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How Dan Schneider Made Nickelodeon Into a ‘House of Horrors’

Jeff Kravitz / Getty
Jeff Kravitz / Getty

Dan Schneider’s rise to fame as the architect of Nickelodeon’s generation-defining tween television empire was almost as meteoric as his fall from grace. The ugliness that led to his 2018 downfall is the prime subject of Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV, a four-part ID exposé (March 17) that paints him as an abusive and sexist manipulator who created hostile work environments, laced his for-minors shows with sexualized imagery and innuendo, and generally put his child actors in harm’s way. Nonetheless, in perhaps this non-fiction affair’s biggest twist, its centerpiece is an extended chat with Drake Bell, star of Schneider’s Drake & Josh, who for the first time outs himself as the anonymous victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a studio voice and acting coach—and claims that Schneider, upon learning of his ordeal, was nothing but supportive.

Directors Mary Robertson and Emma Schwartz’s docuseries spends its entire third episode (and a healthy bit of its fourth) focusing on Bell, who began acting at the age of five and, with the help of his dad Joe, graduated from commercials and guest spots to a regular role on The Amanda Show. For Bell, this was a dream come true. But as is so often the case in Hollywood, it came with a terrible price—corrosive interaction with Brian Peck, a staffer who was best known to Nickelodeon audiences as Pickle Boy on Schneider’s original network success, the SNL-for-kids sketch comedy series All That. Having previously mentored the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio on Growing Pains, Peck had an impressive resumé and was close with bigwigs at Nickelodeon, and he took Bell under his wing. Joe soon came to view Peck’s behavior toward his son—always following him around and whispering in his ear, as well as creepily touching him on the arm and around the waist—as suspect to the point of dangerous. However, few listened to his complaints, and it wasn’t long before Peck (who was an admirer of, and pen pal with, none other than serial killer John Wayne Gacy) was driving a wedge between Bell and his dad, all so he could engineer the situation to his advantage.

Once Peck got Joe out of the way (by having Bell fire him as his manager), he was free to assume a deviant parental role in the actor’s life, carpooling him to and from work and auditions, and having him stay at his house. What ensued, Bell recounts in Quiet on Set, was abuse that was “extensive. And it got pretty brutal.” Asked by the directors to elaborate, all Bell can muster is, “Why don’t you do this—why don’t you think of the worst stuff that someone could do to somebody as a sexual assault, and that’ll answer your question.” Court records presented on screen specify the disgusting crimes Peck perpetrated against the Drake & Bell headliner, which eventually became so traumatizing that Bell told his mother about them. Even so, Peck only received 16 months behind bars, thanks in part to letters of support written to the judge by dozens of industry acquaintances—such as James Marsden, Taran Killam, Alan Thicke, Rider Strong, Will Friedle, and Joanna Kerns, who now regrets her missive—which declared Peck a great guy who, in some cases, had been “tempted” into committing his heinous acts.

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In the wake of being repeatedly, horribly violated and then witnessing colleagues and Hollywood insiders stand up for his abuser—thereby proving to him that blowing the whistle did pose a threat to his career—Bell fell apart personally, with drugs and alcohol part of a downward spiral that he speaks about candidly in Quiet on Set. Robertson and Schwartz’s docuseries is undeniably strongest when focusing on Bell’s nightmare, but it wisely contextualizes it as a symptom of a larger problem within the industry, which habitually treats kids as commodities, scares them into accepting all sorts of indignities lest they jeopardize their highly coveted jobs (and lifelong spotlight aspirations), and doesn’t protect them from adult conduct that ranges from inapt to detrimental to wildly over the line. The fact that Peck turned out to be one of three pedophiles on the Nickelodeon lot during this era, and subsequently got a post-prison job working on Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, merely reinforces the impression that the system cares little for its youngest employees’s safety.

While Bell makes clear that Schneider had his back during this period, the remainder of Quiet on Set features more damning interviews with reporters Scaachi Koul and Kate Taylor, as well as many Nickelodeon alums—including actors Alexa Nikolas, Leon Frierson, Giovonnie Samuels, Katrina Johnson, Raquel Lee Bolleau, Kyle Sullivan, and Bryan Christopher Hearne, along with writers, editors, directors, and costumers. Many of them describe the studio under Schneider’s rule as “a house of horrors” where inappropriate jokes, gender discrimination, child labor law violations, and unseemly physical contact were the norm. Anecdotes about Schneider’s habit of demanding massages from staffers are legion, and extended attention is paid to his off-putting relationships with Amanda Bynes and, later, iCarly’s Jennette McCurdy. Robertson and Schwartz also offer up copious clips (some of the worst involving Victorious and Sam & Cat star Ariana Grande) of kids performing demeaning and/or sexualized gags involving feet, phallic sausages and potatoes, and goo being squirted on girls’s faces. Though some might have seemed innocuous in the abstract, when viewed at a remove, and side by side with several similar examples, they lend credence to the overarching argument that Schneider fostered an unsuitable and unhealthy atmosphere.

Quiet on Set only cursorily tries to psychoanalyze Schneider as a man living out his adolescent-girl fantasies through his work, but it does consistently depict him as a tyrant who felt empowered to do as he pleased. Moreover, it casts the entire children’s-TV landscape as a minefield for parents and kids, who in order to keep their names in the credits are compelled to endure a wide range of improprieties, some of which beget permanent scars. As such, it resonates as a continuation of a tale as old as Hollywood itself, and yet another warning to moms and dads that they should think twice before agreeing to help their juvenile offspring chase A-list glory.

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