Top 5 Episodes Written by Jeff Westbrook

Hello again! We continue this time around by exploring the work of writer, Jeff Westbrook, a former algorithms researcher who has worked on both The Simpsons and Futurama.  You might have caught on by now that these lists tend to be pretty Simpsons-centric but I promise I’ll try to mix things up in the future.  At the moment I’m choosing to highlight writers who share the lowest amount of cross-credit with other shows so that I don’t have to overwork myself with writing reviews for someone with a larger resume’.  ‘Top Ten’ lists are ideal, especially for more renowned writers, but it takes a while to write these as it is, so I hope you enjoy them for what they are.  I will of course update any prior list I’ve created if I watch or get better access to more episodes from any writer in question.

Let’s jump in!

5. The Simpsons “Kill Gil, Volumes I & II” (Season 18)

The WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) award-winning “Kill Gil, Volumes I & II” tells a unique story but is inevitably bound to shoot itself in the foot due to what the story asks from itself.  At the heart, it’s a Marge-centric episode about how her exercise in open-armed Christian charity and generosity prevents her from saying no to those who might take advantage, but because an extremely tertiary character like Ol’ Gil is the perfect, most frustrating hurdle to overcome in service to her story, the episode can unfortunately feel as wooden and drawn out, entertainment-wise, as the feeling is intended to be conveyed.

Gil Gunderson is a fine choice as a subtle, manipulative mooch because he’s a pathetic sad sack, albeit a kind and optimistic one.  Marge allowing him to stay at the house after he’s been fired as a mall Santa (a moment of failure that’s usually played off as a quick joke for the character) makes for a grander gesture seeing as Gil, who was lately introduced into the series, has never been given a spotlight to this extent.  Many may argue that he overstays his welcome as a recurring, one-note, comic relief character in general, being Dan Castellaneta’s take on Jack Lemmon’s Shelley Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), so to commit an entire episode to Gil is risky on its own, especially one that dabbles with the Christmas genre.  That uneasiness is what the episode is going for though and it’s successful as Gil’s presence becomes more irksome the further the narrative progresses, helping to elevate Marge’s conflict. (A conflict that lasts a full year in the story)

I think what hurts the episode is the plot demonstrates little to no effort in giving Marge’s issue some emotional weight.  We’re only shown a quick, shoehorned flashback of Marge as a child getting bullied by her older twin sisters after refusing to hide their cigarettes.  In turn, the episode is pretty dry, which is the last thing you need in a Christmas episode that invites an underdeveloped character like Gil to take center stage.  “Kill Gil, Volumes I & II” is also starved for some stand-out jokes.  There’s a runner (you can take or leave) of the grumple, a grinch-like mascot character, that randomly pops up to ambush Homer throughout the episode, but other than that nothing too outstanding really helps carry things along.

The most interesting twist is towards the end when Gil finally takes on the Scottsdale realty job that he was procrastinating about throughout the entire year, just as soon as Marge finally worked up the nerve to toss him out of the house.  Because of this, Marge feels an enormous lack of closure so she decides to drive with the family to Scottsdale (where Gil has become a big success) for the chance to tell him off.  After she victoriously unloads on Gil in front of his co-workers, they all see him as the vulnerable, incompetent man he’s always been and once again he’s fired by his boss in the process.  Ironically this leads Marge to feel so guilty that the episode ends with a reveal that they have bought a new house in order to restore his position at the Scottsdale job and are shown singing Christmas carols with Gil, who is seemingly living with them.  It’s a cute but frustrating bookend and as initially mentioned, a unique, coherent idea for an episode, even if the execution is a bit stale.

If you’re looking for a substantial Simpsons Christmas episode, this is not the one.  If anything, the theme of Christmas while heavily present, only exists as a backdrop served to clash with a central plot meant to frustrate you.  Frustration is an important component to the story and because of that, it might not be a story that’s worth it in the end, depending on how you approach it.  In my opinion, Gil surprisingly holds his own better than you might expect and proves to be just as well-rounded and capable of sharing as much screentime as many of Springfield’s more notable residents in this specific scenario.

