The Fairly OddParents – my thoughts on the show, its original brilliance and eventual fall from grace (Part II)
NOTE: this essay is divided in three parts. You can read Part I here. Part III 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 second part of the essay starts with my views on the show's fifth season, which was made mostly without Hartman's presence and which I felt is when the show really started going down the drain. Then, I will talk about S6, which introduced us to Poof, and eventually delve into how the show's writing has changed from the earlier seasons. Finally, I will be examining several interviews as well as podcast audio featuring key members of the show's current crew talking about the writing process, the characters and so on, and give you my thoughts on all this.
The Season (Almost) without Hartman
The fifth season of TFOP saw series creator Butch Hartman become relatively absent from the show. I do not know how little his involvement actually was (or was not), but based on facts that aside from a few writing credits at the beginning and the end of the season, as well as some storyboarding here and there, Hartman's name is not seen in most of S5's episode credits. I can only assume that it was due to him concentrating on his other series, Danny Phantom, as well as trying to launch a new show with writer Steve Marmel, called Crash Nebula (which never got turned into a series and soon got relegated as a TFOP episode where Timmy watches the pilot on TV).
Another reason what makes me believe that Hartman wasn't as involved with S5 is the strange way some of the characters were written. Around halfway into the season¹ Timmy and Cosmo had started showing rather unpleasant attitude towards Wanda (who admittedly was nagging quite a lot at this point), and some of the fans prefer to say that they had turned into jerks. This change did not sit well with me and it really clashes with the way both characters had been written earlier. While I had not liked Cosmo turning into a borderline retard character, at least that change had obviously been much more planned and it didn't happen that quickly; the seeds for that were planted during 'Power Mad!' (S1E02), emphasized in 'Apartnership!' (S1E08) and, in my opinion, had been fully cemented by 'This Is Your Wish' (S3E18).
Mostly because of this, as well as the writing taking a noticeable dip in quality, I would often refer S5 as the single weakest season in the series. In fact, my second²a least favorite TFOP episode of all time, 'Something's Fishy!', is the 28th episode of S5. To quote myself²b, its "story is bland" and "it features probably the most horrendous pacing ever done in a cartoon". One of my earliest "essays" which I posted on my now mostly defunct Blogger page back in November 2008 was about this season and how bad it was when compared to all the previous ones³. In it, I pointed out the weird way Timmy and Cosmo acted, Vicky appearing noticeably less, bad pacing and generally subpar writing, especially when it comes to telling jokes and pulling gags (of course, I couldn't resist making a bad pun myself, saying that "the show should now be called The Fairly ADDParents").
The Cousin Oliver Syndrome
"As many of you may or may not have heard – and if you did hear, you didn't hear it from me, this is the first time I've spoken about this publicly – we are currently in the process of wrapping up our very last episode of FOP."
– Butch Hartman, regarding the show's (temporary) cancellation back in 2006
TFOP was quietly put on hiatus when the production of S5 neared completion, and the third Jimmy/Timmy Power Hour special featuring a crossover between TFOP and Jimmy Neutron thus ended up as the show's finale for the time being. The way Butch Hartman worded the news for his fans suggests he was under the impression that TFOP was now ending for good, as was the case for Danny Phantom which received a shortened third season. Whereas DP really did end and had a big, definite finale, TFOP would be resurrected over a year later for a sixth season which saw Hartman fully return to helm the show.
Whether or not it was his doing, I was very pleased to see some of that heart that had been missing from the show come back. All the douchebag mannerisms were gone from Cosmo and Timmy, and I think even Wanda's constant nagging was slightly toned down. Whereas S5 had plenty of mean jokes about Cosmo not loving the marriage he was in with Wanda (which clashes completely with the show's earliest episodes and what made the two characters so appealing in the first place; see Part I of this essay), S6 thankfully removed this aspect of his character... for the most part. The pacing was perhaps slightly improved as well, but I never felt it got as good as the early seasons. Nonetheless, S6 fared better than S5.
Oh, and we also got Poof, a fairy baby born from Cosmo and shaped like a bowling ball. I wonder if the crew got the idea from one of Manuel Hogflogger's one-page porn comics...
Yes, S6 saw the addition of a new major character. I was very skeptical of this particular aspect of the new season as it is generally seen as a sign of a show's decline when they start adding new major characters, especially ones that are underaged/children. In the end, I don't think Poof made that much of a difference beyond offering several episodes centered on him. These episodes didn't have as good stories as most of the pre-S5 had had, though; many of the Poof-centric stories never felt like they were truly inspired by Poof's presence, but rather they were crafted around him out of necessity to simply do something with the new character. Eventually, and especially in later seasons, Poof became relegated more or less into an object that has very little to do in most episodes. In S9, he sometimes doesn't even make an appearance, although this could be explained with him attending Spellementary School (ugh, the puns).
