The subversive non-subversiveness of “Phineas and Ferb”

All four seasons of “Phineas and Ferb” are streaming via Netflix; they are also available from Amazon.com. SDG Original source: Catholic Digest

There are at least a half dozen reasons “Phineas and Ferb” never should have existed, and how fortunate for viewers of all ages that it does. It’s no wonder show creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh were unable to get it on the air for 16 years. The wonder is that they ever thought they could, and that they finally succeeded, and that this amazing, oddball show — which ran from 2007 to 2015, with five one-hour specials and a small-screen feature film, “Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension” — found the audience it so richly deserves.

“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.

The show’s good-natured vibe is so novel and counterintuitive that it didn’t immediately click, even for the showrunners.

This disconnect is only highlighted by the fact that prior to “Phineas and Ferb” Povenmire and Marsh worked together on “The Simpsons” and “Rocko’s Modern Life”; Povenmire’s other credits include “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Family Guy,” while Marsh has worked on “King of the Hill.”

What most of these shows share with “Phineas and Ferb” is a blisteringly fast-paced, gag-driven, winkingly absurdist style popularized by “The Simpsons.” What all of them except “Phineas and “Ferb” share are varying levels of cynicism and misanthropy.

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.

The show’s good-natured vibe is so novel and counterintuitive that it didn’t immediately click, even for the showrunners. Early episodes betray more conventional dynamics, notably in the antagonism between stepbrothers Phineas and Ferb and older sister Candace (anachronistically preserved in the title sequence, with the brothers “driving our sister insane” and Candace furiously trying to bring down the hammer on her brothers in a figurative game of “Whack-a-Pest”).

The first incarnation of Phineas and Ferb’s relationship with Candace looks, in fact, a bit like SpongeBob and his friend Patrick’s relationship with Squidward. Just as SpongeBob and Patrick are too cheerfully stupid to notice how much Squidward dislikes them, Phineas is too genial, and Ferb too stoic, to fully absorb or care about Candace’s initially spiteful obsession with “busting” them to their mother Linda.

The stepbrothers are boy geniuses; chatty, triangle-headed Phineas is the idea man, while quiet Ferb, who sort of looks like a walking horseradish, seems to be the more technical of the two. Each day of summer vacation, they create some outlandishly sophisticated, often highly dangerous invention — teleporters, time machines, treehouse rock’em sock’em robots — which, unlike Doof’s inators, always work as intended. Candace is determined to bring all this to the attention of levelheaded Linda, though this never quite works out.

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

After a few episodes, though, a strange thing happens: Phineas’ cheerful goodwill wins Candace over. Perhaps it starts to happen as early as the second story of the pilot episode (each 22-minute episode comprises two 11-minute stories), when Phineas and Ferb celebrate Candace’s birthday by briefly carving her face into Mount Rushmore. Before long, it’s clear that while Candace can never give up her crusade to bust her brothers, deep down they’re all one big, happy blended family.

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 (not always) play as rote convention, or even ironic deconstruction, as much as, or more than, genuine uplift. After 20 minutes of conflict and selfishness, the characters share a two-minute group hug, but 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. Candace persists in her quest to bust her brothers, not because she’s really mean-spirited, but because that’s just her Sisyphusian fate.

What makes it Sisyphusian is that in every story, like clockwork, whatever the boys have built happens to be vaporized, levitated away, rendered invisible, or otherwise done away with just before their mom Linda sees it.

These coincidences are often connected with Doofenshmirtz’s failed schemes, although one of the show’s key formal principles is that Phineas, Ferb and Candace are unaware of Doofenshmirtz’s existence and vice versa, although they all live in the same city. The only thing connecting them is that Doof’s archnemesis, super-spy “Agent P,” a.k.a. Perry the Platypus, maintains a cover identity as Phineas and Ferb’s housepet.

Naturally, Linda thinks her daughter Candace is overly imaginative or crazy, but she takes it in good-humored stride. Candace’s challenges also routinely make her look crazy in front of teenaged Jeremy Johnson, on whom she has a huge crush. In a typical TV show, Jeremy would always be wondering what this crazy girl’s problem was — but not here.

Whatever befalls Candace or however crazy she acts, Jeremy never seems fazed by it; he’s totally down to earth, completely secure in who he is and how he sees Candace. He likes Candace and accepts her no matter what.

Eventually the characters themselves catch on to the conventions and start mixing things up.

However embarrassing the circumstances, Candace is never really humiliated, because everyone is so nice. That’s the “Phineas and Ferb” difference. (There is one exception: Jeremy’s rotten baby sister Suzy, who is secretly possessive of Jeremy and always trying to drive Candace away. Jeremy is oblivious to this, but on the other hand Suzy’s tricks never succeed.)

The same is true of other conflicts. Doofenshmirtz and nemesis Perry the Platypus have a complicated relationship, but they’re more like players on rival teams than mortal enemies; on some level they each understand that they’re both doing their jobs, and in a way each validates the other. Among the boys’ young friends, bullying Buford’s antagonistic relationship with anxiety-ridden math genius Baljeet has more edge in the early going, but eventually Buford’s sensitive side comes out.

