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

Thought of the Day: A Realization

While cooking dinner tonight, I suddenly realized something.

You know that episode of The Simpson, ‘You Only Move Twice’, where Homer gets a dream job with a boss who turns out to be a Bond villain (“My department is way ahead of the lasers and germ warfare divisions!”), only for the rest of the family to become dissatisfied with their newly comfortable lives and want to return home?

I just realized that Hank Scorpio being a supervillain has no bearing on the plot whatsoever.

In any other show, or in any other episode probably, the fact that Homer’s dream boss turns out to be an evil madman would be the main point. It practically writes itself (“Dad, Scorpio’s trying to take over the world!”). But here, it’s entirely a running gag that has nothing to do with the main plot, which is just the family being discontented by what they thought they wanted and Homer choosing to give up his perfect job to make them happy. It’s just part of the humor that he never realizes that his friendly and caring boss is an evil genius out to conquer the world.

Felt the need to point that out, since in retrospect it makes the episode even funnier.

That’s Albert Brooks, by the way

The Green Hornet

The Green Hornet was one of the top classic radio pulp heroes, along with the Lone Ranger (from the same author -Fran Striker – and whom the Hornet was descended from) and the king of all pulps, the Shadow.

By day he’s newspaper magnate Britt Reid (back when that was a more respectable occupation than being a vigilante). When he discovers evidence of organized crime that the police cannot crack, he ventures forth as the masked Green Hornet, together with his faithful assistant Kato and armed with their various advanced gadgets – including a weapons-laden car called ‘Black Beauty’ – to prey on the criminal underworld.

Both the civilized world and the underworld believe the Hornet to be a dangerous criminal himself, which of course is what allows him to get close to the various gangsters and crooks that he takes down. Usually this involves bullying his way into the scheme and demanding a large chunk of the profit, then trapping them when they inevitably attempt a double cross. Ironically, of course, this aids in his dangerous reputation, as the crooks all know that those who mess with the Hornet end up in jail or dead.

Though the Hornet, like Batman and unlike the Shadow, typically doesn’t try to kill his opponents. Rather than a normal firearm he uses a gun that sprays a green knockout gas, though he also carries ‘the Hornet Sting’; a powerful energy weapon for blasting through barriers. And at least in the show, he doesn’t have a hard and fast rule against killing, he simply prefers to let the crooks be arrested.

My current TV diet largely consists of episodes of the 1960s television adaptation, which sadly lasted only one season. I don’t yet know the character well enough to say how faithful an adaptation this is, though it seems to adhere pretty close to what I know of the character: the gas gun, the criminal alias and newspaper magnate day job, the Black Beauty, and so on.

In any case, I think it’s great fun: a solid bit of pulpy adventure from a time where such things were largely falling out of fashion. Unlike the contemporary Batman show (which the Green Hornet had a crossover with at one point), this one mostly plays it straight as a crime-based adventure series. There’s frequent death and danger, and though the criminals often employ science-fiction conceits – subliminal messaging, advanced prototype weapons, etc. – these are nevertheless fairly restrained. Like, the MacGuffin of the first episode is a completely silent, flashless gun. Impossible, but not ridiculous like, say, the Penguin’s various umbrella-based weaponry (not hating on the Batman show, by the way, just drawing distinctions).

(I also like how the Hornet’s theme music is a variation of Flight of the Bumblebee)

Of course, the main reason people still remember this show is because Kato is here played by a very young actor named Bruce Lee (!!!!) in his first major role. This fact so overshadows everything else that it is Lee and not Van Williams (who plays the Hornet) who is on the cover the DVD (which declares “Bruce Lee is Kato in the Green Hornet”), and the show was even renamed ‘The Kato Show’ when screened in Asian markets.

It is a little surreal seeing a legendary, world-class talent like Lee in what is after all a rather humble adventure show like this, though everyone has to start somewhere. Lee certainly makes the most of his role by stealing the entire show every time he goes into action with blindly-fast moves and startling grace as he effortlessly destroys thug after thug. Or he doesn’t even have to be beating people up: one episode has him simply grab a reluctant witness by the shirt, but you’re still awed by just how fast he is.

