Archive for the 'Reviews' Category



24
Mar
10

Zombie Simpsons Ruins Another List

Who Shot Mr. Burns Part 1a

Zombie Simpsons has cheaply cashed in on the success of its preeminent forerunner in many, many, ways.  One of the most prominent is by cramming musical guests into episodes with little to no purpose and few, if any, jokes.  This list, which purports to be the top ten musical guests, contains only 60% real Simpsons.  The White Stripes, Lionel Ritchie, Metallica and Green Day all make the cut from Zombie Simpsons (or the movie), but none of the following from actual good episodes do:

  • Tito Puente (Who Shot Mr. Burns 1 & 2)
  • Cypress Hill (Homerpalooza)
  • Peter Frampton (Homerpalooza)
  • Tony Bennett (Dancin’ Homer)
  • Aerosmith (Flaming Moe’s)
  • Sting (Radio Bart)
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers (Krusty Gets Kancelled)
  • Bette Midler (Krusty Gets Kancelled)
  • Linda Ronstadt (Mr. Plow)
  • Barry White (Whacking Day)

How you want to order these guests is debatable, and whether or not you like the music they perform is up to you.  But The Simpsons had far more than ten excellent musical guests whose appearances fit snugly into the episode and were always hilarious.  It seems a shame to not include them on account of Zombie Simpsons. 

23
Feb
10

An Unmitigated Crime Against Storytelling

“What happened to Mindy?” – Bart Simpson
“Yes, what did happen to her?” – Marge Simpson
“Enh, she hit the bottle pretty hard and lost her job.” – Homer Simpson
“Hm, good.” – Marge Simpson

I am not a big fan of Season 12’s “Trilogy of Error”.  (In case you’ve blocked it out that’s the one where Lisa invents the robot, Homer gets his thumb cut off and three different stories all unfold at once.)  But I do recognize that it took a lot of skill to weave three stories together like that.  Getting all those little elements to drop into place couldn’t have been easy.  So while I think those things were largely out of place in a Simpsons episode (where suspense and dramatic tension should never be the primary goal) I can at least see that some care went into creating it. 

Then we have this week’s “The Color Yellow”, which incorporates the worst parts of “Trilogy of Error” while not even pretending to care about its story.  Just look at the ending.  Lisa spent the entire episode obsessing over her 1860-self and her efforts to help free a slave, Virgil.  But then 1860-Marge is the one who actually helps Virgil get to freedom wherein she marries him and settles down.  Except that to do so she abandons the kid she already has.  This is awful in at least three ways. 

First of all, she abandons her child.  Regardless of any other considerations it’s tough to have sympathy for a character who walks away from her kid without a second glance.  This is compounded by the fact that the ending is played as sweet and happy. 

Secondly, in terms of continuity within this episode this makes no sense whatsoever.  (Standard disclaimer: I don’t care much about backstory continuity between episodes, but it would be nice if the story within a single episode made just a lick or two of sense.)  So Lisa isn’t actually descended from 1860-Lisa?  And none of them are related in the least to 1860-Homer?  Did the family move away from Springfield and then move back?  Even this wouldn’t be so bad if the episode hadn’t spent all of its time being so relentlessly serious about how important its story was, but it did.  The whole premise here is local family history and then the ending completely undermines that. 

Have You Seen Me? Finally, and most atrociously, in terms of competent storytelling this goes beyond indifference, disregards camp, and sets up shop in the most hacktacular place imaginable.  We spend the bulk of the episode with Lisa see-sawing back and forth over whether or not 1860-Lisa managed to actually help Virgil.  But 1860-Lisa vanishes three quarters of the way through, never to be seen, heard from, or even mentioned again.  Up until the last commercial break she’s the central character of the story and then – poof – she’s gone. 

This is especially damning when you consider how much screen time this episode wasted on useless filler.  The attic scene, the whole diary in the vent thing, the completely unnecessary error messages on Lisa’s laptop when she’s trying to give her presentation, all of those things take time that could’ve been spent giving the story a real ending.  (The computer errors were especially wasteful seeing as how they were just “update” messages with nary a joke to be seen.)  “Trilogy of Error” may have wasted a lot of time doing things that weren’t funny for the sake of its overwrought narrative, but at least it had a narrative.  “The Color Yellow” wasted time on things that weren’t funny just because. 

