Archive for the 'Compare & Contrast' Category

19
Nov
14

Compare & Contrast: Pranking the New Teacher

The PTA Disbands16

“Kids have been doing that one since my day.” – Marge Simpson

Rather than get into the nonsensical pageant of the transmundane that was the last third of “Blazed and Confused”, I’d like to take a look at a small moment from the beginning that illustrates the general shallowness of this episode.  Specifically, the way that Bart’s closet/skeleton “prank” fails as both a prank, a joke, and as a part of the rest of the episode, especially when compared with Bart’s similar actions in “The PTA Disbands”.

While the backstories differ considerably, the immediate situation in both episodes is remarkably similar.  In each one, the kids have a new teacher about whom they know basically nothing other than, as Bart says, “They’re trying to teach”.  Also in each, Bart has prepared an elaborate booby trap to welcome the newly unfortunate teacher.  This is where the two episodes diverge.

In “Blazed and Confused”, Bart has hidden a remote control car and a skeleton in the closet at the back of the room.  His plan is to bump the car into the door a couple of times to get the teacher to investigate; when the door is opened, the skeleton drops from the ceiling, presumably frightening the teacher.

JustConfusing

This is, to put it mildly, a very pedestrian prank.  It wouldn’t be all that hard to set up in real life.  Unless the person involved was very high strung or this was being done late at night on Halloween or something, it probably wouldn’t frighten anyone so much as briefly puzzle them.  For proof, look no further than “Bart Carney”, which did the exact same thing as an example of something that was indefensibly lame.

Bart Carny5

“That was just confusing.”

To be fair to Zombie Simpsons, upon seeing Bart’s hapless skeleton trick, Milhouse says that it’s only kinda scary.  So they’re aware that this is not one of Bart’s masterpieces.  But they still have him go through with it, thinking it’ll work.  It’s Bart doing what so many characters do in Zombie Simpsons: act contrary to who he is.  Similarly, later in the episode, Marge will blindly trust Homer to do something that the Marge of Season 6 would never blindly trust Homer to do.  The situations and story requirements are so dumb that they require the characters to act like lifeless versions of themselves just to get from scene to scene.

Bart’s prank, which they show us twice, is something the Bart of “The PTA Disbands” would scoff at.  He’s the kid who hung a giant log from the ceiling to smash some unsuspecting teacher back into the blackboard.  It would probably be fatal in real life, but that doesn’t matter because this is a cartoon and nothing bad actually happens.  Bart leaps to his mother’s rescue, and she, having nearly just killed, fondly intones that kids have been attacking their teachers Ewok-style since she was in school.

This is one of those multi-layer jokes that made this show so damned funny.  There’s 1) the over the top violence of it, 2) the fact that little 10-year-olds are vicious enough to plan it, 3) that 10-year-olds have always been doing that, and 4) that all of this is considered so normal that nobody is even upset.  And none of that even takes in the context: Bart having to be reminded of them by Milhouse, the list of already dispatched teachers, and Bart suffering the beginnings of the perpetual embarrassment of being one of his earnestly uncool mother’s students.

The PTA Disbands15

And Milhouse didn’t even have to stick his nose through the hole.

The blackboard shattering impact of the log isn’t any kind of stand alone joke or punchline.  It’s a fast and necessary part of a complete scene where each element complements and exaggerates every other.  The last line before it comes crashing down is Milhouse’s, “I meant the other bobby trap!”, a statement that wouldn’t make sense if we hadn’t already seen Bart brush the thumb tack off Marge’s chair, or rush up there in a panic, or the rest of the scene that explains what they’re doing.

By contrast, the last line before Season 26 Bart starts his effort at teacher warfare, is Bart saying, “I will not.  Anything to delay a spelling test”.  What spelling test?  What is Bart hoping this hapless thing he once saw in a broken down carnival ride is going to accomplish?  Cause this guy to run off screaming?  Prime him for the most traumatic hose soaking of his life?  We sure don’t know.  He’s trying to get out of something the audience neither knows nor cares about, and what he’s doing wouldn’t work anyway.  In and of itself, the prank is dumber and weaker, and outside of that it dangles (literally) in the middle of the scene with hardly a connection to outside events.

You can see this same isolation and lack of connection throughout “Blazed and Confused”.  The scene where Jason shows up to murder the park ranger was just a random thing dropped into the middle of the episode.  There are literally no characters at “Blazing Guy” other than Lassen.  Everyone else in attendance is just a one note blip, on and off the screen for whatever reason they happened to be there.  Lassen introducing himself in Skinner’s office hardly needed to be there.  And, given that his face cutting was probably the creepiest thing he did, the episode likely would’ve been better off without that entire scene.

Zombie Simpsons never bothers to weave a joke or a scene together with everything else.  They just stack a few things up and hope a couple of them land.  And if Bart’s prank doesn’t work, who cares?  Maybe the next thing will.  The Simpsons didn’t do that.  It made each part of the script, down to individual lines and words, aspects of a coherent whole that builds on itself.  That intrinsic context and support can make a murderous “prank” hilarious, just as not having context and support can drain the fun from great ideas, and leave bad ones hanging lifelessly from a thread.

