Archive for the 'Compare & Contrast' Category

22
May
14

Compare & Contrast: Homer and 4th of July Fireworks Disasters

Summer of 4 Ft 2(15)

“This baby’s sure to kill something!” – Homer Simpson

There is little doubt that a man who famously likes his beer cold, his teevee loud, and his homosexuals flaming, is a big fan of the thundering light show that is Fourth of July fireworks.  Of course, Homer is also the exact opposite person who should ever actually be involved with them.  He is thoughtless, careless and impulsive, and those are not traits that mix well with gunpowder.  In “The Yellow Badge of Cowardage”, Zombie Simpsons played with that combustible mixture and blew itself up.  In “Summer of 4 Ft. 2″, The Simpsons used the same ingredients to put on a masterful display.

To see the difference between that crowd pleasing spectacle and the kind of disaster that makes people run away screaming, there’s only really two things we need to consider: 1) getting the fireworks and 2) using them.  For the first, Zombie Simpsons makes things easy because they barely bother to show us anything.  Homer and Not Don Vittorio initially go to Cletus’s farm (why? who cares?) where they fail to buy anything.  The very next scene with the two of them is this:

Homer: Okay, let’s make some fireworks.

InstandGunpowder

Uh, I guess they found some?

There’s no explanation of where it came from or how they got it, and certainly not because of time constraints.  After this we get the interminable and mechanically narrated “drive around with gunpowder” scene, which is nothing but the two of them telling us what they’re about to do and then doing it: cobblestone streets, a rickety bridge, gaslights . . . it just keeps going.  So not only did they skip over something important, but they did so with forty-five seconds of filler.

Compare that to Homer’s immortal attempt to act casual like he buys illegal fireworks all the time.  Text is a weak excuse for Castellaneta’s exquisite delivery, and can never hope to reproduce that blithely misplaced confidence that he’s being smooth, but here it is anyway:

Homer: Hi, um, let me have one of those porno magazines, large box of condoms, bottle of Old Harper, couple of those panty shields, and some illegal fireworks . . . and one of those disposable enemas.  Nah, make it two.

This is lunatic insanity of the absolute best kind.  Homer is precisely himself: clueless and utterly incompetent.  The items he thinks are innocuous are the kind of thing that might get a real convenience store owner to tip the police off to this weirdo in his store.  Better yet, the Apu stand-in doesn’t even flinch, calmly explaining that he has no fireworks right up until the coast is clear, whereupon he instantly takes Homer back to his storeroom/arsenal:

Summer of 4 Ft 2(14)

Hey, look, multiple sign gags in just one shot.  I’m particularly fond of “Tang Tse Doodle”.

Once there we get to the M-320 (“Celebrate the independence of your nation by blowing up a small part of it.”) and Homer’s quick and happy response: “Alright”. Coincidentally, the entire scene, from the time Homer walks into the store until he purchases the M-320, takes almost exactly the same amount of time as the pointless gunpowder driving scene in “The Yellow Badge of Cowardage”.  This is the entirety of the dialogue from that fiasco:

Not Don Vittorio: Now drive slowly and carefully to my workshop.  It’s in the cobblestone district.
Homer: Oh, thank God, a rickety bridge.
Not Don Vittorio: Don’t worry, we’ll be safe in the gaslamp district.

That’s it.  In the time The Simpsons showed us Homer’s hilariously moronic attempt to be smooth and gave the world the M-320, Zombie Simpsons managed three lines of hapless exposition. The comparison doesn’t get any better for Zombie Simpsons when we move along to the actual using of the fireworks.

Befitting the sudden nonsense that got Homer and Not Don Vittorio the gunpowder in the first place, we see the two of them get into an argument on the fireworks barge over whether July 2nd or July 4th is the right day to celebrate.  The barge then instantly tilts over somehow and points its fireworks at the crowd. This is yet another example of the complete apathy Zombie Simpsons has for even the tiniest bit of story cohesion.  Not Don Vittorio is supposed to be a retired fireworks expert, so it’s not like it would’ve been hard for him to have shown just a little impatience with Homer leading up to this part.  Instead, the two of them just start battling it out over nothing with no warning whatsoever.

Compounding matters, the barge they’re on manages to (again with no warning, no foreshadowing, no nothing) conveniently tip over in way that barges like that are physically incapable of doing.  It’s one thing to have a rubber band reality where things can be stretched a bit from what physics allows here in the real world.  It’s quite another to toss weird, unexpected and just plain stupid events into scenes because you need to cut a very big corner.  This particular one is even worse than usual because this odd break with the audience’s expectations is immediately followed by people screaming in fear, as if we’re meant to take the danger posed by the fireworks seriously.

BargeoftheImagination

Somehow it manages to stay like this, and we’re supposed to be worried.

You can have physically impossible craziness, or you can have serious physical danger; you can’t have both.  The Simpsons, of course, understood that, and that understanding is crucial to making Homer’s disastrous attempt to light the M-320 pitch perfect.

Having purchased all of his fake items anyway despite not needing or wanting them (because he really is that dumb), Homer heads back to the Flanderses beach house, excited to play with his new toy.  Bart not having any matches, Homer heads into the kitchen for another scene that cannot be described in text.  What’s important to remember is that from the time he lights the middle of the fuse all the way through his casually walking away from the grotesque, brackish sewage that comes burbling up from the sink, there’s never any attempt to treat the danger seriously. Instead, we’re treated to Homer’s panic:

M-320

A .gif, is a poor imitation, I know, but you get the idea. 

