Though Disney+ entered the streaming service game with a splash, it took it awhile to build its library of original TV shows. While its Marvel and Star Wars series have certainly reignited the cause for the weekly release of episodes, rather than the binge model, there’s more to the platform than just expanded universe content. And though many of those other series are geared towards kids, in true Disney fashion, almost all are engineered to have four-quadrant appeal.
The list below features all of Disney+’s current scripted original series, which means no reality or documentary shows, continuations, or library content (i.e. shows that aired on other Disney platforms in the past, like Disney Channel, ABC, or others). That leaves a total of 10 shows with many more on the way—such as The Bad Batch, which will be included in our next udpate. Our ranking also goes from worst to best, and while Disney’s “worst” might not be the same as general television’s worst, it still could have been a lot better.
Basically, if you’re looking to check out some entertaining and probably pretty wholesome TV series (especially those featuring puppets), you’re in the right place:
10. Big Shot
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The absolute hollowness of Disney+’s family sports dramedy, the David E. Kelley and Dean Lorey-created Big Shot, is an astounding disappointment. At a moment when the potential to finally make women’s basketball a mainstream phenomenon is so real, to introduce as big a swing-and-a-miss as Big Shot to the mix—literally A DAY after the 2021 Draft!—feels not just like a lost opportunity, but an insult.
The deal is this: chronically charismatic sitcom legend John Stamos stars as Marvyn Korn, a desperately uncharismatic college basketball coach who loses his job after throwing a chair at a ref’s back in the middle of a championship game. Finding himself summarily blacklisted from every coaching job his record might otherwise have qualified him for, Korn is stuck taking the only gig that will stoop to have him, at a high school all the way on the other side of the country. Not just any high school, either, as his manager (Alan Arkin) grimly warns him—a girls high school. And even they are only willing to take him because their richest benefactor (Michael Trucco) has a daughter whose future NCAA career is worth risking the safety of a whole bevy of teen girls in order to secure.
In terms of setting up the kind of fish-out-of-water story Big Shot wants to tell, this really couldn’t be much bleaker. Honestly, it would just be something if the show demonstrated any consistency at all in its own understanding of whatever interpersonal dynamics and internal motivations might be driving its central characters. Instead, what we get is a chaotic kind of emptiness.
Oh, and did I mention? This is all being filmed cinéma vérité style, like The Office, sans talking head confessionals, or like High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, sans any sense of meta warmth or sly comedic adaptability. Basically, it’s a mess, and it doesn’t even have the good grace to be a fun one. To then have what watered-down, out-of-touch story that’s still available to Big Shot told so clumsily, and with such a tin ear not just for where the cultural conversation is around both teen girls and women’s basketball today? Man, it’s all just a bummer. —Alexis Gunderson
9. Diary of a Future President
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Created by Ilana Peña and executive produced by Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez, Diary of a Future President is a heartfelt coming-of-age dramedy about overcoming the odds. Aimed at tween viewers but still enjoyable for adults, the series follows the adventures of Elena (Tess Romero), a Cuban American girl who grows up to be president of the United States. However, before she becomes the most powerful woman in the country, she first must survive the perilous world of middle school and everything that entails. Wholesome but not aggressively or annoyingly so (this is Disney, after all), the series is honest about a lot of important topics that tweens and teens face today, offering up life lessons with a sharp wit and plenty of sincerity. There are some similarities to Netflix/Pop TV’s One Day at a Time, which was also about a Cuban American family, but the show has its own merits and often stands out for Elena’s emotional maturity. —Kaitlin Thomas
8. The Right Stuff
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So much of a TV show’s success is right place at the right time.
That’s even more true now with so many streaming platforms clamoring for our attention and trying to break through the deluge of new programming (that somehow is still going relatively strong despite a global pandemic).
So the question must be asked: Is this the right time for a show about a bunch of white men heroes?
The honest answer is probably not. The story of the Mercury Seven, the nation’s first astronauts, has already been told in the 1979 book by Tom Wolfe and the Academy Award nominated 1983 movie of the same name starring Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, and Dennis Quaid.
Disney loves going into its vault and re-purposing its properties. (See the slew of live action remakes of their beloved animated classics that have been coming our way for years now.) So it’s fitting that this joint production among National Geographic, Warner Horizon Television, and Appian Way Productions (Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company) landed on Disney+. We’ve seen the story of The Right Stuff before, but even if we hadn’t, it’s 2020 and Google plus a quick trip to Wikipedia will tell you everything you need to know.
But despite these obstacles, the eight-episode series—seeped in its era much the same way Mad Men was—is more often than not a compelling, inspirational drama that does its best to command our attention. And yet, this is the story of white men in suits who smoke cigarettes, drank whiskey, and changed history. The Right Stuff also isn’t interested in exploring the systemic racism that kept anyone of color from even the option of being part of the program, and women are treated as an afterthought.
So while yes, their story is a good one as these men took unfathomable risks to take us into space, I’m just not sure it’s a story that needed to be told again. —Amy Amatangelo
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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier kicks off with a brutal, cinematic-quality action sequence, which sets the tone for the MCU’s second superhero TV show on Plus. But it shouldn’t have.
