Pepper-Ann - The birth of the G-Rated Middle School cartoon

TheMisterManGuy

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As an aspiring writer, I've always been fascinated by Middle School as a setting. Sure, actual middle school is a hellhole that nobody likes to remember, but when used in fiction, it could be a unique and refreshing change of pace from the usual "High School" setting. When done right, it can let you tell Teenage-level stories, with a sense of child-like wonder, creating a nice middle ground. After all, there's just something about being 11-14 years old that can feel murky, unclear, and janky at times. You wanna be grown up, but don't exactly know how, and unlike in High School, you can't drive, or hold a job, so you have to navigate coming of age blind. There are many shows and movies out there that can use the setting effectively, especially in the 80s and 90s when there were shows such as The Wonder Years, Degrassi Junior High, and The Secret World of Alex Mack, that explored the awkwardness of junior high.

But there was a particular cartoon I think, that took the Middle School setting, removed it of anything negative or serious, and created a template that many other cartoons borrowed extensively. Disney's Pepper-Ann.


Premiering in 1997 as part of ABC's One Saturday Morning block, Pepper-Ann was one of Disney's first animated TV series to come from an independent cartoonist, rather than an in-house animator. In this case Sue Rose. The show is actually loosely based on a comic strip written in a Teen Magazine. ABC saw this and asked if Rose could develop a pitch for a full series for Kids. To do this, a few things needed to happen. the title character needed to be aged down to 12, and the show had to follow the newly established E/I guidelines mandated by the FCC. Rose drew inspiration from her own youth, as well as interviews with actual 12-year old girls. That inspiration was then filtered through the Disney censors to create a kid-friendly, G-rated version of Middle schoolers.

Pepper-Ann Pearson is your typical 12 year old misfit. Trying fit in and be cool, while dealing with family and school. Together with her two friends Nikki and Milo, they navigate the messy half-kid, half-teen period of their lives known as 7th grade. Most episodes follow a format, Pepper-Ann is faced with a moral dilemma, she choses the wrong choice, faces the consequences, and learns a lesson, rinse, repeat. Let me start by saying Pepper-Ann is not a bad show, nowhere near it. It's funny, clever, and relatable to kids with 12 year old siblings, actual 12 year olds, and adults who have been 12.

But here's the thing, Pepper-Ann is not what Middle School is actually like. See, the show takes place in this idyllic, sanitized, parent-approved alternate dimension where 12 year olds never swear, never even contemplate trying alcohol or drugs, never see PG-13 movies (because god forbid a one year difference is too much for Disney), and only have safe, innocent feelings about the opposite sex. While the show did try to tackle actual pre-teen/teen problems (the episode "Support" for example) it still danced around those topics using euphemisms and metaphors, rather than outright stating the problem.

Pepper-Ann does for Middle School, what Archie Andrews and the gang did for High School. It provided kids this sugary, G-rated view of junior high, filled with low stakes problems and wacky hijinks. It was a show about middle schoolers, aimed at kids that are just about to hit that stage of life, and wanted to see what it was all about. That's not a bad thing mind you. If Pepper-Ann wanted to be more realistic, nobody would've watched it, and it would probably be seen as a cheap My-So-Called-Life knock of, so its easy to see why Rose and Disney thought it'd be better to take a more comedic, kid-friendly approach. And it worked. Pepper-Ann was one of the most popular shows on the One Saturday Morning block, running for 5 seasons, and arguably inspired other similar kid-friendly middle school shows such as The Weekenders, Detention, Fillmore, Lizzie McGuire, All Grown Up!, Amazing World of Gumball, and others. It showed that middle school is an ideal setting for children's media. Middle schoolers are old enough to be aspirational for kids, but still young enough to be relatable.

It also foreshadowed the "tween" formula that Disney would recreate with the Disney Channel hits like High School Musical, That's So Raven, and Hannah Montana, which also were written in a similarly squeaky-clean manner.

Pepper-Ann is a good cartoon if you want fun slice-of-life stories with likable characters. But if you grew up with the show and expected middle school to be this fun and innocent, then you may have been optimistic.
 
