Author Archive for Unpaid Guest

23
Jul
14

Debunking the Zombie Simpsons Apologists (Part 1)

By Calvin

One of the reasons I enjoy visiting Dead Homer Society at least once a week is reading the articulate breakdowns and critiques of latter-day Simpsons episodes, from the show’s desperate efforts to be relevant by bringing in celebrities and making clumsy pop culture references, to the poor and disjointed writing, lame new characters, odd character development, bad animation, and lack of actual, you know, jokes. As a longtime Simpsons fan who reveres its glory years, it was devastating to find myself joining the ranks of its fans-turned-critics and agreeing that it should have ended years ago.

Yet I’m intrigued by fans of Zombie Simpsons, who lack an equivalent website like DHS but pop up in nearly every online discussion to defend the show. Sure, it’s difficult to engage with people who dismiss your arguments with, “Well, I still like it,” but it’s gotten annoying to see them trot out the same arguments and half-hearted defenses of Zombie Simpsons that can easily be debunked.

For the record, I favor ending Zombie Simpsons with a proper sendoff, as the writers on Futurama were able to do when that show was canceled. I believe it’s ridiculous to keep defending a bad show with vigor that these “fans” would never give to any other show, as if Zombie Simpsons is more sacred than the Catholic Church or Prophet Muhammad.

Here are my responses to some of the most common (and silly) defenses of the show. In keeping with the theme of this website, I refer to latter-day Simpsons (post-season 9 episodes) as Zombie Simpsons.

Even at its worst, (Zombie) Simpsons is still better than most crap on television

I still hear this claim from the most devoted fans, even though they typically preface it with a caveat like, “I don’t rush home and watch it like I once did” or “I watch it On Demand when I have the time.” Can you imagine Simpsons fans saying this when the show was in its prime? “I didn’t have time to watch ‘Lisa’s Pony,’ but I recorded it and will see it later this week if I have the time.”

The problem with making this claim, especially in 2014, is that The Simpsons is no longer the best show on TV. Heck, it’s not even the best show on Sunday.

You’ve probably read those articles about how we’ve entered the golden age of television, when cable and broadcast networks are attracting the best and brightest writers, actors and directors, and TV shows are surpassing movies in the quality of their acting and writing. Famous Hollywood directors and actors are jumping on the bandwagon and forgoing movies in favor of television (and being rewarded for it).

On Sunday nights, Americans have the option of tuning in to a range of popular, critically acclaimed shows such as Game of Thrones, Mad Men, True Detective, Veep, The Walking Dead, Silicon Valley, Boardwalk Empire, Cosmos, True Blood, British imports like Sherlock and Downton Abbey, and many other shows I’m forgetting. Even the other shows on the Fox’s Sunday cartoon block like Bob’s Burgers and American Dad! are earning critical and fan acclaim. In contrast, I can hardly find an article about Zombie Simpsons’ latest ratings gimmick without a variant of the “It’s not as good as it used to be” line.

The next day, these shows become the hot topic of conversation with family, friends and co-workers. Yet I can’t remember the last time I discussed the latest Simpsons episode with coworkers and friends – which would have been inconceivable to me 15 years ago.

Perhaps if you live in a country with state-run television that relies on U.S. imports to fill the schedule, than Zombie Simpsons may still be better than 99 percent of everything else. Still, don’t most people watch everything online anyway?

Shut up, Comic Book Guy. The Simpsons owe you nothing. If anything, you owe them for all that free entertainment they gave you.

My, what a timely Simpsons reference dating all the way back to … 1997, in season eight. Could you not think of any line from season 20-something that delivers an equally clever jab?

Regarding your overall point, I agree that I owe The Simpsons a lot for the years of entertainment it provided to me. This is why, 20 years after my first viewing, I remain an outspoken fan of those classic seasons, and why I engage with fellow fans, including those of you who continue to convince me that its inferior seasons are somehow worthy. Heck, I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t care about it.

You can’t end The Simpsons. It’s a popular, critically acclaimed show, and an American institution! People would lose their jobs!

Folks, are you familiar with how television works? All in the Family, M.A.S.H., Seinfeld, Cheers, I Love Lucy and The Mary Tyler Moore Show were TV royalty in their heyday. Guess what happened to them?

TV shows get canceled all the time for any number of reasons. There are websites dedicated to informing viewers when their favorite shows are canceled. Zombie Simpsons is no different.

I know the disappointment of seeing a favorite show get canceled. Freaks and Geeks, Carnivale, The Critic, Rome, Boomtown, Arrested Development, and Futurama are favorite shows of mine that were axed by heartless network executives. (Note how two of those shows were created by Simpsons alumni.)

I’m frustrated when my favorite shows get the chop but I adjust, as do the people behind these shows. Cancelation is not a career death sentence. Producers, writers and actors go on to do other things. Matt Groening & Co. are big boys (and big girls) with clout in the industry; they’ll be fine and may go on to create other great shows.

As I stated above, I would like Fox to give Zombie Simpsons advanced notice to end the show so that the writers could give it a proper sendoff, just as the writers of Futurama were able to do. Subsidizing a show with diminishing ratings for the benefit of a few vocal fans is not how TV should work (unless you’re a Communist or something).

But if I still haven’t convinced you, let’s imagine the alternate world in which The Simpsons ended its run after Season 8. What could have happened?

  • The Simpsons cements its status as the greatest show of all time and is admired for ending at the height of its popularity, while subsequent criticism from critics and fans (like me) never happens
  • Matt Groening goes on to create Futurama and several other TV shows that earn critical and audience acclaim
  • A Simpsons movie comes out every few years
  • Simpsons writers, voice actors and crewmembers get jobs at other sitcoms and cartoon shows, and drive the overall quality of those programs up (it’s worked out for Brad Bird and Greg Daniels)
  • Mike Scully doesn’t become a hated figure among fans
  • The Simpsons still gets a lucrative syndication deal where two to four classic episodes are aired back to back, five days a week, on Fox or on one of those cable channels like TBS or Cartoon Network
  • We don’t get to see Homer take 50+ new jobs as an acrobat, hair stylist, Super Bowl choreographer, Mexican wrestler, paparazzo, and grunge musician
  • Awful episodes like “Saddlesore Galactica,” “That ‘90s Show,” “Strong Arms of the Ma,” “Donnie Fatso,” “Large Marge,” and the episode where Homer gets raped by a panda never get made

The horror, the horror!

[Ed Note: Part 2 coming tomorrow!]

21
Jul
14

The Day the Laughter Died

By Mike Zanna

There was a time when The Simpsons was the best show on TV. The show that currently calls itself “The Simpsons” has little resemblance. It’s not nearly as good. It’s not even good compared to the rest of the stuff on television. It’s like The Simpsons, but without everything that made The Simpsons so amazing. The show has become a hollow shell, a shadow of itself, a ghost of its former greatness. I’m sure there’s another supernatural metaphor I could use.

So what the hell happened? At some point, The Simpsons went off the air and was replaced by its evil twin, Zombie Simpsons. I’m not sure when this happened, but it was at least a decade ago, maybe even a decade and a half. I started wondering if I could pinpoint the exact moment that the change occurred. If I could find one episode that killed the show, what would it be? When exactly did The Simpsons jump the shark? I came up with an answer. Personally, I think The Simpsons died on February 13, 2000, with the death of Maude Flanders.

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Maude wasn’t the only one who died that day.

“Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” isn’t the worst episode ever, but it had the longest lasting negative effect on the series. Most bad episodes can be safely skipped or ignored. Even “The Principal and the Pauper” restores the status quo at the end of the episode. Whether you like the revelation about Principal Skinner or not, it doesn’t affect the episodes that aired afterwards. “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” was what TV Tropes would call a Wham Episode. Afterwards, the show would never be the same.

Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and after eleven years, I can see why the producers would want to shake things up. It’s just that this particular change was a bad idea that was poorly handled. The show had made some changes before, and many of them are lampshaded in this episode. For example, the Van Houtens had split up. Zombie Simpsons would later have them get remarried. Killing Maude Flanders was the first change the producers had made that was irreversible.

The Simpsons had never killed a recurring character before. Bleeding Gums Murphy had died back in Season 6, but he hadn’t been seen on the show in years, outside of the opening title sequence. He wasn’t played by one of the show’s regular voice actors, so the producers couldn’t use him without bringing in Ron Taylor or recasting the part. Maude Flanders was played by one of the regulars, Maggie Roswell, who had played many parts before leaving the show. She would later return, but Maude would not.

I suppose the producers could have resurrected Maude if they’d wanted to. They are the gods of the show’s universe, after all. They can do whatever they want. But there’s no way they could bring her back without destroying the show’s reality. Then again, this episode ran the week after “Saddlesore Galactica,” which might be the least realistic show ever. The producers could have pressed the reset button, but they didn’t. They made their choice and stuck with it.

Maude Flanders wasn’t the most interesting person in the world, but one of the things that made The Simpsons great was its large cast of diverse characters. It had an entire universe full of people who seemed like real people, but funnier. She had played a key role in great episodes like “Bart of Darkness” and “Home Sweet Home-Diddily-Dum-Doodily.” And she lived next door to the title characters. But Maude Flanders wasn’t the only character who died in “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily.” The episode also basically killed the character of her husband, Ned.

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He’s just not Ned.

Before he became a conservative Christian stereotype, Ned Flanders was just a nice guy with a perpetually cheerful attitude. Even when times were tough, he at least tried to keep a smile on his face. See “When Flanders Failed,” “Homer Loves Flanders,” or “Hurricane Neddy.” His religion was a part of his character, sure, but I think his most prominent character trait was his positive attitude. After this episode, he couldn’t be that guy any more. There would always be some sadness in him. There would have to be.

I guess the producers thought making Ned single again could lead to some interesting stories, but it really didn’t. And I think Ned dating other women so soon after losing Maude was kind of out of character. I don’t think he would be so quick to look for a replacement. There could have been some humor in Ned trying to date again, but there really wasn’t. There were a couple of episodes, two with that Christian singer girl whose name I can’t remember, and one with Marisa Tomei. And then there’s that strange Zombie Simpsons plot line where he dated Mrs. Krabappel and they later got married. Now she’s gone too, and he’s a widower twice over. That’s just depressing.

Then there’s effect that losing their mother would have on the kids, Rod and Todd. “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” basically skips over their reaction, and I guess it would have to. It’s kind of hard to make that funny. But I think it shows that the producers of this episode did a really half-assed job. They wanted to kill a character, but they didn’t want to deal with the consequences that it would have. The characters on The Simpsons were characters. They seemed like real people. On Zombie Simpsons they’re just props for delivering bad jokes. It’s kind of hard to feel sympathy for them, because they don’t act like people would.

Then there’s the way “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” changed the character of Homer. He had become more of a jerk during Mike Scully’s tenure as show runner, and this episode shows him at his absolute low point. He actually causes another person’s death. He is responsible for the death of someone that he has known for years. A real person would feel at least a little guilty about that.

Okay, it wasn’t actually his fault. It was an accident. Maude Flanders’ death was like something from an Itchy and Scratchy episode. Slapstick violence isn’t really funny if we’re supposed to care about the people who get hurt. I guess you could blame the girls who shot the t-shirts that knocked Maude off the bleachers. This kind of begs the question of why they were at the funeral. But really, the girls only shot the t-shirts because of Homer. He provoked them, so he has to take some responsibility for the fact that a person died. It’s the first time his antics caused another person’s death.

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This is a pretty crappy way to send off a longtime character.

I know some people might mention Frank Grimes, but that’s a different situation. Homer doesn’t actively antagonize his co-worker. He tries to be a nice guy to him. He tries to make friends, but it doesn’t work. Frank ends up going crazy out of jealousy and basically kills himself, by doing something too stupid even for Homer. And that episode was basically The Simpsons criticizing itself. It was almost a self-parody.

Homer wasn’t a jerk in “Homer’s Enemy,” but he really was in “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily.” There’s a line where he says he parked in the ambulance zone preventing any possible resuscitation. What the hell? First off, that doesn’t even make sense. I don’t think you can resuscitate someone with a broken neck. But second, it just makes Homer seem more like a callous bastard. It also makes the producers look like jerks too. It’s possible to be tasteless and funny, but I think this episode is just the first one.

I think my least favorite joke is when Bart changes the cake from “Rest in Peace” to “Rest in Pee.” This is too juvenile for even a 10-year-old. The fact that the producers think this is funny is just really telling, and the fact that they think Bart would find it funny shows how little they get his character. Then there’s the scene with Rod and Todd playing “Billy Graham’s Bible Blaster,” which is actually a little funny. But I don’t think the kids would just be playing video games after their mom died. Maybe they’d be happy because they think she’s in heaven. I don’t know.

Death is a hard subject to make funny, but The Simpsons were able to do it. Take “’Round Springfield” for example. This website has already done a Compare and Contrast with that episode, so I don’t want to be redundant. It’s just amazing how much better that episode is than “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily.” “’Round Springfield” managed to be funny while still taking the death seriously. It managed to be sad but also had some great jokes. “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” doesn’t do either of those things. The death is treated like a joke and the attempts at humor are just sad.

“Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” was a terrible episode, but it was more than that. When Maude Flanders died, a part of the show died. The characters stopped behaving like actual people, so it became really hard to care about them. The show had lost its sense of humor, and with this episode it lost its heart. Yes, it’s kind of arbitrary, but I think that’s the episode where the show crossed the line from The Simpsons to Zombie Simpsons. It was the day the series died.

12
Jun
14

Zombie Simpsons Should Go and Die With a Heated Coathanger In Its Bum

By Connor Dunphy 

Yo, it’s Dead Homer Society. You know how it is, you ain’t here if you don’t. Let’s get straight to it, because I got something to rant about.

Charlie and his accomplices have done a real fine job of utterly deconstructing Zombie Simpsons. And it deserves every single bit of it, because watching it is like seeing your beloved Grandma contract dementia and then proceed to start being really mean and horrible for no reason. Everything they’ve mentioned: the dialogue, the storylines, the characterization, lack thereof of all three, it’s all grade A, 100%, farmer’s dream bullshit. Today, though, I’m here to properly shed some light on something else. I’m gonna scoop some of that bullshit from a corner of the bottom of the barrel which I don’t think has been properly examined: the animation of Zombie Simpsons.

Ever since I started thinking about how this show has declined other than “eh it’s not as good, I guess”, since I read the very first word of this site’s manifesto, what’s pissed me off the most, got me to pause whatever platform I’m watching the show from, made me draw characters on my toilet paper to properly represent where their shenanigans can go, was the way the animation has gone.

Think back to all the classic Simpsons episodes that you know. You got your “You are Lisa Simpson”s, your “Do it for her”s, just all the amazing seasons you see people on Tumblr, Twitter, anything quote. They had amazing animation. Everything felt human. If I could refer to a specific example, it would be the scene where you can pinpoint the exact moment Ralph’s heart breaks in half.

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You can sense, just from how this specific frame is drawn, what the characters are feeling. Lisa feels regret, sorrow, sadness of some kind, and Bart, in his amused indifference, is rubbing it in. You don’t need to watch the entire episode to sense that. You don’t need overwhelming [SOMBER TRUMPET NOISES] to know that they’re feeling that, because you know who the characters are, what their personalities are. If someone came up to me and said “hey dude, I never seen the Simpsons can you show me a quick sum up of the characters”, then I’d take pity on them for being denied a right as entitled to him/her as freedom of speech, and show them this picture. Everyone knows the barest thing about the Simpsons. Hell, I used to listen to this square-ass radio station where middle-aged people would get asked “who is the mischievous person in the Simpsons” and they’d just instantly say Bart.

You look at this picture, and you have the 0.003333333% of Simpsons knowledge that everyone who’s never watched it does, you know what’s going on. This is the beauty of old Simpsons animation, it fit the characters and the storyline. A truly great producer has their music fit the vocalist, whether it’s a rapper or a folk singer, they use the right sounds, samples and all of that to make sure that it all comes together. They may have created them, but the people behind the Simpsons managed to perfectly encapsulate the essence of the characters in every frame.

Sadly, this is the end of the good. The good that makes the bad just a little bit badder. Now we move onto my grievances. The Simpsons died in an unspecified date between 1997 – 1998, and it happened too slowly for us to properly evacuate the premises before being revealed to it’s rotting form, so we could only stiffen our bodies in shock as it began spewing acidic vomit piles such as “Saddlesore Galctica”, “The Principal and the Pauper”, and “Lisa the Skeptic”, just awful episode after awful episode as we stood in front of this now monstrous, decaying creature, our forearms eroding off of our bodies from the acid, nervously thinking “It’s only a little burn, it’s still good! It’s still good!”. Speaking of “Saddlesore Galactica”, I might as well use it as Exhibit A.

