When you’re in middle school, making friends can be the biggest challenge you face. Many grownups look back at those years between sixth and eighth grade with a cringe. They are quite often the worst years of our young lives. I speak from experience. Those years were rough, but I’m glad I stayed weird.
Middle school is even more challenging today with social media and the explosion of cyberbullying. But there’s a bright side. Lots of people are working hard to change the conversation. Teachers and students are taking it upon themselves to lead the way, to become more accepting, and to show it with small acts of kindness and gestures of friendship.
For some of these people, middle school is a long way behind them. They are now storytellers in Hollywood, but they are creating the kinds of shows that portray the challenges of middle school in a brand new light.
The Healing Powers of Dude on Netflix
What I love about this show is that it normalizes social anxiety disorder. More than this, it celebrates difference in a way that is funny and natural. For most kids, the first day of middle school creates anxiety. But for Noah Ferris (Jace Chapman) just getting through the door feels as hard as climbing Mount Everest. That’s because his social anxiety disorder paralyzes him and causes his imagination to run wild. His worst fears manifest themselves through everything from quick sand to zombies.
Enter Dude. Before giving up entirely on middle school and returning to homeschooling with his dad, his mom suggests an emotional support animal. Dude failed the service dog test, but he wants to give being an emotional support animal his best shot. Dude is not a pure breed, but whatever is in his DNA is pure magic. With Dude’s help, Noah is able to go to middle school.
I understand the concern that this portrayal of emotional support animals isn’t accurate. Dude’s freedom to come and go and even Noah’s ability to take Dude to school in the first place may stretch credibility. But I would suggest that we can suspend our disbelief, because the message of self-acceptance in The Healing Powers of Dude is so powerful.
Noah gains self-confidence and takes powerful steps toward taming the beast that is his social anxiety disorder. Importantly, he makes friends with Simon (Mauricio Lara), whose self-imposed nickname is “Turbo,” and Amara (Sophie Kim), who is highly intelligent. Nothing holds Amara back, especially not the fact that she happens to be in a wheelchair.
Steve Zahn voices Dude’s point of view, which only other dogs and we in the audience can hear. The potty jokes are not that original, but kids will be entertained. Better still, Dude’s adorableness will draw kids in, but the relatable quality of Noah’s struggles will keep them watching and smiling.
Just Add Magic: Mystery City on Amazon Prime
This spin-off of Amazon Prime’s Just Add Magic shows middle schoolers Zoe (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), Leo (Tyler Sanders), and Ish (Jenna Qureshi) navigating the challenging waters of friendship. Zoe’s mom and Leo’s dad marry at the end of the pilot for Mystery City, which means that they are instant family.
But Zoe faces other complications. After she moves from Saffron Falls, the setting of the original Just Add Magic, to Bay City, she discovers a mysterious cookbook. This is no ordinary cookbook. The recipes inside are magical. The magic is so powerful in fact that the cookbook assigns three protectors to keep it safe. Zoe realizes with the help of the cookbook’s previous protectors, Kelly (Olivia Sanabia), Hannah (Aubrey K. Miller) and Darbie (Abby Donnelly), that she is a new protector. Completing the trio are her stepbrother Leo and neighbor Ish.
For the three new protectors, dealing with the unpredictable magic of the cookbook brings new challenges to their friendship. The cookbook has been known to destroy friendships, but Zoe , Leo , and Ish are genuinely supportive of each other. They manage to stand strong against every test.
Mystery City puts a more positive spin on middle school friendships. Issues such as building self-confidence, teamwork, and loyalty are at the heart of the show. In addition to exploring these important themes, an intriguing mystery also unfolds: the protectors must track down a magical sour dough starter that has the power to attract gold. The plot is more convoluted, and the mystery isn’t as compelling as those in the original Just Add Magic. But for a spinoff, it’s very entertaining. Kids will enjoy the mystery, and parents will love that the kids aren’t snarky or sassy (and the onscreen parents are only a little clueless, not total dunces like on so many Disney sitcoms).
If there’s one thing these shows demonstrate, it’s that middle school isn’t always a train wreck. Even with bullies, social anxiety, and heartbreak, it has its moments. It can be sweet, kids can be kind.