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Gabriella Ferrigine

Quiet on Set shows parents were hurt too

I’m not the same today,” Joe Bell says through tears. “The pain’s still there from the moment that I knew. I don’t wish this on any parent or child whatsoever. It’s just devastating.”

In “Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV,” Joe Bell, the father of Nickelodeon's "Drake and Josh" star Drake Bell, is visibly distraught upon learning one of the worst things that a parent can ever hear — that his child was irrevocably harmed and that despite his best efforts, he couldn’t prevent it. 

Since airing earlier this month, “Quiet on Set” has cemented itself as one of the year’s most explosive investigative documentaries. Rife with allegations of rampant abuse by adults working in children’s entertainment — at a cultural kingpin like Nickelodeon, no less — Investigation Discovery’s docuseries unearths the dark underbelly that defined much of its legacy, perhaps more than any tangerine-colored blimp or semi-viscous neon slime ever could. 

Learning about the systemic abuse of minors, as it's presented in “Quiet on Set,” is undeniably difficult to watch. The docuseries is raw and harrowing, and does not mince words or attempt to shield its viewers from the reality of its subject matter: children working under the guise of safety were in actuality subjected to uncomfortable and sometimes criminal situations. 

The power balance between kids and adults is already stark — add employment into the mix, and the boundaries of what’s deemed ethical become even more nebulous, often creating the perfect conditions for catastrophe, first and foremost, for vulnerable kids. But as “Quiet on Set” reminds us through emotional testimony from the caregivers of those same kids, parents can also be hurt and be victims of that exploitation in their own right. 

Among the most tragic revelations from “Quiet on Set” were the claims shared by former Nickelodeon actor Drake Bell, who spoke about being sexually assaulted by his former dialogue and acting coach Brian Peck while starring on “The Amanda Show.” Peck was ultimately arrested in 2003 in connection to the repeated abuse of a teenager, who at the time was only named in the criminal case as John Doe. “Quiet on Set” would mark the first time that Bell shared his story publicly, revealing himself as John Doe.

On the March 22 episode of “The Sarah Fraser Show” podcast, Drake reveals that he initially had reservations about participating in “Quiet on Set” after a previous experience in which he was shamed for not coming forth.

“Another documentary came out years ago that requested my involvement, and when I declined, the response I got was unbelievable,” the former “Drake and Josh” star said. “They said that I was — people like me were the problem, and 'This is why things aren’t gonna change in the industry because people like you won’t speak out and won’t come forward.'”

But “Quiet on Set” was different. Aside from a sensitive director who Drake said helped him feel a sense of “comfort,” the actor felt the experience would also be “cathartic and beneficial” for his father, Joe Bell, who features heavily in the docuseries. 

“Him and I just became so close. It was just natural, and he loved [acting],” Joe recalls in “Quiet on Set.” 

It was this deep bond between father and son that Brian Peck would ultimately take advantage of. “The Amanda Show” series creator Dan Schneider (whose allegedly abusive and toxic behavior underpins the rest of “Quiet on Set”) hired Peck on previous projects, conferring on him a sort of power by association. Peck was so fully entrenched in Nickelodeon that he was even included as a featured on-screen character Pickle Boy in Schneider’s kids’ sketch comedy show “All That.” His likeability was not only firmly established, but he had also attained a degree of credibility that extended even beyond his dialogue coaching skills. 

Enticed by promises that Peck (who worked with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio) would help propel his son’s career, Joe organized supervised home lessons with Peck. Soon enough, however, Joe became wary of Peck’s inappropriate interest in and interactions with his son, so much so that he eventually vocalized his concerns to the show’s producers. “I go: ‘I don’t see anything abnormal, but I don’t have a good feeling,” Joe says.

After being rebuffed as “homophobic,” Joe claims he was “ostracized” on set and effectively forced to back off. The reaction to Joe’s simple inquiry demonstrated the full extent of power Dan Schneider was wielding — voicing a concern about a child’s safety was deemed taboo, as Joe was shunned and gaslit. In contrast to Schneider and Peck, Joe was powerless, stymied by a steady stream of enablers who fell in line with the charming, powerful and/or manipulative abusers. 

This initial rift set in motion several entry points for Peck to not only continue ingratiating himself into Drake’s life but also enable him to drive a wedge between Drake and his father. Peck attempted to convince Drake that his father was misappropriating his money, ultimately persuading Drake and his mother to oust Joe from his role as manager. With Joe out of the picture, Drake was severed from his only safeguard. 

“I turned her over all kinds of paperwork she needed to be able to handle Drake’s career,” Joe said in “Quiet on Set. “But I did say to her — and I said this to her in person — ‘You never, ever leave Drake alone with Brian Peck and you never let him be around him unsupervised, period, whatsoever. And Brian just absolutely tricked her.” 

By manipulating the situation, Peck cut Drake off from the one person who saw Peck's behavior and intentions for what they truly were: predatory. Isolation of a victim is a common tactic employed by abusers — it leaves a victim especially vulnerable. Peck’s methodical actions, including obtaining the trust of Drake's mother, set the stage for the sexual assault to take place. Trusting parents who want to do the best for their children are not necessarily prepared to cope with that level of manipulation, nor do they expect it.

