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”.

10
May
11

Compare & Contrast: Lisa’s Rivals

“What do you guys, like, do for fun?” – Alex Whitney
“Well, you’ll definitely want to get yourself a good doll.  The new Malibu Stacy has an achievable chest.” – Lisa Simpson

Back in December, I pointed out that in the Katy Perry Incident, surely one of the low points of the entire decade plus debacle that is Zombie Simpsons, Perry herself was given nothing to do.  She showed up, looked nice, and talked about her boyfriend.  In total, she was given twenty-seven words of dialogue.  A few episodes later, the same benign neglect fell upon Alyson Hannigan, who showed up to play a girl who had a crush on Bart.  All of her lines were about him, for a grand total of forty-two words.

To give you an idea of just how small those parts are, the preceding paragraph is ninety-three words.  Continuing the tradition of tacitly insulting their female guest stars, this week Zombie Simpsons brought us Kristen Schaal in the thankless and miniscule role of the girl who falls for Milhouse, then breaks up with him and exits stage right, never having uttered even a single punchline.  Her character, “Taffy”, is so thinly conceived and her story so flat that she’s only in three scenes.  Here’s everything she says in the entire episode:

Scene 1:

I thought that was beautiful.

Yeah.  It was romantic and it rhymed.

I’m Taffy.

It’s a date.

Scene 2:

You know so much about body mechanics.

Scene 3:

Here, my love.

Anything for my silly-Milli.

Not her again.

You’re not over, you never were.  Milhouse, you’re a great guy, but we’re not gonna work out for one reason.

That wasn’t a great day for us, but it’s because you’ll always be in love with her.  He likes his apple pie warm and his a la mode cold.  Good luck.

That’s eighty-five words, and way over half of them come during the break up.  There’s nothing wrong with a good break up scene, they can be a lot of fun, but this particular break up is preceded by nothing.  As you can see above, there isn’t a single scene, nor even a single line of dialogue, where Milhouse shows himself to still be in love with Lisa.  He never mentions her in front of Taffy; he doesn’t even let out a swooning sigh when Lisa intrudes on them at the end.  If we take the episode at face value, counting only what it shows us, Taffy decides that Milhouse is still in love with Lisa because Lisa stalked them.  Huh?  Even the most formulaic romantic comedies give the spurned girlfriend role more characterization than that (they also usually spell the actress’s name right).

Too Lazy to Google

“Kristin” I could understand, but no one took the time to check “Schall”?  (Thanks to bhall87 in comments.)

It wasn’t always this way.  In its prime and past it, the show routinely had guest stars voicing actual female characters, both kids and adults.  They’re too numerous to list here, but I’d like to point out just two of them.  Like Taffy, they’re students at Springfield Elementary and Lisa is threatened by them; unlike Taffy, they’re more than a few dozen wasted words.  They’ve got plots, backgrounds, motivations and everything.  Most importantly, they get to be funny.

The first one is from Season 10’s “Lard of the Dance”, when Lisa Kudrow voiced “Alex”, the fashionable second grader who wows the other girls with how grown up she is.  For starters, let’s take a look at some of the dialogue.  Here’s what she says in just her first scene:

Your name’s Lisa?  Shut up, I love that name.

Oh, don’t be such a Phoebe.  It’s Pretension, by Calvin Klein.  Wanna try some?

Kay, so what’s the haps in Springfield?  What do you guys, like, do for fun?

Dolls, really?  Okay, what else you got?

You mean that game with the little rubber ball?

Isn’t that trophy case supposed to have trophies?

If you’re counting, that’s sixty-two words right there, which is almost as much as Schaal’s whole part and much more than Katy Perry or Alyson Hannigan got, all in one scene with many more to come.

Treating a Guest with Respect

She’s a pain in Lisa’s ass, but Alex Whitney is actually in this episode.

But the point isn’t to just count words and say “J’accuse!”.  It’s to note that not only are these Season 22 parts tiny bordering on nonexistent, they aren’t even developed enough to be called one dimensional.  “Lard of the Dance” isn’t exactly the show at the peak of its powers, but look at Alex’s dialogue from that first scene.  It’s got a couple of jokes in it, and it establishes Alex’s character as the new girl in town who isn’t happy with how unsophisticated Springfield Elementary is.

But who is Taffy?  All we ever find out about her is that she’s popular and in the fifth grade (not that we get to see any of that, it’s exposited by Lisa).  She never takes any actions or expresses interest in anything other than Milhouse.  Even her attraction to him, the reason she exists, is never explained or explored.  We don’t know if she’s got a thing for glasses or theremin playing, she’s just smitten right up until the moment she isn’t.

Giggling Is the Only Thing She Does

This is one of only two shots – not scenes, shots – where she’s alone.  The other is right after it.

It’s bad storytelling, but it also cripples her for comedy purposes.  She has no foibles to tweak, nor does she have any interests the show can satirize.  The closest thing she has to a joke in the entire episode is when she hands Milhouse an inhaler from a bandolier of them.  The ficus plant in “Bart of Darkness” has better jokes attached to it.

Going back further than Season 10 to (as the title of this post indicates) Season 6’s “Lisa’s Rival”, we find another well realized Springfield Elementary girl in Allison Taylor, voiced by Winona Ryder.  While I could do a word count of everything she says, there’d be no point.  She appears throughout the episode, and in a lot more than three short scenes.  Her description of her “Tell-Tale Heart” diorama alone is much longer and more descriptive than anything poor Taffy gets to say.

Lisa's Rival6

Look, a girl with interests and hobbies.  The show used to think this was worth screen time.

Far more important is who Allison is and what she does.  We know right away that she’s smart.  She gets the question about Columbus right, she plays the saxophone, and she nails “Genuine Class” as an anagram for “Alec Guinness”.  Moreover, there’s no mystery as to why Lisa is threatened by her.  Everything Lisa values about herself, Allison does better.

But creating a real character in Allison isn’t important for its own sake.  Because Allison bears an actual resemblance to a real person, one who wants things and does things as opposed to just standing there, she slides seamlessly into the overarching story about Lisa and Lisa’s insecurities.  When we see them in a scene together we know what each of them is thinking and trying to do.  For example, at the end of the episode, after Lisa has tried and failed to make peace with being second to Allison, the audience doesn’t need to be told both girls are trying to win the diorama competition, we already know.  That neither of them does win, Allison for being her usual overachieving self and Lisa for being, as the French say, “Bartesque”, makes the whole scene work in a very funny, very Simpsons way.

Both girls care deeply about winning the competition and have worked very hard to do so.  But the arbiters of victory, Skinner and Hoover, don’t care at all.  Skinner goes gaga for Star Wars characters and Hoover just wants to go to lunch.  Lisa and Allison both lose to Ralph, the dimwitted kid who tries to cheat off their tests, doesn’t know what the word “diorama” means, and is their polar opposite in every way.  Not only does it fit the story, but it puts a nice little twist on all the stress the girls put themselves through.

Lisa's Rival7

We have a winner!  Chewbacca and the little boy with the blank stare.

Neither Allison nor Alex are real people, but they’re recognizably human for reasons beyond colored lines on a screen and a familiar voice on the soundtrack.  Their personalities and their actions give a plausible reality to their dealings with Lisa, which in turns allows all three of them to be funny.  Taffy, like her predecessors in Season 22, has none of those things.  She is a prop far more than she is a character.  Since props don’t usually get much dialogue, in the eyes of Zombie Simpsons she doesn’t merit much of that either.

[Pop culture note: I didn’t remember until I was halfway through this that Winona Ryder was in Edward Scissorhands, for which Taffy’s sad episode was named.]

[Edited to fix typo.]

