My family and I decided to binge watch the new Disney+ original show Big Shot. It’s a story about a basketball coach (John Stamos) who is at the peak of his career only to go back to ground zero after throwing a chair in frustration and hitting a referee (first 2 minute spoiler, sorry). He becomes the head coach for a women’s high school basketball team (did I mention this school is prestigious and mostly populated by rich kids and families?) and helps them go from a Division III team to a Division II team.
I guess just that description alone can give people concern… another show about rich kids and their drama, an all girls school with a male coach – why not a female coach?, and a redemption story. Like, come on Disney, try to be original.
That being said, something I didn’t think would come up is an adoption story. Now, I’m not saying an adoption story is bad, they should be told and need to be told. What I don’t like about this adoption story arch (and most Disney adoption stories in particular) is that it came at the end of the season and left audiences with a teen who neglects and ignores her mother in favor of the woman who gave birth to her and was rarely there for her. It not only stings and hurts the heart but it also makes it seem like adopted parents should expect this or are destined to experience this if they adopt. It can be true but when Disney always downplays it or doesn’t show an adoptee processing their adoption and almost always going back to their birth parents – if living – (think Sleeping Beauty, Tangled, Hercules, etc.) it doesn’t address that some adoptees may like their adoptive parents and may want to stay with them. I think if we, as the audience, had closure to the adoption story (like maybe the teen realizes she’s been ignoring the person who raised her and apologizes and says “I love you mom”) I would feel differently because it would’ve shown more of the adoption journey.
But that didn’t happen, the season ended and we have no idea if another season will happen to continue to address adoption narratives and adoption parent narratives. Therefore I am left to assume the “surprise! You’re adopted” story that we were left with was only there to create a plot twist that really didn’t need to be there. I think Coach Korn could’ve been inspired to come up with the “sacrifice the ball” play a number of other ways. Let me give you the recap of the adoption story. There will be spoilers.
We start the season with the girl’s, or women’s, high school basketball team. Soon we find out one of the players, Destiny, lost her father years ago and that’s how Coach Korn (John Stamos) makes his first connection with a player on the team.
Skip ahead to episode 6. Yes, episode 6. Should I also mention there’s only 10 episodes? Episode 6 we meet Destiny’s aunt, Angel. She is the cool aunt who uses her feminist thoughts and words to empower Destiny and encourage Destiny to be herself (that’s how I view her, at least). Episode 7 Destiny tells her friend Louise that since her father passed away she’s been able to see her Aunt Angel more often. She also explains her father and aunt did not get along which may be why she didn’t see her aunt often. Later on Aunt Angel seems a bit upset when everyone had dinner without her (I think Destiny’s mom mentioned Aunt Angel was an hour late). Aunt Angel questions why Destiny’s friend, Louise, is eating dinner with them since Louise’s dad has been arrested for embezzlement. Destiny’s mom emphasizes that is not Louise’s fault and that she is not her father.
Episode 8 is the heavy hitter… and do I need to emphasize this is episode 8 out of 10 total episodes? Let me emphasize, this is episode 8 out of a possible 10 total episodes!
Episode 8 Destiny and Louise are studying together at Destiny’s house. Destiny goes upstairs to grab something and Louise hears her name said by Aunt Angel in another room. Louise takes a peak and overhears Aunt Angel and Destiny’s mom, Christina, talking. Aunt Angel says she thinks Louise is dumping all her own problems onto Destiny but when referring to Destiny says, “our girl”. Christina, Destiny’s mom, then says “If you wanted to be her mother then you should’ve made that choice sixteen years ago when you had her.” Say whaaaat? Again, let me emphasize. We, as the audience, met Aunt Angel (briefly) in Episode 6 and 7 and now in Episode 8 we find out Aunt Angel was the one who gave birth to Destiny.
Angel mentions the deal her and Christina made and Christina tries to apologize for her previous statement. Now… not only are we surprised about this, Louise is surprised and turns around to see Destiny is also surprised and heard everything. Destiny can’t believe they’ve both been lying to her for her entire life and asks Louise to keep it a secret for the time being.
Later on, Coach Korn emphasizes the team should solely be focusing on basketball declaring there is nothing more important than the sport. Destiny angrily shouts out “… some of us are dealing with more important stuff than basketball”. This is the only moment I can think of for the adoption narrative (from Destiny’s perspective – I’ll get to the narrative and story from the parent perspective in a bit). Finding out Destiny was adopted cause the outburst which caused Coach Korn to emphasize there’s nothing more important than basketball to Samantha blurting out she’s the one posting the social media posts. But to be honest… Destiny could’ve said that about studying for a test, friend drama, LITERALLY ANYTHING. So, why did they choose adoption? Or what led to adoption? Did they want to top Louise’s story of having a father arrested for embezzlement? Or to create a plot twist? Or did they authentically and intentionally want to have an adoption story in the series? We can also question why Disney only gave the series 10 episodes to tell an entire season of games and stories but I feel like that’s a different post.