This was the show the not only introduced American audiences to Lee, but also helped to popularize to Asian martial arts as such and demonstrate how effective and visually impressive they could be on screen, setting the stage for the martial-arts film boom of the next decade as well as Lee’s own mythic career (it also marked a permanent change in the Kato character, who had not previously been depicted as a martial arts master. After this, it became all-but unthinkable for him to be anything else).

(To be clear, Asian martial arts were featured before and had been long-since introduced to American culture – e.g. Barney’s Judo instructor featured in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show – but I don’t believe they had ever been shown to this level on a mainstream show before).

Incidentally, this was also where Lee learned the film business. He had done small parts before, but this was his first major role and he was paired with industry veteran Van Williams (with whom he became very good friends), who would give him tips on acting on how the business was run.

I watched an interview with Van Williams (who passed away in 2016) where he related the following story. Lee was, of course, very touchy about how his action scenes were filmed, since he took his fighting very seriously and wanted it to be shown to the best effect. So early on he would frequently argue with the stunt director about how the scenes should be done, and even tried to demand that he be allowed to direct his own fight scenes. Eventually they got the idea to give in and let him do a scene, just to show him what he was asking for. So Lee directed the scene, and then Williams and the stunt director got special permission to let him view the dailies (ordinarily actors are never allowed to see the dailies, otherwise they’d be wanting to do scenes over and over or critiquing their own performances non-stop). So they ‘snuck’ Lee into room and sat down to watch the scene.

It was a total train wreck; the lighting was off, the perspective was completely wrong (Lee hadn’t realized how much the two-dimensional film compresses depth perception), Lee himself wasn’t even visible, and so on. Everyone started laughing, and poor Lee was begging to be allowed to sneak out. So he went back to his trailer, took two hours to calm down, then went to the stunt director and humbly admitted he had no idea what he was doing and asked to learn.

That’s how Bruce Lee, future director of Way of the Dragon, learned how to shoot a movie.

For today’s viewing pleasure, I present the first episode of The Green Hornet (the entire series is currently available for free on YouTube)

PS A final bit of Hornet trivia. In the two movie serials from 1940, Kato was played by none other than Keye Luke: then-current ‘number one son’ to Charlie Chan in about a dozen films, later Master Po of Kung Fu and the mysterious shop owner of Gremlins. Mr. Luke, for those who don’t know, was an extremely prolific character actor with well over 200 credits to his name…including a role in a later episode of The Green Hornet.

The Paper Chase

Prominent among my most recent television diet has been the show The Paper Chase, a four-season drama that ran from 1978 to 1986 (the show was cancelled after the first season due to low ratings – which is what happens when you schedule it opposite Happy Days: the Fonz brooked no challengers – but revived a few years later on another network for three more). It was based on a 1973 film (which I have not yet seen) based on a novel by John Jay Obsborn about his experiences at Harvard Law School.

The premise of all three is essentially the same; an ambitious law student named James Hart comes to Harvard, where he runs up against the school’s most formidable teacher: Professor Kingsfield, Kingsfield is a crushingly brilliant, unyielding teacher of contract law who uses merciless application of the Socratic method to train his students. “You teach yourselves the law,” he informs them. “But I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and if you survive, you leave thinking like a lawyer.” We follow Hart (who idolizes Kingsfield) as he struggles to survive and grow under Kingsfield’s stern instruction, with the help of a small group of friends with whom he forms a study group.

So far I’ve seen most of the first season (one episode I couldn’t find, a few I skipped) and part of the second. The main appeal of the show, undoubtedly, is Professor Kingsfield himself, played to perfection by the late John Houseman, who reprises his role from the film. Houseman as Kingsfield represents one of those rare marriages of actor and role where the idea of anyone else in the part is simply absurd (similar to Columbo), which is all the more impressive as the film was his first major film performance. He had been a partner to Orson Welles, a stage performer, and had trained many actors in his day (the director actually claimed that Houseman was the Kingsfield of acting), but had never had a real film role. He won a richly-deserved Academy Award for his performance back when that actually meant something.

As I say, Kingsfield is a riveting figure. As conceived in the show, he isn’t just a brilliant teacher, but a legitimate Great Man of the old school. We’re told that he’s contributed significantly to the understanding of American Law, and one episode revolves around him being considered for the Supreme Court. When it’s pointed out that he’s nearly eighty years old, someone comments, “four or five years of Kingsfield on the bench is worth another man’s fifty.” More importantly, Kingsfield is shown to have both an iron will and principles of adamant, to the point where there’s a whole episode of Hart trying to figure out an old case where it looks like he might have made an ethical compromise, because he simply can’t believe the man would do that.

