Just as the Harry Potter series begins its elongated cinematic finale, Disney Channel's own version of the wizarding world, "Wizards of Waverly Place," has hit the reset button.
The show revolves around the magical education of the three Russo siblings, who are vying with each other to become the next family wizard. It's always had a bigger built-in narrative obstacle than most kids' shows — not only will the stars inevitably age out of the its demographic, but by the end of three seasons, one of them also had to be close to winning. So, at the end of Season 3, the government stepped in and turned off all the magic, leaving wizards-in-training Alex ( Selena Gomez), Justin ( David Henrie) and Max (Jake T. Austin) and their wizard father ( David DeLuise) just as powerless as their mortal mother ( Maria Canals-Barrera).
As the Season 4 premiere — and the groovy new rendition of the theme song — indicates, "everything is not what it seems." At the risk of tripping a spoiler alert, let's just say that no one is going to be the new Russo family wizard any time soon. Having lost "Hannah Montana" to Miley Cyrus' new grown-up career, Disney's not about to let its new No. 1 show end because of something silly like academic realism.
As with "Hannah Montana," "Wizards of Waverly Place" is a modern miracle of entertainment engineering that lassoes the young adult zeitgeist and repackages it for kids. In this case, it's the country's decade-long trend to the supernatural. "Wizards of Waverly Place" doesn't just follow the Potter-esque high jinks of three very different kids attempting to lead normal lives while learning magic, but it also shamelessly helps itself to a dollop of "Twilight" pixie dust — Justin is dating a vampire, Alex a werewolf. Never mind the debt owed "Bewitched" — only this time, it's Dad who can do magic and Mom who's mortal.
None of which is meant in the pejorative. "Wizards of Waverly Place" is a very good show, funny and clever, easier on the shtick and maddening laugh track than Disney's "Sonny With a Chance" and with a much lower brat factor than Nickelodeon's "iCarly." Gomez is sweet and sassy, with a lovely elastic face and great comic timing, and she heads an attractive and appealing cast that includes Gregg Sulkin as Mason the werewolf, Jennifer Stone as Alex's friend Harper and Bridgit Mendler as Juliet, the vampire.
It's also nice to see a kids show where performing in front of an audience is not dangled as Every Child's Dream. In grand Disney tradition, Gomez, like "Sonny With a Chance" star Demi Lovato, has been multi-platformed since before she could vote — a recording deal with Hollywood Records, starring roles in the TV movies "Another Cinderella Story" and "Princess Protection Program" (before it was rock/TV stars, it was princesses), and now a new fashion line.
But on "Wizards of Waverly Place," Alex's main ambition is to become the family wizard, not so much for the power and prestige as the satisfaction of beating out her older brother Justin. As created by Todd J. Greenwald, the Russo siblings each have their own strengths and weaknesses, but they are presented in a refreshingly democratic manner. Gomez may be the star, but Henrie's Justin and Austin's Max do not serve as foils or comic relief — they all give as good as they get, just like in a real family.
According to press notes, Season 4 will see the addition of Bailee Madison as Maxine, "an adorable 10-year-old wizard." Tacking on an "adorable" younger cast member is often the hallmark of an aging show — when Ricky Segall showed up on " The Partridge Family," it was all over, likewise Scrappy-Doo. Henrie is getting too tall and mature to meet the tween fantasy needs of Justin Bieber fans, and Gomez, like Cyrus, recently starred in a feature film, "Ramona and Beezus." But this isn't Disney's first rodeo, and if anyone can squeeze another solid season or two out of these kids, it can.