23
Feb
10

You Forgot Someone (updated)

Lovitz Characters

“Marge, I would appreciate it if you didn’t tell anybody about my busy hands.  Not so much for myself, but I am so respected it would damage the town to hear it.” – Artie Ziff

Today a website called “The Top 13” (they make – you guessed it – Top 13 lists) ranked the top thirteen guest voices on the Simpsons.  The best part about it is that there is nary a trace of Zombie Simpsons.  Indeed, this is from the intro:

But as the show has changed over time, in our view the quality of the guest appearances has fallen off – now you are more likely to see an ill-fitting celebrity cameo than one that helps drive a funny plot.

So we know that their hearts are in the right place, and the list itself is very well constructed.  There are even video clips for each guest voice.  However, I have a couple of problems with it.  Let’s look at the top 3:

1.  Phil Hartman
2.  Kelsey Grammer
3.  Joe Mantegna

This is minor, but I’d like to offer a brief definitional objection.  The top three all made numerous and great contributions to the show but they’re not really guest voices, are they?  With the exception of Albert Brooks (#4) nobody else on the entire list was in more than two episodes, but Hartman, Grammer and Mantegna were practically cast members.  Grammer you could at least make a case for being a guest voice since he starred in all the episodes in which he appeared, but Hartman and Mantegna routinely showed up for little more than single lines.  I love what they did, but if we’re counting them as “guest voices” don’t we also have to count Marcia Wallace, Doris Grau and several others who showed up routinely as the same characters? 

The main problem I have with this list is the massive, inexplicable, glow-in-the-dark omission of Jon Lovitz.  That’s right, there’s no Aristotle Amadopolis, no Sinclair siblings, no Professor Lombardo or Artie Ziff.  Darryl Strawberry and Johnny Cash make the cut for being tiny parts (albeit awesome ones) of single episodes but a guy who helped carry multiple episodes doesn’t rate?  For shame. 

Where you want to put Lovitz on the list can be debated, but not having him, especially when you’ve got three more slots than is typical to fill, is just bizarre.  If it’s an omission, just a slip of the mind, that’s understandable.  But even if you really hated Jon Lovitz for some reason doesn’t his prevalence in the early years at least demand a mention?  The name “Lovitz” doesn’t even appear anywhere on the page and it’s a gaping hole. 

Finally, and this is more of a judgment call, but the complete lack of any XX chromosomes on here is a little glaring.  Especially down near the bottom where you’ve got guys like Tito Puente and Barry White playing themselves.  I love both of those appearances and both of those guys did fantastic jobs.  However, when you mention in the opening that you’re not keen on celebrity cameos it seems a little hypocritical to list them while ignoring the fantastic work done by, say, Christina Ricci in “Summer of 4 ft. 2”, Winona Ryder in “Lisa’s Rival”, Sara Gilbert in “New Kid on the Block”, Michelle Pfeiffer for “The Last Temptation of Homer” . . . and I could go on.  It’s also worth pointing out that all of those women had larger parts in their respective episodes than most of the voices near the bottom of the list.  Just sayin’.

Update at 4:36 EST: In addition to the comment from Jason below we had a brief conversation on Twitter.  It turns out they did think of Lovitz.  Here’s the exchange (remember it’s Twitter so read up from the bottom):

Top13 Twitter Exchange

12
Jan
10

Morgan Spurlock Doesn’t Like Zombie Simpsons

“Look Bart, it almost killed me but I handcrafted all seventy-five characters from ‘Oliver Twist’.  And now, the coup-de-grace, a bitter snowstorm.” – Lisa Simpson

They say it is best to judge a man not by his words but by his actions.  By that criteria I would like to thank Morgan Spurlock for publicly disparaging Zombie Simpsons – on FOX itself.  To the untrained eye it looked like he was just eating an orange, but to the eye that has brains he was making a guerilla point about Zombie Simpsons.  It took a disturbing amount of my (admittedly not very valuable) time yesterday, but I went through the entire special and identified the episode titles for all but five clips.  The results are below and Zombie Simpsons has once again been shown to be horribly inadequate, this time in a nationally televised special paid for by FOX itself.

One “clip” is counted as a continuous sequence from a single episode.  For example, shots from several episodes in a row are separate clips for each episode, but multiple shots from a single episode without returning to “real people” footage is only one clip.  Total number of “clips” shown:

  Simpsons (Season 1-10) Zombie Simpsons (Season 11+)
Total # of Clips 101 13
Total # of Episodes 58 12

(See after the jump for my complete count as well as screen grabs and a discussion of the five clips I couldn’t identify.)

