Archive for the 'Please End This Fucking Show' Category

25
Jan
12

A Thoughtful (But Demonstrably Dumb) Defense of Zombie Simpsons

Lots of Hearsay and Conjecture

“Why do we need new bands?  Everyone knows rock attained perfection in 1974.  It’s a scientific fact.” – Homer Simpson

Back at the end of December, reader Brian sent in a link to a video at The Escapist modestly titled “The Simpsons Is Still Funny – Pt. 1”.  It’s about five minutes long, and you can view it at the link.  The second part, “The Simpsons Is Still Funny, Part 2”, came out a week later.  These are the kind of internet videos where there’s a fast talking voiceover accompanied by a series of pictures, memes and other low cost imagery.

These particular Zombie Simpsons defenses are narrated by a guy named Bob Chipman, who usually does movie videos.  Obviously I don’t agree that what FOX puts out on Sundays is still funny.  (I don’t even think it should be called “The Simpsons”.)  But Chipman makes some plausible but easily falsified assumptions that come up every once and a while, and they’re worth rebutting in detail.

The tagline of the first video is “The Simpsons isn’t bad, you just grew up”, and that’s a reasonably accurate summary of the video.  The Simpsons came out when Chipman was a kid, and he grew into an adult during the single digit seasons which are widely considered to be the best ones.  His basic theory is that since he and others like him became more sophisticated fans as the show was at its peak, people have a nostalgic need for those seasons to be remembered as the best ones.  Unlike He-Man, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Transformers (all of which he specifically invokes), The Simpsons was a childhood love that could still be loved by adolescents and adults without any of that icky irony.

I’m going to quote his conclusion at some length here (this begins at the 4:05 mark):

We might have moved on from thinking that cherry bombs and graffiti and “Ay Carumba” were the coolest things on Earth.  But now we could groove on, you know, incisive showbiz satire, everyday working class annoyances, and the existential ennui of being a smarty-pants trapped in a dumbed down world, all punctuated by a rotating staff of extremely talented comedy writers.  That was the real miracle of The Simpsons’ golden age, thanks largely to a parody of the bad-little-boy sitcom archetype briefly becoming an actual phenomenon with kids and winning a massive grade school audience for a show that was originally intended for an older, primetime viewership, it was able to become for those same kids one of the few precious entertainments of their childhood that was still just as awesome, if perhaps in a different way, as they grew up through their teens and into young adulthood.  That, my friends, is how something goes from being simply a good TV show to a full blown, unassailable pop culture institution.  And since the timeline of that quote-unquote “institutionalization” roughly coincides with the first nine to ten years of the series, guess which seasons tend to be remembered as “the best ones”?  So, yeah, from where I sit, that is how The Simpsons earned a legacy of such high standard that even The Simpsons couldn’t live up to it anymore.

The gist of all that is that The Simpsons simply isn’t as good as you remember it being, you just love it because you loved it as a kid and it’s still highly watchable now that you’re an adult.  The big, flashing problem with this is that most fans didn’t grow up with the show the same way he did.  He’s mistaking a very narrow age bracket of people as everyone.

This is all based on a wildly incorrect and myopically self centered assumption back at the 2:20 mark of the video:

“It seems to me that a certain majority of disappointed, hard core Simpsons fanatics are also, unsurprisingly, ground zero Generation 1 fans roughly in my relative age bracket.”

A “certain majority”?  Outside of Chipman’s immediate friends and acquaintances, is there any evidence for that rather narrow age restriction whatsoever?  He certainly doesn’t provide any, instead just assuming it to be true.  But it isn’t true.  In fact, it isn’t even remotely true.  Chipman was a kid when the show came out, so he probably knows a lot of other people who were kids when it came out too.  But the show, while popular with kids, was never just for kids.

That is all the more remarkable when you remember that there was a complete lack of adult animation at the time (at least in this country).  Before it even premiered, people knew kids would watch it.  After all, it was a cartoon and it was on at 8:00pm, the long protected “family hour”, when kids were expected to be watching television.  But adults latched on to it just as hard and as quickly.

