Archive for the 'Compare & Contrast' Category

15
Oct
16

Compare & Contrast: The Family Moves Away from Springfield

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“You took a new job in a strange town without discussing it with your family?” – Marge Simpson
“Of course not. I wouldn’t do that! Why not?” – Homer Simpson
“We have roots here, Homer. We have friends and family and library cards. Bart’s lawyer is here.” – Marge Simpson

The most obvious option for doing a Compare & Contrast for “The Town” would be to a travel episode that’s actually coherent, say, “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” or “Bart vs. Australia”. These kinds of stories and jokes work better if the family has an actual reason to go someplace. It also helps to have them do something while they’re there. Zombie Simpsons mostly sticks with having them describe what they see and then tell us how they feel about the things they’re describing.

Instead, the better comparison here is “You Only Move Twice”. In most travel episodes, the family goes someplace, does some stuff, and then returns to Springfield. “The Town” certainly contains all that, but for no real reason they also decided to have the family actually move to Boston, though not until about the 2/3 mark of the episode.

Because they did it so late, and with no build up or warning other than Marge and Homer talking about it right before it happens, the move is a great example of how inhuman Zombie Simpsons and its stories have become. The first time we see the family try to leave Springfield for good is in “Dancin’ Homer”. Once Homer gets called up to the mascot big leagues, we see the family discuss moving, we see them prepare to move, and we get scenes like Bart and Milhouse becoming spit brothers and Lisa lamenting that her parting with the other girls means very little because they’re not very good friends. In “Cape Feare”, the family doesn’t just up and move at the drop of a hat, they’ve got to go through the FBI and even then they forget Grampa and his pills. Both of those episodes treat moving as the major life change it is because to ignore all that is to reduce your characters to inanimate playthings that have no feelings or humanity.

The real parallel, though, is “You Only Move Twice”, where the family pulls up stakes for sunnier pastures and then gradually learns to hate their new home. It’s only after Marge and Bart start going nuts from boredom and Lisa gets reduced to a sniffling mess that the rest of the clan pressures Homer into returning to Springfield. It’s the kind of episode people are thinking of when they praise the show for being a family story at heart. Homer loves his new job and his new boss – partly because he’s completely oblivious to the fact that he works for a supervillain – but in the end he can’t say no to Marge and the kids.

That would all be schmaltzy if we hadn’t seen it build up so well. Bart’s misery gives us the Cypress Creek Milhouse who needs someone to boss him around, Bart thinking cursive means “hell, and damn, and bitch”, and – of course – the Leg Up Program.

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He’s from Canada and they think he’s slow, eh?

Lisa is initially happy before the nature she reveres turns on her, with even little Northern Reticulated chipmunks sending her into a sneezing frenzy.

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Don’t worry, Lisa, an owl will probably get him.

Marge doesn’t know what to do with herself, what with the vacuum on dirt patrol and Maggie enjoying her swing-a-majig, so the episode gives us the headfake that she’s turning into a drunk when she can only drink half a glass of wine per day.

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Doctors say she should finish that glass, but she just can’t drink that much.

Because this is Season 8 and this script is tighter than a drum, each family member goes through a reversal. Bart’s finally at a school where he can’t get in trouble, but he hates it more than Springfield Elementary. Lisa’s in a place that’s far better suited to her than Springfield’s small town dumpiness, but she’s more miserable than ever. Marge, relieved of the housework that fills her days, doesn’t know what to do with herself.

Homer – usually the most miserable Simpson – is the only one who’s happy there, so when he makes the sacrifice of moving back to Springfield it actually matters. And, of course, all of this is going on against one of the show’s most brilliantly demented backdrops ever: the Bond villain who loves his employees and is scheming to take over the East Coast.

The Homer of “The Town” is the opposite. He takes them to Boston to spite Bart and then falls in love with the place in a single, heavily exposited scene:

Homer: One pin standing. Story of my life.
Guy Who Just Walked Over From Nowhere And Is Probably A Boston Reference I Didn’t Get And Will Disappear After His Second Line: Whoa, there, pal. Don’t forget your third ball.
Homer: Hold on, wait. Wait. Hold on. Wait. What?
GWJWOFNAIPABRIDGAWDAHSL: This is candlepin bowling. You get three.
Homer: Three balls? I see it all so clearly now!
Bart: What, Dad? What is it?
Homer: This regional bowling with its one extra roll has knocked my misguided hate into the gutter. I like Boston.
Bart: Dad, you and me are real father-son Southies now, just like Ben and Casey Affleck.
Homer: Son, show me everything this town has to offer.

Naturally, the random exposition dude disappears just as quickly as he appears.

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Zombie Simpsons enjoys having characters materialize out of thin air for the purposes of exposition. 

From there it goes into a montage, then we see Homer tell us what he’s eating, and then he and Marge decide that they’re just going to move to Boston. There’s no depth and no character to anything these characters are saying or doing. Homer had spent the previous five minutes telling us how much he hates Boston, then he changed his mind and told us why out loud. It’s a reversal and life change so huge and shallow that it’s basically inhuman.

The only silver lining is that it does set up an equally inhuman re-reversal five minutes later. That one involves Homer going through a giant struggle to put on a baseball cap that there’s no clear reason he needs to wear in the first place. For some reason, this also means that the family has to move back to Springfield.

What makes the move in “The Town” so spectacularly dumb, however, is that it’s completely unnecessary. The family could fall in love with Boston only to have Homer get them all kicked out without running roughshod over a major life change. But that would mean writing the Simpson family as if they were still supposed to represent real people, and Zombie Simpsons gave up on that a long time ago.

06
Oct
16

Compare & Contrast: Marge Gets Jealous

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“Lurleen, we’re gonna have to cut you off. We’re getting some kind of grinding noise on the track.” – Hicksville U.S.A. Recording Producer 

NOTE: I will be at Classic Simpsons Trivia in Brooklyn tonight. If you’re there, feel free to look for the tall, gumpy white guy in this t-shirt and say hello. 

“Friends and Family” provided an embarrassment of riches for Compare & Contrast material. This is a partial list of topics I considered:

– The family going to live with Burns the same way Bart did in “Burns’ Heir” – In the original, Bart had to be convinced to live there by Burns, lied to about his family, and ultimately saw through it. Now, the whole family just goes there and stays because . . . uh, look over there, isn’t it wacky that they’re wearing motion capture suits and have weird heads?

– Burns wanting a family – This would also be to “Burns’ Heir”, but instead of demonstrating how out of character the family was behaving, it’d be Burns: pining for love instead of wanting a son who could continue his evil after he was gone. Also: there was a scene with kids trying out and Milhouse getting rejected was a lot better the first time.

– Homer being alone in the house – This one is a twofer, since I could compare the goofy montage in Zombie Simpsons to “Homer Alone” or “Bart After Dark”, both of which saw Homer inhabit the house in clumsy ways instead of running the lawnmower in the living room.

– Homer meeting a very Homer-like woman – “The Last Temptation of Homer” did this far better, including showing Homer’s resistance to being attracted to Mindy until even Colonel Klink forsakes him. In particular, both episodes feature Homer at a romantic restaurant with Marge’s would-be competition, the big difference being that on The Simpsons they got forced to go to a Chinese restaurant that was nice enough to make them cheeseburgers, whereas on Zombie Simpsons Homer and his platonic friend – who’s supposed to like sitting on her duff and drinking beer just like him – go to a fancy restaurant so they could do yet another Lady and the Tramp spaghetti scene.

