Anyone who has even glanced at the Sexiest Males Alive list over the years would probably suspect that I’m an avid Disney Channel viewer. And they would be right. I enjoy some of their sitcoms up to a point (the late seasons of The Suite Life on Deck, The Wizards of Waverly Place, Austin & Ally, the Jonas shows), if mostly for eye-candy reasons, and I try not to miss their its TV movies (ditto). Meanwhile, I have never really felt at home in its universe of animated shows. This might help explain why I only discovered the wildly popular animated comedy series Phineas & Ferb through my regular schedule of news programming. However, it also says something about not only that show’s appeal to adults, but its comedic sophistication as well.
Late last year, Melissa Harris-Perry, who now has a weekend morning show on MSNBC, subbed for Lawrence O’Donnell on The Last Show. During the show’s essayistic opening segment, Harris-Perry constructed an argument for how politics was imitating life. Her example was Phineas & Ferb, and more precisely, how House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) often plays the role of a real-life Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz, the cartoonishly evil and self-conscious mad scientist who in every episode of the show concocts some eventually unsuccesful plot to control his surroundings. Harris-Perry’s argument was entertaining enough on its face, considering the debacle over the Bush-era tax cuts which was going on at the time, but the best thing about it was that introduced to the TV show.
If pressed, I guess I would say Dr. Doofenschmirtz, who constantly battles with Perry the Platypus, Phineas & Ferb’s pet who doubles as a secret agent, is my favorite character. His evilness is so transparently cartoonish it is almost sweet, and I just love his chemistry, if such a thing exists for animated characters, with Perry. The very best thing about Doofenschmirtz is his constant Oedipal hangups. More than anything his megalomaniacal ambitions seem to stem from feeling inferior to his brother when they were kids, and a series of amusing flashback scenes illustrate how he fought for his mother’s approval. Doofenschmirtz also is responsible much of the adult-oriented and metahumor in the show, with his frequent references to psychology and pop culture. Perry, a 007-style platypus is an essential part even of this dynamic.
The main plot, however, revolves around Phineas & Ferb, half-brothers form the U.S. and the UK respectively, who spend their summer days building and inventing magnificent things, much to the annoyance of their bossy sister, Candace. Much of the humor in their relationship is premised on Phineas being the outgoing one, and Ferb, more of a silent type, breaking the silence with a deadpan joke or facial expression a couple of times every episode. The show also celebrates nerdiness, represented by its super smart protagonists, in a way that is both endearing and funny. If I had the opportunity to transfer one of their abilities to me, however, I think I would have chosen their humor over their smarts. Then again, I’m not sure if I would want to be that age again.
There are rumors of an upcoming big-screen movie to parallell the television series, scheduled to run through 2014, but last year saw the premiere of the television movie Phineas & Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension. It is not flawless, and it’s debatable whether the premise has the strength to be stretched to feature length, but if anything, the movie underlined how central the songs are to show’s humor and athmosphere. The songs in this movie, and in the show in general, are not only bursting with color and energy; they are pretty damn near irresistibly catchy. Showing great musical range and a knack for sweet and funny lyrics, my favorite song may be Everything’s Better With Perry, a tribute in the vein of Songs In The Key Of Life-era Stevie Wonder, or possibly Jackson 5 (sample quote: “We consider every day a plus/to spend it with a platypus/We’re always so ecstatic/’cause he’s semi-aquatic”). Or the simple acoustic pop brilliance of Perfect Day. Or maybe the great Hey Ferb, a riff on the meta-musical, featuring Phineas’ catch-phrase “I know what we’re gonna do today!”. Summer is a wonderful piece of optimistic power pop, whereas Come Home Perry is a soaring ode to the family pet. Finally, I’ve got a soft spot for Perry’s theme song (“He’s a semi-aquatic eight-legged mammal of action”), a loving send-up of the James Bond theme.
In short, Phineas & Ferb is the kind of TV show the term guilty pleasure was not meant for, but for which it is probably used anyway, because as adults we are not supposed to watch kids’ programming sans kids. But I’m telling you, you should watch it, if you haven’t already. With segments of only around 10 minutes, it won’t take you long. The time-consuming part comes only later. When you’re hooked.