One of my favorite moments thus far has Kingsfield confronting a younger professor who has come to confess that he plagiarized an article for the Law Review. After laying out his excuses, the man nervously concludes with, “we’ve all done these things.”

“No,” Kingsfield answers. “We have not.”

(Earlier Kingsfield rebuked the man for televising one of his classes, saying that the law was not meant to be a show and that, however he disguised it, it was nothing but a tribute to his own ego).

There’s another bit at an old New York hotel where, in a rare moment of openness, Kingsfield talks to Hart about the great statesmen under whose portraits they stand, saying that they represent a now all-but extinct breed of lawyers for whom principle and law were paramount rather than fame and commercial success. No one says it, but we’re left in no doubt that Kingsfield himself is one of that breed.

A ‘great’ man may in this case imply a ‘good’ man, but don’t think for a moment that it implies a ‘nice’ man. Kingsfield is often a downright terrifying figure; a man who tolerates no nonsense and who is perfectly willing to verbally tear his students to shreds if they fail to perform. He rarely raises his voice beyond the firm ‘auditorium’ level he customarily uses, but his biting sarcasm, rhetorical skills, overwhelming genius, and iron focus produces more devastating results than bellowing ever could. A large part of the fun of the series is just watching his razor-sharp tongue go to work. “Speak up, Mister Hart! Fill this room with your intelligence.”

Meanwhile, he maintains an intentional distance from his students, affecting not even to recognize them outside the classroom. There are even (not unbelievable) reports that he’s driven students to madness and suicide over his career (an intriguing and thus-far never explained element in the first season is “the Screamer:” a male voice in the dorms that periodically just starts screaming out of nowhere. It’s rumored to be the ghost of a former student of Kingsfield. I really like those kinds of ‘might be supernatural, might not, and we’re not going to tell you’ elements in otherwise down-to-earth stories).

And yet, the show is at pains to show that Kingsfield is not merely sadistic; there is a method to his malevolence. By enforcing rigorous, unyielding standards and forcing students to perform or suffer he not only prepares them for the experience of the courtroom but forces them to understand the law and its principles instead of simply regurgitating what they’ve read. The final episode of the first season revolves around Kingsfield setting his students a seemingly-impossible assignment whose solution, it turns out, forces them to delve into the very roots of the idea of law.

Moreover, the show at least gives us periodic assurances that, aloofness aside, Kingsfield does indeed care for his students’ well being and, though he won’t cheapen his instructions for their sake, he does want what is best for them and wishes them well.

The plots of the episodes, when they don’t revolve around Kingsfield, tend to be rather standard, though generally well-written and not too boring. There was one episode of the first season, for instance, that featured Hart’s activist female friend becoming enamored with an imprisoned political agitator which did a remarkably good job of depicting both the myopia and hypocrisy of her immature, ‘idealistic’ perspective (without making her unsympathetic) and the workings of a manipulative personality. To be honest, I can’t really picture an equivalent episode on modern show ending with the soulful activist turning out to be a sociopath and the unsmiling prison guards turning out to be in the right. Another one about affirmative action actually made a point of deconstructing the Black student’s anger through some decent storytelling symbolism. Nothing brilliant, but at least the writers clearly gave the matter some thought rather than coming down with a, “this is what you should think about this issue” finality. Likewise an episode about a student in a wheelchair had him using his disability to manipulate his friends, not exactly intentionally, but almost without thinking about it. I also appreciate that there is some moral awareness going on, as when Hart’s friend discovers his father has been acting dishonestly, and though he’s disgusted by it, he can’t bring himself to actually expose him. So, there is thought and nuance that went into the writing of the show, even apart from Kingsfield.

At times the show deviates hard into melodrama, especially with Hart’s many girlfriends, most of whom carry some kind of extra dramatic baggage (e.g. one episode revolves around him dating a mobster’s daughter). Also, the supporting cast makes some odd shifts; losing two major characters between the first and second season is understandable, though having one the study-group (prominently featured in the opening credits) essentially disappear for most the first season, including an episode focusing on a one-shot character in his exact situation, before being dramatically written out entirely all but screams backstage drama. As always, of course, the episodes vary greatly in quality, though as suggested by all I’ve said they’re generally above-average fair.

