There’s always room for a family show that simply makes you feel good, both as a casual viewer and about the future. Enter Disney+’s “Diary of a Future President” (premiering January 17), which imagines a world in which a Cuban-American woman named Elena Cañero-Reed has one of the most powerful jobs in the world, but still has her old diary from her sixth grade experience. The series, from creator Ilana Peña (who based this work on her childhood), looks back on these school years as a formative time, and also orchestrates a punchy and very sweet depiction of a family. Best of all, it's an encouraging Disney+ product that doesn’t pander when it comes to weightier issues.
Tess Romero stars as Elena in grade six, a hard-working young woman navigating the world terrain of sixth grade, already leading with integrity and a straight moral compass. She’s proud of her Cuban-American heritage (matter-of-factly correcting teachers on the pronunciation of her last name) but still figuring things out, like why her old friend has dumped her for someone else, or what she wants to do with all her tenacity, which is beyond her years. Her travails in the wild world of middle school often make for funny scenarios, especially whenever the writers embrace their surprising off-beat side. Episode titles make little references to her work as Commander in Chief (“Disaster Relief”), their respective situations playing out like microcosm ideas that'll later inform Elena decisions in power.
It’s not just Elena’s experience that gets ample focus, but that of her lawyer mother Gabi (Selenis Levya) and her eighth-grader brother (Charlie Bushnell), each of them traversing different changes in their lives, and sometimes not so smoothly. The three of them have a recent sadness in their life—the recent loss of the father in the house—but that becomes a more unifying factor for them. In their individual arcs, Gabi is having some social awkwardness at her job, and is uncertain of how to introduce a new man in her life, co-worker Sam (Michael Levine) to her kids; these scenes are particularly sweet. Meanwhile, Bobby is still trying to figure out his ego, and pride in who he is. When bouncing between these lives, the show's nimble tone allows it to go from a serious moment and then back to goofiness, without missing a beat.
The series makes a lot of things work—Sam’s cheesy puns are charming, the writers navigates loss and new relationships with ease, and it even focuses on the adult issues without shortchanging the gravity behind them. Plus, while “Diary of a Future President” is excellent and easy family entertainment, it doesn’t shy away from a presentation of a young woman going through body changes, which feels healthy in itself. It’s all tackled with a wit and sincerity that simply comes from thoughtful writing, a trait that is apparent in each of the first five episodes.
There’s so much to like about “Diary of a Future President,” like its long list of women (of all ages and colors) who are smart, or the way every episode breezes its way to a unifying lesson. It’s even exciting to watch a show that starts with a woman like Elena as president (played by Gina Rodriguez), and is then about retracing the steps—a series of goofy mishaps that become learning experiences, all with a happy ending. “Diary of a Future President” is as likely to make you laugh, as it is to give you a sense of hope.
Five episodes screened for review.