Doofenshmirtz and Identity Politics

Phineas and Ferb is one of those shows that, though simple on the surface, lends itself to endless fascinating interpretations. Like so many great works of fiction, it tells the truth merely by trying to tell a good story.

One of the chief themes of the show is the balance between childhood and maturity: Phineas and Ferb are trying to make the most of their childhood – symbolized by the summer vacation – by learning as much as possible, making as many friends as possible, and having as much fun as possible. By contrast, the ‘evil’ Doctor Doofenshmirtz had a miserable childhood, which seems to have left him emotionally stunted and for which he is constantly trying to get revenge or recompense. Balancing the two extremes is Candace, who is caught between adolescence and adulthood and is unsure how she fits in either, which manifests by trying to ‘bust’ her brothers: a childish and immature attempt to assume adult responsibilities.

So, to sum up, Phineas and Ferb revel in their childhood, Candace makes a clumsy effort to grab at adult responsibility without understanding it, while Doofenshmirtz tries to avoid responsibility until he’s settled with his lost childhood. The final main cast member, Perry the Platypus, is more or less the only adult in the room, seeking to balance his responsibilities both to his family and to his job.

For today, I want to focus on Doofenshmirtz and his arc. This will involve spoilers, by the way.

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The thing about Doofenshmirtz is that he’s a man who is completely obsessed with his own backstory. He has an endless series of gripes from his miserable childhood, each of which he considers enough to justify a complicated and often enormous and dangerous machine. He once made a giant, spacefaring robot just so that he could show-up the kid who beat him at shadow-puppets. Another time he decided that if he had one more bad date, he’d use a ray to eliminate romantic feelings from the entire Tri-State Area (in the end, the only one it hit was his own date).

The interesting thing is that Doof truly did have a terrible childhood, and was treated completely unfairly by his parents. Many of his gripes are perfectly legitimate. This is a guy whose father forced him to work as a lawn gnome and then disowned him after he choked on the high-dive, and whose brother was given presents he didn’t even like just so that Doof wouldn’t have them. Basically, his parents took an inexplicable disliking to him at birth and made sure he knew it every day of his life (it actually would be pretty grim if it weren’t so hilariously over-the-top).

However, the show is clear that none of this justifies Doof’s behavior. Yes, he was treated inexcusably by his parents and peers, but that doesn’t mean he can take it out on the world in general, or even on the people who were involved after all this time. There’s one episode where he decides to get back at the girl who was always dumping water on him as a child by dropping a huge bucket of water on her party in the park. He discovers too late that, one, the girl’s grown up to be very attractive, and two, the dumping water had been her way of saying she liked him. When Doof awkwardly has to confess to what he was planning, she’s understandably infuriated, pointing out that she was eight years old and that it’s insane that he still holds a grudge at the age of forty.

But not only does Doofenshmirtz feel the need to seek revenge for past wrongs, he also feels entitled to getting his own way in the present. If he wants something, his first instinct is to cheat. If he’s going to run a telethon to trying to gin up more cash, he makes a machine to preempt every other show and force people to watch. Even when he has a real chance of winning legitimately, he still tries to stack the deck just to be sure (as seen when he entered his scrumptious family meatloaf recipe in the annual meatloaf contest and invented a “Rotten-inator” to ruin everyone else’s entries). His main overarching goal is to take over the entire Tri-State Area, mostly in order to show up his younger brother, Roger, who is the mayor and was far his parents’ favorite. Basically, he thinks he’s entitled to everything Roger has simply because Roger was treated well by their parents and he wasn’t. But the thing is, that wasn’t Roger’s fault, and even if he’s a bit of a pompous jerk that still doesn’t mean Doof has a right to anything. What Doof can justly lay claim to has nothing to do with how he or anyone else has been treated by life.

There’s an interesting bit where Doofenshmirtz invents a ‘Luck-inator’ to give himself unnaturally good luck, intending to use the reverse setting on Roger to give him bad luck. Roger, however, is unconcerned, basically saying that luck is a matter of attitude and forethought. Doof answers that he prefers to “Inator my way to success.”

In short, Doofenshmirtz feels that the injustices he suffered in childhood entitle him both to recompense for past wrongs and to success in the present, and that he can cheat his way to getting them regardless of how it affects other people (“Sure it’ll be hard for brain surgeons, and people driving…”). But the truth is that, though he has indeed suffered injustice, his actions are also unjust. He is either taking his anger out on people who had nothing to do with his problems, grasping at things he has no real right to, or trying to get back at people decades late for things they probably don’t even remember and which really weren’t all that important to begin with.