But Kingsfield is what makes the show, and it’s at its best when the stories revolve around him. Honestly, this is one of the most successful efforts I’ve seen on screen to create a fictional Great Man who legitimately seems like the real deal. The show would be worth watching even if the rest of it were only mediocre just for the sake of observing a master actor bringing such a figure to life.

John Houseman in The Paper Chase (1973)

Celebrating 30 Years of Mystery Science Theater 3000

By an interesting coincidence, I am exactly as old as one my favorite shows: Mystery Science Theater 3000. This show has had a huge influence on me, particularly when it comes to developing my sense of humor and appreciation for the obscurer side of the entertainment world. Now, as the show turns thirty years old, I explore a little bit of why it was so important at The Federalist:

Part of it is, of course, simply the humor; a group of very talented, very funny people reacting to some of the strangest and poorest films ever made. The Best Brains developed a distinct style of comedy, blending encyclopedic knowledge of cultural and entertainment subjects with clever wordplay and precision timing. They generally didn’t simply override the film, but carefully matched the gags to the events on screen, so what was said and what was happening came together to form the complete joke.

As the letters the cast used to read at the end of each episode demonstrated, the show made many, many people happy, and gave countless viewers a smile when they needed it most. That alone is worthy of commendation. But the show probably wouldn’t have found the audience it has if it weren’t for another factor: the jokes are not just funny, they’re often extremely smart, playing on cultural reference points that most of the audience won’t even get, but those who do will laugh twice as hard.

This doesn’t just appeal to the viewers. It also serves as a kind of cultural time capsule. Part of the MST3k “formula” was the writers’ vast knowledge of cultural and entertainment subjects. Since each episode was so long—about 90 minutes—each probably averaged well more than 100 individual jokes. These ranged over nearly every subject imaginable, from history and religion to politics and pop culture.

Thus, in a single episode, we could have references to “Gilligan’s Island,” Oktoberfest, the Clarence Thomas hearings, Batman, the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, the Vietnam War, “The Great Race,” the Nuremberg Trials, the Nativity, “Twin Peaks,” and Jimmy Durante. Very few viewers would get all the esoteric references on a first viewing, and many would be inspired to seek out the reference. So the attentive MST3k viewer would find himself exposed to a whole host of cultural, entertainment, and historical touchstones that he might never have known of otherwise. To watch a single MST3k episode is to receive a crash course in American culture of the 1990s.

Read the rest here.

Apu and Charlie Chan Syndrome

I’m long since finished with ‘The Simpsons’ outside of the occasional re-run, but I had to comment on this.

Apparently, the show has decided to drop the venerable character of Apu in the face of ‘controversy’ over his ‘blatantly racist’ portrayal. Said ‘racist portrayal’, as far as I can tell, amounts to that he has a ‘stereotypical Indian’ accent and works in a convenience store.

This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, but why is it that a certain segment of commentators seem to regard any non-White character with an accent to be a racist caricature, regardless of how the character is actually portrayed? I remember back when I watched ‘The Nostalgia Critic’ he did this all the time; like calling Fisher Stevens’ character in the ‘Short Circuit’ movies a racist stereotype because he…had an accent, I guess? Despite the fact that he’s portrayed as a perfectly decent human being and even takes over the role of human protagonist in the sequel.

I remember back in my corporate days we were forced to watch a video on ‘diversity,’ wherein we were shown a talk by an Asian gentleman who started off speaking with a very thick accent, then abruptly dropped it for a Midwestern-style voice. The idea, apparently, was that it was racist for us to assume he would speak with an accent. I pointed out that we only assumed that because he was in fact speaking with an accent.

Really, do the people who complain about this think that no one speaks with thick accents? Or do they think that finding accents funny is somehow ‘racist’? Because it’s not like anyone laughs at British, German, French, Italian, Texan, Minnesotan, or New York accents, right?

Isn’t considering a thick accent an ‘offensive stereotype’ insulting to people who actually talk that way? Doesn’t it imply that there is something wrong with them, if the portrayal of such an accent is taken as an insult?

As for Apu, the people behind this ‘controversy’ apparently missed the fact that part of the joke of his character is that he’s ridiculously overqualified for his job, possessing a genius IQ and a prestigious degree from an Indian university. The satire is that he’s stuck working behind a check-out counter because he’s Indian despite being qualified for much higher-paid work, but he still has an obsessive work-ethic. In other words, they’re complaining about the very stereotype he’s designed to make fun of.

