A Celebration of Phineas and Ferb

At Catholic Digest, Steven D. Greydanus recaps pretty much everything that was great about Phineas and Ferb. Bear in mind that if you’ve never seen the show, this article will probably make no sense at all. But if you know, you know:

Phineas and Ferb should not exist to begin with because it’s too complicated; at the same time it’s too formulaic. It’s weird-looking—which isn’t much of an obstacle these days—but it goes into deeper weirdness far from the beaten path for mainstream family entertainment. There’s lots of music, generally a mark of kiddie entertainment, yet much of the witty humor is clearly aimed at older audiences. Who on earth is this show for? I mean, besides me, and my kids, and everyone I know, and everyone else.

Mostly, Phineas and Ferb shouldn’t exist because its dominant spirit of exuberance, innocence, optimism, and generosity is so out of step with the abrasiveness of TV animation in the post-Simpsons era.

Take SpongeBob: SpongeBob may be as cheerful and optimistic as Phineas, but he’s also a moron; other characters, like Squidward, are jerks. On Phineas and Ferb, no one is really nasty; all the characters are ultimately endearing, even busybody Candace, bullying Buford, and Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, an underachieving evil scientist with an endless parade of failed doomsday devices (“inators,” as in “Destruct-inator” or “Inside-Out-inator”) who has no greater ambition than to take over the Tri-State Area.

This dynamic is very different from the pat uplifting or heartwarming sentiments often tacked onto cynical postmodern entertainment from The Simpsons to Community. On other shows, inspirational speeches and unifying sentiments often (though not always) play as rote convention, or even ironic deconstruction, as much as, or even more than, genuine uplift. After 20 minutes of conflict and selfishness, the characters share a two-minute group hug, but both the storytellers and savvy viewers see through it.

Phineas and Ferb’s great innovation is to reverse this dynamic: Here the conflict is rote convention, and the uplift is sincere.

I endorse this celebration wholeheartedly but for one quibble: the author lumps in The Simpsons with the rest of the misanthropic TV shows, so you know I’m going to leap to its defense.

I’ll admit that for the last half (or maybe two-thirds) of the show’s Methuselah-like run, The Simpsons has been a pretty run-of-the-mill, more-cynical-then-thou TV sitcom. But in the beginning–when it was good–it was good because it had a heart. That version of The Simpsons very much influenced the uplifting vibe that you saw in Phineas and Ferb.