Case Study 9: Danny Phantom, Episode 28-29–“The Ultimate Enemy”

Original Airdate: September 16th, 2005 on Nickelodeon

Danny Phantom is the second Nickelodeon original animated series or “Nicktoon” from Butch Hartman, the creator of the wildly successful The Fairly OddParents as well as the more recent T.U.F.F. Puppy, which is still airing new episodes albeit in the deep cable ghetto of the Nicktoons network. During its three season tenure Phantom enjoyed four hour-long double episodes—this was the second.

Strengths

  • Interesting concept. This show takes place in a universe where intrusions into everyday life by visible ghosts from another dimension are a known quantity, if not necessarily a commonplace occurrence for the average person. The otherwise unremarkable Danny Fenton (David Kaufman) is destined to become intimately familiar with ghosts, however. His parents Jack (Rob Paulsen, Animaniacs) and Maddie (Kath Soucie, Rugrats) are flat-footed investigators of the paranormal, and when Danny finds their disused portal to the ghost dimension he manages to activate it. This results in his transformation into a half-human half-ghost entity that can change forms at will. The show gets grist for the plot mill from Danny’s attempts to keep the Ghost Zone at bay. This episode adds the additional complication of time travel, introducing Clockwork (David Carradine, Kill Bill) an immortal, omnipotent ghost ally tasked with saving the human world from a timeline ending in destruction. So far, so good—this is a unique premise with plenty of potential.
  • Unique visual style. While the character modeling and the general style of animation on display is strongly reminiscent of Fairly, the ghosts and the Ghost Zone are distinctive and appealing. In general the show is a pleasure to look at and excels at using the powers of its medium to go above and beyond in terms of presentation. Clockwork’s animation is particularly choice as he regularly vacillates between three different life stages to reflect the fluidity of time that permeates the nature of his character. It’s just really well thought-out. As we go on you’ll find out that I found this show profoundly disappointing, but the animators and artists have nothing to do with that.
  • Deep worldbuilding. Much of this episode relies on Danny’s interactions with his extensive rogue’s gallery and the deployment of various ghost hunting/interfacing gadgets designed by the Fentons. This broad and richly developed world is the show’s most rousing success when it comes to imitating the thrills of superhero comic books. It’s the kind of thing that makes a fan want to come back again and again—the sense that all the pieces matter and that the show’s universe lives and breathes and doesn’t just reset or disappear in between episodes. It’s the difference between a static world and a dynamic one and I’m glad Phantom recognizes the importance.
  • David Carradine. In a show with otherwise unremarkable vocal performances, Carradine steals the show. Through nothing but the magic of his performance he lends a nuanced, brooding gravitas to a time-travelling ghost. A great actor can elevate the most tepid writing or the most ludicrous premise.