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Does anyone care how this is drawn?
Zombie Simpsons animators: No!

I want you to look real closely at the above picture. If possible, line it up with the previous picture that I so affectionately praised. Remember the whole thing about being able to see what the characters are feeling, having some rudimentary look into their motivations? If you can honestly look at that picture, especially in comparison to the previous one, and see that, then I will personally come over to your house and let you make me watch Season 21, Clockwork Orange style.

Anyways, my point is that you can’t. You can’t see what the characters are feeling, you can’t have an idea of what the story is. Probably the only thing that I can say about this type of animation is that it’s consistent with everything else in the episode.

Just glance at everyone in the picture. Homer has the only actual expression, and even without context it’s a disgustingly-OOC face that spits on the personality built up for him in the past 7 seasons. Everyone else, from the formerly three dimensional main characters, to the background characters, all have blank looks like they just got lobotomized. Chief Wiggum is redundantly inserted into the scene, sans purpose. The three people beside him look like that puppet Krusty brought in to compete with Gabbo (you know, the one whose mouth fell off and terrified all in attendance). The three people in the foreground have no eyes. [Ed note: Eww.]  All of them look like they’re in stasis, waiting to be used, to be actually in some semblance of a sensical story. They aren’t, of course, because this episode prioritizes edgy horses and here today, gone tomorrow jokes about Bill Clinton, but I digress.

It really baffles me how the animators, the writers, the network, could look at frames like this, where basically the minimum amount of effort has been put in, and think “Yes, this is as good as the previous episodes, let’s release it.”. What used to be relatable human beings became a bunch of zombies with thumbs stuck up their collective ass, existing only to provide the most masturbatory and dismissive of jokes.

Now, it’s all well and good to curbstomp “Saddlesore Galactica”, and I’d like to do it a bit more (maybe later, if you’re up for it), but that is not the extent of my problems with this style. Let’s take it 10 years forward. Zombie Simpsons has now achieved Lisa Trevor status, and is shuffling around the Earth, surviving all attacks against it whilst desperately calling out for a remnant of it’s past. Homer’s a high-pitched noise machine now used in Guantanamo Bay interrogation sessions, everybody says how they feel a lot, Bob’s your uncle.

By this time, the Simpsons had converted to HD animation. I wanna precede the following fancy version of saying “Fuck this show” by noting that the problem does not lie with the use of HD. Basically everything other than Zombie Simpsons has shown us that HD can be used to create beautiful works of art. It lies with the fact that the format was not only misused, but also had a hand in revealing just how homogenized the show had and has became.

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You probably saw this in the most recent Compare and Contrast. This is an example of how crap the Simpsons has become. Sterile as the reconditioning dystopia led by Flanders, as awkward-looking as a guy wearing a fedora with a trollface T-shirt, I believe the layman’s term is “awful”.

As you can see from inside the car, the blank expression thing has returned, albeit evolved. Now, the only expressions a character can have when they’re not explicitly the focus of whatever half-baked storyline they’re putting out is either the aforementioned “Stare into the distance blankly, often with mouth slightly agape” or the brand-new “Stare into the distance blankly EXCEPT NOW YOU SMILE WOAAAAH”. Homer looks like he’s in a goddamned Mr. Men book, like he’s about to tell Mr. Greedy that he’s greedy. Because of that, all this is, sans context, is just Homer and some guy driving around with a bunch of weirdly-shaded gunpowder containers. This could be some one-off joke; it could be a pivotal point in the storyline; it could be it’s climax; shit, it could probably pass for those time-consuming couch gags. I wouldn’t put it past them.

Everything is technically sound, but what it misses is the actual substance behind it. A corporate executive who basically is the embodiment of everything Frank Zappa despises can perfectly replicate something, whether it be music, a book, a video game, anything, but it will always lack the appeal that brought it to their attention in the first place. The emotion, the meaning, the life behind it, they will never be able to replicate that. Simpsons gave us emotional, inspiring moments and the criticisms of a system we all hated, Zombie Simpsons gives us coldly-animated, poorly composed frames and a yellow hand holding a can of Axe body spray.

This show was once a living legend. If it had died in 1997, we would be celebrating it like Tupac. Now that it’s still alive, the entirety of it’s viewership is slowly beginning to sour on it like Jay-Z. All of this animation only contributes to the decline in quality of Zombie Simpsons, and it just starts to get sad. I’ve found there are two stages to this life that you, I, Charlie, and others live. First is the catharsis of criticizing this cascade of crud, then comes the disappointment you have in the show, the show you grew up on, the show that taught you about some parts of the world by making you laugh and making you feel. The show that you no longer have. Believe me, man, I wouldn’t be so expansive in my rage if I thought the Simpsons was okay.

That’s about it. I don’t have anything to plug, I’m just a young Scottish boy on the grind. Shoutout to Charlie for giving me the opportunity to write this. One love. [Ed Note: Aww.]

05
Dec
13

Bart vs. the Space Mutants

By Conor Lastowka

Hey folks, Conor Lastowka here. Long time reader/DHS evangelist. I’m writing today because I just published my first novel. It’s called Gone Whalin’ it’s about a college student who starts waking up on a whaling ship in the 1800s every other day, and is full of pirates, dogs wearing sunglasses, rum guzzling, ukuleles, sea shanties, and stadium seating couches. It’s guaranteed to be the funniest, least accurate novel about whaling you’ve ever read. You can read the first three chapters and watch the trailer at http://gonewhalin.com and then buy it on Amazon (Just 2.99 on Kindle!) http://amzn.to/1aSFDXd

Anyways, after I published the book, I realized I had to find a way to get people to read it. I debated several tactics: an all out media blitz, Google AdWords, Today Show appearances, sending copies to famed literary agents, shamelessly recording attempts at viral videos…But they all seemed like a lot of effort, so I decided to reach out to my favorite Simpsons blog and see if they’d let me write something about Bart Vs The Space Mutants. Charlie said yes, so here I am! Last Friday, November 15th, I sat down at 6:27 to play Bart Vs. The Space Mutants. [Ed note: It took me two weeks to post this because lazy.]  I loved this game when I was nine, but then again I also would have loved an instant read thermometer if the Simpsons faces had been slapped on it. I kept a running diary of the experience, and I hope you enjoy it!

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6:27 To start, the family is sitting on the couch watching TV. Maggie’s dress is bright green. Its usual shade of blue is present in Homer’s pants and Marge’s hair, directly next to her on the couch. So right away we’re off to a great start.

6:28 The named alien who is chuckling about earth’s demise is “Zorbo” who never really went on to do much in the Simpsons universe. He’s cracking a beer with Herman somewhere.

6:29 And we’re off! The goal is to collect all the purple objects. Right away, we see a trashcan that we can jump on to get an extra life. A simple enough task, yet it reveals the game’s horribly flawed mechanics. To cover extra ground with a running jump, you have to jump first, since it is also the run button, then hold it to run then press it again. BVTSM took something that was pretty much universal in NES games and managed to needlessly complicate it. It’s like if Ford released one specific type of car that switched the clutch and the brakes for no apparent reason, or if Google decided to completely overhaul or get rid of a perfectly good product that everyone was happy with to for no reaso—Oh…

6:31 The theater showing Space Mutant 4 has showtimes at 2 and 4. I remember that if you wait until the game timer hits these times, a guy in purple leaves the theater and you can spraypaint him. As there are plenty of other purple objects easily available throughout the level, there is no reason to do this unless you are insane.

6:32 Prank calling Moe’s. Asking for Mr. I.M. Adope. Essentially this is an early version of a video game cut scene, and it accurately predicted all the aspects about that convention, namely that it’s making me furiously mash the button to try to skip it. It’s odd to think that one of those HA’s coming out of the wall is probably Homer inside the bar. I know Charlie has thoroughly disproved the “Series shifted to be about Homer” myth, but at least in these early days, the merch and video games actually did seem to be Bart by the barrelful. Not sure if nine year old me would have been as into this game if it had starred Homer.

6:34 The first of many opportunities to buy items that have no use. I may have wasted a coin on the key as an nine year old, but you won’t fool me now, proprietor of Tool World!

6:36 Just realized Bart’s shoes and shorts are purple. He’s pretty much just waving them in the alien’s faces. That’s a good way to get probed.

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6:38 Blasted a bird off the Jebediah Springfield statue’s shoulder, and he compliments you. I can’t be the only one who was very confused and a little frightened at that moment in The Telltale Head when Homer talks to Bart about how he “pulled a few boners” back in his day, right?

6:39 Pausing to write these is complicated by another strange interface decision. Select (possibly used most in this game than any other NES game?) picks an item, and start uses it. So you have to navigate to ‘pause’ with select, then start to pause. Fortunately, the emulator on my Wii uses the “home” button as a pause as well, and it’s in a fairly natural spot to reach for as I type these. You can wipe your brow and issue a sigh of relief if you were at all concerned that I was expending a ton of effort every time I paused.

6:40 I have already passed a cop who is not Wiggum, dogs who are not SLH, and the mysterious man on the street who looks like nobody who has ever appeared in a Simpsons episode ever. Fortunately, I just fired a rocket into the sign of “Barney’s Bowlarama”, which is another great mystery of the Simpsons universe. What the hell was Barney’s uncle thinking, naming his bowling alley after his slovenly nephew? I could understand if it was a tribute to a nephew who died young, but Barney was even employed at the alley for a while. Seems like a high tribute for a mere pin monkey who he fired at the first excuse.

6:42 Just unlocked Maggie’s assistance by jumping on alien’s heads. Three goals to go, haven’t taken a hit, five lives. It gets harder.

6:43 Great joy as I remember you can shoot a rocket into the E in Kwik E Mart, then utter despair as it falls to the ground a half inch in front of me and disappears.This must have been how Hank felt in the desert when he thought he had Walt before the Nazis showed up.

6:44 “Goal achieved, proceed to the right.” The five sweetest words to a BVTSM player. Aside from perhaps “You can stop playing now”

6:46 Defeated Nelson without taking a hit. Even used one of Maggie’s bowling balls. I felt something of a measure of pride in this accomplishment until I remembered that I am 32 years old and playing Bart Vs The Space Mutants alone on a Friday night. After a deep sigh, now it’s on to Springfield Mall and the new goal: hats

6:47 The very first store in the mall? The mysteriously named “Pork Chop Shop”. No idea what the hell that means or if it’s even a joke but it’s still better than “Mapple.” In addition to the generic men from the first level we now have a lady who I believe is meant to resemble Patty/Selma. (Things I typed and then deleted to describe this woman: “slightly sexier version of”, “disturbingly attractive version of”, “way hotter”. I’m not proud, but I stand by it.)

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6:50 Took my first hit from a marshmallow that I thought was going to bounce over me. Must have been distracted by those sexy Patty/Selmas.

6:51 Oh god. The wet cement area. The BVTSM version of the turbo bikes in Battletoads. This could be the end right here.

6:52 Have died three times, including on the last spinning lollipop. Urge to kill rising.

6:53 And just like that, I’ve died, the aliens are praising a deity named Gleeba (Naming credit: George Lucas?) and I’m back to the start of the game. Let’s take a moment to think about how lucky we are in our modern video game cheating that save states exist. I did not use one of course, so it’s back to the start for me.

6:55 Prank call to Moe for Oliver Clothesoff. It’s even less funny this time around. Also remembered that there’s an extra life in the bushes beneath the clothesline but jumped the wrong way and missed it. It may be time for a beer.

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6:57 Bought the key from Tool World this time. You wanna get nuts??? Let’s get nuts!!!

6:59 I thought after disparaging the key, it might actually let you into the locked candy or pet store. Nope. It’s purely there to frustrate, in a game that absolutely needs no further built in frustrations.

7:02 Got the Kwik E Mart “E” extra life this time around. Of course I died a few minutes back and didn’t tell you about it so it’s a wash. Like gambling, the loss outweighs any sense of gain. On the other hand, you can tell they put a bit of effort into the music in this game. It’s not a bad version of the main theme song.

7:03 Noticed for the first time ever that the Springfield Retirement Castle is mistakenly presented as the Retirement Home and now I’m starting to wonder if anyone who was involved in this game that was hurriedly released to cash in on a media sensation as its popularity crested even cared at all. (NOTE: After the fact I watched the Thanksgiving episode and the sign actually says “Home” on it. My comic book guy-esque snark backfires horribly.)

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7:04 Didn’t have it earlier, but now have the “Sound Test” option in the select menu. There was nothing worse than when Nintendo Power would devote precious space in its monthly Secret Codes column to telling you how to access the fucking sound test in a game. On the flip side, I’ve managed to turn off the music, the one part of the game I’ve praised so far. (Other than hotter Patty/Selma.)

7:06 Beat Nelson without him throwing a cherry bomb. Back to the mall. But first a beer. No Duff on tap, so a Mosaic IPA from the closest brewery to my house, (which in San Diego pretty much means in my living room) Thorn Street Brewing. What a shameless plug…And speaking of shameless plugs, don’t forget about my novel, Gone Whalin’. It’s really funny and just $2.99 on Kindle! http://amzn.to/1aSFDXd

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7:08 Alright Pork Chop Shop. You still baffle me, but it’s time for round two. 7 lives this time, should be all set for the goddamn cement pit.

7:09 And then bafflingly, I make it across on try one. It’s like that Far Side cartoon about the cafeteria in hell. There’s a scorpion in your sandwich, but it’s not there every day. That’s what makes it hell.

7:10 Have now played this game for more time than I’ve spent watching Zombie Simpsons episodes from the past two seasons. (I will always check out the Halloween shows.) I’d like to point out that so far in this diary I’ve used the words hell, goddamn, fucking, frustration, insane, probed, less funny, & Nazis to describe playing BVTSM and I’ll still take it over a season 25 episode.

7:11 Defeated the miniboss after dying once. This must have been one of the first games to feature minibosses, no? This was a guy outside a store called Confections by Clyde, who is throwing what I just realized must be hard candies at you. It’s a good sign that subtleties from this game took 23 years to sink in. That’s the true sign of a job well done by the designers.

7:12 I know you can jump on some of these trashcans and get extras lives and stuff. Not sure which they are so I’ve been trying it on everyone. So far I’ve got a coin.

7:13 Just died jumping on a trashcan that kept shooting out coins but then a guy walked underneath me who wasn’t a space mutant and you lose a hit if you do that. I will stop trying to be cute.

7:15 The big boots that drop to the ground and shake the earth are unique in video games in that they don’t cause you to lose control of the character momentarily. Is that interesting? Would I have to ask if it was? Also, I deleted a “suck it Asheville” from the comment about beer in San Diego a few minutes ago. It seemed needlessly provocative. We can argue about what constitutes a great ‘beer city’ all we want, but the west coast indisputably has better beer than the East or the South. Unprovoked inflammatory statements! Now that’s interesting!

7:16 Moonwalking shoes cruise past. If you can do the Bart, you’re bad like Michael Jackson.

7:18 The second mini boss, a guy in a giant (Kuribo’s?) shoe outside a store called The Really Big Shoe, also does not stun you when he shakes the ground. Also, I just got that store name joke. Because what third graders wanted in their video games in 1991 was references to Ed Sullivan. One more floor, eight goals, and two letters of MARGE to go.

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7:19 First store on the third floor is Lap Top Shop. I guess I’m surprised they had laptops when this came out. And what maniac decreed every store in the mall would have a 52% sale?? It seems needlessly taxing on retail staff, not to mention customers’ mental math.

7:22 Goal achieved, proceed to the right. Also, if faced with a massive alien invasion, why wouldn’t Bart keep these X-ray specs on at all times? It doesn’t seem like there’s much of a downside, and the upside is the difference between life and death.

7:23 My god they put in another cement obstacle…

7:24 Died once on the cement, due to the previously unknown-by-me properties of floating magic wands to behave like a slippery ice surface in a Mario game.

7:25 On to boss two, the Babysitter Bandit. It’s kind of surprising that the references in the game are ultra episode-specific, Jebidiah’s head, Babysitter bandit. In a time when reruns were pretty rare and DVDs non existant, it banked a lot on you having seen them before the game. But everyone I knew had, thus proving the power of the non-zombie Simpsons.

7:28 Level three here we come. Krustyland and balloons. I have four lives and have been playing for an hour. I could easily be back to level one in five minutes. How the hell did we enjoy playing games on this system? I still refuse to believe anyone has ever actually beat The Adventure of Link. Speaking of save states, I apparently last played this game on Friday, January 29th. I have states saved in the last level, which I have never beaten. I’m pretty sure I saved all the way through this level in order to get there. This isn’t going to be pretty.