In the end, though, Doof’s heart isn’t really in his bad behavior. He’s not really evil; he just thinks he is because he believes that being evil is the proper response to a past like his. As his daughter Vanessa tells him in the finale, he’s “basically a nice guy who’s pretending to be evil.” He pushes away the idea of taking responsibility for his own life, of letting go of the past and focusing on the present, because he somehow feels that this would be betraying his backstory. The fact that his heart isn’t in doing evil is shown by the fact that he seems to expect and even rely on Perry the Platypus foiling his schemes (he specifically designs his traps so that Perry can get out of them with a little effort), and that whenever he teams up with genuinely evil villains, he very quickly turns against them. Unlike his rival, Rodney, who is truly evil and tries to cause real harm, Doofenshmirtz’s schemes mostly amount to the nature of childish pranks. It’s all just his confused attempt to find satisfaction for the wrongs he suffered in the past.

Now, I think you might see where I’m going with this: Doof is, in his own way, in much the same position as just about any ‘marginalized group:’ smarting over past injustices and expecting some kind of recompense as well as smooth sailing in the future to make up for it. The trouble is, life doesn’t work like that. Past injustices suffered do not ‘cancel out’ present injustices committed. Nor does having suffered entitle you to, well, anything except sympathy. Recompense can be demanded of an individual who has wronged you – you take my money, I can demand it back. You insult me I can demand an apology – but not of whole societies. This isn’t to belittle what has been suffered, only to say that creating even more injustice is not the path to healing.

Doof’s healing doesn’t come from seeking revenge or finally beating his brother: when he does take over the Tri-State Area in the finale, he finds it unsatisfactory. Healing comes when he finally decides to let go of his past and focus on what he has: his beloved daughter, his friends, and satisfying work. When we look in on him ten years hence, he’s so happy that he has to make an inator when he wants to experience a midlife crisis.

Identity politics, you see, aren’t evil just because they divide people: they also take people’s eyes off of the things that can actually improve their lives and fix them on things that will never bring satisfaction and which probably can’t even be cured. The endless and ridiculous expansion of things to feel aggrieved by only serves to demonstrate how futile such efforts are. And, of course, since you can’t solve a problem that depends on personal interpretation, there will always be a justifying excuse; you can always say “ah, but if only we eliminate x, y, and z, everything will be fine. They don’t want us to because they hate you. It’s only one more proof…”

Interestingly, the genuine evils Doofenshmirtz has suffered in the past lead him to take everything unpleasant that happens to him as just one more injustice. Having honestly been treated horribly and unfairly, he takes any and every setback, offense, or even just annoyance as a personal attack. Again, similar to how sources of ‘racism’ grow ever more ridiculous and petty (though even Doofenshmirtz never saw coded insults in his dinner) . People who have suffered genuine injustice tend to expect injustice and see it everywhere, which ironically leads them to commit injustices in their turn.

This is one of the biggest problems with Identity Politics: it simply ignores and excuses this phenomenon. Identity Politics, or critical theory essentially would argue that Doof is perfectly justified in, say, shooting a giant tire at the guy who ran over his foot. Because he was wronged, that means he cannot do wrong, or that any wrong he does is really the fault of his parents or brother. But not only does this excuse and encourage Doof’s harmful behavior, but it actually denies him the possibility of improving his own lot. And since what his parents did is in the past, they can’t undo it, even if they wanted to, meaning that it’s not a means to achieve anything, only to prop up an ultimately intolerable situation.

Doofenshmirtz spends almost the whole series trying to force the world to conform to his wishes, whether it wants to or not. His triumph comes when he realizes that he doesn’t have to; he has to change his own perspective and actions. He overcomes his past suffering by ceasing to allow it to control him.

 

Why ‘Phineas and Ferb Star Wars’ is the Best Disney Star Wars

It is kind of a sad commentary on the state of the once-venerable franchise that the best and most satisfying work to come out of Star Wars’s move to Disney is a Phineas and Ferb special. Granted, Rogue One was pretty good, though it wasn’t well paced and the characters were mostly pretty bland. And I haven’t seen The Last Jedi, so maybe it’ll…you know what, I’m actually going to go out on a limb and say I don’t think it’ll make much difference.