To be sure, most of those adults were probably on the young side, members of that sweet, sweet 18-34 demographic.  But “Bartmania” wasn’t a children’s fad the way Pokemon would later be a children’s fad, or the way the Ninja Turtles and Transformers had been children’s fads a few years before.  It was a general cultural storm that encompassed not only kids, but millions of adults as well.  Two quick quotes from John Ortved’s book should serve to illustrate this.  Here’s current show writer Tim Long (p119):

“When the show started, I was a sophomore in university.  I remember thinking, This is the fasted, funniest show ever.  I cannot believe this show is on the air.  It just felt like a miracle.”

This was a common sentiment among people his age bracket, and he was born in 1969.  Ask a fan roughly Long’s age sometime and you’ll get stories about The Simpsons being something people watched in college bars or at home in groups.  During the early years of the show, new episodes were an event for a lot of people long past puberty.

Here’s Robert Cohen, who was a production assistant during the first couple of seasons (p120):

And for me in particular, the first “holy crap” moment was during the Hollywood Christmas parade, which is this dopey parade that goes down Hollywood Boulevard, and stars of yesteryear wave from convertibles; it’s this very weird parade.  It was the second season, and they’d asked the Simpsons to be in the parade, so they hired some dancers to put on costumes and Jay Kogen and I wore our Simpsons crew jackets.  We piled into this car called the Gracie-mobile, which was this big old El Dorado convertible painted with the Gracie logo.  The plan was that we would drive the Simpsons down the street in the parade.  When we pulled out on to the street and it was parade time – I was at the wheel – the people mobbed us to the point that the car could go only about twenty yards.  The sheriff’s department had to veer us outta there because it was like a riot.  And they weren’t interested in us.  They were interested in these actors in Simpsons costumes.  Obviously they weren’t even the real Simpsons.  That’s when I realized, Holy crap.  This thing’s outta control.  Because it was just hundreds of people mobbing stinky felt costumes that represented the show.  I knew the show was popular, but I didn’t realize how popular until that moment.

Those hundreds of people were not all ten year olds.  Moreover, right about the time those anonymous people in costumes were escaping that mob, this was on newsstands all over the country:

Time Magazine Cover (31 Dec 1990)

This was when the cover of Time was among the most important cultural markers in America, and it’s not about a children’s obsession, it’s “The Best of ’90”, period.

The Simpsons was never a kids show, so when Chipman compares people obsessing over its “golden age” to the way people have kitschy attachments to He-Man or Transformers, he’s conflating two very different things, his personal experience and that of the wider audience.  The idea that the show declined noticeably isn’t restricted to people born from roughly 1975 to 1985.  It’s a widely held opinion among people of disparate ages, and plenty of people followed the entire arc of the show from Season 1 to Season 9 or so as adults.  No pre-pubescent nostalgia is needed to say that the show has gone to hell.

As if to underscore how weak this argument is, the second video drops this concept completely.  It doesn’t support this contention and barely even mentions it.  Instead, it focuses on the way the culture and the media environment have changed around the show.  Chipman gets to his point quickly (1:00):

The Simpsons was an absurdist parody.  My contention, then, is that the reason it’s different now is less because the show itself has changed, but that the world around it has changed to the extent that almost everything it first existed to skewer, satirize and parody doesn’t exist anymore.

He continues from there to discuss how many of the situations parodied on The Simpsons were universally recognizable because there were only three networks and everyone was at least aware of the family sitcom tropes the show liked to make fun of.  Nowadays, with hundreds of channels and the bottomless pit of the internet fracturing the culture into a bunch of tiny niches, he thinks the show had to become an exaggerated parody of itself to survive.

The problem with this is that while there’s a superficial truth to it, it misses the fundamental aspects of American life The Simpsons got at.  The police on The Simpsons are fat, incompetent and often drunk on their own power.  Whatever the quality of your local force, that overall perception remains very much with us.  Springfield Elementary is perpetually underfunded and doesn’t do many of its kids a whole lot of good.  Sound familiar?  Corrupt local politicians, annoyingly pious neighbors, gossipy church ladies, and evil plutocrats are still a recognizable part of the American landscape.  Self help scams, niche conventions, and painfully dumb awards shows haven’t gone anywhere either.

While some of the concepts the show parodied have faded from memory, the basic take on American life remains amazingly current and relevant.  To say, as Chipman does, that the show has become “less vital and certainly less relatable” (4:40) simply because the media landscape has changed is to let Zombie Simpsons off the hook.  There have been plenty of vital and relatable shows (pick a critical darling from the last decade) that, while never reaching the level of fame The Simpsons reached, don’t come in for the same kind of routine criticism as Zombie Simpsons.  That’s because they aren’t dragging around twenty years of backstory, aren’t constantly repeating things they’ve done better in the past, and aren’t kept alive because FOX doesn’t want to risk a profitable timeslot on a flop.