As you can see, clips from The Simpsons outnumber clips from Zombie Simpsons by nearly 8-1.  (These numbers do not include any clips from “Mr. Plow” or “Blame It on Lisa”, because there were whole segments on those two episodes.)  Moreover, if we look at the numbers in more detail we see that the 8-1 ratio is – content wise – actually generous to Zombie Simpsons.  Three of the Zombie Simpsons clips (23% of the total) come at the very end when they’re doing a simple chronological overview that has nothing to do with the content of the clips.  If we subtract that section out (for both The Simpsons and Zombie Simpsons) we’d have a ratio of almost 10-1.

Numerically it’s not even a contest, but if we look at the context of each clip Zombie Simpsons comes off even worse.  The opening quarter of the special is about how great and awesome The Simpsons is; it’s just people talking about their favorite characters and places in Springfield.  During that entire stretch there is only one clip from Zombie Simpsons (of Kent Brockman from “You Kent Always Say What You Want”).  In the entire presentation about what makes The Simpsons so special, what makes the characters so great, what makes the town so relatable, that was the only mention of Zombie Simpsons.

In fact, an outright majority of the Zombie Simpson clips come from mentions about things foreign, be it Rio de Janeiro, London, Paris or China.  Zombie Simpsons has so thoroughly exhausted its ideas that it’s usually only worth mentioning when it concocts yet another way for the family to visit some exotic place.

Finally, I’d like to draw your attention to the section about nuclear power.  Spurlock interspersed clips from the show with interviews and shots of the real nuclear plant he visited.  Those clips came from six episodes, see if you can spot the one that doesn’t belong:

  • Last Exit to Springfield (Season 4)
  • Two Cars in Every Garage, Three Eyes on Every Fish (Season 2)
  • Homer’s Enemy (Season 8)
  • Homer Defined (Season 3)
  • I Married Marge (Season 3)
  • Bonfire of the Manatees (Season 17)

The clips from the first five listed above have to do with Homer working at the nuclear plant.  The clip from the last one comes about because one of the nuclear power representatives mentioned that manatees often live near real nuke plants.  In other words, all the humor about nuclear power comes from The Simpsons, the Zombie Simpson one is there just because someone said the word “manatee”.

(I don’t like doing jump pages, but in this case I’m making an exception because it’s a huge amount of text and I don’t want to distort the main page.  After the jump is the complete count identifying every clip along with screen grabs of the five I couldn’t place.)

Continue reading ‘Morgan Spurlock Doesn’t Like Zombie Simpsons’

07
Jan
10

Spurlock Update: Ah, Fuck

From a review of Spurlock’s special:

If there’s a weakness in the anniversary show, it’s that Spurlock doesn’t delve too far into the issue of how challenging it is for the series to live up to the impossibly high bar it set for itself in the 1990s.

Creator Matt Groening chuckles at one point about how fans are so invested in the show, they have no reservations about being intensely critical right to his face. That sets up a tremendous quote by Simpsons writer Matt Warburton, who says dryly, "I think the Internet message boards used to be a lot funnier 10 years ago -I’ve sort of stopped reading their new posts."

The Simpsons isn’t as funny as it used to be, everybody knows it, and it would have been nice had Spurlock inched a tad closer to that reality.

I’m still holding out hope for Spurlock’s bearded buddy, but not too much. 

By the way, I wasn’t familiar with the name Warburton, so I looked it up.  His first listed credit is from Season 13.  He may be a perfectly nice guy, I have no idea, but he had as much to do with making the show great as I did.  All he’s done is help crank out formulaic dreck so you’ll excuse me if I tell him to go fuck himself.  People saying mean things on the internet is no excuse for being terrible at your job. 

26
Oct
09

DHS Book Review: The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

Ortved Book Cover “Marge, I’m bored.” – Homer Simpson
“Why don’t you read something?” – Marge Simpson
“Because I’m trying to reduce my boredom.” – Homer Simpson

In countless discussions with other Simpsons fans over the years the one question that always seems to come up is “Why?”, as in “Why did the show get so bad?” I’ve heard a lot of different theories which always seem to boil down to something overly simple, ‘this guy left’, ‘that guy took over as show runner’, ‘they just ran out of topics/ideas’. The reality, as John Ortved documents exhaustively in his new book “The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History”, is that it is a question without a straight line answer. No one decision ever set the show irrevocably on a course for mediocrity. Nor was there one incident or feud that destroyed whatever it was that made The Simpsons unique. It was a wild and chaotic ride from the start and the real miracle isn’t that the show has lasted for two decades; it’s that it was as good as it was for as long as it was.