So, what does Phineas and Ferb do right that the other recent Star Wars films fail to do?

First of all there’s the fact that, though it’s a spoof, it nevertheless manages to pay sincere homage to the original while also doing something new. Unlike Force Awakens, which was a lamer retread of the first film, PnF cook up their own storyline set in the Star Wars universe…and, just to compound the insult, they do it while literally retreading the first film.

The special posits versions of the Phineas and Ferb characters were present and played an unseen, but crucial role in the events of the first Star Wars. Phineas and Ferb live next door to Luke Skywalker on Tatoinne, but where Luke longs for something more the two brothers are perfectly content with their lot and spend their days making the most of their life on the desert planet. Until, that is, they run across R2-D2 and accidentally end up with the Death Star plans. So, while Luke, Obi-Wan, and the rest try to get R2 to the Rebels, thinking he has the plans, Phineas and Ferb race after them to try to get the plans back to them.

Thus, instead of a character who is dissatisfied and longs for more, he we have two characters who are satisfied, but are knocked out of their comfort zone and forced to attend to larger issues they hadn’t thought of (neatly foreshadowed in an early scene where their father tries to get them to go off the planet to experience the wider world). This is paralleled by both Candace – here an overzealous and underappreciated stormtrooper – and Isabella – here a rival smuggler to Han Solo, in a somewhat jarring departure from her normal characterization. All three sets of characters are more or less comfortable in their present lives, not realizing that those lives are unhealthy or unsuited for them, and over the course of the story are pulled out of their comfort zone and forced to re-evaluate their situation.

The one exception is Doofenshmirtz (here called ‘Darthenshmirtz’), an underappreciated scientist for the Empire and the actual designer of the Death Star (which, of course, is why it was so easy to destroy; it had a self-destruct button. This is even funnier in the wake of Rogue One’s revelation that that’s actually the canon explanation). Doof, in typical fashion, wants to cheat his way to greater respect and to that end has created a ‘Sith-Inator,’ which makes anyone it hits extremely attune to the Dark Side of the Force.

Now, I don’t know enough Star Wars lore to know if that fits the universe, but quite frankly, and setting aside Doof’s goofiness, that’s actually a pretty decent superweapon and a neat twist on the established elements. It sounds plausible given the setting, and it’s both more interesting and more insidious than just another planet buster. It’s mostly a gag, and primarily exists to set up a fight between Phineas and Ferb (the writers went on record saying evil mind-altering technology was literally the only way that could happen), but it’s a gag that evinces more real creativity than the whole of The Force Awakens, and one that honestly could have served for a whole trilogy.

It also sets up a genuinely emotional and tense confrontation playing on established themes of loyalty and ambition…while also making a joke about the way lightsabers keep getting more complicated and impractical (and they somehow made Ferb actually look scary, which is impressive in itself). That’s the thing: the special is a goof, but it’s a goof with honestly good storytelling.

Also the way the characters develop and change over the course of the special is really well done. Like Force Awakens we have a stormtrooper switching sides, but it’s done a lot better here. Candace has her perspective altered by experiencing something her training has taught her could not happen, letting in a bit of light that finally makes her question her point-of-view. And, equally believably, once she does that she quickly notices other things that didn’t fit with her assumptions (“didn’t we just blow up a planet?!” “Yes, that is sort of difficult to justify, morally”). Also, when she does change sides, she’s still kind of a badass and proves an effective ally, putting her stormtrooper skills to good use, rather than being a total ineffectual loser.

Likewise with Isabella’s story arc of learning to open up and care for Phineas and Ferb, both being impressed by their skills and attracted by their loyalty. It’s a standard character arc, of course, but it works. The progression is believable, much like Han’s progression in the first film was believable.

Speaking of which, I can much sooner buy Han Solo having a rivalry with Isabella and talking smack with her at a bar than I can buy him divorcing Leia and going back to smuggling after losing the Falcon and what the hell were they even thinking?! Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Sorry. But, yeah, oddly enough Han and Isabella’s conversation and mutual prodding actually sort of works and I can almost imagine it really going down like that.

Also, it’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s funny. It moves quickly and the characters are all engaging and likable. It let’s us know how and why the Empire is bad and makes us feel what’s at stake even as it uses the material for jokes. They play Alderan’s destruction for dark humor, but it’s balanced by Phineas’s stunned reaction when he finds out what the Death Star can do (“I never thought the Empire would go that far!”).