More than just being a cop out, however, saying a show has to get away from what made it great to stay alive sounds more like a reason to take it off the air than keep it on the air.  There are any number of familiar examples of this, silent movie stars who couldn’t make the transition to sound, rim shot comedians in tuxedos who became dinosaurs after Lenny Bruce, hair metal bands embarrassed off the charts by grunge.  At some point, people stop caring about what you were doing, and if you can’t change sufficiently, then you’re going to become irrelevant, just as Zombie Simpsons has.

We can still appreciate classics from a bygone era.  Truly great books and movies often stay great, genuinely good music has a way of enduring, and those old seasons of The Simpsons have aged incredibly well because they still speak to so much of our lives.  But to keep doing what no one cares about anymore is the definition of malingering.

As always, this is somebody’s opinion and they’re perfectly entitled to it.  But the specific arguments Chipman is making here simply don’t hold water.  They’re riddled with factual inaccuracies, somewhat contradictory (so the show did change?), and generally sloppy.  Saying that people’s love of the original seasons is based on nostalgia may be true for a few individuals, but there’s no evidence for that among the general population of fans.  Saying that that the world evolved around it is true, but in no way changes the fact that plenty of other shows have found ways to not suck in the era of http.  Think Zombie Simpsons is funny all you want, but don’t try to back up your opinion with things that aren’t true and don’t make sense. 

17
Nov
11

A Brief Note on Fake Brands

The Springfield Files6

“Another Duff, Homer?” – Moe
“Nah, it’s Friday night, Moe.  I want to try something special.” – Homer Simpson
“Ah, sure, sure, here you go: Düff, from Sweden.” – Moe
Skoal!” – Homer Simpson

After the spastic fit of fake brands that was the opening to “The Food Wife”, I and several others pointed out how weak the brand parodies are on Zombie Simpsons.  As was brought up in comments, not only were many of them repeats, but they mostly aren’t even creative.  Partly this is the same problem that plagues newer Treehouse of Horror episodes: weak source material.  The more fundamental reason though is that Zombie Simpsons parodies brands and products, whereas The Simpsons parodied ideas and trends.

Take, for example, some of the most famous fake brands on the show: Buzz, Duff and Laramie.  None of those are direct parodies of any single brand.  Buzz isn’t a joke aimed at Coke or Pepsi or anything else, it’s aimed at all of them in one piercingly descriptive word.  The same is true of Duff.  Duff isn’t Miller or Coors or Budweiser, it’s every one of them and then some.  (Duff is such a strong concept that they were even able to play off it with Fudd and Düff.)  Similarly, Laramie tobacco isn’t Philip Morris or any specific cigarette brand, it’s a stand in for all those wretched tobacco companies.

The Simpsons certainly did its share of direct parodies.  Dr. Hibbert is Bill Cosby, Drederick Tatum is Mike Tyson, Malibu Stacey is Barbie.  But even the direct ones went beyond their narrow niches.  Consider Rainier Wolfcastle, their stand in for Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The McBain movies aren’t simply Schwarzenegger films, they use them to parody everything from Dirty Harry movies to Lethal Weapon movies to James Bond movies.

“Mapple” can never be that versatile.  Hell, it’s just Apple with an M stapled to the front.  You can’t use it to mock anything except Apple.  And it’s not like Apple is such a distinct company that it has to be treated uniquely.  If they had come up with a genuinely broad parody of Apple they could’ve used it on any trendy tech firm, from Google to Amazon to Facebook.  (Of course, that would require them to actually want to make fun of Facebook instead of having the founder on for his two minutes of yellow fellatio.)  Things like “Grand Theft Scratchy” and “Funtendo” aren’t just lazy parodies, they’re also self limiting.

20
Oct
11

“Significant” & “Lasting”: Two Words That Don’t Apply to Zombie Simpsons

A Good Ending

“How about it, Luann, will you marry me, again?” – Kirk van Houten
“Ooh, no.” – Luann van Houten
“Uh, well, uh, can I have my shirts back at least?” – Kirk van Houten
“Okay, you heard the lady, why don’t you take it outside, alright?” – Pyro
“I’ll be back, prob-probably.” – Kirk van Houten

To reinforce my point from last week that there’s really no way to change the show enough to make it interesting again without also destroying whatever is left of its appeal, I’d like to point out the Zombie Simpsons enforced absurdities of this list of “The 10 Most Significant, Lasting Changes on The Simpsons”.  Here’s the abbreviated version:

10. Barney’s Sobriety

9. Nedna

8. Patty’ Lesbianism

7. Ling, Selma’s Daughter

6. Maggie’s Gun Skills

5. Lisa’s Buddhism

4. Milhouse’s Parents’ Divorce

3. Lisa’s Vegetarianism

2. Apu’s Marriage

1. Maude’s Death

The first thing that jumps out is the prevalence of Zombie Simpsons on that list.  Six of them (1, 5, 7-10) happened post Season 10.  Beyond that though, we can see the shoddy nature of many of these supposedly significant and lasting changes.  Yes, Selma went to China to adopt a baby, but I’ve seen every episode since the beginning of Season 20 and I can’t recall a single time her kid was even mentioned.  Barney’s sobriety seems to come and go (the article mentions this), but even when he is sober they still usually just stick him in Moe’s like nothing ever happened.  I don’t think Patty coming out even counts, since they hinted that she’s gay all the way back in Season 2 and when they finally did bring her out of the closet it turned out that she was in love with a dude.

I bring this up not to take potshots at the list.  Sometimes you have to stretch to get to ten (#6 is plainly not a real thing), and that’s just life on the internet.  I bring this up because all of those post-Season 10 episodes were schlock episodes, that played things seriously but then didn’t actually have much of an effect on the show.  The episode where Barney dries out was really pathetic in a lot of ways, but after all that heavy handed emotion they couldn’t bring themselves to actually change his character.  Flanders being a widower was a bit more effective, but it hasn’t really done anything to change him or his kids (who are almost never on the show anymore anyway).  Pretty much every episode about Flanders now involves him finding love, which got old about ten seasons ago.

If you compare that type of “hey, we’re doing an emotional episode!/psyche everything’s normal!” mentality with the Season 8 entry on the list, Milhouse’s Parents’ Divorce, you can see things are a lot different.  To be sure, that episode has a few downer moments, but it was also done directly in the face of sitcom convention.  If you listen to the commentary for “A Milhouse Divided” (which I did), one of the big themes they had was that they wanted the divorce to be permanent.  Standard teevee had a lot of “divorce” episodes, but they always ended up with the characters getting back together.  Here they deliberately went away from that and made the change lasting.  Zombie Simpsons, swamp of unthinking sentimentality that it is, caved to comedy convention in Season 17 and Season 19, but for a few years there actually was a payoff.

More to the point, adding a baby (or eight), killing off a character over a contract dispute, having characters suddenly fall in love, and doing promos with women kissing women are all hallmarks of a television show on the down slope of its run.  Zombie Simpsons managed to make that even worse by basically ignoring many of its own changes after they happened.  Neither Selma’s daughter, Lisa’s Buddhism, nor Barney’s sobriety have had much of an effect in subsequent episodes.  They were toss-offs posing as permanent changes, single episode ideas that meant so little to the core of the show that they could be safely done without compromising the similarity to The Simpsons that is the only reason Zombie Simpsons is still on the air. 

On the rare occasion they do bring up one of the changes they made, it’s basically an excuse to rerun the same things that happened in the original episode.  How many times have Apu and Manjula been frustrated with having octuplets?  How many times has Flanders pined for a companion? 

Most of these purportedly significant and lasting changes have been neither, and the few that were lasting haven’t been significant.  Even if many of these episodes hadn’t been plodding and heavy handed, Zombie Simpsons would never make genuinely significant changes because doing so would a) be a tacit admission that they’re out of ideas, and b) make them look even more like the undistinguished FOX animation that they are. 

13
Oct
11

Destroying Zombie Simpsons to Save It

The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase4

“We’re like this all the time.” – Marge Simpson

In response to the renewal news, Split Sider published a list of six ways to improve Zombie Simpsons.  They’re willing to acknowledge that the show is a shadow of itself, but they’re still operating under the illusion that it is capable of getting better.  It isn’t.  Moreover, of the six suggestions they offer, only two of them could result in any real changes, and those would both basically end the show. 

Before we get to that, however, we should first note that nothing like this is ever going to happen.  Zombie Simpsons has been stuck in a creative rut for for a decade and change, but the rut pays the bills and then some.  If the recent contract extension is proof of anything it’s that the show, as flat, lifeless and fan displeasing as it is, remains profitable.  But even if we set aside the practical and business considerations and focus exclusively on the creative side, the changes are doomed to fail.  Here are the six suggestions:

1. Less Bart-Centric Episodes

2. Get Rid of the Fourth Act

3. Age the Show

4. No More “THE SIMPSONS ARE GOING TO…”

5. Unconventional, High Concept Episodes

6. A Season-Long Arc

I’ll agree that #2 is just a bad way to run a television show, but Zombie Simpsons sucked long before the addition of the third commercial break, so I don’t think that one is going to help much.  Three of them, #1, #4, and #5, are all variations on a theme.  The fifth one is a call for more of a certain kind of episode, the other two are calls for less of other kinds.  These seem unlikely to help much for the same reason dropping the fourth act wouldn’t help: Zombie Simpsons has long been terrible across all of these kinds of episodes.  Even if they did drop the annual travel episode in favor of more flashback/flashforward type episodes, it wouldn’t make much difference. 

The two interesting suggestions are #3 and #6.  Unfortunately, doing either one of them would mark a permanent break with The Simpsons, which is the last thing a show staggering along on nostalgia wants to do.  First, consider #6, having a season long plot arc.  Here’s the explanation:

Even after 10 years of supposedly subpar episodes, The Simpsons will still go down as the greatest comedy, possibly show, of all-time. There’s nothing the writers can do to hurt the show’s legacy, so why not do something extreme? For instance, why not have a season-long arc? Do the high concept episodes in season 24, and have season 25 be focused on a single topic. Maybe Mr. Burns can die and the Germans come back to take over the plant and fire everyone, and all of the episodes could be about Homer looking for a job? That’s not the greatest idea in the world, I’ll admit, but a season-long arc would require viewers to tune in every week and solve the inconsistency problems many fans and critics have complained about for years.

Zombie Simpsons can’t sustain a plot across twenty minutes, much less twenty episodes.  A season long plot would have to make sense across weeks and weeks of episodes.  Zombie Simpsons has a hard time making sense within individual scenes.  Far more devastatingly, it would require change and progress from the characters.  Bart and Lisa would have to grow up a little, Homer and Marge would have to go through some kind of crisis, even the supporting characters would be expected to find themselves in at least somewhat changed circumstances.  All of that would leave the show looking nothing like The Simpsons, and looking like The Simpsons is the only thing that keeps Zombie Simpsons going. 

Making Bart and Lisa older, as suggested in #3 “Age the Show”, would also damage the resemblance to The Simpsons.  Beyond that, moving the characters forward a few years wouldn’t change things much, if at all.  Here’s the full text:

Next season, have Bart and Lisa inexplicably graduate from second and fourth grade, and have them in fifth and seventh, respectively. Why so far in advance? Because Miss Hoover and Mrs. Krabappel have both gone as far (if not further) as their characters will allow, and they’ve become tired and boring. (They’re, of course, not the only ones on the show, but they’re a necessary reduction.) There’s a HUGE difference between being in elementary and middle school (I still shudder thinking about it), and this would allow a whole new setting for the writers to create, something the new guys haven’t been able to do for years. Skinner can "graduate," too, in a Mr. Fenny from Boy Meets World-like situation.

I’ll agree that the worlds of seventh and fifth grade are a lot different than those of fourth and second, but Zombie Simpsons came untethered from grade school reality a long time ago.  Bart being in the fourth grade hasn’t stopped them from giving him a new girlfriend every other season.  Lisa being in the second grade didn’t keep her from entering a movie at the Sundance Film Festival or protect her from more adolescent problems like that time she got an eating disorder.  And if you’re dropping Hoover and Krabappel, why are you keeping Skinner?  He’s just as played out as they are. 

Instituting a season long plot arc would sever whatever connection remains between Zombie Simpsons and The Simpsons, but merely tinkering with the formula by pushing ahead a couple of years wouldn’t change the worn out format they’re stuck with.  It’s a catch-22, if they changed the show enough to make it genuinely fresh, it wouldn’t be anything like The Simpsons, but if they just tinkered with things, it wouldn’t change things enough to make a difference. 