However, Poof turned out to be the least of my worries. As the resurrected series progressed, several new problems started to arise alongside the old ones that forced me to realize the show really was on its way downhill, and that this time it might just be too much.
Cheap Laughs over Solid Writing
Despite what John K. often says about cartoons and writing4, I personally believe a well-written story is very important in creating a solid cartoon. To quote one of my heroes, Brad Bird, animation is an art form rather than a genre, and you can tell all kinds of stories with it5. Simply stating that cartoons are best at portraying screwball comedy á la Golden Age Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies is, in a way, as restrictive as saying that "cartoons are for kids", despite the fact the those old cartoons really were fantastic. If anything, the later seasons of TFOP should serve as a warning to what happens when you approach writing for a cartoon show with a narrow-minded view.
Several common elements can be found in episodes that have been written during the show's later seasons, specifically S8 and S9:
- the rules written in Da Rules are constantly broken in ways that would've caused serious problems for Timmy in earlier seasons and the book itself doesn't make that many appearances.
- Timmy's parents often come into contact with Cosmo and Wanda without any ramifications.
- Timmy's Dad, Mr. Crocker and Foop are heavily featured as central characters.
- the episodes put emphasis on jokes and gags with plot/character writing taking a subsidiary role.
- continuity is all tangled up and plot holes are everywhere (example: Poof was supposedly the first fairy baby to have born in 10,000 years... yet in S8 he attends a school with other fairy kids and babies... I suppose you could say they're older, but then how long does it take for fairies to mature?)
- many of the jokes are very basic and often overuse non sequitur humor as well as basic slapstick comedy.
A good example of writing that fits into all the categories above would be the story for 'Desperate without Housewives' (S9E30), by Lissa Kapstrom. It's also a good example of a writer making the characters extremely stupid and/or absent-minded to allow jokes to be made that otherwise would not happen: for instance, the episode features Crocker and Cosmo interacting without the latter being in disguise even though he's face-to-face with the man who has tried to capture and enslave him/drain his powers for multiple times (and even temporarily succeeded in it more than once).
Insight from Interviews?
In my honest opinion, a rather large chunk of the blame can be put on Kevin Sullivan, Will Schifrin and Ray DeLaurentis, as well as on Butch Hartman himself. Sullivan, Schifrin and DeLaurentis are responsible for writing practically the entire eighth season as well as a majority of S9 episodes, and the latter two, alongside Hartman, have said several things on Rob Paulsen's podcast that I believe are very telling of the show's current direction and writing style. Hartman also gave out several interviews to coincide with the premier of S9.
Here are some select quotes:
"...fairy godfather Cosmo, for example, has become “really stupid” because “the dumber we made him, the more jokes we could write”..."
– EW.com interview with Hartman, posted on April 25, 2013
""The main thing with 'The Fairly OddParents' is that with magic, you can have anything," Hartman muses about the theme of the series, "but once you have that, what's the drawback? What's the problem? It's like Superman, almost -- you have to give him a Kryptonite." Hartman says for his series, that Kryptonite is that fact that it's possessed by dumb people whose magical endeavors tend to spin wildly out of control."
"Like "The Simpsons," the focus of the series has changed gradually from one main character (Timmy) to one of the peripheral characters, Cosmo and Timmy's dad Mr. Turner (both [sic] voice actor Daran Norris). Hartman laughs when he says that both characters form a trio of idiocy with Carlos Alazraqui's Mr. Crocker, giving the series its heart of lunatic, dim-witted comedy. "Even though we have a show about magic, anyone can do anything we need them to -- like Timmy's dad can pull out a pistol," Hartman says about the show's surreal sense of humor. The more clueless the character, Hartman tells me, the more comedy that can come from it."
– MTV Geek interview with Hartman, posted on March 20, 2013
"I have a bunch [of favorite characters]! But I think the ones I turn to the most – the ones the writers and I like working with the most – are Timmy’s Dad, Mr. Crocker and Cosmo. Always guaranteed a laugh with them."
– OtakusandGeeks.com interview with Hartman, posted sometime during April, 2013 (exact date is not mentioned)
(31:26) Butch Hartman: We love, we love- we love putting all the male characters in dresses as much as we can.
