One of the most popular kids’ shows in this country today begins by giving its audience a cruel musical taunt. “There’s 104 days of summer vacation,” opens the lyric of Phineas and Ferb, Disney’s cartoon about the outlandish adventures of two stepbrothers, their family, their friends and their platypus, Perry, who unbeknownst to them is a secret agent. The Tuned In Jr.’s, by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, got 71-1/2 days of summer vacation this year, and I know that plenty of kids in school districts across America are already back in class.
Despite all that, the Jrs. have spent much of those 71-1/2 days this summer mainlining one episode of Phineas and Ferb after another. (The Jrs. personal theory for the lyric: “104 days” just sounds better rhythmically.) And so has their dad.It’s not my favorite kids’ show out there right now (that’s probably Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time at the moment). But the appeal has definitely grown on me, which, given the hundreds of repeated viewings I’ve been subjected to over the summer, is saying something.
The core of Phineas and Ferb’s success, I think, is its total commitment to entertainment value-per-minute. The structure is endlessly repeated: the stepbrothers come up with a scheme or wild invention to pass the time or solve a problem; their antagonistic teen (step)sister Candace (the wonderfully braying Ashley Tisdale) tries and fails to bust them for it; and Perry is off somewhere battling mad scientist Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz. The humor, too, relies on repetition in the form of running gags. (“Aren’t you too young to ____?” “Yes. Yes, I am.”) But there’s a lot of, well, invention within the repetition, and there’s simply so much crammed into a half-hour of it: it’s a family show, it’s a fantasy show, it’s an adventure show, it’s a musical.
One of the more distinctive things about the show is its depiction of blended and split families: not only are Phineas and Ferb stepbrothers, but even Dr. Doofenshmirtz is a divorced dad who works at relating to his daughter Vanessa (and has a cordial relationship with his ex-wife, who doesn’t believe he’s really evil). That lends the show an aura of realism, though I don’t know whether that enhances the kid audience’s enjoyment of the show one way or another. What does, I suspect, is the universal theme that runs through both Phineas and Ferb’s stories and Perry’s B-plot adventures: the idea that, just beneath the surface of monotonous days and your seemingly ordinary family, there can be fantastic things going on, right under your nose. Or your bill, if you’re a platypus.
It’s not just a show for kids trying to cram as much amusement as possible into their limited time off, it’s a show about kids trying to cram as much amusement as possible into their limited time off. And that’s something you can appreciate, whether you get 104 days of summer vacation, 71-1/2 or—like certain parents who have found they like Phineas and Ferb on their own—even less.