The Fairly OddParents is a cartoon that's smart enough for the 'rents
Little Timmy Turner can have anything his heart desires. In the animated comedy The Fairly OddParents (Nickelodeon, new episodes Fridays 9 p.m. ET; previous episodes repeat almost daily) the 10-year-old Timmy makes wishes and his fairy godparents, Wanda and Cosmo, make them come true. Sometimes Timmy wants something simple, like transport to another location; while other times his wishes are more fantastic, like transforming everyone in his hometown of Dimmsdale into superheroes. Naturally, all this power comes with a price. When Timmy wishes that his fearsome babysitter, Vicky, were nice, she becomes (poof!) a cross between Mary Poppins and Snow White, but her malicious nature escapes her body in the form of a spider with glowing red eyes, snapping mandibles, and a white skull on its back. For the rest of the segment—two 15-minute cartoons comprise each half-hour show—Timmy tries to stop the bug from (literally) crawling up the ass of his dad, his school principal, and ultimately, the president of the United States—in a nice touch, George W. Bush appears dressed as George Washington, complete with powdered wig—thereby making them evil, too. Not that Timmy wasn't warned. "There are repercussions," Wanda says in her anxious, warbly voice before granting the wish. "All that evil has to go somewhere!"
Now entering its fourth season, The Fairly OddParents is enormously popular. The second-highest-rated children's program on both network and cable, Fairly Odd routinely earns top-10 spots on the overall basic cable charts, occasionally even besting fellow "Nicktoon" and attention hog SpongeBob SquarePants. Though Fairly Odd'starget age is inthe 2-11 demographic, the show also boasts a robust adult and teen following, which I attribute to its ability to be sophisticated without giving the feeling that the "adult material" is tacked on to keep adults from growing bored. Like the writers on the late, great Animaniacs, the creators of Fairly OddParents have decided to make the fastest, zaniest, smartest show they can and trust that their audience, young and old, is up for the ride.
On the surface, Fairly OddParents plays with the old adage "be careful what you wish for," but the outcomes far surpass the typical wish physics you find even in adult stories like W.W. Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw" or Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. On The Fairly OddParents,an oil painting moldering in your attic would be getting off easy. Although the show is aimed at children, Fairly Odd cleverly tweaks the usual rules of ironic wish-fulfillment.
When Timmy wishes he can do "grown-up stuff," for example, Wanda and Cosmo turn him into an impecunious, out-of-shape, middle-aged man who tramps around town like a character in a Raymond Carver story. (Attending an R-rated movie, it's not the content of the film that freaks Timmy out but the sight of his parents making out in the theater.) In another segment, Timmy wishes his busy, neglectful parents had every superpower—in addition to flight and invulnerability, his mom acquires "meat vision," which allows her to shoot hot dogs out of her eyes—but instead of paying more attention to Timmy, his mom and dad end up fighting crime and protecting their secret identities. "I don't have time for Timmy!" shouts Mr. Turner. "I need to make the world safe for Timmy!" Ultimately Timmy has to wish himself into a super villain to get his parents to notice him.
But the real genius of The Fairly OddParents lies in the complicated ways the show places limitations on Timmy. His wishes are constrained by a fairy code called "Da Rules." Written up in a floating pink book that Wanda frequently summons for consultation, some of the rules function to keep the show's premise from breaking down (Rule #3: A kid with Fairy Godparents can't tell anyone they exist), but others seem designed solely to frustrate Timmy. He can wish himself to be a "freakishly tall" and talented basketball player, say, but he can't single-handedly bring the Dimmsdale Ball Hogs out of last place because there is a rule against using wishes to win contests. There are also rules against stealing, counterfeiting, interfering with true love, and making every day Christmas, and they are often interpreted broadly. When Timmy wants tickets to a sold-out ice show he can't simply wish for them, because then some other ticket holder would lose theirs, which amounts to stealing.
These limits keep the show from operating as 15-minute reminders that "absolute power corrupts absolutely." In fact, Fairly Odd advances a more radical notion: that there is no such thing as absolute power. I hesitate to attach too much significance to a cartoon—especially one in which Cosmo conjures an ear of corn just so he can give it a hug, or Timmy's dad spontaneously loses the pants that he's wearing—but there is something heartening about the success of The Fairly OddParents. It's refreshing to see a show that acknowledges the truth that even those who have it all can't have it all. Sometimes you can't get what you want not because the cost is too high or the consequences too dire, but because, well, you just can't—no matter how hard you wish.
Dennis Cass writes about television for Slate.