There’s no attempt to make this serious, it’s just pure, uncut fun.  And while Homer is scared, he’s still Homer; so he’s willing to risk life and limb to save the beer once he realizes it’s in the fridge with his gargantuan firecracker.  Having destroyed the dishwasher and trashed the kitchen, he calmly walks away.  After all, it was like that when he got there.  (And, of course, the episode later shows them using broken dishes and Marge cleaning up Homer’s mess, because unlike on Zombie Simpsons, events on The Simpsons are actually connected to one another.)

In “The Yellow Badge of Cowardage”, Bart eventually saves the day by driving a bus in front of the fireworks Homer and Not Don Vittorio have managed to fire at the crowd.  It’s a cheap ending for the same reason so many of the stories on Zombie Simpsons are cheap: it comes out of nowhere.  Bart conveniently sees the bus, conveniently finds the keys, conveniently drags Milhouse (who’s supposedly furious with him) along, and conveniently wraps everything up with some more of their oh, so helpful exposition.

Homer’s fireworks disaster wasn’t his own doing, it was just a thing that happened because the story needed to be wrapped up.  It was dumb; it was weird; and it was ultimately hollow since the Homer we know and love, the doofus who adores fireworks but it far too dimwitted to know how to use them, didn’t have anything to do with it.  By contrast, the Homer who destroys his neighbor’s kitchen and leaves his wife an unholy mess to clean is the destructive but malice free idiot who can make us laugh with nothing more than a frantic flailing of his limbs.

15
May
14

Compare & Contrast: Adult Game Night

A Milhouse Divided17

“Oh, I hate having parties.  The toilet always gets backed up.” – Homer Simpson
“I don’t care if the sink shoots sludge, we’re having a party!” – Marge Simpson

There’s an inescapable lameness to those adult games that get broken out after dinner parties.  When kids get together, they can easily make up games on the fly (you’ve got to reach home base at the couch, the lava starts at the edge of the carpet, etcetera), but grown-ups tend to need a little more structure, especially if they’re playing against people they don’t know that well.  Trivial Pursuit, Scattegories and similar games provide a blandly safe sense of fun to social situations that might otherwise be too uptight, awkward or flat out boring.  Carefree kids don’t need that help, but adults do, and that’s uncool and old any way you slice it.

The proof of that is the fact that so many of these games get bought, maybe used once, and then stuffed onto some shelf where they might as well have a sign on them that says “Break Glass In Case of Extreme Boredom”.  That inherent lameness, however, does have the benefit of making them nice, soft targets for comedy.  And while Zombie Simpsons swings and misses at just about everything, The Simpsons smacked those games dead square in the Parker-Brothers logo.

In “A Milhouse Divided”, Marge and Homer throw the quintessential middle class dinner party.  The house gets gussied up a bit, the dinnerware is a cut above normal, and everyone’s dressed just a little nicer than they’d normally be.  Things end badly when the van Houtens boil over at each other over Pictionary, but from Marge’s initial desire to throw the party through Kirk’s awkward goodnight, the entire thing feels like something she would have done with the best of intentions.

By contrast, in “Pay Pal”, the evening is preceded by whole scenes worth of exposition from Marge and quickly devolves into a fight between Homer and John Oliver that comes right out of the blue.  Aside from the initial setup, no part of it makes any sense and most of what passes for jokes are weak one-liners instead of actual dialogue.  Like so much of Zombie Simpsons, they aren’t really concerned with satirizing anything or even telling a story, they’ve just got a short list of things they hope are funny, and they would appreciate it if you would sit still for a half-an-hour while they read it aloud.

The two at least start similarly.  In both cases, Marge is trying to be a little more social.  But even at this early stage you can see an immediate difference in how solid her character and motivations are.  Season 8 Marge wants to inject a little class into her life after seeing too many of the dinners she cooks pass in silence in front of the television.  In bed the night after having her son suggest that they start eating dinner out of a trough, Marge remarks to Homer:

Marge:  Homer, is this the way you pictured married life?
Homer:  Yeah, pretty much, except we drove around in a van solving mysteries.
Marge:  Well, I pictured cocktails and candle lit dinners.  I pictured napkins!  Homer, I want to throw a dinner party.

A Milhouse Divided16

A married couple having a conversation in private and no one bursts into their room.  Huh.

Homer and Marge aren’t talking to the audience, they’re talking to each other.  And within that dialogue we have jokes that fit seamlessly into their back and forth.  Homer’s inane Scooby Doo fantasy and Marge demanding the civilizing touch of napkins aren’t setup-beat-joke sitcom punchlines, they’re Homer being his doofus self and Marge, the master of repressing her own desires, just wishing for the barest level of class in her own home.

Compare that with pretty much the exact same scene in “Pay Pal”:

Marge:  Why don’t we have any couples friends?
Homer:  Because, couples friends are a myth, started by restaurants with tables for four!

This is a setup-beat-punchline sitcom joke, and a very poor one at that.  It’s aimed at no one and makes no sense (are there any restaurants that don’t have “tables for four”?), so much so that you can practically hear where the recorded laughter would go.  Continuing:

Marge:  I want friends!  Any friends.
Homer:  Okay, sweetie, I’ll call the van Houtens.
Marge:  Not the van Houtens!  They’re always bragging about their trip to Rome.  It was twelve years ago, and it was a layover.  I want new friends.

