“Phineas and Ferb” was Formula Storytelling at Its Finest

PhineasFerbUnderTree

[By Jeremy Grayson]

“Y’know,” a friend once told me, “there really aren’t that many days of summer vacation.”

He was referring, of course, to the Phineas and Ferb theme song, which opens by asserting the following: “There’s a hundred and four days of summer vacation, and school comes along just to end it.”

It’s a line I’ve heard dozens and dozens of times (I tend to fast-forward through the show’s intro out of habit, but the remote is never fast enough to avoid that opening line), to the point that it’s become practically ingrained in my skull. To this day, my mind automatically believes there are a hundred and four days of summer vacation, and has to quickly remind itself that I’ve never had a schoolyear break that went over ninety.

The truth behind that lyric – which I suspected for years, and which was officially confirmed by series cocreator Dan Povenmire at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con – is more complicated. Phineas and Ferb aired its run on Disney Channel, and like most kid-oriented cartoons, it was produced with a syndication deal in mind. The typical syndication packet for most kids’ shows at the time was 52 half-hour episodes, and most shows on Disney or Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network would not air beyond that ceiling. (Occasionally, a show that had been cancelled after 52 episodes was brought back due to fan popularity – the original Teen Titans, for example – but that was more the exception than the rule.)

Phineas and Ferb was a half-hour show, but it was originally designed to house two distinct 11-minute stories in each 22-minute episode. Each story would typically cover one day, and… well, you can do the math from there.

This little in-joke is just one of many little nuances scattered throughout Phineas and Ferb – an animated kids’ show that was far smarter, far funnier, and far better than it had any right to be.

Premiering ten years ago, on August 17, 2007 (this was a preview episode; it would not make its regular premiere until February 2008), Phineas and Ferb became a smash hit for Disney Channel, airing far more than 52 episodes (and 104 summer vacation days) before coming to an end in 2015. It garnered a spinoff TV movie, a series of mock talk-show segments, and a never-ending line of Perry the Platypus plush dolls.

The show centered on two brothers (named in the title) with idle hands and wildly active imaginations, who come up with unusual and creative ways to fill each day of summer vacation – be it building a roller coaster in their backyard, battling one another in giant treehouse robots, or travelling to Mars. (Oh, and lest we forget: giving a monkey a shower.) The series also focused on their older sister (who spends each day trying to “bust” them for their apparent mischief) and their pet platypus (who spends each day as a secret agent, fighting the evil schemes of the hapless Dr. Doofenshmirtz).

At the time of its premiere, Phineas and Ferb could have easily felt like too little, too late. The “kids with wild imaginations” premise had been thoroughly exploited by Disney’s rival networks in the early 2000s, with shows like The Fairly OddParents, The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, and Ed, Edd, n Eddy all centering on youngsters whose crazy schemes typically led to unintended consequences. The shows were creative, and often razor-edged in their humor, reflecting the cynical tone that defined much of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.

Disney Channel found more success with escapist fantasy during this era, in shows like Kim Possible and American Dragon. But by the summer of 2007, both of those series were drawing to a close. So Disney greenlit a pitch from Dan Povenmire and Jeff Marsh – one they had conceived back in the ‘90s while working on Rocko’s Modern Life. And thus, Phineas and Ferb was born.

There are a great many things about Phineas and Ferb which made it one of the sharpest, funniest, and most entertaining animated shows of the past decade. And it all starts with the way the show beautifully captures the innocence of childhood.

As the years have gone by, kids’ entertainment has grown harsher and more cynical, eschewing traditional morals in favor of laughs, and wholesome fun in favor of crude humor. Some shows have pulled it off well; others can come off as mean-spirited.

Phineas and Ferb, though, falls on the far side of the spectrum. The kids on this show may not fit the traditional “role model” template (tough to do when you build a rollercoaster in your backyard), but they’re the very opposite of cynical and crude. Phineas is an eternal optimist and creative thinker, and the show portrays his inspirations (“I know what we’re gonna do today!”) in a positive light. Ferb is a boy of few words (literally – he rarely gets more than one line per episode), but the show blends his mechanical instincts with a healthily subdued dose of silent comedy. And the boys’ inventions are always portrayed as examples of positive recreation, rather than as ego trips or disasters waiting to happen.

That’s not to say that Phineas and Ferb is entirely averse to cynical humor – there’s plenty of that in the Perry/Doofenshmirtz side-plots. But when it comes to the kids, Povenmire and Marsh keep the focus on fun. There’s never any danger of the boys’ inventions “going wrong,” which allows young viewers to bsask in the joy without fearing internal conflict.

Still, of course, any good story needs some sort of conflict. In a typical Phineas and Ferb episode, that comes by way of the boys’ older sister, Candace (Ashley Tisdale). When she’s not trying to impress her dreamy crush, Jeremy, she spends most of her time focused on “busting” her brothers, trying to tell their mom (Caroline Rhea) about the boys’ daily shenanigans.