This (plus the profitability of the rut) is why any ideas to revitalize the show are dead on arrival.  Whether you’re talking about shifting it forward in time, season long plot arcs, going spin-off showcase style and concentrating on other characters, all of them have one thing in common: they abandon the essential Homer, Marge and their small kids setup.  Zombie Simpsons can be about them as they are, or it can be about something else and drop everything from The Simpsons except the setting.  It can’t be both.

26
May
11

Compare & Contrast: Cliffhangers & Cultural Relevance

“This past summer, all of America was trying to solve the mystery of who shot Mr. Burns, then they found out it was the baby.” – Troy McClure

Twas the summer of 1980, and America was atwitter over a television cliffhanger about who had shot a character named J.R. on a primetime soap opera called Dallas.  T-shirts were produced, bets were placed, and, if the Wikipedia article titled simply “Who shot J.R.?” is to be believed, that year’s presidential contest even got into the act with jokes and buttons.  When the shooter was revealed that autumn, it became one of the highest rated events in television history.  Dallas was already a hit, but after the shooting stunt it would reach new heights, becoming the #1 show in America for three of the next four seasons.

I Married Marge6

Fifteen years later, The Simpsons ran a parody cliffhanger, replacing J.R. with their own Charles Montgomery Burns.  The summer of 1995 saw the country flooded with advertising sporting the image of Mr. Burns and his potential assailants, though the ads themselves had basically nothing to do with who had shot him.  (The late 1990s advertising boom for collect calling services remains puzzling to me.  I’ve never been able to figure out who was making so many collect calls that national ad campaigns were worth the expense.)  The parody, though just an echo of the original, was big enough to merit its own exhaustively footnoted Wikipedia page

Sixteen years later, Zombie Simpsons has brought us a different kind of cliffhanger, one that doesn’t manage to parody anything and is altogether more boring, more hapless, and less interesting.  Instead of cooking up a satire or turning the whole endeavor into a joke, they plopped down an improbable romance and a half assed web page (which I will not link).  Their marketing tie in isn’t a series of nationwide commercials, it’s a handful of downloadable images that a few people will put on their Facebook pages for a day or two.  How the mighty have fallen.

Worse, Zombie Simpsons has bumbled into the desperate trap of so many flailing comedies: manufactured romance.  Teasing audiences with unresolved sexual tension, even the comedic kind, has been a survival instinct of television shows since the days of vacuum tubes and Newton Minnow.  Vicarious frisson and suggestive endings are trotted out in the hope that they’ll create the kind of curiosity that can withstand an entire summer’s worth of commercial interruptions.  So what Zombie Simpsons has done is take two worn concepts and attempted to rub them together, hoping for a little spark of attention, or at least a fleeting second of pop culture relevance.  But the cliffhanger and the contrived love story they’ve produced are too threadbare to do anything but disintegrate against one another. 

The problem isn’t that Zombie Simpsons is engaging in a publicity stunt.  The shootings of J.R. and Mr. Burns were just as shameless.  The problem is that Zombie Simpsons is engaging in a publicity stunt that’s doomed to fail and be instantly forgotten.  The people who cooked up “Who shot J.R.” succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and the parody of it on The Simpsons is probably remembered by even more people than the original here in 2011.  Both were noticed, and commented on, and talked about by people far outside the scope of the usual audience.  In these nosier times, this far more timid and cliched stunt doesn’t stand a chance.  There will never be an – ugh – “Nedna” Wikipedia article, at least not one that isn’t swiftly nominated for deletion for falling pathetically short of even the most generous definition of notability. 

17
May
11

Compare & Contrast: Shortcuts & How Not to Ruin Jokes

“Alright, we’re here.  Let us never speak of the shortcut again.” – Homer Simpson

Of all the digressions and clock killing asides that make up “500 Keys”, the one that’s most out of place has to be the not quite Wages of Fear/Sorcerer drive back from the cake store (which made a lot more sense and was vastly funnier in “Mr. Plow”).  This episode had four simultaneous plots going on, three of which managed to roughly collide near the end, and yet this wasn’t involved in any of them.  It didn’t even have anything to do with the cake that was itself only barely related to the rest of this episode.

Why Couldn't You Just Stop Here

Zombie Simpsons and decent jokes: a history of not leaving well enough alone.

