Friday Flotsam: Whither Milo Murphy?

1. BW Media Spotlight posted a good piece defending Milo Murphy’s Law, the sequel series to Phineas and Ferb that, alas, failed to find the same audience its predecessor did and lasted only two seasons.

Me, I’m a big fan of Phineas and Ferb: it’s one of my all-time favorites, and I really liked Milo Murphy a lot as well. Both those are very strong, very creative shows and both hit my taste in humor pretty hard with a blend simultaneously weird and intelligent (“Our mascot is Murray the Middleman, who buys products from manufacturers and sells them to retailers at a hefty profit!”). Reading BW’s post made me wonder just why it is that PnF was so much more successful at finding an audience than Milo (this despite Milo starring the priceless Weird Al Yankovic himself in the title role).

2. Part of it, I suspect, is simply a form of sequelitis. PnF set the bar so high in the minds of its fans that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible for Milo to match it (especially when you remember that PnF actually took a while to get really good: it wasn’t until near the end of the first season at least that they really found their stride). Besides, audiences had four years or more to get to know and love the PnF characters; going from that to a new show set in the same world with all-new characters is just not going to be the same experience.

Come the second season of Milo and the addition of the reformed Dr. Doofenshmirtz as a series regular, there was also the perpetual problem that the creators ran into while trying to spin off Doof and Perry into their own show. Namely, that Doofenshmirtz simply isn’t as much fun as an incompetent good-guy as he is as an incompetent bad-guy. His stupidity and bumbling comes across as less funny and more pitiful when he’s trying to be heroic, and he and Perry don’t play off each other as well when they’re allies (actually, I think their best bet would have been the ‘Doof teaches high school’ option, since then he would be able to show a degree of competence while his brand of mayhem would be livening up a dull and pointless environment rather than causing havoc in an otherwise positive one, but that ship’s long sailed).

But I don’t think either of those were the main reason; if anything, they were only a catalyst exacerbating other issues. Having seen both shows multiple times, I think the main difference comes down to a few rather complicated factors. I’ll do my best to explain.

3. Both these shows are very optimistic, upbeat stories. On reflection, though, I think Milo might be a little too consistently sweet and optimistic. I don’t mean that Milo himself is too optimistic or a flat character or something (he isn’t: he’s actually quite well-written and performed, with a full emotional range). What I mean is that there isn’t enough emotional ‘texture’ going on. I don’t mean just conflict, but a variety of different audience reactions.

I’ll see if I can clarify what I mean.

In PnF, for all its cheery good-will, you had several notable points of conflict and tension among the main cast: Candace was always trying to ‘bust’ her brothers. Buford bullies Baljeet. Isabella is in love with Phineas, who is blissfully oblivious to her feelings. And, of course, Doofenshmirtz is always trying to take over the Tri-State Area or exact petty revenge and Perry tries to stop him without blowing his cover.

These problems were never resolved, or were resolved very slowly and only at the end of the series, and we didn’t expect them to be, but they provided points of interest and what I’m calling emotional texture: points of differing audience reactions to specific characters and with it alternating tension and release.

Candace’s role is especially important in this regard, where she is simultaneously an antagonist and a protagonist, with her antagonism lying on the surface and her sympathetic qualities underneath. If I can judge from my own experience, we the audience come to really like Candace, despite the fact that she’s vain, petty, and kind of a brat. The show, despite being called Phineas and Ferb, is really more about her and her back-and-forth struggles with maturity. The fact that she can be both the main obstacle or threat to the brothers and their loving sister, chief ally, and the show’s heroine helped to keep things consistently interesting. It provided a continual ebb and flow of engagement as she sometimes does the right thing, sometimes doesn’t.

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Doofenshmirtz played a similar role, in that he was a ‘villain’, but we quickly could see that he wasn’t really a bad guy, just an extremely immature and petty one, and you can’t help but feel sorry for him. Like Candace, we soon come to like Doof and want him to succeed, just not to succeed at his stated goal. Plus he has his charming, but strained relationship with his daughter, Vanessa (their relationship being one of the most notable instances of the fact that the characters do develop over the course of the show) and his odd ‘frienmity’ with Perry.

What I’m trying to get at is that, even with a very formulaic structure and relatively static characters, the nature of those characters provides a variety of emotional experiences wherein we’re not really sure which one we’re going to get from scene to scene: is Candace going to be in ‘jerk’ mode or ‘sympathetic’ mode? Are we going to get one of Doof’s petty spiteful moments or one of his loving affectionate moments? This is what I mean by emotional texture: the characters move in and out of eliciting now one reaction, now the other.

