A clean-cut pursuit of pop stardom

Mike Hale / New York Times News Service /

The musical children’s television series “The Wannabes,” a synthetic but inoffensive piece of international entertainment product, won’t add much to the Starz channels’ reputation as sources of original content. Its virtues lie more in the area of brand extension.

First, it’s the opening beachhead in a modest campaign to enter the teenager and tween market dominated by Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and ABC Family. “The Wannabes,” which debuted on Starz Kids&Family, anchors a weekday afternoon block scheduled to expand to four shows.

Second, it acts as a kind of mouthwash for Starz Entertainment, whose most attention-grabbing original shows — the two “Spartacus” series and “Camelot” on the main Starz channel — have been costume dramas that emphasized breasts and buggery over swords and sorcery.

“The Wannabes” is squeaky clean, except for the occasional food fight or “who cut the cheese?” joke. It’s about a group of students at a snobbish performing-arts school who are drawn together because (gasp!) they want to be pop stars. Through a series of ridiculous but breathlessly quick events — the whole corny setup is in place by the end of the pilot — these rebels in maroon school-issued blazers begin pursuing their dream in secret by performing at a mall soda fountain, disguised as giant fruit.

The show was created by Doreen Spicer, who worked on “The Proud Family” for Disney Channel, and several of its directors have extensive Disney Channel or ABC Family experience. It bears a strong family resemblance to live-action Disney shows like “The Suite Life on Deck” but is much less slick — either a creative choice or a reflection of an independent production’s smaller budget — and more in touch with its sitcom heritage. “What you talkin’ about, Sarah?” a young character intones, apparently having been forced to watch “Diff’rent Strokes.”

That Gary Coleman reference aside, “The Wannabes” does not have the kind of winking multireferential humor that makes Nickelodeon’s shows palatable to adults, and its jokes are even more toothless than those of its Disney cousins. Children may be perfectly happy with the fast pace and the bright candy colors, however, and the show does arrive pretested: Originally produced two years ago, it has already appeared in 92 countries.

It might also help that the blandly catchy pop and hip-hop songs are a cut above the music on other similar shows. That makes sense because “The Wannabes” was built around an existing teen-pop group called Savvy that was assembled through auditions in 2004, when its members must have been barely able to cross the street by themselves. None of the young singer-dancer-actors display any singular talent, but several can carry a tune. Look for them on “American Idol” in a few years.