Whatever Happened to Danny Phantom - VRGyani News and Media

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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Whatever Happened to Danny Phantom

A credit due Nickelodeon’s animation lineup back in the 2000s was variety. SpongeBob SquarePants achieved its superstar status in those days, but airing alongside it were the various Klasky-Csupo series of a completely different design sensibility, and with content ranging from silly baby antics (Rugrats) to teenaged dramedy (As Told By Ginger). Also in the lineup was Hey Arnold!, from yet another school of design and storytelling. ChalkZone looked like nothing else on the network, CatDog was just bizarre, and the 2000s was when Avatar: The Last Airbender – a world apart from the rest of the Nicktoons – first premiered.

Among the rest in that mix were the shows of Butch Hartman. The Fairly Oddparents, with its jazzy score and classically cartoony sense of humor, hit its stride in the early part of the 2000s. A spin-off, Crash Nebula, got as far as a pilot that was later folded into a Season 4 episode of the parent show. But Hartman did land a second series at Nick with Danny Phantom. Conceived in 2001, premiering in 2004, Danny Phantom didn’t stand out because of any radical new direction in design; the color palette was less cartoony than The Fairly Oddparents, and the characters were interpreted by artist Stephen Silver (and given a full five fingers compared to standard cartoon practice), but the show fit comfortably in the same aesthetic Hartman established with his first series. But Danny Phantom did distinguish itself in other ways: through tone, plot, and character.

When nearly all Nicktoons still featured episodes of two 11-minute shorts, Danny Phantom was a full half-hour show. And it was consciously developed to be more “real” than The Fairly Oddparents: the impetus for the series was Nick’s desire for a “boy’s action show,” not another comedy. The premise – Danny Fenton, teenaged son of parapsychologists, acquires ghostly superpowers via a lab accident that he must use (as superhero Danny Phantom) to defeat the many ghosts escaping into his town – owed more of a debt to comic books than cartoons. There was plenty humor in Danny Phantom, sometimes rather broad, but a mix of superhero action and adolescent issues were at the forefront of episodes. And it mattered which order you watched those episodes in. Anticipating later programs, Danny Phantom kept a certain degree of continuity throughout its run. The scope of Danny’s powers, whether his sister knew his secret identity, where archenemy Vlad Plasmius lived and what schemes he was up to, the state of Danny’s relationships with various female classmates: these plot threads and more became ongoing storylines with clear progression. Serialization on Danny Phantom was never as complex (or as careful) as it would be in Avatar, but it was something new for Nickelodeon at the time and contributed to the show’s comic book vibes.

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While the overall tone of the series was light, breezy, and comfortable in its TV-Y7 FV rating, Danny Phantom was also ahead of its time in going to dark places for a Nicktoon. Its many night scenes and frequent excursions into the ghost dimension gave it a slightly darker visual quality. While uncommon, episodes would occasionally end on a bittersweet note; Danny’s first girlfriend might end their relationship, or Plasmius might be revealed to have another trick up his sleeve. A show about ghosts and ghost hunting almost has to acknowledge the concept of death, and while Hartman has insisted that the “ghosts” of Danny Phantom are really interdimensional beings, early episodes gave the backstory of at least two ghost villains and several peripheral characters as spirits of the deceased. The more realistic setting of the series also meant that characters couldn’t survive the sort of spectacular falls, collisions, and injuries that many cartoons walk away from. While the series rarely placed Danny and his friends in serious jeopardy, the stakes of his ghost battles were consequently higher. Those stakes reached their highest in the two-parter “The Ultimate Enemy,” which gave Danny a glimpse of a future where he devolved into a purely spectral being of evil after the death of his friends, teacher, and all his family.

It took time to build to that level of intensity. Danny Phantom’s first season grew in stages, Nickelodeon’s original order for six episodes growing and growing until it hit 20. The show premiered while the season was still in production, but even with the resultant gap in airdates, it found enough of an audience for Nickelodeon to order a second 20-episode season. Its ratings never reached the heights of a SpongeBob or Fairly Oddparents, but the audience it captured was passionate, and critics were generally positive. As the second season began airing, the show’s reputation continued to grow. “The Ultimate Enemy” was just one of three two-part “movies” of the second season, expanding the scope of the series and pushing the darker elements and serialization further. “The Ultimate Enemy” was also the inspiration for a Game Boy Advance video game, one of Danny Phantom’s relatively few merchandising tie-ins. By the end of the second season, Danny Phantom “was quickly becoming a hit,” trumpeted in Nick's PR as "the third ranked property on all kids' television." But it was in 2006, while the second season was airing that Hartman announced on his personal website (no longer available on the web) that the third season of Danny Phantom – an order of just 13 – would be the last.

It wasn’t the only Nicktoon given the axe around that time. The Fairly Oddparents was also cancelled (not for the first, or the last, time), as was The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron. Hartman claimed to receive over 20,000 e-mails concerning the end of Danny Phantom, and a small group of fans organized protests outside Nickelodeon’s New York offices. Alas for them, it was to no avail; not only was the show not revived, but the final season saw a scattered, sometimes unceremonious release over 2006 and 2007.

Little information about the reasons behind the cancellation was released at the time, and Danny Phantom being a cult show with a strong fanbase in the digital age, Internet rumors began to swirl. Google “why was Danny Phantom canceled” and you’ll find gossip about budget overruns and executive meddling. Feeding some of these rumors is the fact that, between Seasons 2 and 3, Hartman’s longtime partnership with writer Steve Marmel came to an end. Marmel had worked with Hartman since their days at Hanna-Barbara in the early 1990s, he was a prominent writer on The Fairly Oddparents, and he was the head writer and story editor for Danny Phantom in its first two seasons. His only credit on the third season is a "story by" for one episode, and he and Hartman have not worked together since. Season 3 of Danny Phantom was less serialized than its predecessors and showed less of the darker side of the series. It was less well-received than the others by some fans, and the perceived decline in quality was blamed on Marmel’s absence. Rumors of creative tensions began to swirl, despite Marmel and Hartman making no public statements on the subject.

If this seems like a lot of vague hearsay, that’s because it is. Many websites that discussed Danny Phantom and its cancellation back in the 2000s are no longer around, and tracking down even these fan rumors results in a lot of dead links and fourth-hand accounts. But Butch Hartman did comment on the show’s cancellation on his YouTube channel in 2018. He claims that Danny Phantom was a victim of Nickelodeon’s executive house cleaning. In 2006, Nickelodeon president Herb Scannell stepped down, to be replaced by Cyma Zarghami. In true Hollywood executive fashion, the new team at the head of the network undid many of their predecessor’s decisions, and that included ending several series that had been approved under old management – Danny Phantom included. (Hartman also claims that Nick decided to put their merchandising eggs in the Avatar basket before any such campaign for Danny could properly take off.)

Since its cancellation, Danny Phantom has largely been left alone by Nickelodeon. It quietly left the network long ago, consigned to the spinoff Nicktoons channel. It’s available to stream on Paramount Plus, but its appearance there (and on Hulu before) generated no groundswell of online excitement. The rallies outside Nick’s offices are long gone, but fans still agitate for a revival. Butch Hartman himself has been open about wanting to go back to do more with Danny and friends. Nickelodeon has revived a few of its older titles in recent years, from the CG Rugrats to a new version of All That. But for all the enthusiasm still among its cult audience, Danny Phantom doesn’t appear to be headed back into production any time soon.

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