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Dr.Pepper

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I agree that Pepper Ann is a very underrated show. It is one of my faves. However, Doug was doing the middle school thing several years before. I think if anything Doug started the slice of life of a middle schooler thing.
 

TheMisterManGuy

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I agree that Pepper Ann is a very underrated show. It is one of my faves. However, Doug was doing the middle school thing several years before. I think if anything Doug started the slice of life of a middle schooler thing.
Technically speaking, the Nick seasons of Doug were set in Elementary School (6th grade), Disney aged up the characters to middle school when they took over. 6th grade is weird because many U.S. schools place it in Elementary School, instead of Middle School.
 
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Dr.Pepper

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Technically speaking, the Nick seasons of Doug were set in Elementary School (6th grade), Disney aged up the characters to middle school when they took over. 6th grade is weird because many U.S. schools place it in Elementary School, instead of Middle School.
I guess I’m not super familiar with the Nick version, but I could of swore he was in middle school. Or at least I remember more middle school tropes than elementary ones. Maybe it’s just a regional thing, but most school districts in my neck of the woods have 6th grade in middle school.
 

TheMisterManGuy

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I guess I’m not super familiar with the Nick version, but I could of swore he was in middle school. Or at least I remember more middle school tropes than elementary ones. Maybe it’s just a regional thing, but most school districts in my neck of the woods have 6th grade in middle school.
My school originally had 6th grade in middle school, but it was shifted to elementary school the following year. 6th grade is a weird transition period, where some kids still want to be kids for another year, and others want to start doing more mature stuff, so some schools will either let 6th graders stay in an elementary school for a little while longer, while others will want to move them into middle school.
 

Zanneck

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Pepper Ann >>>>> Doug (either version), in every way, IMHO. I'm sorry I didn't appreciate it more when it was around.

It really was the superior middle school based comedy joint in comparison to the borefest than Doug - again, either version, unfortunately is, IMHO.

Then again, nothing less should be expected from those who brought us the near brilliance of Codename: KND, so many years later, so...

Speaking of how criminally underrated Pepper Ann is, it's hard to find the complete series anywhere - what about Disney+? You'd think it be on there by now, honestly.
 

JMTV Studios

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Pepper Ann is a pretty decent show for what it was, and I do enjoy it for what I remember a few years ago.

Here's a fun fact: Amphibia was inspired by Pepper Ann due to the creator of series, Matt Braley, grew up with that show since he was a teen. If you look at Anne Boonchuy's design, even though Anne was influenced by Matt's late grandmother, her middle school clothing was inspired by Pepper Ann's clothing.
 

TheMisterManGuy

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Also, fun fact, Sue Rose after Pepper-Ann, went on to create Unfabulous for Nickelodeon, which pretty much had the same premise of about a 7th grader and her friends surviving middle school. In fact, you could argue Unfabulous is just a Live-Action Pepper-Ann.
 

Antiyonder

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Pepper Ann is a pretty decent show for what it was, and I do enjoy it for what I remember a few years ago.

Here's a fun fact: Amphibia was inspired by Pepper Ann due to the creator of series, Matt Braley, grew up with that show since he was a teen. If you look at Anne Boonchuy's design, even though Anne was influenced by Matt's late grandmother, her middle school clothing was inspired by Pepper Ann's clothing.

Now we just need to see said lead character being dubbed in-universe as "Pepper Anne":-D.
 

quintex96

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ooh I loved Unfabulous, had no idea it was made by the creator of Pepper Ann but it makes sense, i've been rewatching Pepper Ann lately and it's bringing back a lot of memories.
 
