live on Good Morning America, is like if #wholesomememes were an entire TV show.
Ultra-earnest, passionately creative Andi (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) gets blindsided in the pilot episode with the news that her cool older sister is actually her mom, and her mom actually her grandma; her shock is soothed in the very next episode by her close, supportive friends who just want to love and champion her and her close, supportive family who she just wants to love and champion in turn.
Ultra-competitive proto-feminist Buffy (Sofia Wylie) gets benevolently called out by the fastest boy in school for only being the fastest girl in school; they compete for supremacy, then compete in another sport, then compete in another, then realize they like spending time with each other so much they become running buddies and close, supportive friends who just want to love and champion one another’s accomplishments.
Ultra-unathletic, hyper-enthusiastic Cyrus (Joshua Rush) becomes the nerdy, snack-filled-utility-vest-wearing one-man ultra-fan of Andi’s Space Otters ultimate frisbee team; he gets recognized and appreciated for his passion and hard work by team captain and ultimate crush object, Jonah Beck (Asher Angel), who surprises him with a special Space Otters fan jersey at a team dinner then becomes his close, supportive friend who just wants to love and champion all of Cyrus’ endeavors until the end of time.
Ultra-mean, golden-boy basketball bully TJ (Luke Mullen) alternates ignoring and berating Buffy after she becomes the first girl to make the boys’ basketball team, then is assigned her as a math tutor; this tutoring uncovers a possible dyscalculia learning disability that sends him onto the playground in a huff, where he joins Cyrus on the swingset and has a heart-to-heart about personal insecurities, and the unlikely pair starts paving the way to become close, supportive friends who just might (might) end up loving and championing each other, despite their differences.
Anyone not confident enough to already be on the Disney programming train, or without kids at home to serve as a Trojan horse in, might catch a scene of Andi Mack—maybe Andi dying of embarrassment because her family has let Jonah into their home while she’s in her pajamas; maybe Cyrus swimming in sweat as he tries to film a “Welcome to Junior High!” video with Jonah at the principal’s behest; maybe Andi’s birth dad, Bowie (Trent Garrett), acknowledging and then overcoming the traumatic grief of missing his dad on his birthday in a single, 23-minute episode—and think, “Wow, what a silly thing that is only for kids, who are also silly, I should feel bad to spend any of my precious hours of TV time watching it.”
Andi Mack does not feel bad, about any of it—not the tropes, not the high-key emotion for low-key drama, not the exceedingly sweet Mack Chat after show starring kids even younger than the cast exploding over each episode’s big revelations (Wylie: “I love Mack Chat! I never get to know what they’re going to talk about after each episode so it’s a surprise, and the kids are so well-spoken and they say exactly what I would want any kid around the world to say about the show and how they reacted!”). “You and I know this silly thing,” the show says to the audience, using Feldman’s 2016 analysis of the formal differences between ironic and wholesome memes, “and it has brought us closer together.”
The tropes on Andi Mack may be a bit silly when put up against the dramatics adult series take on, but tropes are tropes for a reason: They resonate. And Andi Mack is here to resonate.
“I think the reason the show has gotten so much success and so many supporters throughout only a season and a half airing,” Wylie explains, “is because it’s so relatable to kids nowadays. I believe kids—I mean, I am a child, and this is what I want, I want to be able to watch a show that I feel as though represents me in some type of way. And I think the show does such a great job of that because each character has some part of their personality or some part of how they look or anything about themselves that can relate to any kid around the world.”
“For me, the reason for that is because it’s not catered to one specific person,” Lee adds. “I think anybody who turns it on, no matter how old they are, whether they’re a girl or a boy, where they’re from—you can connect with some story or some character, you know, there’s a little something for everyone. And I think that’s why it’s become so big, because it’s so relatable to such a large audience and it really displays the true interpretation of life for kids, and that’s something a lot of shows don’t have.”
“I think we’ve been lucky,” Rush says. “We have the most incredible writer. I mean, [series creator] Terri Minsky is like nobody else. And Michelle Manning, who is the other executive producer on the show, is absolutely incredible. I mean, she produced so many classic movies [including Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club] that I love and rewatch and rewatch to this day. So they have been given this awesome creative liberty by Disney because they’re these pros’ pros, and they’ve been allowed to create this show that’s so diverse and so cool and I think that any kid can turn on the TV when it’s showing Andi Mack Fridays at 8 p.m. on Disney Channel—gotta get the plug in there!—I think any kid can turn on the TV when there’s Andi Mack on and can be like, ‘Oh! I’m like that! Oh! I do that sometimes!’”
While Andi Mack does trade in High Earnest Tropes, the subject material it takes on—nontraditional families resulting from unwed teen pregnancy; that nontraditional family centered being Asian; the network’s first explicitly gay character (Cyrus, who came out to Buffy in the second season premiere)—is the very opposite of what has been Disney Channel’s historic comfort zone. New to the network, too, is the single camera serialized format.