Woof, here we’ve got Marge repeating the same piece of exposition twice, with another hapless (and overlong) sitcom joke smashed in the middle.  But things are about to get so much worse, because Zombie Simpsons is about to have Lisa appear in the door for no reason other than the shallowest form of plot expediency:

Lisa:  Can I make an observation?  I’m okay with no friends.  It’s easier to focus and it’ll give me great material for whatever art form I choose.  Right now I’m thinking long novella.  Good night.

Hacktacular!  Let’s have a character show up quickly, spout some expository nonsense, and then depart before even waiting for a response from the people she was supposedly speaking to!  Along the way they have Lisa tell the audience exactly what she’s thinking (even though it’s not something we’d normally hear from her), then explain the joke she’s about to make, then make that joke, then disappear as quickly as she arrived.  But wait, there’s more!:

Marge:  Okay with no friends?  That’s the saddest thing I can imagine my daughter saying to me.

Note that Marge is now also basically talking to no one except the audience.  She’s not interacting with anyone else around her, she’s repeating things Lisa just said and then telling us precisely how she feels.  And because two hapless monologues deserve a third, Bart then shows up just as suddenly as Lisa did:

Bart:  I can think of worse.  The saddest thing would be if you were driving and texting Lisa, and you hit her, and the last thing she texted before she died was, ‘I got your message’.  Good night.

One last time: this isn’t dialogue.  These characters aren’t discussing anything, they’re spouting lines that bear no resemblance to conversation while physically appearing and disappearing at random.  Bart’s little sad scenario isn’t even trying to be funny.

Open Door Policy

Come, children, monologue at your parents before bed.

From there, the two episode continue in their own way.  Season 8 takes us briskly to the flagrantly false advertised Stoner’s Pot Palace and shows us Marge’s insanely detailed dinner party preparations, which include glazing the ham to the point of luminescence and putting the toilet seats through the dish washer.  Season 25 staggers forward by having Marge spend the next few scenes in yet another extended monologue, this time admonishing Homer about what he should and shouldn’t do for half a minute.  Once again, this is them butchering the single simplest, anyone-can-understand-it, fundamental tenet of good screenwriting: show, don’t tell.

After that we finally get to the respective parties see once more how a poorly constructed, nonsensical one is a hell of a lot less fun than the opposite.  In “Pay Pal”, Homer and Marge show up, get greeted by John Oliver, and then stand there and listen to yet another monologue, the longest yet.  Even John Oliver can’t make this laundry list of mediocrity funny:

Oliver: That’s the spirit.  Wallace and I have found this game to provide a full evening of divertissement, building in suspense to a masterful climax.  We’ve rented costumes you’ll find accurate to period and conducive to character.  We will serve food and wine appropriate to period and palate.  We’ve programmed music to cover every dramatic event.  Hired a foley artist . . . I believe the mare has a slight limp . . . yes, yes!  So, for the next three hours, I welcome you to the moors of-

At that, Zombie Homer cuts him off, so for once at least his jerkass nature came in handy.  Then the fight starts and the scene comes to a mercifully abrupt end.  Literally the only other characters to speak do so with one liners (Sideshow Mel, Wiggum) or yet another monologue (Oliver’s wife).

Bored Foley Guy

The foley guy appears to be accurately representing both the audience and the animation staff.

Beneath the feeble stabs at humor lies the fundamental problem: they aren’t making fun of anything.  They aren’t even really trying.  Instead of satirizing the enforced make believe and jollity of a murder mystery party, they seem to think it’s rather cool, and wouldn’t it be cooler with someone like Oliver around to rent costumes and hire a sound effects guy?  Most of the scene, if it can even be called that, is one long speech about how awesome it’ll be; then it stops.  They can’t make fun of it because they don’t have any real people attending.

On the other hand, by the time “A Milhouse Divided” has its characters playing Pictionary, we’ve seen them be their normal, hilarious selves.  Hibbert has laughed at a couple of his own typically inappropriate jokes; Flanders, clueless as ever, said he likes Woodsey Allen movies except for “that nervous fella”, and Kirk and Luann are starting to reach the boiling point.  There’s no need for monologues and unexpected one-liners because the characters who sit down to play that game are capable of being funny without them.

So when it comes time for the Flandereses to correctly get “corn starch” based on six dots, there’s no need for them to look at the audience and explain what it means when they nuzzle over it being good for “keeping down the urges”.  If there’s one thing Maude and Ned would do, it’s eat something as bland and sinless as corn starch to keep themselves from getting horny.  We don’t need shouted punchlines or pre-joke explanations because we know who these characters are.  All they have to do to be hilarious is act like their normal, believably oddball selves.

After that, we see Luann finally lose it with Kirk over him being an asshole about his wonderfully incomprehensible rendition of “dignity”.  They’ve been sniping at each other literally since they walked in the door, and, as sometimes happens in real life, those harmless looking adult games provide just enough stress to push two people into an outright shouting match.  Sprinkled in there are gems like “Gudger College”, “Allied Biscuit” and Homer’s lightning quick misreading of the word “impotence” in “managerial impotence”.

Everything, from the party itself and the guests to Marge’s motivations and that divorce causing game, is treated as a source of comedy because in the right hands that’s what they are.  Zombie Simpsons just draws some people into a room, nevermind anything else, and hopes that the delivery on a word like “divertissement” brings a slight smile.