More interesting is that, for Sam/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), their time with the Avengers has been a kind of extended military tour of duty. Now, Sam is trying to reconnect with his widowed sister and her sons, and save his family’s fishing business. When they go to apply for a loan, there’s a cheeky reference to “how do [the Avengers] make money?” with no good answer. “Isn’t there some kind of Hero’s Fund?” the loan officer asks. This and the general hesitation for the loan to be approved feels like a not-so-coded reference to very real issues and biases faced by veterans, especially BIPOC veterans. Meanwhile, Bucky’s issues are largely internal. He isn’t in financial trouble, but he has no friends or family. When his therapist tells him that he’s free now, he answers “to do what?” He’s 106 years old, has no history and no life, and finds the modern world overwhelming and alienating.
Whereas Wanda Maximoff was ensconced in her own world, TFATWS is very firmly in our own. (It also presupposes a much deeper knowledge of the Marvel movies than Wanda did, with lots of casual references to them and a lack of introduction for anyone else.) Tonally it’s along the lines of The Winter Soldier and the start of Civil War, at least regarding political jockeying and America-centric military issues. That’s both good and bad. On the one hand, the series could have delved into some very worthy considerations of what it means to serve, to come home, to feel unmoored by a world that has moved past you; it could have even reach WandaVision-levels of introspection and emotional resonance regarding consequence. Instead, it devolved into more of how that first episode starts: Call of Duty-esque mumbo jumbo, murder, explosions. That vibe has its place (like, say, innumerable blockbusters and more than a handful of network TV shows). But six episodes is not a lot of time to spend time doing both, at least not well, especially given how many new characters are introduced throughout (most of whom are instantly more interesting than the leads). The Falcon and the Winter Soldier picked its side, and it’s not the better one. —Allison Keene
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Firstly it must be said that The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers—the continuation of the franchise which began in 1992—is extremely validating. The Disney+ series doubles a group therapy for all the parents out there traumatized by how intense youth sports have become.
Game Changers understands this and has built its entire premise around this distressing phenomenon. It’s been 29 years since Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez, reprising his role) led the ragtag “District 5” hockey team to victory in the peewee championship. Two movies and an animated series followed, and now nearly three decades later, the Ducks are the reigning champions. They’re ruthless and nasty. Their parents bring private coaches to practice and employ sports psychologists. They are now—I know this will be hard to hear—the bad guys. In the series premiere, 12-year-old Evan Morrow (Brady Noon) gets cut from the team. “At this age, if you can’t be good at hockey, don’t bother,” the Ducks’ callous coach (Dylan Playfair) tells him.
That doesn’t go over well with Brady’s mom Alex (Lauren Graham), who decides to take matters into her own hands. Graham’s always charming schtick, which she perfected on Gilmore Girls, is on full display as the enthusiastic mom that just wants her son to be happy, and for the game of hockey to bring him the same joy it once did. So they create a new team of misfits who look, no surprise, very similar to the kids from the original movie. Those comfortable beats are welcome, though; this new series isn’t a game changer, unlike the advent of the original franchise. But it is a delight. And that’s something to quack about. —Amy Amatangelo
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Arguably THE weirdest yet most consistently funny Disney+ Originals in their current library, Earth to Ned is the sleeper hit you need to try. The premise is simple: Ned is an alien sent by his dad to blow up Earth but he accidentally falls in love with our pop culture. Hoping to learn more before he annihilates us, Ned “beams” celeb guests onto his ship to grill them about pop culture topics. As a host/puppet, Ned is in a category all by himself with regards to the talk show scene, but when you add his snappy co-host Cornelius, acerbic AI, BETI, and the pantomime CLODs, there’s no comparison for brisk, witty satire that is an instant pick-me-up. —Tara Bennett
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High School Musical: The Musical: The Series made perfect sense as one of the streaming platform’s launch titles.To crib the rhythm of a waning TikTok trend: Does it flaunt the platform’s corporate reach(™)? Yes. Is it unwieldy as hell? YES. Who’s ready to crown it a self-aware heavyweight champ? Me! Is that because this Disney+ defining teen series is coming out of the gate so extremely self-aware that it blazes right past the meta event horizon that would incinerate all other attempts at such a vertically integrated creative experiment, rolling instead to a victorious stop in the land of what I am, of this moment, going to be calling post-cringe? Ah! (Translation: Yes.)
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series follows the fictional students of the fictional version of the real Salt Lake area high school where the real High School Musical was filmed, as they embark on staging the first production of the fictional High School Musical: The Musical at the real (that is, fictional) East High—if your brain’s not broken yet, then I suspect you’re already doubled over with how chaotically genius this is.
The corporate behemoth that Disney has become is literally the only operation in town that could produce something as vertically integrated and as a richly and winkingly self-referential as HSM: TM: TS. And for all that, it’s both fun and fascinating to see the company use its new Disney+ platform to send up its own fairly conservative cable television past. —Alexis Gunderson
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In the Marvel comics, Wanda Maximoff is a reality-bending enchantress known as Scarlet Witch. Her power set is immense, and we have never seen the full scope of it within the movie universe—it’s too big, really, when you compare the fact that she and an actual god (Thor), and a wizard (Doctor Strange), are equals on a team with a Russian spy (Black Widow) carrying a gun, and an archer (Hawkeye). There are limits.
