The first installment in an ongoing series on the best examples of children's television.
Phil of The Future aired 2004-2006 on the Disney Channel.
A time machine malfunction strands 22nd century ninth-grader Phil Diffy and his family in the present, where they must evade detection while posing as normal denizens of our time. It's difficult enough since culture and technology have changed radically in a century (the parents find fridges hilarious, and in the future everyone's little toe has evolved away), but a caveman has also stowed on board the time machine during the Diffys' vacation in the past, and eventually gets adopted as a pet/surrogate sibling. Phil (Rickey Ullman) forms a close friendship with a popular but quirky girl at H.G. Wells High (Aly Michalka) who dreams of a career in TV journalism, while his sister Pim (Amanda Bruckner) tries to cement a reputation as the school's premiere troublemaker. A series of futuristic gadgets, including one which allows brains to swap within bodies, help the Diffys navigate life's everyday problems. Naturally, a meddling and incompetent vice principal becomes determined to uncover the family's true identities.*
I came up with two theories as to why this show, which is amusing and creative, only lasted two seasons. One of them is the male lead. Most of the currently successful shows on children's TV, especially the Disney Channel, are for girls and about girls. Those that are feature boys (The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and its sequel, for instance) star non-threatening guys, surrounded by a large enough cast of women to get their own significant plots. Suite Life is also about twins, one of whom is the nerd and coded more feminine, while the slob is coded more masculine but also played by the roly-poly Sprouse sibling which makes him, in this idiom, relatively harmless. Phil as played by Ullman is actually a particularly sweet version of adolescent boyhood, which is one of the reasons this show is so appealing and possibly why it didn't work well enough with boys either to avoid cancellation. But the narrative is still from his perspective, with Michalka's Keely in support, which doesn't help with the girls.** Phil's sister Pim, mistress of mayhem, and her ongoing battle with the tooth-rottingly sweet Debbie Burwick is one of the most entertaining points for me as an adult but younger viewers may find her hard to identify with, as their entertainment world is full of girls who are more clearly admirable.
There are also a couple of deeper genre problems. Fantasy is wildly more popular with contemporary girls than sci-fi, and plots revolving around a secret identity are hard to maintain. Both of these factors, as expressed in the teen population, contributed to the demise of Kyle XY, and certainly the former to the cancellation of the brilliant and hilarious The Middleman, beloved by critics. Phil also shares with Middleman a sort of camp quality to its aesthetic, which is a tough line to walk, especially in a children's show. My theory about fantasy is that it's more organic, that it expresses a different view of the world as it is actually constituted, while sci-fi revolves around human interference with the world. This may be part of the reason that young chicks dig wizards and vampires but not time travel. Have to think more about that. Anyhow.
The cancellation of this show led to one of the most unsatisfying series finales in history. Although the Diffys finally fix the time machine, each family member secretly tries to sabotage it so they can stay in the past where they have carved out a pretty satisfying life. Phil and Keely, after getting voted cutest couple, have even decided to officially date. Yet despite that they leave anyway. When none of them wants to go. There's some underlying notion that people belong in their own time, but it's not expressed well enough to have this conclusion make sense. They do forget Curtis the caveman in the last scene and have to go back for him, which might have been the opportunity for a third season or for everyone to reconsider the choice, but that doesn't happen explicitly. Just one of what will be many examples of the even lesser regard for well-executed endings in children's TV than in the adult version.
*Why is it always the vice principal? Because the shows don't want to be seen undermining authority so it can't be the actual boss?
**All commentary on gender presumes it to be socialized rather than inherent. I'm making observations about contemporary social behavior rather than natural qualities.