So, yeah, the silly parody in a Saturday morning cartoon special was better, more interesting, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original than the ultrabudget sequels.

 

Mission Marvel and Legit Heroes

On the subject of genuine heroics, allow me to present Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel, a crossover special where the Phineas and Ferb cast meet a bunch of Marvel characters.

Now, this sounds like it wouldn’t work; goofy surreal kid’s show meets semi-serious comic book heroes. And it’s not perfect, or even one of the better PnF specials (which frankly says more about just how good the others are than about this one), but there are some key elements that it does really well.

First of all, the difference in tone is actually the main point of the special, with the PnF characters being a little disturbed by confronting a situation much more serious than they’re accustomed to, while the Marvel characters are confused by the more absurdist tone of Phineas and Ferb (it’s actually similar to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein now that I think about it).

By the way, this blending of tones is something a lot of crossovers miss: that it’s not enough to put two different groups of characters together, you have to make it feel like a meeting of two distinct stories with their own special themes and emotional tones (Oddly enough, the best example of this I’ve seen yet is Freddy vs. Jason).

Another thing the special does really well is that it doesn’t just feel like a meeting of worlds, it feels like this is what a kid would hope meeting his heroes would be like. Phineas and Ferb is, in large part about childish imagination brought to life: kids who get to really do what other kids pretend to do. In this case, they get to hang out with some of their favorite heroes and even help them save the day.

But that’s that point: the heroes are still the dominant figures, with Phineas, Ferb, and the rest in support roles, because that’s exactly what a real kid would want. Kids don’t want to show up their heroes, but only to be able to feel worthy of them. The scenario here is perfectly suited to that, with the heroes temporarily deprived of their powers, requiring Phineas and Ferb’s help to get them back while trying to thwart a group of supervillains at the same time. So, the kids can legitimately contribute without diminishing either the heroes or the villains, and the situation is desperate enough that it’s acceptable for the heroes to bring the kids into battle (once the heroes get their powers back, the kids stay out of the fight).

Which brings me to another point: the heroes are genuinely heroic. Remember what I said about legit heroes? The superheroes here count (actually, from what I can tell, the heroes are more heroic here than in the actual comics at the moment).

The heroes here are constantly behind it: either lacking powers or having the wrong powers. Yet again and again, they still step up to the plate and go into battle. Even when they clearly have no chance of winning, they still saddle up to do whatever they can because, as they explain, that’s what they do. Their powers aren’t what makes them heroes, their willingness to do the right thing whatever the cost is.

This also inspires the kids, who join them in battle despite being obviously outclassed. Phineas and Ferb discover early on that their tech is woefully inadequate to fighting real supervillains, but in the final battle they put on their damaged Beak suit and go in anyway. Like any good adventure story, the heroes are constantly being dumped on in one way or another, all the way up until the end, where the heroes and the kids they inspired engage in a mad dog-pile scramble just trying anything and everything they can think of to keep the villains from winning for as long as possible (the action sequences are fantastic, by the way, with really fast, highly detailed animation that encourages multiple viewings to catch everything going on).

So, Phineas and Ferb absolutely nailed what people love about comic book heroes, just another example of how deceptively excellent that show is.

A Quick Word on the Beauty of ‘Phineas and Ferb’

I’m rewatching Phineas and Ferb again at the moment and just finished the episode Magic Carpet Ride. During the song sequence, it suddenly occurred to me that this really is a microcosm of just what makes this show so special. It’s that it manages to be both absurdist and sincere at the same time. It simultaneously makes you laugh and warms your heart.

The scenario here is that Phineas and Ferb’s father has been watching his favorite childhood show and laments that the ‘magic carpet’ tie in wasn’t as magical as he remembers. So the boys turn the living room carpet into a flying carpet to give him a real magic carpet ride. What follows is a genuinely beautiful sequence of them flying around town, accompanied by a song that includes lyrics like “it’s aerodynamics are highly advanced / and its weave is so tight and so soft.”

Seeing the kids casually flying around town on a carpet, complete with sofa and TV, is obviously absurd and prompts some ridiculous imagery. But it also has some really sweet scenes like Phineas and Isabella sitting together in rapturous delight at the view below, not to mention the whole thing was two kids trying to cheer up their father.