05
May
11

Compare & Contrast: Selma & Her Famous Husbands

“Cigarette, Mrs. McClure?” – Waiter
“You bet!  From now on, she’s smoking for two.” – Troy McClure

Once upon a time, Selma married a famous guy for all the wrong reasons and it didn’t work out.  Fifteen years later, Zombie Simpsons decided they hadn’t regurgitated that plot line recently, and did it again.  I am speaking, of course, of “A Fish Called Selma” and “The Real Housewives of Fat Tony”.  There are three specific scenes I want to compare:

1.) Meeting Mr. Wrong at the DMV

2.) Getting Hitched

3.) The Big Reveal (wherein it is revealed that this marriage isn’t going to work out)

Obviously more than that goes on, especially in “A Fish Called Selma”, which uses Troy McClure’s resurgent career to mock celebrity, Broadway, and the movie business.  But both episodes contain all three of those scenes, and they match up extraordinarily well (or poorly, depending on your point of view).

1. Meeting the Husband

Selma initially meets both Troy McClure and Fat Tony in the course of her work as one of the desk lords at the department of motor vehicles.  Right away, the radically different quality standards of The Simpsons and Zombie Simpsons are apparent.  Both Troy and Tony are famous, and neither is very likely to walk into some gray government office and hit it off with one of the most homely employees.  The Simpsons took the time to show us why McClure was there, as well as why he’d be interested in Selma; Zombie Simpsons couldn’t be bothered, and had Fat Tony (along with the rest of Springfield) be there just because.

In “A Fish Called Selma”, Troy McClure gets pulled over (in his dented DeLorean, no less) and told to head down to the DMV to get his license changed if he wants to drive without his glasses.  This one scene means he’s not only got a reason to go to that drab office, but to make nice with whomever he finds behind the counter.  We also know that he’s no longer a big enough star to have some lackey do this kind of thing for him.

A Fish Called Selma4

They do kinda make him look like a nerd.

Tony, on the other hand, is a connected and powerful mob boss.  What the hell is he doing at the DMV in line with citizens?  He seems like he’d have underlings to go fetch dinky forms for him (which, by the way, he does in “A Fish Called Selma”).  Setting that aside, the show could still give us a reason why he’d be there.  And, let’s face it, if you can’t think of several funny reasons for a mob boss to need to go to the DMV, you probably shouldn’t be working as a comedy writer.  This is how low the give-a-shit level is for Zombie Simpsons, they couldn’t be bothered to come up with a reason – even a jokey one – for the two main characters to meet.

It’s so transparently lazy that you can almost see them working backwards: deciding they want to do something with Jersey Shore, realizing they could use Fat Tony, casting about for a way to involve the Simpsons, hitting on marrying him to Selma, and then barfing up a poorly contrived way for them to meet (which is unrelated to everything else in the episode).  There’s nothing wrong with working backwards, but do the audience the courtesy of at least trying to cover your tracks.

2.  The Weddings

Having provided no reason for Selma and Tony to meet, the show doesn’t feel the need give their marriage any type of story, meaning or conflict.  Their actual wedding ceremony is just that, a wedding ceremony.  There’s a throwaway joke from Homer, but that’s it.  Even Zombie Simpsons can’t let things proceed with nothing going on at all, however, so they manufacture a spat between Marge and Selma.

The Most Boring Mob Wedding in History

Oh crap, we forget the plot.  Think . . . think . . .

The very brief disagreement between the sisters is ostensibly about Marge and Homer getting a bad table at the reception, but it’s really about the whole Fat Tony-Selma story not having any conflict whatsoever.  Consider that there’s no foreshadowing about the Marge-Selma feud, it crops up completely out of nowhere, and is then resolved just a couple of scenes later as the two of them sit on deck chairs and decide to let bygones be bygones.  Literally nothing happens except that Marge and Selma spontaneously decide “meh, I guess we’re not mad at each other anymore”.

Now consider the (much briefer) wedding in “A Fish Called Selma”.  Obviously, there’s a ceremony and Troy and Selma take their vows (albeit with some comedic twists, “take the fabulous Troy McClure”, etcetera).  But running through the entire scene are two plot threads.  First, Homer has just found out something the audience has known for a while: Troy is only marrying Selma to help his career.  So when Lovejoy asks if anyone has any reason why these two should not be wed, the camera pans to Homer, who has exactly such a reason.  Homer’s reaction?  Silently singing himself Gary Glitter’s stadium rock ballad “Rock and Roll”.  Unlike Homer’s throwaway joke in “The Real Housewives of Fat Tony”, this one has something to do with what’s going on, and requires Homer to be emotionally ignorant rather than knuckle draggingly stupid.

The second way the main story is interwoven into the wedding is through Troy’s behavior.  At the altar, he mugs for the cameras rather than kissing Selma back.  When they reach the car, she talks about how this is the best day of her life but it’s only a “good day” for him.  They kiss right after that, but his eyes are always looking up, making sure that he will indeed be “on every newsstand in the country”.

A Fish Called Selma5

Matching pink outfits.  Who says tradition’s on the wane? 

3. The Endings

Since Marge and Selma mutually decide that they don’t care enough about their little disagreement to continue it all the way to the end of the episode, Zombie Simpsons needed to pull something directly out of its ass to reach the sweet relief of twenty minutes runtime.  That something was an infidelity plot which they introduced – with no warning – at the seventeen minute mark.  At that point they’d all but exhausted their supply of the Jersey Shore jokes that were the reason this whole episode got approved in the first place, and they headed for the nearest exit they could find.

The Dukes of Hazzard Think This Is a Bit Much

The ending is forced to (literally) break into the episode.

“A Fish Called Selma” has a twist at the end too.  But instead of a panicked swerve into oncoming traffic that results in the “real wife” driving a convertible through a fence, it’s one of those tightly controlled 180s where the hero throws the car into reverse and shoots all the bad guys while driving backwards.  From the very first time Troy and Selma meet, when he exchanges dinner for a wink and a nod on his driver’s license, it’s been plainly obvious to the audience that Troy is using their relationship to restore his career.  Selma’s mounting levels of denial about this set the episode up for the ending the audience has been conditioned to expect through years of phony romance in television and film: the big confrontation where she realizes that he’s using her and dumps him.

But The Simpsons is far too clever to just go through the motions like that.  Instead, we get this:

Selma: You’re asking me to live a lie, I don’t know if I can do that.
Troy: It’s remarkably easy.  Just smile for the cameras and enjoy Mr. Troy’s Wild Ride.  You’ll go to the right parties, meet the right people.  Sure, you’ll be a sham wife, but you’ll be the envy of every other sham wife in town!  So, what do you say, baby?
Selma: Tell me again about Mr. Troy’s Wild Ride.

No anger.  No outrage.  No yelling about betrayal.  Just two people coming to an agreement.  And even this isn’t totally unexpected.  Way back at the beginning of the episode, when Troy took Selma out for the dinner that started it all, she says, “Thanks for holding up your end of the bargain.  I had a pretty good time.”  Selma isn’t stupid, she knew the dinner was quid pro quo, so it’s not a bolt from the blue when she decides that the marriage can be too.  All the little pieces fit so snugly together that Swiss watchmakers could take lessons.

When the inevitable break up does come, there’s no need for shock or tears or the retcon induced hair pulling that drags “The Real Housewives of Fat Tony” over the finish line.  Selma realizes that Troy is willing to take the sham further than she’s willing to go, and decides to stop things.  It ends on the comically bittersweet note of them going their separate ways, with microwaved roaches for Jub Jub, and an a lunatic vanity project for Professor Horatio Hufnagel.

[Updated because I can’t tell one sporting staple song from another.  Originally I had Homer’s wedding song as this.]

13
Apr
11

Compare & Contrast: Magic Tricks

“Behold the box of mystery!” – Milhouse van Houten

About halfway through the ridiculous (in a bad way) main plot of “The Great Simpsina”, what’s-his-face (The Great Raymondo) takes Lisa under his wing and tells her the secret he’s kept for decades.  In yet another example of the way the attention span of Zombie Simpsons is measured in microseconds, the show treats this revelation as poignant and moving, even going so far as to have the old magician finally decide to tell her after he mentions that he has no children and compares Lisa to his beloved and long departed wife.  This is a Hallmark Hall of Fame level of schlock.