“I really was excited to do that,” Minsky says. “They came to me saying, ‘We want to do something different, we want to shake it up, we want this to be like Scandal.’” (We have a laugh over this, because obviously Andi Mack is much closer to Parenthood, and Andi Mack would solve Olivia Pope’s problems with zero drama, but the point is made.)
“Serialization is obviously tricky, especially, I would guess, in a kids space, because they rerun it so much that you want to be able to watch individual episodes,” Minsky continues. “Like, the end of the pilot had this really, really beautiful line, and I thought, ‘Well, you can’t lose that, I mean you have to have that line,’ and the line was Bex saying, ‘Oh no, I’m turning into my mother!’ and Andi says, ‘No, you’re turning into mine.’ And it was like, ‘Ahh, so beautiful,’ and then it was like, ‘Not if it’s serialized!’ At the end of the first episode, she can’t be fine with this! So that didn’t work, that went away, but then as a result, like ten episodes later, we were able to have Andi call Bex “Mom” for the first time and that was like ten times, a hundred times more—it wasn’t just a beautiful line, it was an incredible moment. And that’s one of the great things about serialization… you can build and build and then release.”
“I think what Andi Mack offers is new and surprising things,” Lilan Bowden, who plays Andi’s mom, Bex, explains. “And I think that we respond to that really well because I think that at the end of the day, we don’t want to be sedated by TV. We don’t want TV to make us feel comfortable, you know—I think we want TV to inspire us; I think we want TV to make us think about ideas and situations and people in ways that we haven’t thought of them before. And I think Andi Mack provides that, especially for kids’ television.”
Cyrus’ coming-out storyline, which has been handled tenderly and with the kind of studied disinterest in delving any further than the gentle crush feelings any Disney Channel middle schooler might have, has certainly made it impossible to feel too comfortable or uninspired when watching Andi Mack.
“[W]hen the first episode of Season Two came out and Cyrus comes out to Buffy,” Rush says, “I had a moment where a kid came up to me and went, ‘Hey, you’re Cyrus from Andi Mack!’ And we talked and took a picture, and then after he walked off, his mom came up to me and said, ‘I want to thank you for what you’re doing, playing Cyrus, playing a character like this,’ and that was so amazing to hear. She said something along the lines of, ‘If some of my friends had had this when we were growing up, I think some of my friends would be a lot better off.’ And that, it just made me feel really good about what we’re doing. Every time that I feel like I’m starting to doubt myself, I call back to that moment, and remember that moment, when somebody reminded me of the confidence and the power, hopefully, that Cyrus is giving to these people.”
It isn’t just Cyrus’ storyline that’s connecting with fans, either. “I was talking to one of the kids of this military family,” Bowden says, referring to a special screening the cast held with military families, featuring the episode where Buffy’s mom returns from deployment. “And she said, ‘Well, what I like about Andi Mack is that sometimes I feel stress in my life, I feel anxiety, but then I can watch an episode and I know that I’ll calm down,’ and just, my eyes filled with tears in that moment, too! I think that through TV that challenges us and inspires us, that it then comforts us, and I think that that’s such a beautiful thing that Andi Mack provides, and that’s why I’m proud to be a part of the show.”
“I’ve been so lucky to get to meet so many different people, of all ages, of different places,” Wylie says. “My favorite interactions have probably been when someone comes up to me and says, ‘You inspired me to be who I am, you inspired me to wear my hair natural because I was so ashamed of how curly it was before, but now I’m OK with being myself and being different because that’s what each character in Andi Mack has shown me, and you guys in real life.’ I’ve had girls come up to me saying, ‘I tried out for the boys’ soccer team or the boys’ basketball team because I know I can do it now—Buffy did it, so I can do it, too.’ Our characters, they’re not put on a pedestal like they’re better than anyone else… They seem like real-life kids, like anyone else.”
But, Rush is quick to correct me, no single character is shouldering the burden of representation all alone: “The coolest part of [Andi Mack] is that it’s this ensemble. The show is named Andi Mack, but it’s the Good Hair Crew, and it’s so cool to be a part of a show that appreciates the ensemble and that appreciates the way that this whole group works together.”
There’s the real magic of Andi Mack: even offscreen, the cast, itself, is one big wholesome meme factory. They just want to love and champion each other and the show and Terri Minsky and the fans, forever and ever and ever.
“I just want to say, if you can include this,” Wylie adds, “thank you so much to the fans of Andi Mack for supporting us. Season Three would not be able to happen without them, so I’m just so thankful.”
In case you missed it, Joshua Rush would like everyone to know: Andi Mack’s special hour-long “Bash-Mitzvah” episode (inspired by his own Bar Mitzvah!) airs Friday, Feb. 23 at 8 p.m. on Disney Channel.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.