“I’m sure that my dad puts a lot of blame on himself,” Drake tells "The Sarah Fraser Show." “And I thought that this might be an opportunity for him to be able to realize that, you know, that it’s one person’s fault.”

Drake did not immediately disclose to Joe that he was the John Doe once news of Peck’s arrest broke, unable to share with his father that his suspicions about Peck had been well-founded. Drake recounts how he called his father to tell him Peck had been arrested for molestation, at which point Joe said, “You’re kidding. I knew it, I knew it.”

“My dad just goes, ‘I am so glad he was not able to get his hands on you,’” Drake said. “My dad’s very emotional. And we were just starting to rekindle our relationship and I just couldn’t.” 

“How did it make you feel when you finally found out?” a “Quiet on Set” producer subsequently asks Joe.

“I was — are you kidding? I’m not the same today,” Joe respondsthrough tears. “The pain’s still there from the moment that I knew. I don’t wish this on any parent or child whatsoever. It’s just devastating.”

Of all the emotionally imbued content contained within “Quiet on Set,” viewers have seized upon Joe’s affecting anecdotes with particular emphasis, taking to social media to share their thoughts. 

“Drake's dad really broke my heart,” one X/Twitter user shared. “He did everything he could to protect his son, and no one would listen to him.” 

“It’s sick how Brian Peck was able to manipulate Drake Bell’s mother to fire his Dad just so he could sexually [sic]  assault Drake,” another user wrote. “This man did everything he could to protect his son. He was the only one that seemed to care.”

Several days after the docuseries premiered, Drake shared an old photo of him hugging his father to his Instagram account, simply captioning the post, “Dad❤️.” 

“Lean on your dad,” one comment under the post read. “This man is what every parent should be. He tried and his intuition is spot on. His love for you is palpable.”

While the most obvious thematic and factually important power structure at play throughout the entirety of “Quiet on Set” is that which exists between young stars and Nickelodeon employees, there’s a clear-cut hierarchical relationship amongst the adults as well. In the world of child stardom, insofar as this investigation defines it, parents are also often rendered powerless. 

This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that between 2003 and 2005, Nickelodeon saw three separate cases of pedophilia and molestation from active employees. In April of 2003, only a few short months before Peck would be arrested, 28-year old production assistant Jason Handy who was working on the set of “All That" was arrested for lewd acts with children. Handy’s role on the set of the comedy was primarily to guide kids around the set, often outside of parents' supervision, enabling him to develop close relationships with many cast members. As the docuseries explains, Handy was able to gain parents’ trust to the point that he exchanged phone numbers and emails with the kids, exploiting their want to further their children’s careers by keeping strong industry connections. 

It’s no surprise then that the title of the episode that focuses on Handy is titled, “Hidden in Plain Sight.” In “Quiet on Set,” a woman named only as MJ, shares how Handy had groomed her 11-year-old daughter and “All That” cast member Brandi, over email before eventually sending her a photo of himself naked and masturbating. 

“I went back and forth with, ‘Should I call the police?’” MJ recalls, becoming emotional. “They’re gonna think that I’m a bad parent because I allowed her to talk to this person.”

MJ, ostensibly feeling helpless and concerned that the incident would impact her daughter’s future, decided not to file a report with the police. “I struggled with this and I finally told myself, ‘I can’t call the police. All I can do is make sure I keep her far away from him.” 

Though Brandi would ultimately testify against Handy alongside another of his victims in court, she subsequently left the entertainment business and never returned. The harm Handy left was indelible — he traumatized a young girl, permanently damaging her dreams and altering the trajectory of her life. For MJ, there is a lingering of guilt and shame because Brandi was robbed of what would have surely been happy memories, now tainted by a fundamental loss of innocence, all under her watch.   

We can look to the ending of “Quiet on Set” for a powerful visual representation of how the parents it portrays, while not the direct victims of the abuse that befell their children, are themselves adjacent incarnations of the very same trauma. Throughout the four-part docuseries, Drake and Joe are filmed and interviewed separately. It’s not until the series’ closing moments that we see them standing together, arms draped over each other's shoulders under the gentle wave of California palms. The scene is interspersed with grainy photos of the father and son from their youth — embracing in front of a blue-grey mountain range cut through the middle by soaring pines; smiling while bundled in winter coats; a young Drake leaning into his father’s body while clutching a small dog. 

“It’s just really hard going back over these old memories,” Drake says.

“You know what? Better days ahead of us,” Joe replies.

“Yeah, I keep hearing that.”

“Yeah, well — keep listening to it.”

It’s no wonder Drake and Joe’s final exchange is the last thing viewers hear in “Quiet on Set.” In this moment, as Joe is trying to assure his son that there is hope for a better future, he’s also trying to convince himself of the same truth. After years of unimaginable pain, it’s conceivably the most important and most difficult hope each man can have. 

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