The Suite Life on Deck (Disney Channel, Fridays at 8:30 p.m. ET) is a follow-up to The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, itself a kiddie sitcom about identical-twin boys kicking it Eloise-style at a Boston hotel. Last week, the sequel ranked as the No. 4 show on cable and No. 1 overall among children ages 6 to 11. Should children actually be watching The Suite Life? This columnist does not pretend to offer parental guidance and, as far as he knows, does not have any 6-year-old kids. But there's an outside chance that he'd prefer to plop his imaginary, rhetorical-device-type offspring in front of Law & Order during the time slot in question.
Zack and Cody Martin, played by heartthrob monozygotes Dylan and Cole Sprouse, are high-school students now in their second season of spending a semester at sea on a luxury liner. Cody, who is bright and occasionally overbearing, spends week after week nursing an innocent crush on a hayseed shipmate. Zack, an unimpressive student, devotes his mental energies to pulling pranks and trying to score chicks, or whatever the TV-G-rated equivalent of scoring chicks is.
The Suite Life is of course mild in its sexual content, offering double entendres-once-removed and gentle references to oiling up bikini models and such. How did the protagonists' rock-star father meet their lounge-singer mother? It is strongly implied that she threw her underwear on stage, or so Dad claims. It takes a little effort to get one's own panties in a bunch over a kids show employing material like that, but it's a snap to feel unqualified disgust for the way the show giggles at Zack's crass predations. In one episode, a new passenger turns his head, but he's turned off by her baggage, her literal baggage. The luggage locks are a bad sign. "That means she's suspicious and cautious," he says. "I'm looking for naive and vulnerable." Cue the laugh track. Elsewhere, he describes part of his philosophy of life to a pal: "There is nothing—nothing—better in this world than an unhappy hot girl." In watching eight episodes of the show, I haven't seen Zack achieve any romantic success, but nor have I seen him receive any proper sanction. Thus do I eagerly await Walt Disney's presentation of a feature-film spinoff titled Zack & Cody's Rockin' Roofie Frat Party.
As if to mitigate the noxiousness of this material, the show gives us a naive-but-tough female lead in Cody's love interest, a winsome yokel named Bailey Pickett who has come to the high seas from Kettlecorn, Kansas. Bailey is all the more appealing for being presented in contrast with her roommate, a high-heeled hotel heiress drawn as a caricature of Paris Hilton, as if Paris weren't already a caricature of herself. The show intends to mock the fictional ditz, London Tipton, for her compulsive shopping and repulsive frivolity, and indeed it does. Still, there is something a trifle depressing in the way Suite Life milks her money and glamour for all the cutesiness they're worth. This is the kind of show that takes a nonjudgmental attitude toward marrying for money. Don't get me started on the ship's mincing black chaperone, Mr. Moseby, emasculated in his Bermuda shorts. He gets one of the series' least-age-appropriate laugh lines: During a shipboard beauty pageant—arranged by Zack for the purpose of scoring chicks—one young lady comes out for the talent competition wearing an Abe Lincoln beard and stovepipe hat and proceeds to skip rope while reciting the Gettysburg Address. Annoyed by the quality of the performance, Moseby despairs, "Where's John Wilkes Booth when you need him?"
But what I find most bothersome about The Suite Life on Deck—more troubling, even, than the way it forces me to align myself with horrible uptight PC scolds—is its infatuation with showbiz itself. As noted, Zack and Cody are the children of professional musicians. Another shipmate is a former professional singer. (His stage name—give the show some credit for wit—was Li'l Little.) London hosts a Web series, titled Yay Me!, which actually exists on the Disney Channel's site. Of course, TV would be nowhere without the backstage doings of Monkees and Partridges, of Liz Lemon and Desi Arnaz and all the rest. But really. In common with such other Disney fare as Jonas, Hannah Montana, and Sonny With a Chance—and also iCarly, the big Nickelodeon show of the moment—Suite Life can see no further than the camera. Right now, a startling volume of tween culture is devoted, directly or indirectly, to puttin' on a show in the manner of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. It seems important to remember that things didn't work out too well for Judy in the long run.