Ortved calls his book an “oral history” and that’s as good a description as any. He’s done an enormous amount of interviews with people who were instrumental to the show, from writers to animators to people who knew James L. Brooks and Matt Groening way back when. For the folks he couldn’t interview, Groening and Brooks included, he combed through old interviews they had given to other media outlets and quotes them within the context of what he’s asking. This tactic, while understandable and effective, creates some odd juxtapositions. It doesn’t quite flow to have a quote from Groening (or someone else who wouldn’t grant an interview) that was uttered when the show as in its infancy right next to something someone may have said in 2007 or later. I don’t see any way this could have been avoided, but it does make for strange reading from time to time.

The interviews Ortved has conducted are absolute gold though, and they make up the bulk of the book. Here are the first hand accounts of how the animation process was begun, how the people who worked on The Tracey Ullman Show thought the Simpsons stacked up against the other bits, how the writing staff viewed what they were doing. It’s a treasure trove of information, gossip and hilarious war stories.

Ortved has divided his book into eighteen chapters, but it breaks relatively cleanly into three main sections. The first and, for me at least, the most informative is about the deep background of the show. This includes sections on Groening’s “Life in Hell” comic strip, the chaotic beginnings of the FOX network and the pre-Simpsons history of James Brooks’ Gracie Films. The ramshackle and frightfully coincidental nature of the earliest Simpsons work is on full display and it really makes one appreciate just how lucky we really are to have ever gotten The Simpsons in the form we did. The number and variety of unrelated elements that all had to fall into exquisite place and click together is astonishing.

The second part of the book is by far the funniest for the simple reason that it recounts what Ortved refers to as the “golden age” of the show (by his count roughly Seasons 2-8). It should come as a surprise to no one that for that much brilliant, insane and funny stuff to show up on your teevee a great deal of brilliant, insane and funny stuff had to happen behind the scenes. The highlights of this part, and really of the whole book, are the chapter about Conan O’Brian and the chapter about George Meyer and John Swartzwelder. There are multiple stories contained in those chapters, and a few in the ones around them, that are so funny I had to put the book down for a moment to get a hold of myself.

But, like the golden age of the show itself, the good times can’t last and sure enough the story becomes considerably less enjoyable, though no less informative, as it begins to wind to a close. Ortved dutifully recounts contract negotiations with Fox, gives a run down of various guest stars that have appeared on the show and takes a look at the show’s place in history. These chapters aren’t bad reading, they’re full of interesting stories and Ortved keeps things moving briskly, but they’re a definite come down from the highs in the middle of the book.

This part is also about as close as we’re ever going to get to answering the question of “Why?” and the short answer is that things change. More and more of the old hands burned out or left for other pastures, some on good terms some less so. What the stories make clear, especially when you read them all together like this, is that it never could’ve lasted. Even if there’d never been a disagreement over money, even if tempers had never run high in the writers’ room, even if everyone from Season 2-6 had stayed indefinitely, it still would’ve gone downhill. Creating it in the first place was a borderline miracle, sustaining it forever was never possible.

The book does have two real flaws, and while both of them are minor they need to be brought up. The first is that it does whiff occasionally on basic Simpsons info, the most glaring of which is the misspelling of Mr. Smithers first name, which is “Waylon” not “Wayland” as it appears repeatedly in the text. But there are also times when the book misidentifies in which season an episode occurred and other small missteps. These things aren’t important, but if you’re a serious Simpsons fan (and I’m not sure who else would be reading this book) encountering one does knock you out of the narrative a little.

The second problem, and though it only occurs a few times it is much more distracting, is when Ortved strays from The Simpsons to try and discuss some of its successors. There are long discourses on The Critic, Futurama, Family Guy, and even South Park that read like the kind of third rate television criticism you’d see in TV Guide or Newsweek. When Ortved writes similar tracts about whatever aspect of The Simpsons he’s discussing they tend to be about very specific topics and involve a lot of quotes from the people who were there. These, on the other hand, are mostly just him opining on each show’s relative merits.

But those parts are brief and shouldn’t detract from what has been done here, which is to tell the tale of The Simpsons about as well as it can probably be told. As Ortved notes at the beginning, there’s no way to ever know the “true” tale of how the show came to be. Everyone remembers things a little differently and it’s not like anyone was taking minutes in the writers’ room. But this is the next best thing.

What it is, as I said a few weeks ago, is a book that’s mostly awesome. The amount of detail is astonishing and while none of the big names come out smelling like roses the simple fact is that everyone involved did at least something right because The Simpsons was much greater than the sum of its parts. No one is going to revoke your Simpsons fandom if don’t read this book, but it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than Zombie Simpsons. In fact, if you’re planning on buying the upcoming Season 20 set, or if you know someone who is, save some cash and buy this book instead. As of this writing Ortved’s book on Amazon is barely half the price of Season 20 on DVD and having been through both of them I can tell you that the book is much, much funnier.