Candace, intriguingly enough, is the show’s emotional center. She is the only member of the Flynn-Fletcher family to get regularly stressed out, and often comes off as the A-plot’s antagonist, in her attempts to bridge the oblivious gap between mother and sons. Linda believes her boys occupy themselves with typical and mundane activities each day; Phineas and Ferb see nothing wrong with letting their mother know about their activities. But due to a series of contrivances that occur without fail, never the twain shall meet: the sons remain innocent in their escapades, the mother oblivious to them, and poor Candace (too old to partake in her brothers’ childhood fun, but still young enough to recognize what they do each day) is left helplessly in the middle.

The generational divide grows even more apparent when you consider other adults in the series. Dr. Doofenshmirtz is the show’s resident “villain,” yet despite his age and appearance, he is perhaps the show’s most childlike character. His time is spent building giant rays (dubbed “inators,” due to their shared suffix) in order to remedy the most trivial of problems and annoyances, and his plans are constantly thwarted by a duck-billed platypus in a fedora.

Yet although he may be a figure of fun (and routinely generates more laughs than any other character on the show), Doofenshmirtz is still given nuance, detail, and a humorously tragic backstory. (He spent his childhood dressed as a lawn gnome, standing motionless outside his family home, his only companion a balloon with a sullen painted face.) His extra nuggets of backstory – which accumulate across multiple episodes and seasons – deepen the Doctor’s character, and in turn, heighten the humor.

But, by and large, the greatest strength of Phineas and Ferb lies in its adherence to formula.

For most of television, formula storytelling is generally viewed as the kiss of death. Adhering to a predictable structure every single episode is a line of thought typically relegated to police and law procedurals. Quality television requires variety, unpredictability, and change – three factors that most formulaic TV series usually lack.

But a handful of shows – particularly animated shows, where storytelling can be stretched beyond live-action limits – have avoided the pitfalls of formula storytelling, and even used them to its advantage. Every episode of Wacky Races centered on the same race car drivers, including the shifty Dick Dastardly, forever trying to sabotage his competitors. Nearly every Pinky and the Brain focused on the two titular lab mice as they hatched a plan to take over the world. And Phineas and Ferb adheres almost ruthlessly to a single structure, straight down to its running gags: Every episode features the same basic plot, the same story beats, and the same catchphrases.

There are a few things these shows have in common. Yes, their outcomes are forever predictable: Dick Dastardly will always come in last place. The Brain’s plan for global domination will always fall apart at the last minute. And Doofenshmirtz’s latest “inator” will somehow destroy Phineas and Ferb’s latest invention just as Candace is about to reveal it to their mother. And yet despite knowing how they’ll end, we grow invested in the means each episode will use to achieve that inevitable resolution. (At times, we may even root for Dick or Brain or Candace to succeed, even as we acknowledge their less-than-noble intentions.)

And in the case of Phineas and Ferb, we keep returning to see just how many variations the writers can pull on the same basic formula. How many different ways they can tweak the same catchphrases. How many different “inators” Doofenshmirtz can give names to. The writers are fully aware of their formula reliance, and episodes like “Tip of the Day” (which jokingly plays with plot fatigue by having the boys devote an entire day to honoring shoelace tips) or “Hail Doofania!” (which ingeniously reverses the traditional story structure, and all the running gags that accompany it) show just how confident they are in their ability to reinvent the wheel, week after month after year.

Perhaps the show’s most famous running gag occurred whenever Phineas would hire a contractor or deliveryman to help him set up his latest plan.

“Aren’t you a little young to be (fill in the blank)?” the puzzled worker would ask.

Phineas would simply smile in return. “Yes,” he’d say. “Yes, I am.”

To Phineas and Ferb, there was nothing wrong with having an imagination, or realizing your wildest dreams. All you had to do was be young.

Phineas and Ferb currently airs in reruns on Disney XD. Select episodes are available on DVD, and the entire series is currently streaming on Netflix.

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2 thoughts on ““Phineas and Ferb” was Formula Storytelling at Its Finest”

  1. I am pretty critical of formula storytelling, but you bring up some good points. I may have to reconsider. Anyways, this show is an awful lot of fun, but I have to be in a certain mood. Episodes that switch up the formula are my favorite, like “Hail Doofania!” or “Traffic Cam Caper”. Other great ‘kiddy cartoons’ like Adventure Time and Gravity Falls sometimes follow a formula, but it never seems as lazy. Probably due to the different catchphrases.

    Like

    1. I find that when a show adheres as closely to its formula as Phineas and Ferb does, the individual jokes actually stand out more, because of how many variations the series has done on them. It emphasizes how self-aware (rather than lazy) the show is.

      Like

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