7:30 On the plus side, there are insanely difficult games of chance that you still have to avoid enemies as you play. I won the first one, where you have to hit three targets in a row with a baseball, made all the more difficult by the weird jump timing and sudden perspective change. Next is roulette. I pick 6.

7:31 It was 8. “Fun.”

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7:32 The shooting gallery is probably the best and least frustrating of these games, but I still got hit by a mutant while playing it which is such utter bullshit. At least at a real carnival the worst thing that could happen is a carnie—Actually I don’t want to complete that sentence.

7:34 I have obtained a slingshot, climbed a ladder, then jumped off a diving board, fell four screens, and rung a bell. Then I sunk a jester in a dunk booth. Say what you will, this game did some weird, original things. It mixes mini games with sort of RPG/Sierra game ‘find an item and use it’ type of quests. It’s still infuriating and unfair, but at least it wasn’t The Adventures of Dino Riki.

7:37 First thing in the fun house is a door logic puzzle that you have thirty seconds to solve and I don’t think I could solve if I had all night. Again, probably still better than interacting with actual carnies. Less likely to contract a weird form of Hepatitis with a letter from the second half of the alphabet.

7:40 The cement pit of this level is a pipe organ that blows air to suspend Bart. It’s very frustrating, but I made it across the first two times flawlessly, only to die cheaply on the other side. Now I’m on the fourth time and hoping this isn’t the end. Three lives left.

7:42 More cool stuff, going up into a giant Krusty head. Which of course ends with a platform giving out beneath you in a manner that no other platform in the game had done so far. Got an extra life, so still at three.

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7:43 Out of the fun house. These clown type creeps that do somersaults may actually be worse than carnies. I think one of them just leered at a picture of my wife from the TV.

7:44 Two goals to go. Unfortunately, also how many lives I have left. I don’t even remember who the boss of this level is. Obviously, I didn’t get here much as a kid.

7:46 Last life, and there’s a ferris wheel that you have to jump on that is turning over a giant pit. I don’t see this ending well.

7:47 Nope, died on first attempt.

That is the end of my time with Bart Vs. The Space Mutants for now, and the foreseeable future, praise be to Gleeba. A powerfully nostalgic, at times very frustrating journey. Next time I’m using Game Genie. Thanks for letting me convey my hastily jotted down thoughts to you, and thanks to Charlie for running such an awesome site. I’d love to hear your own experiences with the game in the comments. Let me leave you with one last plug for Gone Whalin’: http://amzn.to/1aSFDXd

14
Aug
12

Mourning the Loss of Mourning

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By Philip J Reed

I love intelligent criticism.  As a writer, I’d be nowhere without it.  It’s important to identify flaws in the things we love — or in the things that, with some substantial revision, we might come to love — but anybody can do that.  What’s comparatively more rare is insight. It takes very little effort to point at the things we dislike and say, "Yeah…that sucked."  It takes a lot more effort — and perhaps some amount of jilted affection — to devote four posts to every new episode for the sole purpose of figuring out why those things sucked. That’s what drew me to Dead Homer Society, and that’s what keeps me here.

But what of my own dissatisfaction with the show?  To be fair, I could disagree with everything Mr. Sweatpants & Friends write here, and still come away from their articles enlightened.  In fact, I do often disagree with their final assessments of certain things…but that doesn’t mean I can’t find some value in their discussions.  That’s the mark of intelligent writing; agreement isn’t the endgame at Dead Homer Society.  Consideration is.  And, unfortunately, consideration isn’t the kind of thing that does modern-day Simpsons any favors.

My own concerns with the show honestly have very little to do with the state of the comedy.  Yes, I’ll unquestionably concede that I’m lucky to get one or two good laughs out of an episode today…but, as strange as it might sound to admit this, I’m okay with that.  Since season 9 or so, I’ve been looking elsewhere for my weekly dose of great jokes…and I’ve found them without a problem.  South Park, Futurama, King of the Hill, The Venture Bros., American Dad, Archer, Bob’s Burgers…and those are just the cartoons.  There’s no shortage of great animated comedies right now, and there hasn’t been for years.  It’s certainly sad that I can no longer number The Simpsons among them, but the torch has been passed so many times now that I think it’s almost foolish to look back.  The Simpsons isn’t a fond memory of yesterday…it’s a memory of yesterday’s yesterday’s yesterday.  It’s gone.  And, what’s more, it’s been gone longer than it was actually here.  It brought a lot of laughter in its time but, frankly speaking, we can find that elsewhere now.

However there is one loss — one truly tragic loss — that died with The Simpsons so many years ago, and for which we still haven’t found a suitable replacement.  That loss is heart.

While I miss the sharp, subversive satire of the show’s first decade or so on the air, we can now find that elsewhere.  What we can’t find — at least not as easily, or as frequently — are the cartoons that move us.

I grew up watching The Simpsons.  I was eight years old when it premiered, and I had seen the Tracy Ullman shorts before that.  My family made a big deal of The Simpsons Christmas Special, and I’m not sure any of us knew that it was going to be a regular show after that.  That debut felt — and still feels — like an event.  I remember even now the rough animation, which only served to cement the feeling that we were being thrust into a different world.  It was a world that looked like nothing we’d ever seen before.  It was new, it was exciting, and it was a place we wanted to revisit time and again.

It was funny — as overdone as Homer injuring himself is today, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard at it as I did when he struck his head emerging from Santa’s workshop — but it also had heart.  Not the TGIF-flavored heart my younger TV-watching self was used to…but real, honest, genuine heart.  The heart you find in a family full of imperfections.  The heart you find among social desolation.  That heart that comes when Christmas is here and everybody else seems to be having a far better time than you are.    The heart you find in the distance between perception and reality.  The heart you find in the desire to not only support your family, but to elevate them…and the difficulty or impossibility of actually doing so.  It was a naturally American sort of heart.

I don’t remember if I cried during Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire. I probably didn’t, however sweetly sour it may have been, but as I grew up and the show grew up alongside me, there were episodes that downright decimated me emotionally…and they always did so with honesty.  They didn’t yank at your heartstrings…they simply broke your heart from afar.

Moaning Lisa, for instance, is still — as far as I’m concerned — one of the most raw, brutally frank explorations of depression that we’ve ever seen on network television.  It’s right up there with A Charlie Brown Christmas in terms of the unforgettable quality with which it delves into unexplained — and inexplicable — childhood melancholia. It’s something I dealt with when I was younger, and it’s something I’ve dealt with as an adult.  It’s the familiar feeling that you don’t fit in, yes, but it’s deeper than that:  it’s the feeling that you can’t, and will never, fit in…that there’s something wrong with you for not fitting in.  Lisa’s depression isn’t just sad…it’s moving. She’s a young girl with more to offer than anybody around her realizes, and yet all she feels is broken and alone.

Eventually, like Charlie Brown before her, she learns to accept it. She finds something into which she can channel her feelings, and that helps her to regulate them, and to cope with them in a more healthy way.  It’s the perfect predecessor to the equally classic Lisa’s Substitute, whose simple "You are Lisa Simpson" moral remains one of the most heartbreakingly perfect moments in anything I’ve seen on television.

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For The Simpsons — which was endlessly screamed about in the media as being anti-American, anti-religious and pretty much anti-everything we should stand for as a people — to devote such time and attention to things as simple as a little girl feeling sad…well, that was the real subversion.  This big, bad, society-destroying cartoon show was perfectly content to spend its time in the jazzy blue company of a little girl who doesn’t fit in.  There’s no greater subversion of expectations than that.

So compare this to Lisa Goes Gaga, the finale from this past season, or The D’oh-cial Network.  Lisa’s feelings of lonesome frustration used to be treated seriously.  They used to mean something…though you’d never know it from watching more recent explorations of that same theme.  Lisa still feels like an outcast, but now that’s a catalyst for outrageous plots and insultingly simple solutions. Compare the multi-car pileup nonsense of The D’oh-cial Network to Lisa feeling too depressed to participate in a game of dodgeball.  There’s no comparison…and yet they’re both, ostensibly, triggered by the same feelings in that episode’s protagonist.  Compare Mr. Bergstrom, who emphatically does not make everything better but simply serves as a fresh and intelligent perspective through which Lisa can view herself anew, to Lady Gaga, who chugs in on a magic rainbow train or something and telepathically saves the day.  It sounds silly, but the latter does actually make some attempt at heart…it’s just so far removed from the show that it used to be that it can’t recognize what it’s looking for.

It’s easy to chart the decline of the show just by looking at episodes like this, episodes with themes that worked so well in the past that now are being trotted out not only to diminishing returns, but to retroactively damaging returns.  Consider the flashback episode, which was first used in season two’s sweet The Way We Was.  That episode refused to wallow in sentimentality, and yet it ends up explaining exactly why Marge is with Homer, and why he — contrary to anything else we might have seen by that point — deserved her.  It was sweet, without being sentimental.  It was a flawed beginning to a flawed relationship, and it was easy to both pity and relate.  It was, in a word, perfect.

That was by no means the last of the great flashback episodes, but opinion is bound to differ on just when they became unnecessary.  I will say, however, that the ones that do succeed, succeed because they found the right way to blend the comedy with a lot of heart.  Comedy isn’t a reason to send us on a flashback — after all, there’s nothing you can’t show us in present day for a laugh — but it is a way to explore the heart beneath the characters…to see them in younger, more idealistic times, before they became the beaten and despondent individuals we know today.  Contrast this with That 90s Show, which exists as a flashback episode simply to make dial-up modem jokes and try to convince us that Homer invented grunge.  It’s difficult to believe in the face of pointless self-indulgence like this that the show used to be capable of such effortlessly gorgeous moments as "DO IT FOR HER."

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For a single character to follow along the downward spiral, from emotional triumphs to insulting mediocrity, take a look at what they did with Homer’s mother, Mona Simpson.  Her first major appearance, Mother Simpson, easily ranks among the all-time upper tier of Simpsons episodes.  It was funny, absolutely, but I’d be willing to wager that when asked to identify one single moment from that episode, most people would point to Homer, silent, sitting atop his car and staring into the night sky.  It’s a moment of profound restraint — nothing happens at all.  Everything is internal, and it’s unforgettably moving.  We don’t know what’s going through Homer’s mind in that moment, but we can certainly guess.  That moment is his.  We’re allowed to witness it, but we’re not allowed to invade it.  We’re kept at a distance for a reason…and so is Homer.  It’s beautiful.

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And yet, we weren’t allowed to remember the character that way. Homer, and we, were robbed of that perfect conclusion by bringing Mona back periodically due to writers not having any other ideas.  She came back once to reveal Homer’s middle name, and that was okay…though certainly unnecessary.  After that, however, we were beyond unnecessary, as Mona reappeared just to die and give Homer an excuse to act like James Bond while scattering her ashes, and then again as a ghost to haunt Homer and make him wet the bed, or something.  It’s getting harder and harder to remember Homer on that car, sadly reflecting upon the darkness around him, and all too easy to remember him as a mishmash of bland slapstick and unearned emotion.

That’s what disappoints me about the state of the show.  It’s not that the comedy isn’t as sharp.  It’s not that the satire is dull and toothless.  It’s not even that the voice actors don’t seem to care anymore.  It’s that the show, once so capable of reaching profound emotional plateaus, would now rather have Homer pissing himself and Lisa singing backup at a Lady Gaga concert.

It doesn’t mean anything anymore.  For all the talk of the boundaries pushed by The Simpsons in its early years, I truly believe the most impressive boundary it toppled was emotional.  Anyone who didn’t tear up at One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Bluefish, Bart’s Dog Gets an F, or I Love Lisa had something seriously wrong with them.  Now anyone who does tear up does so solely in mourning for the show long gone — the show that announced to the world that cartoons could be as affecting and insightful as anything else on television, perhaps even moreso…and then spent fifteen or more years proving itself wrong.

03
Jul
12

“Our Mickey Mouse Property” – The Moment a Fox Exec Told Me The Simpsons Were Doomed

By Bobak

When I was in undergrad in Los Angeles, I took classes in film/television at both my school (USC) and extension courses on the industry at UCLA.  (I’m now a lawyer in an unrelated field, so a lot of good that did.)  One of the UCLA courses I took was on marketing and always had a round table of execs from all the major Hollywood players, many from Fox which was just down the way in Century City.  A lot of times the execs would come in gushing about their latest productions–I remember the Disney people were all about Toy Story 2 and some really high up Fox exec was convinced Anna and the King was going to get a dozen nominations (lesson: movie execs are full of themselves and BS).

This was roughly 1999, and one day we had a Fox television marketing exec come in gushing about a major decision at Fox: she said the company had decided to take their embrace of The Simpsons to the next level and turn it into “our Mickey Mouse property” (her words, I will never forget how it was phrased). Fox wanted something as iconic as Mickey and went with the folks from Springfield. This was around the same time Fox began to seriously crack down on any unauthorized use of Simpsons clips or images on the web (I remember either the LA Times or Variety had an article about how they went after many fan sites).

At the time I heard this proclamation, I wasn’t sure what to think.  Mickey had been neutered by Disney in order to be their ultimate brand representative–how were The Simpsons going to fare?  As a fan since the Tracey Ullman days, I hoped the extra attention from the parent corp would help.  At the same time, that much additional investment could cause Fox to push forward with The Simpsons regardless of quality just to have their Mickey on the front line at all times.

Jump to 2000: I’m at a gathering with all my friends and someone says “hey, let’s watch the new Simpsons!”, so we do and no one laughed the entire episode. That was the moment I realized Fox’s commitment wasn’t for the better.

[Editor's Note: If you've got something Simpsons related on your mind and think it might make a good guest post, drop us a line at deadhomersociety at gmail.  Tiny amounts of internet fame can be yours.]

20
Jun
12

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play: Enjoyed By All

By Hank Pumpkins

Let me start out by saying this: I both love to pretend, and am horrible at, being a journalist, a profession where my egocentrism is at odds with my sheer obliviousness. Which explains why I showed up to the Wooly Mammoth Theatre haughty with lofty perceptions of how I would craft my review-de-resistance—and also why I showed up looking like a sweaty bum, wearing a White Sox cap, my trusty Toms loafers, and a t-shirt of Boba Fett if he were a dog (“Boba Fetch”, a bartender explained to me later—like I said, oblivious). Were I a more conscious human being, I probably would have given half a thought to bringing a date, and dining with her there at the theatre (they had delicious looking food, surprise surprise), but I didn’t. So, instead, I pretended to be a journalist all night; which is to say, I grabbed beer as fast as possible and hid my awkwardness under the veil of "fly on the wall" integrity, to try and catch a slice of both play-house Americana as well as Simpson-neck-beard-fandom in the surprisingly funny and poignant Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play.

There was much less of the latter group than the former; I was a bit disappointed I didn’t spot any Geniuses At Work, as it were, though there were several people in the audience that had that decisive “I remember this episode and quote it fondly” loud laugh (which matched my own). The rest of the audience were the seasoned play-goers, people who were “down on the scene”, “with the haps”, and whatever other 60’s slang I can think of. The kind of people that don’t come in buzzed off their ass, whipping out their camera phone and snapping pictures until a friendly, though scared, attendant begs me to stop taking photos. Alas, I lost my only chance of someone saying “sir” without adding, “You’re making a scene.”

During intermission, the various different play-going demographics—suits, the elderly, cute girls in sun-dresses—parsed out the play with various success: they chattered about the meaning of The Simpsons in our society, pop-culture’s place in the future, and sometimes, rather simply, “Side-what Bob?”  I found it cute. 

The playwright, Anne Washburn, mentions in the booklet that The Simpsons was a serendipitous, though later obvious, symbolic pop-culture choice which the survivors of an unnamed apocalypse cobble together as a means of bonding and survival. Her play is at once hilarious and a bitter pill, as Washburn’s characters find light and grace in possibly the only piece of pop-culture that would survive a nuclear holocaust. Dear God, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s likely The Simpsons may be the cockroach that shakes off the radiation and survives us all.

It’s clear as the play progresses, however, that time changes us all, and particularly our memories. For Post-Electric is not just an excuse for actors to quote Homer, but also a rumination on memory and story-telling, and a thought-provoking perspective of a future where the hand-me-down stories of each generation were given to us from a boob-tube.

In the first act, the characters, days out of said apocalypse, hilariously string together “Cape Feare” as best as they can, and I have to admit, it was hard not to join in with these people palling about onstage sorting out the episode’s first sequence like a bunch of drunk friends on a couch. The writer mentions that these bits were fleshed out from bull sessions between the cast—and the light-hearted, real conversation shows. What made Act I such a draw for me was the genius in the simplicity of it all.  Of course, this is how I would react if the Apocalypse happened.

