Back when I was a tween-ager -- well, I never was a tween-ager, because back then the word hadn't been invented. Nor were there shows designed for that demographic, not until "The Facts of Life" and "Saved by the Bell." Certainly there weren't whole networks devoted to the under-18 generation, with tailor-made movies and sketch comedies and sitcoms. No Nickelodeon, with its "The Secret World of Alex Mack" and "Clarissa Explains It All." No Disney Channel, with its "The Famous Jett Jackson," "Even Stevens," "That's So Raven."
One can't exactly judge these shows by the standards of "Cheers" or "Friends" or "Seinfeld." Though the best of them are smart and accomplished, most are aimed squarely at an audience whose concerns, likes and sense of humor are not yours, grown person -- a pre-to-tween-to-teen demo bounded at the bottom by kids who are a little too young to know what's going on and at the top by kids who are a little too old to still be watching stuff like this.
"Hannah Montana," which bows tonight at 9:30 on Disney Channel, is not the finest of its kind, but it's a solid little sitcom that will help move a lot of units when 13-year-old star Miley Cyrus starts fulfilling that recording contract she's also been signed to. (Next week it takes up its regular 7 p.m. slot.)
Cyrus plays a girl (also named Miley) who leads a double life as an ordinary middle-schooler and a pop teen sensation along the line of Britney/Lindsay/Hilary etc. She is the biggest thing since, I don't know, scrunchies; it's "The Day of the Locust" whenever her name is mentioned. As is absolutely allowable in a piece as heedless of reality as this, she assumes her fabulous other identity simply by wearing a blond wig -- upon donning it she is, like Superman in his Clark Kent glasses, unrecognizable to even her closest friends.
Cyrus is the real-life daughter of country-music mullethead Billy Ray Cyrus, who plays her father on screen as well. (The mullet has gone the way of all hair; his current look suggests he brought a picture of Keith Urban with him on his last trip to the barber.) Billy Ray is really just a supporting player here, the dad who pops in once in a while to jog things along and gets out of the way with a comical fatherly warning. ("At your age there are only two things that are cute -- that's squirrels and little puppy dogs.") In the universe of kids' TV, and perhaps in the universe of all kids' minds, the kids take care of themselves. It's their world, we just live in it. "My mom's in the car grooving to the oldies station," says Miley's best friend Lily (Emily Osment). "It's getting uglier by the second."
Miley, who was in Tim Burton's "Big Fish" and a few episodes of her father's PAX series "Doc," is a relative newcomer who seems at times a talented amateur -- that is to say, not quite a professional, which is not necessarily a bad thing in young actors. But she has definite comedy chops and a throaty voice that makes her appear somehow more mature and solid than she is, and helps give a little gravity to what can be a very screechy show. (Kids here shout at each other from a foot apart, but perhaps this is just normal teenage conversation.)
And its theme, after all, is hysteria: It lampoons fandom and pop-cultural obsession even as it revels in it -- and retails it. Disney is, of course, knee-deep in this muck, the '90s-brand "Mickey Mouse Club" having been the primordial soup that bred Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake, while Hilary Duff was the network's "Lizzie McGuire."
Rendered in colors of an almost sickening intensity, and offering a soundstage Malibu so tropical you expect Gilligan to come bumbling through, the show also features Mitchel Musso as another close friend, obsessed with Hannah. "I want to shampoo and condition your beautiful blond hair," he tells Miley-as-Hannah. ("I totally understand if you want to transfer your affection to Mandy Moore," Miley tells him upon revealing her secret identity.) Jason Earles plays her clueless older brother, amusingly. There are the usual stuck-up snobby girls at school and, surprisingly, a bit of camp humor surrounding Miley's personal fashion designer and a couple jokes involving ... well, if they can say "poopy" on Disney Channel, I guess I can write it here.
Where: Disney Channel
When: Premieres 9:30 to 10 tonight. Regular time 7 p.m.
Ratings: TV-G (suitable for all ages).