– Jewish funerals – Krusty’s was a lot more fun than the one for that guy who was Burns’ therapist for two minutes.

Ultimately, I couldn’t resist this episode’s finale, a bizarre, senseless, and out of left field rant from Marge when she returns home to find Homer – gasp – talking to a woman on the phone. It gets weird fast and stays that way, so I’ll quote it extensively. To start, Homer is sitting on the couch and has just gotten off the phone when Marge and the kids walk in for what would seem to be the first time in weeks or months:

Homer: Hey, guys, good to see you!
Marge: Good to see you. Who were you talking to?
Homer: My friend Julia.
Lisa: Juli-a? Like a girl?

Let’s pause for a second to note how unnatural this dialogue is. We can maybe spot them Homer being so blase about seeing his family for the first time in a good long while, but Marge just coming back with “Good to see you” sounds nothing like her. And right after that we have “Who were you talking to?”, which not only doesn’t sound like her, but would also be about the last thing on her mind. It’s a screenwriter shortcut: have one character ask another the exact question needed to push the plot along.

Then we get Lisa chiming in, both surprised that it’s a girl, and with that weird pause before the “a” in Julia. Now, there are a lot of male names that can be feminized with an -a, George becomes Georgia, Claude becomes Claudia, Will becomes Willa, etcetera. But Julia isn’t one of them. Julian (one of our toughest names) is the closest, but the “a” is still there, so Lisa’s surprise at it remains off kilter. It’s not a huge thing, but it’s yet another way that the writing is just plain lazy. They want Lisa to express surprise, but instead of writing a line that lets her do so, they just have Yeardley Smith do a weird pronunciation. Moving along:

Homer: She’s not a girl, she’s three years younger than your mother. [Marge makes a noise of disapproval here] Marge, it’s cool. All we do is share our deepest thoughts and feelings.

Even by the standards of Zombie Homer this is painfully bad exposition, which is how you can tell its another hacktacular screenwriter shortcut. Homer is trying to get himself into trouble, which is the opposite of the Homer we know and love. To see how, compare it with more or less the exact same conversation in “Colonel Homer”:

Marge: It’s nice, but who is this woman?
Homer: Well, right now she’s an out of work cocktail waitress, but she’s going to be a country music superstar! Like, uh, that jerk in the cowboy hat, and that dead lady.
Marge: I don’t like you hanging around some cocktail waitress.
Homer: Marge, you make it sound so seamy. All I did was spend the afternoon in her trailer watching her try on some outfits.

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Marge is annoyed, Homer is (truthfully) playing dumb.

First of all: jokes! Despite trying to create a country star, Homer can’t name a single one. Just as importantly, his intentions towards Lurleen are so innocent that he can’t begin to understand why his wife might not like him trying to help her career. This is Homer at his best: he’s being stupid and insensitive in the extreme, but he’s completely unaware of it. Moreover, he’s describing a concrete thing he did (watching Lurleen try on outfits) rather than describing an abstraction that is designed to piss Marge off.

Artificially pissed off, Marge then goes on a tear:

Marge: Kids, could you leave the room, please. . . . Faster!

Bart, Lisa and Maggie then jump into a nearby heating grate because that’s funny, right?

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Drop of the hat rage: there’s the Marge we all know and love.

Homer: Marge, it’s nothing. She’s just my new best friend. [Marge knocks over Homer’s TV tray, so this gets to violence real quick.] Why are you mad at those eggs? They didn’t do anything!
Marge: Homer Simpson! After all I’ve put up with for all these years, if I’m not your best friend then what is this marriage about?

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It goes on for a really long time.

This all happens as Marge is chasing Homer around the room and slapping at him. Homer cowers and runs away while Marge follows him – including through a closet door – as he makes excuses:

Homer: Okay, okay you’re my best friend! She’s just somebody I call when I’m mad at you. I mean, I’m never mad at you. Well, sometimes I’m mad at you, a little bit, but I shouldn’t call her, I should just drink it off at Moe’s. You’ll never hear the name Julia again.

Let’s pause again here and note how out of control this is. Stuff is getting knocked over, Homer’s fallen down several times, if it were real life it’s about where you’d think the cops should get called, and there’s nary a stab at humor other than Marge’s increasingly blinding rage, which is precisely nothing like her. And, since Zombie Simpsons is utterly predictable and shallow, as soon as Homer finishes, Julia walks in for no reason whatsoever:

Julia: Hi, I’m Julia! [Marge screams.] I just wanted to introduce myself and tell you you’ve got a great husband.

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Screaming incoherently at a stranger, classic Marge.

Again: only hack comedy writers talk like this. Marge then compares Homer to a bike, which Julia denies wanting to “ride”. Then Julia walks out as suddenly as she walked in. It’s as hamfisted as it could possibly be: serious emotional meltdown coupled with a character appearing and disappearing as though no such thing is happening. None of the three of them are even remotely acting like real people, and Homer and Marge are so far out of character that they might as well not be themselves.

Homer and Marge then have an exposition filled conversation that makes things perfectly alright just as suddenly as they became divorce level bad:

Marge: I’m sorry, apparently you didn’t do anything wrong, but I’m not wrong for getting mad at you either!
Homer: Marge, Julia taught me lots of stuff that could help us. For example, I realize that when you see me doing something stupid and you don’t say anything about it, you do know, and you’re just being nice.

It goes on from there, but you get the idea. With just a little more exposition, all is well. This mess of a scene goes on for two whole minutes, which is a tenth of the entire episode and feels even longer since it’s all one big, continuous clusterfuck.

Compare that melodrama to the way Marge’s jealousy and Homer’s slow realization of the harm he’s causing builds across the entirety of “Colonel Homer”. The next time we see Homer and Marge after the above quoted scene is after Lurleen buys Homer his Colonel Tom Parker suit:

Homer: Marge, look at me!
Marge: I don’t want to, I’m mad at you. I’m sick of that waitress and all the time you’ve been spending with her and this whole country music thing.
Homer: Uh, then maybe you better not look at me.

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Emotional reactions that make sense and advance the story. It really isn’t that hard, Zombie Simpsons.

This is the two of them perfectly in character. Homer is completely selfish and happy with how well things are going, utterly oblivious to Marge being upset until she tells him. Marge is putting up with it, but very unhappy to be doing so. From here we get Homer haplessly trying to deny that Lurleen bought him the suit, and then we get into one of the show’s old, classic running jokes: Homer justifying his current stupidity by saying it’s his boyhood dream.

From there we get the recording scene, where Homer has lied about Lurleen being overweight and through which Marge literally grits her teeth. Then Homer – now aware of Marge’s pain but still completely unaware that Lurleen is desperately trying to seduce him – goes off to the television show taping where he realizes what he’s doing. Going through all that – coupled with Lurleen’s on-air song about how lucky Marge is to have Homer – makes their eventual reconciliation both funny and heartfelt:

Marge: Homer?
Homer: Is there any room in that bed for a dad-burned fool?
Marge: Always has been.

