One of the unintended discoveries of being a genre fan is finding out that there's most certainly a strata when it comes to genre works. Granted, this isn't exactly unique to genre works - in fact the strata upon which genre works occupy merely rests within a larger cultural classification of entertainment as a whole. What I mean exactly by "strata" and "classification" isn't a sense of broad categories or how these fictional works fit in - I mean specifically how the culture values and evaluates these works on the basis of quality - how "good" or "bad" (or rather, "cheesy") it is. Great "classical" writers - many of whom are foreign (Dostoevsky, Chekov, Dickens, Milton, etc) and many of whom articulate primarily in regards to the philosophical (Emerson, Thoreau, etc) typically occupy the loftiest heights in people's minds when it comes to narratives considered "the best." Below that lies more contemporary authors who nonetheless mix the poetic and the philosophical often (but not mandatory) with a postmodern tilt - Virgina Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Sinclair Upton, Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, etc (you can even argue for the most "classic" of genre authors, Asimov and Clarke). Right below them would be the newest, freshest authors who have made big splashes but have yet to prove their endurance with the "big boys" - John Green, David Levithan, Rainbow Rowell, Matthew Quick, etc (you can even throw in genre authors like Niven, Tolkien and Pratchett in there). Their works are more defined by escapist aims but nonetheless still manage to speak towards some aspect of humanity or philosophy, are frequently written for teens or this newfangled "young adult" market (or at least tend to nab a lot of teens as first-time readers) and thus usually lack the "heady" wordiness and language that many people think of when they think "classic." And then you have the popular "pulp" fiction writers - Tom Clancy, Nora Roberts, James Patterson - and below that the "traditional" young adult market made up such exciting and groundbreaking titles as The Babysitter's Club and The Clique.
This type of stratification has its analogue in television, too. The loftiest space would in many people's minds be held by something you'd probably find on PBS, maybe even an ultra-faithful adaptation of one of the fictional works listed above and then brought over to this side of the pond through a number of charitable grants. Maybe some of Masterpiece Theater falls into here. Beneath that would be the stuff people actually tune into PBS for (or bought a cable/dish/Netflix subscription to the BBC for): Downton Abbey, the Cumberbatch Sherlock series, etc. You can go ahead and throw in all your favorite American cable shows in here too: the stuff on AMC like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, maybe even the stuff on FX like Justified, etc. Followed by the higher-quality "procedural" dramas and the single-cam comedies, and then you get to the James Patterson and Tom Clancy stuff: your typical CBS procedural for example, and most of the multi-cam comedies. When you're scraping the bottom of the barrel, you've reached the kid's stuff, the television equivalent of Babysitter's Club and The Clique. The stuff you find on their own dedicated networks, Disney Channel and Nickelodoen. Stuff that looks like it has the production values of whatever was found between couch cushions. Stuff like - well, Wizards of Waverly Place. But just as there have been more than a few books in the YAL genre that are not just good, but great, just as Patterson, Roberts and Clancy can actually write decent stuff, just as even The Clique can have some pretty decent books in its series (if you're, like, drunk), Wizards of Waverly Place has a decent amount of quality storytelling to it.
The series was conceived by Todd Greenwald who was originally a staff writer for Hannah Montana - though it's somewhat questionable as to how much final input he's had in the show since a very large chunk of the episodes are written and directed by two people in particular, Victor Gonzales and Peter Murrieta. Many cynics dismissed the series as an obvious attempt to cash in on the Harry Potter phenomenon when it premiered - and they weren't alone as the series premiered to a rough start (despite premiering after the popular Disney Channel movie Twitches Too) and the rumored possibility of cancellation after only a single season. Extremely cheesy plotlines and clipart special effects gave way to...slightly less cheesy plotlines and early Photoshop. But eventually the series was able to find its footing and garner orders for 106 episodes (the most of any Disney Channel series to date), a 90-minute single-cam format movie and an after-series coda in the form of a one-hour special. Even The Onion's TV Club had to begrudgingly admit there was more to the series than campy children's comedy.
So, what changed to turn a sagging series into perhaps Disney Channel's most beloved, blowing away even Hannah Montana and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody? That's actually a good question - but here are my best guesses:
Yes, even tweens and teens care about characters
Though maybe not necessarily in the way adults do. Nonetheless character almost certainly stands out as the one characteristic that might make or break a tween/teen series, including how well-written that character is. As it turns out tweens and teens do have discriminating taste.
The key difference is in how the audiences react to the characters. Walt White gets his fair share of sympathy but I'd hesitate to say that he's anywhere near "lovable." Selena Gomez's character, Alex Russo, isn't exactly lovable either - she's past sarcastic into outright sardonic territory and is what TVTropes would call a Jerkass. She frequently abuses her wizard powers and often treats her own family and friends the same way one might treat guinea pigs (incidentally, she actually did turn her family into guinea pigs).
Yet, just like with Walt White, there's something that clicks with the audience when they watch Alex Russo. Especially in the show's last two seasons she became a rather well-written character and the showrunners more or less nailed down what constitutes being "in-character" for her. Moreover, the showrunners and writers established effective relationships between her and her family, especially sibling-wizards Max and especially Justin Russo, played by Jake T. Austin and David Henrie, respectively.
The dynamics of that relationship become a bit muddled and reveal the problematics of how relationships can be perceived by a young fandom. Yes, I'm talking about shipping. Specifically, sister-brother shipping.
I'll just pause here for a moment while you get that out of your head.
The point stands that tweens and teens do care about how carefully a character is handled and how well-written a character is, but furthermore that the meaningful depiction of relationships holds a lot of power over tween and teen audiences. This is an extremely important lesson to take heed of when planning your own fictional relationships. Even still, character dynamics are hard to predict and judge and sometimes you just end up with a really weird yet popular result.
So perhaps, if all else fails, just roll with it.
It helps if the show is just fun
Yes, Wizards of Waverly Place is goofy. But that's exactly where much of the show's charm comes from. The writers and showrunners never forgot that they were writing a show on Disney Channel about kids with magical powers and weren't afraid to have fun with it. The show's penultimate episode, "Harperella", not only willfully played with fairy tale tropes but played with the expected tropes from the show itself. The writers weren't afraid to poke fun at horror movies or even silent movies despite the network and intended audience.
Serious moments can contribute to charm
Not that the show didn't shy away from serious moments either. Actually, how the show chose to handle more serious (or at least less goofy) moments helped to only add to its charm. How the show handled the future of Alex's and Harper's friendship, love unrequited by supernatural circumstance and even in the movie gave a lot of emotional weight to the storyline and characters without sacrificing the goofiness of the rest of the series.
Treat your audience as intelligent
Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from Wizards of Waverly Place is the need to write up, not down to your audience. Yes, the show made a bunch of stupid mistakes and plot/character fumbles here and there, but nothing truly damaging to the series' long-term health (well, Mason is debatable within the larger fandom). Yes, most of those mistakes probably were a result of writing down to the audience. Let those be the exceptions that prove the rule - because the writers and showrunners at least tried for something different, and tried for things here and there a little bit outside the normal Disney Channel fare, it not only rose to great heights but even had some adults falling in love as their kids watched.
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