Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Quiet on Set’ exposes the ugly truth of the shows we grew up watching

The docuseries reveals a culture of harassment, toxicity and sexualization of child actors
Courtesy of IMDb

Like many of us who grew up in the 1990s and 2000s, I spent much of my free time in my childhood watching Nickelodeon shows such as “Drake & Josh,” “iCarly” and “Victorious.” This era marked by Dan Schneider-produced shows holds a significant cultural value, and Millennial and Generation Z nostalgia is often defined by his work.

When the docuseries “Quiet on Set” promised to pull back the curtain and expose the dark side of the shows I grew up on, I was immediately intrigued. “Quiet on Set” uses anecdotes from former Nickelodeon employees to bring the dark secrets of our childhood favorite shows to light, even if it occasionally overuses shock factor to do so.

“Quiet on Set” begins by chronicling how Nickelodeon became a staple of children’s entertainment in the 1990s. Much of this is credited to Dan Schneider, who produced many of the channel’s breakout hits since its inception. While the docuseries acknowledges the instrumental role he played in Nickelodeon’s success, it holds Schneider accountable for the toxic and offensive workplace he created.

Throughout the show, former cast members discuss how they were pressured into skits that were questionable at best and humiliating at worst. The latter is exemplified by the “On Air Dares,” a segment where “All That stars took part in disgusting challenges similar to those in “Fear Factor.” As one interviewee points out, “Fear Factor” involves consenting adults while the “On Air Dares” involved impressionable children who risked their family’s income if they declined the challenges.  From gross-out dares to sexually charged scenes written for underage actors, a recurring theme emerges: the adults contributed to harm on set instead of protecting the children under their wing.

I appreciated the emphasis that “Quiet on Set” placed on the power imbalance between child stars and the adults in their lives, including their parents. Not only are children unable to properly consent, but they are also even more vulnerable to exploitation as the breadwinners of their families. Greater legal protections and psychological support for child actors are seriously needed and “Quiet on Set” does an excellent job at calling attention to this.

Though the focus is on the child stars, adult employees at Nickelodeon were also subject to mistreatment. A particularly nauseating series of anecdotes comes from two female writers for “The Amanda Show” Christy Stratton and Jenny Kilgen. Despite writing for a comedy that centers on a female actress, the two were degraded and had their work discredited based on their gender. In clear violation of  Writer’s Guild rules, they were forced to split a salary when all the male writers were fully compensated. Schneider was also frequently inappropriate to them, requesting massages and even asking Stratton to act out being sodomized during a meeting. Kilgen filed a gender discrimination and hostile workplace environment lawsuit in 2000, which was settled out of court.

Unfortunately, these allegations and ensuing lawsuit were not Nickelodeon’s only disturbing legal troubles. The end of the second episode discloses that two former employees who worked on “All That,” Jason Handy and Brian Peck, were convicted of sex crimes against children.

If there was any part of “Quiet on Set” that catapulted it into the spotlight, it was the third episode’s revelation that Drake Bell was the “John Doe” in the child sexual abuse case against Brian Peck, a former dialogue coach at Nickelodeon. The show understands that the Drake Bell interview is its linchpin, leading up to it at the end of the second episode using dramatic lighting and music. It felt somewhat tone-deaf to use effects to build anticipation for such a sensitive subject. However, the journalists handled the interview itself gracefully, checking in on Bell multiple times to make sure that he was comfortable sharing his story on camera.

The last two episodes are difficult but an important watch. The third episode mainly consists of Drake Bell’s interview, where he recounts how Brian Peck used his parents’ divorce to force his way into Bell’s life, which eventually escalated to sexually assaulting him. Peck was arrested on 11 counts of sexual abuse of a child in 2003 and later sentenced to 16 months in prison. One of the most heart-wrenching parts of the documentary is when Drake Bell describes the courtroom at Brian Peck’s sentencing: Bell only had his mother and brother on his side, while Peck was surrounded by familiar faces from Hollywood.

At the beginning of the fourth episode, the directors reveal that they had worked with the court to unseal 41 letters of support for Brian Peck from his 2004 trial. This has been the main topic of discussion regarding “Quiet on Set”; several actors who had written letters apologized for their actions in response to backlash.

The social media response to “Quiet on Set” has been swift. In a YouTube interview, Dan Schneider expressed regret for his workplace misconduct but denied accusations of writing sexual innuendo into his shows. The show’s fifth episode brought back interviewees from prior episodes to share their thoughts on the internet’s reactions. When it comes to the apologies from Dan Schneider and celebrities who wrote letters of support for Brian Peck, the shared sentiment was that it is too little, too late.

While I agree that the apologies come off as performative, I question the need for parts of the fifth episode that seem designed to fuel the fire of social media. Online conspiracy theorists have already latched onto the docuseries to push their agenda and it is irresponsible to encourage this behavior. If the goal of “Quiet on Set” is to empathize with child actors, it should be more critical of how tabloids and the internet have worsened their rocky transition into adulthood.

There are times that “Quiet on Set” feels like reality TV or a pulpy true crime show instead of the serious documentary it is. However, that should not detract from the importance of what it exposes. Aside from certain editing and content choices, the docuseries succeeds at making a call to action for children’s rights rather than using the victimization of children for shock value. As distressing as it is to find out the ugly truth of shows we hold fond childhood memories of, “Quiet on Set” is a necessary step forward to bring justice to mistreated child actors.

Leyna Summers can be reached at [email protected].

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