Like so much of Zombie Simpsons, the entire scene is an exercise is making less out of more instead of the other way around.  Having sent Homer, the kids, and his cake down a road marked “Suicidal Moron Pass” could’ve been enough.  You could’ve cut right from them heading up some mountain trail to them pulling into the driveway with cake splattered all over the interior of the car.  Or you could go the other way, have the cake in pristine condition and a joke about how that was easier than expected.  Either way it wouldn’t have altered the rest of the episode, as the survival of the cake, which was made to be important during the scene, is completely irrelevant to everything that follows.  The last we ever see of the cake is a few bits of it on Maggie when she walks into the kitchen.

Instead we’re treated to cliffs, vertical driving and lots of suspense.  The least random thing that happens is when some goats fling rocks at them for no reason.  It was pure filler from start to finish, and the goats weren’t even given subtitles to lighten things up.  As it happens, in “Itchy & Scratchy Land” way back in Season 6, The Simpsons found itself with a similar situation.  So, despite Homer’s admonishment, let us speak of . . . the shortcut.

Itchy and Scratchy Land6

North, south, nuts to that!

The shortcut is the last of several traveling gags in “Itchy & Scratchy Land”.  The nice thing about these little vignettes (Five Corners, the fruits & vegetables) is that they make sense within the story without ever distracting from it.  Together they serve to illustrate how long the trip is while giving the show an opportunity to poke fun at the little absurdities of American road trips.  And while it’s true that not every one is strictly necessary, they’re quick enough that they never feel excessive or cheap.  That’s especially true of the shortcut, which Homer enthusiastically bumbles into with a couple of joke rich lines.   Itchy and Scratchy Land5

This is the very next shot after they drive off down that long, dusty road.

Homer’s shortcut is such a disaster that it doesn’t even last for a full musical cue.  The jaunty, enthusiastic horn music can’t get in more than a few notes before saddening to accompany the image above.  That one shot contains more wacky adventures than Zombie Simpsons could’ve crammed into something four times as long as “Suicidal Moron Pass”.  The evidence is right there on the car, which is not only trailing a homecoming banner and has a pedestrian crossing sign wrapped around the bumper, but also appears to have been struck by a missile.  And that’s only the half of it.  They were in a dire enough situation that they had to use a wagon wheel as a replacement part, Lisa’s door is missing, and Jebus only knows what happened to the roof or the windshield.

Crucially, the audience is trusted to infer all of this information in just a few seconds of screen time.  There isn’t even the need for an over the top punchline.  The whole scene is shockingly funny enough that Homer’s downplaying of the “let us never speak” line as a chicken flees Marge’s hair is the only thing that can make it better.

What The Simpsons knew, and Zombie Simpsons has all but forgotten, is that in the right circumstances outrageous things are funnier when they are alluded to rather than jammed in your face.  It’s much more abrupt to have the missile sticking out of the hood, Homer clearly not having bothered to remove it, rather than some elaborate sound effects laden set piece where it crashed into the car.  In the same way, it could’ve been funny to take a wedding cake over a mountain pass, but not the way they did it.  Not even close.

12
May
11

The Michael Bay Ethos of Zombie Simpsons

“There were script problems from day one.” – Homer Simpson
“It didn’t seem like anybody even read the script.” – Bart Simpson
“That was the problem.” – Homer Simpson

Two years ago, Michael Bay released Transformers 2, a movie that, even by his skewed standards, was vapid, nonsensical and incoherent.  At 20% (which seems very generous), it is his lowest rating as a director on Rotten Tomatoes.  It made an enormous amount of money, but was so widely pilloried as among the worst movies ever made that Bay himself publicly stated that the third one would be better.  In other words, Transformers 2 was so reprehensibly bad that even Michael Bay, a man who often protests (a bit too much) that he doesn’t care what critics think, admitted it sucks.