13
Nov
14

Compare & Contrast: Planet Express Goes Back in Time

BiteMeCausality

“Choke on that, causality!” – Professor Farnsworth

The Futurama gang has traveled back in time on several occasions and by several different methods, but usually when they do they manage to find something a lot more interesting than in Simpsorama.  They’ve looted ancient treasures, gone back to the American Revolution, and been in and around December 31st, 1999 more times than I can count.  But for an episode that goes and stays in (relatively) contemporary America, the best comparison is easily Roswell That Ends Well.

Both episodes put Fry, Leela, Bender and the Professor in fish-out-of-water situations, but Roswell That Ends Well not only gives them something meaningful to do along the way, it also puts them in an actually interesting place with actually interesting characters.  Simpsorama has dull characters lurch from one unconnected situation to the next, never developing any kind of momentum (story wise or comedy wise).

For starters, just look at the characters we get to see.  Simpsorama has the one-note remains of Professor Frink making lots of weird noises because that’s his catchphrase.  Roswell That Ends Well has all the government scientists who become increasingly frustrated in their attempts to study and dissect Zoidberg.  One of these gives you “glaven flaven” for fifteen seconds, the other gives you “Uh, it’s free” when Zoidberg thinks their experiment is a buffet, “the same deviled egg” during their old fashioned alien autopsy, and “The President is gagging on my gas bladder.  What an honor.”

HotCrackers

Is President Truman coming on to Dr. Zoidberg? He’s not hearing a no.

Similarly, the entire Simpson family doesn’t possess nearly as much character as Fry’s grandparents.  While they can be secretly gay, get blown up in an atomic blast, sleep with their own time traveling grandson, and hear about how the implosion trigger functioned perfectly, the Simpson family has become so flat that they can do little more than repeat catchphrases, or, as the case may be, catch-actions: with Homer strangling Bart-clones being something they thought so funny that they twice did it repeatedly.

The respective settings are just as divergent.  Springfield is a shell of itself at this point.  The long established locales (Moe’s, Barney’s Bowlarama) don’t have anything left to offer, which is why all they could think to do in both was have Bender extend his arms.  There’s something we’ve never seen in either place: a robot from the future with really long arms!

The new spots, this mysterious horse track and (just for the hell of it) Panucci’s Pizza, were there as filler and fan service.  The first was another interchangeable locale for Bender to be a jerk, which would be fine in a regular episode but feels, shall we say, a bit undercooked in a long promised crossover.  The second was a quick and nonsensical reminder of one of Futurama‘s most memorable moments.  It didn’t need to be there, but it did check one more item off the “let’s cram stuff in” list, so I guess there’s that.

By contrast, in Roswell That Ends Well, we get an almost Simpsonized version of a post-war 1940s military base.  There’s the Sgt. Carter like lunatic NCO who wants to eat in the latrine, the obsession with secrecy that leads to shipping President Truman in a wooden crate marked “Canned Eggs”, and the blundering ignorance of the top military officials who can’t understand a theft minded robot carcass or a lonely and annoyingly talkative crustacean.  The whole thing is classic fish-out-of-water comedy and it provides plenty of opportunities for the characters to act like it (“You really don’t cook enough roasts, Leela.”).  Having Bender fit in at a few random Springfield locales isn’t.

The same is true of the Simpson family after they get sucked into the future (for some reason).  While there, they spend most of their time sitting around a table before easily herding the previously uncontrollable Bart-clones into Madison Cube Garden in time for the ending.  Sure, they went to the future, but we don’t get to see them do much, and since there isn’t much to do, the jokes are predictably lame:

Marge: Homer works at a nuclear plant.  He can help us get home.
Professor Farnsworth: Oh, are you good at your job?
Homer: I was voted employee of the month as an April Fool’s Day joke. [resume strangling]

And:

Lisa: Attention goblins, Madison Cube Garden is filled with Butterfinger bars, and people are laying fingers all over them.

It’s the usual litany of weak Zombie Simpsons writing (expository background, general nonsense, and Sitcom 101 setup-punchline-laugh crap), it just happens to be in the future.

FutureConference

Here you go, fans. Enjoy it.

To see how all of that stuff ads up to such weak television, just compare the two endings.  In both, Bender is stuck a thousand years in the past.  Here’s how it plays out in Zombie Simpsons:

Lisa: Wait, wait, wait!  You’re the portal?  How are you gonna get to the future?
Bender: The old fashioned way.

At that latest expository question and answer, Bender turns himself off for a thousand years.  In Futurama, we see the crew rescue Bender’s body and Zoidberg, steal the microwave dish they need, and then blast their way out of the base.  Bender’s head plummets back to Earth as he tells 1947 to kiss his shiny metal ass.  The episode has already shown us what’s happening, so we don’t need it explained, and we get a context appropriate, and extra bitter, rendition of Bender’s favorite saying.

When things get around to wrapping up, we also get two very different actions.  In Zombie Simpsons, Homer pours a beer into Bender’s deactivated head.  Bender replies, “Thanks, buddy.”  In Futurama, the crew finds Bender’s head and “rescues” him from what they think of as a thousand years of lonely torment:

Fry: Bender, what was it like lying in that hole for a thousand years?
Bender: I was enjoying it until you guys showed up.

So were we, Bender.  So were we.

07
Nov
14

Reading Digest: Fan Made Treats Edition

Homer Badman16

“My only hope is this homemade Prozac . . . Hmm, needs more ice cream.” – Homer Simpson

I’ve long been of the belief that the stuff ordinary fans come up with is far, far superior to all that crappy merchandise FOX allows to be pumped out.  This week we have several kick ass examples, including two that you can eat, a cake and a chocolate Homer.  In addition to that, we’ve got a couple of election related links, the original Monkey’s Paw, a couple of lists and a Lego Flanders.

