The Fairly OddParents – my thoughts on the show, its original brilliance and eventual fall from grace (Part I)
NOTE: this essay is divided in three parts. The second part will be posted soon.
In this essay I will speak about my thoughts regarding The Fairly OddParents, a famed cartoon series by animator Butch Hartman, mainly centering around what attracted me to the series in the first place, how I've continued to view and regard the show as it has progressed from one season to another, as well as also touch upon what I'd consider to be its "twilight years" – the assumption being here that the show, at least in its original incarnation, is approaching its end.
This first part of the essay will be about my first impressions of TFOP as well as what I believe made the show so appealing back in the day, as well as where I feel it reached its utmost high point, after which it never really got as good. If you are not familiar with the show, then I suggest you stop reading before the chapter called Jumping the Shark as that one will contain spoilers to one of the TV movies I regard as a good finale for the show (even though it never ended up becoming one).
"I wanted to do a show about a character that could travel from place to place easily so I thought that “science” would be a good way to accomplish that. But Dexter’s Laboratory had already launched so I thought “magic” would be a good approach. After that, everything else started falling into place. I decided to make the show about a little boy with a fairy godmother. Since I had never seen a fairy god FATHER before, I decided to add one to the mix. The next thing I knew, Cosmo, Wanda and Timmy Turner were born"
– Butch Hartman, recalling the birth of The Fairly OddParents in 2013
The Fairly OddParents is a cartoon series about a 10-year-old boy named Timmy Turner, whose mother and father are often away from home and generally seem to be unintentionally neglectful of their parenting. As a solution, the Turners have turned to a teenage girl named Vicky, a bossy and mean babysitter, who is only interested in getting paid for her duties she never actually does, although the parents do not know this. As Timmy's life gets more and more miserable due to Vicky simply forcing him to do her own chores and order him to bed way too early, he eventually receives a pair of fairy godparents, Cosmo and Wanda. The fairies' job is to make Timmy a happier kid and grant him any wish he wants, as long as it follows the guidelines and restrictions mentioned in Da Rules, a rulebook which the fairies must obey. Hijinks ensue.
TFOP started out as a series of cartoon shorts (10 in total, between 1998 and 2001) for Nickelodeon's animation showcase series Oh Yeah! Cartoons! which allowed various animators to essentially create pilot episodes that could then be picked up and made into actual shows. For TFOP, this happened in 2001, and the show has since been in production with the exception of a year-long hiatus in 2007. For the most part, the show consists of two 11-minute-long episodes per airing, but there have also been double-length episodes, TV specials, TV movies and also three live-action made-for-TV movies. A spin-off called Crash Nebula was considered, but never turned into its own series, although Nick did produce two other Hartman shows, Danny Phantom and T.U.F.F. Puppy. These, however, bear no connection to TFOP beyond their art style, sharing some of TFOP's writers and having Guy Moon as the music director and composer.
I discovered The Fairly OddParents back in 2006¹, alongside Kim Possible and Danny Phantom. It's not that I had been aware of the show before that, but I went through a phase from 2002 to the first half of 2006 where I had slowly been losing interest towards animation (as well as drawing) and thus chose not to watch any new shows. However, after going through a mild case of depression – nothing too serious, mind you – as well as what I would regard as generally being the lowest point in my life, I opened myself to both new as well as old hobbies. Thanks to the relatively new website called YouTube, I had an opportunity to get acquainted to cartoon shows I had either missed out earlier or simply not known of, and it's there where I first saw the OY!C episodes of TFOP, complete with Timmy's original voice actor (Mary Kay Bergman) doing all of his lines.
What instantly caught my attention was, ironically, what originally had pushed me away from the show: the art style. I remember having seen some fan art² back in 2002 and feeling somewhat annoyed that it was so damn close to Dexter's Laboratory – if you look at the way Cosmo's face is drawn, it's practically the same as Dexter's. I had no idea that Hartman had worked under Genndy Tartakovsky on Dexter's Laboratory, which kind of explains the similarities. Having been a relatively big fan of Tartakovsky's show, the similar the quasi-retro, minimalistic art style of Hartman's evoked feelings of familiarity and reminded me of the glory days of '90s animation.
A good art style along won't help, though, but thankfully what I found beyond it was very entertaining. The premise of the show alone is recipe for copious amounts of fun: a kid with a wild imagination is given the ability to yield two magical fairies. There are literally endless possibilities to do all kinds of episodes, ranging from relatively mundane slice-of-life to completely out-of-this-world adventures full of danger and excitement. TFOP also continued the trend set by earlier '80s and '90s shows (ranging from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Animaniacs) which saw the heavy usage of pop culture references and adult-oriented jokes in cartoons aimed for children, although I personally believe the reliance of references eventually got out of hand and became a crutch for lazy writers to avoid thinking of actual jokes.³ As much as the show abused (and it still does) the 'Reset Button' by having Timmy undo his wishes at the end of almost each episode, it still provided us with decent entertainment.