This blend of the sincere and the ridiculous is pretty much in the show’s DNA. Even the animation style hits this balance of being both surreal and actually very beautiful at times. The scenes of them flying around the town are gorgeous and enlivened by little moments of innocent emotional power.

I don’t like a lot of modern art, like Picasso and Duchamp and so forth. I think their work is frankly hideous. The excuse generally made is that they did something different and original, but something like Phineas and Ferb puts the lie to that plea. The animators here create a unique, stylized, and surreal art style, but do it without sacrificing beauty. Likewise the writers make something creative, funny, and satirical without being in the least cynical or mean spirited.

So, this goofy kid’s show puts the lie to the vast majority of modern and post-modern art and literature; you can be as different, creative, and original as you like without being nihilistic, ugly, or mean. That’s why I have little patience for works that strike me as such, because, well, it could have been otherwise if the creators had wished it. The fact that they didn’t says something about them and their work that I don’t care for. And as long as there are works like Phineas and Ferb around, I’ll know where to go instead.

 

Thoughts on ‘Gravity Falls’

Gravity Falls is one of those shows that I’d heard raved about from several different quarters as being a very smart, very funny, and very mature kids’ show with a lot of dark, creative imagery. So, when I had some extra time (read: was procrastinating again) I watched through it.

My reactions were surprisingly pretty mixed. I enjoyed a lot of it; when it’s good, it’s very good. The trouble is that, like the little girl with the little curl, when it’s bad it’s horrid.

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The set up is that two twin siblings, Dipper and Mabel, are going to spend the summer with their great-uncle (‘Grunkle’) Stan; a grouchy con-man who runs a tourist trap ‘mystery shack’ in the rural town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. The town, as the two kids soon discover, is a nexus point of everything weird, supernatural, and unexplained, and they try to uncover the mysteries of the place while dealing with the pressures of growing up.

So, a good set up with lots of potential. Now what else is good about it? Well, first of all, the characters are pretty fun. I can’t say I was especially engaged by any of them (with one exception), but they’re interesting and pleasant company for the most part. The story arc of the two kids growing into adolescence is pretty engaging and realized through some nicely drawn subplots. The relationships are really good too; between the siblings, between the kids and their uncle, between Dipper and Wendy the girl who works the counter, and so on.

The stand out, for me, was the uncle, who’s a fantastic character. When I look back on the show, his scenes are chiefly what I remember and his relationship with the kids was probably the best thing about it. He’s an unabashed crook, grump, drinker, and scoundrel, but nevertheless you know he loves his kids and would do absolutely anything for them. His interactions with the two kids, especially with Mabel, are the most emotionally gripping elements of the story and actually brought a lump to my throat once or twice.

The atmosphere of the show is great as well. There’s a constant underlying sense of secrecy and uncertainty, playing into the mystery element. You’re almost never sure quite what’s going on, who to trust, or what’s going to happen next.

I also like the creativity shown in the creature designs and the supernatural effects (my favorite being an island that turns out to be a floating head). As that indicates, it’s often very dark and pleasantly frightening: sure to give sensitive young viewers nightmares. I liked how it was willing to push the scary and disturbing imagery, and that they weren’t afraid to place the kids in real danger, making for an unusually harsh tone for a kid’s show.

Speaking of danger, the main villain is fantastic: kind of like Freddy Krueger if he were a used car salesman. The exact rules of what he could and couldn’t do were kind of vague, but that’s kind of the point, and he was wonderfully evil in a delightful way.

Oh, and the show is often very funny, with a gloriously dark sense of humor. For instance, an early joke is that Stan’s last outing with the kids involved them helping him counterfeit money (“The county jail was cold”). Basically, any time we see one of his schemes, it’s pretty much hilarious. Mabel’s pretty funny too with her super-cheery, not-quite-all-there perspective, and Dipper gets some great reactions as the nearest-to-sane character present.

Okay, so the show has good characters, great atmosphere, it’s creative, funny. Sounds good. And a lot of the time it is. But the rest of the time…

The first problem is that, though the show has great atmosphere, the animation is kind of hideous. The characters are all lumpy and distorted, and there’s a dreary, unpleasant tone to the art style. And it’s not a matter of being stylized either: a lot of the characters in Phineas and Ferb have much weirder designs than this (Phineas’s head is a triangle), but they don’t create the same impression of ugliness. Maybe it’s because the characters there are done in broad geometric shapes, or because the colors are brighter, but the animation is much more pleasing to the eye than anything here. Gravity Falls is kind of unpleasant to look at, especially the more you watch of it.