When the movie came out, the pop culture segments of the internet were rife with parodies, criticisms, and every form of snark imaginable.  Of those, my absolute favorite was this piece by Rob Bricken at Topless Robot.  Driven to the scalpel edge of insanity by the film, Bricken came back by splitting his mind in two and talking himself down.  The entire thing is hilarious, and near the very end is something that popped into my head while watching “Homer Scissorhands”:

If you had to pick a single scene that exemplifies Michael Bay’s utter disdain for story and continuity, what would it be?
When five Decepticons sink to the bottom of the ocean to retrieve Megatron’s corpse. A submarine tracks five "subjects" going down, and when they get there, one of the Decepticons is killed to give parts to Megatron. 5 -1 +1 = 5, right? No, because the sub somehow tracks "six" subjects coming up. Not only is this very basic math, this is the simplest of script errors. It could not possibly have been more than one page apart in the script. And yet  Michael Bay either didn’t care to notice or didn’t give a fuck. "Math? Math is for pussies. My movies are about shit blowing up, man."

You see that attitude in Zombie Simpsons a lot, all you have to do is replace “shit blowing up” with “Homer screaming” or “guest voices”.  But rarely do you see two examples in a single episode where just the tiniest script change could’ve made things make sense, and was neglected anyway.  The first, when Milhouse and Taffy see Bart and Lisa in the hall, is more immediately glaring; but the second, when the Wiggums confront Homer outside his shop, is even worse because it could’ve been fixed by changing just a single word.

In the second of Taffy’s three scenes, she and Milhouse walk up to Bart and Lisa in the hall.  She’s standing right there as Milhouse tells Lisa to lift with her legs not her back:

Four People in a Hallway

I do not possess any advanced mathematical degrees, but I can count to four.

Taffy gazes adoringly at Milhouse, telling him that he knows a lot, and then the scene goes from trite to wretched.  The camera pans left, taking Taffy out of frame and putting Bart into it:

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Now there’s three, but Lisa is still there.  She didn’t leave or anything.

Note that Taffy is still standing right next to Milhouse and looking directly at him.  Bart and Milhouse now proceed to have private conversation as though she weren’t there:

Um, She's Right There

See the red curve at right?  See the little brown bumps inside it?  She can hear you.

Despite the fact that both Lisa and Taffy are still there, Bart and Milhouse commiserate as though no one else is around, because for Zombie Simpsons out of sight is out of mind.  Though they managed to screw even that up since Taffy is so close to them that her hair is still in frame.  But this isn’t a directorial goof that left a few brown pixels in a shot, this is, like Bay’s poor math, either outright contempt or laziness that amounts to the same thing.  Two characters can’t have a private conversation when two other characters are literally inches away from them.

Nor would it have been at all difficult to fix.  Taffy doesn’t have a singe line after this exchange, so if they didn’t feel like writing parting dialogue they could’ve just sent her down the hall and had Milhouse catch up to her.  Correcting this would’ve required about five seconds of screen time and a script change that hardly rises to the level of minor, but it wasn’t done. 

Then there’s Chief Wiggum’s confrontation with Homer.  Wiggum demands Homer do his wife’s hair for the policeman’s ball “tonight”.  That’s the word he uses, “tonight”.  The next scene is when Lenny visits Homer at his very full salon:

Full Salon (Day 1)

That looks like at least an afternoon’s worth of work, doesn’t it?

The next time we see Homer, look what time it is:

After Work (Day 1)

Nighttime!

The stars are out, Marge is in her bathrobe, Homer is back from work.  When we return from commercial, Lisa is stalking the B-plot, and look what time it is now:

Dusk (Day 2)

Daytime!

Once Milhouse rides the magical eagle, we finally get to the Policeman’s ball.  Hey look, the stars are out again:

Policeman's Ball (Day 2)

To be fair, “Thin Blue Line-Dance” is one of the better signs all season.

The episode went day (salon) – night (home) – day (mountain) – night (ball); that’s two days over a ton of screen time.  It’s certainly not “tonight”.  The really telling part is that this could’ve been fixed at any time right up to broadcast.  All they had to do was swap the audio so Wiggum said something like “Friday”, which has the same number of syllables, in place of “tonight”.  Such a change wouldn’t have had any effect on the rest of the episode, but it would’ve made things make more sense. 

This is, obviously, a very minor point, but so are the six Decepticons rising from the ocean floor.  If someone had taken the time to correct the number, it would not have changed the fact that Transformers 2 was unwatchably bad.  In the same way, had someone fixed Wiggum’s dialogue or bothered to get Lisa and Taffy out of the scene in the hallway, “Homer Scissorhands” would still be wretched.  But the obvious oversights, on both the big and little screens, point to an inescapable commonality between Zombie Simpsons and Michael Bay: sharing an “utter disdain for story and continuity”.




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