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Quiet on Set Fails to Shed Light on the Dark Side of Kids' TV

Directors Mary Robertson and Emma Schwartz have a clear sense of purpose, but can't offer any concrete answers.
  • (Screenshot: Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV)
    (Screenshot: Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV)

    The idea that the world of kids’ television has a publicly friendly veneer that masks a dark underbelly is not remotely new. Child actors throughout the history of film and TV have both displayed immense and undeniable talent on screen, and then quickly devolved through addictions in the real world; examples range from Corey Feldman to Lindsay Lohan, with many others wedged in between. Films like Magnolia and Death to Smoochy go out of their way to satirize and sometimes vilify programming that feels exploitative to children by using them on screen.

    All this is to say that the new four-part Investigation Discovery documentary Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV is not, in and of itself, able to blow wide open some scurrilous allegations that kids’ TV is beset by bad actors (and not those on screen). Although the title of this documentary, airing in two-hour chunks on March 17 and 18, implies a wider-ranging point of view, its focus is deliberately quite narrow. Focusing on a specific period of Nickelodeon’s dominance in live-action kids’ TV, Quiet on Set does reveal some specific and shocking allegations related to some of its players. But the end result of the overall documentary still manages to skim just the surface of the darkness behind so many bright and upbeat TV series.

    The primary focal point of Quiet on Set is Dan Schneider, who started out in the 1980s as an actor on Head of the Class before shifting behind the camera as a minor impresario, co-leading or creating series like All That, Kenan and Kel, The Amanda Show, Drake and Josh, iCarly, and many others. While the success of those series is inarguable — they introduced the world to young stars like Kenan Thompson, Amanda Bynes, Drake Bell, Miranda Cosgrove, and Ariana Grande — the truth of how those shows became successful is fairly grim.

    Based on the talking-head remarks here from some cast members as well as behind-the-scenes folks, Schneider quickly abused the power he amassed at Nickelodeon by creating unsafe, toxic work environments, as well as skirting the line of appropriate content and gags. (Hindsight is what it is, but on-screen gags like a gooey substance being squirted in close-up on Jamie Lynn Spears’ face in an episode of Zoey 101 is discomfiting now and should have been so back in the early 2000s.) Quiet on Set tracks Schneider’s creative fiefdom, how he managed to build such an uncomfortable environment for grown-ups and kids, as well as how other abusers were enabled within that environment.

    One of those abusers, dialogue coach and actor Brian Peck, ends up as the secondary focus of Quiet on Set, specifically regarding his arrest in the early 2000s for sexual assault of a child actor. If you’re invested in this series and you’ve avoided any recent press about its participants, then the way Quiet on Set attempts to conclude its first two-hour chunk as a shocking cliffhanger may well work. (Before the documentary was created, the identity of the child actor was publicly unknown.) Unfortunately, it’s already been widely reported enough that the actor in question was Drake Bell of Drake and Josh, making the cliffhanger feel particularly unnecessary.

    That said, Bell’s presence is notable for a number of reasons. Even aside from the fact that his identity in the case was not widely known, many of the actors and other creative types interviewed here imply that they never knew who the person Peck was alleged to have assaulted even was. (One interviewee, a director for All That, is presented as seemingly learning for the first time while doing his interviews for Quiet on Set that Peck had sexually assaulted a cast member he’d worked with.)

    But by the time the second half of Quiet on Set starts, Bell’s presence is equally notable because he’s just about the most familiar face talking to directors Mary Robertson and Emma Schwartz. Quiet on Set has a wide range of talking heads, from costumers to Amanda Show writers to aforementioned All That cast members. But anyone curious to hear from more notable names like Thompson or Bynes will leave Quiet on Set wanting more. (That, in spite of the fact that Bynes is discussed in great detail in the first two hours especially, less for any bad behavior and more for discussing how Schneider’s influence may well have led to her more public scandals.)

    Before Bell shows up, the most recognizable face to ’90s kids will be Marc Summers, the original host of Double Dare. Summers, though, has little to add; if the documentary is any indication, he and Schneider didn’t often cross creative paths, and he mostly weighs in to offer some overall context on Nickelodeon. (He also is shown watching one of the more obviously risque clips from one of Schneider’s sitcoms, and expressing shock that it aired on the kid-friendly channel.)

    Robertson and Schwartz present all of this information in a fairly standard package, blending archival footage of the series, behind-the-scenes glimpses, and talking-head interviews in a way that’s typical enough to keep things moving. Quiet on Set doesn’t lack for disturbing stories, from All That cast members discussing the discomfort they had during prankish sketches or in being body-shamed, or a few of the actors’ parents talking about why they felt unable to fully advocate for their children even when Schneider was being abusive. Bell’s revelations (which make up a large swath of the third hour) are undoubtedly the centerpiece, as much for the uncomfortable details as for the understandable and emotionally powerful reactions he and his father (in separate interviews) still have.

    But timing being what it is, there do seem to be a couple missing pieces of context from Quiet on Set. During the section discussing Peck’s trial, it’s revealed that a number of very well-known actors wrote letters in the man’s defense, including Rider Strong and Will Friedle of Boy Meets World. What’s missing here is that Strong and Friedle shared their perspective of the Peck case in a recent episode of their Boy Meets World rewatch podcast, alleging that Peck had groomed them during their time on the ABC sitcom. It’s implied in that podcast that they were asked to share a statement with the documentary filmmakers; even if the podcast itself is meant to function as that statement, it’s odd that the screeners provided to critics don’t at least acknowledge that. The oddness is only heightened since one of the journalists interviewed muses out loud that we don’t know if the actors who wrote those letters did so with full knowledge of Bell’s accusations or if they were being truly sincere.

    In the end, Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV has no concrete answers — Schneider doesn’t directly appear in the documentary but unsurprisingly refutes basically everything that’s said here via quoted statements. And Nickelodeon has a similar response quoted at the end of each episode, which is both predictable and depressing. The allegations laid out here are disgusting, even if the seedy dark side of Hollywood is nothing new. But while the allegations in Quiet on Set are unforgivable and worth knowing about, the documentary’s style and presentation are rote and unremarkable. A version of this show with more marquee names likely never would’ve happened, but a more probing exploration from people who were there, as opposed to so many on the periphery, might make this as hard-hitting as it should be.

    Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV premieres March 17 at 9:00 PM ET on Investigation Discovery and concludes March 18 at 10:00 PM ET. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Josh Spiegel is a writer and critic who lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons, and far too many cats. Follow him on Bluesky at @mousterpiece.

    TOPICS: Drake Bell, Nickelodeon, All That, The Amanda Show, Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV, Amanda Bynes, Brian Peck, Dan Schneider, Kenan Thompson, Marc Summers