Enjoy.

The Simpson’s Ralph Wiggum Cut-Out Cake – Pictures of that Ralph Wiggum cake that went slightly viral this week in all phases of its construction.  Excellent.

“You call that a knife”: Knifey Spoony now a real game…kinda – I put this up on Twitter earlier this week, but you really need to see it for yourself.  Someone went way above and beyond.  It’s fantastic.

Chalkboard Drawings: The “All Treehouse of Horror” edition – A teacher drew himself into Simpsons Halloween moments in chalk.  Cool.

Photo by henry_hargreaves_photo – Homer Simpson, frozen in chocolate carbonite.  Bravo!

Heroes of Cult: John Swartzwelder – He got a whole county named after him!

The Simpsons’ Halloween: Top 5 – There’s always a few stragglers, and there’s no Zombie Simpsons here.

Pic: This Ralph Wiggum protest banner from La Liga is just great – Indeed it is.  And there’s even a point to it!

Torcida faz protesto na Espanha fantasiada de Simpsons – And speaking of Spanish soccer and the show, this YouTube video from which I do not understand one word.  Lots of effort appears to have gone into both the banners and the costumes, though.

Blackney Spears – Heh.

You won’t believe how much these phone games make per day… – Sure I would.  Though according to these numbers, TSTO is way down in revenue.  A mere 157 ivory back-scratchers per day?  This time last year they were doing double that.

MATURE Cumming up Milhouse Bart Pinback Button Limited Edition – It’s just a button, but it involves Bart having a vagina and googly eyes, plus the birth of Milhouse.  You have been warned/intrigued.

The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs – Want to read the original?  Here you go.

The Best Things About the 90’s – Of course the show is on here.  It couldn’t not be.

The Sea Captain syndrome – How is writer’s block like a casino pitch?  Find out!

Magnificent 7 – TV Kids – The Simpson kids make the cut.

5-sentence review of ‘The Simpsons: Opposites A-Frack’ – I really like these:

Anyway, I was, as usual, bored by an episode that feels like a lecture from somebody who listens to NPR than actual satire or comedy.

New trending GIF tagged black and white halloween… – The couch gag where they all run in as skeletons.

New trending GIF tagged the simpsons time driving… – If only Lenny had someplace to be.

New trending GIF tagged the simpsons jumping trampoline… – Bart will never get tired of this, and Lisa’s gonna have her wedding there.

Could You Go a Month without Social Media? – As explained with a couple of .gifs.

The Top 10 Simpsons Episodes – No Zombie Simpsons here, though you don’t often see “Simpsons Tide” on lists like these.

Hey-Diddly-Ho! – Flanders made out of Lego bricks.

Homer Simpson on Politics – Just like that rainforest scare . . .

Bart Simpson on Voting – The 2014 electorate wasn’t dead.  Getting there?  Sure.  But not yet.

Today on the tray: Vinegar – Heh.

Story of My Life – I think this almost every morning.

Evil Says “Excellent” – Burns on Tuesday’s results.

How many treehouses of horror do we need? – And finally, our old friend Stefen agrees with us:

In the older seasons, they’re the one time where the Simpsons universe gets to reject reality in the spirit of sending up various horror clichés and films. As the series wore on, however, the actual show began to lose touch with reality, becoming yet another cartoon, and in the same manner, the Treehouse of Horror specials became even more redundant.

Pretty much.

04
Nov
14

Compare & Contrast: Burns Drills

Who Shot Mr. Burns Part 1l

“Oil, ho!” – Slant Drilling Worker
“Huzzah!” – C.M. Burns

“Opposites A-Frack” offers more than a few opportunities for comparing and contrasting.  Burns falls in love again, Homer gets a new job again, Burns asks Homer for romantic advice again.  I even briefly contemplated comparing it to those episodes on 30 Rock where hyper-capitalist Alec Baldwin has a secret affair with ultra-liberal Congresswoman Edie Falco, just for a change of pace.  But Burns drilling for gas underneath Springfield is too on the nose from “Who Shot Mr. Burns? Part 1″ to pass up.

In both episodes, Burns is drilling into the Earth so that his mighty apparatus will burst forth with precious fluid.  But each episode handles him, his plan, and those around him very differently.  For a quick illustrative example, here’s Burns after Bart and Lisa walk into his unguarded fracking facility this week:

Lisa: This whole building is just a facade for a drilling operation.
Burns: Indeed it is.  Evergreen Terrace is built atop a massive shale deposit.

In addition to being phenomenally lazy script writing, this is also the complete opposite of the Burns we know and love/hate.  Real Burns doesn’t explain his evil plans to 8-year-old girls who break into his secret facilities.  Quite the opposite.  Real Burns builds secret drilling facilities and lets the townspeople find out only when they go to turn on their own well:

FrimbleAbout

Burns: That’s it, frimble about with your widgets and dobobs.  It’ll all be a monument to futility when my plan comes to fruition.

Look at that quote!  He isn’t merely content to drill for oil and screw over everyone else, he’s also gleefully anticipating the moment when his plan will dash their hopes.  That’s Burns at his evil best.