Weaknesses

  • Dreadfully unfunny. Oh, man. This show is peppered with wretched attempts at humor at every junction—I think they’re going for a Spiderman thing where the mild-mannered teen protagonist turns into Don Rickles when he takes the form of his more confident alter ego, as Danny is constantly trying to banter with his foes. Here it mostly takes the form of uninspired time puns, which get beat into the ground in various permutations. “I guess I’m going to have to give you a TIME OUT!” Fozzie the Bear has better material than this. It’s not that I don’t want the show to have a sense of humor, but in the words of Jack Donaghy, “Don’t start unless you’ve got something.” The overall sense of hackiness is compounded by the way the show handles Danny’s principal, Mr. Lancer (Ron Perlman, Hellboy.) Apparently one of Lancer’s character traits is that he just exclaims the name of media properties that are tangentially related to the matter at hand. I’ll give you an example. In this episode, the safety of Danny’s loved ones (and Lancer) is imperiled by an explosion caused by the overheating of a volatile special sauce analogue at the local McDonald’s analogue, which is called “Nasty Burger.” (Satire! Do you get it!?! Fast food is gross!) When Danny uses a small amount of a to-hand serving of the sauce as a weapon in a fight against the ghost Box Lunch (Soucie) the ensuing explosion starts the boiler overheating process and causes cataclysmic property damage. Lancer is eating lunch at the franchise. When the shit hits the fan, Lancer busts out with “Fast Food Nation!” Get it?! Because that’s a thing?! I mean, where’s the fucking joke? Family Guy is often used as an example of a widely maligned trend in comedy where a propos of nothing some pop culture artifact is injected with “edgy” humor—a Sesame Street/Homicide: Life on the Street crossover, or a reimagining of the Dick Van Dyke Show opening credits where Rob’s trip over the ottoman results in a series of increasingly violent blunders. The criticism is that this is a lazy grab at cheap laughs based on the fact that the audience is pleased with itself for recognizing a parody of the Van Dyke opener and mildly scandalized by a twist. (Being overly pleased with yourself and empty grabs at falsely edgy comedy is pretty much the Family M.O. in a nutshell.) But this is a step beyond—it’s just randomly throwing out the names of various referents. I didn’t realize it was possible to be this lazy with pop culture references in comedy. Kids may not get or appreciate reference-based comedy, especially when it’s this profoundly unfunny, but they do enjoy comedy that stems organically from who the characters are. A great ensemble creates a zany and exciting environment for kids to get invested in. But transparently out-of-character comedy squanders that potential. There’s more. At one point Danny’s friends, Sam (Gray Delisle, 2006’s The Replacements) and Tucker (Ricky D’Shon Collins, Recess) are saved from certain death by hasty removal of the time medallions they’re wearing. Tucker marvels that Sam was able to remove the medallions in time, and Sam “jokes” that she “doesn’t accessorize well.” Despite the fact that this is an incredibly tepid excuse for witty banter, Sam is visibly wearing at least four different accessories when she says this. If you insist on barraging me with dreadful “humor,” can we at least have it not be visibly out of character? The jokes are also brazenly out of touch—at one point the allegedly tech-savvy Tucker’s PDA plays a role in things, because he is a fortysomething middle manager from 2001. Or so I surmise. Another joke is made about “bling.” Part of why this is so frustrating is that occasionally, the show will come tantalizingly close to an actual risible moment and then hammishly oversell it. I’m thinking specifically of the moment right at the end of the episode where Danny and his sister Jazz (Colleen O’Shaughnessey, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) are having a conversation about how she’s known about Danny’s secret identity for some time. Danny gets called away to fight a giant tentacled slime monster, and Jazz gets soaked with green goo, with just her eyes and her lips visible in inimitable cartoon fashion. It’s a hilarious visual and a great undercut to a sappy moment—and then they ruin it by having her say “This is going to take some getting used to!” What does that add?
  • Overbearing soundtrack. In an action-oriented cartoon, I sort of expect the musical side of the soundtrack to be obnoxious, and indeed it was, but within fairly acceptable levels. The really grating thing here is the over-the-top SFX work. The show has great animation and the character modelling is very expressive. This show does absolutely nothing in a subtle fashion, which shoots it in the foot over and over again. It would hurt absolutely no one to just have the characters have visibly dismayed or amused or suspicious facial and physical reactions to things. We don’t need the sound of their eyebrows shooting up. It comes across as condescending, and, again, adds nothing. The dramatic music during fights and stuff is typical and unobtrusive, but we also don’t need wacky little stings after every flaccid attempt at comedy. You’re not helping, SFX. It’s never going to be funny.