All The Simpsons talk works in great contrast with the dire circumstances of the world around the characters, which grows even more desperate and doomed as the play progresses. The characters’ understanding of The Simpsons—and television, and pop-culture, and, well, the past—all starts to fall apart, and the melting-pot of pop-culture references is a hilarious, but dark, game of roulette.  There’s a very prevalent sense that not even The Simpsons might be able to carry on to the next generation—at least in the form that we know it. As no TV and no beer make society something-something, the earlier “Cape Feare” bull-sessions whisk away into something unfamiliar: purple-monkey-dish-washer territory.

The show takes a turn for the melodic in the strange third act, which works as a giant equals sign to the thoughts and build-up beforehand. The play shoots forward several decades, where The Simpsons as we know it has been deconstructed and smelted together with other lingering fragments of pop humanity, baked under the context of a world barely breathing after 80-some years of devastation and ruin. The final act was my least favorite, as we’re shoved down the rabbit-hole in this dream-like Simpsons facsimile. The whole thing is pretty much set to song, and deftly presented, but didn’t have the gritty punch the earlier acts did. Still, the steady dilution of “Cape Feare” into its end-of-the-world futuristic counterpart is an amazing trick to nail, and all hands on deck of the Pinafore do a remarkable job (as far as my understanding of critiquing plays go). I was clapping pretty hard at the end, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because I had been drinking.

What’s most surprising to me, though, is that it seemingly took as long as it did for someone to use The Simpsons in such a clever way. Directors like Quentin Tarantino are known for their ironic use of cotton-candy pop-culture conversations that belie the amorality and violence that bubbles around the chatter. Finally there’s a similar conversation happening with something so near and dear to me, a Gen-X variant on the ol’ post-apocalyptic “what makes us human” yarn—and a sci-fi future that accepts that The Simpsons is really effin’ important, damn it. After all, when the grids do go down, what’s humanity going to talk about? The Denver Broncos? Feh.

NOTE: I want to send a very hearty thanks to Charlie and especially the Wooly Mammoth, who all so graciously decided that me entering a place of culture and writing about it would be a good thing. I had an amazing time—if you’re in the DC area, check it out. If you’re not, be jealous, chummmmmmm…p.

Hank Pumpkins doesn’t just have the best nom-de-plume on the planet, he also writes miserable fiction and even more miserable personal accounts of his shlubby life over at Love in the Time of Sausage (www.littosonline.com). Love, Hank Pumpkins.

13
Jun
12

“English? Who Needs That?”: The Simpsons in the United Kingdom

By Wesley Mead

On Sunday 2nd September 1990, The Simpsons premiered in the UK, on a channel called Sky One. Sky One knew it would be a hit, surely. Advance press had been exhaustive and excited; buzz from the States was phenomenal. But I doubt even the most faithful of Simpsons fans at Sky in 1990 had any idea it would go on to be the show that saved the channel and defined their service for decades to come.

Maybe that’s a little hyperbolic. But it is difficult to overestimate the impact The Simpsons had on British multichannel television. To understand this, a bit of history is required. Let’s flashback to mid-1990 in the UK: Sky Television and British Satellite Broadcasting operate two competing satellite services, each with an array of exclusive channels. Most notably, BSB has Galaxy, and Sky has Sky One.

Original programming wasn’t really an option for either network, given the budget constraints of such niche channels, so both invested in repeats and imports. Galaxy acquired China Beach and Murphy Brown; Sky nabbed Moonlighting. So far, so good, though Sky were losing out in the (admittedly miniscule) ratings battle. But Sky’s savvy deal to acquire The Simpsons for a British audience – as Murdoch stablemates of Fox, this wasn’t too difficult a task – completely turned the tables. Garnering masses of attention in the mainstream media, including national newspapers and Sky’s own Sky Magazine, the show was almost certainly the highest-profile satellite acquisition to date, and the audience was clearly intrigued.

Thanks, Magazines Galore! Your JPEGs may be rat-like in appearance, but you are truly kings among men.

That first airing delivered tens of thousands of new viewers to the heretofore obscure channel. Given Sky’s extremely limited reach, the ratings had lived up to the hype. Its Sunday teatime scheduling undoubtedly contributed. The 6pm timeslot ensured the widest possible audience could tune in; particularly children, who would prove to comprise a significant component of the show’s viewership in the UK (arguably moreso than in the USA). But what really helped was the hype. Critics and commoners alike were raving about the show; magazines dedicated spreads to Bartmania; TV aficionados were spreading the word about the first “cartoon for adults” in decades. Everyone had heard about the show, and those with the means simply had to check it out. It was rare for a quality television show to be restricted to a niche, subscription channel on its first run; it was even rarer that said quality show was a cartoon about a yellow American family. The curiosity of the populace was piqued, and they found themselves enthralled and entertained in significant numbers. It was clear that the show was living up to the hype, as ratings consistently increased, and the British public really seemed to connect with the universal satire.

They may have been promoted with lousy commercials, but The Simpsons were on TV!

Within two months of its first episode airing, Sky One’s overall channel ratings had seen a double-digits percentage rise – amazingly, beating out those of BSB’s Galaxy. In a stunning turnabout, BSB merged with Sky by November – crucially, keeping the Sky branding. Pre-Simpsons, BSB had looked the inevitable winner of the UK satellite race, commanding higher advertising rates and drawing greater audience. But once The Simpsons had premiered? Sky were the clear winners, home to the highest-rated scripted show on satellite, and driving that Simpsons audience to the rest of their lineup while they could.

Buzz about the show reached fever pitch in the subsequent months. “Do the Bartman” made it to number one in the UK singles charts in January 1991, at a point when only a tiny – but increasing – percentage of the audience had access to the show. (The video’s airing on BBC1′s “Top of the Pops” was the first real free-to-air taste of the show.) Buzz among everyone from the media elite to the school playgrounds was that The Simpsons was the defining reason to upgrade to satellite or cable TV. T-shirt sales, as in the US, were through the roof; two-episode videotapes sold by the shedload, allowing non-satellite viewers their first access to the show proper.

The show remained a significant draw for Sky One throughout the early ’90s. The Sunday-evening episodes were must-watch events. Backlash from wary parents was limited, and the backlash that did take place only heightened popularity among kids. By 1993, Sky began to see the value in “stripping” the show across multiple days of the week – similar to syndication in the USA – and these saturation repeats played a key role in heightening its popularity here, as viewers just getting interested in the show could catch up on past editions more readily.

By 1993, Sky One had invested in a copy of cloud.jpg.

But as Sky and Fox aired its fourth, fifth, sixth, even seventh season, the majority of the country – the 50 million without subscription TV – were wondering when they’d get their chance to catch up on this yellow American family. Sky and cable had increased market share significantly – and it’s fair to say that The Simpsons played a reasonable role in that takeup – but penetration had only gone from 4% to 20%. That left a whole lot of viewers without The Simpsons in their lives. In 1996, though, that majority finally got their answer, as the BBC – the UK’s public service broadcaster, funded by public money and airing no commercials – announced they’d acquired the terrestrial rights to the show. (In the ’90s in the UK, “terrestrial” referred to the four or five main channels accessible to anyone with a TV: BBC One, BBC Two, ITV, Channel 4, and later Channel 5.)

The Simpsons finally got its long-awaited terrestrial debut on Saturday, November 23rd, 1996. The channel: BBC One. The time: 5:30pm. The episode: There’s No Disgrace Like Home. The ratings: …actually, surprisingly underwhelming. Only five million viewers tuned in. Naturally, this was orders of magnitude greater than the ratings on Sky One, but BBC was available to everyone in the country; considering the great British public had been waiting over six years for this free-to-air, commercial-free premiere, it’s hard to say these results were a success.

To be fair, 5:30pm Saturday wasn’t the greatest timeslot. It had the benefit of being kid-friendly, but it was rather earlier than most Saturday-evening high-profile programming. (It had previously been home to repeats of ’70s sitcom Dad’s Army – not exactly prestigious.) But when ITV started airing new episodes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch opposite it, and drawing greater viewership, it was clear something wasn’t right. Could consumer demand have died off prematurely? Could most of those interested in the show have converted to Sky long ago? The Sky episodes were still drawing relatively good numbers, so it was hard to blame the show itself. The BBC couldn’t really risk burning off the sixty-one episodes they’d made a deal for (every show through early season four) with such relatively poor ratings, so they pulled the show, and had a strategic rethink.

The Simpsons returned, after six weeks’ hiatus, in March 1997. This time, though, things were a bit different. It was airing on BBC2. BBC2 had already played home to an array of US hits, from The X-Files to Ren & Stimpy, and it seemed like a logical home for the show. Mondays at 6pm saw new episodes air, followed by new-to-terrestrial airings of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (a combination so potent that 70,000 Facebook fans still remember it); Fridays saw a double-bill of classic episodes, airing until 6:45pm. This time, the ratings were stronger: not in raw terms, as BBC2 weekdays was more of a niche slot; but proportionately, The Simpsons was quite a hit, garnering ratings around 4 million during this period. Its positioning against news on both BBC1 and ITV saw younger and more tech-savvy audiences gravitate towards it, while its early-evening timeslot also allowed children of all ages to tune in, too. Internet buzz among diehards about censorship drew some criticism to the slot (older fans naturally wanted unedited episodes in later timeslots) but the cuts were generally minimal (a “bastard” here, some bloody Treehouse of Horror violence there) and ensured the show could retain the crucial child audience.

None of your fancy store-bought fonts for the BBC.

The late ’90s and early 2000s saw the show peak in audience reach in the UK: between strong ratings for new episodes on Sky and great performance of terrestrial premieres on BBC, The Simpsons was at its commercial zenith in Britain. Perhaps the most telling evidence of this is in BBC2′s move, in March 2002, to strip the show across five nights a week. They’d dabbled with three nights before – Mon, Wed and Fri – in 2000 and 2001, but every weeknight? Terrestrial saturation of an American show was uncommon at this point; some were concerned that the general audience would begin to suffer Simpsons burnout. Typically, there would be an episode at 6pm on BBC, then two or four on Sky One; add in the occasional dabbling with morning and post-watershed slots for the show on Sky, as well as its regular presence on Saturday and Sunday evenings, and some weeks in 2000 saw thirty-plus episodes of the show air. But critics be damned: the figures held up, the eyeballs continued to tune in, and the BBC’s 6pm weeknights slot remained permanent for the next four years. With a healthy catalogue of classic episodes that still hadn’t been aired on terrestrial, the BBC were in a great position, as they were able to “premiere” multiple seasons within a single calendar year (though as a condition of Sky’s contract, they remained at least four seasons behind the US at all times).

Domino’s Pizza sponsored The Simpsons on Sky One for many years. Alas, in 2008, the partnership came to an end, as UK regulations made it more difficult for fast food companies to sponsor shows that lots of children watch. (In a bid to recreate the successful partnership, Pizza Hut sponsored the show on Channel 4, too. That didn’t work out. So now, Shockwaves hair products sponsor the show. Yeah, I dunno either.)

Sky were experimenting with expanding the show’s foothold on their schedule, too. Double-bills had been the order of the day for a couple of years; in late 1999, they looked to use the show as the launchpad for “Skyrocket” (please, forgive the pun), a three-hour Saturday evening animation marathon. Alas, the project was doomed, as Futurama and Family Guy had not yet grown into the cult sensations they would become, and The PJs and King of the Hill lacked a strong UK fanbase. Nevertheless, Sky persevered, trying out Simpsons-only marathons on every Bank Holiday they could find; Christmas 1999 saw six episodes on Christmas Day, seven on Boxing Day, and a seven-episode “Viewer’s Choice” on Christmas Eve. They ran the show at 7:30 and 8am on weekdays for a period; weekend mornings also saw the occasional jaunt. In 2000, they toyed with a pre-King of the Hill 10pm slot for the show, which they occasionally used to show uncut versions of more risque episodes (“Natural Born Kissers”, “Grampa vs Sexual Inadequacy”). It was plain to any observer that The Simpsons was the lynchpin of Sky One’s schedule during this period.

And who could blame them? The show was a seriously hot cultural property in Britain during this period. Dozens of four-episode VHS compilations were released here between 1998 and 2002, typically at a rate of four per year. My data is incomplete, but I understand that each and every one landed in the UK top 10 video chart. The Simpsons video games released during that period were strong sellers, despite oft-derisory critical reception (“The Simpsons Wrestling” got a very weak 5/10 score in the Official UK Playstation Magazine, but it still sold by the shedload here). The comics, rebranded for the UK, sold excellently. Citing heavy appeal to kids, BBC One aired season one episodes of the show as part of their Live & Kicking Saturday morning strand (usually home to Rugrats). Multiple UK-targeted unofficial episode guides were published – compared to the USA, which hadn’t seen any such references printed since the early part of the decade, it was clear Simpsons mania was enjoying a second wind in Britain. As the tenth anniversary of the show’s UK premiere loomed, The Simpsons had greater cultural penetration in the UK than ever before.

I paid £12.99 for these four episodes on video. (Still better value than £12.99 for a whole season of Zombie Simpsons, mind.)

Both BBC and Sky saw fit to celebrate a decade of the UK’s favourite family. The BBC actually got in on the game first; their celebratory evening on 23rd June 2000 included two strong documentaries and a plethora of episodes classic and new (well, new to terrestrial). But from a scheduling perspective, Sky’s weekend-long celebration in August was more revealing, as the weekend culminated in the UK premiere of Malcolm in the Middle, a show they would dub the “live-action Simpsons”.

Some questioned the logic in concluding a Simpsons weekend with a completely unrelated show, but it actually worked effectively. As Sky continued to pair Malcolm with The Simpsons, Malcolm became a breakout hit here in its early years, retaining a significant percentage of The Simpsons’ audience, and actually remained a more consistent performer in Britain than it did during its later years in the USA.

Throughout the 2000s, new episodes of The Simpsons typically declined in performance, despite continued uptake of Sky and cable services ensuring more and more viewers had access to the show. Maybe it was a case of over-saturation; maybe it was a case of Zombie Simpsons beginning to dilute the odds of finding a classic. But as cultural elder statesman, the show remained an integral part of the Sky brand. In deference to the key role it played in defining their brand – and playing a key role in their subscriber stats – thousands of Sky engineer vans across the country were plastered with images of the Simpson family throughout the latter half of the 2000s and early 2010s. As the decade came to a close, The Simpsons, still a steady performer among an increasingly fractured viewership, was used to lead off Modern Family, The Middle and Raising Hope, turning them into moderate hits for the station. It’s perhaps in this way that Sky now gets the most value from the show: it’s no longer the pop-culture behemoth it was in the 1990s, driving potential subscribers to choose Sky; instead, it’s a utility player that’s earned its face on the walls – and vans – of fame. Repeats don’t air quite as much these days – there are none on Saturdays, sometimes only one on Fridays – and Sky spend far more on advertising for Modern Family than they do for OFF. Regardless, though, it’s an integral part of the Sky lineup.

They didn’t even get the blackboard font right. Damn you, Sky!

But what of terrestrial? The most significant event of the show’s scheduling in the ’00s was its move from BBC2 to Channel 4. In terms of audience share and target audience, the two networks were quite similar, with BBC2 perhaps slightly more upmarket. But significantly, Channel 4 was a commercial network: while it had public service responsibilities similar to BBC, it had to earn its own money, through advertising. It was this key difference to allowed Channel 4 to pick up the show when BBC could no longer afford to; as ratings plateaued, BBC could no longer justify spending increasing amounts of public money on the show. (By this point, even terrestrial runs commanded a stunning £700,000 per episode.) It was with clear regret that the BBC had to give up on the show – it contributed towards a shocking 10% drop in their 2004 ratings compared to the year prior – but it seemed the sums were unworkable. So, in November 2004, after a six-month break from terrestrial (BBC had concluded their run back in spring), The Simpsons were back on terrestrial TV.

Channel 4′s scheduling of the show over the past eight years has proved relatively uneventful. After early dalliances with new episodes airing between 9pm and 10pm on Friday (similar to their previous flagship US import Friends), C4 soon found that the comfortable 6pm repeats – scheduled in the same way as the BBC’s had been for the previous four years – were actually out-rating the prime-time episodes; in later years, new-to-terrestrial seasons simply aired in those same 6pm slots. In the early days, the channel attempted a few “events”: alongside the expected “Simpsons Night” on the day they acquired the show, they used The Simpsons as the hosts of their 2004 “Alternative Christmas Message” – an offbeat alternative to the traditional Christmas Day’s Queen’s Speech in Britain, which rated well.

