I first stumbled upon the brilliant kiddie show “The Fairly OddParents” in the summer of 2002. I had driven up to Flagstaff on moving day for summer school, but I’d driven up too quickly and I needed to kill about an hour before I could begin moving my stuff in. So, I wandered into the dorm’s common room and parked myself in front of the television (improbably turned to Nickelodeon of all channels).
And there it was; a miserable little kid named Timmy Turner (voiced by Tara Strong) has secret fairy godparents, Cosmo (voiced by Darran Norris) and Wanda (voiced by Susanne Blakeslee), who will grant him wishes (with some restrictions).
Sure, a basic enough setup (and something probably every little kid has wished for at one time or another), but what drew me to this show for 7 year olds is the presentation.
First off, the show has both truckfuls of wit and whimsy. Timmy has to keep his fairies a secret or they’ll vanish forever…but since they’re constantly giving him things, he has to reach for explanations; what’s funny is that his lame excuses work (they didn’t call his hometown Dimmsdale for nothing).
Here’s a sampling of some dialogue from the episode “Father Time:”
Dad: What happened here?!?!
Timmy: I melted your trophy with heat vision.
Dad: Where did you get heat vision?
And that’s just a one off snippet of funny writing, it happens all the time (one more example, from –”Inspection Detection” – “You know you’re not supposed to make your dad scream like a girl three times in one day!”). The writing staff, led by series creator Butch Hartman, have this way of subverting expectations at every opportunity. One of the recurring characters on the show is space aliens from Yugopotamia who only love evils things and are terrified of chocolate, candy and teddy bears (probably a first for science-fiction show).
Another of the surprises of the show is how the writers deal with gender. Timmy (as the opening credit song says) is an average kid, he wears a pink hat, loves comic books, action figures, and he’s got a crush on the school beauty Trixie (voiced by Dionne Quan). But, in the first season episode “The Boy Who Would Be Queen,” we learn that he also loves the soap opera “Kissy Kissy Goo Goo” and he’s not ashamed of it (even if his friends tease him). When his fairies turn him into a girl for a day, he learns that girls can love comic books and wrestling matches too. It’s a clever (and welcome) twist for a show aimed at first graders.
Ok, so they’ve got good writing and a good approach to storytelling, but how’s the animation? In a word, it’s fun.
The show is 2D animation, not unlike how “South Park” looks, but there’s a lot to be said for a laid-back approach. The show looks like a comic book, or a “Looney Tunes” episode; the background’s basically stay the same and there’s lot of “pows” and “kabaams” in the action sequences.
On the page, that approah doesn’t work for me, but seeing the objects move is just delightful. In one of my favorite episodes, “Action Packed,” after a particularly dull day, Timmy wishes his life were like an action movie. The humor here is all in the visuals, as a rooster crows and explodes, Timmy’s alarm goes off and he’s thrust into a life-threatening morning routine. Even the news and the weather get in on the fun; Dad is reading the paper and well, “Sports – action-y” and so on. The show wouldn’t be half as fun in a more realistic animation style, because as fun as the show is, it’s just pure escapism.
Watching the show again, I was struck by a deeper lesson here; sure Timmy loves his godparents, and they help him cope with his evil babysitter, his loving but absent parents and his teacher who is out to get him, and lots of kids have his problems in the real world. Timmy can wish for just about anything he wants but more often than not, his instant desires end up causing him more grief, such as wishing for Christmas every day or that he got to be his evil babysitter’s babysitter.
The things he really wants, like more time with his parents and better grades, can’t be wished for; he has to get that himself. Maybe miserable kids wouldn’t find that comforting, but as an adult who even now wishes for an occasional magical helping hand, I sure did.
One last thought; my endorsement comes with a warning. The first season, despite some misses, embodies everything I’ve praised so far, but the second season doesn’t live up to my love. Something got lost along the way, and it wasn’t the same. Even something so simple (such Frankie Munoz leaving the cast – he voiced Timmy’s friend Chester) made the rest of the show feel off somehow. It’s still going on now, but I probably won’t watch past that classic first run of episodes.