On The Simpsons, Marge’s concern over Homer and another woman builds over the course of the episode as one of many story threads that all work together in the end. On Zombie Simpsons, it drops from the sky to the exclusion of all the other disconnected crap that was going on and sees her act like a ranting and raving lunatic. That makes their inevitable reconciliation just as sudden and nonsensical. The original was a lot better…

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01
Oct
16

Compare & Contrast: Burns’s Childhood Trauma

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“Wait, you forgot your bear! A symbol of your lost youth and innocence!” – Papa Burns 

First, a brief update: I have been pedaling around the Midwest for a couple weeks now. After six days on the road, I departed my home state of Michigan on a ferry to Wisconsin, then went south through Chicago, across Indiana, and made it into Ohio last Saturday. For the last few days I’ve been staying with Mad Jon and his wife here in Cleveland.

The most obvious mistake I made in planning this trip was to massively over-estimate how much free time I would have. It turns out it’s not just the biking itself that takes a while, it’s also things like making and breaking camp, finding food on the road, and simply figuring out where to go and how to get there. Add in an hour or two per day spent remoting into my useless real job and my fantasy of watching Simpsons episodes in sunlit parks died a harsh death on the road. It didn’t help that the bicycle mode on Google Maps is the best route to your destination . . . not always.

Yesterday I did make time to watch the season premier of Zombie Simpsons, “Monty Burns’ Fleeing Circus”. It is every bit as boring and formulaic as we’ve come to expect. There’s lots of pointless exposition, jokes that get explained and pre-explained, characters that act nothing like themselves, and lots of loose plot threads. For those of you with the good sense not to have watched it, a brief synopsis follows.

The town is destroyed by a laser like sunbeam that somehow reflects off of a concrete sculpture. The Simpson family then goes to Burns Manor to beg Mr. Burns to rebuild the town. He agrees to rebuild on the condition that he can stage a variety show at Springfield Bowl. (Why he wouldn’t be able to just do this anytime is never explored.) Over the course of about half a dozen flashbacks, we see that Burns himself had performed at the Bowl as a child and been humiliated, and this new show is some kind of redemption, or something. Meanwhile, since no one is in charge at the nuclear plant, the employees throw a days long party and it explodes.

There are, naturally, a lot of plots and stories that get swiftly forgotten as soon as they’re off screen. First and foremost is the aforementioned destruction of the town. We see it in rubble, and then never again, though apparently the school and the Simpson home were unaffected since we see them. Further, “wait, what?” type moments include the apparently harmless explosion at the plant, characters like Lenny both being in Burns’s show and partying at the plant, and the complete disappearance of the audience at Burns’s show, which was such a whopper that they actually felt compelled to mention it:

Lisa:  Wait, where did they go? How did 15,000 people leave so fast? Hey, uh, wanna see me do a cartwheel?

The truly hacktacular part of this episode was Burns’s childhood trauma. It’s the ostensible reason he’s putting on this convoluted variety show, but despite all the time they spend expositing about it and flashing back to 1913, Burns’s motivations are left remarkably vague. To see what I mean, consider the flashbacks in sequence.

1. Child Burns backstage, wordless and expectant:

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2. Later, during auditions that involve the Crazy Cat Lady being carried around by her cats, Burns says, “This isn’t right. This isn’t how it was at all. I remember that night so vividly.”:

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We then see Burns’s mother tell him it’s time to go on stage, he says he won’t let her down, and then she licks his face extensively. It’s weird. Then Burns declares he wants everything like it was back then.

3. The next flashback is Burns yelling at Lisa, “And what part of what I’ve never told you don’t you understand?”:

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We then see Burns getting laughed at, looking sad, and being told by Mommy Licks-a-Lot that he’s a “laughingstock”.

4. After Lisa visits Burns Manor, Smithers shows her an old time film reel where we see Burns’s performance. His pants fall down:

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After that we see Burns looking at an old time movie projector to see title cards of people laughing at him, and there might have been another one but I don’t care enough to look again.

Back in the present, Burns eventually goes on stage himself and . . . has his pants fall down, rendering the entire story pointless. It’s not as weird as Burns’s mom licking him for ten seconds, but it’s pretty weird.

Compare that hamfisted mess to the two quick flashbacks we get in “Rosebud”, which not only shows us a childhood trauma far faster, but only one of which even involves Burns. Instead of wasting time destroying the town and then forgetting all about it, “Rosebud” opens with Burns dreaming about the day he lost Bobo:

Young Burns: Tralala-lalala, tralala-lala, I’m the happiest boy there is! Aren’t I Bobo?
Ma Burns: Happy, come here, happy!
Young Burns: Yes, Momsy?
Pa Burns: Happy, would you like to continue living with us, your loving, natural parents? Or would you rather live with this twisted, loveless billionaire?”
Young Burns: Let’s roll.

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After that, we see Pa Burns run after the limo and describe Bobo as, “a symbol of your lost youth and innocence!”, which is the kind of functional, meta-joke exposition that is well beyond the skills of Zombie Simpsons.

Not only is this scene shorter and more contained than the sprawling collection of flashbacks Zombie Simpsons does, but it also uses Burns the kid to explain Burns the adult. Burns didn’t become a twisted, loveless billionaire because of some trauma or accident, he actively chose it, instantly dropping his beloved bear without so much as a second thought. Even at this tender age, Burns was always more interested in money and power than happiness, he just later wanted his bear back.

Contrast that with Zombie Simpsons, where Burns gets humiliated as a child and then for some reason decides that the way to heal this decades after the fact is to take all the townspeople he hates and put them in a similar show. Even on a surface level it doesn’t make any sense. But it really falls apart when they stoop to explaining it:

Lisa: I think you’re trying to make up for what happened to you then by putting on a perfect Bowl show now.

Four flashbacks deep, they take the time to spell out exactly what was painfully obvious from the first one. And that’s not even the final, expository reveal of this nonsense. After Burns’s pants fall down on stage in the present, he finishes up by negating everything we’ve seen so far:

Burns: I can’t stay mad at you. At my age I can’t stay anything at anybody. Oh, and you know what, the laughter in my head is gone.

Zombie Simpsons sets the bar pretty high for hack writing, but this is up there with their worst. First it contradicts everything we just saw (he stayed mad about this for decades), and then it wipes it all away as though it never happened (the laughter in his head is gone because his pants fell down a second time?). The episode didn’t make sense before he said this, but this line goes beyond that by admitting that it was pointless even if it had made sense. If they cared in the least about what they were doing, the completeness of its incoherence would almost be impressive. As it is, they just needed a little more filler to wrap things up.

The Burns of “Rosebud” wants his bear back, and is willing to torment the entire town to get it. When he finally gets what he wants, he ever so briefly becomes happy before quickly returning to his old self. The Burns of Zombie Simpsons goes through an elaborate melodrama, involves people he doesn’t like for no reason, and then declares himself happy after re-living the thing that crushed him in the first place.

30
Apr
15

Compare & Contrast: Making Flashback Episodes Worthwhile

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“Can you say David Hasselhoff?” – Bart Simpson
“David Hassahof.” – Lisa Simpson
“Can you say Daddy?” – Homer Simpson
“Homer.” – Lisa Simpson

The Simpsons did its first flashback episode way (way) back in Season 2.  “The Way We Was” introduced us to Homer and Marge as high school kids who had never even met; and along the way answered one of the fundamental questions of the show: why, exactly, is Marge with Homer?  Over the next four seasons they flashed back three more times, each time showing the birth of one of the Simpson kids.  “I Married Marge” showed us Bart’s accidental conception inside a mini-golf decoration.  “Lisa’s First Word” put the family in now their iconic house and showed the beginning of Bart and Lisa’s never ending rivalry.  “And Maggie Makes Three” completed the set and showed us that there was no sacrifice too painful for Homer to make for his kids (well, not the boy, but you know what I mean).