Moreover, Burns’ plan, both the drilling and the eventual sun blocker, don’t require him to do anything as patently stupid and self defeating as relying on Homer Simpson.  Season 26 Burns, of course, does exactly that.  Not only does he ask Homer to get the mineral rights contracts signed, but he compounds his mistake by trusting that Homer did it instead of making sure.

That last part is especially un-Burns-like because Burns himself is the one who discloses that not all the signatures are there.  What!?  Can you imagine Season 6 Burns stopping his drilling operation because he and only he noticed that one signature was missing?  If anything, breaking the law without anyone knowing would appeal to him.

The watered down Burns of “Opposites A-Frack” isn’t remotely the kind of distilled malevolence of the Burns in “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”, but Zombie Simpsons wants us to still think of him like he is.  When, after his grossly out of character explanation to Lisa, Burns refers to the houses on Evergreen Terrace as “shanties and lean-tos”, we’re supposed to laugh at the contempt he has for regular people.  But the contempt isn’t there anymore because we just saw him pop-up out of nowhere to help Lisa understand things.

A similar hollowing out affects poor Smithers.  In “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”, he becomes increasingly conflicted about Burns crossing over from every day villainy into cartoonish super-villainy.  We see his qualms grow alongside the drilling operation (look at him in that picture at the top), and the sun blocker finally breaks him.  In “Opposites A-Frack”, Smithers basically vanishes for the entire episode.  It’s not as jarring as when characters appear for no reason, but unexplained disappearances happen almost as often.

Consider that when Bart and Lisa easily walk into the “secret” drilling facility, Smithers just stands there.  By the time Burns gets to that pointless committee hearing, Smithers isn’t even there.  Nor is he present when Burns barges into whatshername’s office.  Smithers is there when Burns selects Homer as his salesman, but literally doesn’t say a single word.  He is similarly absent when Burns asks Homer for romantic advice, both in his office and then again back at Burns Manor, which is even weirder because he’s at the door and then vanishes again.

DisappearingSmithers

Smithers . . . No Smithers.

Why did the man who never leaves Burns’ side disappear into thin air?  The next scene is Burns asking Homer for advice, and Smithers wasn’t required.  As usual, Zombie Simpsons forgets anything that isn’t happening right now.

Finally, in both episodes Burns drilling causes an earthquake.  The Simpsons handles it by having Grampa jump out of bed, shout “Earthquake!”, and then stand in his doorway while the entire Retirement Castle falls into a sinkhole.  The old people can’t do anything but call for the nurse.

Who Shot Mr. Burns Part 1k

Compare that to Zombie Simpsons, where, after a lot of pointless rumbling, Bart and Milhouse both fall out of the treehouse, while Lisa stands there waiting for her Etch-a-Sketch erases itself.  Then, in case we didn’t know what was going on, we get one of those oh-so redundant pieces of Zombie Simpson exposition:

Marge: Is one of the side effects of fracking earthquakes?
Lisa: Yes.

One is quick and punctuated with a joke.  The other is slow and punctuated with an explanation.

Season 6 Burns has a diabolical plan that he springs unexpectedly and sees all the way through.  Around him, his henchmen and his victims are their normal, hilarious selves.  Season 26 Burns has a dumb plan, explains it patiently, and then bungles it himself.  Around him, the show has to essentially airbrush Smithers out of the episode and constantly tell us what’s going on.  You can build great television around the real Burns, but you can’t even come close with the vacuous shell Zombie Simpsons has made of him.

 

23
Oct
14

Compare & Contrast: Treehouses of Horror Ending in “V”

Treehouse of Horror V11

“This sandwich tastes so young and impudent.  Seymour, what’s with the good grub?” – Mrs. Krabappel
“Well, perhaps I ought to let you folks in on a secret.  Do you remember me telling Jimbo Jones that I’d make something of him one day?” – Principal Skinner
“Are you saying you killed Jimbo, processed his carcass, and served him for lunch? . . . Ha!” – Mrs. Krabappel

This year’s Halloween special had three segments: one about a hellish version of Springfield Elementary, one about a Kubrick movie, and one about the Simpson family co-existing with different versions of itself.  Twenty years ago, the Halloween special also had three segments, one a Kubrick movie parody, one about Homer traveling between different versions of his family, and one about a hellish version of Springfield Elementary.  Except for the order, they match up perfectly.  Since The Simpsons always takes precedence over Zombie Simpsons, we’re going to follow the order from “Treehouse of Horror V”.

“The Shinning” vs. “A Clockwork Yellow”

Like most big name directors, Stanley Kubrick made some great movies and some crappy movies.  From a parody and satire point of view, however, what made his films great was the sheer number of iconic and memorable characters, images, and lines.  Whether it’s the Monolith, Jack Nicholson hacking his way through a door, or Malcolm McDowell and his gang strutting down the street in suspenders, bowler hats, and cod pieces, Kubrick movies are full of moments that stick in the audience’s mind, which makes them perfect for comedy.

The Simpsons exploited that all the time.  There’s Homer at the “Dawn of Man” in Lisa’s Pony; there’s Bart reaching for the cupcakes in “Duffless”, there’s Frink with the Strangelove glasses in “Homer Defined”.  “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming” not only features R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket, but even has a complete war room from Dr. Strangelove.  None of those defined an entire episode, they were just quick little things put in there for fans who cared to notice them.