The show has endless fun with its own conventions. Many of the same lines appear in most episodes, usually in the same order. “Ferb, I know what we’re going to do today!…Hey, where’s Perry?” “Hi Phineas! Watcha doin’?” “Ah! Perry the Platypus!…Behold my new evil scheme…to take over the entire Tri-State Area!” “You guys are so busted!” “Curse you, Perry the Platypus!” “What am I looking at?” “Oh, there you are, Perry.”

Eventually the characters themselves catch on to the conventions and start mixing things up. Candace hypothesizes that some mysterious force spirits away her brothers’ projects before their mother sees them, and tries brainstorming ways of beating the system. Analyzing the failures of all his past inators, Doof concludes that what they have in common is precisely the term “inator,” so he tries creating a non-inator. It can’t fail!

Music is a huge part of the show’s appeal. Brilliantly absurdist lyrics and an encyclopedic range of musical influences — classical, jazz, blues, folk, doo-wop, show tunes, Bollywood, country, rock, rap, ska — add rich aural texture to the simple visual style. In the second season there’s a brilliant episode, “Rollercoaster: The Musical,” that’s a straight-up remake of the pilot episode, but with Broadway production numbers.

In “Dude, We’re Getting the Band Back Together,” the boys come to the aid of their father, Lawrence, who has forgotten his and Linda’s anniversary, by reuniting the fictional ’80s band “Love Händel,” since it was at a Love Händel concert that the couple first kissed and fell in love.

The great line “But like a ninja of love / Rappelling down from above” [is] visually enacted by the super-competent Fireside Girls, who certainly should have mentioned before now, if there weren’t so much to talk about.

The band’s former front man, who now works in a record shop, performs a number that surveys the whole “History of Rock”; the former drummer, now a librarian, self-refutingly tries to persuade the boys that he “Ain’t Got Rhythm” (so patently false that the song was nominated for an Emmy).

Finally, in the climax the band performs an ’80s-style ballad for Lawrence and Linda called “You Snuck Your Way Right Into My Heart,” with the great line “But like a ninja of love / Rappelling down from above” visually enacted by the super-competent Fireside Girls, who certainly should have mentioned before now, if there weren’t so much to talk about.

The forgotten anniversary suggests a typical sitcom bumbling-father / exasperated mother dynamic, but the show’s affection for all its characters won’t permit that. Lawrence, who is British, is cheerfully stodgy, whimsical and a bit abstracted; he’s also a history, archaeology and antiques geek. American Linda is a down-to-earth stay-at-home mom with a colorful past as a pop-star one-hit wonder with the stage name “Lindana.” Their marriage is to all appearances idyllic, and it’s just part of the show’s kookiness that, unlike Linda, Lawrence is aware of some of the boys’ projects, but accepts them as naturally as the boys’ young friends.

The anniversary story overlaps with Doofenshmirtz’s clueless efforts (with Perry’s help!) to throw a birthday party for his semi-alienated 16-year-old daughter Vanessa, of whom Doof and his ex-wife share joint custody. (We never get the back story on Lawrence and Linda’s prior partners.) Still thinking of her as his little girl, Doof chooses a colorful, girly party theme completely inappropriate for the exasperated teenager, who dresses in black and hangs with a punk/goth crowd. But a happy accident saves the day, and Vanessa decides her dad is okay after all. Typical “Phineas and Ferb.”

All this, and still so much I haven’t even touched on! Super-cute Isabella, leader of the Fireside Girls, who adores oblivious Phineas. Perry the Platypus’s spy agency, O.W.C.A. (the Organization Without a Cool Acronym), with mustachioed Major Monogram, dorky Carl the Intern, and a cadre of animal agents (a panda, a raccoon, an elephant, etc.) in matching fedoras. Doof’s Eastern European back story and professional association of evil scientists, the League Of Villainous Evildoers yadda yadda yadda (L.O.V.E.M.U.F.F.I.N.).

And all the geeky, allusive pop-culture humor and other references! From Shakespeare, Mary Shelley and Tolkien to Hitchcock, Spielberg and Disney, from the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges and Monty Python to Star Wars, “Star Trek” and 2001: A Space Odyssey, “Phineas and Ferb” has it all; it would almost be easier to make a list of cultural landmarks that aren’treferenced in the show. Episodes like “Nerds of a Feather,” “Excaliferb” and “Mission Marvel” are geek-culture catnip.

“Stick with us,” the title sequence theme song promised, “’cause Phineas and Ferb are gonna do it all!” They just about did, and fans who stuck with them were well rewarded. The joy of discovery and creation in Phineas and Ferb’s daily projects — and even Doof’s inators, their inevitable failure notwithstanding — suffuses every episode; Phineas’ line “I know what we’re going to do today!” reflects the spirit of inspiration animating the whole show. If only more shows felt that way.

Animation, Comedy, Family, Musical