08
May
14

Compare & Contrast: Comic Book Guy As Villain

Treehouse of Horror X3

“Tonight’s episode: Enter . . . The Collector.” – TV Announcer

There are basically no characters on the show who haven’t undergone a serious dumbing down in the Zombie Simpsons era (Gil, maybe?).  Some of them gradually devolved, others had sudden changes in a single episode; either way, there’s often a moment when you knew that the original version was never coming back.  For Comic Book Guy, I’ve always thought that moment came in Season 11 when he materialized out of nowhere to complain about the Simpsons getting a horse again.  Homer asks if anyone cares what “this guy” thinks, and the assembled crowd shouts “No!”.

He’d been used as a stand-in for the audience before, of course, but that was them dropping all the subtlety and treating this strawman approximation of their audience seriously.  They knew people were going to bitch because they were nakedly repeating something, and instead of thinking “maybe we shouldn’t repeat things”, they thought “haters gonna hate”.  Comic Book Guy has been a way for the show to paper over its own shoddiness ever since.

The difference between the two is on full display when you consider the ways they used him in very similar positions in “Brick Like Me” and as “The Collector” in “Treehouse of Horror X”.  (Which aired, incidentally, just a few months before the second horsey episode.)  In both cases he’s playing a science fiction bad guy who knows how cliched his actions are, but in one that’s the basis of a wide ranging satire, in the other it’s a contradictory and expository excuse.

This is Lego Comic Book Guy’s first line in “Brick Like Me”, right after Homer asks him for the Lego princess set:

Lego Comic Book Guy: Ah, always good to meet a fellow AMFoP.
Homer: Huh?
Lego Comic Book Guy: Adult Male Fan of Princesses.

As a punchline, “Adult Male Fan of Princesses” isn’t bad, but to have Lego Comic Book Guy just explain it to the audience doesn’t do it any favors.  At least it’s got a punchline, though.

In Lego Comic Book Guy’s next scene, after some extended Homer freaking out scenes, he doesn’t even get a line.  He just stands there while Homer grabs the toy box to go back to regular Springfield.  After that, Homer returns and we get what may be the clunkiest lines in an episode that had an awful lot of them:

Lego Comic Book Guy:  Okay, apparently our whole world is a fantasy in the mind of an emotionally devastated Homer Simpson.
Marge:  One of the main questions I have about that is, why?
Lego Comic Book Guy:  The real Homer fears losing his daughter’s love so he invented this toy world where nothing will ever change.
Marge:  How can you be sure?
Lego Comic Book Guy:  I have devoted my life to second rate science fiction.  Trust me, that is what we are dealing with here.
Homer:  So if I don’t find my way out of here, I could be trapped in a fantasy forever?
Lego Comic Book Guy:  I’m afraid so.

That would be bad enough if we hadn’t already had that explained to us several times, including by Homer immediately preceding it (“I wish I lived in little Springfield, everything fits together and no one ever gets hurt.”).  But it gets worse when you remember that he’s supposed to be the damned villain.

Not only is he unnecessarily telling us things we already know, but if he really is supposed to be the part of Homer that wants him to stay in Lego land forever, then it’s 100% against Lego Comic Book Guy’s interests to explain everything.  The writers actually know this, because they tell us directly in yet another masterpiece of unnecessary exposition later in the episode:

Homer: Now tell me how to get out of here!
Lego Comic Book Guy: All you need to do is open the box back to your so-called reality.  But I can’t let that happen.
Homer:  You’re the bad guy?  I thought you were the rule explainer guy!
Lego Comic Book Guy:  As an adult who surrounds himself with child’s toys, I represent the part of your psyche that prefers this artificial world.

Sometimes villains don’t get revealed until right before the final confrontation, and that’s fine provided that the villain’s previous actions make sense in light of that reveal.  But literally telling the audience that Lego Comic Book Guy is the bad guy while offering no reason whatsoever for his behavior up to that point is hacktacular almost beyond comprehension.

As if that wasn’t enough, right before the final confrontation, Comic Book Guy quickly builds a castle to keep Homer from reaching the princess set:

Homer: How did you do that?
Lego Comic Book Guy: Because, as the ultimate collector, I have every playset ever made!

Here you can see the damage that their utter contempt for storytelling does to the rest of the episode.  As a villain in a Lego universe, Comic Book Guy makes perfect sense.  If there’s anyone in Springfield who’d have every Lego set, it’s him.  But instead of using his time in the episode to show us some of his sets, or maybe (heaven forbid) foreshadow it a little bit in his previous scenes, they just have him say why he did what he just did and then hold up the things he’s talking about.  The script is full of so much explanatory clutter that there’s no room for any kind of humor beyond “ooh, look at that”.

Video Exposition

Good thing this video program has live narration, or we’d never know what was happening.

And that’s how Zombie Simpsons portrays Comic Book Guy as the villain in their big budget, heavily advertised, and no doubt delicately negotiated Lego episode: as a manic narrator who can’t even be called one dimensional after they basically negated his already thin character with an unrelated and contradictory one at the end.

Now compare that to the regular budget, just another Halloween episode portrayal in “Treehouse of Horror X”.  Like the Lego episode, a Halloween episode lets them put their regular characters into way out and wacky personas.  Unlike the Lego episode, they gave Comic Book Guy’s “The Collector” everything that a good and funny character needs: motivation, foibles and weaknesses, jokes and a coherent story.

Consider this, from right after he kidnaps Lucy Lawless:

The Collector: Care for a Rollo, sweet Xena?
Lucy Lawless: Alright, Collector, stick this in your tweezers, I’m not Xena!  I’m an actress, you lunatic!
The Collector: Oh, please, I’m not insane.  I simply wish to take you back to my layer and make you my bride.

