Less than a year into the Disney+ era, we're already seeing how it's changed the pop-cultural landscape. J.J. Abrams may have capped off the third Star Wars film trilogy last winter, but the franchise's most beloved new character is the little green orphan being shepherded around the galaxy by his reluctant foster dad, the titular star of The Mandalorian. Disney has just tested fans' willingness to pay theater prices to watch new release movies at home with the live-action remake of Mulan. And with Disney+ increasingly monopolizing the attention of young viewers, it's driving other streaming platforms to compete in the same arena, as evidenced by Netflix's new and extremely Disney-ish musical sitcom Julie and the Phantoms. Even though it's not made for people in my age bracket, it's exactly what I wanted to watch this week.
When we meet her, Julie (Madison Reyes) is going through it. Since her musician mother passed away a year before, Julie — a gifted pianist and singer — has not felt inspired to perform. Then Julie finds a CD in her mother's old garage studio by a band called Sunset Curve... and playing it causes three of its members to appear in front of her. It turns out lead singer and guitarist Luke (Charlie Gillespie), bassist Reggie (Jeremy Shada), and drummer Alex (Owen Joyner) died 25 years earlier, moments before they were to have played what could have been their breakthrough show, and thus never realized their potential. When they hear Julie play a song her mother wrote for her, they realize she's also loaded with talent that's going to waste; and when the four of them play together, they discover that's the only time anyone other than Julie can see the guys. After Julie comes up with a cover story involving mysterious collaborators in Sweden who join her via hologram — and just as quickly poof away — telling only her best friend Flynn (Jadah Marie) the truth, the new band starts working on launching their career while working within the limitations of the former Sunset Curve members' incorporeality. Director Kenny Ortega (High School Musical), executive producers Dan Cross and Dave Hoge (The Thundermans), and choreographer Paul Becker (Descendants) are all working behind the camera on this project.
Of course, there are elements that may rankle adult viewers. Some of the jokes are a little corny. Some of the plot twists are easy to guess. As soon as Julie's Tia Victoria (Alison Araya), her late mother's sister, shows up in her skin-tight pilates outfit in the premiere, bringing both a covered dish and parenting nudges for Julie's father Ray (Carlose Ponce), TV fans raised on soaps may be waiting for Victoria to make a play to replace Julie's mother in a more permanent way; it's not much of a spoiler to say she never does. But this show isn't for adults; it's for older children and tweens — including, naturally, some who may be grieving the loss of a parent and crave a story about a kid in similar circumstances whose biggest problem, apart from that loss, is fantastical (and, ultimately, turns out to be kind of fun). Julie's dad talks about selling the house but quickly changes his mind when Julie and her brother Carlos (Sonny Bustamante) say they want to stay; he encourages her to pursue her music even when it's difficult. Flynn isn't happy when Julie doesn't tell her right away that she's being haunted by a band from the '90s and lets Julie know that isn't what their friendship is about, but Julie proves it's true by having the guys join her on a song she wrote for Flynn about how caring Flynn was after her mother's death, and Flynn forgives Julie. Though it is, superficially, a show about a girl and the ghosts who are suddenly complicating her life, Julie and the Phantoms is also careful to show viewers that Julie is safe and surrounded by love.
Having come of age in the era of the porelessly "aspirational" Beverly Hills, 90210, I also appreciated that Julie depicts screwups other than Julie's brief static with Flynn, and shows that setbacks are a normal and survivable part of life for kids both living and dead. Julie's inability to play in class gets her removed from her school's exclusive music program, but she is able to earn her place again with hard work. When the guys let Julie down, they have to make an affirmative effort to regain her trust. Julie's also not the only one still actively grieving her mother: we see that Carlos and Ray still set a place for her at the dinner table that they know well enough to hide when Tia Victoria barges in; they may not be mourning perfectly according to her timeline, but they're muddling through together.
Most importantly for a musical sitcom: The songs are so good. Maybe this is my age talking, but the way they marry the 1995 licks of Sunset Curve and the sunny pop of 2020 hits me just right. And while this may not be a show for adults, this adult appreciated the economic storytelling: the lack of any extraneous plot threads is probably intended to hold the interest of younger viewers, but this old one didn't mind how lean that left each episode. It was also delightful to see Cheyenne Jackson pop up as mysterious club impresario Caleb Covington, sinking his teeth all the way into a role that, unlike his outings on American Horror Story, he'll be able to show his children before they're in high school. I certainly admired the darker fare that defined Netflix in its earlier era (think Orange Is the New Black and Mindhunter). But if a new strategy at the platform means we have more shows like Julie to look forward to, I for one welcome our new tween overlords.
Julie and the Phantoms drops on Netflix on September 10th.
Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.