There’s also the fact that he’s no more ridiculous than any other character on The Simpsons and much less than some. Again, he has a genius IQ, a killer work ethic, is a crack-shot, maintains a lush roof-top garden, and is personal friends with Paul McCartney. He’s cleans up at a bachelor auction and is as respected a member of the community as anyone (which, given the community in question, isn’t saying much).

This is what I call ‘Charlie Chan Syndrome’; where a character is assumed to be a racist caricature because of superficial qualities such as having a thick accent, regardless of what the character actually does (named after the ‘Charlie Chan’ film series, which featured an intelligent,  courteous, and professionally respected Chinese-American detective traveling the world and outsmarting predominantly white opponents, yet are often described as ‘racist’ somehow). This apparently only applies if the character is non-European. Thus a wise, polite, somewhat funny Chinese detective with a thick accent is racist; a wise, polite, somewhat funny Belgian detective with a thick accent is not.

This is a point we today often miss; how a character is objectively written, what he does and says and how he interacts with the story, is what determines what the character is, not what may or may not be going on in the world when the character was written. Charlie Chan is not a racist caricature because his race is never (at least in the films I’ve seen) portrayed as making him in any way inferior to those around him. The fact that he is played by a Swede and has a thick Chinese accent is irrelevant to that point. Likewise, the fact that Apu was written and voiced by a white man is irrelevant to the question of how he is portrayed on the show (you can legitimately ask why someone was cast and not someone else, or what the motives of the writers were, and so on, but that is a separate issue from what actually is portrayed on screen).

Anyway, The Simpsons has long outstayed its welcome, and as far as I can tell has been on a downward spiral for a while, but if they’re going to start rolling over and giving in to this kind of controversy, their end cannot be far off. More concerning is simply the fact that this kind of nonsense is actually taken seriously in our society.

Thoughts on ‘Phineas and Ferb Star Wars’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special
-The Empire Strikes Back
-Return of the Jedi
-The Phantom Menace
-Attack of the Clones
-Revenge of the Sith
-The Force Awakens
-Rogue One
-The Last Jedi
-Solo

I wanted to end this series on a high note, so, despite the fact that it’s explicitly not canon (the opening crawl ends with “None of this is canon; just relax,” a disclaimer I wish all the recent Star Wars films carried), let’s talk about Phineas and Ferb Star Wars.

For those unfamiliar with the show, I’ll give a summary: Phineas and Ferb is a show about two genius step-brothers – cheery, out-going Phineas and taciturn, British Ferb – who, determined not to waste their summer vacation, spend each day doing something fantastic and impossible. They build rollercoasters in their backyard, go into space, become superheroes or pop stars for a day, and so on, in the company of their friends: super-cute girl scout Isabella (who has a not-so-secret crush on the perpetually oblivious Phineas), Bollywood math genius Baljeet, and secretly-cultured bully Buford. Meanwhile, their older sister, Candace, jealously tries to get them into trouble by telling their mom about their antics, except their projects always conveniently disappear at the last second, making Candace look insane. These disappearances are usually caused by side effects from the efforts of the “evil” Dr. Doofenshmirtz to take over the Tri-State Area with an endless series of ‘inators’ (drill-inator, turn-everything-evil-inator, rain-inator, etc.). He’s perpetually foiled by Special Agent Perry the Platypus…who maintains a secret identity as Phineas and Ferb’s beloved pet.

It sounds weird, and it is, but it’s a fantastic show in many, many ways that we don’t have time to get into here. For our purposes, the important thing is that in the show’s fourth and final season they were given the opportunity to do an hour-long crossover special with Star Wars, applying the show’s absurdist-yet-sincere tone to the Star Wars universe.

 I’ve written about this one before, so there will be quite a bit of overlap here, but I wanted to go into more detail about why I think this special is the best piece of Star Wars content to come out of the move to Disney.

Rather than attempting to simply re-create the story of Star Wars with Phineas and Ferb characters (e.g. Phineas as Luke, Ferb as Han, Isabella as Leia, etc.), the special takes a rather more creative and bold approach. It posits that versions of the Phineas and Ferb cast exist in the Star Wars universe and played an unseen, but crucial role during the events of the original film. This allows the original to stand more or less untouched (apart from one or two sight gags, the special doesn’t violate the continuity of the original film at all, which is frankly very impressive in itself) while also letting them tell their own story alongside it.