Not, however, when it comes to WandaVision itself, which is where we finally get to see the Marvel machine slightly unleashed. Marvel’s forays into television have not been altogether fantastic. But tthis series expands the story of characters we know from the movies in way that the movies simple did not have time to do. It also allows WandaVision creator Jac Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman to put a uniquely stylized and deeply emotional spin on a story that would have (as a movie) otherwise been shackled by the mandated aesthetics of the overall MCU. As such, in WandaVision, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) is also unleashed. She has used her immense power to create an insular world where she and her lost love, Vision (Paul Bettany), get to live happily ever after in classic sitcoms based on the likes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, and I Love Lucy. For fans of classic television, this is no satire; despite a few over-the-top ham moments, it is a loving homage to these series.
But of course, it’s not real. Throughout these half-hour episodes (both the ones we experience and the ones Wanda and Vision are living through), the world outside of this coping fantasy begins to creep in. First with bursts of color, then occasional off-script moments. Wanda stops these right away by rewinding and reliving the situation without the disruption. A clean story, nothing to disturb them. Just a husband and wife living a normal life in perfect suburbia (with the occasional advertisement for a Hydra watch or a Stark Industries toaster, of course).
Soon, however, Wanda is spinning out of control. Reality is closer than ever, and the teases we get to the world outside of Wanda’s creation, one where Vision is gone, get increasingly overt. She will have to come to terms with the truth soon, but it will hurt. And yet, I don’t really want reality to impede on Wanda’s created life at all. WandaVision’s core conceit—that sometimes you just want to escape into television, into fantasy, into a daydream—couldn’t be more meta. Let’s stay here in this happiness just a little while longer. The world outside is so dark. —Allison Keene
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The relatively low-fi Muppets Now taps into pure Jim Henson art, leaving the explicitly educational focus of the Sesame Workshop for an entertainment experience that informs through tone and content. The Muppet Show wasn’t supposed to be just for kids (one of its pilots was titled The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence), but its bananas antics became a gateway to pop culture for many impressionable, starry-eyed showbiz wannabes. Beyond the guest list of iconic actors and legendary musicians, the bevy of parody at hand eased kids into mainstream media with slapstick and silliness, from soap opera knock-off “Veterinarian’s Hospital” to “Pigs in Space” to Sam the Eagle’s ridiculous editorials.
Where Mark Hamill, Vincent Price, Elton John, and Diana Ross were once humanized and sillified by their foam-and-felt companions, RuPaul, Seth Rogen, and Taye Diggs take part in the media mélange of Muppets Now. And it still floats between the scenes and behind-the-scenes in a way that makes both more fun. That gives it a simplified 30 Rock feel (or Between Two Ferns, according to our Keri Lumm), where the ridiculous variety of TV genres (and the nonsense behind creating them) are brought down a few pegs.
Interspersed between hit-and-miss reality shows and celebrity chefs are bits of industry operation filled with references to having final cut, getting coverage, or punching up jokes. And it’s best when it all falls apart. Like the failures and trials of the Sesame Street stars, the explosive disasters of the Muppets—flecked with jargon shrapnel to separate the media circus from the regular circus—not only return the Muppets to their unpredictable and childishly dangerous roots (how far they’ve come from blowing people away in a coffee ad), but make them even more approachable. Nothing says “relatable” to kids more than making a mess and goofing off. The segments may have gotten a facelift and the lingo may have been updated, but the same addictive and attractive qualities of entertainment TV are being put back to use for something good—even if it’s not capital, brought-to-you-by-the-letter-G Sesame Street Good. —Jacob Oller
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As one would expect from a Star Wars property, a fully-formed fantasy universe is immediately presented to us here, filled with interesting characters and lively backgrounds. It’s a TV show with undeniable cinematic quality: things click and whir and bleep and boop alongside foreign chatter and a host of interesting creatures. The world of The Mandalorian immediately feels lived in, throwing us right into the middle of the story of the bounty hunter Mando himself (Pedro Pascal) and The Child (aka Baby Yoda) with unknown powers who he must protect as he travels across the galaxy.
With wonderfully short episodes that play with a number of different genres, The Mandalorian is both warm and action-packed, sparsely and carefully populated with characters who—however short their tenure—all make a memorable mark. Not enough can be said about Pascal’s husky voice work, as he somehow makes the masked Mando (whose face we don’t see until the very end) a fully-realized character. And yet, the show is absolutely stolen out from under him by a tiny puppet with whom everyone in the production (including Werner Herzog) and every viewer watching became obsessed with. Favreau’s choice to ground as much of the series as possible with practical effects (including The Child, the pinnacle of the form) was key in making this story about a ragtag group of space travelers feel wonderfully tangible and emotionally grounded, for both Star Wars faithful and casual viewers alike. —Allison Keene
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