  • Convoluted plot. Oh sweet Jesus. This is going to take some time. So let me summarize the story here as briefly as I can. Ten years into the future of Danny’s home of Amity Park, the world is a grim dystopia. Amity Park is now behind a force field and the surrounding land is grey and barren for as far as the eye can see. In this timeline, the adult Danny Phantom (Eric Roberts, The Expendables) is a tyrant terrorizing the residents of Amity Park and is presumably responsible for the current state of the rest of the world. Dark Danny breaches the forcefield, and Clockwork is tasked with destroying present-day Danny to prevent this from ever becoming a problem. Back in the present, Danny and friends are notified by Lancer that they’ll soon be forced to take a challenging and all-important standardized test. Danny is nervous about the test and very unsure about his chances at success. Clockwork’s first attempt on Danny’s life involves dispatching Box Lunch. Danny does battle with her at the Nasty Burger, deploying the previously mentioned improvised condiment explosion. During the explosion he turns into his intangible form to avoid getting hurt by flying debris and manages to pass through Lancer’s briefcase, where the test’s answers are concealed. Now in possession of the test’s answer key, Danny considers cheating and discusses it with his friends at school. Lancer overhears and is persuaded not to take immediate action by Jazz. Clockwork sends a second ghost to attack Danny, one Skulltech 9.9 (Paulsen & Kevin Michael Richardson, The Cleveland Show.) Skulltech traps Danny in a giant metal claw, but is presently incapacitated when Tucker uses his PDA to hack Skulltech’s operating systems. As Tucker and Sam struggle to free Danny from the claw, Skulltech’s mysterious time amulet falls from his neck, transporting them to what I guess is supposed to be Clockwork’s base of operations. Clockwork attacks them and they escape through a portal to the future. There, Dark Danny attacks the trio, and as mentioned above Sam & Tucker manage to escape by removing the time medallions they were wearing after taking them from Clockwork’s lair. Meanwhile, Dark Danny takes regular Danny’s time medallion, ties him up with magic ropes or some shit and banishes him to the Ghost Zone. Dark Danny disguises himself as regular Danny and travels back in time to regular Danny’s timeline. In the Ghost Zone Danny is confronted by his rogue’s gallery, all of whom have been fucked up in one way or another by Dark Danny’s misdeeds and want revenge. Dark Danny and Jazz run into each other and because of Reasons Dark Danny reveals that a) he is in fact not the Danny that Jazz knows and loves but an evil, all-powerful super-Danny from the future and b) that Danny’s only hope of returning to the present is by going through his archenemy Vlad Masters (Martin Mull, Hollywood Squares.) Jazz conveys this information via tying a note to a Fenton family gadget keyed to Danny’s ectoplasmic signature or whatever the fuck and throws it into her local ghost portal with the hope that it finds Danny in the future Ghost Zone. Danny defeats the vengeful ghosts with a powerful, newly developed technique known as the Ghostly Wail, a weapon that Dark Danny has been using liberally. Meanwhile, Dark Danny proceeds to cheat on the test that will eventually lead to the fiery death of the Fentons, Sam, Tucker and Lancer in that boiler explosion, despite Jazz’s attempts to stop him with more Fenton gadgets. Regular Danny gets Jazz’s note and tracks down future Vlad, who is a shell of his former dastardly self and who delivers an exposition dump about how when everyone Dark Danny loved got violently killed he broke down psychologically and demanded that Vlad excise his human portion, eventually becoming an evil, all-power ghost bent on destroying the world. Now certain that (Dark) Danny cheated on the test, Lancer summons Dark Danny and his parents to the Nasty Burger for…Reasons, where they are promptly joined by Sam & Tucker, who are rushing to warn the adults about the imminent boiler explosion. Jazz shows up with Fenton gadgets and reveals Dark Danny’s identity. Regular Danny shows up to do battle. Dark Danny prolongs the battle as long as possible but ultimately regular Danny uses a Ghostly Wail and incapacitates Dark Danny long enough to put him into a secure Fenton ghost thermos. But it’s too late—the boiler explodes anyway. The deus ex machina that prevents the next season and a half of Danny Phantom from being super-dark is Clockwork, who shows up at the last minute, makes a dumb speech about how time isn’t a parade, and the upshot is that he’s decided since he can’t seem to outright kill Danny he might as well just reverse time to the tipping point of Danny cheating on the test. He does that, Danny doesn’t cheat, the world is saved. If I read all that shit aloud to you it