“The Shinning”, the first segment from “Treehouse of Horror V”, was different in that it retold an entire movie.  All the major plot points and characters from the 144 minute film are condensed into just seven minutes of screentime.  All by itself that’s damned impressive, but what turns it into a Simpsons masterpiece is the way that each thing they reproduce is recognizable as the original yet still creative and funny in its own way.  The blood spilling out of the elevator isn’t a moment of gore soaked terror, it’s a ho-hum hotel regularity, no more interesting than fresh towels or the luggage carts in lobby.  It just usually gets off at the second floor.

The hedge maze, the ghostly bartender, Homer getting locked in the fridge, the typewriter being a window into madness, even Bart’s titular “shinning” and Willie’s failed rescue attempt, these are all recognizable to anyone who has seen the film and each is given its little twist.  But, and this is crucial, no one needs to have seen the movie to get any of them.  It helps, sure, but you don’t need it.  Homer declining his Nicholson destiny (“Can’t murder now, eating”) is funny all on its own.  The references to the film augment the story and the jokes, not the other way around.

The same cannot be said for “A Clockwork Yellow”, which reads like mismatched excerpts from a Kubrick film guide.  This is plenty apparent right at the beginning, where pretty much everything is a weird and senseless reenactment of A Clockwork Orange.  Moe has a gang just like Malcolm McDowell did.  But where McDowell’s gang turns on him for being a crappy leader; Moe’s gang turns on him just because that’s what’s supposed to happen.  Not only is it reductive rather than creative, but weak references are left to stand alone.

ReferenceParttheInfiniti

Remember this part of that one movie?  Yeah.  Cool.  Well, good talk.

Consider what is maybe the most famous scene from A Clockwork Orange: McDowell with his eyes propped open, forced to watch terrible things so that he won’t ever do them again.  In “A Clockwork Yellow”, Moe wears a similar contraption, but he’s doing it for no discernible reason:

Moe: These eye clamps are the only way I can tolerate today’s TV.
Announcer: Tonight on FOX!
Moe: Ahh, turn it off, I’ll be good.  I’ll be good!

If there is a joke in the final line (debatable), its premise is completely negated by the first.  If he’s wearing it voluntarily, it makes no sense for him to beg to have the TV turned off.  The sad reality is that he’s only wearing them because you can’t use A Clockwork Orange as your source material without someone getting their eyes propped open; setups, punchlines, and common sense be damned.

Dog of Death4

See, Zombie Simpsons?  It’s not hard to work this in and have it make sense.  It’s really not.

This complete dependency on making references is shaky enough early on, but the segment collapses completely at the end when the show just blows through references as fast as it can.  There’s the guy from Full Metal Jacket, there’s a thing that – again for no discernible reason – looks briefly like the Monolith, there’s some dudes dressed like they’re in Barry Lyndon, there’s a bunch of naked people like in Eyes Wide Shut.  And that’s it.  There’s no coherence, no jokes, no indication whatsoever that the writers have taken something, parodied it, and made it their own.  They’re just showing you stuff you’re supposed to recognize.  It’s less a television segment than it is a police lineup.

“Time and Punishment”  vs. “The Others”

Despite the fact that one of these is about time travel and the other is about ghosts, the basic concepts here are very similar.  In each case, we see different versions of the Simpson family.  Like the Kubrick mess, however, the transparent thinness of Zombie Simpsons is immediately apparent.

In “The Others”, the old ghost-Simpsons just stand around and don’t really do anything.  Ghost-Marge gets the hots for Homer, and they spend basically the entire segment stretching that piece of nothing far past its breaking point.  Ghost-Homer eventually gets around to killing regular Homer, but not until after he’s stood around and not done anything for a good long time.  Once Homer is dead, ghost-Homer goes back to not doing anything.

Their habit of having most of the family just sort of stand there (ghost-Lisa literally doesn’t get even a single line) carries all the way through to the end when, in a desperate bid for internet attention (and how sad is that?), they create more versions of the family to stand there.  For starters, this has nothing to do with the rest of the segment we just saw.  The house was haunted, so older versions of the family appeared.  Now a bunch of randoms show up because . . . well, just because, that’s why.  If this was funny or joke filled, that’d be one thing, but it’s just more unsupported references.

CryForHelp

They can’t stand this any longer.  Somebody please pay attention to them!  

“Time and Punishment” takes the idea of multiple different versions of the Simpsons seriously.  We see them not only as rich and perfect (in a world Homer doesn’t know rains donuts), we see them as obedient to Flanders (the unquestioned lord and master of the world), we see them as giants and with lizard tongues.  Each incarnation is very brief (much shorter than the “The Others”), yet the whole family is given things to do, lines to say (even Maggie!), and we get a glimpse of each world Homer visits in just a few seconds.

There aren’t any orphaned references, either.  When the episode runs through all those versions of the Simpson home, including underwater, the Flintstone’s house, Sphinx-Bart, and a fairy tale inspired giant shoe, not only is it lightning fast, but it fits with what Homer’s doing.  Because the writers bothered to show us several fleshed out parallel worlds already, the quick references to others add to that instead of being something tacked on to fill screen time (like a bunch of other Simpson families standing on the lawn for no reason).

“Nightmare Cafeteria” vs. “School Is Hell”

The main axiom of Springfield Elementary on The Simpsons is that it’s a waste of time and nobody wants to be there.  The students don’t learn much (even the likes of Martin and Lisa learn and excel more out of the classroom than in) and the teachers don’t care, but everyone has to show up, so they do.  In its own way, it’s already a kind of hell, so making it somehow worse for Halloween takes some imagination.