So yeah, according to that Christmas message, Lisa is a Cornish nationalist. Yeah.. I don’t really know why they did that either.

In recent years, the channel has settled into a comfortable, but successful pattern of the stripped 6pm weekday slot sitting alongside a Sunday afternoon double-bill. They remain four years behind Sky (and Fox), premiering season 20 later this year. Viewing figures have been unexciting but fair; typically around the 1.5 million mark in summer and 2 million in winter, down around 500,000 on five years ago. That doesn’t sound so impressive on paper, but it comfortably outrates the shows C4 had previously had in that slot (including Futurama and Home Improvement in the late ’90s) and most episodes end up in Channel 4′s weekly top 20. Increased penetration of Sky and cable should also be taken into account – nowadays, the majority of people can see new episodes four years before they air on Channel 4 – and with so many more channels now available even on the free-to-view Freeview platform, viewership has fractured significantly.

While the new episodes may lack the “event” feel – and the corresponding viewership figures – the punters, the loyal fans, are still willing to fly their fan flag high on special occasions. Case in point: The Simpsons Movie. It earned a phenomenal £13.6 million in its first weekend at the UK box-office, accounting for a staggering 2.6m admissions. According to box-office analyst Charles Gant, a movie typically generates in British pounds one-tenth of what it earns in US dollars; based on those rough guidelines, The Simpsons Movie did disproportionately better in Britain by nearly 80%. (That £13.6m opening figure? Only 15% less than barnstorming four-quadrant megahit The Avengers in its first weekend – and taking into account ticket price inflation and 3D uplifts, The Simpsons Movie almost definitely saw greater numbers turn out to watch). Between that performance, the series’ continued role in shepherding new US imports to cult-hit status on Sky, and its now-permanent 6pm Channel 4 slot delivering consistent figures every day of the week, it’s perhaps interesting to note that in its autumn years (boy, do I hope they’re autumn years), The Simpsons is holding up – commercially, at least – much more resiliently than in its homeland. Yes, there have been ratings declines, and DVD sales have decreased – when you’re talking about a show that’s creatively declined as much as Zombie Simpsons, it’s inevitable – but on the whole, the franchise remains a significant player over here. It often seems like Britain continues to embrace the show even more than the USA.

Considering the fact that the show wasn’t even available to eighty percent of the country during its seven greatest seasons, I’d call that a success.

15
Sep
11

10 Heartbreaking Simpsons Moments

- By Andreas

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“Don’t cry for me; I’m already dead.” – Barney

Back in June, I composed a list of “10 Scary Simpsons Moments.” This is a companion piece of sorts, demonstrating the show’s emotional breadth with ten of the sweetest, tenderest, and most touching moments of the show’s run. Although renowned for its cynicism and satire, The Simpsons always had powerful, James L. Brooks-influenced emotion at its core. It was never just about hollow laughs; instead, each episode was invested in relationships, families, and the oft-painful quirks of human behavior.

But it also never took the typical sitcom shortcut of cheap schmaltz: its emotional arcs were steeped in character development and real-life resonances. The Simpsons, at its best, was about well-rounded human beings with foibles, feelings, and heartbreaks. Here are ten tear-jerking, heartstring-tugging examples…

10) “Dog of Death”

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This episode has a twofer: its first act confronts the agonizing facts of pet mortality (and middle-class penny-pinching), while the rest is devoted to Bart searching for the lost, brainwashed Santa’s Little Helper. It climaxes with a montage celebrating pet/child rapports and the merciful restoration of the status quo, reaffirming the lesson of Old Yeller and all those Lassie movies: few emotional forces are more potent than the relationship between a boy and his dog.

9) “Lisa on Ice”

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Bart and Lisa’s sibling rivalry was a staple of the show’s B-plots, but no other episode exploited their love/hate relationship as skillfully as “Lisa on Ice.” Most of the episode teeters toward the “hate” end of that dynamic, but as with “Dog of Death,” all that conflict leads to a hug-it-out climax and an adorable montage of Bart and Lisa’s shared childhood. This being The Simpsons, though, their heartfelt reconciliation plays out with a hockey riot raging in the background.

8) “I Married Marge”

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The flashback episodes are gold mines of masterfully orchestrated sentiment. “And Maggie Makes Three,” with its “DO IT FOR HER” ending, nearly made this list, as did “The Way We Was” for Homer’s closing monologue. But “I Married Marge” has Homer and Marge’s tragic separation as newlyweds when Homer goes off to become a man, and their reunion in the Gulp ‘n’ Blow drive-thru with the words “Pour vous.” It’s a note-perfect, bittersweet back story for Our Favorite Family.

7) ” ‘Round Springfield”

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Poor Lisa, condemned to lose every positive male role model (see #2). The loss of Bleeding Gums Murphy really hurts; he’s such a gently paternal presence, and he’s Lisa’s only mentor as a jazz saxophonist. (Mr. Largo, his passion dulled by years in the public school system, could never come close.) Unlike a certain gimmicky, ratings-grabbing death from Season 11, Murphy’s passing is handled with tact and humor, making it all the more painful.

6) “Bart Sells His Soul”

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This episode topped my “scary” list, and the same spiritual fears that feed its horror also make it an emotionally heavy experience. Bart’s prayer at the end is a tour de force for Nancy Cartwright; she cuts right through his “underachiever and proud of it” schtick, revealing the lost little boy underneath. “Bart Sells His Soul” delves into the anxiety and loneliness that constitute dark side of childhood, and the redemption that lies just beyond.

5) “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily”

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After a diabolically brilliant first act that degenerates into a nightmare, “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily” tests the Simpson family’s mettle like no episode before or since. But the intensity of their trial by social services fire makes the resolution that much more gratifying (and emotionally overwhelming), and Marge’s climactic line can still bring tears to my eyes: “Oh, Maggie, you’re a Simpson again!”

4) “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”

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When Homer ingests some potentially deadly sushi, he gets put through the existential wringer: as Dr. Hibbert informs him, he only has 22 hours to wrap up his life on earth. His attempts to do so are tragicomic, as he earnestly carries out some tasks while botching others; however, the episode goes all-out emotionally for Homer’s last night. Sitting awake in the living room, he’s no longer a wacky TV dad. He’s just a working stiff, staring into the abyss. Powerful stuff.

3) “Like Father, Like Clown”

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You’d think that estranged parents and Jewish culture, thorny topics for any show, would prove impossible for an animated sitcom. But leave it to The Simpsons to entangle the two in its hilarious, heartfelt riff on The Jazz Singer. The ending is utterly moving, as Krusty and his father join in singing “O Mein Papa”—just the kind of big, emotional finale you’d expect from a larger-than-life showbiz figure like Krusty.

2) “Lisa’s Substitute”

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“You are Lisa Simpson.” Such a simple sentence, but it rings so true. Coupled with Dustin Hoffman’s understated performance as Mr. Bergstrom, it’s enough to put a lump in my throat every time I watch the phenomenal “Lisa’s Substitute.” A touchstone for brainy kids everywhere, the episode makes the tragic acknowledgment that loss is part of personal growth, but no easier for it. We’ll miss you, Mr. Bergstrom.

1) “Mother Simpson”

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The other episodes on this list tell some pretty heartrending stories about loss and reconciliation, but nothing can match the emotional scope, gravity, and finesse of “Mother Simpson.” Homer’s long-lost mother may disappear again, but he learns that she loves him, and that’s enough. The ending, with Homer pensively stargazing, is both a model of restraint and a signal to start crying. It’s a sobering reminder of how powerful silence can be.

01
Sep
11

They’ll Never Stop “The Simpsons” (But Someone Really Should)

From Nightmare to Reality

- By Matt Mackinnon

Everyone is aware of the vast difference in quality between the first ten seasons of The Simpsons and the ten seasons of Zombie Simpsons that followed. But you don’t have to reach as far back as Season 5 to find huge dips in the quality of the show. No. In fact, you can see a huge drop off in the quality of the show within Zombie Simpsons itself. In fact, it might be time to divide Zombie Simpsons into two different categories. A zombie divided against itself, cannot stand! (That’s a George Costanza reference . . . anyhoo.)

In “Gump Roast” (Season 13), The Simpsons was already in full swing Zombie mode. But little did we know just how bad it was going to get in the years to come. So bad in fact, that one particular recent episode makes “Gump Roast” look like it was part of the golden era. At the end of “Gump Roast”, there is a song called “You’ll never stop the Simpsons”, a parody of the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. Despite this being an episode of Zombie Simpsons, the song parody was good — very, very good. Van Johnson good.

Near the end of the song they list a bunch of gag stories that could be coming in years to come, such as Marge becomes a robot, Moe gets a cell phone, and Bart owns a bear. This was back when Zombie Simpsons was still hip enough to have a sense of humor about itself and would occasionally poke fun at the fact that they had perhaps stayed on the air one or two years too many. One joke in particular stands out like a cockroach on a wedding cake.

It features Grampa, Patty and Selma involved in a “crazy wedding”. At the time this was clearly meant to be a jab at the series’ many attempts to find Selma a man. And that eventually, if the show stayed on the air long enough, they would run out of potential husbands for her and would be forced to pair her up with Grampa. The very idea of Grampa, Homer’s father, being romantically involved with Selma, Marge’s sister, was considered “crazy”.

Well, fast forward five short seasons to Season 18′s “Rome-Old and Juli-eh”, and you’ll find that, lo and behold, Grampa and Selma are romantically involved. I didn’t see this episode when it first aired, but I happened to catch it recently and instantly thought of that Billy Joel parody. (So I am fully aware that I may not be the first to pick up on this.) At first I thought, there’s no way the writers could have forgotten that they made fun of this very premise just a few short seasons ago. This had to be an inside joke aimed at fans who nit-pick everything to death. But it wasn’t.

There is nothing in the episode that points in that direction. They could have had any character use the phrase “crazy wedding” and we would have all instantly known what they were going for. But there was nothing like that. So what was originally considered a crazy throw away gag in a parody song became, a few seasons later, a full episode. Which means in the years to come we can all look forward to Marge becoming a robot and Bart getting a bear. Wait. Scratch that. In fact, they actually did that episode recently. Just replace bear with cow.

I’m sure I’m not the first to notice the Selma-Grampa goof. So I’m sorry if this is not the most original article. But have no fear, we’ll have essays like this for years.

25
Aug
11

Simpsons Go Canyonero: The Indifference of Selling Out

- By Hank Pumpkins of Love in the Time of Sausage

“I’m so hungry, I could eat at Arby’s”. That one line, delivered by Sherri—or maybe Terri—worked wonders on my young, impressionable mind, and only nearly eight years later, on a dare in college, did I finally try Arby’s. It turns out, the fries are pretty good. There’s a secret shame in admitting that The Simpsons held such political sway over my taste-buds, but in the years since, I’ve come to see I haven’t been the only one—which makes me wonder if there was a marginal dip in sales after “Das Bus” came out.

It’s probably overstated that The Simpsons has always had a cache of consumer power, both as an economic consumer power and as a commentator of consumerism. From its early days the show has been keenly aware of dual-life it led as a biting satire on American economics while also being prostituted out on everything from t-shirts to “blues” records to Butterfinger bars. For a show with such sheer size and success, unparalleled with, well, pretty much any other television show, ever, they did a fine line of playing both roles, though looking back at the last thirteen years, it seems inevitable that the show would eventually teeter, then topple on one side.

It’s not surprising which side that ended up being.

Season 9 is about as good a place as any to see the axis tilt on The Simpsons for a variety of reasons, but what concerns me are the ominous signs that point to the philosophical sea-change which, to me, signaled the point where The Simpsons lost their bite and settled down into somewhat inspired, but mostly mediocre entertainment filler.

Season 9’s plots seem to constantly revolve around battles for integrity. Homer needs to choose between buying a saxophone or an air conditioner; Lisa fights the town on the angel; Homer gets into a brawl over a sports car while Marge struggles to make a sale; Bart burns down the Christmas tree, including the sausage for little Homer; Homer and Bart become carnies and learn their wicked carnie games; Movementarians; and, to cut basically a list of all of the season’s episodes short, “The Last Temptation of Krust”, which literally revolves around Krusty realizing he is, has been, and always will operate not as a comedian, but as a shill. In a season rife with issues of integrity, and a show already feeling the strain of its own success and legacy, “The Last Temptation of Krust” feels like a breaking point where the show seemed to run completely out of steam. Krusty’s conflict was his battle with integrity, and his resolution is a quiet, somewhat disconcerting acceptance that he is a whore. Doubtful that the writers were mirroring their own show, or being prescient about the lazy, belabored comedy to come in years hence, but as The Canyonero commercial plays, and drags on and on, it’s difficult for Future Me to watch and wonder, “Oh. That explains it.”

Compare Krusty in season 9 with another episode dealing with integrity over money: “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy”, aired four years prior, where in the end, Malibu Stacy seemingly wins—except for the one girl who takes the Lisa Lionheart doll and cherishes it. We get the usual cynical Simpsons nod that our world is run by money, and baseless corporate greed which slakes its thirst on the naïve and unwitting, but at least there’s a sentimental twist to the end (which is pretty well earned, I’ll add).

There aren’t many times I bother to check in on The Simpsons anymore, but when Banksy’s guest couch gag went viral, I couldn’t help but be intrigued. True to Banksy form, it had a nasty anti-consumer bend, but it felt out of place as a Simpsons gag. The show had long ago lost its teeth, and instead of being a purveyor of biting satire, it felt like an outsider was just doling out a blow, and the show could care less, as long as it got the ratings boost. In the past thirteen years, The Simpsons lost a lot of credit and value it once so richly earned. When the tight walk between sharp consumer satire and consumer salesman gave way, the show gave a weary, resigned “meh”. And now, it’s just a truck with four wheel drive, smells like a steak and seats thirty-five.

Lisa Lionheart is dead; all hail Malibu Stacy.

18
Aug
11

Anyone But Steve Allen OR 10 Gifts The Simpsons Gave To Comedy

- By Django Gold, head curator at mcgarnagle.com

The Simpsons was a special show, and like any other popular creative work that found a large audience, it was only a matter of time before its influence started popping up elsewhere. It’s been over twenty years since the show debuted, and in that time a generation of comedy writers who grew up watching, re-watching, and quoting the show has made their own bones in show business. What follows is a sampling of certain aspects of The Simpsons that have since shown up in countless other comedy bits.

I’m not claiming The Simpsons actually invented any of the following ideas. I’m no historian, and people were of course telling jokes a long ways before Groening & co. got to work. But I will argue that the show’s creators advanced and modernized these joke-telling methods better than anyone else, and in crafting them so well inspired others to adapt them to fit their own ideas (or just flat-out steal them). So, like I was saying…

1. Repetition/Extra Beats (Sideshow Bob and the rake)

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Airtime is expensive, and in 1993 it was a risky move to blow 30 seconds of it for the sake of a repeated slapstick joke that might not hold up. Luckily, in “Cape Feare”, it did, mostly because of the enduring funniness of Sideshow Bob’s dry grimaces of pain (“Hey Hal, pie job for Lord Autumnbottom there!”). As literary review Entertainment Weekly put it: “If ever there was a gag genius in its repetitive stupidity (progressing from funny to not so funny to the funniest thing ever), this is it.” Years later, many shows have attempted to replicate this type of extended joke whose humor draws on the audacity of its length, to varying degrees of success. Family Guy, of course, pulls it off constantly (the bruised knee scene, et al), but anytime I see a comedian attempt to stretch a sprint into a marathon, Terwilliger’s scowl comes to mind.

2. Guest Stars Making Fun Of Themselves (“Now I’m gonna grab me something sweet.”)

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Though you could argue that Dick Nixon started this trend on Laugh In in ’68, The Simpsons perfected the idea of bringing on guest stars so that they could send themselves up. While celebrity cameos don’t generally go beyond allowing a photogenic guest star to preen for the camera, Leonard Nimoy, George H. W. Bush, Sting, several major leaguers, Ernest Borgnine, Gerry Cooney, Rodney Dangerfield (doesn’t really count), and, of course, Dennis Franz weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Examples of this are too numerous to list, so I guess I’ll go with Neil Patrick Harris (“Where do you want it, Skinner?”) in Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle and move on.

3. Writers Making Fun Of The Network (“We are watching Fox.”)

3

Similarly, The Simpsons was never afraid to bite the hand that feeds when it came to pointing out how desperately crappy Fox Broadcasting Co. was in the 90s. This is of course easy to do when your show is pretty much the only thing holding the network up. You see this same sort of gentle ribbing on Comedy Central pillars The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and Family Guy also continues the proud tradition now that The Simpsons is off the air.

