Cartoon Graveyard: Why There’s Hope

June 25, 2009

Cleveland, city of light, city of magic.

– Randy Newman, sarcastically

Yes, during my unexcused absence last week I did what I hear so many desire to do: I fled to the Cleve. There I visited my many wonderful relatives, my sister visited many colleges in the middle of nowhere, and everyone had a grand old time. Now, many people make fun of Cleveland. They say that its sports teams stink, that its economy has long been in the crapper, that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame defines rock & roll so broadly that it put up a display about the Jonas Brothers. Those people are me. But Cleveland is really a very nice city, and any of its shortcomings are made up for by a) the rest of the Hall of Fame being kickass and b) this particular feature of the airport:



That is a framed display of all the things that have been confiscated at the security check-in. They include:

– Copious knives
– Derringers
– Shuriken
– Sticks of dynamite
– Metal-tipped playing cards
– Not one but two sets of nunchuks
– A bandolero
– A dagger
– A grenade
– Et cetera.

One must draw the conclusion that the Cleveland airport is frequented by ninjas, banditos, Bond villains and Yosemite Sam. One must also draw the conclusion that Cleveland airport security has defeated all of these people. Who’s gonna make fun of Cleveland now, huh?

Now, then. As I was saying before I was interrupted, Nickelodeon fell from animation wonderland to sitcom-choked hellscape in the space of about a decade thanks to the insidious influence of the Disney Channel. But all is not lost. Nick is still capable of showing clever cartoons, just not in prime time anymore. Case in point, this week’s show, which has been going strong since 2001: The Fairly Oddparents.

Title: The Fairly Oddparents
Network: Nickelodeon
Premise: Kid has fairy godparents, mischief ensues

First, some animation geekery: this show was created by Elmer “Butch” Hartman. He worked with Seth MacFarlane on Johnny Bravo back in the day, which is my roundabout way of explaining why the doctor on Family Guy is named after him.

Yay inside jokes!

Yay inside jokes!

Anyway, the premise of the show is pretty brilliant: unhappy children are assigned fairy godparents who grant their every wish until they grow up or become independently happy. The series follows one such kid, Timmy Turner, and the inevitable backfiring of his wishes. The show falls into the category of children’s programming that is determined to teach a lesson in every episode, which can be good or bad depending on your point of view. Certainly, it’s good for a cartoon to have a goal higher than simply entertaining the young’uns, but there’s a fine line between uplifting and preachy. Too often a show can fall into the rut of the main character committing some social faux pas every episode, then having to apologize at the end, which gets old real fast. Hartman’s other show, Danny Phantom, fell into this trap during its second season, to the point of becoming a self-referential gag in one episode. But The Fairly Oddparents skirts the edge nicely, keeping the humor one step ahead of the morals. The dialogue is snappy, and the magic theme allows for an avalanche of visual puns and other silly sight gags. Plus, they’re capable of subtlety on occasion, such as a recent episode in which a newscaster ends a description of disaster with “Dogs and cats are living together – it’s mass hysteria,” an out-of-nowhere Ghostbusters reference.

The writers have even put some effort into universe-building, gradually establishing the rules of their brand of magic and establishing a galaxy’s worth of recurring minor characters. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s heartening to see writers putting that much effort into a silly kids’ show. Mixing silliness with smarts is always a good combination, and it makes The Fairly Oddparents a welcome oasis in a the desert that is 2000s Nickelodeon.

You would not believe the awful fanart I had to wade through to find a usable picture.

You would not believe the awful fanart I had to wade through to find a usable picture.

So by no means does this mean that Nickelodeon is on the road to recovery. Quite the contrary, they seem dedicated to continuing their plunge into live-action mediocrity. All I’m trying to say is that when Nick can still find time on its schedule for cleverness and imagination, there’s still a place in the network’s heart that hasn’t been corrupted by the lure of the preteen girl demographic. Hopefully at some time in the future that place will grow, and Nickelodeon will again be a home for the artful and non-crappy.

Final Judgment: A faint glimmer of light in the long dark night of Nickelodeon’s soul.



  1. Thanks! This was fun. Oh, and did you mean “shuriken”, as in throwing-stars, in the list above pertaining to that stupendous melange of weapons?

  2. Ooh, good catch. That’s a tough word to spell. It’s fixed now.

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