“Nightmare Cafeteria” pulled it off by taking the grim realities of normal episode Springfield Elementary and taking them to insanely logical Halloween episode extremes.  It’s one of the only Treehouse of Horror segments that doesn’t involve anything supernatural and that’s part of what makes it so great.  The faculty crosses over from merely being apathetic and passively hostile towards the students into murderous cannibalism . . . but they do so because of budget cuts.  Authority figures devouring children because they couldn’t make decent sloppy joes any other way, it’s hard to think of a more Simpsons concept than that.

Treehouse of Horror V12

Sloppy Jimobs are pretty damned horrifying.

By contrast, Zombie Simpsons not only doesn’t do that, they actually make Springfield Elementary nicer and more pleasant than it normally is.  I’m going to repeat that because it is an unusually clear example of just how witless and unmoored this show is.  They made the school in Hell more fun and enjoyable than the one on Earth.

As with so many Zombie Simpson ideas, it could’ve actually been interesting if it wasn’t done in the shallowest imaginable way.  But they didn’t go for “Earth is Hell” style irony, or even a particularly inventive version of Hell.  They just recreated Springfield Elementary with funkier looking students and flames outside the windows.  Even the Skinner-Chalmers monster is less evil than the two of them usually are.  Can you imagine the real Chalmers saying this?:

Hell Chalmers: As educators, our job is to gently nurture your child’s passion.

It’s sincere, it’s genuine, and it means he actually cares about Bart!  It’s antithetical to everything Chalmers is and does.  Again, had they made that sort of the point (Hell Chalmers is a better educator than real Chalmers), it could’ve worked, but two layer thinking is way too deep for Zombie Simpsons.  Instead, we get a montage before Homer shows up to be tortured for some reason.  There are a couple of chuckles in there (Yankees class, for example), which makes it the strongest segment of an anemically weak episode, but even in Hell the bright and sunny attitude of Zombie Simpsons makes everything simple, shallow, and harmless.

Halloween will always be better served by the Skinner who condemns a kid to suffocation for a paper airplane (even before he starts eating them) than by one who wants Bart to achieve his full potential.  The same goes for Simpson family members who are twisted and weird rather than still and silent.  Ditto thoughtlessly repetitive Kubrick references vis-a-vis full blooded (and full bodied) satire.

Twenty years on, there are reasons “Treehouse of Horror V” often tops Halloween lists.  “Treehouse of Horror XXV” will be lucky to even be remembered.

15
Oct
14

Compare & Contrast: Marge’s Competitors and Failure Generally

The Twisted World of Marge Simpson14

“I was wrong to have a dream.  Wrong as usual.  I mean, if you’re nothing special, why kid yourself?” – Marge Simpson 

The obvious choice for comparing and contrasting Marge’s sandwich shop in “Super Franchise Me” is her pretzel wagon in “The Twisted World of Marge Simpson”.  In both episodes, we see Marge not only strike out on her own a bit, but into the food industry, and with eventually poor results.  Of course, in Season 8, we get into the story right away, instead of wading through an unrelated opening (montage included); and it makes a lot more sense that she’d be able to open a garage-based franchise with $500 instead of the never mentioned five or six figures required for a full blown retail store; and the endings are vastly different, with one tying nicely into the rest of the episode, while the other involves another random incident in an episode that already had way too many of them.  (Oh, and they needlessly repeat Cletus listing his kids.)  Instead of getting into all that, however, I’d like to take a closer look at Marge’s competition and, more broadly, what it says about how Springfield itself is presented in The Simpsons and Zombie Simpsons.

The first scene in “The Twisted World of Marge Simpson” is a meeting of the “Investorettes” over coffee.  In addition to Marge, we’ve got Helen Lovejoy, Luann van Houten, Maude Flanders, Edna Krabappel, and, of course, Agnes Skinner (It means Lamb, Lamb of God!).  The setup doesn’t require any explanation because we can tell right away what they’re doing: they’re a group of women with a few extra dollars who are getting into business.

The Twisted World of Marge Simpson13

“Children are so fat today!  Isn’t there some way we can make money off that?”

The conflict that will eventually escalate into a mob war is all set up right here in the opening scene.  It’s Marge versus her erstwhile partners, and it’s strong enough to carry an entire episode without any assistance from a B-plot.  After their initial falling out, we see each side countering the other a couple of times, and it builds on itself all the way to the little guy asking for “forgiveness, please”.

Moreover, the Investorettes are clearly the stronger party.  They get the sleek, looks like it doesn’t even need your business, Fleet-A-Pita truck, while Marge is left hauling pretzels around in the back of her beat up station wagon.  They kicked her out, they go after her business when all she’s doing is trying to work, and they hire even more vicious mobsters than Homer does.  They are a strong and worthy foe for Marge, and the episode reflects that in everything from Marge only buying a franchise to spite them all the way to Chief Wiggum and Helen diving away from the exploding truck.

The story is well built enough to both fill the time and add emotional heft, which means that the show is free to crack jokes and cram in as many funny scenes as possible.  There’s Jack Lemmon’s terrible introduction video (where he has to walk away from the camera before he sits down, check for millipedes, and extol the futuristic virtues of working in a garage).  There’s the franchise saleswoman allaying Helen Lovejoy’s nativist suspicions by calling a pita a “Ben Franklin”.  There’s Homer guilting Fat Tony, Skinner’s “boaking” accident, and the barrage of pretzels knocking Whitey down.  The combat between the two groups gives a purpose to all the mayhem.

Compare that to the complete lack of friction between Marge’s sandwich shop and the one that the Cletus clan opens across the street.  They have no history with Marge and aren’t even in the episode before Bart points out their competing franchise.  We don’t see why they’d want to do this, why the franchise lady would set them up next to Marge, nothing.

LateArrival

Oh, look, the antagonists have arrived . . . fourteen minutes into a twenty minute episode.

Compounding the stupidity is the way that, as soon as they open, Marge’s shop is simply assumed to be kaput.  If anyone should be able to compete and win against Cletus – in food, no less – it’s Marge.  But Zombie Simpsons doesn’t so much as entertain the idea.  Instead, they cram a bunch of weak redneck references in there because . . . well, because that’s what they think is funny with Cletus.  It sucks for the same reason that there’s a difference between Skinner getting his hand broken, and Skinner getting his hand broken so that the mob can force him, at laser targeted gunpoint, to use school money to buy pretzels from an unsuspecting Marge.  Goofy shit is a lot funnier if it has a reason to be goofy, or, as Krusty once put it, the pie gag only works if the poor sap’s got dignity.

Beyond just the plot flimsiness, however, Cletus and family showing up out of nowhere to succeed for no reason is another manifestation of the many ways Zombie Simpsons has hollowed out the wonderfully bleak premises of The Simpsons.  Opening a national fast food franchise costs a lot of money and, if it works, is a ticket to serious prosperity.  By contrast, paying five hundred bucks for a poster and a bug infested bag of “ingredients”, or even opening a food truck, is the kind of low-rent adventure the citizens of a small and poor town might actually do.  It fits with who we know the characters are, which not only makes it easier to believe in the story, but also opens the rest of it up for satire.

Frank Ormand isn’t a bad guy, but he knows how hard and humiliating it is to hang off one of the lowest rungs in American capitalism.  He’s a good natured and well meaning hustler, but a hustler nevertheless.  The mystery lady who only shows up when the plot demands it, on the other hand, is just another Lindsey Naegle clone, with no motivation, no backstory (implied or otherwise), and nothing to do but spit out exposition and shallow punchlines (mostly exposition, though).  To wit:

The Twisted World of Marge Simpson15

Frank Ormand:  Ooh, you sound like me.  Well, the old me, which was, ironically, the young me.  I was once like you were, young lady, like all these people, lost in a sea of flashy gimmicks and empty promises.  Then God tossed me a life preserver, a tasty, golden brown, life preserver.

That’s how he starts his pitch: homey, friendly, and encouraging.  In just his few brief scenes, we see a guy who’s not trying to scam anyone, he’s just locked into a shitty business that, despite decades of evident failure, he even still believes in.  The earnesty and desperation are what makes his cornball pitch funny, like a used car salesman who’d be personally hurt by anyone who thinks his overpriced jalopies aren’t quality automobiles at bargain prices.  Then there’s this:

BlinkLady

Trudy Zengler:  Marge, see this face?  It’s opportunity.  Blink and you’ll miss it. . . . Just kidding, I’m right behind you.  I’m Trudy Zengler, vice-president of development for Mother Hubbard’s Sandwich Cupboards.  How would you like to run your own business, take control of your financial future?

We don’t know who she is or why she’s there, but she’s got a zany pitch and a helpfully expository question that just happens to apply to some worries that neither we nor she knew Marge had at that moment.  Ormand’s is great because it’s a Simpsonized version of what a guy like him would actually say.  Hers falls flat because it’s a rote recitation of facts that don’t make any sense.  Frank Ormand’s desperation is genuine; Trudy Zengler, on the other hand, has about as much personality and depth as the cardboard cutout they later have Burns fall in love with.

On The Simpsons, trying is the first step towards failure.  So when Marge tries her best, she indeed fails miserably.  (If you want some butter, it’s under her face.)  But on Zombie Simpsons, cool stuff just happens all the time.  The sandwich shop is a hit and only gets stopped because someone else’s is an even bigger hit.  In the Springfield of The Simpsons, neither Marge nor Cletus would ever have had the money to even open the store.  But in the Springfield of Zombie Simpsons, money is no object and even the dirt poorest are rich when they need to be.  Cloying optimism was never part of The Simpsons, but it’s hard to imagine Zombie Simpsons without it.

08
Oct
14

Compare & Contrast: Bonding at Sea

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“Dad, I know I’ve been a little hard on you the last couple of days, but if I had the strength to lift my arms, I’d give you a hug.” – Bart Simpson

As is often the case with Zombie Simpsons episodes, it’s easiest to understand the many, many horrible problems of “The Wreck of the Relationship” by looking at a single moment and pulling all the loose threads that dangle from it.  And, since Zombie Simpsons literally always repeats The Simpsons, we can also see how the exact same thing was done vastly better many years ago.  The screamingly obvious choice is Homer and Bart’s reconciliation out at sea, something handled much faster and funnier back in Season 5’s “Boy Scoutz ‘N the Hood”.