4. Now, in Milo, there really isn’t anything like the above, or not to the same extent. Milo has a smoothly comfortable relationship with his friends Zack and Melissa, his family is supportive and loving, his sister patiently puts up with his curse (the closest she comes to antagonizing him is anxiously asking him to stand back), and even most of his classmates are friendly, if cautious towards him. The only hostile characters are Bradley, who is simply a jerk and doesn’t get much development, and Eliot the crossing guard, who does get some development and eventually warms up to Milo, but doesn’t have enough redeeming qualities or enough of a relationship with Milo to make him really sympathetic or interesting. For a while it looked like they were going to do something with Cavendish when he briefly thought that Milo was the villain, but it’s dropped pretty quickly when Dakota suggests that they simply ask Milo if he’s trying to destroy them. Likewise, Cavendish and Dakota have a bit of friction in their bickering, which is fun, but not really the sort of thing described above since it’s usually just standard ‘vitriolic best buds’ stuff, rather than, say, Buford and Baljeet oscillating between genuine friendship and genuine hostility (Dakota’s not going to be flying Cavendish into some cacti just for fun, for instance).

The conflict is almost entirely external, from Milo’s curse and various antagonists. Very rarely are the main characters in opposition with each other or in complicated or difficult positions with each other.

The result is that the emotional landscape of Milo is much flatter than that of PnF. Conflicts get resolved a little too quickly and the characters are uniformly likable and affectionate, except for when they’re supposed to be more or less just plain jerks and villains, or else they grow out of their contentious attitudes within a short amount of time (e.g. Melissa’s dad doesn’t like Milo, but learns to appreciate him over the course of a single episode). It’s all charming and pleasant, but it has considerably less bite than PnF.

The long-term conflicts include Milo’s budding relationship with Amanda (a hyper-organized girl at his school) and Cavendish and Dakota’s various time-related adventures, particularly involving the pistachio plants. There is also a low-key romance between Zack and Melissa that remains largely under the surface until near the end. These are all perfectly fine and charming, but none of them really create enough waves to give the show much texture.

Milo and Amanda in Milo Murphy's Law - YouTube

Now, a show doesn’t have to have this kind of thing – e.g. sympathetic pseudo-antagonists who are also protagonists and move between different emotional responses from the audience – to be good or to gain an audience. But thinking over the two shows, I think that is something that PnF had that Milo lacked and, what is more, lacked anything suitable to replace it with. It’s certainly not bad – again, it’s a very good show – but it’s less interesting.

5. The next factor is even more ephemeral, but I think equally important. It’s that PnF has more of an immediate appeal to it than Milo. It takes the form of an almost generic Saturday morning cartoon: kids have adventures in their backyard while their secret-agent pet battles evil scientists, their mother is oblivious to it all and their sister tries to reveal it. At the same time, that package is used to indulge the fantasy of kids who are able to do what real kids imagine doing: building roller coasters, being superheroes, flying rocketships, etc. Whether by design or accident, you end up with a show that captures the imagination of childhood and of the carefree games of summer, presented in the form of something like the very sort of cartoon that would go along with those imaginary games. The central idea of the show is embodied in its very structure, you could almost say. It’s basically a show all about childhood and the carefree experience of childhood.

Milo, on the other hand, is a bit more specific and less immediately appealing: about a kid who brings impossible disasters down upon himself wherever he goes, but soldiers on optimistically nonetheless. It’s a good premise, touching on optimism, persistence in the face of bad luck, and so on but it doesn’t tap as deeply as the other.

Childhood and childhood imagination is something everyone’s experienced and many people can still remember, and that kind of ‘boy’s adventure’ story is a familiar story-type. It slots neatly into the imagination, allowing its more specific characteristics to shine out better. Milo is a lot less familiar and a lot less ‘apt’ to the imagination; it feels more like a very personal, “let’s just go crazy” kind of story that the creators did because it was what they specifically wanted to make. It’s fun, but it doesn’t make an immediate or clear appeal the same way that PnF did.

6. Adding to these two factors is also the fact that Milo is a much more serialized show than PnF. Each episode follows its own plot and its own pattern and, apart from the three-to-five core characters, (Milo, Zach, Melissa, Cavendish, and Dakota), the casts vary considerably from episode to episode, and most of the characters are introduced piecemeal, coming and going unevenly across the two seasons.

