I’ve admitted in the past that kids’ cartoons are something of a guilty pleasure.
I don’t watch a LOT. But “Gravity Falls” is fantastic, and they still occasionally play seasons 1-3 of Spongebob, which were some of the best cartoons of all time (season 4 onward we need not mention). I miss some of the old 90’s shows as well. Cartoon Network I wasn’t a big fan of but Nick had a couple of gems, most notably the should-be-classic “Hey Arnold”, the classic “Rugrats”, and the criminally underrated “The Angry Beavers”. But alas, none of those three run anymore.
And now another great one has joined them. Two days ago “Phineas and Ferb” aired its season finale. It was an absolutely brilliant show, and virtually revolutionary in the history of children’s programmning. “Phineas and Ferb” is the only cartoon I know of that ran multiple plotlines in every single episode.
The show was incredibly formulaic: Phineas and Ferb and their friends decide on a crazy scheme that they’re going to pull off that day. Their sister Candace tries to “bust” them by having their mom catch them at it, and always fails. Wash, rinse, and repeat, every single episode.
…Except, not quite. Running at the same time as these (sometimes zanily convoluted) plots was another, entirely separate storyline about Phineas and Ferb’s pet platypus, Perry, who was secretly an undercover agent employed by OWCA (Organization Without a Cool Acronym). Each episode he would square off with his nemesis, Doofenshmirtz, a comically incompetent villain, and inevitably whatever they did would somehow get rid of all of the evidence of Phineas and Ferb’s absurd scheme before their mom could catch them at it.
And all of this in eleven minutes!
It was virtually the same plot every episode. So why did it work so incredibly well? As always, the devil is in the details. “Phineas and Ferb” was an incredibly meta, self-referential show, and it was always just self-aware enough to keep each episode feeling fresh and different from the previous one. Whether the kids are pointing out how ridiculous the theme song is, or Phineas and Ferb decide they’re going to run a “traditional Christmas special” and host it in front of a fireplace wearing Christmas sweaters, or Doofenshmirtz is teaching another villain how to properly explain his backstory to his arch-nemesis, every episode of the show manages to catch itself just in time to make fun of how ridiculous everything is.
One of the things that set it above and beyond traditional cartoon fare was the character of Doofenshmirtz. While clearly comical, Doofenshmirtz is given a tragic backstory that, while silly and dumb, is actually tragic, to the point where you actually understand where the poor guy is coming from when he comes up with lunatic schemes to take over the tri-state area. That amount of depth given to a comic relief character is something that I’ve never seen a children’s cartoon attempt before, especially for a cartoon designed for that age range (which has to be for 8 to 10 year olds).
And the crowning achievement of the show is, of course, their TV movie, “Phineas and Ferb in the Second Dimension”. As far as made for television cartoon movies go, this was quite possibly the best one ever. I’ve seen reviewers rank it with the best animated movies EVER, and while I wouldn’t go that far I also wouldn’t call them crazy. The plot was inspired lunacy, but that wasn’t what made it great. No, what made it great was the Mysterious Force.
You see, in each episode every time sister Candace was going to “bust” Phineas and Ferb by showing their mom what they were doing, something crazy would intervene just in time to put things back to normal. “Phineas and Ferb”, being “Phineas and Ferb”, not only references the absurd coincidences this continually requires, they actually make it an integral part of the plot. Candace decides that she should make a shrine to this mysterious force, and when she’s whisked away to another dimension her friend (A non-believer!) sacrifices to the shrine asking for her safe return.
And the brilliant climax revolved around Candace summoning on her mom and calling on the mysterious force to set everything right by the time she got there. It was one of the best self-referential moments I’ve ever seen in any media ever; most shows or books might get away with a wink here or there, but I’ve never seen them make crazy plot contrivances an actual plot point in and of themselves.*
And while this was where it was used to best effect, it was a trick “Phineas and Ferb” pulled off with routine ease.
And not only that, it even had the good grace to go out in fine form.
So, here’s to you “Phineas and Ferb”. You were and will go down as one of the greats, and in your prime you were easily the best animated show on television. You will be mourned and missed.
If you’re into cartoons and haven’t seen it yet…where have you been?
*As an off-topic aside, I can recall seeing three really excellent cartoon TV movies, whatever the Kim Possible movie was called, the Ed, Edd, and Eddy movie (a shockingly good movie to go with a really terrible show), and the Phineas and Ferb film. While all were good, it’s no question “Phineas and Ferb in the Second Dimension” was the best. But really, where did that “Ed, Edd, and Eddy movie COME from?