“Whose Back Do You Have?”: Meet Chris Nee, the Woman Behind Disney Channel’s Beloved Doc McStuffinsPhoto: Disney Channel TV Features Doc McStuffins
The Doc is in!
After a long wait, the beloved children’s series Doc McStuffins returns for a fifth season today. Doc (voiced by Laya DeLeon Hayes) can talk to stuffed animals and cure them of their ailments. The episodes often mirror a real-life medical crisis a child might encounter, like a broken leg or a stomachache. Doc talks to kids about real issues in a language they can understand.
Paste had the chance to chat with series creator and executive producer Chris Nee about the series, what it’s meant to her and the larger TV landscape, and what’s coming up in Season Five. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Paste: It’s almost Halloween, and everywhere I go I see Doc McStuffins costumes. What’s it like for you to see children dressing up as a character you created?
Chris Nee: I pitched the show 10 years ago. Yesterday, my son celebrated his 12th birthday. This was created for him when he was a really little kid, so for me, Doc has grown up with my own child and I’ve watched them both flourish in ways I couldn’t have imagined. There’s no way I could have known that this would be a show that would touch people in such a deep way. My goal at the time was to make a show that I loved and was super proud of, and hope that I earned the right to make a second show someday. [Editor’s note: She did. Vampirina is another Disney hit.] It was just a show where everything about it worked. We have an incredible team of musicians and actors and animators and all kind of stood up and gave their all, and it paid off. Getting to see the impact of it is really humbling. It makes me feel like I go to work every day and make a little bit of goodness in the world.
Paste: This season, Doc will form a pet rescue team and go on the ultimate safari. In the past, she’s been a pet vet and worked at a toy hospital. Why is it important to keep shaking up the show with these new adventures?
Nee: The basic heart of the show is the same. The characters are the same. This show has been a blessing in so many different ways, and one of the things that’s super exciting about Season Five for us is it puts us up to about 150 half hours, which means we’ve told about 300 stories. We have a writing room that really cares about the show and doesn’t want to retread old material over and over again. We want to keep telling new stories that get us excited to sit down and write for these characters, and giving us new places to go and new areas to explore really helps us keep the world alive as a production team and as a writing team.
Paste: The Season Five premiere is a full-length half-hour episode, instead of the shorter episodes. Will be seeing more of that in Season Five?
Nee: We have a couple things going on in Season Five. We have 22-minute episodes, we have a couple of 44-minute episodes, and then we have shorts, so we are sort of mixing it up again, keeping the storytelling really exciting and fresh. For us, it’s always really thrilling to get to tell longer stories and play a little bit longer in this world we love so much.
Paste: Do you think kids’ attention span has changed, and they are able to watch longer shows?
Nee: I think as long as the characters are beloved and engaging and the stories are strong, kids will definitely stick through 20 minutes. We know that they will sit and watch feature-length films, and I think Doc has kind of earned the right to tell longer stories, because kids are so engaged in who these characters are and what this world is.
Paste: You’ll also have a big Christmas episode this season. What can you tell me about it?
Nee: It continues a few hints from the last Christmas special. It’s a very Doc-centric version of what Christmas is. It’s one that I wrote because I was really excited to tell this particular story for Doc. Christmas has so much resonance with the spirt of who Doc is. It’s definitely an episode where Doc saves Christmas. I will say that.
Paste: As a parent, I think children’s TV shows can start to shape how kids see the world. How much do you think about that when you’re writing the series?
Nee: I feel very strongly that children’s television can be a force in the world, and we must be aware of how strong our images are and the messages that we are putting out there. We sort of know that “you can’t be it if you can’t see it,” and we haven’t had as many strong female characters as the world could absorb. It’s an absolute piece of the puzzle to me. I’m always looking to make sure that we are showing communities that care about each other. Girls who are leaders. Boys who are friends with the girls that are leaders. These are all things that I’m always, always, always thinking about.
Paste: I think it’s particularly important for young boys to see such a positive portrayal of a young girl.
Nee: I created Doc for my son, but I made her into a girl because we just didn’t need another show that had a boy as the lead character at that moment, and that seemed absolutely as worthy as any other choice we would ever make. It was still for him, and I figured he would still watch it, and he did.
We need to be servicing great role models for girls and great role models for boys and I’m always writing to a sense of community and frankly it’s really hard in animation because I write these episodes with so many characters. I want to write this sense of, who do you take care of? Whose back do you have? How do you accept people that are different than you? How do we form the communities that build our lives and give us a better quality of life? That’s what I’m always addressing for both boys and girls. I care deeply about what we’re reflecting on the show.
Paste: Will Season Five be the show’s last one?
Nee: We are still very much making Season Five. Whether or not we are coming back for another season we don’t know yet. There’s for sure the chance there will be more episodes.
Season Five of Doc McStuffins premieres today at 11 a.m. on Disney Channel.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .