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.

13
Mar
14

Compare & Contrast: Sideshow Bob On Top of a Dam

Brother From Another Series9

“This looks like the work of crazy old Sideshow Bob.” – Chief Wiggum
“No, chief, Bob’s innocent!  It’s the truth.” – Lisa Simpson
“The truth, huh?  That sounds like the testimony of crazy old Lisa Simpson.” – Chief Wiggum

Sometimes Zombie Simpsons makes it hard to tell the difference between fan service and one of its regularly craptacular plot zigzags.  Was the fact that Sideshow Bob chased Bart and Lisa to the top of a dam at the end of “The Man Who Grew Too Much” supposed to be a shout out to “Brother From the Same Planet”?  Or was it just the only thing that came to mind when they decided that it had to end with him plummeting to his apparent death and having gills?

Whatever the motivation, they chose an ending with a perfectly superficial resemblance to its predecessor.  To get the basics out of the way quickly, “Brother From Another Series” patiently and steadily built up to that climax.  The dam’s construction is the center of the plot, and it is only at the end that we find out that Cecil is the one behind its imminent collapse.  So when Bob and the children are confronted with their own deaths in and above the dam, we know how they got there and what’s going on.  Zombie Simpsons literally just hopped up there:

Grasshopperus Bob

Here we see Sideshow Bob demonstrating his “grasshopper thighs” on a public street in downtown Springfield.

The very next shot:

Grasshopperus Bob Lands

Grasshopperus Bob lands squarely in front of Bart and Lisa on top of a dam very far from downtown Springfield.

And just in case there was any doubt about where they were supposed to be, here’s the zoomed out view from right after he lands:

Downtown Dam

I coulda swore there was a city around here somewhere.  Huh.  Guess not.

Zombie Simpsons has a lot of long running problems with setting and object permanence, but this is pretty impressive even by their standards.  A genetically engineered supervillain leapt from downtown straight to the top of the dam while Bart and Lisa teleported to the same location.  It’s like listening to a four-year-old tell a story:

Adorable Child: And then Sideshow Bob jumped from the street and landed on the dam!
Patient Parent/Guardian: And were Bart and Lisa on top of the dam too, sweetie?
Adorable Child: Yes!

Beyond the basics of how each episode got to the top of the dam, however, are what Sideshow Bob says and does once he’s up there.  Here is the entirety of Bob’s spoken dialogue at the end of “The Man Who Grew Too Much”:

“Python jaw: unhinge!”

“Who am I kidding?  My only exit is a final one.”

“Farewell, Simpsons, and, Lisa, when you’re older, write an autobiographical novel trashing the rest of them.”

“Oh, right, I gave myself gills.”

By any measure that’s very weak, especially when you remember that part of this is him trying to kill himself because of the horrible genetic freak he’s become.  But it gets worse when you realize that the whole thing, basically the entire ending, contains but a single, solitary stab at humor, having Bob tell Lisa to write a novel that trashes her family.  By contrast, here is just some of Bob’s dialogue from the end of “Brother From Another Series”:

“Lisa, you don’t spend ten years as a homicidal maniac without learning a few things about dynamite.”

“You’ve brought shame to this family, Cecil.  Oh, I don’t relish having to write the Christmas letter this year.”

“You’ll live to regret this!  Oh, thanks a lot, now I look crazy.”

“I’m older, I get the top bunk!”

That’s the Sideshow Bob we know and love.  He’s sarcastic, petty and crazy, but still refined and snooty.  And, look, there’s actual jokes, punchlines and witty asides!  Nary a bizarre plot twist or superpower activation to be seen, and I left out plenty of lines that were interactions with other characters (“Bart, how would you like to do something incredibly noble?”, “Do we have to?”, “Yes.”).

Just as importantly, look at what he does in each episode.  At the end of “Brother From Another Series”, he and Lisa start disarming Cecil’s bomb, then he has to save Bart, then he and Bart try to sacrifice themselves to save the town, then he gets thrown back in prison because Chief Wiggum is a dolt, and then he and Cecil get into a brotherly slap fight over the top bunk.  He has all that stuff to do because there was an actual episode prior to his getting up on the dam.  Cecil needs to be thwarted, Bart needed to be saved, and, because this is television and everything has to go back to the way it was, Bob had to go back to prison.

By contrast, “The Man Who Grew Too Much” didn’t really have Bob do anything.  Once he got done bouncing around on his grasshopper thighs and he’s at the top of the dam, what’s left?  He sort of has a confrontation with the teens, but not really.  Lisa quotes Walt Whitman, which makes him want to kill himself all of a sudden.  He jumps.  The end.  The dam itself has nothing to do with anything.  Bob hadn’t previously been thinking about killing himself, so that one came right the fuck out of left field.  The teens are with Homer and Marge for unknown reasons and have no prior reason to want to fight Bob.  The only part of the end that has anything to do with the rest of the episode is Lisa quoting Whitman, but that has nothing to do with the dam, the teens, or Bob’s superpowers.  It’s maniacal and empty because it’s hollower than the shoddy, embezzlement crippled dam Cecil built.

12
Mar
14

Compare & Contrast: Involuntary Commitment

Come With Us

"Sir!  I’m so sorry my grocer committed you.  We’ll never shop there again." – Mr. Smithers

Like the practice of medicine in general, the treatment of mental illness has a longstanding history of cruelty, incompetence and abuse.  People have undergone everything from lifetime confinement and mind changing drug regimes to electric shocks and lobotomies because of pseudo-scientific theories that often had (and have) more to do with the ignorance and prevailing prejudices of the people administering the "treatments" than they do with making the patients better.  On top of that is the frightful prospect of a mentally healthy person becoming trapped in that system and subject to its tender mercies, a fear that has driven fiction of all kinds for more than a century.

Serious drama, horror schlock, dark comedy and more have long used that and related ideas to provoke and entertain.  Some, obviously, work better than others, and there’s no way to guarantee success; but you can guarantee failure by using that powerful, well explored, and deeply rooted concept as a quick and haphazard plot twist to clean up a half-formed story and the flimsy character at its core.  In a nutshell, that’s what happened to "Diggs", a Zombie Simpsons episode so ill conceived that they couldn’t even bring themselves to put a pun in the title.

You want to do an episode about a lonely boy who’s a one kid falconry club at Springfield Elementary?  Fine.  Weirder shit than that has happened at Springfield Elementary.  You further want to reveal that said lonely boy is actually seriously mentally ill?  Okay, that’s a bit heavy for a shamelessly stupid show like Zombie Simpsons, but isn’t necessarily a problem.  Oh, you want to have the kid be involuntarily committed, have Bart find out, have Bart’s parents react with horror that he even knows such places exist, have Lisa(!) go along with it unquestioningly, then have the kid leave for a day to wrap up the plot before biking happily back to a life at the mental institute he clearly doesn’t want to be in?  Those are gonna cause problems.

To see just a few of them, take a quick look at the dinner scene where Bart has printed out (yeah, I know, ignore it) the name of the mental hospital where Diggs is being taken.  Bart can read.  He can certainly understand the words "Psychiatric Hospital" on the page he printed.  He hands it to Marge and this is what happens:

Marge: If this is what I think it is, it’s not a place we should ever ever take a little boy.
Bart: Then why is Diggs there?
Homer:
Because it’s his home forever.

Marge’s reaction is bizarre in a couple of ways.  First, she’s just accepting that some kid is being permanently taken to a mental hospital?  That’s very un-Marge.  Moreover, what’s with the weirdly callous and fearful attitude?  Even if we spot them her acquiescence in this, the Marge we know and love would reassure Bart, tell him that the hospital is going to help Diggs, maybe even often to see about visitation.  Instead, she not only views it as a hopeless place too horrible to even speak of, but makes Bart feel even worse about his friend going there.

And all that’s before we get to the glaring elephant in the room: how come nobody has asked about this kid’s parents?  He’s supposed to be an elementary school student for fuck’s sake!  And not only does he not have any parents, none of the adults we do see care about it either.  Are they on vacation?  Did he run away?  Did Voldemort kill them in the Simpsons universe too?

It’d be one thing to overlook all that in a regularly nonsensical Zombie Simpsons episode that’s flopping all over the place anyway, but they play this seriously . . . over . . . and over . . . and over again, complete with sad piano music each and every time.  Diggs and his bleak future are clearly the biggest element of the story now, but the episode spends most of its remaining time on a bunch of falcons we hadn’t seen before, then ends with Diggs riding off to his fate.  How is the audience supposed to react to this?  It’s like watching someone do bad stand up right next to someone who’s getting beaten and handcuffed.

Come Back, Diggs, Come Back

Are you sad?  Well don’t be, because here comes Milhouse!

Even topics as dour as getting hauled off for no cause can be funny, of course.  For starters, it helps to not have it be about a little kid.  (Unless it’s a Halloween episode and Bart saw a gremlin on the side of the bus, and even that made more sense than “Diggs”.)  More importantly, it has to fit in with the universe you’ve created and the story you’re telling, which brings us to "Stark Raving Dad" and "The Old Man and the Lisa".  In one, Homer gets committed to the New Bedlam Rest Home for the Emotionally Interesting by his boss for wearing a pink shirt to work and flunking an obviously idiotic take home personality test.  In the other, Burns gets committed to the old folks home because two grocery clerks decided he wasn’t capable of being in society.

Forget about what happened to Homer and Burns once they got where they were going ("Diggs" didn’t show us where its title character was going), and just compare the who and the why.  Homer gets sent up by his boss, which is a pretty terrifying prospect for anyone who’s not in management.  Burns gets sent up by a couple of dudes at the store, which is pretty terrifying for anyone.  Both are egregious abuses of authority, but they’re also absurd.  Real life grocery store employees cannot sign commitment papers, which is what makes doing it on The Simpsons so enjoyable. 

Similarly, both Homer’s and Burns’ transgressions were ludicrously minor.  Homer wore a pink shirt and checked some boxes wrong (or, rather, let Bart check them wrong); Burns couldn’t make up his mind about a condiment.  Neither can get you committed, much less by people other than doctors and judges.

Both cases take that dark concept and make it funny by changing and exaggerating it beyond reality while leaving it recognizable.  In other words, by satirizing it.  Zombie Simpsons, by contrast, took a very sad real world situation and . . . left it very sad.  I’m not sure what that’s called, but "boring" and "not funny" would be a good start.

As I said on Monday, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they dumped "Diggs" at 7:30 instead of the usual 8pm.  Zombie Simpsons episodes are typically some combination of dumb, nonsensical, boring and just plain bad; but "Diggs" managed to stand out for not only being all those things, but also stapling them to a story that would’ve been hideously depressing if it weren’t so mind numbingly stupid. 

29
Jan
14

Compare & Contrast: Marge in Therapy

Fear of Flying18

“Eww, you like the Monkees?  You know they don’t write their own songs.” – Girl on Bus
“They do so!” – Marge Bouvier
“They don’t even play their own instruments.” – Girl on Bus
“No!  No!” – Marge Bouvier
“That’s not even Michael Nesmith‘s real hat.” – Girl on Bus
“Ahhhhhhh!” – Marge Bouvier
“Kids can be so cruel.” – Dr. Zweig
“But it’s true, they didn’t write their own songs or play their own instruments.” – Marge Simpson
“The Monkees weren’t about music, Marge, they were about rebellion!  About political and social upheaval!” – Dr. Zweig

When The Simpsons would have one of its characters go someplace new or do something they’d never done before, whenever it introduced a new element to the show, it usually made that thing a harsh (if sometimes sympathetic) satire.  So, for example, New York City is filled with jerks and dickish parking officers, but it’s also got nice people who’ll yell back at the jerks in Tower One and glamorous (if inane) Broadway shows.  The sushi restaurant is friendly and delicious, but there’s still drunken karaoke and a map to the hospital on the back of the menu.  The dentist is a sadistic lunatic, but he’s also not wrong about calling you a liar when you tell him how often you brush.

Zombie Simpsons, of course, has a hard time sending the family anywhere novel or having them do something new because everything they come up with is a repeat of some kind.  Beyond that, though, when they do put the family in an unusual situation, they tend to put things in the most positively exaggerated light possible.  Cruise ships are idyllic paradises that are the most fun you’ll ever have.  Going to E3 or some other big show is awesome because you’ll get to run around with VIP passes and see all this cool stuff.  Trips to fancy restaurants are never too expensive or disappointing, and the staff will always treat you like gold.  It’s a completely different mentality, one that’s insulated from unhappiness and incurious about pretty much everything.  And, it goes almost without saying, seeing happy people have fun isn’t generally as funny as the opposite.

For a clean example of how weak this soft focus mentality is, look no farther than the therapist’s office in “Specs and the City” and the huge differences with Dr. Zweig’s office in “Fear of Flying”.  Zweig is certainly a competent therapist, but she also straight up lies to Homer about not blaming him and interrupts Marge’s big realization because a measly $30 check bounced.  The doctor in Zombie Simpsons barely gets any lines because he’s more prop than person.  (He ends the episode cutting Homer’s hair in his office because comedy.)  But beyond his almost nonexistent characterization are the ways that Marge going to therapy is handled.

On The Simpsons, therapy is a almost prohibitively expensive and really can lead to families breaking up.  (Not that ditching Homer would entirely be a bad thing for Marge.)  But it also bears enough of a resemblance to real therapy that it provides plenty of opportunities for jokes, parodies and satire.  So we see Marge’s flashbacks to her traumatic first day of school and seeing her father as a stewardess, get her Lost in Space dream, and have Zweig cracking jokes about copyright, and sarcastically mocking the “rich tapestry” of Marge’s problem after Marge ignores her about the unpaid bill.

Fear of Flying19

Zweig may charge on a sliding scale, but she still charges.

By contrast, Zombie Simpsons has Marge complain about Homer in some rather serious terms but lacks the skill or coherence to turn them around and make them funny at all.  Instead they just give the therapist a bunch of bland therapy lines:

So, Marge, how’ve you been?

And has there been any improvement in Homer’s drinking?

Maybe if you just concentrate on one problem, like his temper.

The jokes, if that is what they are, consist solely of Homer acting outraged at Marge’s legitimate sounding complaints.  This is startlingly emotionally tone deaf, even for them.  The sympathy and audience here are with Marge complaining about Homer, which is portrayed quite seriously.  But the show sticks with Homer’s shock because, hey, that’s where what passes for the punchlines are.

More to the point, the therapy is, well, just therapy.  No attempt whatsoever is made to goose it into something funny and insightful.  It’s left alone and is so dry and straightforward that the doctor’s dialogue wouldn’t be out of place in an instructional video.  He never even comes close to something insane and hilarious like a buttoned down shrink yelling out her love for an all but forgotten mock 60s pop band.

World's Least Interesting Therapist

This man does not love the Monkees.  He’s so boring he may not listen to music at all.

Compounding the dullness is the fact that, in Zombie Simpsons at least, straight ahead therapy works, really really well!  After her bland (and more than a little depressing) appointments, Marge is a cake baking sex machine!  Chalk up another awesome point in the life of Homer Simpson.

Compare that to the just-good-enough and probably temporary (her next flight does crash on takeoff) relief Marge gets from her much funnier and more involved therapy.  Even her final, successful session doesn’t end triumphantly, it ends with Dr. Zweig saying Marge is “nuts” for thinking her father was “an American hero” and Marge immediately getting her name wrong.

The Simpsons created a joke laden, topsy-turvy satire of therapy that worked only to the barest minimum of the definition of success.  Along the way they had a smart but callous therapist, some understandable (if cartoonish) spousal paranoia, and a bunch of pop culture parodies, from campy sitcoms to Alfred Hitchcock. They also managed to treat Marge and her doctor like real people, with concerns and flaws.  Zombie Simpsons had textbook dull therapy work perfectly in that it kept the kickass life Homer loves completely intact without him having to do anything.

17
Jan
14

Compare & Contrast: Overprotective Fathers

Bart's Friend Falls in Love15

“Samantha!” – Mr. Stanky
“Dad!” – Samantha Stanky
“Noooooo!” – Mr. Stanky

As far as nothingburger girlfriend characters go, Kumiko is so empty that she makes the relatively one-dimensional Rene from Season 9 look like Katniss Everdeen.  Rene at least talked to Moe before dating him out of pity.  Kumiko apparently fell in love with Comic Book Guy without even so much as meeting him.  But even that vacuous characterization is rich and deep compared to Kumiko’s father, who shows up out of the blue and instantly becomes the focus of the episode despite failing, after his very first scene, to do what he said he was there to do.  And, of course, per standard Zombie Simpsons operating procedure, he doesn’t get a name.

Back in Season 3, the show gave us another father who didn’t want his daughter dating one of Springfield’s losers.  He also didn’t get a first name, but in that case it didn’t matter because by the time he was on screen for his one scene, he’d already been a shadow over their doomed romance from the beginning of the episode.  I speak, of course, of Samantha Stanky’s father, Mr. Stanky, in “Bart’s Friend Falls In Love”.

To understand how The Simpsons could make a better character despite his having only one scene on screen and just four lines, it helps to look side-by-side at how and when each of them is introduced and expanded.  Mr. Stanky (which is hard to type without giggling a bit) is mentioned for the first time in the middle of the first act, just three minutes into the episode, when Samantha, forced by Mrs. Krabappel to introduce herself in front of the class while being graded on grammar and poise, says:

We just moved here from Phoenix.  My dad owns a home security company.  He came to Springfield because of its high crime rate and lackluster police force.

Right there, with the man himself most of the episode away from even being seen, we can form a mental picture of the guy.  He owns a security company, and he’s willing to uproot his family and move across the country to a city with lots of crime because of it.  We know right away that he’s not a sentimentalist and probably isn’t someone you’d want to screw around with.

By contrast, Kumiko’s father doesn’t show up until twelve minutes into the episode, at what I guess is supposed to be the first or second act break (Zombie Simpsons makes it hard to tell).  Up to this point we hadn’t heard of him at all.  He didn’t rate so much as a toss off line from Kumiko or Comic Book Guy about her father maybe not wanting his daughter pulling up stakes and moving to America to live with some dude he’s never met.  They had eight minutes left to fill, so you knew something had to keep the new lovers from riding off happily into the sunset, but the episode is so poorly set up and written that it could just as easily have been an argument about Marvel vs. DC, the superiority of American or Japanese animation, or really anything, up to and including a meteor strike or General Zod showing up.  Having dropped in from nowhere, he and Homer proceed to recap the episode and explain who he is and why he’s there.  We don’t see him confront Comic Book Guy or Kumiko, he just stands there.

Two Men Talking (Part 1)

Men of action!

The next scene is Kumiko crying and walking out of the store, escorted by her father.  They proceed down the sidewalk and, for all intents and purposes, his story is completed barely a minute after he arrived on screen.  He came to get his daughter.  He got his daughter.  The end.  Naturally, Zombie Simpsons can’t drop things there, but whether they know it or not, that’s the story they just told us.

Compare that clumsy plot advance to the second time we hear Mr. Stanky mentioned, when Milhouse and Samantha are, as the old children’s rhyme goes, kissing in a tree.  Samantha puts a halt to things because:

Milhouse, I’ve gotta go.  My Dad thinks I’m having my braces examined.

Without the man himself so much as coming close to the screen, we know that he has no idea that some local kid in a city he probably doesn’t even like is kissing his precious baby girl.  We also know that if he did know, he wouldn’t approve, because otherwise, why would she lie to him about going to the orthodontist?

Bart's Friend Falls in Love14

She kinda, sorta is having her braces examined, but her father is unlikely to see it that way.

The next time he’s mentioned is at the end of what is very clearly the second act, when Bart has grown exasperated with being the third wheel and losing his best friend to a skirt.  Milhouse, desperate to continue his closed-mouth-kissing, pre-adolescent romance asks if they can still use Bart’s treehouse because:

If her father finds out, he’ll kill her.

This is tight as a drum storytelling.  Milhouse is making explicit what was hinted at earlier and giving Bart the crucial piece of information he needs to break them up, all in a single, eight word sentence.

The third time we hear from Mr. Nakamura (which isn’t funny at all, especially compared to Stanky), it’s when he’s inexplicable sitting in a Japanese restaurant getting drunk with Homer.  The last time we saw him he was walking off with his daughter and talking about taking her back to Japan.  Did she object or disappear?  Was the flight delayed?  Is she locked in his hotel room right now?  Why would he listen to Homer anyway, a man he barely knows who clearly knew his daughter was with the man he wholeheartedly disapproves of?  Who knows?  Zombie Simpsons doesn’t care about any of those questions and thanks you for not caring as well.

Nakamura’s next scene comes after he and Homer get into the hallucinogenic snake wine.  It’s the very pretty centerpiece to the episode wherein they cram as many Simpsons characters as they can into Miyazaki references.  This all ends with Nakamura coming face to face with one of the masked guys from Spirited Away and telling us all out loud that he now doesn’t mind Comic Book Guy marrying his daughter.  Like I said, it’s pretty, but it’s also gratutious filler that advances the already shambling story roughly two (very obvious) centimeters.

The fourth time Mr. Stanky comes up is when Bart narcs on Samantha and Milhouse’s little love nest.  Again, this is superb storytelling, as the threat he poses to the young romance, implicit at first and growing ever more explicit, is now approaching at full speed.  Hitherto he’d only been referenced, now he’s on the phone with Bart and bearing down on the treehouse like a parental hurricane.

The fifth and final time he’s part of the episode is the culmination of the previous four.  His abrupt and unexpected appearance at the treehouse shows us that he’s exactly who we’ve been told he is: a take charge kinda guy who doesn’t want his little girl anywhere near some punk kid she thinks is a good kisser.  He grabs Samantha (literally), tosses her in the car, and speeds her out of Milhouse’s life.  It’s the climax of the episode, with the remainder being Bart and Milhouse reconciling and the bittersweet ending with Samantha at the penguin house.

The last couple of times we see Mr. Nakamura, he’s expositing his new found approval of his daughter’s dumpy boyfriend, showing up to their wedding in a silver C-3P0 costume (the fuck?), and then getting drunk with Homer some more on an elementary school playground because those last thirty seconds aren’t going to fill themselves.  It’s a sticky sweet ending that’s no different than what was happening before he arrived, which isn’t surprising since he is, as most Zombie Simpsons characters are, more prop than person.  His reason to be there was so flimsy that no one even mentioned him for the first two thirds of the episode, and when he did show up it had little to do with his stated intentions and everything to do with Zombie Simpsons shoving some movie references into a previously blank spot on their storyboard.

Mr. Stanky, on the other hand, was a constant and growing off screen threat who did exactly what his daughter and her brief boyfriend knew he would.  Both of them were killjoys in their way, but one of them was good at it and lent the episode and the ending the kind of character, depth and complexity that make the jokes hit home and the story relatable.  The other was just there.

09
Jan
14

Compare & Contrast: Federal Hardasses

Homer vs. The 18th Amendment9

“With rum running hoodlums in the catbird seat, Springfield sent for the one man who could clean up the town and shoot the gangsters: Rex Banner.” – Narrator Who Is Not Walter Winchell

These days there are more teevee cop stereotypes than you can shake a nightstick at.  There are the gruff loners who play by their own rules, but they get results, damn it.  There are the emotionally haunted forensics experts.  There are the (always model pretty) lady detectives who are just as tough as the boys.  In the subset of federal teevee cops, we’ve got everything from savvy military investigators and yet more forensic experts to the ever reliable, order barking modern super-agent.  Epitomized by Kiefer Sutherland, he’s tough, he’s ultra-competent, he’s had way too much coffee, and he likes yelling orders into cell phones.  That, in a nutshell, was Will Arnett’s character in “Steal This Episode”.

Set the clock back to a time before cell phones and SWAT teams, and those same upright federal crusaders with haircuts you could set your watch to were still there, they were just less excitable.  In place of Sutherland’s unrestrained id, there was Robert Stack, battling crime week after week in gangster ridden Chicago.  And that, in a similar nutshell, was Dave Thomas’s Rex Banner in “Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment”.

Both characters are hard charging, rule crazy feds, but that’s about where the similarities stop.  Like the Capital City Goofball or Race Banyon before him, Rex Banner is the kind of one-off satirical archetype at which The Simpsons excelled.  His clipped speech and complete lack of humor are instantly recognizable even if you’ve never seen Robert Stack wear a fedora.  The same way that you don’t need to know the name of a single square shouldered astronaut or giant fuzzy mascot to get Banyon and the Goofball, you don’t need to know a single teevee cop to understand that Banner is a ramrod straight G-man from the old school.

Banner’s dialogue matches his posture.  He speaks in short sentences that are nevertheless laced with old time slang worthy of an untouchable 1920s prohi:

“Listen, rummy, I’m gonna say it plain and simple: where’d you pinch the hooch?  Is some blind tiger jerking suds on the side?”

“Open up, curly, this is a raid!”

“Don’t crack wise with me, tubby.”

“It’s not up to us to choose which laws we want to obey.  If it were, I’d kill everyone who looked at me cockeyed.”

There he is, a minor character never to return, who nevertheless becomes a full, if batshit crazy, human in just a few minutes of screen time.

Compare that to the grossly underwritten and underthought agent in “Steal This Episode”.  I’d call him by his name, but they didn’t bother to give him one.  Other characters only address him three times: once as “sir”, once as “hotshot”, and one final time at the end when Lisa just walks up to him in court and starts talking.

Just as damning is the fact that we don’t seem him do much of anything.  He swoops into Homer’s backyard theater, then goes away while the show has Homer escape and Marge repeatedly (like, a lot) feel bad about turning him in.  (Incidentally, Marge didn’t mean to do it, but that kind of story subtlety is instantly lost in the seemingly endless scenes where Homer unknowingly guilts her over and over again.)  The next time we see our federal Javert he’s outside with the lead singer of Judas Priest, then he’s in court, and then he’s done.  The man has no story, no resolution, no nothing.

Worse still are his lines.  There’s no consistency to them.  They’re a mash of the usual Zombie Simpsons expository sitcom banter:

“Men, set your guns on kill.  We’re going after Homer Simpson.”

“Earplugs in, blinders on, we trained for this.” [copious screaming]

“Hollywood may be run by big corporations trying to squash people, but they make movies about people standing up to big corporations trying to squash them, and winning.”

He tells us what we already know, tells us what we’re about to see, and sums up the ending in case the other half-dozen times it was explained to us didn’t take.  These aren’t the words of a hard-ass, take no prisoners federal agent.  They’re the words of a nameless nobody with no core and no character.  He’s on screen, he yells some things (most of which have nothing to do with one another), and then he’s gone.

It’s been a long time since Zombie Simpsons created a character anyone would remember more than an hour after watching the episode, and this nameless Rex Banner wannabe is a perfect illustration of why.  They don’t deal in characters anymore, they deal in props.  The audience for Homer’s movies includes Miss Hoover, Sideshow Mel, the Squeaky Voiced Teen, Chief Wiggum and a bunch of other characters who probably would never have been there in Season 8.  When Superintendent Chalmers gets singled out by Homer, it could’ve been anyone else in the back yard without changing the scene one whit:

Bizarre Town Meeting

Jimbo and Frink have always been best friends.  They have so much in common.

Agent Whathisname is a recognizable archetype that they treat like any other replaceable part.  They don’t give him a story, don’t make him move the main plot (he doesn’t chase Homer to the consulate, the family just goes there and he somehow knows they went), and don’t even bother to give his lines the least bit of personality.

Rex Banner is a precisely distilled take on fictionalized Elliot Ness: body and mind carved out of solid wood.  The other guy, whoever he was, flitted in and out of a few scenes and then vanished, his presence and personality as insubstantial as a wisp.

12
Dec
13

Compare & Contrast: Krusty Franchises His Name

Klown Klass

"Alright, so there can only be one Krusty in each territory, so I hope this works out. Tell me where you’re from." – Krusty the Klown
"Georgia." – Southern Hick
"Texas." – Exaggerated Texan #1
"Uh . . . Brooklyn." – Exaggerated Texan #2
"Russia." – Fur Hatted Russian
"New Hampshire." – Stuffy Yankee
"Homer!" – Homer Simpson

Krusty the Klown is a great symbol of so much that is wrong with the entertainment industry.  He long ago shed any last vestige of dignity, then stopped caring about the quality of his show or his merchandise shortly thereafter.  He doesn’t particularly like the kids he entertains, treats his staff like crap, and wastes every one of the millions of dollars he earns.

As has happened to so many celebrities and entertainers over the years, the act gets stale, the fame cools off, and then the money dries up.  Condor egg omelets and cigarettes lit with hundred dollar bills are all well and good right up until you can’t afford them anymore.   The Simpsons showed us what would happen to Krusty at this point several times during its run.  When his show got run off the air by Gabbo, he fell completely apart but managed a comeback thanks to his years of celebrity contacts.  When Bart inadvertently snitched on him for tax avoision, he got back on top with that old standby, insurance fraud.  And when his love of horse racing got him in too deep with the mob, he opened a clown college and franchised himself.

That last one is relevant because it is the exact same thing that happened this week in "Yellow Subterfuge".  Well, almost exact, "Homie the Clown" handles it vastly better, but since it was just the B-plot (and a barely extant one at that) in "Yellow Subterfuge", there are just a few scenes to actually compare.  Of those, there are two that stand out as exemplifying the systemic and repeating ways Zombie Simpsons fumbles concepts that worked so well on "The Simpsons".

The first is our discovery that Krusty is broke.  Going all the way back to Season 1, Krusty and Burns existed in a stratosphere of fame, power, and wealth far above the ordinary citizens of Springfield.  This being a television show, they crossed paths with the Simpson family an unusual amount of times, a structurally necessary absurdity that the show began making fun of in Season 4 for Burns ("Last Exit to Springfield", when Burns replies that the name Simpson doesn’t ring a bell after Smithers reminds him of all the things that have already happened) and Season 5 for Krusty ("Bart Gets Famous", when Bart points out all the times he’s helped Krusty after Krusty doesn’t know who he is).  It doesn’t make the strictest sense, but neither do people with four fingers and yellow skin, it’s just a part of the show you can have a little fun with.

And having fun with it is exactly how The Simpsons brought Krusty back into contact with the Simpson family.  Krusty needs money, so he founds a clown college to franchise his name.  Homer, being such a dolt that he cannot resist anything that’s advertised to him on a billboard, attends.  He doesn’t stand out in  clown class or anything, he just happens to look enough like Krusty (they do have the same character model, after all) that people mistake him for the original.  None of the Simpsons are present at the beginning of the episode when we see Krusty’s impressively wasteful spending habits, including buying a new house when his current one gets dirty and paying off Steve Martin and George Carlin for stealing their bits.

By contrast, in "Yellow Subterfuge" Lisa just happens to be riding her bike past Krusty’s mansion while his stuff is getting repossessed.  This is their actual opening dialogue:

Krusty: Oh, hi, little girl.  What brings you to see Uncle Krusty?
Lisa: Krusty, are you broke?
Krusty: Yeah, all it takes is some bad luck at the ponies, worse luck in the Bitcoin market, heavy investment in a high end bookmark company . . .

Give them credit for being brief, I suppose, but look at that.  Lisa doesn’t bother to answer Krusty’s question because there is no answer.  Just like when characters appear and disappear from scenes, none of the actions or words are really connected to each other, they just go in a certain order because, well, shut up, that’s why.  Krusty, who doesn’t know who she is or why she’s there, just launches into a list of his financial woes because keep shutting up.  What’s worse, they don’t even bother to use Lisa.  She briefly appears with Krusty later in the episode, but after that she just disappears without another word.

Like so many Zombie Simpson problems this wouldn’t be so aggravating if they only took these kinds of shortcuts once and a while, but they do it all the time.  In this episode alone Skinner trusts everything to Bart, of all people, in three or four different scenes.  Even though the only thing we see of Milhouse in this episode is him enjoying the submarine ride that Skinner let him have, there he is helping Bart’s moronic deception with nary a word of explanation.  Sometimes you need to cheat a little to get an episode to work, that’s one thing.  But like "carrot cat food" that’s 88% ash, it’s quite another when the episode is more cheats than not.

The second bit of this short yet interminable subplot is the regionally stereotypical new Krustys.  Both shows introduce them in a scene where a bunch of people from different places attend their first day of Krusty class.  The Simpsons has them list themselves off, roll-call style, and the guy from New Hampshire is a nasal New England dweeb, the guy from Russia has a fur hat and rolls his Rs, and the two guys from Texas are exactly alike except that one of them claims to be from Brooklyn.  Stereotypes are funny, here’s a few of them, let’s move on with the show.

But what The Simpsons used as a single scene joke, Zombie Simpsons turns into the entirety of its B-plot.  First we see the Krustys-in-training while the accountant reads off a description of what we already see them holding.  After that it’s straight ahead with the stereotypes: Jamaicans get high, the Irish are desperate and poor, Mao was a famous Chinese guy, and so forth.  If that had been one scene, sure why not?  But it’s the whole damn thing, so we get an entire scene with the Jamaican Itchy smoking Jamaican Scratchy, the accountant running down the success of funny foreign Krustys, and an ending scene with a parade of dully typical accents and costumes.  Irish Krusty, by far the strongest of the lot, got a genuine, out loud laugh from me, a rarity for Zombie Simpsons, when he said this:

Irish Krusty: Me ma, she had twelve children, but only three lived, then they closed the mill. . . . Hey, hey.

That’s a good joke, it’s got multiple punchlines that build on each other and it’s delivered really well.  But that was the first time.  After that they gave him two diminishing return call backs (in a B-plot that’s only about four scenes long) where they basically repeated it.

This is another hallmark of Zombie Simpsons: stretching anything that even remotely works until it’s just as thin as the rest of the filler.  Mad Jon once described how when he did laugh at something, he’d just start counting to ten to wait for them to run it into the ground and they almost always did.  So while even cheap stereotypes can be funny, trying to hang an entire B-plot on something that overused and one-dimensional is lazy and hacktacular.

Episodes like "Homie the Clown" could manage fanciful episodes that depart far from Evergreen Terrace, like Krusty franchising himself, because underneath all that stuff was a solid foundation, both in terms of story and in terms of gags.  They never needed to overuse shortcuts or jokes.  They had plenty of the latter and stories that rarely required the former.  Zombie Simpsons, most definitely including "Yellow Subterfuge", lacks that foundation, and the result is weak episodes with weak jokes because stories that don’t make sense need lots of kludges and leave even weak jokes to carry heavy amounts of screentime.

23
Nov
13

Compare & Contrast: Strikes and Strikebreakers

Last Exit to Springfield11

“Goodbye, Springfield, from Hell’s heart, I stab at thee!” – C.M. Burns

The line everyone knows from 1987’s Wall Street is, “Greed is good”.  Of course, Michael Douglas doesn’t quite say that; his actual line is “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good”.  Either way it’s not the best line in the movie.  That honor goes to Martin Sheen, playing the skeptical head of an airline mechanics union.  Sitting in Gordon Gekko’s excessively 1980s penthouse as the iconic bankster of the time licks his chops over wage cuts now for theoretical profit sharing tomorrow, Sheen sagely notes:

“The rich been doing it to the poor since the beginning of time.  The only difference between the Pyramids and the Empire State Building is the Egyptians didn’t allow unions.”

The fight between labor and management is as old as the hills, and labor has only one weapon: organizing.  Not that unions are all smiles and sunshine.  They can be every bit as corrupt, short sighted, and greedy as their opponents, and the conflict between the two are often complicated, messy and painful.  In other words, the whole thing is fertile territory for satire, parody and general yuk-yuks.

Like many rich comedy veins, whether fart jokes or mocking those clowns in Congress, taking a swing at employers, employees and their eternal struggle against one another can be done with verve, insight and wit, or it can be done quickly and cheaply with the barest minimum of thought or humor.  Not being particularly fond of either thought or humor, Zombie Simpsons went with the second option.

Lisa’s cheerleader union plot begins after she is twice magically transformed by the cheerleaders into and out of a cheerleader outfit, so things don’t exactly get off to a good start, but they do manage to cover the bare minimum of "strike" plot points.  Basically these:

1.  The need to strike

2.  The decision to strike

3.  The strike itself

4.  Management’s counter moves

5.  The resolution

All of these have been done by The Simpsons, of course, most completely in "Last Exit to Springfield".  Obviously the B-plot for “Labor Pains” has much less screen time than the A-plot of “Last Exit to Springfield”, so instead of comparing them in whole, just consider those five scenes that they have in common. 

1.  In Zombie Simpsons, Lisa discovers how poorly compensated the “Atomettes” are when the Rich Texan walks over to them and pays them their meager wages, helpfully expositing the amount just in case anyone wasn’t paying attention.  It’s perfectly hacktacular, with characters walking on and off as needed, repeated explanation, and no real connection to anything we’ve seen so far.  (And nevermind pulling a theoretically 8-year-old girl out of the crowd and putting her in a skimpy costume to dance around in front of a bunch of drunken dudes.)

In The Simpsons, Burns decides he wants to cancel dental insurance for his workers more or less out of spite.  He remembers the good old days when you could wall up impudent employees and wants to get back to that.  He doesn’t specifically target the dental plan because it’s expensive or he needs the money, he just wants to screw his workers on the principle that workers should be screwed.  This being The Simpsons, the union doesn’t come off any better.  They almost accepted a keg of beer in exchange for dental coverage and then elected Homer as their leader.  Not only does all this mesh with the B-plot of Lisa needing braces, but it’s a lot more interesting and involved that some simple and heavily exposited pay dispute.  The conflict flows directly from the evil of Burns, Homer gets naturally caught up (instead of just happening to be there), and things can proceed.

Last Exit to Springfield10

“Unless you’re crooked.” “Woo-hoo!”

2.  From there, we see our two opponents, Burns and Homer, hilariously misunderstand each other, starting with Burns trying to bribe Homer and Homer thinking Burns is hitting on him.  Homer hates his new position so much that he goes to resign, but the hotheads in the union cut him off and assume he wants to go to war with Burns instead.  The whole strike is a farce, built on one comic misperception after another.  In "Labor Pains", Lisa and the Rich Texan both wander to cheerleading practice for another exposition and coincidence filled meeting that sees both of them going through the motions.

Cheerleader Padyday

I’m sure Jerry Jones has done some terrible things to Cowboys cheerleaders over the decades, but even he doesn’t pay their pittance  personally.

3.  Both episodes feature quick strike scenes and little montages, but all you really need to know is that The Simpsons wrote a strike song and had Lisa sing it whereas Zombie Simpsons grabbed an old Woody Guthrie song called “What Are We Waiting On”.  That’s pretty lazy, but it’s even worse than it first seems because while the song does contain the word “union”, Guthrie isn’t referring to a labor union, but rather the Union (as in the United States of America).  The song is about fighting Hitler, not fighting management.  So not only did Zombie Simpsons just buy a song, they picked a song by Woody Guthrie, most famous for singing about the lives of working people, that isn’t actually about working people.  Jebus.

Weak Scabs

Oh, Patty & Selma, remember when you were awesome and didn’t take shit from people?

4.  When Burns counterattacks the union, he goes with head busting strikebreakers, fire hoses, and robot workers.  His ideas are very Burns like: outdated and/or insane, but ruthless and at least theoretically effective.  The Rich Texan, on the other hand, makes just a single countermove: hiring Patty, Selma, Nelson’s mom, and the Crazy Cat Lady to replace the hardbodied twenty-somethings who make up his usual cheer squad.  Say what you want about the robot workers, but the box did say they’d be “100% Loyal”.  It could have worked.  Crazy Cat Lady in spandex, on the other hand, is weak tea gross out humor that nicely demonstrates just how empty this conflict really is.

Last Exit to Springfield12

The kind they had in the 30s . . .

5.  And what happens at the end?  Well, the Rich Texan goes to the Simpson house (which is where the strike is being organized because shut up that’s why) and concedes because apparently it never occurred to him to hire more hardbodied twenty-somethings.  Compare that meek surrender to Burns, who deliberately blacks out all of Springfield (even the red light district and the fake vomit factory) while quoting Captain Ahab’s speech from the end of “Moby Dick”.  Having tried to destroy the entire town rather than surrender, Burns finally admits defeat.  The Rich Texan went down with hardly a peep.

Tried Nothing and I'm All Out of Ideas

Ladies, I’m here to wrap up this B-plot because the A-plot has scenes even worse than this coming right up.

The Simpsons mocked both labor and management to within an inch of reality and let the good guys win only because the bad guy is irredeemably insane.  Zombie Simpsons had some cheerleaders giggle and shake their stuff.

The tragedy of all this is that “cheerleader union” is a fantastic idea.  Real NFL cheerleaders are basically paid in pompoms, and an actual Simpsons episode about them unionizing or just getting something more than a token salary (most make well under $100 per game, and they have to do lots of uncompensated non-game stuff as well) could be hilarious.  Instead we got this.  Oh well.

14
Nov
13

Compare & Contrast: James Bond Songs

You Only Move Twice12

“Ingenious, isn’t it, Mr. Bont?” – Hank Scorpio
“Scorpio, you’re totally mad.” – Bont
“I wouldn’t point fingers, you jerk.” – Hank Scorpio
“So, do you expect me to talk?” – Bont
“I don’t expect anything from you except to die and be a very cheap funeral.” – Hank Scorpio

When The Simpsons was still itself it often featured song parodies and takeoffs that were toe-tapping fun.  But those songs were never simply direct ports of existing songs with just a word or two changed.  When Shary Bobbins sings "A Boozehound Named Barney", it’s recognizable as "Feed the Birds", but only because the melodies are similar.  Thanks in part to Disney’s notorious copyright locusts, "Boozehound" has original music and lyrics that tell a completely different story.  In "Marge vs. the Monorail", there isn’t quite one song from The Music Man that the monorail song is based off of, but there doesn’t need to be.  They can blend elements of different songs, mostly "Ya Got Trouble" and "Seventy-Six Trombones", and come out with a coherent song at the end that not only sounds good and is funny, but is both of those things even if you’ve never heard the original.  I could keep citing examples, Homer singing about garbage men or about life under the sea spring to mind, but what’d be the point?  The show created songs that sounded enough like the originals so that you could get the reference, but not so much that they weren’t pretty catchy on their own.

In particular, there was the song that plays over the end credits for "You Only Move Twice".  Though it’s closest to "Goldfinger" (probably the most famous James Bond song), it’s not a direct takeoff.  Rather, it uses the generally brash and brassy sound of those Sean Connery movies as inspiration.  So while it’s an original work with freshly written music and lyrics, it’d slip almost unnoticed into a collection of Bond themes.

Like the music itself, the lyrics take familiar patterns and warp them in that inimitable Simpsons way (yoinked from SNPP):

Scorpio!
He’ll sting you with his dreams of power and wealth.
Beware of Scorpio!
His twisted twin obsessions are his plot to rule the world And his employees’ health.
He’ll welcome you into his lair, Like the nobleman welcomes his guest.
With free dental care and a stock plan that helps you invest!
But beware of his generous pensions, Plus three weeks paid vacation each year,
And on Fridays the lunchroom serves hot dogs and burgers and beer! He loves German beer!

Like "Goldfinger", it’s about the villain.  But Scorpio, unlike Goldfinger, doesn’t let Bond (or Bont) kill or otherwise defeat an entire army of henchmen.  Instead, he gives them investment help and beer on Fridays.

Compare that to the helplessly uncreative "You Only Live One" song in "YOLO".  Not only is the song note for note with the original Bond song "You Only Live Twice", but the lyrics are short, uncreative, and dominated by repeating the original, nearly word for word.  Here’s the lyrics from Homer’s depressed montage:

You only live once, or so it seems
No life for yourself, and none for your dreams,
You work every day, at a job so lame
And every night the ending’s the same

And here are the matching lyrics from the 1967 original:

You only live twice, or so it seems
One life for yourself, and one for your dreams
You drift through the years, and life seems tame
Till one dream appears, and love is it’s name

They didn’t just copy the song, they copied the rhyme scheme and almost all of the lyrics, word for word.  (And when they did change something, it was usually just to make a positive into a negative.)  The part of the song over the end credits is slightly less repetitive, but not much:

You only live once, but that’s okay
You’ll live quite long in the USA,
But, back to my point, you only live once,
You’ve got years and years, unless it’s just months

Even there half of what they’re doing is just repeating the refrain, and there’s no original music whatsoever.

Using the old Bond song like this isn’t as hacktacular as a lot of the things they do, but even a cursory glace shows just how weak "You Only Move Once" is when compared to the Scorpio end credits.  Zombie Simpsons bought a song, swapped a few words and expects you to smile at the reference.  (Though if you’d never heard the original I’m not sure quite what you’d think.)  The Simpsons sat down at a piano and wrote an entire song that works musically, fits their story, and still hews close enough to the original formula that there’s no doubt in your mind what they’re parodying.  As is always the case, The Simpsons took the time and effort to do the job right while Zombie Simpsons cut every corner they could and ended up with something that’s as slapdash as it is forgettable.

08
Nov
13

Compare & Contrast: Burns’ Old Romances

Burns, Baby Burns4

“Aw, Pop, don’t get me wrong, it’s great to be here.  But how’s a guy like you wind up with a son like me?” – Larry

[Programming Note: Sorry for the late posting on this.  Reading Digest should be along at roughly the usual time later today.]

The most obvious repeat in “Four Regrettings and a Funeral” was the use of “Memories” for Homer’s flashback.  Par for the course for Zombie Simpsons, it was a very weak imitation.  In “Bart’s Friend Falls in Love”, we see Homer reminiscing about all the things he did with his stomach over the years, from march in a parade with it as the face, eat French fries off of it, and bounce his baby daughter on it.  It’s something we already knew about Homer (indeed, his fatness is one of his defining characteristics), and everything’s plausible while still being silly, funny and just a little bit bittersweet.  In this one, it’s a bowling ball we’ve never seen him use before (and isn’t even the Stealth Bowler), and he does things like give it mouth-to-mouth after getting pulled out of a pool with it.  The idiocy has been turned up, the sentiment turned down, and none of the things we see make any sense.  And that’s before you get to the fact that they had already used the exact same song for the exact same reason back in Season 3.

But as transparently hacktacular as that was, it doesn’t hold a candle to one of the worst tics of Zombie Simpsons: making Burns – the epitome of unlimited evil and callous greed – both sweet and sentimental.  It’s a total hollowing out of his character (one they’ve done before, of course), and what makes it especially neutering is that we’ve already seen how the real Burns acted in an identical situation back in Season 8.

Instead of using repetitive flashbacks to fill in and support an already threadbare story, “Burns, Baby Burns” uses a single one to quickly give us the very Burns-esque background to Rodney Dangerfield’s conception and birth.  It can’t be described any better than Burns does it, so I’ll just quote him:

Who should appear, but the unrequited love of my college years, Mimsy Bancroft.  Of course, by then Mimsy had her share of wrinkles and a gray hair or two.  But my adoring eye saw past those minor imperfections to her twenty-one year old daughter Lilly.

From there, Burns knocks up a woman young enough to be his daughter and then lets her family bundle her off to a “convent in the South Seas”.  After all, what else is a tyrannical, middle age plutocrat to do with an illegitimate son he doesn’t want?  By contrast, in “Four Regrettings and a Funeral”, Burns pines endlessly, his wistful music barely stops, and, just in case the title was too subtle, he repeatedly regrets letting his old flame go out loud:

She broke my first heart.

[...]

I will find Lila and win her back!

To be fair, the lost love is a much bigger part of the new episode than it was of the good one.  But the discrepancy in screentime has nothing to do with the differing characterizations of Burns.  In Season 8 he instantly blew past his heartsick regret for the younger and prettier version, insulting the mother and scandalizing the entire family in the process.  Without ever making it explicit, they show us a Burns who is callous, self centered and basically incapable of love.

In Season 25, Burns mopes and moans and is struck so lovesick by the passing of his geriatric girlfriend that he not only cares about people, he does so longer than even she asked him to.  This is a Burns of deep and abiding empathy, the polar opposite of a man who impregnated and abandoned the daughter of a woman he claimed to love.  It certainly makes him a more likable network sitcom character, but that kind of cheap teevee redemption was always beneath The Simpsons.  Zombie Simpsons, on the other hand, thinks it clever and original.

16
Oct
13

Compare & Contrast: Suspense Show Takeoffs

The Springfield Files14

“For the love of God, help me!  I’ve been here for four days and a turtle’s got a hold of my teeth.  There he is!  Come back here, you.  Slow down!  I’ll get yeh!” – Abe “Grampa” Simpson
“This is the worst assignment we’ve ever had.” – Agent Scully
“Worse than the time we were attacked by the flesh eating virus?” – Agent Mulder
“Ow!  He bit me with my own teeth!” – Abe “Grampa” Simpson
“No, this is much more irritating.” – Agent Scully

Whether it’s shadowy terrorist networks and shady politicians, a government conspiracy to collude with aliens, or any other formula for dramatic mystery, people like to be in suspense about what’s going to happen next.  What nefarious plots will the heroes uncover?  What dastardly twists do the villains have up their sleeves?  Will the leads fall in love and kiss (or possibly get naked) on screen?

All of these things are a rather far cry from the reasons people watch animated comedies.  So when it comes time for a parody, it helps tremendously to know that you’re here to poke fun at your source material and not merely repeat it.  For a good example of the former, there’s “The Springfield Files”.

The X-Files became a parody of itself toward the end as the conspiracy kept getting strung out and strung out (and strung out) because it was one of FOX’s few hit shows and they couldn’t bear to let it die.  (When Troy McClure shows the FOX “Programming Chart” later in Season 8, they weren’t kidding when it was just that, The Simpsons and Melrose Place.)  But in its prime, The X-Files was a popular critical darling that kept audiences’ rapt attention with inventive monsters of the week and a nefarious global conspiracy that unfolded ever so slowly.

The Simpsons took The X-Files and made fun of all of it: the inherent goofiness of the FBI investigating “paranormal” crimes and creatures, the endless breadth of conspiracy theories, and the unusually drop dead sexiness of that pair of agents.  It wasn’t mean about any of it, a show as silly and relentlessly serious about itself as The X-Files isn’t exactly a hard target for satire, and the two lead voices were happy to show up and have a little fun at the expense of their meal ticket.

But “The Springfield Files” never feels like an X-Files episode or even tries to copy one.  Mulder and Scully are there, of course, but they’re hardly the protagonists and they basically disappear as soon as they ascertain that Homer’s a drunken idiot who shouldn’t be taken seriously, which doesn’t take long at all.  The “alien” turns out to be Mr. Burns, which the Springfield mob understandably tries to kill anyway.

Even the quick departure of Mulder and Scully laughs at The X-Files.  Scully tells Mulder that they have to go since this is obviously not an alien, and then she gets annoyed and just walks off in boredom as he launches into his elaborately insane “truth is out there” speech.  Meanwhile, real crime, Moe smuggling exotic animals, is happening right in front of the FBI.  Along the way they have time to throw in Leonard Nimoy parodying himself and his lesser television accomplishments, FOX, and Friday nights.

The Springfield Files13

That’s not Leonard Nimoy!

“Homerland” manages none of that, and instead seeks to recreate, more or less as closely as possible, scenes and characters from Homeland.  For starters, there’s the opening, which like their Dexter parody from a couple of seasons ago, basically requires you to have seen a relatively obscure cable show to get what’s going on since it’s little more than a remake with Simpson characters substituted for the regulars.  The plot and even the musical cues are more or less direct copies, and poor Kristen Wiig is asked to do little more than alternate between being crazy and being suspicious in a Claire Danes role that has just that one joke that they repeat over and over again.

They’re so concerned with faithful reproduction that the scene where Lisa catches Homer “praying” is practically a shot-for-shot duplicate of one on Showtime, except that Homeland didn’t have the daughter exposit needlessly.  You don’t need to be a fan of Homeland, or even really know anything about the show, to know that’s a bad idea.  This is some of Lisa’s actual dialogue:

Lisa:  It looks like he’s praying . . . to the East.  The Middle East!  Mecca.

As a feat of bad writing that’s kind of impressive.  It’s quadruple expositive, including explaining one thing thrice over, and for that extra special Zombie Simpsons kick it involves Lisa acting uncharacteristically suspicious of Muslims.

What’s going on around all that crappy dialogue isn’t helping.  Shows like Homeland and The X-Files, which rely on twists and discoveries and secrets, set up those kind of scenes carefully.  Zombie Simpsons just tossed this one in with no explanation because, hey, there was one like that on Homeland.

Making matters yet more incoherent, Zombie Simpsons asks scenes like this to be treated as part of a serious mystery – hence Lisa’s shocked reaction to seeing Homer “pray” – but doesn’t treat anything else with even a scrap of care.  Things are whispered to and around Homer in scenes where other characters are standing right next to him, he keeps muttering his plot in case anyone had forgotten (the audience included), and the ending – which falls well short of the full runtime despite all the repetitive flashbacks – is unironically happy and just, with Burns being a complete idiot and getting arrested.

Burns Oopsie

He actually says “Oopsie” here, like he’s a toddler in a paper towel commercial.

In “The Springfield Files”, the big Burns reveal matches the rest of the mystery in deliberate silliness and contains lines like “The most rewarding part was when he gave me my money”.  In “Homerland”, it’s Burns expositing himself into jail for no reason whatsoever and has lines like “Wait a minute, Burns.  You don’t have a functioning AC system at a nuclear plant?  That’s against the law!”.  As usual, where The Simpsons made sense and kept things fun, Zombie Simpsons produces an intermittently serious mess.

05
Mar
13

Compare & Contrast: Bart and Grampa Team Up (Plus Shameless Self Promotion)

The Curse of the Flying Hellfish5

“Hey, Grampa, do you think I could’ve been a Flying Hellfish?” – Bart Simpson
“You’re a gutsy daredevil with a give ’em hell attitude and a fourth grade education, you coulda made sergeant.” – Abe “Grampa” Simpson 

Since Zombie Simpsons has no choice but to copy the format and characters of The Simpsons, it’s basically inevitable that they have to repeat the same ideas and even story structures.  Sometimes they’re at least a little clever about it, other times, as in “Gorgeous Grampa”, they basically just put an old episode on the copy machine and hope that the inevitable degradation in quality keeps people from noticing what they did.

Both “Gorgeous Grampa” and “Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in ‘The Curse of the Flying Hellfish’” revolve around three main characters: Bart, Grampa and Burns.  And both episodes have each character relating to one another in the same manner: Burns and Grampa delve back into something from their pasts, Bart gets caught up in it, and eventually helps Grampa defeat Burns.  The specifics are, of course, a bit different, and even if you set aside the xeroxed nature of “Gorgeous Grampa”’s plot, they’re also where Zombie Simpsons collapses into incoherence while The Simpsons steams smoothly ahead all the way to seeing Kraftwerk in Stuttgart. 

For starters, just consider the physical nature of the two.  In “Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson”, Grampa is depicted right up until the end pretty much as he’s always been: feeble, easily confused, and generally a mess.  His pants fall down, he evades Burns’ assassination attempts mostly by tripping, and when confronted by Burns he gives up instantly and hands over the key.  It isn’t until the end, when he’s first inspired by Bart and then fearful for his grandson’s life, that he becomes the great soldier he once was.  Grampa is still Grampa, until the story and his character give him a reason to become a badass.

Compare that to “Gorgeous Grampa”, where hapless, feeble old Abe just up and decides that he’s going to start wrestling again and instantly slips right back into the ring to fly around like it was old times.  As with so many episodes of Zombie Simpsons, there isn’t really anything compelling Grampa’s transformation, it happens just because.

Spry Geezer

This is the least wrinkled Grampa has ever looked.

Nor is the lunacy limited to Grampa.  It’s easy to understand that Burns would be willing to kill Abe over priceless art.  Not letting anyone get between him and wealth is the rock bottom foundation of Burns as a person.  It’s not so easy to swallow Burns as a closet wrestling junkie who’s willing to put on an extravagant show so that he can see old guys pretend to battle one another.

Bart’s bizarre actions are perhaps even harder to take.  Not only does he come to love being booed for basically no reason (and the fact that the episode wrings its hands and exposits about it several times doesn’t make it any more believable), but the things we see him do make absolutely no sense.  Wrestling villains can be villains because wrestling is scripted.  But Bart starts acting like a wrestler at a baseball game and in school, which isn’t going to get anyone to love-hate him the way people love-hate wrestling villains, it’s just going to get him kicked off the baseball team and given detention.

Worse, dropping his wrestling antics into Little League is the simplest kind of empty headed desperation humor.  Watching it, I was reminded of nothing so much as Moe and his puzzlement at people booing his giant lollypop in “They Saved Lisa’s Brain”:

How Low Can You Go

One of these is intentionally bad, the other is just bad.

Smashing two different things together with no regard for context, character, or anything else is about as lazy and hacktacular as scripted comedy can get.  It’s also why they had Burns not know that wrestling is fake: it’s so out of character!  Well, yeah, it is, but that doesn’t even make it clever, much less funny.   

At the end, the whole thing collapses under the weight of its contradictions and shortcuts as Burns, who has apparently just been standing there, gets picked up and spun around the ring by Grampa.  It has nothing to do with what we’ve seen so far, but they once again backed themselves into a completely predictable corner and needed a way out, and what better way that to have one old man hoist up another and spin him around?

“Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson”, however, didn’t need a last second turn to wrap things up.  The fight between Burns and Abe has been brewing for the whole episode before Grampa defeats him and throws him out of the Hellfish.  Its twist ending isn’t a nonsensical turn of events, it’s the rather cruel joke that the douchebag German aristocrat gets the loot, with Grampa even saying, “I guess he deserves it more than I do”.  Things don’t need to be perfectly real-world believable so long as they’re going somewhere and you’re having fun along the way; too bad Zombie Simpsons forgot that while the copy machine was running. 

—Begin Shameless Self Promotion—

Well, it finally happened.  Six months behind schedule, and three days late thanks to some technical fun with Amazon, the spinoff site is finally ready to put on its big kid pants and head for the deep end of the internet.  The Ann Arbor Review of Books has published its first Kindle issue, which you can acquire for the low, low price of just $2.99.  Inside, our sometime guest bloggers Lenny and Wesley compliment excellent television shows while I compare Lincoln unfavorably to Django Unchained, and that’s not even the half of it:

1.1 CoverNo trees were harmed in the making of this magazine.  A laptop died and somebody shot a duck, but that’s it. 

You can purchase it directly from Amazon right now, but like the Zombie Simpsons mini-book, all of the words will eventually be free to read on-line.  It worked for a book, so now we’re trying it with a magazine.  If you enjoy my Simpsons bitching, I can assure you that this is just as half-assed. 

30
Jan
13

Compare & Contrast: Parental Substitutes

Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily10

“Who wants to be the first to enter God’s good graces?” – Ned Flanders

Zombie Simpsons has a well established track record for wild plot twists, nonsensical stories, and characters behaving so strangely that one wonders whether or not they’re still supposed to be human.  “The Changing of the Guardian”  valiantly upheld that reputation, particularly in the way it took its main conflict, scrambled it beyond even a semblance of coherence, and then awkwardly jammed it into just the last two minutes of the episode.

Consider, for a second, the enormous inhumanity this episode expects you, the audience member, to swallow.  Set aside the oddity of Mav, the millionaire surfer, and his wife Portia, the ultra-liberal lawyer, deciding to basically steal the Simpson children for no reason.  Or Homer and (especially) Marge trusting their kids to these people they barely know.  Set aside even the brain dead way they all met.  Just think about the ending from Bart, Lisa and Maggie’s perspective. 

The kids go off with their new guardians for what the episode explicitly describes as “a weekend”.  At some point during that “weekend”, Marge and Homer see a picture of the kids with Mav and Portia under the heading “Our Family” in the window of a portrait studio.  After a meandering car ride, Homer and Marge finally get to Mav and Portia’s ski chalet, where (after he of course crashes the car) Homer gets out and starts yelling at Mav with Bart standing right there:

Homer Yelling (Part 44,591b)

Oh.  Look.  Homer’s angry.