4. “By X, I Mean Y” (Judge Snyder’s dog/son)

4

I have not managed to find any concrete examples of the Judge Snyder construct in recent comedy, but if my own personal experience is any judge, it is ubiquitous. The Simpsons generation (that’s us) has taken an excellent Lionel Hutz line and turned it into a device for sarcasm; by substituting whatever zany mad-libs you like into an otherwise straight-forward expression, hilarity results. Though the X becomes Y construct pops up on the Internet constantly, I couldn’t possibly solve the mystery of coming up with any mainstream examples. Can you?

5. Intentional Monotony (Canada Stalls On Trade Pact)

5

Television is a flashy, fast-paced medium, so its rare moments of silence can do a lot to change things up. The Simpsons creators were masters of using intentionally tedious pacing to get laughs, and the box factory manager’s uproariously uninteresting speech in “Bart Gets Famous” is a perfect example of this. Though he got started in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ben Stein made a career out of this after being a hack economist didn’t work.  Notable post-Simpsons examples include South Park (when Cartman is forced to watch the serial killer’s slide show) and, naturally, Family Guy’s occasional burst into deliberate boredom (Conway Twitty).

6. Old-Timey References (the onion and the belt)

6

Here, I’m specifically looking at any pre-Great Depression references that the Simpsons writers so enjoyed tossing in, usually through Monty Burns or Abe Simpson. As in the previous example, the use of antiquated, often-misremembered cultural references in The Simpsons succeeds largely because it goes against context. Instead of being entertained with the latest and greatest, the audience is presented with the ridiculous, largely irrelevant relics of a bygone era. Modern-day humorists love poking fun at our country’s creaky past: Conan O’Brien’s beloved “old-timey” baseball game sketch, for example.

7. The Selfish Assumption (“Like people, some of them are just jerks.”)

7

As The Itchy & Scratchy Show demonstrated in its brief period of docility in “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge”, kindness and camaraderie are all well and good when it comes to lemonade consumption, but it just isn’t funny. No, selfishness and needless cruelty pay the bills when it comes to good comedy, and the Simpsons writers understood this. Now, I want to emphasize that I’m not claiming The Simpsons invented the notion of meanness being funny. But I will make the argument that they did the best job of casually imbuing the Springfield citizenry with the kinds of character flaws that gave rise to laughs. Carl’s answer to how the pastry spinner works, Quimby’s muscle-memory embezzlement, Marge’s cryptic theft of Milhouse’s teeth…these and constant other acts demonstrate how much funnier it is when someone behaves badly. Tons of modern shows pull off this kind of casual meanness, but shows like Strangers With Candy and Children’s Hospital take it to a new level.

8. Freeze-Frame Jokes (“where the buyer is our chum”)

8

One of the reasons for The Simpsons’ rewatchability is the sheer volume of its jokes makes it impossible to catch and process everything in a single sitting—it takes time to appreciate what the writers are laying down. I remember one of the show’s creators calling The Simpsons the first-ever VHS show (or something like that), as it was the first show that rewarded re-viewings (hence the show’s immense success in syndication). From an artistic standpoint, packing the jokes in like this is just good common sense; but it’s also a valuable commercial tool, as it makes people more likely to watch again, buy the DVDs, etc. Many, many shows have tapped into this joke-a-second type of pacing. Archer, Futurama, Parks and Rec, you name it.

9. Film Homages (Debbie Does Springfield)

9

Once the show’s artists found their groove, The Simpsons was able to pull off the kind of animation tricks that no other show could dream of at the time. This included the ability to capture scenes much in the same way that filmmakers did with different “camera” angles and framing techniques…which also allowed the writers to throw in homages to their favorite films. Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and various Hitchcock films got their due, and the shot-for-shot remake approach is now a comedic trope, in animated and live-action shows alike.

10. A Cast Of Thousands (“We’ve given the word ‘mob’ a bad name.”)

10

Large casts are expensive to maintain for a live-action show, but it’s a pretty thrifty option for a cartoon, especially if most of them are voiced by the same six people. The huge ensemble cast that filled Springfield allowed the show’s writers to move beyond the core Simpson family members and flesh out those minor characters that we the viewers would eventually come to know just as well. Apu living with the Simpsons? It happened…and shows like Arrested Development and The Office took advantage of the example.

Agree? Disagree? Got some other examples to give? Sound off in the comments.

11
Aug
11

Queer Simpsons

- By Lenny Burnham

I’m guessing everyone reading this knows the main thesis of Dead Homer Society: The Simpsons was a smart satire with developed, interesting characters. Zombie Simpsons is a stupid mess with only a shallow resemblance to The Simpsons. But, while the extreme decrease in quality in the double-digit seasons is a bummer for any Simpsons fan, it creates a particular problem for queer Simpsons fans—half of the show is great in quality but has fairly little in the way of representation, half has lots of gay characters and storylines but doesn’t have the same quality. It’s hard to watch an episode like “There’s Something About Marrying” without longing to see what the people who made episodes like “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” could have done with the same subject matter. It’s nice to dream of a world where the years of smart satire overlapped more with the years that were flush in references to gay life, but it will always just be a dream. But, my question is—what show does a better job with queer representation, The Simpsons or Zombie Simpsons? On sheer number of characters and screentime, Zombie Simpsons wins hands down. They added in Julio and Grady, explicitly outed characters whose sexuality had only been hinted at previously and they’ve had three episodes (“There’s Something About Marrying”, “Three Gays of the Condo” and “Flaming Moe”) dedicated to gay subject matter, while The Simpsons only had one (“Homer’s Phobia”).

References to homosexuality in The Simpsons were quick and relatively subtle. Look no further than the town meeting in “Bart After Dark.” When Marge, Maude, Ned and the Lovejoys hold a town meeting to discuss Springfield’s burlesque house, they show a slideshow that reveals many of the Springfieldians that have visited the place and we hear their loved ones react with shock. The fourth person we see is Patty and Selma cries out, “Patty?!” In a lesser show, this would have been the punchline—far too many shows think that the very existence of gay people is a punchline. But here gay life is just an accepted part of the world and we quickly move on to Brandine’s reaction to the picture of Cletus before we get to the actual punchline, which, because this is The Simpsons, consists of four quick jokes in a row (no one cares that Barney is a sleazebag, Wiggum sounds like a child whining that they did him twice, Smithers’s parents insisted he give it a try and Quimby claims that you can’t identify him by his very obvious “Mayor” sash because that could be any mayor). In a very short sequence we get four jokes and two acknowledgements of gay life, without any of the humor being at the expense of the gay characters.

In “Treehouse of Horror III Patty sees Homer naked and says, “There goes the last lingering thread of my heterosexuality.” It clarified that Patty is gay—and comfortable referencing her sexuality—quickly in the form of a joke and then moved on. Back in the days of The Simpsons they could let a character just be gay without a long, jokeless episode about their emotional struggle because they weren’t desperate to be relevant.

By the time, “There’s Something About Marrying” aired, it was no longer enough for The Simpsons to have funny references from characters whose homosexuality was just one dimension of their character. They had to dedicate entire episodes to begging people to watch them for their politics, not for their humor. And they even screwed that up. You’d think that an episode dedicated to supporting same-sex marriage would be, if not actually good, at least positive for gay people, but they had to have Patty’s fiancé turn out to be a man. This episode might claim to support gay marriage, but it undercuts its own point completely by focusing on a relationship in which one of the partners is so oblivious that they didn’t even notice their partner’s gender. They have so little respect for lesbians’ sexuality and relationships that they dare us to accept the idea that Marge noticed Patty’s fiance’s large Adam’s apple before Patty noticed that or any other telltale signs. If you’re going to make an episode about how homosexual relationships are just as valid as heterosexual relationships, it might be a good idea to focus on a couple that at least took a cursory glance at each other’s bodies before jumping into getting engaged.

In another gay issue episode, “Flaming Moe”, Moe converted his bar into a gay bar and then every gay character in Springfield became a regular (except Dewey Largo, who had left town as part of another plot in that episode). Group shots were populated by every gay character, including Patty. Every time I got a glimpse of Patty I wondered why she wasn’t at home, watching TV and avoiding social interaction. The episode just decided that every gay person spends every night at a gay bar. This isn’t even an instance of them milking a stereotype or oversimplification for the sake of a joke, this is them mindlessly and needlessly accepting that all gay people have the same habits for absolutely no story or comedy purpose.

Even though Zombie Simpsons tries and tries to win over gay audiences with issue episodes like “There’s Something About Marrying” and “Three Gays of the Condo” and The Simpsons only had a handful of references in its run, I’d still pick The Simpsons over Zombie Simpsons every time. Because every character in The Simpsons, even minor ones, were thought through and developed, we got great characters like Smithers, Patty and Karl. Even though Zombie Simpsons has much more room to be explicitly inclusive, they’ve only added a few extremely one-dimensional gay guys and still haven’t bothered creating another lesbian. For me, Zombie Simpsons’s policy with representation can be summed up by the end of “Homer Scissorhands.” When Marge said she found a new hairdresser besides Homer, I immediately thought, “It’s going to be Julio” even though I’d never seen him portrayed as a hairdresser before and it had been established that he’s a photographer. Indeed, I was right. They had plopped Julio into the role of hairdresser for a plot point. Because Smithers and Patty were created early in the series, they have firmly established jobs at the power plant and the DMV. If Patty had been created now her job description would be “maybe she makes leather vests or maybe she plays in the WNBA or something like that.”

04
Aug
11

Where Al Jean Went Wrong: A Closer Look At The Last 10 Years Of The Simpsons

- By John Hugar

2001 was the height of my Simpsons obsession. That might sound odd when you consider it’s 10 years later and here I am writing a post for a blog dedicated to dissecting every flaw of the show’s later years, but trust me, back then it was different. These days, while I still love The Simpsons and I still love talking about them, I am, in fact, capable of carrying on conversations about other subjects. For 11-year-old me, that was quite a challenge.

I had been into the show since 1997, but my love for it was pushed into the stratosphere primarily due to the internet. Instead of just watching the show, I could now glean every bit of information there was to glean about the show. Episode titles, production numbers, animation goofs, and thanks to SNPP, full transcripts of nearly every episode.

Of course, the internet didn’t just exist for facts about the show, but opinions. Long, rambling opinions like this one. That’s where I was a bit flustered. As someone who thought the show could do no wrong, I was stunned at how many people thought the show had gone downhill in the recent years. This was right around the end of Season 12, when Mike Scully’s reign of terror, stupidity, and jockey elves was coming to an end. Everyone seemed to agree on two things: 1. The show wasn’t what it used to be. 2. It had a chance to get better under its new executive producer, Al Jean.

I didn’t really I think the show had gotten worse (11-year-olds have an unfortunate tendency of finding Jerkass Homer amusing), but I understood that other people did, and I could recognize what traits they didn’t like. As a result, when the Jean episodes started airing, I found myself rooting for all the ugly Scully traits to vanish so that everyone could go back to agreeing that The Simpsons was the greatest show in the history of the universe.

Of course, that never occurred. A lot of things have happened during Al Jean’s now 10-year reign as Executive Producer of the show, but a return to the quality of the early years is not one of them. Now, that isn’t to say Al Jean didn’t do anything right (although I’m sure some would feel that way). If anything, I look at his all-too-lengthy run as a bit of a mixed bag.

For me, the Jean era can by divided into two categories. Seasons 13-16, which were either a noble failure, or a minor success, depending on how generous you want to be, and everything after that, in which the show gets more generic and less recognizable from The Simpsons each year.

When Al Jean took over the show, it seemed like his goal was to fix some of the errors that had occurred in the Scully era (the wacky third act twists, the ultra-stupidity of Homer, etc) and bring the show back to what it was in the early days. Unfortunately, this didn’t work for a variety of reasons. One was that rather than trying to break new ground and reach new creative heights, the show was engaging in a self-conscious effort to seem like The Simpsons.

That sort of thing rarely works. Whenever something tries to imitate itself, the results almost always end up seeming like an inferior version. Like when the Rolling Stones made Steel Wheels. Sure, it was a decent album, and it was better than, say, Dirty Work, but the band was obviously trying to imitate the standard Stones sound, rather than create something original, and as a result, it wound up being vastly inferior to classics like Let It Bleed and Exile On Main St.

The same problem plagues early Jean era episodes. You can tell they’re trying to tap into what made the early years great, but they don’t quite get there. Take “Sleeping With The Enemy” from Season 16. It’s a well-liked episode on the internet, and really, it’s not too bad. It does, however suffer from a lot of attempts to imitate better episodes that don’t quite work.

Both the main plot and the subplot in this episode are surprisingly emotional for such a late-period episode. The main story involves Nelson coming to live with The Simpsons after Marge discovers how lonely and neglected he feels, while the subplot involves Lisa struggling with body image issues, and bordering on anorexia. Both plots have potential for emotional resonance, and naturally, they both go for the gusto.

This happens in one scene when Bart, frustrated over having Nelson sleeping in his bed, comes into the living room and finds Nelson, crying over his estranged father. Except he’s not just crying, he’s also singing Barbra Streisand’s “Papa, Can You Hear Me”. This is where a potentially poignant moment gets ruined by overkill. For one thing, how the fuck is a 10-year-old boy so familiar with Streisand’s work? Especially one who was previously one of the toughest kids in school? Secondly, even if Nelson does have a secret penchant for 70s lite Adult Contemporary music, the scene would’ve been so much better if Nelson had just been crying, and maybe saying “I miss you, Papa”. Having him sing such a sappy song took an emotional scene and made it simply melodramatic.

Once this is over, a similar problem occurs in the scene involving Lisa that comes immediately after. Lisa decides to have one piece of cake to let herself know she still has self-control. Except it doesn’t work. She starts eating more and more until she dives into the cake and makes snow angels (cake angels?) in it. This just flat out makes no sense. It might be the single most out of character thing Lisa has ever done, and naturally, Jean is doing it to tug at the viewer’s heart strings. As with the Nelson scene, a lighter touch would’ve worked a lot better (maybe Lisa just eats a large portion of cake and then begins crying?), but he wants to let you just how serious the scene is, and as a result, it seems a lot less serious.

I use this episode because it’s the definitive example of how Jean’s attempts to revive the feel of the Golden era didn’t quite work. There’s plenty of good lines here (one favorite: Nelson saying his tadpoles “seem crude by comparison” to the hot dog Marge gives him), but he goes for schmaltz rather than true emotion, and it the episode suffers as a result.

I still think the first 4 years of Jean’s run did spark a minor improvement, because while episodes like “Sleeping With The Enemy” didn’t reach the heights of the best years, they also didn’t feature the ridiculous plot twists and zany-for-the-sake-of-zany silliness that dragged the Scully era into the ground (note: a few episodes did this, with “Helter Shelter” and “Strong Arms Of The Ma” being the worst examples, but it was no longer the rule).

If Jean’s run had ended after Season 16, I think we’d look at it as a lot more of success than we do now. “Maybe he didn’t completely save the show, but he did improve on a lot of the major problems,” we’d say. But no, that couldn’t be the case. He had to keep going, and that’s when the show to started to really go off the deep end.

For me, Season 17 marked the greatest decline from one season to another in the show’s history. Why? Because rather than become overly wacky like it did in the Scully years, it became overly generic. Episodes became indistinguishable from each other, and in general, it felt like the episodes were coming off an assembly line. This problem continues to this day, and is one of the biggest problems with Zombie Simpsons: the show lacks the traits that used to distinguish it form other shows.

Put it this way, even in the dregs of the Scully era, I can usually recognize an episode form its opening scene. The family at Costco? Oh, it’s “Simpson Safari”. Homer sets off the smoke alarm? Must be “Pygmoelian”. In the post-2005 episodes, things are so generic and indistinguishable that it often takes me until 5 minutes into episode for me to know which episode it is. And these are episodes I’ve seen multiple times. Far too often, the shows just blend into each other.

That, I’m afraid, is what Al Jean’s legacy would be. Rather than being the guy who didn’t quite save the show, but made it a bit better and put it on the right track, he’ll be known as the guy who seized the power and took away all the things that made The Simpsons what they were. Yes, Scully was responsible for that to, but at least his failures had personality, and he left when it was time to leave. Jean continues to act as the shows decidedly unbenevolent (nonbenevolent?) dictator with no end in sight. Being the Simpsons nerd I am, I’ll keep watching, hoping things get a little better (hey Season 22 was probably a little better than Season 21, maybe), and enjoying the one or two legitimately good episodes each year, but the show seems set in its bland, inferior ways now, and as much as I admire his superior work, it seems like Al Jean deserves the majority of the blame for that.