The pilot episodes, as well as the first two seasons are full of good examples of the show utilizing its premise to the fullest while retaining a hold on overall writing with jokes being mostly subordinate to them. 'The Big Problem' (S1E01), 'Christmas Everyday' (S1E13), 'Action Packed' (S2E05), 'Transparents' (S1E04) and 'The Switch Glitch' (S2E14) are just several classic episodes that I feel showcase TFOP at its best and its episodes like these that got me hooked and made me into a fan. I would happily rewatch any of these on any given day as well as recommend them for others. No wonder TFOP gave SpongeBob Squarepants some serious competition back in the day.
Two Halves of a Whole Idiot
Just like The Simpsons, TFOP has a very large cast of secondary and tertiary characters, as well as a relatively large group of major, identifiable characters. The original pilots centered around four of these: Timmy, Cosmo, Wanda and Vicky. As much as I enjoy the interaction between them and feel that this is the show at its purest and arguably funniest, I do recognize that the writers would quickly run out of steam trying to figure out things to do. As the series began a proper, Timmy's parents were revamped from a plot device (absent parents causes Vicky to arrive) into actual characters and we got to see Timmy's school with its students (AJ, Chester, Trixie, Veronica, Tad, Chad, Francis) and several faculty members (mainly Timmy's homeroom teacher Mr. Crocker and Principal Waxelplax). Vicky's little sister Tootie also returned from the pre-production pilots, still having a massive crush on Timmy. We also got several magical characters from Fairy World, such as Jorgen Von Strangle and his wife, The Tooth Fairy (both returning from OY!C), and this other realm also became a frequent setting for episodes, usually when the writers felt like taking the characters outside Dimmsdale and provide all sorts of magic-related fun.
New minor characters and species would be introduced every now and then, but they rarely felt like forced addition to the show's lore. Existing characters would get used just as often in fitting situations and it was always exciting to see new character interactions take place. A good source of excitement also came from Da Rules stating that Timmy should never let anyone in on the secret that he has fairy godparents – if that happened, he'd lose Cosmo and Wanda forever and have his memories of them erased. The fairies also tend to hide/poof away/transform into various critters or objects whenever there's a possibility that another human being, especially an adult, might be able to spot them. This would often cause tension in situations where Cosmo, Wanda or both of them faced a situation where they had to interact with someone else than Timmy while in disguise ('Transparents') or simply try to do their best to stay hidden, no matter how ludicrously impossible it would be ('Cosmo Con', S3E08, takes this to its silliest extreme).
One of my favorite things about the old OY!C pilots was the way the characters of Cosmo and Wanda were handled. They were depicted as a slightly daffy married couple with a very strong and stable relationship. Cosmo and Wanda would use various terms of endearment of each other, ranging from relatively mundane ones ('darling') to just silly in context (Wanda calling Cosmo 'stallion' never fails to amuse me), and generally treat each other with strong affection. They were also relatively similar in character, equal in intellect and goofiness. As Cosmo once pointed out in his original, deep, "old-time radio announcer/car salesman" voice, "we're two halves of a whole idiot".
In general, the pilots as well as the first season handled most of the characters very well. There weren't too many extreme cases of over-the-top behavior: Cosmo would occasionally bumble but still functioned as a responsible fairy godparent, Vicky was a bad babysitter but more lazy and bossy than evil and sadistic, and Timmy's parents were ignorant and negligent of their duties but not necessarily mean on purpose. Similarly, Mr. Crocker's lunacy was somewhat self-contained and you really felt he posed a serious threat to Timmy and his fairies, while Tootie's crush on Timmy was more adorable with some light-hearted stalker/obsession jokes here and there.
Having characters keep their feet on the ground allows more room for the writers to utilize them in different scenarios and also creates possibilities for character development when needed. Quite possibly the most famous example of this would be Trixie Tang getting a secret life as a comic book nerd/tomboy who cannot be open about her true nature due to peer pressure ('The Boy Who Would Be Queen', S2E12). While this character trait only lasted for a single episode, it made a very big impact on TFOP fandom where some fan artists and authors have implemented it as their headcanon. It also provided a refreshing new dimension to the old 'rich bitch' character that seems to pop up very frequently in American entertainment.
What I also enjoyed about the original pre-production shorts as well as the first couple of seasons was that the protagonists (Timmy, Cosmo, Wanda) seemed to genuinely care about each other as well as some of the other characters. There are lots of 'awww' moments here and there, especially between Cosmo and Wanda in the OY!C shorts. Similarly, 'The Big Problem' from S1 features a scene where Timmy is forced to sleep outdoors in a football field, and Cosmo and Wanda turn into a pillow and a blanket to keep him warm and comfy. While moments like the ones mentioned afore are not necessarily humorous in a direct way (or at all), they do help us to identify and care about the characters more easily. Some might say it's a cheap trick but personally I feel the otherwise, since it's not overdone or constantly shoved into our faces. Now, if you want to overdose on forced relationship drama and awfully fake attempts at characters trying to depict feelings, go see a crappy Hollywood movie, such as Twister (or alternatively, check out Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, where you get to witness two actors sleepwalking through some of the most poorly directed romantic scenes in film history).