Notice that Bart doesn’t say anything.  Cut to the next scene where Homer, Marge, Mav and Portia have a discussion about Mav and Portia taking the kids.  This is the finale of the episode, and it is as confused and sloppy as anything Zombie Simpsons has ever broadcast.  Here we go:

Mav: Honestly, we fell in love with ’em.  And it just seemed like you guys didn’t really want ’em.
Homer: Sure, you wanted the fun parts.  But do you want to go their little league games and recitals.
Mav: Totally have.
Portia: Like clockwork.
Homer: Well, I’m glad someone has.

Wait a second, weren’t the kids just there for a weekend?  And do they have baseball games and music recitals up there in the mountains? 

Marge: Look, before anyone says anything else, how could you possibly think you could get our kids?
Portia: It happens more than you know, Marge.  I’m a lawyer, he’s a surfer, that combination’s pretty unstoppable. 

This is just amazingly hacktacular.  Marge asks a sensible question, to which Portia gives a nonsense response.  This is Zombie Simpsons directly telling us that they do not give a shit.  But it’s about to get worse, because we’re finally about to hear from the kids:

Bart: Well I’m afraid that we don’t want to be with anyone but Mom and whoever she chooses to be with.
Lisa: Portia, you’re the woman I dream of becoming, but Mom is my mom.

Where the hell have these two been?  Whether they’ve been up there in the mountains for a weekend or longer, is this the first they’re hearing of it?  Were they going along and changed their mind, or had they already objected?  Either way (or any way, really), one cannot follow from the other.  At that, the scene concludes:

Portia: Fine, but you’re leaving a gap in our lives that can only be filled by foreign travel, sleeping late, and gourmet food.
Mav: You guys lock up.  We’re going to Bali.

So . . . they just give up?  Mav and Portia, whom the episode has been portraying as the most hyper-competent and pulled together people on Earth, thought they could just take the kids and then they just abandon the whole idea at the first objection?  Nobody’s actions here, not Marge or Homer, Mav or Portia, or Bart and Lisa fit with even just the preceding scenes, much less who they’re supposed to be in general. 

Compare that unsalvageable mess to the solid brilliance at the end of “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily”.  Both episodes have the Simpson kids in the custody of other parents, but that’s really where the similarities end.  “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily” shows us all the things that “The Changing of the Guardian” either doesn’t or can’t because it’s too incoherent:

  • The kids actually spending time with their new family (“Well, children, it’s Saturday night, so what say we let our hair down and play bombardment-” / “yay!” / “-of Bible questions!”)
  • How they react (“It seems like our house, but everything’s got a creepy Pat Boone-ish quality to it.”)
  • How the new parents come to want the Simpson kids (“Until this I never thought Homer and Marge were bad parents, but now I know you kids need a less Hell-bound family.”)
  • Why (Maggie, at least) would want to stay (“When was the last time Dad gave her that kind of attention?”)
  • Why (Maggie, again) rejects her new parents and wants to stay with her original family (“Oh, Maggie, you’re a Simpson again!”)
     
  • Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily9

The story in Season 24 is so dumb that the kids basically have to be airbrushed out of it because their presence at any part of the ending would cause the entire flimsy thing to come crashing down around itself.  By contrast, the story in Season 7 involves them at every step, not only because that way it makes sense, but because there’s a lot of humor and comedy to be had from Bart, Lisa and Maggie living with people other than Marge and Homer.  Zombie Simpsons thinks having Homer rant is the be all and end all of comedy; The Simpsons knew better.

10
Jan
13

Compare & Contrast: Twist Nuclear Endings

Treehouse of Horror VIII10

“Do your worst, you filthy, pretentious savages!” – Mayor Quimby

For evidence that Zombie Simpsons is utterly bereft of ideas that can even be called creative, much less original, one need look no further than the fact that for the second time in a year they made an episode where the family departs Springfield to go live in the wilderness with survivalist nutbars.  But that isn’t the most damning thing about “Homer Goes to Prep School”, because the closest thing to this episode isn’t even another episode, it’s a post-apocalyptic Halloween segment from a decade and a half ago.

The first story in “Treehouse of Horror VIII” is “The Homega Man”, a Halloween fable where a nuclear blast supposedly wipes out Springfield.  In the end, of course, Homer discovers that the mutants who chase him around aren’t the only ones who survived, but in fact his entire family is alive, well and unharmed.  It’s a goofy twist, but it’s also a Halloween segment, where you can do anything you want and things have to be relatively simple because you’ve only got a few minutes in which to introduce, tell and then conclude a story.

“Homer Goes to Prep School” has none of those excuses, and yet it follows almost the exact same template.  First, there’s a nuclear disaster.  Second, Homer gets chased by other survivors.  And finally, Homer discovers that things are actually just fine, the end.

In “Treehouse of Horror VIII”, France launches a nuclear strike on Springfield out of the Eiffel Tower.  This is absurd on the face of it for any number of reasons: France and the US are allies, downtown Paris would be a terrible place for a launch silo, and, as far as Wikipedia knows, France never deployed an ICBM, “Intel Inside” or not. 

Treehouse of Horror VIII9

Wikipedia says that the actual French nuke forces are called the “Force de Frappe”.  That is awesome. 

But none of that matters because, hey, Halloween episode.  Weird shit is supposed to happen, and it’s funny as hell to have the famously thin skinned French start a nuclear war over a mild ethnic slur from a small town American politician.

“Homer Goes to Prep School” has no such excuse.  It’s supposed to be taking place in something that at least resembles the real world.  And even though Zombie Simpsons likes to just go bizarre with things, the first third of this episode is Homer freaking out over how horrible people are, and the conclusion is about people being decent to one another, so it clearly wants us to take at least some of what’s going on here seriously.  So when they employ a dumb and lazy “EMP” that Homer somehow manages to cause while no one else at the plant is looking, it isn’t wacky fun, it’s just a hackneyed plot contrivance.  Nuclear war over the word “frogs” is a joke; EMP because it’s time to move the plot along is just bad writing.

I Miss the Dog Who Averts Meltdowns

Hmm.  Must be time to start the first part of the third act.

Having caused Springfield to lose power, Homer bundles his family up and heads for the survivalist compound.  The few minutes they spend there is a waste of time, even by Zombie Simpsons standards.  For starters, we’ve already seen that Homer now has a bunch of supplies in the basement, so not only is there no reason for him and the clan to flee, but their stated reason for returning – to help the other people of Springfield – could’ve been done without them ever heading out of town in the first place.

More aggravating is the escape/chase scene itself.  For starters, the survivalists are chasing the family in a wood stove powered pickup, two horses pulling a Hummer, and Lindsey Naegle firing a machine gun backwards.  All of those are dumber and less believable than the apocalypse mobile that the mutants had in “The Homega Man”, and the last one is so stupid that it was recently mocked by XKCD (which is and has been much funnier than Zombie Simpsons for a long time).  But just as bad are the jokes, which are such hapless filler that Zombie Simpsons explains them as they happen.  Consider this, as the family plows through a corn field:

Homer: Out of our way corn!  The starving people of Springfield are desperately in need of our delivery of canned corn, corn flakes, and flash frozen corn niblets!

If this isn’t the longest, least subtle, and most heavy handed way you could make that joke, it’s gotta be close.  It also takes more time than, say, Homer quickly running over the Johnny & Edgar Winter Tour in “Treehouse of Horror VIII”, which – again – was a Halloween episode.

Finally we come to the abrupt, just-kidding-it-was-all-okay-after-all ending.  In “The Homega Man”, Homer returns home to find his family safe and sound before we get the unexpected spasm of Halloween violence wherein the rest of the family blows away all the mutants.   In “Homer Goes to Prep School” we get two whole minutes of drawn out exposition about what did and didn’t happen.  It’s not endless, but it does kinda feel that way:

Lisa: What happened with the EMP?
Prof. Frink: Only Springfield lost power, you see, and after a few days it came back. 

And:

Waits: Then society didn’t crumble?  The zoo animals weren’t eaten?
Chief Wiggum: Well, a couple.
Waits: This non-disaster is a catastrophe.
Marge: Are you really so disappointed the world didn’t end just so you could be proven right?
Waits: No, no, no, it’s just that, in the new world, I would’ve been a big shot.

And:

Lisa: Guys, can’t you see that an imperfect society is better than the savagery of creating a new one?  I, for one, am glad we’re stuck with civilization.  And I think we will be for a long, long time.

Which, of course, leads to the zombie comet, which itself has to be explained:

Zombie Kid: I’m hungry.
Zombie Dad: Look, you can have potato chips now or, if you wait ten minutes, you can have all the brains you can eat. 
Zombie Kid: I want both.

Yup, they are now literally Zombie Simpsons.  Add it all up and there’s no getting away from the conclusion that “Homer Goes to Prep School” is a poor mimicry of a much better episode.  And while that happens a lot with Zombie Simpsons, usually they don’t take post-apocalyptic Halloween segments as their templates and then go them several worse in terms of weirdness. 




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