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TheMisterManGuy

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ooh I loved Unfabulous, had no idea it was made by the creator of Pepper Ann but it makes sense, i've been rewatching Pepper Ann lately and it's bringing back a lot of memories.
Unfabulous is pretty underrated too. I think a lot of people wrote it off as just a Lizzie McGuire knock off, but honestly I prefer it to that show (Lizzie started getting too ridiculous and unrelatable towards the end of its run, whereas Unfabulous was much more grounded).
 

quintex96

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Unfabulous is pretty underrated too. I think a lot of people wrote it off as just a Lizzie McGuire knock off, but honestly I prefer it to that show (Lizzie started getting too ridiculous and unrelatable towards the end of its run, whereas Unfabulous was much more grounded).
Having recently rewatched Lizzie, I think it was pretty relatable for most of its run, it only really got over-the-top a few times(like when Lizzie and her friends went on that crazy Mexican game show, as in real life i'm not so sure foreigners would've been allowed to compete on a show like that).

Unfabulous was more grounded for sure.
 

LinusFan303

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Pepper Ann is like my favorite Disney animated series over pretty much anything else, it was a fun show. The show was more focused on it's characters over the setting of middle school and gave us some fun interesting characters. Too be honest, you really aren't going to get school depicted completely realistically since most of the time school isn't an exciting place, you are sitting in classrooms doing work and or listening to a teacher talk. Pepper Ann was more focused on characters and social moral stories with some humor.

Nice to see some people talking about Unfabulous that was a good series, it kind of has been lost in the Nickelodeon early 2000's nostalgia with more focus on Drake and Josh and Zoey 101, it was just kind of there. The show was pretty good, and should be added to Paramount Plus, like how Disney needs to Pepper Ann to their plus service.
 

TheMisterManGuy

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Pepper Ann is like my favorite Disney animated series over pretty much anything else, it was a fun show. The show was more focused on it's characters over the setting of middle school and gave us some fun interesting characters. Too be honest, you really aren't going to get school depicted completely realistically since most of the time school isn't an exciting place, you are sitting in classrooms doing work and or listening to a teacher talk. Pepper Ann was more focused on characters and social moral stories with some humor.
True, but Pepper-Ann was still a pretty sanitized version of what being a middle schooler was like. The show never touched on older pre-teen issues like drugs, alcohol or puberty directly. They were always referred to in metaphors and allegories, and delivered in a comedic, slice-of-life manner. Even Full House did episodes where middle schoolers were drinking and smoking.

Again, this isn't a bad thing, Pepper-Ann's strengths as you said are its characters and humor. But it's kind of like High School Musical, it's a Disney-fied family friendly version of adolescence meant for younger kids.
 

Erased Paper

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On the subject of the show, I just want to say that the list of original airdates for the last season has been wrong for almost two decades now. Some of the last few episodes actually premiered on Toon Disney in September 2001.

More specifically, "The Finale" was NOT shown on November 18th, 2000; that date was actually a repeat of the Thanksgiving episode.
 

quintex96

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On the subject of the show, I just want to say that the list of original airdates for the last season has been wrong for almost two decades now. Some of the last few episodes actually premiered on Toon Disney in September 2001.

More specifically, "The Finale" was NOT shown on November 18th, 2000; that date was actually a repeat of the Thanksgiving episode.
That was true for a lot of Disney's animated shows around that time, their last few episodes would be stretched out for years with the last few typically airing on Toon Disney, no idea why that happened so often back then. This happened to Teamo Supremo(notably one episode only ever aired in the USA ONCE and early in the morning, so most viewers never saw it), Lloyd in Space, Fillmore, The Weekenders and Teacher's Pet.
 

Red Arrow

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Is it possible that Pepper Ann actually has 3 seasons? It is known that this many seasons were dubbed into Dutch. Maybe 2 seasons of 26 episodes and 1 season of 13 episodes?

Or maybe some episodes were never dubbed into Dutch, but that would be a unusual.

EDIT: Maybe I have already asked this, I don't remember XD
 
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Erased Paper

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That was true for a lot of Disney's animated shows around that time, their last few episodes would be stretched out for years with the last few typically airing on Toon Disney, no idea why that happened so often back then. This happened to Teamo Supremo(notably one episode only ever aired in the USA ONCE and early in the morning, so most viewers never saw it), Lloyd in Space, Fillmore, The Weekenders and Teacher's Pet.
Yes, there's misinformation about "Lloyd in Space" as well.
 

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