The plot goes that Perry the Rebelpus was the agent who stole the Death Star plans (from the ‘Empire Administration offices:’ a star destroyer with an office building stuck on top). Meanwhile, Phineas and Ferb are moisture farmers who live next door to Luke Skywalker, but unlike him are perfectly content with their lot on Tatooine, making the most of every day in typical Phineas and Ferb fashion. In fact, they’re too content: the special cleverly foreshadows that the boys’ easy-going satisfaction with their lot in life might not be the best thing for them long-term, and that they ought to leave their comfort zone sooner rather than later.

This is precipitated when they run into R2-D2 and accidentally end up with the Death Star plans. Realizing what they have, the boys chase after Luke and the others to try to restore what they lost, taking up with Isabella the smuggler (who is by far the most detached from her canon personality) and repeatedly crossing paths with Candace, an overzealous, underappreciated stormtrooper (who is accompanied by fellow troopers Buford and Baljeet, evidently the dregs of the Imperial military).

Meanwhile, on the “fully operational Death Star,” we meet the evil ‘Darth Enshmirtz,’ the Death Star’s original designer, which, of course, is why it has a self-destruct mechanism (this joke is even funnier in the wake of Rogue One, where it’s revealed that that is the canon explanation for why it was so easy to destroy). In typical Doof fashion, he’s bitter at not being appreciated for his work and so plans to build a new doomsday device to become the top Sith.

So, the first thing to note is that, even though it’s a spoof, the special actually puts in the effort to tell its own story, with its own character arcs, progression of events, and themes. Where The Force Awakens was just an awkward retread of the original, Phineas and Ferb comes up with an original story that works on its own terms…and does so while literally being a retread of the original. Thus, instead of a character discontented with his lot and yearning for something more, this special gives us two characters who are content, but who probably shouldn’t be and end up pushed out of their comfort zone and forced to attend to more important matters.

What’s more (and again, unlike The Force Awakens), this character line continues through to the end of the story and is reflected in the other characters. Phineas and Ferb end the story having given up their peaceful life on Tatooine, but having also found something worth believing in. They’ve expanded their lives beyond the narrow scope that we found them in.

Early on there’s a scene where their parents actually try to get them to go off somewhere and see more of galaxy, expand their horizons. When Phineas shrugs the suggestion off, saying they’ve got everything they need, their father mutters, “Wait until they find out there are no girls on this planet.” This ties into their meeting Isabella, who takes them into space to follow the Millennium Falcon, and has a payoff when she kisses Phineas at the very end. The character thread is established, given a clear ‘tell’ (in the form of girls), and pays off when Phineas, having grown beyond his narrow home world, receives a kiss from Isabella to drive home what he had been missing.

(The kiss is preceded by Isabella double-checking that they’re not related, in a funny reference to Luke and Leia’s relationship, but also motivated by the late-game revelation that Candace is Phineas’s long-lost sister. So, it’s both a nod to the fans and completely motivated in story).

This is the sort of thing The Force Awakens was missing with Rey: she was waiting for her parents, then was told they’re not coming back, then goes off to find Luke and be trained as a Jedi. The final point doesn’t tie into the first one, and none of it ties into the rest of the plot involving the super-Death Star.

Speaking of which, we have Darth Enshmirtz’s new super-weapon, the Sith-Inator, which makes whoever it hits extremely attune to the Dark Side of the Force, driving them evil in the process.

Now, it’s largely played for laughs as a typical Doof ‘inator,’ with him giving a catchy musical number about how he’ll “no longer be the lowest of the Darths” and fantasizing about choking Imperial officers and impressing the Emperor. But the idea itself is actually kind of cool, especially once it hits Ferb and he applies a more serious approach to it (we’ll come back to it, but Darth Ferb is one of the special’s most impressive accomplishments. It can’t have been easy to make Ferb actually intimidating, but man do they pull it off).