(42:38) Butch Hartman: The next few guys we're bringing up, uhh, we wouldn't have words to say without these guys, they've been on the show for about five years now and they've really, uhh, taken FOP to a new level, they're really, really funny... I want to introduce misters Ray DeLaurentis and Will Schifrin right now, bring'em up!
(43:12) Butch Hartman: Ray, who's one of your favorite characters to write on the show?
(43:14) Ray DeLaurentis: Crocker, Mr. Crocker.
(43:15) Butch Hartman: Mr. Crocker.
(43:15) Ray DeLaurentis: Yes.
(43:18) Butch Hartman: Why?
(43:19) Ray DeLaurentis: Be- because he's so tortured.
(43:21) Butch Hartman: Yes.
(43:21) Ray DeLaurentis: I lo-, uh, I love tortured villains who are emotionally flawed.
(44:01) Butch Hartman: And Will, who do you like to write most on the show?
(44:03) Will Schifrin: Uhh, I ha- I have to say Dad and Cosmo...
(44:05) Butch Hartman: Yeah, yeah!
(44:05) Will Schifrin: *???* Daran [Norris].
(44:29) Will Schifrin: We write the scripts like a primetime comedy.
(44:31) Butch Hartman: We do.
(44:31) Will Schifrin: We sit in a room, all of us...
(44:33) Ray DeLaurentis (joking): Really drunk... really drunk...
(44:33) Will Schifrin (joking): There's five writers... really, super drunk...
(44:35) Ray DeLaurentis (joking): Super drunk.
(44:36) Will Schifrin: And, uhmm... we just... sit and pitch jokes all day, we have a great time and, I mean, it's such a fun show to write.
(54:02) Butch Hartman (regarding Cosmo's voice changing in pitch): I thought we were just gonna do one episode and then as, as the years went by, we're like 'we just made him dumber, and dumber...'
(1:04:23) audience member: ...I was wondering... going from... where the show's already been going for so long, how was it like to... transition and like, still keep it fresh...
(1:04:30) Ray DeLaurentis: Right.
(1:04:30) audience member: ...uuhm, *???* still keep it true to, you know, the original vision when... the show first started?
(1:04:34) Ray DeLaurentis: Well, I'll... I'll answer it half *???*
(1:04:35) Rob Paulsen: That's a great question, yeah.
(1:04:36) Ray DeLaurentis: We'll, uh, give the second half to Will. I mean... the thing is, because it's such a fun show and it's such a great show, there's so many different character dynamics, Will and I started by looking at the strongest ones and seeing if we could turn them on their ear or do something new that hadn't been done... but, you know... he [Hartman] built a show with kind of unlimited potential for story, so you, y-... it's amazing, we keep thinking "we're gonna run out of ideas", but we never do... and, uhh, i- it's just a, like I said, it's such a blast to write an- and, and it was just...
(1:05:04) Will Schifrin: And, the... and the fact that there's a magic element to the show, it gives you so many story possibilities and we're- and... the fact that new characters keep getting introduced, we've had... we've had Poof and we've had Sparky and... there's Foop, which brought in a full, new series of... Foop is a great character.
– Transcript from episode 91 of Talkin' Toons with Rob Paulsen -podcast (The Fairly OddParents Live)
Note: I was unable to make out some of the things that were said in the podcast, especially by the writers as they weren't properly mic'd and the audience as well as some of the other guests talked/made noises that partially drowned what they were saying.
Some observations (and opinions):
- Cosmo was purposely made dumber because Hartman felt it would bring in more jokes. This also applies to other characters as well. Cosmo's voice changing in pitch is also tied to his character being turned into a moron. This is character development? Seriously? Also, 'more jokes' seems to be equivalent of 'telling the same joke over and over again' (we get it, he's dumb).
- in order to counter the omnipotence of magic, Hartman suggests that giving its powers to dumb people to wield provides a suitable counter-balance. Once again, the formula here is that stupid people = instant funny. It's not that simple in reality, though.
- Timmy is no longer necessarily the focal character of the show; this status is now occasionally taken by Cosmo, Dad and Mr. Crocker...
- ...who also happen to be Hartman's favorite characters.
- DeLaurentis' favorite character is Mr. Crocker, while Schifrin prefers to write for Cosmo and Dad. These three are also, as stated above, Butch Hartman's favorites. Still wonder why there have been so many episodes like 'Weirdos [sic] on a Train' (S9E23) lately?