Unlike formulaic, made-for-teevee melodrama, however, Zombie Simpsons doesn’t know how to have all of its moments converge at once.  Raymondo has been carefully guarding this trick for most of his life, and him telling it to Lisa is the pivot point of the entire story.  Does she do it as part of his grand return to the stage?  Nope.  Does she wow the audience at the “World Magic Championships” that conclude the episode?  Wrong.  Does she perform this historic feat at recess in front of a handful of elementary students?  Oh, Zombie Simpsons, you’ve done it again.

If all that had been in service of some interesting satire or humor it might’ve been merely horrible, but the episode was light on comedy in favor of what can only be described as magic tricks.  Despite the fact that this is only one episode, the examples are almost too numerous to list.  Raymondo’s side of the ledger is mostly small stuff, like instantly changing Lisa into a flapper costume and back again.  But most of Lisa’s actions in this episode are parlor tricks, from beating things out of Bart’s esophagus to putting Maggie in a birdcage, and the less said about the super powers of the guest stars and the antics of – ugh – “Cregg Demon” the better.  Any one of their deeds would be impressive if they weren’t part of a cartoon, but they are.  When Bugs Bunny pulled similar stunts on Daffy or Elmer it was funny not because of what Bugs was doing, but because of the stuttering furor and homicidal rage of his victims.  Here the audience just “ohhs”, “ahhs” and applauds.

History's Dullest Resurrection

Animated magic tricks aren’t cool, even when they don’t cruelly and needlessly bring back the dead.

The fundamentally fraudulent nature of the entertainment – expecting laughs for tricks that aren’t actually impressive – is compounded when you remember that there was no need for it.  Lisa learning the craft from an aging magician would’ve been enough without the pastel pyrotechnics.  It’s a story that could’ve had plenty of space for historically satirical flashbacks, jokes at the expense of magic and entertainment generally, and the almost unlimited comedy of failed magic tricks.

And here is where the comparison to The Simpsons becomes painfully obvious.  The Simpsons intuitively understood that when you’re dealing in animation a successful illusion is boring because it doesn’t require anything more than pen meeting paper.  Failed illusions, on the other hand, can be hilarious.  Consider Krusty’s grotesquely disastrous ventriloquism when he’s trying to compete with Gabbo, or the giant scar on Milhouse’s stomach when Bart tried to saw him in half.  Even the “mathemagician” in “Grade School Confidential” operates on the idea of funny failure when he flunks elementary arithmetic dividing twenty-eight by seven and coming up with three.

Tricks Gone Awesomely Wrong

Would it be funny if Krusty didn’t need the mustache?  Or if that remainder had disappeared?

The best counterexample, though, is the one most closely related to Lisa’s recess performance, “Milhouse the Magician” from “$pringfield”.  Like Lisa’s performance, the audience is just a handful of people.  Unlike Lisa’s performance, that makes sense.  Like Lisa, Milhouse is new to magic.  Unlike Lisa, he doesn’t have hacks making him instantly good at it.  The result is brief, fitting, and very funny.

$pringfield5

No one cares about the cat in the box . . . until it attacks the magician.  (He still got some applause.)

The relentless reliance on magic isn’t a case of Zombie Simpsons being weighed down by twenty years of accumulated baggage and backstory.  They didn’t need to cram in as many “ta-da!” moments as they could.  Just like they didn’t need four celebrity magicians to show up and voice themselves (in an episode that already had two famous guest stars).  Nor did they need to have the secret to a world famous trick be revealed to someone who’d been doing magic for about two weeks.  They did all that by choice, and it’s just further evidence of how much they value razzle dazzle over substance, humor and making the most of their medium.

[Update 14 April: Corrected two minor word repetitions that I missed in the after-work fog of yesterday.]

02
Apr
11

College Students to Zombie Simpsons: Meh

Homer Goes to College6

“Someone squeezed all the life out of these kids.  And unless movies and teevee have lied to me, it’s a crusty, bitter old dean.” – Homer Simpson

If you Google “Zombie Simpsons”, the first result is a post I wrote last year called “The Cost of Zombie Simpsons”.  Not being familiar with anything more than the barest outlines of Google’s proprietary alchemy, I can only guess as to why it’s that one and not another.  But if I had pick of our back catalog to occupy that choice spot of search real estate (it gets more traffic than all but a handful of pages here), it’d probably be that one. 

My strained pollution metaphor was prompted by my discovery of a Futurama fan who had never seen “Marge vs. The Monorail”.  He knew of The Simpsons, but had never seen one of their most well known episodes.  I wondered how many people out there, too young to have watched the show’s decay as it happened, lived under the misunderstanding that it had always been so ordinary. 

This week I came across two blogs written by guys who fall under that age bracket.  The first is a student at Tufts University who writes about television for the campus newspaper.  In an article titled “Fox offers laughs beyond Seth MacFarlane”, he spends 769 words talking about all of the comedies currently broadcast on FOX.  (The piece is part of a series of four, one for each network.)  This is the Simpsons bit:

Outside the MacFarlane empire, "The Simpsons" is still going strong in its 22nd season. It’s not what it used to be, but it still has some smart plotting, good jokes and original stories after all these years.

I obviously agree with the part about it not being what it used to be and disagree with the part about it being “smart”, “good”, and “original”.  But that’s neither here nor there.  What’s revealing about this is the fact that the entire article is about FOX comedies, and yet those two fleeting sentences are the only part that discusses Zombie Simpsons.  The show is only mentioned one other time in the entire piece, and that’s just to note that it’s been overshadowed by MacFarlane’s television hydra.  In other words, even to people who like it, Zombie Simpsons is far less culturally interesting than every other program on FOX.  It’s a placeholder that gets brought up only for the sake of completeness. 

The second blog is brand new.  Its author is a student at the University of Arizona and the first four substantive posts are a top 25 Simpsons episode countdown.  I’ve seen a lot of these kinds of lists over the years.  Most of the time they’re either entirely or predominantly episodes from the before time, the long long ago; those are my favorite.  Sometimes they’re a jumble of The Simpsons and Zombie Simpsons, with picks ranging from Season 1 to the present; I like those kind less.  But, hey, it’s somebody’s opinion and they’re certainly entitled to post it on-line. 

What’s unusual about this list is the range of episodes it covers.  The earliest episode on it is from Season 5 and the latest is from Season 14 (though only a handful are from after Season 11).  I’ve never seen a list like that before.  The explanation for this unusual selection comes in the introduction to the first part (emphasis added electronically by Channel 6):

As a dedicated (and somewhat obsessed) fan of The Simpsons, I have seen my fair share of Simpsons episodes (302 to be exact) and decided I would attempt to rank my favorite Simpsons episodes of all time. I took a lot of different factors into consideration of each episode (story,gags,overall hilarity), but mostly just picked the ones that I know I can sit through time and time again.

(The rest: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

He describes himself as a “dedicated” and “somewhat obsessed” fan who watches episodes “time and time again”, but the back catalog is so dauntingly swollen with mediocrity that he’s never sat down and plowed through it all.  At 302 episodes, itself a powerful feat of television watching, he still hasn’t seen nearly forty percent of the show. 

There are only two possibilities with the given math.  Either he’s never seen a significant chunk of the early seasons, or he gave up on the show completely right after Season 14.  Neither scenario reflects well on Zombie Simpsons, but given his list I’d be willing to bet it’s the former.  If that’s true, it means that Zombie Simpsons has deterred him from seeing some of the best things to ever grace the airwaves. 

This is precisely what I was talking about in “The Cost of Zombie Simpsons”.  In its current dilapidated state, Zombie Simpsons is hardly worth bringing up in a discussion of FOX comedies.  But its irrelevance to modern audiences doesn’t prevent it from obscuring its vastly superior predecessor.

15
Mar
11

Compare & Contrast: Homer on Tour

“Has anyone mentioned that Homer doesn’t know anything about mountain climbing, and that this is all crazy?” – Marge Simpson
“Well yes, a number of people.” – Neil

Just a few minutes into “A Midsummer’s Nice Dream”, more than a decade of accumulated bad habits catastrophically cratered the episode:

Zombie Marge: Homie, you know all the bits, maybe you could help him.
Zombie Homer: I can’t do reefer comedy, I’m drunk, two different animals.
Zombie Marge: Homer Simpson, that man’s albums have given you decades of entertainment, and seen you through some very square times.  Help him!
Zombie Crowd: [Cheers wildly]

A Global Icon

Mobsters, teachers, Smithers, Mrs. Glick, it’s almost like they have no personality of their own.

You know where it goes from there.  Homer walks on stage and everyone loves him.  The man who is ostensibly an ordinary guy from an ordinary town once again becomes an overnight celebrity.  Afterwards, the episode staggers around for another fifteen minutes, bumbling from one topic to the next as it tries to tell a story it’s told a hundred times before.

Homer has had plenty of wild adventures going all the way back to the beginning of the show.  But prior to about Season 9 or so, whenever Homer went out and did something really far fetched he was usually more along for the ride than in the driver’s seat.  He certainly didn’t become an accomplished professional in the span of a few seconds.  When he headed out with Hullabalooza, he wasn’t backing up Peter Frampton on guitar or freestyling with Cypress Hill.  When he went into space, the NASA guys were planning on sedating him almost immediately, he wasn’t scheduled to land the shuttle.  When he played softball with all those ringers, he couldn’t get a hit off Roger Clemens, nor could he field as well as Daryl Strawberry.  He was always an amateur, even if he often found himself in places amateurs rarely tread. 

Compare that with the way Marge and the crowd shove him onstage during “A Midsummer’s Nice Dream”.  He becomes the main act instantly, acquiring the timing and poise of an accomplished stage performer, something that requires years of training and practice, in less than a minute.  The crowd knows it too, and they’re a-okay with Homer replacing one of the men they paid to see.  He’s no longer a lucky amateur, he’s now the same mega-popular super character within the world of the show that he’s long been outside of it, and everyone, from his family to the crowd to the guest stars, understands that intuitively.

A Global Icon2

I bet he’s glad his face is on a bunch of crappy merchandise though.

This is far from the first time Zombie Simpsons has done something like this.  The degradation of Homer from a recognizable everyman into an unrepentant, unfeeling, unrestrained id of middle age wish fulfillment is one of the true hallmarks of Zombie Simpsons.  It started way back when the show began its implosion around Season 9 as Homer embarked on an ever increasing series of jobs for which he was wildly unsuited: submarine captain, mayoral bodyguard, movie producer, etcetera.  It’s been going on ever since; in just the last two seasons Homer has become a movie star, an Olympic athlete, an undercover cop, and now a professional comedian.

The reduction of Homer into a cheap, one dimensional gag machine has also damaged the other characters around him, especially Marge.  When Homer goes on tour with his humble barbershop quartet, Marge is devastated and tries to compensate.  When Homer wants to go on tour with the pageant of the transmundane, Marge is skeptical and afraid for him.  These are the kinds of reactions you might expect from an actual woman upon hearing that her husband is planning on skipping town for a little while.  In “A Midsummer’s Nice Dream”, Marge just pats him on the head and tells him not to have too much fun, like she’s sending one of her children out to play.

Two Marges and a Fembot

We’ve secretly replaced the real Marge Simpson in one of these images.  Try to guess which!

Once he’s actually out on tour the difference becomes even starker as Homer immediately becomes completely untethered from his life in a way that’d be unthinkable for the man in “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” or “Homerpalooza”.  In the former, even winning a Grammy can’t distract him from his homesick loneliness, and he goes so far as to record a taped message for his kids.  In the latter, his exploits with Smashing Pumpkins and company pass very quickly, and most of those are told in a letter he writes to Bart and Lisa.  Yet for the entire middle of “A Midsummer’s Nice Dream”, Homer is completely cut off from his family or anything else that’s going on in the episode.  He’s just out pestering Cheech Marin and doesn’t spend a single frame thinking about or missing the family he left behind.

The contrast with Hullabalooza and The Be Sharps couldn’t be clearer.  In those episodes Homer is a real character whose actions and reactions reflect that, so even if he frequently finds himself in “wacky adventures” (as Lisa put it in Season 5), he’s still recognizable as the same guy.  In Zombie Simpsons, Homer knows that he’s not a regular guy, he knows that his wife will happily tell him to board that tour bus, and once he’s aboard he never needs to give the rest of his life a second thought.  Hacktacular crap like this went a long way towards degrading the show in the first place lo those ten or twelve years ago, and it hasn’t changed much.

08
Mar
11

Compare & Contrast: Field Trips

“Damn, I shouldn’t have eaten the mint first.” – Otto

Like so many Zombie Simpsons episodes, “The Scorpion’s Tale” is a creaking mess of unconnected segments, many of which have little or nothing to do with one another.  Also like so many Zombie Simpsons episodes, many of these segments are ideas and concepts that have already been done years before.  For example, at one point in this episode Grampa moves in and acts cranky.  “Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in "The Curse of the Flying Hellfish"”, anyone?  Then the family visits a pharmaceutical lab where they make a few industry jokes and, wouldn’t you know it, Homer gets accidentally dosed with something (“Brother’s Little Helper”).  Then the old people go on the generational warpath much as they do in “Wild Barts Can’t be Broken”.

Those are all inexact in at least some way; however, there is one segment that lines up nearly perfectly with a vastly better forerunner.  At the opening of “The Scorpion’s Tale”, the kids from Springfield Elementary (though curiously none of their teachers), go on a field trip.  At the opening of “The PTA Disbands”, the kids from Springfield Elementary (with their teacher), also go on a field trip.

First of all, as Mike Russo pointed out in comments yesterday, there’s the issue of just who is on this field trip:

I only watched the first couple of minutes but why were Skinner, Chalmers and bits and pieces of Hoover’s and Krabapple’s class on a field trip together? I love how no one has any care at all about how things are supposed to logically work as long as Skinner, Chalmers and Ralph Wiggum can be a scene together.

We like to bitch around here about the fact that Chalmers is in every school related scene now, he’s less of a superintendent than a sidekick these days, but the absence of either Hoover or Krabappel is just as telling.  Instead of making this a class field trip for Lisa’s grade (so she can find the scorpions and the flowers), they make this a Zombie Simpsons field trip, with only the most prominent characters from Springfield Elementary allowed to attend.   In “The PTA Disbands”, on the other hand, the trip to the Civil War fort is very clearly one that Bart’s class is taking.  Neither Lisa nor Hoover is there, but Uter and Krabappel are.  Skinner is there but, and here’s something we haven’t seen in a long time, Chalmers isn’t.

Beyond the participants, the real difference between these two field trips is in what goes on during each of them, both within the scene and in relation to the rest of the episode.  For starters, consider the conversation Skinner has with Chalmers in “The Scorpion’s Tale” versus the ones he has with Krabappel in “The PTA Disbands”.  In “The Scorpion’s Tale”, Chalmers shows up to exchange a single scene of sitcom-y insult humor with Skinner.  Other than that his presence is completely superfluous, but they needed him for this skit and so he’s here.  The first time we see Skinner and Krabappel in “The PTA Disbands”, they’re discussing the dilapidated state of the school bus and the dire straits of the school district’s budget.  Literally their first lines of dialogue introduce the conflict of the episode and set them up as the main protagonists.

The action at each field trip is just as indicative of the massive disparity in quality.  In “The Scorpion’s Tale”, the events at the state park are a random assortment of set pieces, none of which make a lick of sense even on their own, much less as part of a field trip.  Martin stumbles upon the trailer of the right wing isolationists, who apparently live in a state park within walking distance of the ranger station.  This leads to a long set piece the punchline of which is . . . a guy shooting junk with a shotgun.

Scenes From A Desert

Here’s how things went in the actual episode . . .  

The episode next spends half a minute having one guy climb another guy before moving over to Bart, Milhouse and Nelson at the (strangely child sized) entrance to an abandoned mine.  Did the boys sneak away?  We have no way of knowing, they’re just there all of a sudden.  But the writers had a dynamite joke about old porn and Nelson masturbating, and so that’s where things go next.  Once that completely unrelated sketch is over, we move on to one with Lisa, who is also all by herself in the middle of the desert.  Excluding the lame repetition of the Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote joke from “Homer Alone” and them getting off the bus, there are six scenes before the first commercial break (Skinner/Chalmers, Martin/Isolationists, Climbing Ranger, Abandoned Mine, Lisa with scorpions, Milhouse/hippie arm), none of which have anything to do with one another, and only one of which has anything to do with the rest of the episode.

Other Scenes From A Desert

. . . but this works too; in fact, this might even make more sense.  Randomization would work just as well.

Now let’s take a look at the trip to Civil War era Fort Springfield.  Before the kids even get there we’re informed that things deemed unnecessary in the heavily cut school budget include working brakes on the bus.  Once they arrive, the main thrust of the plot is reinforced again as the “Diz-Nee” corporation’s takeover of the park means that the Springfield kids can’t even go inside.  (And then Principal Valiant from Shelbyville shows up to rub Skinner’s nose in it.)  We get a brief set piece where we see something that actually goes on at a place like this: a Civil War re-enactment, albeit a hilariously bloodthirsty one.  When a re-enactor (with an ax in his head) spots the Springfield kids “trying to learn for free”, the “Diz-Nee” employees fly into a rage and chase them from the park.  The last time we see them they’re viciously beating a ten year old child.  And all of this is interspersed with Skinner and Krabappel bickering over money and Otto siphoning gas.  Every single line, scene and joke is related, to one another and to the ultimate plot of the bankrupt school district.

In “The Scorpion’s Tale”, you could randomize those six set pieces and it wouldn’t matter in the least.  If the abandoned mine had come before the shotgun guy, would anyone have noticed?  Very little (if any) of the dialogue would even need to be changed.  They’re just sketches that start with the words “EXT. DESERT” on a script.  Try doing something like with the Fort Springfield trip where each individual scene moves directly into the next.  Removing just one would screw up the entire act, and rearranging them would render the whole thing nonsensical.

A Well Told Story

This is the only order in which this works, and while I included every scene from “The Scorpion’s Tale” above, I left out several from “The PTA Disbands” because there’s just too much going on to tell with stills. 

28
Feb
11

Compare & Contrast: Mocking Awards Shows

Black Widower3

“You know the rules, awards for excellence in entertainment are contraband, no Emmys, no Oscars, not even a Golden Globe.” – Prison Guard

One of the more revealing ineptitudes of “Angry Dad: The Movie” is the way it fails to copy not one, but two different Simpsons episodes that did the exact same thing it did.  (This is particularly stunning coming from a show that loves repeating jokes and unabashedly lives off of fan nostalgia.)  Of course, both of those older episodes did things much quicker, and managed to actually mock the kidding-but-serious way awards shows take themselves and their participants.  I am speaking of both the Emmys in “Black Widower” and the generic (but Emmy statue lookalike) Annual Cartoon Awards in “The Front” (which are awarded at the Springfield Civic Center the night before it’s closed for roach spraying).

In “Black Widower”, Krusty comes out to present the award for “Best Supporting Performer in a Children’s Program”.  Right there, the show is already making fun of the uselessness of the Daytime Emmys by creating a nonexistent, but not implausible, category for sidekicks.  Taking the whole enterprise one level further into satiric silliness, Krusty reads a list of the enjoyably wacky nominees:

Daytime Emmy Nominees

Clockwise from top left: Droopy Drawers, Colonel Coward, Pepito (the Biggest Cat in the Whole Wide World), and Suck Up the Vacuum

None of those four characters merit too much attention, but each gets his (its?) own little moment of personality.  We see the improbably hot companion of Droopy Drawers reassuringly pat him on the hand.  Colonel Coward freaks out from nerves just a little bit, and Pepito waves like the good natured mascot he is.  Suck Up, who looks more than a little terrifying and can’t possibly be human, is too good to attend this complete sham.  The entire thing takes only ten seconds before the main plot resumes.

Despite not containing much more content than a vacuum cleaner in Spain, none of the plodding parodies in “Angry Dad: The Movie”  move nearly as quickly.  It’s not even close:

  • “The Triplets of Belleville” takes about forty seconds.
  • “Persepolis” is also forty seconds.
  • “Toy Story” managed to be only thirty seconds (but certainly felt longer).
  • “Wallace & Gromit” was sixty-five seconds (as in more than a minute!).
  • “Angry Dad” was a comparatively tame twenty seconds. 

That’s five clips, totaling well over three minutes of screen time, in an episode that’s barely twenty minutes long.  And that doesn’t even count Halle Berry’s part.  For comparison’s sake, please note that the College Humor video of the McBain clips, which the killjoys at FOX legal have already taken down (shhh, reverse Spanish version), was only slightly longer, and it was from five separate episodes over three seasons.

In “The Front” almost the exact same thing – awards show presentation with clips and a celebrity voice – is done in a small fraction of the time.  Brooke Shields and Krusty come out so Krusty can read the terrible joke about his hair, the kind of thing that awards shows still trot out to this day.  He instantly goes off script and starts bitching while Shields gamely plays it straight.  Once he storms off the episode goes right to the parodies.  First is “Strondar: Master of Akom”, the “wedding episode”:

The Front9

Does it takes forty seconds to parody He-Man?  No, no it does not.  It requires less than five seconds and gives us Not He-Man, in his formal S&M gear, tugging nervously at his Chippendales-style bowtie choker.  That goes immediately to “Action Figure Man”, the “How to Buy Action Figure Man” episode:

The Front10

This one is really amazing, because it takes only a few words and a couple of seconds but manages to send up pretty much the entire genre of children’s cartoons, including the incessant merchandising that makes them so very lucrative and the way shameless marketing is used to get kids to basically extort their own parents.  The final “clip” is the only one they didn’t make up themselves but, once again, they didn’t need half a minute to make a quick joke about the fact that new episodes of The Ren & Stimpy Show were less than forthcoming at the time.

From the time Shields introduces the first clip until we get to “Barbershop of Horrors” takes less than thirty seconds.  The whole sequence, from Krusty and Shields walking on stage to Grampa winning the award, is only ninety seconds.  Zombie Simpsons takes three and a half minutes to complete the same thing, and that’s before you get to the respective acceptance speeches.  In “The Front”, Grampa immediately launches into his anti-cartoon tirade without a moment of hesitation.  For his candor he is pelted with fruit thrown by people in formalwear.  In “Angry Dad: The Movie”, Bart launches into a tedious monologue about how many people he needs to thank, and is then joined on stage by Homer for some wrap up exposition.

Parodying famous cartoons like “Toy Story” and “Wallace & Gromit” is a fine thing for a show like Zombie Simpsons to try to do.  But trotting out so many of them for so very long means they’re going to feel like filler, even if they had been packed with insightful humor.  “The Front” could’ve dragged its parodies out, but instead it kept them short and funny, and in doing so left itself time for its own little short, “The Adventures of Ned Flanders”.

[Edited 1 March 2010 to change “Vacom” to “Akom”, see comments for details.]

15
Feb
11

Compare & Contrast: Self Help Charlatans

“You know, my course can help you with every personality disorder in the ‘Feel Bad Rainbow’.  Let’s look at the Rainbow, what’s in there?  Depression, Insomnia, Motor-mouth, Darting Eyes, Indecisiveness, Decisiveness, Bossiness, Uncontrollable Falling Down, Geriatric Profanity Disorder or GPD, and Chronic Nagging.” – Brad Goodman

Back when the show still had heart and soul, one of the things they liked to do was make fun of the seedier ends of American capitalism.  Sometimes this was Dr. Nick hawking his shabby inventions; sometimes it was the customer contemptuous likes of Stern Lecture Plumbing or Ex-Con Home Security.  Then one time, it was Brad Goodman, and all the bright, shiny self help scams for which he stood. 

Bart's Inner Child3

Before. . .

Goodman was the perfect embodiment of the low-rent hucksters who ply the airwaves at the most non of non-primetime television hours looking to make a buck from people Homer famously described as, “alcoholics, the unemployable, angry loners”.  Though the specifics varied, each one of them had a system that was pitched at one basic concept: a richer, happier you.  Their systems usually came with scientific sounding jargon, a couple of catch phrases, and lots of numbered points (the better to seem more organized).  The main thing they all had in common was that you paid up front (for a book, a video, whatever) in the hopes that this valuable information could change your life for the better. 

Bart's Inner Child4

. . . and After.

The other thing these “impr-U-vement” scams had in common was that no one who wasn’t already desperate took them the least bit seriously.  Goodman charged peopled real money for pithy advice Lisa accurately described as “easy answers”, but if you’re enough of a sucker to pay for his advice then you’re also too much of a sucker to be able to call him on it.  That’s why The Simpsons made Goodman such an obvious conman, but still let him get away with the cash.  The people of Springfield regretted their decision almost as soon as they started practicing what he preached, but by then he was long gone. 

What makes “Bart’s Inner Child” so great is that the jokes and the scorn are heaped both on Goodman (using “important celebrities” like Martha Quinn and Troy McClure) and on the people he scammed (“We’ve made a false idol of this Brad Goodman!”).  Goodman may be a successful charlatan who got away with it, but he’s still very obviously a charlatan the show holds in utter contempt. 

Compare that rather harsh treatment to the fawningly sympathetic portrayal of the “pick up artist” conman odiously named “Dr. Kissingher”.  (Since I flat out refuse to type that name several more times, he shall henceforth be known as Pick Up Kissingher, or “Puke” for short)  With the tiny exception of having to announce his own introduction, Puke escapes from the episode completely unscathed.  He’s shown as being sympathetic and kind to his dimwitted clients, and is even given a tongue bath in the form of recurring appearances as an omniscient, floating pop-up head.  All by itself that’s a pretty big blown comedy opportunity, but the bigger failure is the credulous way the show treats Puke’s highly dubious advice. 

Do Homer or Moe suffer for following Puke’s retrograde self help canards?  Nope, quite the opposite.  Moe spends the rest of the episode with ridiculously attractive women on his arm, and Homer (though we don’t actually see why this happens) becomes the object of affection of every pretty young thing in Springfield.  Late night infomercials would be hesitant to show that kind of wild success for fear that it would be too incredible even for an audience sleep deprived into total gullibility. 

Pick Up Artist Extraordinaire

Nine women and not a fatty in the bunch!  Order now!

If you want to see what this stuff looks like in the real world, Google “pick up artist” and hold your nose, for the foul stench of scamming the clueless and the desperate will immediately waft from your browser.  This is from the first page of Google’s results

What is PUA Training "System"

The System represents the evolution of the pick-up arts, a new frontier that for the first time builds on established principles and methods and adds in the latest cutting edge techniques. Five years in the making. Drawing on the entire Pick Up Artist / PUA universe of knowledge as well as body language, psychology, and the experience of talking to thousands of beautiful women, we deliver the first complete proven system for building a better you. Only a select few will learn these powerful techniques. Those that have are already seeing huge results.

That is exactly the kind of garbage that The Simpsons so brutally attacked in Brad Goodman.  It sounds science-y (“evolution”, “cutting edge techniques”, “psychology”) and promises that a “better you” is only a few dollars away.  The sole difference is that “beautiful women” have replace “self improvement” as the glittering prize.  Not only did Zombie Simpsons decline to make fun of this blatantly misogynistic shit, it swallowed it hook, line and sinker.  Here’s the first thing Puke says from his narrator bubble:

Jumping on the grenade.  The wingman engages the less attractive friend, isolating the target.

And here’s the “PUA Dictionary” (this is also from the first page of the Google results):

For instance, if I see a less than attractive woman, I would never want to hurt her feelings, so in a very low voice I might tell my wingman she is a UG (Ugly Girl).

It almost couldn’t get any lazier.  Zombie Simpsons has given up on satirizing society’s foibles in favor of copying and pasting them. 

On The Simpsons, was the Juice Loosener really whisper quiet?  Did Homer get rich thanks to that guy with the trapezoid scheme?  Did everyone in Springfield live happily ever after once they knew how to use the Feel Bad Rainbow?  Of course not!  But in Zombie Simpsons, did Homer and Moe start scoring babes left and right once they knew Puke’s secrets?  And how!  To make things even worse, Zombie Simpsons bought into the skin crawlingly awful and boldly stupid bullshit of the “pick up artist” scammers.  The whole thing is disgracefully dumb and blatantly anti-woman, on a show that didn’t used to be either. 

10
Feb
11

That Is So 1991

“Please alter my pants as fashion dictates.” – Jasper (as read by Homer Simpson)

Last month, when I was taking all those frame grabs of the seated Cerberus that was the three housewives from “Moms I’d Like to Forget”, I was struck by how modern and colorful their outfits were compared to Marge’s.  The next week I noticed something similar in “Flaming Moe”.  Characters who’ve been around a long time, like Smithers and Patty, look really out of place next to the one-and-done guests.  The more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that this happens in almost every episode.  They come up with some one off character or just have a celebrity on, and s/he looks wildly different than the long time characters in the same shot. 

This is another example of how you can’t keep the show from aging, even if you nominally keep the characters from aging.  Characters that were originally designed to catch the eye in low definition at a time when televisions were a lot smaller don’t scale up well to HD resolutions.  The basic character models (Marge’s green dress, Homer’s white shirt, etcetera) are big on solid colors and low on minute detail.  But new characters, who are supposed to be twenty-first century Americans, can’t be drawn the way the Simpsons are, it would look terrible.  Instead they animate new characters as realistically as possible and just ignore the clashing styles. 

Patty's Out of Style

Look at Patty’s clothes compared to the gay dudes.  Her dress is flat and monochromatic, their clothes are colorful and detailed.  Look at the shoulders, buttons and belt of the guy in white.  Look at the knotted sweatshirt; look at the precise lines of the pockets on the green pants.  The three of them are massively more detailed than she is. 

Sitting5

Here we can see the same thing with Marge and the Anitas.  They gave Marge as many different dresses as they could (examples), but when they use her standard outfit they’re stuck with these radically clashing styles.  The clothing is obvious enough, but it extends even to the accessories.  Two of the Anitas are wearing necklaces that look kind of like the necklaces real women wear everyday.  Next to those, Marge’s necklace is painfully cartoony.  There’s nothing wrong with cartoony in and of itself, but it looks more than a little out of place next to the more realistic drawings.

This sort of thing happens all the time on Zombie Simpsons, and it’s only gotten worse since the changeover to HD.  Unfortunately for us, there’s nothing they can do about it even if they wanted to.  The audience accepts Marge in that uniform green dress, but if you drew other characters with the same simplicity it would look childishly primitive.  And it’s not like they can change the way the main characters look, doing so would risk a New Coke level disaster. 

They compensate by putting old characters in different clothes far more often than they did back in the before time, in the long long ago.  Just this season we’ve seen Homer wear a sweater for most of an episode as well as go undercover for the bulk of another.  Lisa’s spent significant time in school and baseball uniforms.  But those sorts of temporary dodges can’t change the basic character models.  They’re stuck with the fact that the default costumes for all of the main characters, and most of the secondary ones, aren’t designed for modern animation, and clash badly with newer characters that are. 

11
Jan
11

Compare & Contrast: Marge and Other Women

“Pleased to meet you.  You look like such a happy bunch . . . of people.” – Marge Simpson

In film criticism there is a concept known as the “Bechdel Test”, which is a kind of quick and dirty measurement of whether or not a movie has any female characters that rise above the level of tokenism or decoration.  There are a few variations, but the basic concept is that there needs to be at least one conversation between two named, female characters that isn’t about a male.  I was thinking about this during one of the many scenes where Marge and the three other moms sit and exposit at each other, and it dawned on me that of the four of them, only Marge actually had a name.  Oh sure, Marge mentions “Anita’s family” when talking to Homer, but we have no idea which one is Anita; the name is never used when any of them are actually on screen.  Maybe they’re all named Anita.

Marge and the AnitasFrom left to right: Marge, Anita?, Anita?, Anita?.

None of the husbands or the kids had names either, but they weren’t the focus of what was supposed to be the main story, and they did get at least some individual attention.  The fifth grade kid introduced the episode, and the sandy haired husband rode Homer’s case far more than the other two.  It wasn’t much, but you could get a slight feel for who they were supposed to be.

Not so with the three women whose interactions with Marge were ostensibly the central plot.  We never see the Anitas do anything other than gab with Marge.  We don’t know what they do, we never see only one of them interact with Marge (or anyone else).  They just show up on screen like some kind of inseparable three headed creature with one collective mind.  They have no individual personality whatsoever.

Compare that to the rich women at Springfield Glen Country Club.  For starters, they have names!  And not just any names, elaborately pronounced rich people names that require delicate tonal inflection, precise vowel control, and extra syllables.

Marge and the Rich WomenFrom left to right: Su-san, Gillian, Patri-cia, Eliza-beth, Robert-a, Marge, and Evelyn.

A Rich Woman Named Evelyn More important than the fact that they passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors, they actually have character.  We start by meeting Evelyn, who remembers Marge from high school even though they “ran with different crowds”.  Evelyn herself isn’t all that special in her crowd, but she is the one who introduces Marge to the world of elegance and respectability.  Thus, Evelyn has a motivation – a word Zombie Simpsons is very uncomfortable with – to see Marge succeed in the group, because if Marge fails by being too boorish or unsophisticated, Evelyn also fails for misjudging her.  We even see the payoff for this when she lays it on thick with Marge, “And I just know you’ll have a lovely new outfit!”.  That’s what’s known as an iron fist in a velvet glove, on the outside she’s all sweetness and encouragement, but Marge gets the real message loud and clear: if you want to be one of us, you can’t keep wearing the same thing.  Not only does this show us who Evelyn is, it has the added effect of driving the plot.  Evelyn’s warning sends Marge scurrying, first back to her sewing machine, then to her sisters’ place, then on a return trip to the outlet mall in hopes of another miracle.

A Rich Woman Named Susan Then there’s Su-san, the acid tongued queen of the country club (who is never without a drink).  We know right away that she’s important; she’s introduced last, and then immediately gets in the biting line, “That’s the trouble with first impressions, you only get to make one.”  Both Marge and the audience understand instantly that she can see right through that stylish Chanel suit to the beat up car in the parking lot and all the poverty Marge is trying so desperately to hide.  We understand, or at least we think we understand, her motivations (there’s that word again) without any further explanation: she is keen to keep the hoi polloi out of her rarified world.

There you have it, in just two scenes, at the gas station and then at the country club, we’ve established two named characters who will spend the rest of the episode interacting with Marge in ways that actually affect her actions and move main story forward.  Nor are they just sitting around the whole time, they play cards and croquet; they throw Marge a membership party. 

And then, of course, there are the respective endings.  In “Moms I’d Like to Forget”, Zombie Simpsons just decides to up and end things with Marge suddenly getting defensive about her family.  While this is something we’ve seen Marge do in previous episodes, it’s not something Marge had talked about or expressed at all in this story.  The closest we get to any kind of motivation for her outburst is one line of voiceover exposition (“but they were a bad influence on you”) way back when Marge was first describing them to Bart in the bathroom.  Subsequently, the audience sees the other kids getting Bart to do things he ordinarily might not do, but Marge never sees any of that.  Bart doesn’t describe it to her when they’re talking in the garage, we don’t even see her disappointment in the influence of the other boys during Comic Book Guy’s two minute flashback.  This is, once again, Fiction 101: your characters do not know everything that you know.

Far worse, though, is that Marge gives up on being friends with these women instantly.  She never tries to please or placate them, she never tries to show them that it is their sons, not hers, who are the real troublemakers.  In “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield”, Marge finally realizes that she will never be one of the blue bloods.  But she doesn’t just up and do it with no prompting, she has to go through all those awkward interactions at the club, she has to get angry at her family for being themselves, in desperation she even blows their savings on that retail Chanel dress.  All of her actions are what give the ending its meaning, which makes the comedic payoff of Su-san and Evelyn actually accepting her (“I hope she didn’t take my attempt to destroy her too seriously”) and offering her membership all the better.

“Moms I’d Like to Forget” could’ve done something similar.  Marge could’ve seen that the other boys were a bad influence on Bart and ignored it at first because she was so happy to finally have a social life.  Once she could no longer deny it, she could’ve then tried to show the other moms what was really happening, and if they still rejected her or refused to believe her, she would’ve had a real reason to dump them again.  In short, she could’ve had a real story arc, like she did in “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield”.  Instead, we got an amorphous, three headed “Anita” with no personality, no character, and no motivation as a lifeless backdrop for Marge being happy and then abruptly deciding she wasn’t. 

14
Dec
10

Compare & Contrast: Homer and the FBI

“We have places your family can hide in peace and security: Cape Fear, Terror Lake, New Horrorfield, Screamville.” – FBI Agent
“Ohh, Ice Cream Ville!” – Homer Simpson
No, Screamville.” – FBI Agent

Like a lot of Zombie Simpsons episodes this season, there is more than one Simpsons episode to which I can compare “Donnie Fatso”.  As has been pointed out in comments, the similarity to “The Trouble with Trillions” is uncanny, and not in a good way.  There’s also the epic fail of Homer’s catchphrase toupee camera, something that the hat from “Homer and Apu” would consider far beneath it.  For my money though, the most damning comparison is Homer’s previous interaction with FBI agents in “Cape Feare”. 

“Donnie Fatso” has a ton of problems, and many of those have to do with the rather serious way it takes its idiotic premise.  Agent Don Draper walks and talks like a straight ahead FBI agent, yet what he’s doing is unfathomably stupid.  Worse, it works; his brain dead idea to use Homer as an undercover agent actually gets Fat Tony.  Instead of using his foolishness for comedy, to show how bad he is at his job, he wins.  Inspector Clouseau and Frank Drebin won too, but they won despite their foibles, not because of them.  Of course, Clouseau and Drebin also had stories, which Agent Draper clearly does not. 

Contrast that with the Comedy 101 of the Witness Relocation Program agents in “Cape Feare”.  They’re playing the straight men to Homer, whose stupidity – as sincere as it is unrelenting – manages to fluster even the the kind of FBI guys who are so clean cut that they never leave the house until their shoes shine like mirrors and every hair has been carefully put in its place.  None of which means the agents themselves aren’t funny.  The list of what surely must be the most horrifyingly named cities in America would be good on its own, but it’s honed into genius level comedy by the dry, perfectly even delivery of a man who not only isn’t in on the joke, but may not be aware of the existence of humor.

Agent Draper is like that too, but he’s never given anything nearly as absurd to say.  Instead, his investigation plods monotonously forward in spite of itself.  Even this doesn’t really elicit a reaction, humorous or otherwise.  Here he is when we first meet him:

Agent Draper1

And here he is later, after Homer has infiltrated Fat Tony’s organization:

Agent Draper2

Finally, here he is when we last see him:

Agent Draper3

Notice a difference?  I sure don’t.  He certainly doesn’t look like a character who just went through any kind of story.  Of course, that’s because he didn’t go through any kind of story.  He was just a prop, a one dimensional set piece so that Zombie Simpsons could put its star attraction into a half assed mob plot. 

Compare that with the agents from “Cape Feare”:

Cape Feare2

Here they are when we first meet them, forthright, button down Bureau men straight from central casting: dark suits, tightly knotted ties, no nonsense expressions.  Here they are a mere minute and a half of screen time later:

Cape Feare3

Even without the dialogue you can tell exactly what’s happening.  The agents have taken off their jackets, their sleeves are rolled up, and their ties are loosened; the ashtray is full of cigarette butts.  The guy on the right even has a coffee mug so we know they’ve been there awhile.  The straight men have been broken by Homer.  Even better, he did it completely unintentionally.  No crazy outbursts were needed, no screaming, no megalomaniacal declarations.  Their brief, nameless appearance has far more personality and comedy than the dried out windbag Zombie Simpsons used as an excuse to let Homer kick, scream, cry, and generally freak the fuck out for most of an episode. 