Having just come off a re-watch of the films, I think a weapon like this actually could work in canon: it would just multiply or add midichlorines to the bloodstream, but such an unnatural process and sudden surge of power would of course heavily incline one to the Dark Side. In any case, despite the absurdist tone of the special, I could see an entire trilogy being built around that kind of weapon: something that could turn an ordinary person into a powerful Force User inclined to the Dark Side. That’s both a lot more creative and a lot more insidious than just another planet buster, and without the logistical problems of just how the heck they made the darn thing. Can you imagine a trilogy where the new Republic suddenly found itself faced with a whole army of near-Vader level Sith?

Basically, in telling a joke for a cartoon special Dan Provenmire and Jeff Marsh (the creators of Phineas and Ferb) came up with a much better plot for a new Star Wars trilogy than all the highly-paid writers that the Disney studio could muster could come up with over the course of several years for their massively-expensive tent-pole film series. Just think about that.

What’s more, the device sets up an extremely tense and emotionally charged confrontation between Phineas and Ferb (all the more so for fans of the show, since this is something we never would have expected to see). The whole set up, with Ferb’s implacable hostility and Phineas’s desperate attempts to reach him even as they duel with lightsabers works very well. And again, they set it up even in the context of the special by showing us just how close the brothers are, which further lets us feel just how wrong and evil the Dark Side is if it can threaten a friendship like that.

(Meanwhile, they also make a very funny joke about how lightsabers keep getting more complicated and impractical: “Oh, we’re allowing modifications?”).

The fight ends up involving Perry and Candace as well, so now let’s talk about Candace as the stormtrooper. Once again, this goofy cartoon thoroughly embarrasses the multi-million-dollar blockbuster. Candace, like Finn, is a stormtrooper who ends up defecting to the Rebels. However, in her case, it’s an actual character arc: we spend a good deal of time with her, Buford, and Baljeet as stormtroopers, and even though it’s in the midst of a goofy subplot where they’re assigned to get socks for Darth Vader (which leads to some great gags, such as Baljeet saying ‘socks’ to the tune of the Imperial March and a store on Tatooine called ‘Tall, Darth, and Handsome’), we do get to see things from a stormtrooper point of view and get a sense for what working for the Empire was like.

Just the fact that Candace describes Rebels as “cruel, heartless sub-humans who are messing up the galaxy” gives her more depth that Finn ever had (I’m also kind of surprised they got away with the term ‘sub-humans’ in a kids’ show). She has a perspective informed by her training; a reason why she thinks she’s on the right side. She actually believes in the Empire, despite the mistreatment she receives from it.

There’s a very fun song where Candace sings about why she’s proud to serve in the Empire: “Now I’m a bad mama-jama and I rock a mean helmet / if I see a Rebellion then you know I’m gonna quell it / I’m a certified, full-blown, armor-wearing zealot / and it feels so good to know I’m always right!” Again, this gives us a very believable sense of how the rank-and-file Emperor troops view the war, which we never got in the films, even when they actually have a defecting stormtrooper as a main character.

Then, when she turns, it’s not just because she suddenly “makes a choice” for no reason: something happens that blatantly contradicts her beliefs, making her question them for the first time. The scene where she turns is actually quite striking; when she asks Buford and Baljeet, “We’re the good guys, right?” there’s genuine uncertainty in her voice (some nice vocal work by Ashley Tisdale there). And, believably enough, once she starts to question her assumptions, then she starts to realize other things that didn’t fit into her image of the Empire (“Didn’t we just blow up a planet?” “Yes, that is sort of hard to justify, morally”). Again, it’s mostly played for laughs, but it’s still a genuine arc. The characters have clear motivations for what they do that make sense in the context of the story rather than being dictated by the script. Even in the midst of all the absurdist humor, they act like human beings.

Likewise, Isabella goes through much the same story arc as Han Solo, but again, it works. We meet her as a cynical loner who snaps at Phineas that “this isn’t a friendship, it’s a spaceship, so don’t invade mine.” Then, as she sees the loyalty the brothers have for each other, she starts to feel the desire to do likewise.

There’s a scene near the end where she bumps into Han Solo at a bar and they each prod each other into doing the right thing. Goofy as it is to have Han Solo talking smack with a little girl, it kind of works. Certainly I can much easier buy Han having a rivalry with Isabella than I can him abandoning his wife and son and losing the Millennium Falcon. I can almost imagine that it actually did go down like that, with Han trying to distract himself with a drink, but being challenged on abandoning his friends. Dang it, it’s a good scene; for all the absurdity and cartoon logic, it works.