26
Jul
11

Guest Stars Then & Now

- By Gran2

The plethora of Season 22 guest stars filled me with rage. This show is bad enough already without Danica Patrick, Paul Rudd or Mark ‘Facebook’ Zuckerberg turning up to dig it even closer to Earth’s core. I dreaded hearing Al Jean rattle off next season’s list at Comic-Con (spoilers: It included Michael Cera).

The point is: guest stars suck now. The really obscure ones suck because you have no idea who they are, or why they are there (pretty much every guest star from seasons 11 and 12 falls into to this category, or maybe that’s because I’m British). But the really famous ones suck as well.

Whoever they are, whether they’re a sportsperson, a singer or even a professional actor their acting is always so awful, reading the awkward dialogue that normal people would never actually say, and appearing to have been recorded on their first take. They have no reason to be there, yet they either have the episode built around them rather than a plot, or they appear for one line only. But all get to enjoy their own little ego-massage courtesy of Lisa ("Look, it’s J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. You’ve turned a generation of kids onto reading!"). They just throw them on because guest stars represent one of the very few times this show ever gets any press attention anymore. It was the only thing they discussed at Comic-Con last year. It’s literally all they have to say.

Guest stars didn’t used to suck. They used to be great. They belonged in the episode; they had a purpose to the story or, you know, voiced a character. Whether as themselves or as a character they felt like they belonged in Springfield, just as the episodes they were in belonged on television.

Their appearance first and foremost made sense: they were both relevant to the plot and their presence in Springfield wasn’t ridiculous. It makes sense for Springfield to have celebrities visiting. It’s home to Krusty the Clown, one of the most famous entertainers of all time. Why wouldn’t he be friends with Bette Middler and Johnny Carson? There’s a clear difference between that and people like James Caan just suddenly appearing there. Guest stars appear to present an award for outstanding achievement in the field of excellence or to open a monorail and when they were there, they were funny ("A solar eclipse. The cosmic ballet goes on"). And they didn’t just then vanish. Most of them appeared in more than one scene, so actually have some kind of character progression. Guest stars rarely, if ever, actually were the focus of the plot as themselves. Instead, their most substantial parts were when they were playing characters. Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, John Waters, Danny DeVito, Dustin Hoffman. All excellent performances and playing excellent characters.

The philosophy of guest parts has clearly changed since the good old days. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein picked most of their guest stars because they had unique voices which actually led to good characters. The fact that R. Lee Ermey and Lawrence Tierney were going to be appearing was never really going to draw viewers but they did a damn site more memorable job than big stars like Seth Rogen or Sacha Baron Cohen. Furthermore, they actually dropped guest stars if they didn’t fit. Collette the waitress from "Flaming Moe’s" was supposed to be voiced by Catherine O’Hara. She actually recorded the part but they replaced her with Jo Ann Harris because, in the words of Mike Reiss on the DVD commentary "Something about her did not animate correctly. The voice did not work for our purposes." And it wasn’t just her. Maggie Roswell was selected over Julie Andrews to voice Shary Bobbins due to her great reading, likewise Hank Azaria over William H. Macy for Frank Grimes. Hell, Bill and Josh said in their NoHomers chat that they wanted Robert DeNiro to guest star; in the end he didn’t, because they couldn’t find a good enough part for him. Nowadays they’d just shove him in.

Now to stop me rambling on, here are three clear examples of why guest stars used to be great. Robert Goulet. The baseballers in "Homer at the Bat". And the Ramones.

Robert Goulet’s appearance in "$pringfield" is a perfect guest spot. He doesn’t dominate the show, it makes sense he’s there (he’s flown in after being hired for a gig at Burns’ Casino) and he’s funny. But above all, they make fun of him.

Goulet: You from the casino?
Bart: I’m from a casino.
Goulet: Good enough, let’s go.

Goulet: Are you sure this is the casino? I think I should call my manager.
Nelson: Your manager says for you to shut up!
Goulet: Vera said that?

In six lines, they make Goulet seem unprofessional and then they tell him to shut up. Perfect.

The baseballers in "Homer at the Bat" are also a perfect example of good guest stars. Along with "Krusty Gets Kancelled" this episode shows that lots of guest stars in one episode doesn’t have to suck. Again, their presence makes sense. Why wouldn’t an evil old billionaire cheat in order to win a bet? But what really made them great was their performances, which are all much better than, for example, John C Reilly’s. Let’s just emphasise that: a bunch of professional baseballers give a better, more emotive and more believable performance than an Academy Award-nominated actor. Now, as said, I’m British, and have absolutely no interest or knowledge of baseball whatsoever, but that doesn’t affect my love for this episode. When these nine players die I won’t remember them for however many points they got (if that’s what you get in baseball?) I’ll remember because they were great in this episode. Particular praise to Don Mattingly, Mike Scioscia and Darryl Strawberry.

And finally, a comparison between old and new guest stars, with very similar parts, which have vastly different results. First, the good one. The Ramones appearance in "Rosebud" is brief, but outstanding.

Smithers: Here are several fine young men who I’m sure are gonna go far. Ladies and gentlemen, the Ramones!
Burns: Ah, these minstrels will soothe my jangled nerves.
Ramone 1: I’d just like to say this gig sucks!
Ramone 2: Hey, up yours, Springfield.
Ramone 1: One, two, three, four!
Happy Birthday to you! (Happy Birthday!)
Happy Birthday to you! (Happy Birthday!)
Happy Birthday, Burnsey,
Happy Birthday to you!
Ramone 3: Go to hell, you old bastard.
Ramone 4: Hey, I think they liked us!
Burns: Have the Rolling Stones killed.
Smithers: Sir, those aren’t —
Burns: Do as I say!

They are there for a clear, logical reason: to play for Burns’ birthday party. And every single line in that scene builds on the previous one to make it one of the most hilarious scenes ever.

And now Coldplay, from season 21′s craptacular "Million Dollar Maybe":

Chris Martin: [sings Viva la Vida]
Bart: Wait, I have to go to the bathroom.
Martin: So, where are you from Homer?
Homer: Here.
[They start again]
Homer: Wait.
Martin: Yes Homer.
Homer: Do you think you could use someone like me in your band?
Martin: Yeah come on up, you can play the tambourine.
Homer: I said someone like me, I didn’t say me.
[They sing again]

They are there because Homer paid them, because he won the lottery, for some reason. It’s sterile, humourless and they couldn’t even be bothered to write parts for the other band members.

In conclusion, mono means one, and rail means rail. Guest stars are yet another example of something that used to be great, but is now terrible. And that concludes our intensive three-week course. Good day and I apologise for wasting your time.

14
Jul
11

Growing Up with The Simpsons

- By Gabe Kagan

All evidence from the past points to my father being a big fan of The Simpsons. He watched the episodes, he had many of them on VHS, and his collection of Simpsons comics is comprehensive and remains mainly in mint condition with many of the more obscure series from the early ’90s. So it’s basically to be expected that this fandom would rub off on me. One problem, though: I was born in 1992. So while everyone at DHS was reveling in the early, golden seasons of the show, I was a small child learning the skills of life and watching the usual kiddie TV.

Fast forward to about 1997 or so. I’m not exactly sure when, but at this time, my father (an electrical engineer) was apparently working late shifts, so in the morning and early afternoon I would frequently see him pull out (if not a training video, most likely on advanced mathematics), a rerun of Simpsons or something. So at this point, I knew the show existed, and could laugh when Homer got hurt, or care for the inhabitants of Springfield when Bart’s comet was on its way to doom them all, but not much else. I do remember not being perturbed by Homer strangling Bart. Nothing like cartoon violence to warp one’s mind. Despite having the tapes, my access to early Simpsons was patchy at best. For the longest time, I thought the first episode ever made was "There’s No Disgrace Like Home", because I never paid much attention to the credits. In any given season, I’d probably seen about 3 episodes at best, and there was a huge gap from Seasons 4 to 6 where I basically saw no episodes of the show until many years later. Besides, shows like Beast Wars, Animaniacs, Pokemon were more to my liking early on, so I didn’t really make any effort to watch The Simpsons as it unfolded for quite a while. Even my exposure to the media at large was very odd. I read a great deal of the comic books and played a few of the licensed games (Everyone loves Konami’s arcade game, but they also published a good action adventure game on PCs called "Bart Simpson’s House of Weirdness"). Of course, they were mostly crap, but that was hardly abnormal by the standards.

It was about 2002 or so when a trifecta of events happened:

1. Our family started buying the full seasons on DVD (Only the first three, but still). I remember watching these religiously for a while – now that I was older I understood many more of the references and had a better attention span.

2. The local syndication had a good run of many episodes of the golden years, allowing me to fill in a few holes in that crucial Season 4-8 bracket.

3. We started sitting down and actually watching the episodes as a family. This lasted until about Season 17, then I stopped following the newest seasons.

Zombie episodes go down better when A: You’re a teenager with an immature sense of humor, and B: You watch the episodes with your family. With dim memories of the classic seasons and decaying VHS tapes removing their frame of reference, they found it laugh-out-loud funny. I found it laugh out loud funny, too. I can look back on these seasons and remember why I thought they were funny (especially Seasons 15 and 16), and it serves as a useful reference.

Eventually, I decided that, to seal the remaining cracks, I needed to watch every episode. I started with the early seasons (mostly, because I wasn’t watching them in any fixed order). It doesn’t bare repeating that I enjoyed those – more importantly, I became very aware of the gap between the older and the newer episodes. The key here is the wave of "edgier" shows competing with the Simpsons, because the landscape of television was obviously far different in 1997 than it was in 1991. Shows like Seinfeld, Beavis and Butthead, South Park, etc. count, obviously, but even outside TV, there was a market for extremity of a sort. If thrash, death metal, hardcore existed in the ’80s and had a small market, grunge and nu-metal were often far more tailored towards mainstream tastes while offering small doses of aggression and pain to a much larger audience. Had this not appeared, and the show’s writing declined in a similar fashion, the crappiness DHS writes about would probably tend towards the glurge of "Marge Be Not Proud" and similar. Extremity explains much of your hatred of the Simpsons. More importantly, extremity often appeals to the teenage demographic, so it makes sense that Season 16 Simpsons would have a hold on me at my age. It must be more zany! It must be more contemporary! It must be more subversive! It especially must be more profitable! Consider the episode "Itchy, Scratchy, and Poochie", and the scenes that reveal the cartoon dog Poochie as nothing but an avatar of carefully plotted commercialism. Then again, that’s what happens when you rastafy your character 10% or so. Personally, I think it’s a fun, self-aware episode, but one must be aware that The Simpsons had relatively little executive meddling. Hence, the problems come from within.

I digressed there, but it’s the conclusion that continued watching has impressed upon me. The show is certainly, in a way, more extreme than it is now, but it’s basically made such a strong impression on me that I was able to enjoy or at least tolerate it for much longer than the people at DHS, and that it’s probably influenced me in more ways than it has them.

Visit my blog at http://invisiblesandwichtm.wordpress.com/

Note: In the process of writing, I was reminded of an episode of Stuart Ashen’s tech reviews in which the product in question is emblazoned with a horribly mutated Bart Simpson. Adequate visual metaphor? You decide. [Editor’s Note: I know we’ve linked this before, but I couldn’t find it just now.  It’s funny.]

30
Jun
11

Ten Scary Simpsons Moments

- By Andreas

“Cool, she’ll be a freak!” – Bart

To have an annual Halloween episode is one thing. To freely cram shocking, ghoulish imagery into otherwise normal episodes of a family sitcom is another. But then, The Simpsons’ writers and animators never had much interest in following formulas or obeying TV conventions, preferring to meld their own savagely satirical experiments with an emotionally naturalistic representation of family life. This, and the fluid nature of its animation, meant that the show could veer from mundane reality to nightmarish fantasy in the blink of an eye.

Here, then, are ten of the most WTF-inspiring, pants-wetting moments from Simpsons continuity. They’re all bizarre, deeply terrifying digressions, but each one still adds depth to its episode. I give you the crème de la crème of The Simpsons’ out-of-nowhere scares…

10) “The Day the Violence Died”

thedaytheviolencedied2
This episode’s ending introduces Lester and Eliza, doppelgängers for Bart and Lisa who save the day, ominously pass by the Simpson house, and are never seen again. They’re drawn roughly in the same style as the Tracey Ullman shorts, but their appearance isn’t nostalgic so much as an eerie, never-resolved non sequitur. As Bart says, “There’s something unsettling about that.”

9) “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer”

elviajemisteriosodenuestrojomer2
Homer’s visit to the land of the Space Coyote—a blocky, stylized version of the American Southwest—is probably the series’ most effectively sustained foray into the surreal. Most of his hallucination, however, is more psychedelically beautiful than it is scary. The exception is when Homer spots a faceless statue of Marge which, as he begs it to talk to him, blows away in the wind. It’s a disturbing visual metaphor for the failure to communicate.

8) “Lisa’s First Word”

lisasfirstword3
When Homer’s shoddy woodworking skills meet the automatically scary concept of “clown,” it’s no surprise that this monstrosity is the result. It’s such a dead-on evocation of how frightening the world is to a child and how oblivious parents can be, all summed up in one meme-generating sentence: “Can’t sleep… clown’ll eat me…”

7) “Itchy & Scratchy Land”

itchyandscratchyland2
Countless I&S episodes and their respective mutilations could’ve fit in this slot, but for some reason I find this excerpt from Scratchtasia to be the worst of all. When an army of microscopic Itchies hack Scratchy up from the inside, this grotesque diversion transcends its Fantasia-parodying roots and sends shivers up my spine. Eww!

6) “The Old Man and the Lisa”

theoldmanandthelisa1
On the whole, this is one of season 8′s weaker episodes, and its interplay between Lisa and Mr. Burns lacks any real subversive bite. Still, the finale is gross and traumatizing enough to compensate for all of that, as Burns perverts Lisa’s ecofriendly idealism into a plant that “recycles” all sea life into a repulsive slurry. His scheme is so vile and implausibly evil that it’s impossible to watch without a severe cringe.

5) “New Kid on the Block”

newkidontheblock2
Yeah, it’s just a quick cutaway to literalize Bart’s heartbreak, but it’s also scary in its own right between the narrowed palette of red, black, and blue and the malice in Laura’s voice as she says “You won’t be needing this!” It viscerally captures the power of preteen angst with, in effect, a very short and vivid horror movie. The heart sliding down the wall and into the trash bin is the perfect final touch.

4) “Selma’s Choice”

selmaschoice3
Nothing good can come of little kids visiting a beer-themed amusement park and, sure enough, Bart badgers Lisa into drinking the mysterious, hallucinogenic “water” of Duff Gardens. As Lisa descends into a hellish trip, her aunt transforms into something out of Ralph Steadman’s worst nightmares, complete with a monster growing from her shoulder. The finishing touch? The pale, naked Lisa shouting, “I am the lizard queen!” before being heavily medicated.

3) “Brother from the Same Planet”

brotherfromthesameplanet3
This episode’s whole opening sequence is a brutal glimpse into the emotional dynamics of abandonment and irresponsible parenting, as Homer forgets to pick Bart up from soccer practice. Homer lies in the bathtub, dreaming about finding his son’s skeleton, while Bart waits in the rain, seething with rage. Eventually Homer goes to retrieve his son, but by then he’s so intensely furious that he imagines his father melting amidst plumes of hellfire.

This brief fantasy goes straight into the deep end of unmitigated horror. I don’t think any other episode (Treehouse of Horror included) has a single image as disturbing as Homer’s flesh bubbling and his eyes turning back into his head as he leans in to say, “How ’bout a hug?” The image draws us into the depths of Bart’s resentment, motivating the rest of the episode while chilling us to the bone.

2) “My Sister, My Sitter”

mysistermysitter4
This is the rare Simpsons episode whose main goal is to inspire fear rather than laughter. It’s still very funny, but as it approaches its climax beneath the harsh Squidport lights, any comedy is overwhelmed by the raw terror of Lisa’s waking nightmare. It’s a precocious child’s worst-case scenario: saddled with a small responsibility, she (through Bart’s ADHD-exacerbated behavior) has lost control and is wandering down the highway—her unconscious brother in a wheelbarrow and her baby sister in a cat carrier.

And somehow, with every turn, this worst case grows even worse. When the hazy, mud-soaked Lisa gazes up at the judgmental townspeople, it paralyzes me with vicarious anxiety. Every childhood has at least one or two events this bad, and “My Sister, My Sitter” is a painful reminder of how easily they can come about.