Jumping the Shark
As the series marched on, most of the characters began changing in a way that saw some of their traits and quirks become more and more dominant. Cosmo's bumbling and occasional dumb moment got turned into actual stupidity. This was preceded by his originally deep and smooth voice becoming more high-pitched and babylike. Similarly, Timmy's Dad also became more naïve and had an increase in idiotic moments. By the end of S4, Vicky was a chainsaw-wielding, flamethrower-toting sociopath, whereas Tootie was occasionally portrayed as a shrieking stalker. Trixie Tang's snooty and superficial attitude was amped up, Veronica became a crazy person in order to provide a couple of laughs in 'Information Stupor Highway' (S2E23) and Mr. Crocker was turned into a pathetic joke villain who now owns a secret laboratory underneath his mother’s house.
Despite all this, the episodes still delivered for the most part, including the award-winning 'Pipe Down!' (S3E24; Timmy wishes everything to be silent) as well as the fan-favorites 'Snow Bound' (S3E31; Timmy and Vicky must work together in order to survive) and 'Miss Dimmsdale' (S4E01; Vicky tries to cheat her way to victory in a beauty pageant and Timmy must stop her). However, I would argue that the best years were already behind us by S4.
With the exception of 'Channel Chasers' (S4E25), of course.
It doesn't surprise me that many fans consider this to be the ultimate TFOP episode/TV movie, and some (including myself) would even regard it as the proper finale for the entire series. Written by Butch Hartman and Steve Marmel, the duo who originally wrote the very first OY!C short of TFOP, 'Channel Chasers' centers around the inevitable fate of Timmy Turner losing his fairy godparents when he grows old enough, as well as Timmy attempting to escape the confinement of rules and regulations of his real life by wishing to be inside television. There, he can also remain as a child forever, thus keeping his fairies for an infinite amount of time. However, Timmy's careless wishing, coupled with several unfortunate events, end up providing Vicky the needed method to follow his trail and eventually twist the future into a dystopia where she rules as a dictator. In order to prevent this, an adult Timmy from the future returns to past, warning the present-day Timmy about Vicky's plans. The rest of the movie then follows Timmy escaping Vicky through various programs, eventually ending up inside a Dragonball-like anime (Maho Mushi) where he now has to face off Vicky and find a way to put an end to her plans for good. In the meantime, Tootie is providing the Turners some inside information regarding Vicky's true nature while keeping her identity secret in a wacky tribute to All the President's Men.
'Channel Chasers' gives TFOP fans a great send-off to wrap up the show for good: we get the classic Timmy vs. Vicky scenario, Vicky and Tootie's parents, lots of pop culture references and parodies... all in an epic, action-packed and somewhat dark story. The ending, which shows us an adult Timmy and his future kids in a changed, good timeline, ends the movie in a slightly bittersweet note as Timmy no longer remembers Cosmo and Wanda, but also reminds that the cycle then begins a new since Timmy's kids inherit his old fairies. Hartman and Marmel purposely left the identity of Timmy's wife ambiguous, although judging from the way the kids look, the person in question could either Trixie or Tootie. All in all, it was a great ending, although I hated Vicky-bot as it was a rather lame gag.
While I was pleased at first to see the show continue after 'Channel Chasers', I nowadays feel that it should've ended then and there. By this point, the characters had already become very much "flanderized"4, thus preventing any proper development, and even the writing had started to occasionally flounder. From S5 onwards, the show never got as great, although there were still good episodes to come. Epic, massive storylines would still appear but I never felt they surpassed 'Channel Chasers', if only because the writing wasn't as top-notch. In short, 'Channel Chasers' was the moment the show jumped the shark: nothing that came afterwards could live up to expectations, and it would be downhill from there on.
This concludes first part of my TFOP answer essay. The second part will start with a look at the horrendous fifth season, then continue with the brief and slight upswing of the beginning of S6 that saw Hartman returning to the show full time as well as fix several writing-based mistakes from the earlier season. Then, I will concentrate on bad decisions that I feel hurt the show the most as well as provide proof where some of those decisions came, and why.
The third part will continue my examination on the show's current state and the way it's written. In it, I will touch upon the live-action TV movies and specials, and I will also give my thoughts on the ending of A Fairly Odd Summer, the most recent live-action special, and why I thought it was one of the worst things I have ever seen in my life.
¹) Back then, you could've said that I came very late into the party since TFOP was just about to enter its year-long hiatus. But hey, it's not like I give a damn if something is old or new.
²) You'll probably guess what kind of fan art, tee-hee.
³) This is a problem with animated shows in general, as well as some live-action movies and TV shows too, and not just with TFOP. Seth McFarlane, I'm specifically looking at you.