In Episode 9 Louise drives Destiny home and Destiny hesitates to get out of the car. Louise says she didn’t want to ask since it seemed like Destiny didn’t want to talk about what previously happened in Episode 8 and Destiny confirms this is true.
Destiny: "My Aunt Angel's gone. She left town again, per usual." Louise: "And your mom? Is that what we settled on calling her?" Destiny: "I'm not calling her anything. I've decided that if they can pretend it never happened, then so can I."
Louise questions why Destiny doesn’t want to address it and Destiny says she doesn’t want to talk about it. As soon as Destiny walks through the door, Christina notices Destiny is upset and Destiny denies it. Christina says, “Please, like I don’t know when my own daughter is in a mood?”.
Destiny: "How can you even say that?" Christina: "Say what?" Destiny: "Calling me your daughter. I know that you're not my real mom."
Christina asks, “Did Angel tell you this?”. Destiny seems upset that Christina’s first question is how Destiny found out. Destiny explains she overheard them saying “I heard you talking to Aunt Angel or whatever she is”. Destiny emphasizes she doesn’t want to talk about it or hear Christina’s explanation. She only wants things to go back to what they were before she found out. Christina emphasizes they weren’t lying but were protecting Destiny. Destiny tells Christina they [Christina and Angel] had Destiny’s entire life to explain.
The next morning Christina tells Destiny “I didn’t like how we left things. I called Angel,” and continues to say she told Angel to come back and explain for herself because Destiny deserves to know and hear the truth from Angel.
Christina: "The last thing we ever wanted was to hurt you." Destiny: "Sorry for getting so mad then." Christina: "You don't need to apologize. I can't even begin to imagine what it must feel like for you." Destiny: "Like the ground fell out. Completely."
Christina tells Destiny that Angel was around Destiny’s age when she found out she was pregnant with Destiny. Christina explains Angel’s situation, the family’s discussion around adoption, an Christina’s decision to adopt Destiny (see conversation below).
Christina: "And when our parents found out, they... They were so angry... so disappointed. Your grandma? She was barely even talking to her." Destiny: "That's so harsh." Christina: "She was in shock. We all were. Angel had no idea what she was gonna do." Destiny: "I can't imagine having to make a decision like that." Christina: "And I hope you never have to. But I made it for her. I told everyone that her child was not going to leave this family. That I would raise you like you were my own. Destiny, I... I'm so sorry... that keeping that secret made you feel unwanted. That was never my intention." Destiny: "I believe that." Christina: "I didn't give birth to you... but from the first moment... that I held you... I knew that you were my daughter. I can't look at you any other way."
I really liked that Disney had this conversation in the series. I thought it seemed authentic but also the word choice made by mom was really well chosen to exclude problematic language such as “real mom and other mom”, explain mom’s own reasoning and beliefs, and address Destiny’s new identity as an adoptee and possible feelings of shock, feeling unwanted by the parent who gave birth to her, among other things. I don’t always feel like these topics are addressed, especially in Disney, and was pleasantly surprised by Disney’s adoption narrative progress. My parents told me I was adopted at an early age through books, conversations, and an entire summer camp that addressed adoption, non-nuclear families, and more. You can hear all about my own adoption story and upbringing on the Janchi Show podcast.
I thought it was also interesting to see the entrance to the high school right after. Generally it’s a transition image between scenes but I didn’t pay attention to what was written on the entrance to the school until re-watching this episode for this post. The entrance says, “Westbrook School for Girls: Women Striving – Women Thriving”.
Then in Episode 10, yes episode 10, the season finale, Angel is at the house to talk to Destiny. Christina gives them space to talk alone and Angel starts by saying Christina told her how angry Destiny was when she found out. Destiny explains she was in shock and is no longer angry about it.
Destiny: "I’m not angry anymore, I just, I don’t know what it all means. Everything is the same, but different." Angel: "I know honey. And there are no simple answers. Christina told you most of the story, but you must have questions, so here I am." Destiny: "How did you meet him? Like, were you in love? Did you get married?" Angel: "We met at a school dance. I loved him 'cause I was sixteen. We never married." Destiny: "Can I meet him?" Angel: "Uh... Honey, I have no idea where that man is." Destiny: "Were you ever going to tell me the truth?" Angel: "I told myself I would, when the time was right. But I guess the time never seemed right. Because I was scared. Look, I am sorry. I'm sorry for not telling you. But I'm not sorry about what happened. I saw the life my sister and her husband gave you, and it was... It was better than anything I could provide. I guess there was a little shame in that. But God's honest truth, I was not ready to have a child back then." Destiny: "What about now?" Angel: "I already have one."
