Melissa: What do you normally do when things go wrong?
Phineas: We… have no frame of reference for that.
Television—especially comedic television; especially comedic animated television—works off of formulas. The lazier shows, seeing their formula as a kind of Sun, bright and immutable, will let themselves be entranced by the shine, standing still so long they eventually bake themselves into staleness. The great ones, though, aware of the Sun’s movement in the sky, are in constant chase, using those formulas to identify their own strongest elements and nimbly iterate in new and creative ways as the seasons progress.
Disney’s Phineas and Ferb, as Paste’s own Josh Jackson noted way back in 2009, was one of the great ones from the very start. At its most basic (though it was never basic), Phineas and Ferb is a story about a pair of mad scientist step-brothers who set out each morning of their summer vacation to build/invent/adventure into something awesome to make that day the best day ever, while their older sister tries (and fails) to bust them, and their pet platypus daylights as a secret agent whose B-story nemesis spends each day building/inventing/adventuring into something dangerously petty to make his life suck just a bit less. Most of the series’ 126 half-hour episodes contain two distinct 11-minute stories, on top of which the brothers make time for a handful of one-hour specials and a Disney Channel original movie. That is a lot of building/inventing/adventuring for two brothers and their gaggle of neighborhood friends on one side of town, and for Perry the Platypus and Dr. Doofenshmirtz on the other. And yet, all the way up through the series’ final bow in 2015, the Build it-Bust it-Secret-Agent-it formula never went stale; Phineas and Ferb grew up and into their mad scientist powers, and kept the sweet optimism of invention and childhood not just alive but dynamic throughout. (They may even, at one point, have chased the actual Sun.)
In their follow-up to Phineas and Ferb, producing partners Jeff “Swampy” Marsh and Dan Povenmire stayed in their fictional burg of Danville, but went searching for comedic conflict in the opposite direction. Where Phineas and Ferb were blessed with improbable luck, Marsh and Povenmire’s new creation, Milo Murphy, is afflicted with a familial predisposition to trigger the least probable disaster to happen in any given moment. (Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”) Instead of a pet that daylights as a secret agent, Milo’s dog, Diogee (D-O-G), is just a dog—if a cosmically good one who often saves Milo by sheer dumb doggo-ness. Instead of a sister trying to bust him, Sara (Kate Micucci) joins Milo in an obsession with a sci-fi series featuring a time-traveling hero named Dr. Zone (Jemaine Clement)—whose fictional adventures, it turns out, were inspired by the real-life time-traveler duo Cavendish (Jeff “Swampy” Marsh) and Dakota (Dan Povenmire), whose sole task in the series’ Doofenshmirtz-esque B-story is not to do petty evil, but to do the petty heroics needed to prevent pistachios from going extinct. At some point, Cavendish and Dakota cross paths with Milo, and now their two storylines are weirdly but genially intertwined. Aside from the fact that both series are imbued with a sense of fundamental goodness and cheery optimism, the worlds of Milo Murphy and Phineas and Ferb couldn’t be more different.
I did touch briefly on Milo Murphy’s Law in my DuckTales-related overview of Disney XD back in 2017, but I almost don’t want to mention that here, as that December marked the last time that American television would feature Milo Murphy and his hereditary bad luck in new misadventures for more than a year. (Am I afflicted by Murphy’s Law? Did me just suggesting that discerning Paste readers watch Milo Murphy’s Law cause its second season to be held back from airing for all of 2018? I mean, probably not? But also, that slim edge of improbability is precisely what the congenital condition of Murphy’s Law targets, so… also, kind of, probably?) What is important now is that, as of this first Saturday of 2019, Milo Murphy is finally back—and he’s brought along some old friends.
This weekend’s hour-long special, “The Phineas and Ferb Effect,” sees not just Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz (Povenmire) back on our screens, but nearly the entire cast of Marsh and Povenmire’s first series, as the two probability-charged sides of Danville’s tri-city area come together to defeat the time-traveling Pistachion monsters unwittingly unleashed on history by the cheerfully unlucky Milo once again crossing statistically unlikely paths with Cavendish and Dakota.
If that seems like a lot for one Disney XD animated series to keep track of, why, yes—yes it is. With the nimble visual comedy skills of Marsh and Povenmire driving the storytelling, however—and with Phineas and Ferb’s rock-solid framework firmly installed for the special to fall back on whenever the stories’ combined weirdness threatens to spill over—the sheer volume of details in play in “The Phineas and Ferb Effect” never feels like too much. In fact, between the brief “Previously on…” recap delivered by a suspicious Dr. Doofenshmirtz in the cold open, and the two series’ common Marsh-Povenmire vocabulary (heavy on optimistic science nonsense, visual gags and winkingly delivered puns), “The Phineas and Ferb Effect” works equally well for fans of Milo Murphy’s Law and fans of Phineas and Ferb, even if you’re familiar with one and not the other. Been waiting for a year to see how Milo Murphy’s Law’s Pistachion epic plays out? Great! This special’s got you. Been hoping against hope that Phineas and Ferb would eventually come back in one form or another? Awesome! This special not only has your back, but hints heavily at more to come. (“And remember, we’re just on the other side of town, so feel free to cross over anytime!” Milo tells the old crew as they take off at the episode’s end. “We will,” Phineas says. “See you soon!”)
Of course, with Milo’s luck, the “soon” of any future crossovers may still be years in the making. In the meantime, at least, there is Milo, and Diogee, and Marsh and Povenmire proving that, while they know exactly what formulas work for them, they also know well enough never to stop chasing the Sun.
As Weird Al sings in the newer series’ earwormy theme song, go Milo, go Milo, go! If “The Phineas and Ferb Effect” is any indication, your newest season is going to be exceptional.
Milo Murphy’s Law returns to Disney Channel and Disney XD with “The Phineas and Ferb Effect” crossover event this Saturday at 7 a.m. ET. You don’t have to watch any of Milo’s previous episodes to enjoy the crossover, but if you’re interested in getting a handle on the biggest story arcs/jokes covered in the special, watch “The Doctor Zone Files” (Episode 1.05), “The Substitute” (1.15), “Missing Milo” (1.23), and “Fungus Among Us” (1.34), on demand or on the Disney NOW app.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.