Netflix is trying out all genres under the sun. Want real dating competitions? Netflix has a show for that. Cheesy Holiday Movies? Absolutely. Interactive games to choose your own adventure? Choose from a stack of them. And now with Julie and the ghosts, Netflix embraces the very specific subgenre of the original Disney Channel film.
Netflix has certainly ventured into tween programming before. Just a few months ago the much acclaimed Club des baby-sitters series created on the platform. But Julie and the ghosts’ The 10-episode first season more specifically evokes Disney Channel Original classics like Hannah Montana, High school music, and Shake it. Is it because Disney Channel author Kenny Ortega is behind the series? Is it the sparkling costumes and sumptuous musical sequences? Or the teens doing awesome things that most teens probably couldn’t?
Everything about the first trailer, for better or for worse, says Disney Channel Original. Based on a Brazilian show of the same name, Julie and the ghostsThe first season proves that Netflix can make wacky teenage hijinks mixed with supernatural elements – as well as extravagant moments imbued with a true emotional core.
[[[[Ed. Note: This review contains slight spoilers for the first season of Julie and the ghosts.]
The show follows Julie (Madison Reyes), a once-aspiring musician who suffers a bit from a creative block after the death of her mother. While cleaning up her mother’s old studio, she accidentally unleashes the ghostly spirits of a boy band. Only Julie can see the three hunky ghosts (Charlie Gillespie as lead singer Luke, Owen Joyner as soft-hearted drummer Alex, and Jeremy Shada as Reggie doped guitarist) – but they all quickly find out that when they all play together the rest of the world can see the boys. So naturally, Julie and the boys form a group. But as Julie grapples with school drama and her own self-confidence, the boys learn more about what it means to be dead, as they try to figure out what they even want out of their lives after death.
When it comes to theater at school, Julie and the ghosts feels like a repeat of every Disney Channel sitcom since Lizzie McGuire: There’s a nasty popular girl who wears a lot of pink and hates Julie for no real reason, and a cute popular boy who just happens to be dating this nasty girl. The antagonist, Carrie, doesn’t have a lot of undertones or personality beyond “rich girl with her dazzled initials all over it,” and while actress Savannah Lee May gives her everything, the entire character feels like a superficial imitation of the great queen bee who came before her, specifically High school musicIt’s Sharpay Evans. There are hints that there is something more to her, a deeper conflict between her and Julie, but the first season never uses Carrie for anything other than sneaky comments.
The good news is, while Carrie’s insistence on undermining Julie’s musical career takes up a good chunk of the plot bandwidth, the non-ghostly drama is far from superficial. The reason Julie has trouble playing music is because she is still grieving for her mother. The clashes she has with her father, brother and aunt stem from this heartbreak, but they all clearly love and care about each other. Some of the emotional beats are big, fast, and cheesy, but it all happens in a very warm and pleasant way. High energy and emotion is a hallmark of the genre, not a bug. The musical sequences tend to be just as grandiose in a way that exceeds a high school student’s budget and planning abilities, but hey, that’s what we’re here for! Bring on the sequins, the fabulous costumes, the awesome choreography!
But the show makes its own way and shines the most when it focuses not on life, but on the afterlife. It’s not just Julie who discovers what death in the afterlife means – Luke, Alex, and Reggie had no idea they’d been dead for 25 years. The four characters learn about the technical aspects of ghosts together, with hilarious scenes where Luke walks in and out of Julie’s fridge and Alex runs through the streets of Hollywood, through unsuspecting passers-by. Julie creates an elaborate lie to explain her mysterious band mates – they’re musicians from Sweden, so they call out and screen their performances via holograms, duh! She finds clever ways to get around the whole ghost, pulling out her phone when she talks to Luke at school, so it doesn’t look like she’s talking to herself.
The ghosts themselves are an adorable and laughable trio, each with their own funny little quirks. The friendship between the three – and ultimately with Julie – is healthy and united. Eventually, the ghosts meet another dead teenager, skater Willie (Booboo Stewart) who gives them a glimpse of their ghostly status, inviting them to a mysterious nightclub. Cheyenne Jackson plays Caleb, the owner of said haunted nightclub, where ghosts party and perform for all eternity. He wears a dark cape and top hat, because if you owned a haunted nightclub, wouldn’t you indulge yourself fully in the aesthetic?
However, the series isn’t all about costumes and performances. What really gives Julie and the ghosts an added boost is the way he questions the not-so-happy aspects of being dead. All the boys have to deal with the fact that their families moved without them, which hits you hard when it is revealed that they all left their parents in very bad conditions. It’s a clear parallel to Julie’s own grief: she’s a little frustrated that instead of her mother coming back to help her, she has these three random boys. But over time, they all learn from each other and help each other grow, through extravagant musical sequences, extraordinary amounts of glitter, and wacky supernatural hijinks. Netflix’s take on the Disney Channel Original sitcom works, using all the strengths of the subgenre to weave a surprisingly moving story.
Julie and the ghosts is now streaming on Netflix.