1) “Bart Sells His Soul”

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I’ve written extensively about this episode over at Pussy Goes Grrr; suffice it to say that Bart’s dark night of the soul, as he scrambles through downtown Springfield in spiritual peril, is easily among the series’ scariest moments. It’s hard enough to see Bart quivering in fear throughout the episode, but when he begs a terrified Ralph for “a soul… any soul—yours!” it crosses over into another territory altogether.

It becomes deep, dark, and disturbing. It’s stomach-churning horror that organically emerges from the show’s perceptive vision of childhood. That organic quality is exactly why The Simpsons contained such great, spellbinding moments of horror. If you look hard enough into the minds and souls of its inhabitants, Springfield can be a very scary place.

23
Jun
11

A Lisa-centric Simpsons Marathon

- By Lenny Burnham

Yesterday I planned and executed a Lisa-centric Classic Simpsons marathon. I thought I’d make a handy guide of what discs you’ll need if you want to replicate this marathon and throw in a few notes and observations from the discussion that came up while we were watching.

Season One

Moaning Lisa (Disc One)

  • This episode caused an argument between my roommate and I. She just doesn’t like season one, even though this episode has Lisa saying she’s wailing for the homeless, poor farmers and sick miners and Mr. Largo telling her that none of those unpleasant people will be at the recital and Bleeding Gums telling her that she plays pretty well for someone with no real problems and that the blues is about making other people feel worse and making a few bucks while you’re at it. I know Dan Castellaneta sounds weird and half the people have the wrong hair and skin color, but come on.
  • I was a pretty depressed third grader and I listened to Lisa’s blues song a lot, with a level of seriousness that I probably should be ashamed of now, but I’m not.
  • It’s incredibly sad that Marge doesn’t really know how to comfort Lisa, even though we see that Marge was an unhappy child as well. It’s nice to see a comedy really go there.

 

Season Two

Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment (Disc Three)

  • This marathon was partially inspired by Lisa being a relatively underrated character when compared to Homer and Bart, so I was happy to report that the commentary on this episode states that they added Lisa’s name to the title because episodes with her name in the title are always popular. Looking at this list of episodes, I can see why.

 

Lisa’s Substitute (Disc Four)

  • My friend Sara has a theory that Holly Holiday from Glee is a direct rip off of the Dustin Hoffman character in this. A zany substitute who dresses up in historical costumes and tries to teach the kids to love themselves? I see it.
  • This episode and “Moaning Lisa” are both very funny while being about a depressed child who will probably not feel any better for a long time. That might be one of the strongest aspects of Classic Simpsons.
  • I use the phrase “Semitic good looks” a lot. It comes up.

 

Season Three

Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington (Disc One)

  • This episode has a nice handful of good jokes with a feminist bent, but my favorite is definitely Homer and Marge’s respective responses to the “Ms.-Haps” cartoon. The title alone is such a great satire of just how blatantly sexist the media can be. Then we get Homer and Marge’s respective responses. Homer says, “Ain’t it the truth.” Marge responds by saying it’s not the truth, it’s just a sexist stereotype. Homer immediately busts out the “it’s just entertainment” excuse. He insists that cartoons don’t have any deeper meaning despite the fact that he’d said “ain’t it the truth” just a second before, perfectly demonstrating the faultiness of people insisting “it’s just entertainment” when something perpetuates terrible stereotypes. Classic Simpsons: the show that will have a brilliant moment of insight and then show an ass crack. They were firing on all cylinders.
  • Lisa Sees Dead People #1: The Thomas Jefferson statue comes to life and talks to her. She isn’t taken aback.
  • I love how encouraging Bart is in this episode. It took someone who doesn’t care at all about authority or politeness to give Lisa the total support she deserves. (“Cesspool! Cesspool!”)

 

Lisa’s Pony (Disco Two)

  • I love that Bleeding Gums Murphy loves Bart’s comedy routine. That man is so nurturing of the Simpsons kids’ talents.

 

Lisa the Greek (Disc Three)

  • I made an apartment for my Barbie in a shoebox, but I can’t remember whether I got the idea from this episode.
  • This episode says that gambling is illegal in 48 states. They were slightly off: It’s actually illegal in 2 states. [I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they were probably talking specifically about sports betting, but they do just say “gambling.”]

 

Separate Vocations (Disc Three)

  • I love that this episode shows what an effective badass Lisa would be if she were a badass. Stealing the Teacher’s Editions was a fantastic prank. The teachers should be lucky that Bart is the hellraiser and not Lisa because Bart and Krabappel can spar back and forth, but Lisa would eventually just destroy her teacher.

Season Four

Lisa the Beauty Queen (Disc One)

  • Props to Lisa for being on the ball enough to see the danger of Amber’s scepter acting as a lightning rod when no one else was worried about it.

 

I Love Lisa (Disc 3)

  • Excellent use of the “Monster Mash.”
  • “I’m not gay, but I’ll learn.”
  • I’m proud of Lisa for finding the “Let’s Bee Friends” card—it expressed exactly what she wanted to say and had the kind of pun Ralph loves. I imagine she was searching Hallmark for at least ninety minutes.

 

Season Five

Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy (Disc 3)

  • It’s hard to talk about this episode in a concise manner because there’s so much to say about it. For now I’ll leave it at the fact that calling this episode “timeless” feels wrong because I think the ultimate goal of this episode is to aim for a better world where the satire around talking Malibu Stacy won’t feel timeless.
  • We were sort of disappointed that season 5 only had one Lisa-centered episode, but they did really hit it out of the park with “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy.” I assume that after that one, everyone was afraid to pitch Lisa ideas since they didn’t want to follow that.

 

Season Six

Lisa’s Rival (Disc 1)

  • My roommate and I both strongly believe that Homer’s sugar rant and that plot in general are the highest forms of comedy that mankind has ever achieved.  We are consistently baffled when we watch this episode with people who aren’t brought to tears by the power of the sugar b-plot.

 

Lisa on Ice (Disc 2)

  • “I hope you understand I’m too tense to pretend I like you”

 

Lisa’s Wedding (Disc 3)

  • They were really on the ball predicting Lisa’s outfit. She’s clearly wearing skinny jeans and an American Apparel sweater.
  • I never realized it before, but this episode referenced Lisa growing up to be a vegetarian and came out before “Lisa the Vegetarian.” The writers really understand their characters.

 

‘Round Springfield (Disc 4)

  • Lisa Sees Dead People #2: Bleeding Gums Murphy communicates to Lisa through the clouds, not to mention Mufasa, Darth Vader and the CNN guy. She isn’t taken aback.

 

Season Seven

Lisa the Vegetarian (Disc 1)

  • I think the Independent Thought Alarm sequence is Simpsons at its best. The idea of an elementary school with an Independent Thought Alarm is already so powerful and then they perfectly build on it by having Skinner say that the children are overstimulated and instructing Willy to take the colored chalk out of the classrooms.

 

Lisa the Iconoclast (Disc 3)

  • Lisa Sees Dead People #3: George Washington visits Lisa. Naturally.

Summer of 4 Ft. 2 (Disc 4)

  • It seems like Lisa is really dismissive of the two girls on the yearbook. They like her, so shouldn’t that be enough? The theory we came up with is that those two girls are so close with each other that it’s impossible for Lisa to get in on that friendship.
  • During one of the touching Lisa/Erin scenes, I mentioned that this episode is borderline romantic. I mean, Lisa and Erin really grow fond of each other over the course of the episode. My friends who weren’t distracted by being a huge lesbian reminded me that when you’re a kid, friendships tend to get so close they seem romantic because you’re very quickly like, “I’ve never felt this way before!”

 

Well, that’s the marathon. I will give Season 8 a little credit by mentioning that there are episodes in Season 8 that I consider to be well worth watching. Sadly, “My Sister, My Sitter” and “The War of Lisa Simpson” are not among them.

16
Jun
11

A Simpsons Confession

- By Charles Kenny

Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been 6 months since I last watched a new episode of The Simpsons.

I sinned against comedy when I decided that one, fateful Sunday evening to watch a film on Netflix instead of ‘Animation Domination’. I knew it was wrong, but by that stage I has reached my wits’ end.

Long had I watched the quality of one of my favourite shows decline. I stuck with it through thick and thin; the unmasking of Seymour Skinner, the many instances of Marge kicking Homer out of the house, seeing Mr. Burns slowly slip into senility and of course, the many, many personal lives of the peripheral characters that required the Simpsons’ involvement for one reason or another.

I suppose I should have known the slide was coming, I mean, how many times can Homer let out that wail of a sigh that signals his displeasure with something? The answer is a lot and even once an episode is too many.

The nonsensical plots also influenced me. Perhaps I had grown too accustomed to the finely honed scripts that were enacted before me every evening. Perhaps I really have watched too many re-runs. I have been spoiled for the last 15 years or so.

Perhaps it was the fact that I had slowly come to the conclusion that the turning point of the series was, in fact, an innocuous scene in “Maximum Homerdrive”. Over time, I came to realise that the second that truck began to drive itself, the series had indeed, become a parody no longer based in the real world, but a fantasy one where anything is possible.

After a few years of that, the move to a widescreen HD format practically sealed the deal. Not long after, it became harder and harder to justify the time spent watching FOX on a Sunday evening.

Before I knew it, earlier this year, I faced the prospect of watching a new episode or seeing a film I’d never seen before on Netflix. The choice was tough, my palms were sweaty, my brow furrowed in pensive thoughts, but at last my choice was made. I switched on the Roku and began watching. I nearly turned my face away in shame, but I couldn’t not after all I’d been through.

While I admit I have turned my back on a friend, I can say in all honesty that said friend has changed beyond recognition. The truth may hurt initially, but now that I have accepted it and moved on, I realise that I made the right choice. My life is fuller, my Sunday evenings more enjoyable and my passion for the old days is untainted. Yes, leaving zombie Simpsons behind was the best thing I’ve ever done, and why you should do the same.

02
Aug
10

Animation Showcase: Homer Goes to College

- By Bob Mackey

When The Simpsons had its prime-time debut in 1989, the show’s animation was considered crude by most. While it’s true that the visuals improved by leaps and bounds after that first rocky year, the original 12 episodes of The Simpsons – despite their roughness – still stand as a major leap forward in the progress of television animation. And over The Simpsons’ first handful of years, talented artists like Brad Bird, David Silverman, Jeffrey Lynch, Jim Reardon, Wes Archer, and Rich Moore (amongst others) not only defined and refined the look of the show; they also raised the bar for a genre of entertainment largely considered — at the time, anyway — a brainless distraction for equally brainless children. For these visionaries, The Simpsons provided the opportunity for endless experimentation; which is why it’s no wonder that most of these folks went on to fame and fortune at outstanding animation studios like Pixar and Rough Draft.

Generally speaking, the animation on the first six-or-so years of The Simpsons is far “looser” than what it would eventually become; the art on these early seasons complemented the excellent writing, instead merely serving as just a platform for the dialogue. For lack of a better term, directors and animators on The Simpsons were once allowed to make their drawings more “cartoony,” which meant deviating from the standard design of a model sheet for the sake of drawing the strong poses necessary to create a visually interesting and, most importantly, funny image. Of course, when this is taken too far, the results can be disastrous: you only need to look at the outtakes from “Some Enchanted Evening” to see what happens when a group of animators gets The Simpsons completely wrong. But, when used correctly, brief bits of cartooniness can add vibrancy and emotion to a scene – which is something the show used to do very well.

Over the years, The Simpsons’ animation became much more conservative and homogenized, and by the end of season eight, the show had lost nearly all of its cartoon snappiness. And as a fan of the show, it’s this quality I miss the most. For my first post on Dead Homer Society, I’ve decided to visually dissect “Homer Goes to College,” which is an excellent showcase for the brilliant animation once seen on The Simpsons. For those worried, this examination isn’t going to be couched in technical terms; as an animation enthusiast, I’m going to try and break this down into terms everyone can understand.

1 2 3 4

This early scene of Homer chasing a bee down a hallway relies entirely on the animation for its humor. Sure, the idea itself is a little funny, but a sitcom-staged shot of Homer running wouldn’t be as funny as what we see here: strong, goofy poses that punctuate his haplessness.

5 6 7 8 9

Here’s a brief instance of some cartoony punctuation. These drawings are incredibly odd when compared to how we normally see Homer, but he quickly snaps back into his normal model once he leaps from the sewer. You can tell whoever drew this was having a lot of fun.

10 11 12 13

When was the last time The Simpsons made you laugh with a drawing alone? Here, Homer is locked in an exaggerated position that seemingly defies his anatomy, but that only adds to the hilarity of the scene. Strangely enough, Matt Groening always hated this kind of stuff; if you listen to various DVD commentaries, he claims he was always obsessed with giving the characters solid and consistent anatomy. This isn’t inherently bad, but it makes drawings like the ones throughout this post practically illegal.

14

This shot isn’t particularly mind-blowing, but I picked it because it shows how expressive the characters used to be. Here, Homer’s eyes and mouth are a little bigger than normal, but these small embellishments really sell his sense of panic. In general, eyes on the Simpsons used to be much bigger, and much more expressive, as we’ll see below.

15 16 17

One of the subtle hallmarks of Simpsons animation used to be the eye bulge; animators would sprinkle this little bit of business in dialogue heavy-scenes to accentuate certain words or ideas. Here, Burns isn’t speaking, but his eye bulge adds a little zing to his freak out. If you weren’t aware of the eye bulge, go back and check out some early episodes while keeping this little bit of acting in mind — it’s everywhere.

18 19

Again, nothing mind-blowing about the animation here, but the brief bit of squash and stretch before Homer’s standard scream makes his reaction much more expressive.

20

On these earlier episodes of the Simpsons, it wasn’t odd to see characters emote in ways they never had before. Instead of looking at model sheets for stock expressions, the animators in these days tailored the emotion of their drawings to the unique situation of the scene. We’ve seen Homer angry countless times before, but for some reason, this drawing feels fresh.

21

An excellent display of self-control from whoever laid out this scene. Later episodes would probably place the emphasis on Homer, but the composition of this shot (which goes on for a while) sells the awkwardness of the situation, and highlights Homer’s choice of seating.

22 23

More acting unique to this episode. I don’t think I’ve seen Homer in these poses before or since.

24

Nothing incredible happening here, but I took this screenshot to highlight how Homer was generally plumper and more retarded in Jim Reardon’s episodes. His walleye here used to be a hallmark of the shows eye acting (along with the bulge), which seems to have been lost to the mists of time.

25

Another expression I haven’t seen before or since. Something tells me this brief bit of self-satisfaction from Homer wouldn’t look nearly as funny if it was animated five years later.

26

A really strong pose from Homer. What would you call this emotion? It’s a perfect, dialogue-free reaction to the nerd revealing the reality of their road trip.

27

This scene begins with an amazing shot and tons of detail. Staging like this is what made The Simpsons so much more visually interesting than anything that had come before. The planning of the prank could have begun with a less complicated shot, but its current layout really sells the mock-drama of the scene.

28 29 30 31 32

Another bit of exaggerated animation before Homer pops back into a normal pose.

33 34 35 36 37 38

And again. The simulated motion blur of Sir Oinks-A-Lot’s face is absolutely hilarious, and really makes him seem vicious for those brief few frames. Homer’s eye bulge is equally great; I actually remember slow-mo-ing this scene back when I originally recorded the episode as a kid.

39 40 41 42

Some fantastic poses from Bart and Lisa that really sell the range of emotions they go through in this scene: from awe, to shock, to panicked urgency. You don’t even need to be aware of the scene’s context to know what they’re feeling.

43

A hilarious shot, from a perspective of The Simpsons I believe we’ve never seen before or since (or perhaps just not that often). The characters’ unique anatomy makes them extremely weird-looking from certain angles, but going with a strange, funny shot like this just shows how much the animators were willing to experiment.

44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55

This may be my favorite bit of animation in the entire history of The Simpsons; in fact, I look forward to this scene every time I watch Homer Goes to College. It’s incredibly brief, but the animators transformed a simple stage direction into an incredibly expressive (and impressive) bit of acting. Every little frame, from Homer’s confident slide out of this chair, to his jaunty little walk, to the way he hands in his paper, completely sells his confidence in a way that dialogue never could. If I didn’t know better — and I don’t — I’d say David Silverman did this scene.

56

Another great expression to end this post. You can really tell that Homer has no goddamned idea what he’s talking about, here.

Since I have no way to conclude this little article except awkwardly, I’d like to thank you for humoring me in this examination of what I feel is one of The Simpsons’ most-overlooked qualities. If I can muster up the fortitude to do this again, I’ll probably tackle “Homer’s Triple Bypass” next.




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