- Hartman states that characters can be made to randomly present a plot-changing element if the writers feel like it, despite it making no sense. Keep in mind that the same man who said this got originally fired from My Little Pony (most likely the G1 cartoon) for pointing out writing-related fallacies such as that it's silly to have a pegasus yell for help while hanging from a cliff despite still having functional wings.6
- DeLaurentis and Schifrin mention (with lame jokes about getting drunk) that the way they write for TFOP consists mostly of just pitching jokes after one another. Obviously they will write stories as well, but it seems to me their approach is closer to something that the likes of Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and John Belushi did during their legendary stints with Saturday Night Live where writing sometimes meant that jokes come first and a story is then built around them (or, alternatively, there's a vague premise for a story, then the jokes are written, and then the story is fleshed out as a whole). For a sketch show, this type of writing works wonderfully. For a serialized cartoon? Eh... maybe in the right hands. However, I seriously doubt the likes of Steve Marmel and Jack Thomas wrote all of the great S1 and S2 episodes in this manner... and if they did, then it can be argued that they knew how to pull it off... but DeLaurentis and Schifrin? Nuh-uh. They aim for cramming as many jokes as possible into each episode, no matter what the cost is to telling stories or caring about the jokes being actually funny.
- DeLaurentis suggests that he and Schifrin studied the earlier episodes for character dynamics, took the strongest ones and then started toying around with them... which to me sounds an awful lot like them ignoring what hadn't been utilized or fleshed out very much. He claims they're doing new things but I think all they've managed to do is to take already "flanderized" characters (as well as some of the new ones he and Schifrin had a hand in creating) and just amp them up even more, and then constantly use them while neglecting the vast amount of side characters the show already has...
- ...and in the meantime, we are getting even more new side (and main) characters because Hartman loves adding them since he apparently dreams of having a large cast that he can utilize with various plots in the same manner as The Simpsons (see Part III of the essay for the exact quote). However, if DeLaurentis and Schifrin prefer to stick to just a select few strong character dynamics and some of the new additions that they themselves had a hand in creating, then what's the point of adding new characters anyway, especially since they are only used to tell jokes that are not necessarily bound to them.
- the reason I wrote 'some' in italics in the previous bullet point is because Schifrin talks about the potential of new characters being introduced to the show and then lists Poof, Sparky and Foop. Yet, if you look at S9, both Poof and Sparky have been curiously absent in quite a few episodes. Also, Poof didn't really have that much to do about halfway through S6 because the writers probably realized by then that a baby fairy that does pretty much exactly the same things as his parents and yet can only say his own name like a pokémon is probably not going to be a breakthrough character that lends itself well for a variety of different stories.
- also, speaking of dynamics, the original one of Timmy, Cosmo and Wanda worked very well. Did we honestly need a baby and a dog there to change it? Do a Google search of Cousin Oliver and you'll get what I mean.
This concludes the second part of my TFOP answer essay. Stay tuned for the third and final part where I will concentrate on what I feel is the biggest problem with TFOP today: the writing. Everything in the final part will be tied to this single issue, such as the chapter concerning several "Hartman tropes", my quick opinion on what I'd consider the series' worst episode ever ('Country Clubbed') as well as the messy 'Wishology!' trilogy, the strange new "reboot" feeling of S9 and finally the live-action movies... and the shocking manner the third one ended.
¹) See the beginning of 'Big Wanda' for a good example of Timmy being a dick towards Wanda.
²a) This used to be my all-time least favorite episode, but it got recently dethroned by 'Country Clubbed' (S9E16). See Part III of this essay for more info on that one.
³) I've since withdrawn the post as it is no longer factually accurate due to there being confusion on when and where the cutoff points would be for different seasons at the time being; in the essay, I keep referring to the latter half of S5 as 'season 6'. I still have it available on my computer, though, as well as hidden as an "unfinished" draft on my blog and this is why I'm able to recall what I wrote. In order to show that I wasn't simply bashing the show, I also pointed out some good parts, mainly having to do with there being lots of adult humor and merciless mocking of Captain Planet and the whole early '90s phenomenon where cartoons were utilized in an attempt to educate kids about protecting the environment. Still, these positive elements were not enough to counter all the negative ones.
5) You can hear Bird explain his view regarding animation to producer John Walker on the director's audio commentary for The Incredibles (2004).
6) You can hear this tidbit in the 12th episode of Talkin' Toons with Rob Paulsen -podcast, featuring Butch Hartman as a guest. I did not create a transcript for this since I felt it was slightly off-topic. Listen to it here: robpaulsenlive.com/episode-12-… (retrieved on September 17, 2014)