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Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV review – how on earth was this stuff ever broadcast?
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Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV review – how on earth was this stuff ever broadcast?

Dear God, not another one. Years after #MeToo, and with Weinstein and so many others unmasked and dealt with long ago, you might have naively hoped not to have to tune in to any more diligent retrospective exposés of how terrible men in the film and television industry ruined the careers of innocent colleagues. Yet here we are again with Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV. You are forgiven at this point if your rage is freighted with fatigue. But there is necessary work still to be done.

Nickelodeon dominated US children’s television at the start of the millennium, with many of its most popular shows created and produced by one man, Dan Schneider. Awards came his way, along with personal stardom not usually afforded to children’s TV showrunners. This meant he became untouchable. Since his departure from Nickelodeon in 2018, a steady drip of accusations about toxic working environments on Schneider productions have painted him as a capricious and intimidating presence.

Quiet on Set adds to the case against Schneider, laying out a long list of allegations, including humiliating female employees and maintaining relationships with child actors that were either not sympathetic enough, if the child did not win his favour, or too friendly if the child did. Children were asked to perform material laced with what now looks like startlingly crass sexual innuendo.

The “in plain sight” moments in the series are clips from Nickelodeon shows, which under Schneider’s reign repeatedly featured underage performers in bikinis or leotards, or having jets of water or thin stripes of goo squirted into their faces. Girls’ bare feet were a disturbing recurrent theme, and on one occasion a 16-year-old Ariana Grande pretended to “milk” a potato with two hands. If there wasn’t already a stack of documentaries showing this kind of thing on national television less than 25 years ago, we would be asking how on earth this stuff was broadcast.

Similarly, it is hard to describe the allegations made about Schneider by two female Nickelodeon writers as shocking, when the professional dynamic they recall will be depressingly familiar to so many women, within and without showbusiness. Having landed their dream job in 1999, Jenny Kilgen and Christy Stratton not only found themselves heavily outnumbered by men in writers’ room; they say the man running it made sure they felt marginalised by plaguing them with sexist pranks, dares and the sort of “jokes” that are not funny if you are the target. How this happens and how it makes the victims feel is something that, while such behaviours persist in society, can’t be highlighted enough and Quiet on Set does a sturdy job of doing that.

Schneider has responded to the series via a YouTube interview in which he admits to, and apologises for, making female staff uncomfortable, including asking them for massages, while also seeking to partly excuse himself by citing the pressures of the job. One line of defence put forward by Schneider, about the crassly sexualised gags in his shows, does have some merit: he shouldn’t have done it, he says, but no producer has the power to air whatever they want on a network such as Nickelodeon. His bosses and their bosses, and their bosses, failed to object.

British viewers will see Quiet on Set as if through a thick pane of glass, removed from the impact it has had on US audiences: plenty of British kids who grew up with satellite/cable TV will have watched Sam & Cat, iCarly or Zoe101 at some point in the 2000s, but Nickelodeon had an entirely different currency in the US. In the era before children were able to curate their own screen time via YouTube and TikTok, Nickelodeon was the default. It was what malleable young Americans watched en masse.

But even without the feeling of a precious shared cultural history having been besmirched, Quiet on Set works as a case study of power in the entertainment world, and how a business historically bad at safeguarding performers has sometimes been appallingly bad at protecting its most vulnerable talent. The darkest moments come in later episodes of the series, covering something worse than the emotional abuse and creepy screen aesthetics for which Schneider was culpable: speaking publicly for the first time, the actor Drake Bell describes how he was physically assaulted on a Nickelodeon set when he was 15 by Brian Peck, a dialogue coach later imprisoned for sexual abuse of a minor.

Anything that makes that less likely to happen again is invaluable. Quiet on Set has, commendably, played its part.

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Source: theguardian.com