The scene pans out with the two of them hugging and mom watching from a distance. My heart hurt there. I really liked they were able to have this conversation and Angel admitted to feeling shame and being scared (something most adults are not willing to admit out loud). There is a lot of hurt feelings with this dynamic and now Destiny needs to navigate how to balance her relationship with her mom and her relationship with her Aunt Angel (especially her and Angel wanting to change their relationship to mom and daughter when Destiny already has a strong mom and daughter relationship with Christina). It’s such a shaky and sensitive topic to write about and show in a TV show.
So up to now I’m okay with the adoption narrative. Here’s where it all falls (literally in the middle of the season finale)… In the school hallway Destiny brings Christina and Angel up to her coaches (Marvyn Korn and Holly Barrett). Destiny says, “I want you to meet my new mom. Uh, Coach Barrett, Coach Korn, this is my Aunt Angel.”. Christina smiles and is enthusiastic with Destiny and Angel’s excited feelings and Destiny pulls Angel away saying she wants to show Angel off to her friends. Christina hangs back to talk to Destiny’s coaches.
Coach Marvyn: "She looks happy, huh?" Christina: "Oh yeah. She sure loves her. Angel's always been the shinier penny." Coach Holly: "Yeah, but you're always gonna be the mom." Christina: "[Laughs] Try telling her that. She looks at me and sees a worn-out old quarter." Coach Marvyn: "You know, quarters are worth more than pennies." Christina: "[Looks at Coach Holly] He's trouble, isn't he?" Coach Holly: "You have no idea." Christina: "[Looks at Destiny and Angel] I'm losing her." Coach Holly: "No, you're not." Christina: "I am. For sixteen years, every skinned knee hurt me more than her. I wiped every tear. Read her every bedtime story. Tucked her in at night. Gave her a kiss on the forehead. And then one day, a day I knew was coming, a shiny penny shows up. She's a great aunt. But she has no idea what it means to be a parent. And when she goes back to her real life and break's Destiny's heart, and she will because that's... that's who she is, I'll still be there to pick up the pieces. [Looking at Coach Marvyn] They never know what sacrifices we make, do they? That's the job, I guess.
As Christina walks away, Coach Holly looks at Coach Marvyn and says, “You think you’re the shiny penny, don’t you?”. Now we need to remember, this series is about Coach Marvyn, with side stories about the 5 key basketball players (Destiny being one of them). Coach Marvyn has a flashback montage of helping each player and the players supporting him. He comes up with the “Sacrifice Play” as part of the new playbook. The “Sacrifice Play” predicts the opposing team will double up on the two best players and instead passes the ball to the player who is least expected to score. A play I feel like we’ve seen in a lot of movies, so not a new concept. The one example I can instantly think of is the first 5 minutes of High School Musical 3. Coach Marvyn explains to his daughter and the team he thought he knew what it meant to be a dad “… and then it hit me. Being a parent is about sacrifice. Sacrificing your own needs and desires for your child,” which he got from Christina.
The series ends on the basketball team doing the “Sacrifice Play”, winning the game, and celebrating with a party after. The end. Literally. We don’t know if there will be a second season to address Christina being ignored by her daughter and Destiny wanting Angel to be more of a mom role than Christina. I mean, how does what Christina say not hurt you to the core? That’s the last we see her in the series. Can you imagine? And of all people it’s her sister. If there is a second season I hope they’ll explore this more.
I wouldn’t find it so problematic if it wasn’t Disney. I understand there’s many different opinions and perspectives about this and every topic. Everyone believes different things. However, I don’t think it’s right for Disney to always show the same story (birth parent over adoptive parent, birth parent as the hero and adoptive parent as the villain, only showing adoptive parents in a good light if the birth parent is dead) when they are a children and family targeted medium. I want to say it’s not fair, but life isn’t fair so it’s not a strong argument in my mind.
One way that I’ve seen this dynamic work is with Disney’s Once Upon a Time TV show. Now, it took many seasons for this dynamic to come to fruition (I feel like that’s pretty realistic) but in the series Emma (birth parent) and Regina (adoptive parent) share custody and are respectful of each other’s parenting, beliefs, and always put their child (Henry) first. Henry also listens, spends time with, and asks for support from both parents equally. It took a bit over 4 seasons of 22 ish episodes per season to get to that point but it was heartwarming to see the moms progress from enemies to friends because of their child. Henry also went through a phase of neglecting his mom because he found out he was adopted but that changed season 2 when he realized his mom (Regina) was not a villain like everyone made her seem to be (because Regina is the Evil Queen from Snow White’s fairytale whereas Emma – the parent who gave birth to Henry – is a hero and descendent of Snow White).
Anyway, bottom line. We need more adoption narratives and stories told. I just hope the intention is authentic and not just to get more views and create a plot twist. I will tell you right now, I will not be recommending this TV show to my parents. I feel like it would only hurt their feelings. Maybe if there’s a season 2 that can further explore the adoption narrative I’ll change my mind.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for more adoption story examples check out my post about Disney’s new Cruella movie and the movie’s adoption narrative.