In PnF, the show deliberately follows a fairly tight formula most of the time, and the same main characters recur and play more or less the same roles in every episode (Phineas, Ferb, Candace, Perry, Doof, Isabella, Baljeet, Buford). This was part of the joke, but it also had the effect of giving the show a very strong sense of identity, as well as solidifying the characters in the audience’s mind.

7. The net result of all these points is that Milo felt a lot less focused and a lot less, hm, sturdy than PnF, especially coupled with the aforementioned rapid conflict solving. It came across a little flatter, a little lighter and more superficial (ironically enough, considering how much lower the stakes in PnF tended to be). Both shows are delightfully crazy, but PnF concentrated its craziness through its strictly formulaic episodes, keeping the show familiar and grounded even as it went off the walls. Milo didn’t have that same kind of structure and so feels more fluid and scattershot. It isn’t so much that it does anything much worse than the earlier show, it’s more that it was just harder to connect with.

I still think it deserved to find more of an audience than it did (it’s much better than, say, Gravity Falls, not to mention more wholesome), but that’s my theory as to why it didn’t.

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I’m glad we have them both

2 thoughts on “Friday Flotsam: Whither Milo Murphy?

  1. Maybe that’s the problem comparing the two. They are very different shows that just happen to have the same creative team. Milo Murphy’s Law is a bit different, new ground and probably something to keep their skills fresh with a new challenge. Do the same thing long enough you either get burned out or end up with something that should have ended long ago (and there are plenty of examples of that). I don’t know that they stopped where they could end on top before running dry of ideas but it would make sense why the two shows are so different despite being the same universe, a chance to revisit old characters if they choose to.

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  2. I think you said the magic word in point 6: “serialized”. I know critics ooh and aah over serialization these days, but I think maybe the old-school TV producers who would never have dreamed of putting soap operas on prime time understood their medium better than Netflix ever will. I think serialization (when it’s not being used as emotional cocaine for lonely housewives) is something regular people will put up with if it’s all they’re being offered, but, if you give them the choice that Marsh and Povenmire did, they’ll take episodic every time. If someone had had the sense to make a dark, gritty, high-class fantasy series that *didn’t* require you to see the episodes in order, “Game of Thrones” would, I feel certain, have been snowed under. (Especially if its dragons had been less ugly – but that’s another discussion entirely.)

    Consider the differing fates of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Babylon 5”. These two shows are about as comparable as you can get while still being made by different people (so as to avoid the red herring of “oh, the audience wouldn’t let these creators try something new”): they aired roughly simultaneously (TNG’s seventh and last season being the third of B5’s five), appealed to the same viewership, shared similar – and, often, similarly offputting – philosophic viewpoints, hearkened back more or less explicitly to a common progenitor (B5’s debt to the original “Star Trek” would be palpable even if Walter Koenig didn’t have a recurring role), and were, I think, on about the same generally high plane in terms of both acting and writing quality. TNG had the advantages of a head start and name recognition; B5 had the advantages of a major action element and, after the first season, a familiar TV star heading its cast. So why is TNG now regarded as an acknowledged television classic, and B5 as a half-forgotten cult series? Well, no doubt there are multiple reasons, but I feel confident in saying that B5’s heavy serialization was certainly one of them. I can testify that, by season 4, it was all but impossible to enjoy any single episode on its own merits; even the relatively self-contained ones were still rather drearily unsatisfying, because you couldn’t help sensing that their endings weren’t really their endings at all – that, if you wanted to see the *real* ending of the story you’d tuned in (or, in my case, loaded the DVD) to watch, you’d have to wait fifteen more episodes and just pray that the writers didn’t mess anything up between now and then. (Which, as we all know, is a perpetual danger of serialized shows; see the notorious finale fiasco of, again, “Game of Thrones”.) And, as it happens, I had a similar feeling when I tried to dip into “Milo Murphy’s Law”; I forget which episode it was I saw, but I remember getting about three or four minutes into it and thinking, “Well, this is the dullest thing I’ve seen in a while; it doesn’t even feel like the beginning of an episode.” Now, of course, I understand.

    And, ultimately, that’s what it boils down to. Serialized shows, by their very nature, are more boring than episodic ones, because serialization simply means taking 11 hours to do what an episodic show of the same runtime would do in 30 minutes (and “Phineas and Ferb” typically accomplished in 15). What virtues it has can’t really outweigh that essential defect – but, like political messaging in superhero comics, they can inspire a chorus of critical praise to drown out the dissatisfaction of the rank-and-file viewers whom one doesn’t care to put the effort into genuinely pleasing.

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