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Genuine character development, a concept unknown to Zombie Simpsons.

These episodes do not, strictly speaking, fit chronologically.  If Bart was conceived after his parents saw The Empire Strikes Back in a theater, there’s no way he can be two years older than Lisa, who was born in the summer of 1984.  Similarly, if Homer and Marge were leaving high school in 1976, Homer wouldn’t be twenty-four-years-old in 1980.  But it doesn’t matter because background numbers that only the dedicated will ever put together aren’t the point.

By spacing events a little further apart, they gave themselves more defined cultural targets than just borderline meaningless shorthand like “The 70s” or “The 80s”.  So not only do these four episodes form a coherent whole while filling in the background of our favorite family, they do so while making pointed fun of distinct slices of American culture.

Homer and Marge are in high school in the mid 1970s, then Bart’s birth is the early 1980s, Lisa’s the mid-1980s, and Maggie’s the early 1990s.  Poking fun at Ms. and “makeout music” becomes Yoda and John Anderson, which becomes the 1984 Olympics preceding an hour long episode of Mama’s Family, which finishes up with the “clear beverage craze” and “information superhighway”.

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Homer Simpson, early pioneer of the sarcastic t-shirt.

That level of specificity is missing from “The Kids Are All Fight”, as is any meaningful background on the family and/or general cultural coherence.  They tell us Lisa and Bart are two and four, but neither of them acts anything like a two-year-old or a four-year-old.  They use film development as a justification for looking back, but it’s not like many people were still using film in 2009.  The flashback idea that used to be so carefully handled has become just another excuse for a weird, semi-magical adventure in a “past” Springfield that is indistinguishable from the one they usually use.

They do make a stab at showing us a little family development, but it’s pretty halfhearted.  You see, Bart and Lisa used to fight a lot (and they will make sure you understand by stating so explicitly many times), and now they don’t.  The eventual story reason they offer for this is that Lisa “gives in”.  There are large scope problems with that (we’ve seen them fight countless times, and Lisa clearly hasn’t given in), and there are small scope problems with that (the wacky adventure they go on is more about Bart bolting than Bart and Lisa fighting).  But what really makes the kids’ story ring hollow is the way that conclusion glosses over Lisa’s surrender.

A show with characters who are faintly recognizable as human beings, or even one with just a little heart, could do a lot with a younger sibling resigning herself to years of dangerously crazy behavior from her brother.  There’s a plenty of material there for emotion, comedy, and fun generally, but Zombie Simpsons brushes any of that off for action scenes of Bart riding a big wheel through traffic and cutesy title cards announcing each new wacky scene.

Storytime Title Card

How whimsical.

For proof of this, look no further than Ralph Wiggum’s brief cameo.  Since this is Zombie Simpsons, he appears out of nowhere, then gets into the wheel of a semi-truck, then is shipped off on a boat.  They put him next to Lisa, but he hadn’t been there the last time we saw her and the two of them don’t interact at all.  He just pops in and then starts talking.

Oh, Hai, Ralph

Hi, Ralph!  Uh, how did you get here?

Here’s the entirety of his dialogue:

Your brother is stupid.  Bye bye.  The wheel I’m inside goes round and round, round and round, round and round.  The boat I’m aboard goes up and down, up and down, up and down.

It isn’t even a good Ralph-ism.  He just tells us what we’re seeing, and it goes on so long that he uses more than twice as many words as “Super Nintendo Chalmers”, “I bent my wookie”, and “Me fail English?  That’s unpossible” all put together.  Even if you don’t care about him materializing and not having anything to do with what was happening, that’s just awful.

The final evidence that story coherence and relatable characters don’t even enter into the thinking at Zombie Simpsons comes one scene later, when we see Chief Wiggum for the first and only time.  The whole second half of the episode is about Lisa and Bart getting into trouble unsupervised and Homer and Marge’s panicked search to find them.  Ralph Wiggum is doing the exact same thing as Bart and Lisa, but all we see Chief Wiggum do is interview Gil (for some reason).

Wiggum doesn’t know that his kid is roaming the streets, and the episode seems to have forgotten it completely as well.  There isn’t even a blithe, expository explanation because, as far as Zombie Simpsons is concerned, the Chief and Ralph are just one scene props.

There isn’t even any connection to the fact that this is a flashback.  Like most of the people, places and events we see in “The Kids Are All Fight”, both of them could just as easily be doing and saying the exact same things in the show’s regular timeframe.  When The Simpsons went to the past, it went with a purpose and made fun of everything it saw.  When Zombie Simpsons goes to the past, it trips backwards, stares blankly for a bit, and then continues stumbling around like always.

06
Mar
15

Compare & Contrast: Lisa Goes to SNPP

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“Lisa, you’ll have a fine time at the plant with Dad.  You’ve been interested in nuclear power for years.” – Marge Simpson
“I’ve signed numerous petitions to shut down that plant!” – Lisa Simpson
“Well, there you go.” – Marge Simpson

Per Wikipedia, Take Your Daughter to Work Day started in 1993, but:

The program was officially expanded in 2003 to include boys; however, most companies that participated in the program had, since the beginning, allowed both boys and girls to participate, usually renaming it “Take Our Children to Work Day” or an equivalent.[5]

In 1996, The Simpsons invoked it as “Go To Work With Your Parents Day” so that Principal Skinner could squeeze an extra day into spring break and keep his middle seat on his flight to Hong Kong (“Custom made suits at slave labor prices”).  That sent Lisa to work with Homer, and Bart, after trying to stay home, to the DMV with Patty and Selma.  It was a quick setup to get the episode going and, befitting The Simpsons, showed how high minded, well intentioned ideas could be taken advantage of for selfish reasons.

Today it is 2015, twenty-two years since the concept was hatched and twelve since it officially changed to include both girls and boys.  Zombie Simpsons, ever the creative laggard, simply called it “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”, which is both a verbatim use of someone else’s words and inaccurate.  In another context, that might be impressive.  Here it’s just lazy.

And the problems don’t stop there.  At the plant, Lisa does basically nothing.  First we see her in the auditorium while Burns exposits a bunch of stuff we don’t see.  Then she stands in a hallway and asks Homer a couple of questions about the plant (he doesn’t know the answers).  Then they go to the cafeteria where her lunch got ruined.  This is everything she says while she’s there:

Dad, what does that do?
Who’s that guy?
Where do those pipes lead?
Is it called the cooling tower because there’s-
How many kilowatts-
How many kinds are there?
Oh, no, my almond milk leaked all over everything.  Dad, do you have anything I can eat?
[30 so so seconds of montage]
Wow, Dad, thank you.

Literally her only line that’s longer than a few words is her expositing something we’re seeing as she says it.  She doesn’t actually do anything the whole time she’s there.

SNPPBackground

Get used to this view.

In the interests of fairness to Zombie Simpsons, here is an equally context-free version of Lisa’s entire dialogue from the first time she went to work with Homer in “Bart on the Road”:

No, thanks.  Do you have any fruit?
Why are there so many burnt out ones?
Maybe we can make your job more fun.  What are those?
Well, what if we used our imaginations.
Houston, we have a problem.  Homer 13 is spinning out of control, I’m going after him!

