Tag Archives: Phineas and Ferb

Storytelling Lessons from Jesus

Doesn’t matter what you think of Jesus, gotta admit the guy could tell a story. Or the people who recorded them spiffed them up. Either way, Jesus often communicated (religious and otherwise) points through stories in ways that were not heavy handed yet still managed to tell a good story.

See, Jesus knew his audience. He knew that some people were inherently opposed to him and knew that there were occasions where he wasn’t gonna win anyone over if he started getting preachy (I’m looking at you, October Baby). So rather than constantly preachifying, he told good stories. His truth was in his stories (and messages can be found in arguably any story), he didn’t have to spell it out every time (October Baby, you again).

For an example let’s look at the Good Samaritan. Most everyone knows how this one goes, so let’s make like the movie industry and update it. Israeli’s walking through an alley. Bunch of guys jump him and beat the crap outta him; they steal everything he has and leaves the man bleeding against the bricks.

A man walks past, just another ordinary man. He ignores the pleas for help. A teacher of religion walks by and, hearing the man’s cries for help, turns around and finds a different route.

The bleeding man’s almost passed out when another man comes down the alley. This Palestinian sees the dying man and instantly stops to help him. He drags the man to his car and brings him to a hospital, paying for all the fees. Then they become best friends and fight crime [not actually in the Bible].

The point of the story is simple: help can come from unlikely places (and love others as you want to be loved). But there’s no beating anyone over the head with the point.

So Jesus did it. Who else?

Joss Whedon in Firefly! In the episode “The Train Job” Mal and his crew pull of a heist on a train. But when they find that it’s medicine a nearby town desperately needs, they eventually come to the decision to return it at cost to themselves. Understand, some of the crew are fugitives, some of them are very amoral, and most of them are not above thievery. Yet they choose to do the right thing anyway. What’s the message? Help the other one in need, do the right thing, don’t screw over those who are already screwed over. It’s understated, but it’s there and it works. Granted, Mal does later kick an uncooperative goon into Serenity’s portside turbine, but hey, he aims to misbehave.

Within the grand adventure of Thor is a simple lesson of humility. It’s his hubris that gets him thrown down to earth and it’s his learning to care for others that gets him back on his feet. Does Kenneth Branagh and his writers make it overt by someone saying “behold what your humility hath netted you!”? Nope. It’s there. Thor arrives on earth haughty and proud, but slowly comes to realize there’s more to life than glory and honor as he interacts with Jane and friends. We see the change in Thor’s actions and later in his conversations with his brother. It’s shown through a person and his journey, not having it told to us through some speech!

So let’s take another swig of this. A big one. In one of the finale episodes of Avatar, Zuko is reunited with his uncle. Understand that Iroh has been trying his best to lead Zuko to be a man of honor (unlike his family) but Zuko betrayed him at the end of the second season. Suddenly the prince has his honor back and everything he wanted, but he’s haunted by turning his back on his uncle.

When they finally meet again Zuko feels that he is not even fit to wake the old man from his sleep. It’s only when Iroh wakes up in the morning that Zuko begins apologizing, but his uncle cuts him off with a powerful embrace and says he was never angry with his nephew, but rather was so proud of him for getting this far.

There’s so much there! Forgiveness, love, and so on! It’s the parable of the Prodigal Son only with more firebending and world domination. The message isn’t obstrusive; it’s heartfelt and a longtime coming.

 

Look, I love a good story. And it’s awesome when stories have a point. The Lord of the Rings displays that no matter how little we are we can have an effect, Up tells us not to dwell on what’s lost and to find adventure everywhere, Tangled’s about having dreams, Zombieland reminds us of the importance of having a ‘family’. Yes, Zombieland. But the reason we don’t gag on it is because it’s done softly, gently. Like Jesus and his parables, good stories don’t try and force a point down your throat over and over again until you’re tired of it.

Granted, sometimes some things need to be made obvious, but if you’re breaking up the narrative (October Baby!) for the moral, you’re just not doing it right. When Jesus told his stories, the point evolved with the narrative. The message and story should be woven together seamlessly. Otherwise you’re just preachifying, and, as Phineas of Phineas and Ferb put it: “I think we all learned a valuable lesson today, but we all know what it is so why waste our time restating it?”

Also: buy my book In Transit! Just because!.

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Abed, I Know What We’re Gonna Do Today!

My favorite show this past season aired on Thursdays at 8pm on NBC. This was, of course, Community. It also happens to be one of my favorite shows of all time (up there with Firefly, Lost, and Chuck). It’s smart, excellently written, and consistently hilarious.

I’m not sure when my favorite cartoon airs. I know it’s on Disney Channel, but I just watch it on Netflix. Phineas and Ferb, my favorite cartoon, is smart, excellently written, and consistently hilarious.

They’re very different shows: one’s about a group of community college students and the escapades they get up to, the other’s about a pair of step-brothers and their attempts to make the most of the 104 days of summer vacation. The two, however, do share a comedic style that’s right up my alley. Both are meta, post-modern, fourth-wall taunting, and trope playing shows that have far more in common than not.

The foundation for a series such as these is a setting in which just about anything can transpire. For Phineas and Ferb it’s the brothers’ ability to create literally anything in their backyard; for Community it’s the unpredictably goofy campus of Greendale Community College. Both worlds are slightly (okay, very in the case of Phineas and Ferb) fantastical but grounded in some semblance of reality. Both shows have done westerns, science fiction, alternate realities, and musicals. Since they’ve established that reality is malleable in their worlds they’re free to play around with it as much as they want. Of course, their little winks and nods to the audience helps us play along.

Beyond their bouts of fantasy, both shows are very self-aware of not only the tropes they play with, but their own tendency to play with these tropes. Phineas and Ferb knows it has a wealth of catchphrases and so aired an episode set in prehistoric times with the entire episode’s dialogue simple grunts. Yet, due to the nature of the show, anyone who’s seen a few episodes knows exactly what each character means and where the plot is going. Community not only gleefully pointed out that the episode ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ was a bottle episode but expressed disdain at the very idea of bottle episodes. Within their bottle episode. The result is one of the most cleverly written episodes of the series.

They know what they’re doing, and they know that you too know what they’re doing. So they take you in stride, welcome you to the fold, and have fun.

But all the shenanigans in the world mean nothing if you can’t connect. To that, both shows have a core cast who you quickly grow to love. The Study Group from Community may be involved in hijinks aplenty, but the characters and their interactions are treated with gravitas and respect. Sure, their world may not be real, but the people at the core are. Phineas and Ferb has the titular brothers and Isabella, Buford, Baljeet, and Candace stick together for all the adventures. No matter how absurd their worlds may get, the characters and their relationships are very real. It’s both shows wonderful artificial families that give us a frame and reference for the adventures.

Phineas and Ferb and Community are very different tv shows. One’s aimed primarily (well, more halfway intended) at kids and the other at adults/teens. Yet both shows share a very similar sort of humor and sense of family. It’s no guarantee that liking one show means you’ll like the other, but it’s certainly a very strong possibility. Again: it’s that post-modern sense of humor and slick writing with the artificial family at its core that unites the shows.

This is quality television.

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