"Danny Phantom" Season 2, Part 1: Only a Ghost of a Chance
I wish I liked Danny Phantom.
That isn’t just the pious desire of a reviewer who wishes well of every show or movie dropped onto his platter. I remember trying to watch this show when it was new to Nickelodeon. I didn’t seek it out, but I’d always stop and watch–without any great enthusiasm, I’ll admit–when I happened on it while channel surfing. In its combination of comedy and action it seemed like it was trying to do something that other series weren’t. It was, at one and the same time, a straight-forward action show about a teenager trying to juggle school life, home life, social life, and superheroics; and a goofy, knockabout comedy that wasn’t afraid to stoop to the lowest, stupidest kind of humor to push a chuckle out of the viewer. Other franchises, like Spider-Man and The Powerpuff Girls have combined action and laughs, but have always weighted things more heavily to one side or the other. Danny Phantom seemed ambitious to be both, simultaneously, and more thoroughly, than other such shows.
So how could it turn out to be so bland?
The title character is Danny Fenton, a fourteen-year-old kid whose parents are professional ghost hunters. Thanks to an accident (helpfully illustrated in the series’ title sequence) he gained “ghost powers,” and in his secret identity as “Danny Phantom” fights villains and invaders from some kind of supernatural zone. He is usually aided by his school friends Sam and Tucker, clumsily inhibited by his clueless mom and klutzy dad, and both aided and inhibited by his older sister, Jazz, whose secret is that she knows Danny’s own secret.
The first thing you’ll notice about the show is its design: it comes from Butch Hartman (The Fairly Odd Parents) and it showcases his trademark look and sense of humor. The characters all have strong if rather blocky designs, and they talk and jest in that emphatic exposition-setup-joke, exposition-setup-joke manner that sounds like it was written by a computer stuck in a suboptimal subroutine. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the visuals, except that they are so inexpressive and so resolutely on-model that their cartooniness seems irrelevant; they seem less like animated drawings than like cut-out models that have been tweaked in a digitally animated environment. The robotic nature of their dialogue only reinforces the sense that the drawings are things that have been positioned over a dialogue track, rather than the illustrated expressions of the characters’ personalities.
The show is also hampered by its formula. Even though Danny has a sizable stable of diverse enemies, and the stories go to great lengths to set up idiosyncratic situations for him, they all converge on the same pattern: Villain sails in and starts causing trouble; Danny “goes ghost” to fight them; there are some reversals and a crisis moment; and then the bad guy is defeated. It is, of course, a typical pattern for this kind of show. The problem is that there is so very little except the pattern. The bad guy taunts and laughs; Danny makes wisecracks; Sam (or Tucker or Jazz or someone) makes worried noises; Danny’s dad says something inane. It feels almost as if only a single Danny Phantom script got written and was then endlessly recycled, with new dialogue plugged Mad-Lib-style into the schematics. The show is also relentless at telegraphing its beats, so that you can feel each turn coming almost a full minute before it actually arrives.
As both adventure and comedy, Danny Phantom is resolutely mediocre, and when combined its systemic mediocrities undermine it both as an action show and as a comedy show. Its comedy relies on stereotype and cliché–the goth faux-girlfriend, the geeky best friend, the idiot parents, the bullying jocks–so that you can’t feel much tension or empathy when these cardboard cutouts are put in jeopardy. At the same time, the show’s drive for drama and conflict consistently derails the jokes; instead of laughing at the idiot antics, you want to roll your eyes at the idiots whose antics keep landing them in trouble.
Finally, tediously little is done with the “ghost” aspect of the show. “Ghost,” in fact, seems a complete misnomer, since there is little to the villains that is genuinely or specifically spectral; they act no differently than most superpowered baddies. Ironically, by trying to make them specifically “ghostly”, Danny Phantom may have unwittingly handcuffed itself. Supervillains in more mundane action shows can run the stylistic and technological gamut. Just in the “Superman” and “Batman” universes we can find the Moriarty-like Lex Luthor and the morbidly insane Joker; the technologically enhanced Metallo, the biologically enhanced Poison Ivy, and the chemically altered Clayface; and a whole range of gimmicky fetishists (Mr. Freeze, Temple Fugate, the Mad Hatter). But Danny’s villains are all “ghosts,” and since ghosts typically can’t do anything except giggle menacingly while chasing meddling kids, all of the ghosts in Danny Phantom fall back on power beams or projectiles for their fighting. Even if they have a “schtick” (like Young Blood’s youth) it fades into the background when the green laser bolts start rippling around.
Danny Phantom: Season 2, Part 1 collects ten episodes of the series: the two-part “Reign Storm”; “Doctor’s Disorders”; “Identity Crisis”; “The Fenton Menace”; “Pirate Radio”; “The Fright Before Christmas”; “Micro Management”; “Masters of All Time”; and “Beauty Marked.” (It’s necessary to give a list of episodes, because Shout! Factory has listed the wrong episodes on the package and on the Amazon website.) Of these, “The Fright Before Xmas” may be the most ambitious, in its attempt to tell a seasonal story in rhymed couplets. All the others present predictable, seen-it-before storylines–the hero gets split in two (“Identity Crisis”); he tries to change the past (“Masters of All Time”); he gets shrunk (“Micro Management”)–when it’s not just a lot fighting against the villain-of-the-week (all the rest).
I’ll say this much for Danny Phantom: it does feel like a work of personal vision and not just the product of corporate group-think. It’s too bad that that personal vision seems so myopic.