For starters, she’s actually speaking in complete sentences.  Better yet, when she does ask questions, it’s not a series of unrelated ones, she asks about actual things we see: Homer’s contention that “purple is a fruit” and his inability to change tiny light bulbs without an assistant.  Then we get to see her actually do something, playing with Homer in the radiation suits and pretending a stapler is a radio.

Bart on the Road13

Characters doing things!  Neat.

And when you put the context back in, her visit in “Bart on the Road” shines even more.  Here are those lines with Homer back in them:

Homer: Donut?
Lisa: No, thanks.  Do you have any fruit?
Homer: This has purple stuff inside.  Purple is a fruit.  Uh, oh, this is a map of nuclear sites around the country.  As a safety inspector, I’m responsible for changing most of these light bulbs.
Lisa: Why are there so many burnt out ones?
Homer: Cause they won’t hire an assistant.

Compare that to Homer and Lisa’s first scene in “The Princess Guide”:

Lisa: Dad, what does that do?
Homer: I don’t know.
Lisa: Who’s that guy?
Homer: I don’t know.
Lisa: Where do those pipes lead?
Homer: Not sure.
Lisa: Is it called the cooling tower because there’s-
Homer: Not my department.
Lisa: How many kilowatts-
Homer: Look, sweetie, would you like to go to the cafeteria and get some ice cream?
Lisa: How many kinds are there?
Homer: Twelve.

This actually ends with a joke, so by Zombie Simpsons standards it’s pretty decent.  But look how much thinner it is than the same scene in The Simpsons.  There, Homer and Lisa have a real conversation that also happens to crack wise about how horrible a place Springfield Nuclear Power Plant really is and just how boring Homer’s job is.  Zombie Simpsons is one note schtick designed to setup a lone ice cream punchline.

From there, of course, Season 26 Lisa sits around while Homer goes off on the episode’s first montage.  (There will be more, oh, yes, there will.)  In Season 7, on the other hand, Lisa and Homer start playing astronaut in the radiation suits, which ends with Homer telling us that it’s a lot more fun with a second person.  The difference is simple: in one she’s a real character visiting her dad at the plant, in the other she’s a prop.

The mindless (yet inaccurate) repetition of Take Your Daughter to Work Day, the time killing montage, and the hacktacular dialogue never would’ve passed muster in the 1996 writers’ room.  In the 2015 one, however, they’re good to go.  Maybe they should start bringing their kids to work.

19
Feb
15

Compare & Contrast: Surprise Nuclear Inspections

Homer Goes to College17

“The watchdog of public safety, is there any lower form of life?” – C.M. Burns

It would be one thing if Zombie Simpsons merely repeated ideas and stories that had been done on The Simpsons.  Given the enormous catalog of episodes, it’s certainly understandable that scenes and concepts would need to get recycled from time to time.  Hell, that was understandable way back in the heyday of the show.

For example, Season 2’s “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish” has a great nuclear plant inspection, where we see gum used to seal a crack in the cooling towers, a plutonium paper weight, and ankle deep toxic waste.  But all that doesn’t detract in the least from the inspection in Season 5’s “Homer Goes to College”, because instead of showing us the same things again, it gives us a completely different set of horrifying looks into Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.

Homer Goes to College18

Looks comfy.

For starters, the inspectors show up during nap time, where meltdowns are averted by sleepy hound dogs and Smithers is curled up at Burns’ feet.  When the surprise inspection team rings the bell, Burns denies them entry and tells a pathetic lie about old fashioned cookies before the inspectors start hacking at the door with an ax.  The inspection hasn’t even started yet and already The Simpsons is at full speed, tossing off jokes and ludicrous ideas as fast as possible.

Compare that to the – ahem – “inspection” in “My Fare Lady”.  Instead of nap time and Homer falling asleep on the “Plant Destruct” button (“Please Do Not Push”), Burns just happens upon Moe, who has been hired as a janitor, mopping the floor.  (This whole thing is so inconsequential that we don’t even get an establishing shot and a crow screech.)  That immediately leads to a standard Zombie Simpsons joke, wherein the punchline takes forever to arrive, and is patiently explained to the audience:

Burns: Hey, swabbie, you missed spots there . . . another one there . . . and there!  Every other spot is begrimed!
Moe: It’s called a checkerboard floor, you unwrapped mummy.

At that, the camera helpfully pulls back to show us the aforementioned checkerboard floor.  Hi-larity.

No sooner has that happened then Smithers walks up with a bunch of inspectors in tow, “Sir, the NRC is here for a surprise inspection”.  Huh?  Even by the standards of incompetent Zombie Simpsons Burns, this is head spinning.  These guys just waltzed into the plant without Burns (or Smithers, apparently) even knowing they were there?  Somewhere, Season 5 Burns is scoffing at his successor’s haplessness.  One second they’re not there, the next they are; there’s no lie about cookies, no ax, no nothing.

In Season 5, once the inspectors do get in, we see them testing the plant employees while Burns and Smithers gaze down from above.  Except, of course, for the three workers who’ve been strategically diverted down to the basement with the important job of keeping a bee in a jar.

Homer Goes to College16

I always wondered what these guys did at the plant.  Accountants?

Down in the basement we see a glowing rat, dripping ooze, and several spilled barrels of toxic waste.  No other mention of them is made because it doesn’t need to be.  Moreover, the inspectors have no idea these three geniuses (and the improperly stored nuclear waste) are here.  They’re in the parking lot testing the employees.  Here’s the Zombie Simpsons version of the same thing:

HalfassedInspection

See the glove?  The inspectors didn’t.

While Moe asks penetrating questions like, “You’re the head inspector, huh?”, nothing else happens except the unacknowledged gas leak and the slowly inflating glove.  It’s easily the best part of this scene, but it also makes the inspection team even more bland and boring than they already were.  (Thanks for the meandering story about your Queen cover band.)  The scene is Moe telling them they can’t come in after they’ve already come in, followed by them, despite already being inside and being, you know, federal nuclear inspectors, meekly accepting that and shuffling off screen.

This is basic stuff, the audience getting to see characters with personality do things instead of just listen to somebody we don’t know talk about something we don’t care about and can’t see.  To be fair to Zombie Simpsons, the inspection in “Homer Goes to College” is given more screen time, so things like nap time, bee guarding, and Homer causing a meltdown without any nuclear material being in the truck have a chance to breathe.  But it’s not like “My Fare Lady” was crammed with other great bits.  The episode has three different driving montages, one of which goes on for well over a minute.

Not that extra time would’ve helped.  More lines for incompetent Burns, more background jokes explained, and more of the nothingburger inspection team aren’t going to make “My Fare Lady” any better.  When the NRC shows up in Season 5, there’s a big ominous musical cue, and they begin to methodically test employees.  These nondescript cardboard cutouts (only one of them even speaks) get silence and deserve it.

12
Feb
15

Compare & Contrast: Proudly Fat Homer

King Size Homer20

“I’m sick of all your stereotypes and cheap jokes!  The overweight individuals in this country are just as smart and talented and hard working as everybody else!  And they’re gonna make their voices heard!  All they need is a leader!” – Homer Simpson

Conventional wisdom has it that everyone is getting fatter these days and that’s a bad thing.  Reality, as usual, is considerably more complicated.  Moral panics over fat have been a recurring feature of American culture for over a century; the actual effects of obesity are deeply misunderstood at best; and the amount of societal and cultural abuse heaped on fat people is cruel, idiotic, and generally harmful.  In short, a “fat acceptance” support group (like the one Homer joined in “Walking Big & Tall”) is a thoroughly modern byproduct of something about which America is both obsessed and deeply conflicted.  In the right hands, it’s a target rich environment for comedy.  In Zombie Simpsons, it’s shambolic background for a whole lot of nothing.

Let’s start with what is easily this episode’s go to joke: a rubbery sound effect.  They use it when Homer crams himself into the seats at the theater.  They use it when he finally gets out of his theater seat (and then immediately again when he gets stuck in the door).  They use it over and over again when Homer gets locked up with the other fat people.  They even use it when Albert the fat guy puts a straw in a cup.  It’s in so much of the episode that they may have simply done that last one out of habit.

In addition to being a pretty weak joke (Once? Sure. Twice? Maybe. Three and more? Uh, no.), it neatly summarizes just how vapid the whole episode is.  Their most used gag is that fat people don’t fit into the same spaces as skinny people.  That’s it.

You can see that shallowness all over the place: the only other fat person who gets any lines is Comic Book Guy, and most of what he does is list foods, Homer himself doesn’t actually do anything in the episode besides stand around, and roughly half the dialogue is people recapping things we’ve already seen.  Even the gag at the end about Albert’s ashes needing a lot of urns goes on way too long, and that’s before they literally spelled it out for us.  You really have to wonder at the mentality and incuriosity in the writers room when they do an entire episode on fat acceptance and most of what they come up with is “fat people are big”.

AlbertsAshes

Get it?  GET IT?

By contrast, “King-Size Homer” also sees Homer become proud of being a fat guy.  But instead of him joining a support group then not doing anything but talk about joining a support group, we actually get to see him be a proud fat guy.  He’s ecstatic about getting out of work.  When Marge calls him on it, he redoubles his efforts to be a “big fat dynamo!”.  At the end, he stands up to the crowd at the theater that laughs at him.  He’s even proud of his “fat guy hat”.  “Walking Big & Tall” tells us (ad nausem) that Homer is proud of his fat self.  “King-Size” Homer actually shows him doing it.

Case in point: fat guy insults.  At the theater, right before the manager attempts to buy him off with “a garbage bag full of popcorn”, the sarcastic guy shouts at him, “Hey, fatty, I got a movie for ya: A Fridge Too Far!”.  That’s a great Simpsons joke: it’s a cultural reference, it’s innovative and mean, it fits the story, and it’s done by one of their best non-named utility characters.  And, of course, there’s little stuff to notice, like how the Squeaky Voiced Teen (who’s taking tickets) and the manager both laugh at first before quickly stopping themselves while everyone else keeps going.

King Size Homer19

On The Simpsons, there is *always* a reason to pay attention.

Compare that to this unedited brainstorm pad:

 Chubby, Chunky, Blob-O, Slob-O, Fat Bastard, Michelen Man, Stay Puft, Chumbawumba, “It is balloon!”, Papa Grande, Augustus Gloop, Beached Whale, Big Boned, Wisconsin Skinny, Butterball, Dump Truck, Jelly Belly, Pudgy Wudgy, Lard Ass, Bloberino, Buddah Belly, Hurry E. Tubman, One Ton Soup, Blob Sagat, Chub Hub, Calvin Coolwhip, Manfred Manboobs, 21-Lump Street, Walking Before Picture, Fatso, Harvey Milk Chocolate, Obese Wan-Canoli, Mahatma Gumbo, Salvadore Deli, Elmer Pantry, KFC & the Spongecake Band, Snacky Onassis, The Foodie Blues, Hoagie Carmichal, and Wide Load

As I said on Monday, there are a couple of decent ones in that mess.  But there is also a ton of filler.  For every creative one like “Obese Wan-Canoli” there are three or four regular old insults (Fatso, Wide Load, Fat Bastard, Chubby, etc.) or unmodified cultural references (Augustus Gloop, Stay Puft, Butterball, etc.).  What’s more, it’s just a list.  This is a Buzzfeed headline in Zombie Simpsons form: 40 Great Fat Insults.  And, like Buzzfeed, you knew a bunch already, and most of them aren’t great.

The Simpsons picked one (1) good one and slipped it into a scene that’s integral to the plot.  If Homer doesn’t want to see “Honk If You’re Horny”, he doesn’t leave the drinking bird in charge, in which case he doesn’t resolve to mend his ways after getting insulted, and, oh yeah, the gas gets vented, preventing explosion.  The entire episode doesn’t work without this scene.

In Zombie Simpsons, the list is the only scene at Moe’s and the only time we see any of those characters.  It’s a one off tangent that has nothing to do with anything, they just had a list and time to fill.

Finally, there’s Homer himself.  It’s not just that we get to see him being a proud fat guy in Season 7, there’s a reason for him to be a proud fat guy.  Homer, being Homer, hates exercise and tries, in Lisa’s words, “abusing a program intended to help the unfortunate”.  He loves not having to go to work so much (“gas, break, honk”), that he overlooks everything else.  In “Walking Big & Tall”, Homer hurls people across entire theaters before happening to walk past the wrong support group.  One of these involves the character being himself and matters to the rest of the episode; the other does not.  Homer, let me introduce Jerkass Homer; Jerkass Homer, please meet Homer.

28
Jan
15

Compare & Contrast: Famously Smart Guest Stars

They Saved Lisa's Brain8

“I wanted to see your utopia, but now I see it is more of a Fruitopia.” – Stephen Hawking
“I’m sure what Dr. Hawking means is-” – Principal Skinner
“Silence!  I don’t need anyone to talk for me, except this voice box.” – Stephen Hawking

Celebrities voicing themselves has long been one of the most widely acknowledged hallmarks of Zombie Simpsons.  In truth, of course, the show had been using self voiced celebrities almost since the beginning.  What changed was the way those voices were used.  In Season 2, Ringo Starr voices himself, but responding to decades old fan mail, not arriving on the Simpsons’ doorstep.  In Season 3, an entire baseball team of Major League players voiced themselves, but that’s because they were all getting paid by Burns, not because they all suddenly decided to go to Springfield.  Self-voiced celebrities themselves aren’t inherently a problem, how they’re used is more important.

On The Simpsons, not only was there always a reason for some famous person to be there, but what they were doing was always a takeoff on who they were and/or why they were famous.  On Zombie Simpsons (in addition to being used far more often), the self voiced celebrities usually appear out of nowhere.  And once they are on screen, frequently don’t do much more than be their normal selves.  This is how famous street artists repeat their names and do nothing else and the entire cast of American Idol pops up just because.  It’s straightforwardly uncreative and almost always looks and feels like nothing more than a plea for attention.

All of those negatives apply to Elon Musk’s episode.  He literally drops out of the sky at random, and (like Lady Gaga) once he’s in Springfield he just kinda acts like an even more exaggerated version of himself.  Look, there’s drones and electric cars and friggin’ hyperloops!  Aren’t they funny?

LandingCraft

Too bad Kang and Kodos weren’t in there.

Even the episode’s attempts to show how his crazy ideas backfire falls apart.  Everything he does works, and Springfield becomes a futuristic utopia right up until Burns fires everyone.  Does Musk react to this?  Nope.  He disappears entirely as Springfield falls apart, showing up only at the end to act hurt that Homer doesn’t want to be his friend anymore.

They could’ve shown Musk as Shary Bobbins, a noble creature whose best efforts are eventually overwhelmed by the inherent crappiness of Springfield.  Or they could’ve shown Musk as an evil, Hank Scorpio-esque nutbar who loves his inventions more than people.  Or, with just a few tweaks, they could’ve shown a Musk vs. Burns battle for the soul of Springfield.  (Burns would triumph, of course, because good is dumb.)  But they didn’t do any of that.  They had Musk show up, then they drew some of his stuff into Springfield, then he vanished while everything fell apart.  This is about as shallow and pointless as it is possible to be given the enormous amount of screentime he got.

DisappearingAct

The episode manages to find him again, but only with binoculars.  He is apparently unaware that all of his improvements to the town have become failures.

Compare that with Stephen Hawking’s brief appearance at the end of Season 10’s “They Saved Lisa’s Brain”.  Now, by Season 10 the show was already falling apart, and Hawking’s sudden arrival isn’t without its share of problems.  Not only does he drive up with no warning whatsoever, but after he scoops Lisa up in his flying chair to save her from the mob, they land all of thirty feet away while the episode forgets completely that a riot was going on.

But Hawking still has both 1) a reason to show up and 2) is given some things to do.  He’s there because eggheads have taken over the town and he wants to check it out.  This still being The Simpsons, their efforts were doomed from the get go and he finds nothing of value in their little experiment.  Moreover, only on The Simpsons would Hawking be a bullying and arrogant dick who insults everyone and uses an extend-o-glove built into his chair to punch Skinner.  Yes, he is smarter than everyone else, but he’s a jerk about it, and that’s what makes it work.

They Saved Lisa's Brain7

Stephen Hawking: Face Puncher

Of course, The Simpsons also knew enough not to try and string that out for an entire episode.  Hawking is only in two scenes, one of which is an epilogue that doesn’t affect the story.  They don’t build the whole thing around him because even in Season 10 the show could still recognize the limits of a guest star.  In the filler laden wasteland of Season 26, weak guest ideas are asked to carry the entire runtime, and even a world famous inventor and entrepreneur can’t make that work.

15
Jan
15

Compare & Contrast: Hypnotic Personality Changess

Clemens

“What about Clemens?” – C.M. Burns
“Sir, he’s in no condition to play.” – Mr. Smithers

A person suddenly changing their whole personality basically only happens in fiction.  It can be the steel screw who becomes a softy, the wallflower gaining rock solid confidence, even the idiot who’s suddenly smart.  The usual way to do this is with a bonk on the head, which generally comes complete with a second one near the end to put everything back the way it was.  (NOTE: Brains don’t actually work that way, please do not attempt at home.)

Sometime in the very early 1990s, a then unknown Judd Apatow sat down and wrote a teleplay that took that tried and true television premise and applied it to Homer Simpson.  The twist, if it can be called that, is that instead of his noggin getting a floggin’, Homer got himself altered through hypnosis.  A few meaningfully pronounced words, and, presto change-o, Homer Simpson thinks he’s a little kid again.  Hilarity is presumed to ensue.  (He and the episode would’ve been better off if he’d cornered the real-estate market instead, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The problem is that this premise is parchment paper thin even before you start noticing all the holes in it.  The go to joke for the personality switch episode is “whoa, s/he’s acting totally out of character”, beyond that there isn’t much there.  What’s worse, your character’s normal personality is the one that makes sense in context.  Having them act completely abnormally is generally an awkward fit, at best.

“Bart’s New Friend”, as Zombie Simpsons so often does, brings out the worst of this old and not terribly good premise.  By making Homer a little kid who’s friends with Bart, they not only have to shoehorn Kid-Homer into all kinds of bizarre places, but also gave him nothing to do while he was there.  When he (twice) shows up to play with actual kids, he doesn’t interact with them or really do anything, the episode just wants us to know he’s there.  The same is true when they’re at home, where all that happens is “Homer is a kid”.  The family barely reacts and nothing outside of that is even happening.

The beginning of the episode is Homer working a ton because he’s now the only safety inspector and actually has to do his job.  That whole rationale is dropped completely for the rest of the episode until a lone mention at the end that the other guy game back.  We don’t see anything with the plant or Homer’s co-workers after their safety inspector reverts to childhood.  Lenny and Carl don’t try to take him to Moe’s to jog his memory, Burns doesn’t disbelieve his story, nothing.

Similarly, Marge, Lisa and Bart don’t have anything but Homer going on.  Basically the only time we see any effect on anything is Homer’s brief appearances with the other kids, but even those are glossed over to the point of barely happening.  Here’s the dialogue from when Bart and Homer are playing in the park:

Bart: If you wedgie me, my friend will beat you up.
Dolph: That’s not your friend, it’s your screwed up Dad.
Jimbo: Pretty sad, really.
Kearney: We’ll leave you alone.
Bart: You did it, Homer!  You saved me from the bullies!  You’re the coolest kid I ever met.
Milhouse: What about me?
Bart: You’re in the top hundred.
Milhouse: Boo-yeah!
Bart: Now you’re not.
Milhouse: Oh.

For one thing, this is hacktacularly expository.  Bart and Dolph explain what’s going on, then Bart recaps it for us (“You saved me from the bullies!”), but nobody actually does anything but stand around.  More importantly, in that entire scene Homer doesn’t say a single word.  He is literally a prop.

Silent Homer

Please do not interact with the story’s main character.

That silent cameo is about the closest this episode comes to actually showing us some of the effects of the tortured premise it went out of its way to employ.   This is the mid-life crisis equivalent of buying that sports car model that was cool when you were fifteen and then leaving it in the garage.  It was a dumb idea even before they didn’t try to have any fun with it.

Compare that to the time The Simpsons employed the exact same premise with, of all people, Roger Clemens.  In just a few quick scenes, Clemens goes through an identical story to Kid-Homer, and we actually get to see some of the effects of it, with Clemens being unavailable for the championship game and clucking away instead of pitching.

Better yet, it’s one of those perfect note jokes that builds on everything around it.  A man acting like a chicken is one thing; maybe it’s funny, maybe it’s not.  But a big league star pitcher acting like a chicken because he was hypnotized by a quack on orders from an evil rich man who paid him to be a ringer in a smalltown softball game?  That’s so good that your final (non-song) call back to it can be a minor part of a still photo and it’s still hilarious:

Homer at the Bat12

Look at Roger Clemens, he just did an entire episode of Zombie Simpsons in two scenes and you can tell it just by looking at him.

A young Judd Apatow who didn’t know how to write yet may have once pronounced himself satisfied with this, but The Simpsons did it better in less than a page.  Bloated out to full script length, it’s typical Zombie Simpsons.

 

19
Nov
14

Compare & Contrast: Pranking the New Teacher

The PTA Disbands16

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

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

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

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

JustConfusing

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

Bart Carny5

“That was just confusing.”

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

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

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

The PTA Disbands15

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

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

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

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

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

13
Nov
14

Compare & Contrast: Planet Express Goes Back in Time

BiteMeCausality

“Choke on that, causality!” – Professor Farnsworth

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

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

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

HotCrackers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

FutureConference

Here you go, fans. Enjoy it.

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

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

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

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

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

So were we, Bender.  So were we.

07
Nov
14

Reading Digest: Fan Made Treats Edition

Homer Badman16

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

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

Enjoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackney Spears – Heh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today on the tray: Vinegar – Heh.

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

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

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

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

Pretty much.

04
Nov
14

Compare & Contrast: Burns Drills

Who Shot Mr. Burns Part 1l

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

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

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

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

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

FrimbleAbout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DisappearingSmithers

Smithers . . . No Smithers.

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

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

Who Shot Mr. Burns Part 1k

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

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

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

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

 

23
Oct
14

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

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

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

“The Shinning” vs. “A Clockwork Yellow”

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

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

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

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

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

ReferenceParttheInfiniti

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

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

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

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

Dog of Death4

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

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

“Time and Punishment”  vs. “The Others”

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

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

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

CryForHelp

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

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

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

“Nightmare Cafeteria” vs. “School Is Hell”

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

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

Treehouse of Horror V12

Sloppy Jimobs are pretty damned horrifying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

15
Oct
14

Compare & Contrast: Marge’s Competitors and Failure Generally

The Twisted World of Marge Simpson14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LateArrival

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

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

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

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

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

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

BlinkLady

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

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

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

08
Oct
14

Compare & Contrast: Bonding at Sea

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

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

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

Boy Scoutz 'N the Hood13

Bart knows his father well.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ugh. He’s taking a bath on this.

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

OverboardAndBack

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

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

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

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

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

01
Oct
14

Compare & Contrast: Krusty’s Struggles

Like Father, Like Clown13

“Hi, kids.  Today’s show is gonna be the funniest, side-splittinest, cavalcade of . . . ah, the hell with it.  Roll the cartoon.” – Krusty the Klown

There are a lot of big, flashing similarities between “Like Father, Like Clown” and “Clown in the Dumps”, most prominently that both are about Krusty and his father, and, even moreso, about Krusty missing his father.  But there are also a lot of small, individual scenes and jokes that are very similar.  So let’s consider one of the former and then one of the latter.

For our overarching theme, just look at how each episode handles Bart and Lisa.  In Season 3, Bart and Lisa have a reason to meet Krusty (their saving him in “Krusty Gets Buster”), and then we follow them as they set out to help him.  We see them asking Reverend Lovejoy how to find a rabbi, we see them meet Rabbi Krustofsky, get rejected, and then their attempts to win him over.  (The Simpsons being The Simpsons, Sammy Davis Jr. succeeds where the Talmud fails.)

Meanwhile, the episode checks in on Krusty as we see him wallowing in depression: watching a TV movie in a bus station, cracking up on his own show, and dialing his father over and over again.  It’s genuinely sad, but it’s still funny because the movie is Hercules vs. the Martians and Krusty’s on-air break down is his touched response to a particularly brutal and gory Itchy & Scratchy.

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“And didn’t Scratchy Jr. look happy playing with his Dad until they got run over by the thresher.”

By contrast, in the blasted wasteland of Season 26, Bart and Lisa are just sort of there for the ride.  Lisa because she was shunted off to an unrelated (and very repetitive) B-plot; and Bart because we don’t see him do anything except show up and explain to us the stuff we didn’t see him do.

In addition to this not making sense, it sucks out a lot of the fun.  Instead of getting to see Bart and Lisa as active characters who get to do things like lie to Reverend Lovejoy about liking his radio show and dress up in curls and a hat to argue Jewish philosophy, we watch Bart talk to Krusty, talk to Krusty, and then talk to Krusty again.

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Great, good conversation there.

And it’s not like what we do get to see is any better.  Krusty bounces from one manic episode to the next, but they fall flat over and over again, which brings us to our individual scene of wretchedness, Krusty hosting his show and airing what I almost hesitate to call an “Itchy & Scratchy” cartoon.

Things open with Sideshow Mel helpfully expositing everything that’s happening:

“Boys and girls, you know that we’ve been dark for a couple of days because of a tragic loss in the Krustylu family.  Now, put your hands together for the man who’s falling apart before our eyes, Krusty the Klown!”

That is quintessential “tell don’t show”: not a single word of that needs to be there.  It’s filler from start to finish.  We already know what’s going on, and while there’s something to be said for a dry description of the obvious from time to time, Zombie Simpsons uses it so much that it’s impossible to tell if they’re even trying to be funny with it.

The really bad part, though, is that they’ve become so bad at showing things, they almost have to resort to this sort of thing.  After Krusty appears and tells them to roll the cartoon, we see a very short Scratchy cartoon (Itchy isn’t in it), and then this:

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Krusty, looking a little miffed.

Krusty is kind of upset, but he looks completely normal, and his dialogue is just him setting up a rimshot worthy punchline:

Oh, my God, who made this monstrosity?

Which is immediately followed by a recording of him on the TV claiming credit (rimshot), then more exposition:

Kids, I’m experiencing a crisis of conscience.

It goes on from there while he explains each joke as it happens and tells us what he’s going to do.

Compare that to Krusty also barely holding it together in “Like Father, Like Clown”.  For one thing, we get a real Itchy & Scratchy cartoon, one of the bloodiest and most violent ever, “Field of Screams”.  Just like in Zombie Simpsons, it starts with Scratchy playing with Scratchy Jr..  Since Zombie Simpsons ends it right there, that’s where the similarities stop.  “Field of Screams” has Scratchy and Scratchy Jr. run over by a mechanized thresher driven by Itchy and Itchy Jr., whom we then see playing catch with Scratchy’s head.  There’s a lot of blood, Bart and Lisa (watching from home) laugh uproariously, and then we see Krusty:

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 Now that’s sad, and he didn’t even need to tell us what he’s feeling.

Take a look at those two images.  In one, we see Krusty acting perfectly normal (or what passes for it for him), in the other one, we see a broken man just barely holding it together who chokes up and starts crying as he desperately tells them to go to commercial.  The Simpsons doesn’t need to have Krusty tell the audience how he’s feeling because we can see it plainly on his face.

Both episodes have the exact same scene (Krusty bombing his show because he’s upset about his father), but the version from The Simpsons has no gratuitous exposition, a much better Itchy & Scratchy cartoon, and enormously more emotional punch, all while letting the jokes speak for themselves instead of explaining or pre-explaining them.  Furthermore, that incident is what prompts Bart and Lisa to go in search of Rabbi Krustofsky.  They can see Krusty is in pain, and they try to do something.  In Zombie Simpsons, Bart just kinda shows up from time to time.

It’d be one thing if Zombie Simpsons was just repeating things.  Twenty-six seasons is a lot of stories, after all.  But they can’t even repeat things competently, and the way they bungle characters, scenes and even jokes over and over again gives the distinct impression that they don’t care enough to try.

22
May
14

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

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

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

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

Homer: Okay, let’s make some fireworks.

InstandGunpowder

Uh, I guess they found some?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BargeoftheImagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15
May
14

Compare & Contrast: Adult Game Night

A Milhouse Divided17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Milhouse Divided16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Door Policy

Come, children, monologue at your parents before bed.

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

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

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

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

Bored Foley Guy

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

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

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

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

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

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

08
May
14

Compare & Contrast: Comic Book Guy As Villain

Treehouse of Horror X3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video Exposition

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

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

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

Consider this, from right after he kidnaps Lucy Lawless:

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

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

Treehouse of Horror X4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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