09
Dec
10

Season 22 Upping the Guest Voice Count

Celebrities

Images shamelessly yoinked from SimpsonsChannel.

“Oh, Lisa, this isn’t real.  It’s just how you might look if you were a cartoon character.” – Homer Simpson

Despite it’s football inflated numbers the last couple of weeks, Season 22 is still on pace to set a record for the lowest ratings.  But that’s not the only record it’s on pace to break.  Through eight episodes, Season 22 has managed to cram in an astonishing eighteen (18) different guest voices.  That’s the most since way back in Season 11 (which had a record breaking 23 through eight episodes), and in terms of people playing themselves, it’s an all time high. 

Note: All data from Wikipedia, numbers reflect only the first eight episodes per season.  I am counting the Glee people as “themselves” for reasons that are obvious to anyone who watched that episode, though I’ll grudgingly accept that the Conchords were playing characters.

Season

Total # Guest Voices

# Playing Themselves

% Playing Themselves

10 15 8 53%
11 23 12 52%
12 13 6 46%
13 13 6 46%
14 16 11 69%
15 14 9 64%
16 9 7 78%
17 7 2 29%
18 16 7 44%
19 18 7 39%
20 14 8 57%
21 14 8 57%
22 18 13 72%

Standard small sample statistical skepticism should be applied, but it’s pretty obvious that Season 22 has relied far more heavily on celebrities playing themselves, even when compared only to other Zombie Simpsons seasons.  The only season to ever have a greater portion of its guest stars play themselves (through eight episodes) was Season 16.  But Season 16 had only half as many guest voices, and an outright majority came from just one episode (“Homer and Ned’s Hail Mary Pass”). 

There are, to be sure, some bumps in this data.  Wikipedia counts bands as one voice instead of several, and people who are repeat guests, like Maurice LaMarche and Jan Hooks, are counted for each appearance instead of just once.  But those things actually make this list look better than it should since people like them are always playing characters, and bands pretty much always play themselves. 

I don’t know if this is going to keep up for the rest of Season 22 or if it’s just a coincidence.  I do know that anyone who’s gotten the sense that Season 22 has been unusually rife with cameos and cross promotion isn’t imagining things. 

07
Dec
10

“We’re Not Paying You to Talk”

Actual Sexual Satire (Ringworm Edition)

“Examine your scalp for ringworm.” – Spandex Clad Spokeswoman

Like most pop stars, Katy Perry’s stock in trade is a meticulously marketed blend of music, fame, and carefully packaged sexuality.  Whether you want to have sex with her, have sex the way she does, or condemn both of those desires, there’s something in her songs and public appearances to catch your attention.  Being young, white and pretty broadens those appeals about as far as they can go, and she and the people who publicize her are very adept at using that.  For evidence of this you need look no further than her first hit, the theatrically bisexual “I Kissed a Girl”.

All of which is to say that if you were designing a pop star in a lab and you set the gender to “F”, the result would look a lot like Katy Perry.  She’s commercially successful, tabloid ready, and about as famous as possible given that she was completely unknown less than three years ago.  In short, she’s as stereotypical a pop star as you are ever likely to see.

In the right hands, hilarity could ensue from subverting all the things that make her such an effective pop star.  The jokes don’t even need to be on her, they can be at the expense of the corrupt, shallow, profit hungry, titillation chasing media environment that made her famous in the first place.  The Simpsons did just that on a couple of occasions, notably “Lisa the Beauty Queen”, “Bart Gets Famous”, and “Homer Badman”.

Of course, that’s not what Zombie Simpsons did.  Instead, they crammed her into a Muppets takeoff so poorly written and ill conceived as to be embarrassing.  The failure here is at least three layers deep.  First, and it’s a marker of just how awful the next two are that this only merits the entry level of hell, was the skit itself: a hacktacular hodgepodge of bad ideas and jokes that wouldn’t make it into a Jay Leno monologue.  Second, a competent reworking of The Muppet Show would’ve been a great vehicle for a pop star to parody her profession.  The original did quite a lot of that with its guest stars, Zombie Simpsons didn’t even try.  Finally and worst of all, not only did they fall flat in their attempted humor, in doing so they made themselves eager participants in the same vapid culture they should have been satirizing in the first place.  But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Muppets-FullCast

Image taken from Wikipedia.

Before we get to how badly they missed the mark, let’s start by acknowledging that Zombie Simpsons didn’t skimp on the felt budget and got the look of the puppets right.  Unfortunately, that was about the only thing they got right, because from there on out it’s not at all clear that they understood what they were doing.  What they seemed to think they were doing was parodying The Muppet Show.  But The Muppet Show was already a parody, and since they left out most of the key elements that made the original, and didn’t bring in any new ones, all they were really doing was a second rate impersonation of a parody.

The Muppet Show was both a revival and a satire of old vaudeville and variety shows, and part of its charm was that it was willing to mock the genre which spawned it.  That’s why it had all those backstage segments, why there was always a story underpinning the variety show that the television audience (but not the theater audience) saw.  Yes, they were going to show you the straight up performances, but there were also things going on behind the scenes that tied everything together.  Even when the actual performances were overly hokey or deliberately awful, there was never any doubt in the audience’s minds that the show knew what it was doing.

Zombie Simpsons ignored that whole aspect of The Muppet Show, leaving the cringe inducing sitcom drama about the boss coming over unexpectedly to stand on its own.  (That they had already done something extremely similar – as an example of what not to do – in Season 11’s “Behind the Laughter” doesn’t help matters.)  This is the equivalent of mocking “Springtime for Hitler” without acknowledging The Producers around it, or trying to parody 30 Rock by talking exclusively about what a terrible show “TGS with Tracy Jordan” is.  With the exception of a faint hearted stab at irony with Grampa and Jasper as Statler & Waldorf, Zombie Simpsons dropped the whole framework that made The Muppet Show work.  All that was left was a boring, cliche ridden puppet show.

Even that might’ve been salvageable if they’d used Perry as a foil for the whole enterprise.  A knowing aside, a quick backstage scene, anything to let us know that she and they are in on the joke and that this whole thing is an exercise in celebrity culture marketing.  The Muppet Show format they were copying was practically made for this kind of comedy.  Instead, they played it straight ahead, even going so far as to make a joke about spending the budget on Perry.  There’s no acknowledgement that the segment is actually bad and that her presence is superfluous, there’s only the kind of fake self deprecation used by clueless people everywhere.

Rather than use Perry for satire’s sake, they preferred to trot her out as eye candy and give her a few sex infused lines.  Here’s the entirety of her spoken dialogue:

“What are you people doing in my boyfriend Moe’s bachelor pad?”

“Someone totally needs a hug.”

“Oh, that’s not my belly button, but I didn’t say stop.”

That’s it, that’s all they could come up with.  Those twenty-seven words would be embarrassingly bad even if this was just a regular animated segment.  But this was something new, something literally unprecedented in the history of the show, and they couldn’t be bothered to have her do anything but talk about her boyfriend, press one puppet into her chest, and have another pressed into her crotch.

The wasted comedy opportunity alone is bad enough, but by using her strictly as a sexpot they managed to sink even lower.  Not only did they not parody all that carefully packaged sex appeal in the tight red dress, they used it as crassly and witlessly as possible.  Without a joke or a hint of irony, Zombie Simpsons joined the ranks of gossip bloggers, record industry lowlifes, and other publicity hungry celebrities who cling to the back of Katy Perry’s bra while she charges forward into the spotlight.  The Simpsons would never have done that; the people who undermined hyper-sexualized advertising by using it to promote ringworm self exams would’ve found something better.




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