Another thing is that I found the writing oddly slapdash. For instance, sometimes plotlines are more taken for granted than actually established. Grunkle Stan supposedly doesn’t believe any of the kids’ stories about the strange goings on. I may have missed something, but I recall maybe one or two scenes of him reacting this way, and both very early on. Then in the opening of the second season it’s suddenly a twist that he knew all along. But…they hadn’t made anything of his supposed incredulity. It didn’t affect the story in any way, at least not that I can remember (contrast in Milo Murphy’s Law, where Bradley’s status as a jealous sourpuss is well-established even though he’s not in very many episodes). And there are a few things like that; elements that are just kind of assumed, but not really established and which don’t affect the story in any way until the writers just decide to resolve them.

Also, the characters don’t always behave believably. There’s a Halloween episode where the twins end up menaced by a Halloween spirit that threatens to eat them if they don’t give him a certain amount of candy by the end of the night (downing a passing child just to prove it’s serious). Dipper spends the night embarrassed to be trick-or-treating and wanting to ditch the effort to go to a party with Wendy. Even in cartoon terms, that’s not believable behavior: he could be entertainingly irritated at being frightened into doing something he’d rather not, but he can’t be just shrugging off a death-threat from a supernatural monster. In other words, there has to be at least an element of fear in his behavior if the scenario is going to work, but there isn’t; he’s just annoyed and trying to find away to blow it off. The way they defeat the monster is stupid as well; just a cheap joke that feels like they were stuck for an ending.

That’s a problem that kind of keeps coming back throughout the show; as I said, the writers are willing to put the kids in real danger, but they don’t always act like they’re in real danger, or even in a cartoonishly inappropriate way. Half the time the characters just don’t seem to be taking their own predicament seriously: and not in an amusingly careless “I’ve seen it all” kind of way, but in a weird “doesn’t matter to me” way. This sort of thing rips me right out of the story: you can’t be both flippantly careless and darkly frightening at the same time because the two tones cancel each other out. It hits the right balance sometimes, but misses badly at others.

Again, contrast this with Phineas and Ferb. It’s a much brighter and cheerier show, and the characters there are very rarely in any danger, or even faced with serious consequences, but whenever they are they act like it. They still joke and banter, but when they need to be serious they get serious. For example, when Candace realizes her brothers have been abducted by an alien poacher, she immediately forgets all about ‘busting’ them and rushes to their rescue. Even as goofy and surreal as the show is, the characters consistently act in a believable fashion. The characters on Gravity Falls don’t, or at least not consistently.

Ironically this means Phineas and Ferb actually does a better job at creating a sense of danger and dread on the rare occasions it tries than this one does as a major part of its makeup. When zombie pharmacists are scarier than child-eating scarecrows, something has gone very wrong with the latter.

This is probably connected with another problem; the show is very cynical, which isn’t necessarily bad in itself, but it leads the characters to have kind of a myopic worldview. The thesis seems to be ‘the only good thing you can do is be there for your friends and family,’ which plays out in some very strange and kind of nasty scenes. There’s a bit near the end where one character can literally save the world with a single gesture…but he holds off because he’s angry that another character hasn’t shown him enough appreciation. Then the choices the kids make towards the end are likewise kind of…wrong. I can’t get into it without spoilers, but the overall point seemed kind of self-centered to me. Basically, the leads are very loyal to each other, which makes them likable, but it doesn’t seem to translate into either care for others in general or any sense of value for its own sake.

Related to this is that the show often rewards the characters in unearned ways just because the writers decide they should be rewarded. There’s a really stupid episode where Dipper and Mabel are hunting down a centuries-old conspiracy, and Mabel’s random, goofy behavior turns out to be the key to solving each riddle, because the guy who set the puzzle was just as goofy and random as she was, and “being silly is good.” No. Just…no. The hand the of the writers is brutally obvious throughout, rewarding Mabel for no other reason than that they wanted her to be right.

