Disney Channel’s ‘Jessie’ breaks romantic ground
Los Angeles • The title character of "Jessie" heads in an unprecedented direction for a Disney Channel series: toward the altar.
In a four-episode arc that will conclude the season this fall, 22-year-old Jessie Prescott dives into a whirlwind romance and accepts her boyfriend's proposal of marriage.
It's the first time a lead character on the children's TV channel has become engaged, said Adam Bonnett, Disney Channel executive vice president of original programming.
"Jessie is an adult, and we felt we could tackle this in a way that still feels appropriate for our audience," Bonnett said. The Disney Channel focuses on children ages 6 to 11, with "Jessie" also attracting 9-to-14-year-old "tween" viewers among its average weekly audience of 2.9 million viewers.
It ranks among the top five series for children and younger teenagers, according to Nielsen company figures.
Debby Ryan stars as the young Texas woman who moves to New York City to pursue acting and becomes the nanny for an affluent family with children adopted from India, Africa and America.
The budding relationship between Jessie and her new love, 25-year-old Brooks (Pierson Fode), is handled chastely, as befits a Disney project aimed at youngsters. The couple are shown bonding over picnics in Central Park and on movie dates and in other such innocent moments.
"The way we deal with this romance is very pure Disney fairy tale," Bonnett said, and one with a surprise ending.
Ryan, who will turn 21 on May 13, said she is far from tying the knot with her boyfriend of a year, Twenty One Pilots musician Josh Dun. Her focus is on her career, including directing her first episode of "Jessie" this season and finishing an album she plans to release in June.
But Jessie's decision to marry young is not out of step with her and Dun's social circle.
"In the last year, we have seen close friends, five of them, get engaged, five. … One couple is getting married next month and they are both 20, a year younger than me," Ryan said.
She sees marriage and commitment as "delicate" topics for the young viewers who watch her character for clues to growing up: "Your principal character is deciding whether or not she should start her life with a man."
Although romance is not something young viewers necessarily can relate to, Bonnett said, there are elements of the story that can have meaning for them.
"Our audience isn't dealing with somebody proposing to them, but they are dealing with choices they have to make in their life, and thinking things through, following their heart and wanting to make the right choice," he said.
Jessie and Ryan were the right combination to break ground for the channel, he said. Viewers have watched Jessie "blossom" and have seen the actress grow up over the past half-dozen years on Disney Channel programs including "The Suite Life on Deck" and the TV movie "16 Wishes."
The actress has her own firm views on what saying "I do" represents.
"It's not about the dress, it's not about the wedding. It's about the marriage. That's something we lose sight of when we're so young and all we want to do is dress up and play fairy tale," Ryan said.