Eating candy while he drives a rusted out hatchback, he claims to not be insane while doing something clearly insane.  He’s not directly explaining anything because his actions and words convey the basics so the jokes can float on top.  He doesn’t need to say, “I’m caricature of a collector geek as an Adam-West-Batman cheesy villainy” because it’s written into the fabric of the episode.  Similarly, Lawless’s contempt for tweezers using collectors doesn’t need to be explained because we know her and can see it.

Treehouse of Horror X4

Characters doing stuff without concurrently narrating it.  Even Season 11 knew how to do this.

Even when the characters do talk about what they’re doing, it’s descriptive, not explanatory:

The Collector: I have here the only working phaser ever built.  It was fired only once, to keep William Shatner from making another album.

He’s describing the concrete thing in his hand right now, not explaining the overarching background of what’s happening.  And when he fires, he doesn’t explain what a phaser is or how it works.  The show trusts its audience to be know that already.  Moreover, calling it a phaser also acts as setup for the Shatner punchline, and who doesn’t love a good Shatner joke?

The rest of the segment is just like that.  When they describe something, they don’t explain what it is or how it works, they expect you to know it.  So when Lawless points out that he’s removed the light saber from it’s original packaging, she doesn’t have to explain why he’s suddenly distraught.  Ditto for when the Collector ends his death in “classic Lorne Greene pose” and when Lisa points out that Xena can’t fly.

The Collector is Comic Book Guy as a character within the show who’s been turned, for this one episode, into an exaggerated bad guy version of himself.  He’s still a person under there, though, so when he cackles about being “unbelievably amused” or whines that he fell for a “ruse so hackneyed it would make Stan Lee blush” it fits with who he is regularly as well as the character he’s inhabiting.  Lego Comic Book Guy, on the other hand, is a kind of stand-in proxy narrator for the writing staff who spends most of his time on screen explaining a very simple concept that had already been explained several times before.  Having used him as a crutch instead of a character right until the end, it makes a certain kind of lazy sense to just keep leaning on him and have him be the bad guy as well, coherent narrative be damned.

None of that is unusual for Zombie Simpsons, of course; nonsensical exposition, plot swerves, and bizarre character behavior are are in every episode.  But it neatly illustrates the fact that, for all the hoopla, “Brick Like Me” was just another episode.

01
May
14

Compare & Contrast: Moe Pulls a Gun

The Homer They Fall8

“Hey, there’s something wrong with this guy, he’s not falling down!” – Kearney Sr.

“What to Expect When Bart’s Expecting” was such a shambles of a story that trying to compare the whole thing to another episode would be futile.  Finding just a few coherent seconds is hard enough.  But there was one moment that lines up perfectly: Moe pulling his shotgun on people threatening Homer.  Moe did almost the exact same thing in “The Homer They Fall”, only there it was quicker, funnier and made more sense for all involved.

To start, compare why Homer is there in each case.  In “The Homer They Fall”, he’s trying to squeal about Bart getting his belt stolen to the parents of the bullies who stole it.  Moe’s is a pretty natural place for that, especially once we see the parents in question (who presumably wouldn’t be hanging out at the next PTA meeting).  In “What to Expect When Bart’s Expecting”, Homer is at Moe’s with Bart, and both of them sit there looking like regulars (with Bart having a chocolate milk).  Is there any reason for them to be at Moe’s?  Well, no, there isn’t.  They were just fighting because Homer caught Bart selling his voodoo fertility services and then they’re at Moe’s.

Is Homer taking Bart to Moe’s to have heart-to-heart talks now?  That could be funny, but Zombie Simpsons doesn’t even try, it just has them say expository things that they could say anywhere:

Homer: What is your problem, boy?
Bart: Maybe when I’ve got a Dad who shows up in the morning with no shirt on and rocks on his face it sets, I don’t know, a low bar?

They make a bar nuts joke and then the gangsters show up, and that’s the scene.  What’s really incredible about this is that the heavily exposited subtext here is about Homer being a bad father, but instead of Bart pointing out that taking a 10-year-old to a bar is bad fathering, they have him recite something we already saw earlier in the episode.  It didn’t need to be Moe’s, it just was because Homer and Bart needed to get kidnapped someplace, damn it, and they didn’t care about anything else.

Along similar lines, consider the two groups of men who get threatened by Moe.  In “The Homer They Fall”, it’s three guys who are the beaten down and broken fathers of Dolph, Jimbo and Kearney.  They each look like their sons and the scene is a quick way of moving to the story about Homer becoming a boxer.  So we see Homer taking the grown-up version of the beating we just saw Bart take because Homer is no better at dealing with bullies than his son.  The guys are exactly the kind of fathers you’d expect, and the show lets us know without disrupting the dialogue:

Jimbo Sr.: That’s for telling me how to raise my lousy kid.
Dolph Sr.: And this is for the crummy life I’ve had to live.

The Homer They Fall7

Quick and funny one off characters, what a concept.

So while it’s just a quick throwaway scene to get the plot moving, we get three characters with a reason to be there, a reason to beat Homer, and a couple of good lines.

By contrast, in “What to Expect When Bart’s Expecting”, Legs and Louie just show up brandishing guns.  Why?  Well, because Fat Tony decided to act like a moron and kidnap Bart and Homer so that he can, that very night, perform a voodoo ritual to get a horse pregnant.  In addition to not making even the driest lick of sense, there’d been no intimation of any of that right up until drawn guns appear next to Bart and Homer’s heads.  A completely unexpected and massive plot swerve like that would be jarring if it weren’t so common.