would take about 6 minutes. A plot summary should never take 6 goddamned minutes. And this is far from a satisfying plot! Any story involving time travel is going to involve a certain amount of convolution, which is why it must be done extremely carefully. A show for 8 year olds shouldn’t be on the level of Primer, for fuck’s sake. We also spend a huge amount of time dicking around with two unrelated ghost battles and the rogues in the Ghost Zone to boot, as well as listening to a bunch of exposition in a third location from yet another character. That’s time we could spend actually getting at the emotional cores of the story. There are two. 1) We learn that Danny’s misdeed leads to a chain of events that essentially destroys his life and 2) he subsequently becomes monstrously powerful and evil. The show spends plenty of time establishing the latter—too much time. The opening scene makes it obvious that Dark Danny is wreaking hell. Danny and his friends see direct evidence of this in Clockwork’s lair. Clockwork tells them. Dark Danny tells them. The fucked-up rogues in the Ghost Zone convey this. Vlad tells Danny. Dark Danny tells Jazz. Great. Pick two of those, maybe. And spend the rest of the time here earning the first plot point. We’re never given any explanation of how the cheating would have led to the boiler explosion in the first place. How would Danny have gotten the answers and destabilized the boiler in the first place if Clockwork hadn’t sent Box Lunch to attack him? Why would Jazz, Tucker and Sam have been at the inexplicable parent/teacher conference at the burger place? This chain of events only makes sense when Clockwork intervenes, which presumably he didn’t do the first time around, because why would he deliberately be trying to create a chain of events resulting in Dark Danny? Since none of this makes any fucking sense, it doesn’t put any power into what should be a very powerful revelation—that Danny inadvertently destroys everything he loves. This could have been salvaged, and instead it’s a particularly coiled hot brown mess.
  • Cheap moralism. For that matter, it’s kind of gross that this decision to cheat is presented as a be-all-end-all moral cataclysm. This is a common feature of kids’ programming and it’s pretty wildly unnecessary. What anyone will tell you about working with kids is that they know when they’re being patronized. Let the kids have their damn ghost-fighting/gadgets/superpowers/explosions cartoon without trying to force them to eat morality flavored vegetables, at least not this didactically. I’m reminded of a recent article I read on the original Nicktoon, Doug. To quote: “That story always deliberately found its way to a moral center. [Doug creator Jim] Jinkins would have his writers specifically identify the kid issue they were addressing a top of each individual script. ‘It sounds a little self-righteous,’ Jinkins said, ‘But I always knew there was going to be a moral foundation to the series.’…In the adult world, the notion of truth and not-truth is complicated, but I didn’t want to debate it. I didn’t want to show all of the ambiguity of the adult world to kids. I wanted to show kids a world where everyone took honesty seriously.’” Well, I haven’t seen Doug in a while, but that sounds pretty shitty and boring. It’s easy to be a moral absolutist in a universe where you make all the rules. That’s a universe we don’t live in. Acting like there aren’t shades of grey is insulting to kids who don’t need to have your weird conservative Christian family values moralism jammed down their throat when they’re just trying to watch a fun cartoon. Jinkins is now working on a kid’s cartoon about the 10 commandments. Can’t wait for the adultery episode! As far as Phantom’s status as a morality play, why does it have to be cheating on the standardized test that determines your entire future that leads Danny down a path of sin and iniquity? Having his whole family die isn’t bad enough? You might object that we’re told the deaths would never have happened without the cheating—but, uh, show, don’t tell. Rule number one. Instead, we’re treated to the scintillating fact that Dark Danny put rogue Johnny 13 (William Baldwin, Sliver) into a wheelchair. That’s great. That’s dark. Whatever. But you know what packs a bit bigger of a punch? The fiery death of Danny’s entire family, a very big moment that the show doesn’t earn in the slightest.

Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. Phantom has potential, but this was a deeply annoying hour of television. A particularly sad fact is that my internet research tells me that this episode is considered by fans to be Phantom’s zenith, which I dearly hope is not the case. Part of the reason for that appears to be that this is an unusually grim turn for a light-hearted show, but if light-hearted means more hacky jokes Danny’s loved ones should die every week.
NEXT TIME: We look at our first show from one of the big four networks, Early Edition.  

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Case Study 9: Danny Phantom, Episode 28-29–“The Ultimate Enemy”