Over three seasons, Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack” has tackled everything from learning disabilities to coming out. Centered on a multi-generational Asian American family, the show follows the titular Andi Mack (played by Peyton Elizabeth Lee) as she wades through middle school life after learning a bombshell of her own: that the woman she thought was her older sister, Bex (Lilan Bowden), is actually her biological mother and Andi’s birth, a result of an unplanned pregnancy. But now the series that won both a GLAAD Award and a Television Academy Honor for “television with a conscience” in 2018, is signing off.
The show ends its run with Andi grappling with the possibility of leaving her friends for art school.
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“I didn’t want to end with a cliffhanger. I believe people will miss Andi and her friends and her family,” creator and co-executive producer Terri Minsky tells Variety. “To me, the finale is a way for them to tell our audience, ‘We’ll miss you, too, but you don’t have to worry about us: We’ll be fine.'”
“Andi Mack” is the first Disney Channel program to include a gay main character, Cyrus, (played by Joshua Rush) who revealed his sexuality in two simple but powerful words: “I’m gay.”
“I honestly did not know we were going to be able to have Cyrus say the words,” says Minsky. “And I didn’t specifically ask for permission for that.”
It was the first time those words had been spoken on the network. Minsky hopes the storyline set a new precedent for future showrunners and writers on how to craft narratives around LGBTQ characters, especially younger ones.
“This generation that’s watched it — I want them to come into this business and know this doesn’t even have to be a consideration. They don’t have to consider how are they going to tell [that particular] story,” Minsky says.
Adds Nancy Kanter, executive vice president of content and creation strategy for Disney Channels Worldwide: “We’ve sort of crossed the rubric right now, having had a character who talks about his sexuality. I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t do that again in other ways. That we could tackle topics that we might not have thought about putting on air 10 years ago, or five or six years ago, was really both challenging for us, but terrifically exciting, as well.”
Other storylines revolved around similarly weighty material, including gun safety and young people who experience anxiety attacks. And episodes revolving around Chinese traditions — like Chinese New Year and the Harvest Moon Festival — added cultural specificity to the show, drawing on Lee’s own Chinese heritage.
“I think people don’t understand the importance of seeing yourself represented on TV,” says Lee. “Even I don’t think I understood the importance of representation until we started making our show, and I started seeing how kids were responding to it.”
The character of Andi was originally conceived as Jewish American, but Lee’s audition convinced showrunners to re-think her background and cast around Lee’s own mixed heritage: Bowden is of mixed Taiwanese American descent. Other members of the supporting cast include Lauren Tom and Stoney Westmoreland as Andi’s grandparents. Westmoreland was later fired from the show following his arrest for allegedly trying to arrange a sexual encounter with a minor.
“Andi Mack” fans have been nothing if not devoted: One reportedly assembled 1,000 paper cranes, each with a message for the show’s cast and crew, that was delivered to the Disney offices in Burbank, Calif. Rush shares that he routinely reads messages from young LGBTQ viewers who say the show has helped them find solace for their own coming out journeys.
“I’ll read, ‘I’ve been in the closet. My parents are homophobic, and my sisters are, too. But one of them loves “Andi Mack”,’” he says.
The “Andi Mack” series finale airs Friday, July 26 on Disney Channel.