Finally, we come to Moe himself.  Right after Kearney Sr. laments their inability to knock him down, we hear Moe pump his trusty shotgun and say:

“Fun’s over fellas!  If you’re gonna beat up my friend in my bar, there’s a two drink minimum.”

It’s a typically well crafted Simpsons line.  It fits in with who these characters are and what they’re doing, and it’s got a nice little punchline at the end.  The elder bullies back out cautiously, and we’re ready to move on with the plot.

Now contrast that smooth, short interaction with the hacktacular sitcom banter in Zombie Simpsons.  Legs and Louie grab Homer and Bart, and then this happens:

Moe: Not so fast!  Nobody comes into my bar and kidnaps two paying customers.

In addition to this being a repeat, it’s a much weaker repeat.  Why?   Well, for starters, there’s no punchline.  There isn’t even a setup for a punchline.  There’s part of a setup for a punchline, which Homer then completes:

Homer:  Aw, thanks Moe! . . . I, uh, must have left my wallet at home.
Moe: Take ‘em!  Take ‘em!  Fill their pockets with corn and toss ‘em to the pigs!
Louie: Don’t tell us our business.

That’s an awfully long way to go for a joke that was done better seventeen seasons ago.  On top of that, the whole thing is drained of whatever life it might’ve had by the sheer weirdness of what’s going on.  Remember, we hadn’t seen Legs and Louie until just a few seconds before (as per usual, they just appeared out of nowhere) and we have no idea why they’re there.  The preceding scene was Bart doing voodoo for people and the next one is them getting threatened by Fat Tony in a stable.  The sheer randomness of it not only saps the scene and the jokes of any punch, but it makes it basically impossible to mentally engage with the show since nothing you’re seeing matters much for what comes next or even what’s going on right now.

When the bully dads were beating up Homer, we knew what was at stake and why and Moe acted like you’d expect Moe to act.  When Legs and Louie beamed in from wherever they were, nobody needs to be there and all anyone does is repeat worn set ups and banter like bored comedy writers.

03
Apr
14

Compare & Contrast: Homer the Incorruptible

Last Exit to Springfield14

"We don’t have to be adversaries, Homer.  We both want a fair union contract." – C.M. Burns
"Why is Mr. Burns being so nice to me?" – Homer’s Brain
"And if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours." – C.M. Burns
"Wait a minute, is he coming on to me?" – Homer’s Brain
"I mean, if I should slip something into your pocket, what’s the harm?" – C.M. Burns
"My God, he is coming on to me." – Homer’s Brain
"After all, negotiations make  strange bedfellows." – C.M. Burns

For a simple and common act, bribery requires a surprising amount of finesse.  Whether the initiating party is asking for the bribe or offering it, when it comes to the exchange of money for dishonesty the presentation is always the tricky part.  You have to let the other person know that you’re willing to break the rules, but only in a way that both of you can later deny if necessary.  It’s a delicate thing, and the last person you’d ever want to see on the other side of it is Homer Simpson.

That frustrating situation confronts nuclear plant owner Monty Burns in Season 4’s "Last Exit to Springfield" as well as the nameless, central casting gangster in "You Don’t Have to Live Like a Referee".  Both are trying to get Homer to roll over for cash, but the Homers they have to bribe are as different as they are.

There are four parties in these two attempted transactions.  In the first we have Burns and regular Homer; and in the second we have Gangster Guy and Zombie Homer.  Before we get to the actual bribery, however, let’s take a quick look at each one of them and why they’re doing what they’re doing:

  • The Burns of Season 4 is the very definition of ruthless.  Not only does he hate his employees, he’s willing to go to the mattresses over their dental plan out of nostalgic spite.  The money is important to him, but not as much as the principle of being able to wall one of them up whenever the urge hits him.  For Burns, bribing the head of the union to betray his fellows is just expediency, and when things don’t go well right away, he goes to hired goons out of habit.
  • The Homer of Season 4 is a working schlub everyman who doesn’t want to have to pay for his daughter’s braces.  In that sense, his motivation going into the negotiations is a lot like Burns’.  The difference is that Homer isn’t acting out of malevolence, he’s reacting to the evil of Burns and just trying to get back something he already had.
  • Gangster Guy has no background, he’s just a gangster.  Why does he want to fix the World Cup?  Because he’s a gangster.  Haven’t you ever seen any of their movies?
  • Zombie Homer is who he pretty much always is: a weirdly invincible superman.  Fly to Brazil to be (apparently) the only referee at the World Cup?  Sure!  Get bribed and threatened  by gangsters?  He’s cool, doesn’t perturb him a bit.  Fall completely to pieces because an eight-year-old called him her hero but didn’t do it in quite the right way?  Also sure.  He has no human center, so incomprehensibly random reactions are the norm.

Down in Brazil, our prop store gangster tries to bribe that fickle lunatic because that’s why prop store gangsters do, and Homer refuses because he’s been perfectly incorruptible for three whole minutes, so it’s now basically his only trait.  There’s no depth to what either of them is doing, which means that the only kind of humor they can go for is repetitive silliness.  They offer him money in outlandish ways, he refuses, and that’s it.  They do it so many times that they have an entire montage of nothing but.  Anyone is free to think that’s funny, of course, but there’s no denying that it’s simplistic and one-dimensional.

Bribery Montage

Over and over and over and over . . .

Compare that to Burns’ repeated attempts to bribe Homer.  Things start out with with the two of them meeting in Burns’ office and Homer completely misunderstanding Burns’ innuendo:

Last Exit to Springfield13

Sure, he’s flattered, maybe even a little curious, but he doesn’t go in for those back door shenanigans.

From there, Homer’s guileless stupidity continues to be misunderstood by Burns as an iron willed resolve and negotiating brilliance.  Homer’s too dumb to be intimidated by hired goons.  The he has to pee too bad to listen to Burns’ offer.  Finally, he inadvertently triggers a strike while trying to resign.  It’s as far as you can get from one serially repeated joke because each of them brings more than just one thing to the table.

There’s an almost ye olde Vaudeville aspect to them, with Burns playing the straight man who just cannot get anything through the thick skull of the yutz who won’t take his money.  Since this is The Simpsons, the straight man is wildly evil and his frustrations quickly rise to trying to destroy the town instead of just demanding to know who’s on first, but the basic comedy of misunderstanding allows the show to employ all manner of topics and tricks.

What gives everything that extra twist is the fact that, right before the first commercial break, the show lets us know that Homer, in fact, would love to be bribed:

“Hey, what does this job pay?” – Homer Simpson
“Nothing.” – Carl
“D’oh!” – Homer Simpson
“Unless you’re crooked!” – Carl
“Woo-hoo!” – Homer Simpson

If Burns had just offered to pay for Lisa’s braces, Homer would have eagerly accepted and the dental plan would be no more.  But that was never going to happen because the two of them are far too different to ever be able to communicate.  Burns, hater of unions, thinks Homer is as conniving and cutthroat as he is.  Homer just really doesn’t want to be there.

What plays out between them is far too rich to ever be shown as a one note montage or a repeated series of offers and exposition.  Between who they are, what they’re trying to do, and their actions and reactions (often inadvertent) towards one another, playing some music and showing a bunch of people handing Homer cash simply wouldn’t work.  Something that thin would be overwhelmed by story, jokes and the like.  In Zombie Simpsons, however, it’s more than enough.

26
Mar
14

Compare & Contrast: Milhouse’s Parents Split Up

A Milhouse Divided15

“You know who the real victim is in all of this?  Milhouse.” – Marge Simpson

Zombie Simpsons excels at telling the audience what is happening rather than showing them, which is the script writing equivalent of being a bricklayer who doesn’t use mortar.  Show don’t tell is so fundamental to the job that you have to wonder how anyone could forget it, and the proof is in the piles of rubble that they try to pass off as finished work.  Case in point from this week’s dreary “The War of Art” was Milhouse’s reaction to his parents breaking up.

Thanks to Jerkass Homer’s energetic idiocy, Luann finds out that Kirk lied about not shacking up with anyone while they were separated.  This leads to Kirk getting kicked out (he ends up on the Simpsons’ couch despite their recent feud because whatever shutup), which means that Milhouse is once again caught in a fight between his parents.  The first time that happened was in Season 8’s divorce classic “A Milhouse Divided”, and the way each episode handles his reaction is the difference between building with bricks and mortar and just building with bricks.

Once Kirk and Luann are on the outs, Marge and Homer argue expositionally about the pain Homer’s plan has wrought, including on Milhouse.  Bart, casually listening in the doorway as though the show had no conception that he was there, chimes in right on cue to tell us exactly what we’re about to see:

Bart: He’s been playing Dancing Revolution for hours but the TV is off.

Exposited Sadness

He said it, you saw it, comedy genius!

That’s the entire scene.  But even as short as it is, it’s indicative of several of Zombie Simpsons recurring weaknesses.  For starters, Bart’s explicit pre-narration is worse than useless.  The above image would still be sad without it, but it would also be funnier since nothing ruins a joke more than explaining it before you tell it.  Beyond that, there’s also the fact that the previous scene was Kirk asleep on the couch.  Is he still there?  Is Milhouse visiting Bart or his father?  Who knows?  Kirk has nonsensically vanished from the Simpsons home even faster than he nonsensically appeared.  So not only has the hacktacular writing drained the scene of whatever humor it could’ve had, but its physical and story logic are a complete shambles.  Zombie Simpsons: dumb stories poorly told, lightly sprinkled with pre-chewed jokes.

Compare that to the same scene in “A Milhouse Divided”.  To begin, there’s no exposition.  We already know that Milhouse’s parents are split (the episode, you know, showed it to us), so they can cut directly from Kirk getting fired (“I don’t recall saying ‘Good Luck’.”) to this:

A Milhouse Divided14

Look!  Action that hasn’t been announced ahead of time.  What a concept.

Before he says a single word we can tell that Milhouse is pissed off.  Just look at the above image: his hair is a mess, his teeth are clenched, and he’s destroying as much shit as possible.  When he does speak, he doesn’t say “I’m angry at my parents and breaking their stuff”, he says:

And the winner of the Milhouse 500 is . . . Milhouse!

His words don’t tell us what he’s doing, they elaborate and deepen what we’ve already seen.  The same goes for the rest of the scene:

Luann: Milhouse, are you sure you want to drive that inside?
Milhouse: Yes!
Luann: Okay, be careful, sweet, sweet treasure.

Milhouse is acting like an angry and spoiled kid because at the moment that’s exactly what he is.  His Mom doesn’t care what he does so long as he’s hers, and indulging Milhouse to the point of shattered lamps and smashed furniture is a small price for her to pay to get back at Kirk.  It’s classic Simpsons, taking a painful and sad subject, in this case a mother and son both behaving kinda self destructively, and somehow making it fun and funny.

On the commentary track for this episode, Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein talk about how they didn’t want to do a “divorce” episode like the ones they had watched as kids where the d-word gets mentioned, but at the end everyone gets back together.  They tease the cliched, teevee ending with a slightly sweet music cue right before Luann has the common sense to say, “Ooh, no” after Kirk asks to get back together, but they don’t go through with it because doing so would neuter the rest of the episode.  Kirk’s collapse, Luann’s renaissance, and Milhouse’s sadness and anger, none of them would retain the same kick (comedy or otherwise) if it turned out it was all for nothing.

Zombie Simpsons, of course, not only went with the ending that was already a cliche forty years ago, it crammed everything into the last few seconds after the plot literally wandered off the mainland.  It didn’t make the scene with Milhouse any worse, but that’s only because it’s hard to see how it could get worse.  The Simpsons knew how to let a scene speak for itself and how to deliver an ending that doesn’t undercut what came before.

21
Mar
14

Compare & Contrast: Marge Becomes Less Attracted to Homer

King Size Homer17

“Mr. Burns, can you make me thin again?” – Homer Simpson
“I guarantee it. . . . One . . . one! . . . one! . . . Bah, I’ll just pay for the blasted liposuction!” – C.M. Burns
“Woo-hoo!” – Homer Simpson

The Simpsons always had an acknowledged and popular soft touch with big emotions.  For all the craziness going on in the rest of the episode, they could deftly deliver both believably sweet moments and ones that packed real punch.  The same show that has Marge finally snap at Bart’s selfishness and yell that he ruined Thanksgiving could also put Homer in a job he hates staring at his “Do It For Her” wall of Maggie pictures, miserable and happy at the same time.

Even small moments that aren’t pivotal to the plot play well, like Bart thanking his mom for sticking up for him as he runs off with his BB gun to Milhouse’s, or when Lisa and Marge quickly and silently bond over keeping Marge’s cash safe from Homer’s idiotic desire to burn it at Krusty’s stand up performance.  Neither are big, emotional moments that define the story, but they’re still given that little flourish, partly because it makes the scene flow better, partly because that’s just who the characters are, and partly just because it can be funny.

As with so many other things, Zombie Simpsons is utterly tone deaf with small emotional moments.  And since it always repeats something from The Simpsons, it’s easy to see how they can take the same emotion between the same two characters and make it much shabbier.  In the case of “The Winter of His Content”, it’s a scene wherein Marge hesitantly confesses that she’s starting to become less enamored of her husband.

It’s a weak scene in a weak episode, with Marge confiding to Patty & Selma (or at least trying to) about Homer acting like an old man.  The scene, in its entirety, consists of Marge describing things Homer does while we see him do them, then Patty asks her to say she’s no longer attracted to him, to which Marge simply replies “Maybe”.  It’s played as sad, and, as is standard with Zombie Simpsons, it has basically no connection to the rest of the episode.  It’s the first time we see Marge act with real worry and it’s the last time we see Marge at all until the very last scene after everything has worked itself out.

It’s just a quick little emotional moment.  But in addition to being left awkwardly unsupported by the rest of the episode, it also trivializes one of the core elements of the show: Marge’s loving but completely irrational attraction of Homer.  At this point, Homer acting like an old man barely rates a 3.0 on the Captain Wacky Scale and they’ve not only got Marge acting like he’s jeopardizing everything, but they also drop the subject for literally the rest of the plot.  It’s the emotional equivalent of telling someone that you have six months to live and then neither of you asking or offering any more on the subject.  It’s just weird.

Mild Concern

You can tell it’s serious because Marge takes up only a small part of the shot and looks slightly gassy.

Compare that to the same sentiment in “King-Size Homer”, when Marge makes it perfectly clear that she’s not playing around by saying: “Con, I’m finding myself less attracted to you physically.”  It’s a much more personal and appropriate line than “Maybe” because it’s the exact kind of thing Marge would say (stern but phased as gently as possible) and it fits with the gravity of what’s being portrayed.

Besides being a much better line, it’s also tied into the rest of the episode, both before and after.  The first time they bring it up is when Homer reveals to Marge his plan to get fat enough for disability and promptly blows off her objections, still too enamored of his plan to listen:

Marge: Have you thought about your health, or your appearance?
Homer: Oh, so that’s it, isn’t it, Marge?  Looks.  I didn’t know you were so shallow.
Marge: Oh, please, I would love you if you weighed one thousand pounds!
Homer: Beautiful!  Good night.

When she brings it up again at her pro and con session in the kitchen, the groundwork for a quick but sincere emotional moment has been done.  She raises the stakes by telling him quite seriously that she’s losing it for him and Homer ups them further by acting defiant instead of feigning ignorance.

King Size Homer15

Up close and personal, we can see the real doubt and pain on her face.  Shit is getting real.

That buildup works so well that the final time this serious emotion is raised, it doesn’t require a single word of dialogue between the two.  The main plot is fat Homer saving the plant from his own lazy stupidity, and when that’s over and Burns asks if there’s anything Homer wants, Homer and Marge need only share a look.

King Size Homer16

Even just drawn with simple lines, her face says it all.

In neither episode is this vital emotional risk the key to the story.  But Zombie Simpsons treats it like a single scene afterthought where – wham! – Homer and Marge are back and happy because that’s just how things were always going to go.  The Simpsons, on the other hand, made that risk an important part of the ending without even uttering a word.  It’s the kind of thing you can only do if you take it seriously enough to weave it into the entire episode instead of just tossing it off in a scene that didn’t even need to be there.




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