15
Oct
09

Synergy Works at Conde Nast Too

Yesterday I finished reading our free(!) copy of John Ortved’s new book “The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History”.  Given that I am a long winded bastard and that there’s a lot to cover (for Simpsons fans and loathers of Zombie Simpsons) we’ll probably have some lengthy posts about it coming up.  The short verdict is that it’s mostly awesome and was a very fun read.  For today though we’re going to take a look at some of the synergistic on-line publicity the book has started to garner.  First up is The New Yorker which fills its word count by blathering pointlessly about Marge’s Playboy cover (the quote from the book is in bold because WordPress won’t let me double quote something):

Ortved quotes Brent Forrester, a writer and producer on the show, who identifies the episode as a turning point in the series’ history:

The conventional wisdom is that the show changed after the monorail episode, written by Conan O’Brien. Conan’s monorail episode was surreal, and the jokes were so good that it became irresistible for all the other writers to write that kind of comedy. And that’s when the tone of the show really took a rapid shift in the direction of the surreal.

Surreal is a good way to describe it. Mr. Burns inadvertently creates a radioactive squirrel, Principal Skinner is dismembered by the pincers of a giant, robotic ant, and an irascible Leonard Nimoy “beams” into the ether. These absurdities would come to define the show’s broader comedy, and reflect the persona that O’Brien would soon loose on the world.

I’ve never thought of “Marge vs. the Monorail” as any kind of turning point.  Granted I wasn’t working on the show, so maybe it felt like one from the inside.  But looking at the finished products it’s sure hard to see it as one, especially for bending the laws of nature by having a radioactive squirrel with laser eyes (which is hilarious, by the way).  In Season 3 a soap box derby racer goes so fast it glows from air resistance and then bursts into flames when it crashes.  In Season 2 there’s a man sized catfish that isn’t radioactive and a three eyed fish that is.  In Season 1 Homer is mistaken – by scientists – for Bigfoot.  All of those things are at least as insane as Nimoy beaming up.

Next is GQ which has a terrific list of five things it learned from the book.  It’s worth reading, but two of them need some additional comment:

1. When George H.W. Bush slammed The Simpsons for being “anti-family values”—onstage at the 1992 Republican National Convention, no less—the show’s animators launched an internal “most immoral Simpsons scene” contest. The winning sequence: Grandpa having sex with the infant Maggie, Lisa breaking it up, and Grandpa savagely beating her to death with his cane.

That’s right, Simpsons porn predates the internet.  I rather like that.  Also, is this really surprising?  I mean, this was done in 1929 (supposedly by Disney animators):

(Background information here by way of boingboing.)

People have been drawing fucking since the invention of both.  Here’s the second one:

3. Confirmed rumors: Sam Simon was a lunatic. James L. Brooks is kinda a dick. Groening gets more credit for the show than he probably ought to. Elizabeth Taylor is the most hated guest voice of all time.

Simon doesn’t, to me at least, come off as a lunatic in the book, at least no more than any of the other riotously funny people around.  That Groening gets more credit than he should isn’t really a confirmed rumor, at this point it’s basically general knowledge.  He’s said so himself (and it’s quoted in the book).  As for Brooks, well, yeah, he’s done some dickish things.  But he’s also repeatedly described as a “genius” and is the man whose enormous prestige and influence gave the show the breathing room it needed to become what it became.  So he’s not always a dick, just some of the time.  The difference between him and most people is that whole wealth and power thing, his fits of dickishness are allowed freer reign.

Speaking of Brooks, apparently he tried to get this whole book killed.  Ortved wrote a meta article about the book for The Daily Beast:

Finally, the word came back from Fox’s flaks: no go. There would be no cooperation. Why? James L. Brooks, whose company, Gracie Films, produces the show along with Fox, had heard I’d been asking questions about Sam Simon, the show’s exiled executive producer, and the kibosh was on.

It goes on from there.  Apparently the book metastasized from an article Ortved wrote for Vanity Fair in 2007. (Vanity Fair, like GQ and The New Yorker, isof course – a Conde Nast publication, mmmm synergy) .  I’ve not read it yet, but you can if you click here.  Just giving it a quick scan it looks a lot like the book (duh), which is to say that it’s chalk full of gooey Simpsons goodness.




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