Again, contrast this with a similar situation in a better show. There’s an episode of My Little Pony where Rarity has to solve a mystery on Rainbow Dash’s behalf and apparently spends most of her time changing costumes and getting distracted by irrelevancies. But it turns out everything she focused on was vital to the case (the costumes not so much) and that, in classic detective fashion, she knew what she was doing the whole time. You see, Rarity was able to solve the mystery because she’s both intelligent and very attune to details: traits that obviously lend themselves to solving mysteries. On Gravity Falls, Mabel solves the mystery because she’s ‘silly’ and because her random, goofy behavior just happened to correspond with the mystery author’s random, goofy behavior, which only works because it was specifically set up that way. That’s the difference between an earned solution and a contrived one.

And there are quite a few episodes like that, where the writers are obviously just forcing things to go their preferred way, either because they’ve written themselves into a corner or because that’s just how they want it to be. So between that, the false-seeming behavior, and the often slapdash plotting, I don’t think I can call this a well-written show.

Then there are just stupid things: I praised the main villain, but the secondary one is just dumb and neither a consistent character nor a very entertaining one. There were a fair number of episodes that just plain didn’t work, or had a great set up that they completely undermined for a cheap gag.

In all this I think the central problem is the mindset behind the show. I don’t know anything about the creators, but the show seems to come from a very cynical, almost nihilistic point of view. I may be reading too much into it, but that’s the impression I was left with, though accompanied with some strong emotional connections to and between the characters and a lot of good humor and creativity.

I’ve spent a lot of time describing what’s wrong with Gravity Falls because its flaws are mostly structural, down under the surface and tricky to pin down. The show is superficially very strong, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny very well. Shows like Phineas and Ferb and My Little Pony are not only fun to watch, but get better the more you think about them. I’ve seen Phineas and Ferb all through at least three or four times and I’m still finding new things to like about it and new ideas to draw from it. Gravity Falls is generally fun to watch, but it doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny. The more I think about it, the more I see the flaws, the gaps, and the wrongheadedness in it, all the more so because it does have such a superficial shine to it that makes me annoyed to find it’s not as good as it tries to be.

I’m an inveterate re-watcher, so one of my main rubrics for judging just about any work of fiction is whether I want to see it again. Phineas and Ferb I wanted to re-watch as soon as it was over, since it left me so emotionally satisfied that I wanted to go back and see the whole thing again knowing where it was leading. Danny Phantom left me appreciative for the good parts, but with absolutely no desire to watch it again. Gravity Falls is somewhere in the middle. I don’t want to watch it again anytime soon, but I feel like I may at some point in the future. The good parts may just be good enough to tempt me back once more, at least to some episodes. It’s certainly a good show in a lot of ways, but I can’t say I liked it very much.

So, in the end, I have very mixed feelings about Gravity Falls. I liked a lot of it, and I disliked a lot of it, and on the whole it left me glad that I had seen it, but with a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

New Years Specials

There aren’t as many good New Year specials as there are Christmas specials, for obvious reasons: New Year just doesn’t have the same depth or meaning as Christmas. Still, there’ve been a few, and two of them particularly come to mind.

The first is Happy New Year from Phineas and Ferb: the first episode of the fourth and final season. This shows the PnF characters all celebrating New Years Eve in their particular way: Phineas and Ferb decide to make a giant New Years ball to drop from space while hosting a party inside, Candace has made a resolution to stop trying to bust her brothers and decides she has time for one more desperate attempt before midnight, and Doctor Doofenshmirtz intends to change everyone’s resolutions to ‘Obey Doofenshmirtz.’ All typical Phineas and Ferb zaniness.

But, also typical of Phineas and Ferb is that there is a lot of heart to it. In particular, we get to see Candace trying to move on and mature, while maybe being not quite ready. She’s excited to be at her first ‘adult’ party – so excited that she and Stacy are giggling like schoolgirls – but not really prepared to let her old obsessions go, showcasing the tension between good resolutions and the lure of the familiar. Her story here ends on an ambiguous, but comforting note. Likewise, Doofenshmirtz’s plan goes down in probably the funniest way possible, but concludes with him shrugging it off and enjoying the night with Perry.

Of course, it’s very funny, creative, and features a really great song that is absolutely perfect for New Year.

Then there’s New Years Retribution from Sonic Boom. I’ve talked about this show a few times before, and it’s definitely in the ‘guilty pleasure’ category. I can’t really argue that it’s good, but it has a definite charm to it that makes it, for me at least, more enjoyable than some objectively better shows.

Anyway, the story of this one is it’s New Years and Dr. Eggman is in a funk because he failed to keep his resolution to beat Sonic at least once. He then gets the idea to create a machine that slows down time to give himself one more chance to finally best the hedgehog at something: anything.

