Understanding the Jonas Brothers isn’t hard: they’re a wholesome, nonthreatening trio of cuddly brothers who sing songs about puppy love and parties. Young girls are drawn to their well-mannered nature, boyish features, and parent-friendly image: they don’t drink, smoke, or use drugs. But getting the Jonas Brothers is a little more difficult. Part of the contingent of 21st century celebrities, their entire existence is staked on the relationship to their ever present publicist and what I imagine is hours of training in successfully avoiding embarrassing, tough questions and steering conversations to more banal chat about chasing dreams, living their dreams, and never giving up on dreams. When asked if they’re unable to reap the benefits of their success, Joe Jonas politely says, “We’re happy with just video games and ping pong. We’re really easy going guys. We don’t need to always go out and do crazy stuff everyday.” But his eyes look dead and everyone looks unconvinced.
Their music is a testament to the kind of play-it-safe rock that has been making the rounds of Radio Disney since rock became less about teenage rebellion and more of a useful formula to keep fans outside of the preadolescence demographic tuned in. Though they’re quite content with the fan base they have, they’re also desperate to appeal to the recognition of their musical peers by padding their musical influences list with names like Neil Diamond and Elvis Costello and making bold, pseudo-deep statements that don’t actually mean anything. “We’ve also been working on trying to use metaphors,” Nick revealed in the March 2009 issue of Rolling Stone, “to kind of mask a literal thing that happens to us.” Can’t wait until he finds out what hyperbole is. About song “Black Keys,” he said, “I thought it was a cool metaphor for how sometimes in life it’s better to keep things black and white instead of screwing things up with color” (Rolling Stone, June 2009), which is the sort of backward logic masquerading as sense that makes me wonder when the other two were heatedly talking amongst themselves about being grounded. “They can take away our phones and they can take away our keys, but they cannot take away our dreams!” I imagine Joe Jonas whimpered. Kevin probably looked very serious. “Yeah, because we’re like, sleeping when we have them.”
If this sounds like something you might actually recall the Jonas Brothers saying, then you’ve been paying attention to their new Disney sitcom JONAS. What initially struck me about the show was the poor acting; the Jo Bros may have starred in the original Disney movie Camp Rock, but they still have varying degrees of comedic timing and a tendency to overact. But what they lack in general talent, they manage to make up for in the ability to keep straight faces, poke fun at themselves, and master scripts that are in and of themselves humorous. It’s almost impossible to find a Disney show that doesn’t rely on physical comedy that gets young viewers chuckling, but the show has also created an honest, low-key sincerity that allows the Jo Bros to come off as demure as the baby rabbits their fans want them to be: most of the scenarios have the boys chasing girls in their school and getting heartbroken, all the better to appear sensitive and pen wistful, bleeding songs. The set-up has the boys sometimes playing extreme caricatures of themselves (Kevin, the oldest, actually plays to the kids with the most childish role and delivers lines that would rate him at a mental age of five), but mostly, they just kind of play themselves (Joe Jonas: “It’s, um, it’s really easy to kind of play yourself“): three brothers striving to maintain ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances. They get detention! They fall in love with the pizza delivery girl! Their parents go out of town! They get caught wearing offensive outfits when meeting the Queen of England! What, you mean that last one never happened to you?
At the same time, the boys jovially mock their own fame. In episode 1 (“Wrong Song”), when asked if he’s being serious, Nick replies, “Of course. Read the fan magazines. I’m the serious one.” In episode 8 (“That Ding You Do”), they take a how well do you know Jonas quiz and while Joe finds out he’s a real “Joe nut,” the other two discover incorrect answers (“Your favorite snack is not cherry pudding!”) and decide to write the magazine a letter; they ask the screaming fans outside their window for a pen and hundreds come hurling towards them, carving a heart in the wall. In addition, the Jonas fan club only has one male member, the school mascot is the praying mantis, Kevin finds the ambiance of a roaring crowd helps him sleep, and they’re liable to break into song until one of the others points out there’s not enough time. It’s all fun and games until a song needs to be recorded, but at least none of it interferes with the action; after all, watching people play video games and ping pong doesn’t make for the best television.
Of course there’s a certain amount of belief that must be suspended (a running gag is the sheer size and amount of items that characters pull out of lockers), but even the seemingly “random” moments speak to one of the decade’s most overused words without pushing the envelope too far. Again, it’s safe, it’s likable, it’s even funny. It’s the Jonas Brothers and luckily, you don’t have to like a single one of their songs to enjoy the show (though it helps). JONAS is a testament to the dire urgency of adolescence, reminding you again why first crushes hurt so bad, the world stopped moving when your best friend got picked over you, all of your dreams were possible, and you would do anything to meet your heroes: three boys who wore tight suits, played guitar, and really just wanted to follow rules and keep their parents happy. We all had our own equivalents, particular to a certain time and place, and it never mattered that parents or friends didn’t get it, because we did. Certainly you’re never too old to get that.