Speaking of humor, it’s classic Phineas and Ferb: very smart, but very silly at the same time. Like when two Rebel technicians discover that R2 doesn’t actually have the plans, their first plan is, “We’ll blame Jar Jar!” Then there’s a bit where two of the Imperial officers are talking and one starts making fun of Vader, then trolls the other by pretending to choke (not only is that funny, but I can actually picture the Imperial officers doing that sort of thing). Another great gag has Darth Enshmirtz gloating about how valuable his timeshare on Alderann has become, while in the background…

Likewise the great Phineas and Ferb dialogue is present in full force: “You see? You paint a big red ‘X’ on the floor, people will stand on it.” “And you thought we were gonna die in space!” “You go see if that kid’s evil yet.” “Not a bad set: one death, one dismemberment. Not bad for a Tuesday.” I want to say there are more quotable lines in this hour-long special than in all the Disney ‘Star Wars’ films put together, with the possible exception of Rogue One.

Yet, as indicated, the show’s trademark sincerity is equally on display, as in the aforementioned battle between Phineas and Ferb, or Phineas’s genuinely shocked reaction when he learns about the Death Star (“I never thought the Empire would go that far!”).

Then, near the end, there’s a moment where the main characters are standing on the Death Star, expecting to die, and they just kind of accept it, with Phineas saying that at least they went out for something they can believe in. Again, genuine human emotion and human reactions, even in the midst of all this absurdity, and a real, coherent plot with actual character arcs.

I also like that, though this is Phineas and Ferb, the writers didn’t try to shoehorn the standard show plot into ‘Star Wars.’ The classic catchphrases – “You guys are so busted!” “Whatchya doin’?” and so on – are present, but in contexts that make sense in the story. They don’t, for instance, have Linda as an Imperial officer that Candace is trying to ‘bust’ the boys to. They have this story to tell, and they tell it, working in references to the show where it makes sense, but not forcing it. Likewise, the Phineas and Ferb characters really do work in their roles: Candace’s misguided zealotry is perfect for a stormtrooper, Doof as a low-level Sith wannabe, Perry as a rebel agent and so on. Again, Isabella is a little jarring just because she’s so different from her usual character, but she works in the role (I especially like how her goggles take the place of her trademark hair bow).

Above all, it’s abundantly clear that the writers loved Star Wars and respected it. Even as they’re using the material for jokes, they still evince a thorough knowledge of the world and appreciation for the story and characters. Luke, Han, and Leia aren’t in it much, but they’re recognizably themselves when they are. When Luke chats with Phineas and Ferb about their modified speeder, it does feel like something Luke might do. And when Phineas says that he and Ferb have ‘Jedi lessons’ with Obi-Wan every Tuesday, it’s a gag, but it also makes sense for Obi-Wan’s character that if there were a couple of Force-sensitive kids nearby he would try to train them. And again, it sets up the duel at the climax (I also like that they made the choice not to have Obi-Wan present outside a silent cameo, apparently recognizing they didn’t have the resources to capture Sir Alec Guinness’s performance).

There are a lot of little jokes showing “the other side” of events in the original film. We see Han’s abortive attempt to bluff the guards over the com-link from the perspective of the officers receiving his message, for instance (“Aw, I was just getting into that conversation!”), and we get to see just what that garbage monster thing was and what it was doing (“That not trash, dummy, that’s a guy!”).

When I first saw this special, I wasn’t expecting to like it that much. I loved Phineas and Ferb, but the idea of crossing over with Star Wars seemed a step too far. But the moment the first notes of the opening song ‘Tatooine’ started playing, with Phineas and Ferb singing about how much they love their home, I knew it was going to work and I enjoyed every minute of it. It works best if you’re already a fan of both Phineas and Ferb and Star Wars, and I don’t know how it would play to someone unfamiliar with the show, but for me it’s easily my favorite ‘Star Wars’ story to come out of the move to Disney.

Another Quick 1950s Thought

I’m a little amazed that no one seems to remember that the most popular and influential television show of the 1950s centered around an interracial couple: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

Or does that not count? If so, are Cubans considered ‘white’ now? Then I guess Hispanics don’t count for ‘diversity’ purposes, right?

You know, if we’re going to base our society on dividing people into categories, we should at least settle those categories ahead of time.

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.