This is definitely one of the better episodes. The humor is on (Eggman regarding a slow-cook roast: “It too is just a sad, yet succulent reminder of how quickly everything else in life moves”), and the story is really quite solid. Eggman’s the villain, but we still feel for the guy as he desperately tries to find something, anything that he actually can win at. His and Sonic’s interactions here are surprisingly charming: they’re less like mortal enemies and more like coworkers who don’t like each other, but can still sympathize with one another. It all comes together in the ending, which features a really sweet moment of shared humanity (for lack of a better word).

 

Two very different shows, but both get me into the New Year spirit.

Various and Sundry Cartoon Thoughts

Most of my viewing habits lately have been directed towards cartoons. Maybe it’s because I find the rest of the entertainment world increasingly hostile, or just because I enjoy the medium, but in any case I’ve been watching a lot of animated shows lately.

Stories, I find, are like relationships: made up of thousands of individual moments adding up to an overall tone that is either positive or negative. Either you like the person and feel better for having known them, or you dislike them and would prefer to having nothing to do with them. Then again, there are the ones who simply pass you by without leaving much of an impression. So, of the cartoons of recent years that I’ve watched, here are some general thoughts:

Avatar the Last Airbender is pretty much top of the heap: less a great show than a great fantasy-adventure that happens to have an animated show for its medium. Rich, beautiful, mostly positive (some lame feminist agitprop that really doesn’t fit the setting is probably the worst of it), filled with great characters and a wonderful story almost perfectly told.

My Little PonyFriendship is Magic, of course, I love. It’s certainly an acquired taste that not everyone will like, but man it hit a note with me with its timeless setting and storytelling, complex and charming characters, and especially its strong moral emphasis. I love moralism and ethical philosophy, and this show is not only all about that, but actually seems to know what its talking about. Great humor and some beautifully creative animation add to the charm.

Phineas and Ferb is another one that really speaks to me. In a world full of despair, resentment, and pessimism, the cheery good-will and hope that forms the core of this show is a breath of fresh air. It’s all about nice people doing nice things and enjoying life, but manages to do it in a smart, hilarious, and deceptively thoughtful way so that it doesn’t come across as the least sappy or contrived. I think Mr. Disney would have loved it; it’s espouses exactly the kind of hopeful can-do optimism that he did.

Gravity Falls I have mixed feelings about. Its really well written (for the most part), and its high moments are fantastic. I laughed hard and even choked up a few times. There’s a lot of creativity, and I enjoyed the fact that the show was willing to get really dark and scary at times. At the same time, though, there’s a mean-spirited, cynical side to it that I did not like, and when it’s bad, it can be really stupid. Plus it’s kinda ugly and there are some moral issues to it that would definitely prevent my showing this to my kids. I’ll have to delve deeper into it later.

Milo Murphy’s Law is the sequel series to Phineas and Ferb, by the same crew, so you know this is gonna be good. Like its predecessor, it boasts great characters and a refreshingly positive attitude, while being even crazier and more off-the-wall, with things like time-traveling secret agents, pistachio monsters, a teacher who may or may not be a vampire, and so on. It’s more serialized than its predecessor, with more of an overarching storyline, and though so far it’s not as good as Phineas and Ferb, it’s pretty close.

-The Ducktales reboot is too young to really say for sure, but so far the signs are very positive. I didn’t really watch the original, but the rebooted series is a ton of fun, and I love that Scrooge is allowed to be an actually heroic capitalist, and even to espouse solid principles about hard-work and self-reliance. The characters are all a lot of fun, there’s some intriguing story developments in the works, and I’m honestly eager to see where they go with this. Plus it has Kate Micucci as Webby, who also voices Milo’s sister Sara in Milo Murphy’s Law, and I’m kind of in love with her voice, which is the most adorably charming croak since Jean Arthur. It also has Donald Duck as a main character: what more needs to be said? It’s Donald Duck! You’d have to work hard to make him not funny.

Danny Phantom, you know what I think of that. A decent show that could have been fantastic if they had put a little more effort and imagination into it.

Sonic Boom is not very good, but it’s kind of charming for that very reason: less like they were really trying with it than they were just having fun playing with these characters. It’s pretty funny and just kind of relaxing to put on and enjoy. I can’t say it’s a good show, but it’s entertaining and pretty harmless.