Before getting to that shared moment, however, take a minute to consider just what it is that Bart and Homer are fighting over in each episode.  In Season 5, Bart joins the Junior Campers in the midst of a squishy bender.  He tries to bail, but is sucked in by his desire to play with knives, and then stays because of all the cool skills he acquires (“ooh, floor pie”).  He doesn’t want Homer on the rafting trip because he knows (quite correctly, as we see) that Homer would be an unmitigated disaster and a total embarrassment.  There’s a complex and dysfunctional relationship at work, with Bart trying to escape Homer.

Boy Scoutz 'N the Hood13

Bart knows his father well.  

In Season 26, Homer and Bart get into a spat over whether or not Bart will eat a piece of broccoli.  Then they argue about it for days.  Then they get mysteriously kidnapped.  And then, after all that time spent doing so very, very little, we see something similar to what happens in “Boy Scoutz ‘N the Hood”: Bart starts learning new skills and actually likes it.  The closest Zombie Simpsons can come to showing us this is a montage followed by one of their trademark expository conversations,* but for the briefest of moments there’s something akin to a real character moment.

*(Sample dialogue: “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?/So what if I am?”, “You’re my son and you will hate what I hate.”, “I like being a sailor.”)

The problem (well, one of them) is that this lasts approximately five seconds before Homer and Bart revert to what they were doing before.  The twist, if it can even be called that, is that now Homer is the one being disobedient since Bart is now (for whatever reason) an officer.  And just like that we’re back to one note scenes that repeat the same argument over and over again.  If this was studded with killer jokes, that’d be one thing, but it’s mostly people dancing around, an octopus jumping on Homer for some reason, and other one off nonsense.  And that’s before the ending, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

the-wreck-of-the-relationship-promo-2-108138

This is the promo picture they released.   It’s a static image and it still overstates what actually goes on.

Back in the halcyon land of Season 5, not only do we actually get to see Bart both learn and apply the new talents that make him love the Junior Campers, but the rafting trip they go on actually follows from what we’ve seen instead of involving a bunch of kidnappers breaking into the house.  The trip itself is Homer at his unthinkingly destructive best.  He’s the one who loses the map, sending them down the wrong fork in the river.  He’s the one who confidently asserts that the current will take them back to land, getting them stranded.  He’s the one who botches the flare gun firin’, loses the last cheese doodle without tying off his fishing line, and even gets the raft punctured.  None of it is malicious or willful, he’s just being his inadvertently catastrophic self.

We can laugh at all these things because the show itself never insults our intelligence by pretending that there’s any real danger.  Mixed in with all of that are dolphins taunting them about their forthcoming demise, the police calling off the search because their boat doesn’t have beer and cold cuts, and, the savior of the day, a Krusty Burger on an unmanned oil rig.  All of these are perfectly absurd, but they aren’t random flights of fancy or weird one off gags, they’re natural extensions of the show’s reality.  In Springfield, the police really are that incompetent and selfish, the animals tend to be very smart, and Krusty is exactly the kind of autocratic buffoon who would open a burger joint where there’s no one to buy any burgers (and over the objections of his employees, no less).

Boy Scoutz 'N the Hood14

Ugh. He’s taking a bath on this.

By contrast, the crap at the end of “Wreck of the Relationship” is a grab bag of “huh?” moments and weird tangents.  The captain suddenly becomes a juggling drunk.  A net full of “therapy bears” we hadn’t seen before takes out the radio we also hadn’t seen before.  Even the storm itself descends out of nowhere.

OverboardAndBack

Homer goes overboard for the third time, then comes right back. This is their climactic ending.

Everyone gets suddenly panicked and scared, except for Homer who becomes instantly sober and decides that he’s going to lower the anchor (huh?) until Bart magically produces a piece of broccoli that convinces him to abandon the plan.  I suppose it’s nice that they’re at least trying to tie the story together (Jebus knows they often don’t bother), but they’ve constructed such a one-note conflict that the end is almost written for them.  Homer and Bart spend most of the episode basically yelling the same thing at each other over and over, so when it comes time to patch things up, the only move they’ve left themselves with is to have both of them just reverse their positions from earlier.

The ending of “Boy Scoutz ‘N the Hood” both fits their characters better and has enough room in its story to let Bart and Homer reconcile without black and white declarations of respect and admiration.  Not only do we see Homer and Bart in far more extreme circumstances (without the useless drama), but Homer has a reason to produce his little item.  (He stole it from that Borgnine guy.)

Even better, Bart and Homer don’t have to have a manufactured moment of out-of-character respect for one another.  They think they’re going to die and then, at long last, Homer finally proves himself useful by sniffing out the Krusty Burger (which he initially calls “the foul stench of death”, one of those jokes you don’t even notice until a subsequent viewing).  When they do get to Krusty Burger, Bart admits he’s proud of Homer for saving them, but is brushed off because Homer is eating, which Bart promptly begins to do as well.

“The Wreck of the Relationship” has father-son reconciliation that’s dumb, nearly joke free, nonsensical, requires Bart to pull a piece of broccoli out of nowhere, and seems to indicate that Homer and Bart now respect each other, even though that’s anathema to their entire relationship.  “Boy Scoutz ‘N the Hood” has a reconciliation that’s bursting with gags, perfectly fits both the story and the characters (including leaving them in their default antagonism), and doesn’t rely on magic broccoli.  When Homer brings out Borgnine’s knife, it’s a joke (two, actually, after the cutaway to Borgnine himself), it makes sense, and it calls back to something Bart had wanted all along.  It’s the opposite of schmaltz, and it certainly doesn’t need Marge showing up at the end to ask them how they both feel.




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