4. The Simpsons “The Wettest Stories Ever Told” (Season 17)

As the Simpsons family await their dinner at the seafood restaurant ‘The Frying Dutchman’, they relay three stories of disasters at sea.  In the first act, Homer hops aboard the Mayflower as a runaway with the help of Marge and the two become smitten with one another, only for a competitive Moe to try to squeeze Homer out so he could win Marge’s hand instead.  In the second, Bart leads a mutiny against Captain Principal Skinner ala The Bounty (1984), and the third act is The Simpsons’ take on The Poseidon Adventure (1972) in which a cruise liner capsizes and the survivors are tasked to escape.

Like Brian Kelley’s “Margical History Tour”, this episode is more of the same where the characters are thrown into a form of period piece, providing an opportunity for them and the Simpsons universe to take on a new aesthetic.  The only difference being that while “Margical History Tour” took on real historical subject matter in all three segments, the only one in “The Wettest Stories Ever Told” that’s sharing that same element is the story of the Mayflower.  While stories based on true events in history on its own doesn’t necessarily make the premise uninteresting, it’s still pretty apparent that between “Margical History Tour” and this episode’s Mayflower piece, the show isn’t really doing anything special with the premise that makes me go, “Wow what a clever Simpsonized take on said event in history”.

Instead, it feels like it goes through the motions at a rushed pace, barely taking the time to tell a memorable story, and only focusing more on giving the characters an excuse to make humorous quips and meta observations to what’s going on in the historically-themed plot.  For me, this approach to a segment is serviceable, but forgettable in the long run and unfortunately that’s how I feel about “The Wettest Stories Ever Told’s” first story.  It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill tale of the Pilgrims sailing to Plymouth Rock.  To give “Margical History Tour” more credit though, it does seem to make a better effort to let its segments jump out more even if it still resulted in a mediocre episode overall.

Fortunately what helps this episode feel more free and distinguished is that the next two segments are film parodies which enables the stories to be a tad more ‘fast and loose’ with its source material to the point where you don’t have to know the source material to really enjoy it.  Simply put, I find these segments to be fun.  I enjoy Weezer’s “Island in the Sun” playing when Skinner and the kids arrive in Tahiti, as well as how naively harsh Skinner is with his crew before Bart leads a mutiny against him, deservingly.  The last act with the capsized cruise liner has its moments too.  Not just with the delightful range of gags that Jeff Westbrook gets to play with, but I also like the limited adventure aspect it offers.  Having the characters maneuver through an upside-down ship, in design, is compelling and I anticipate who out of the group will ultimately survive.  And it’s cool to have these last two segments merge in the tag end of the episode by having Bart’s ship from the The Bounty parody sail aimlessly along the capsized Neptune in the search to return to Tahiti, revealing that Bart and crew are now ghoulish skeletons echoing the original Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). 

In the end, this episode isn’t a home run.  Obviously we are in season 17 by this point so you really just need to take what you can get, but it’s still not a bad one.  Just not one I feel compelled to come back to that much.  I will say though that I like the wrap-arounds for this.  With intention, it’s so shamelessly dull having the Simpsons family wait for seafood (early on Homer points out the decorative pattern in the wallpaper) and for that to be the reason we’re getting these three ‘disasters at sea’ stories.  I love how it becomes increasingly pathetic that the Sea Captain is never going to serve them their meal.  By the time you get to the third act, he is shown out the window playing ‘shirts and skins’ basketball with the kitchen staff.

“I’ll be fetching your food right away!”

*Turns to his employee*

“Six more games.”

3. Futurama “Teenage Mutant Leela’s Hurdles” (Season 4)

Since this is the most prominent clip I can find to introduce my written entry for “Teenage Mutant Leela’s Hurdles” and because Pazuzu is key to the narrative’s structure, I’ll work backwards in giving my thoughts on a story about Futurama’s characters aging backwards. Yes, the creepy, ominous Pazuzu ending is hilariously dark and provides a final, silly edge out of left field to go out on, but there’s no mistaking that he exists not only as a springboard to establish the impact that Farnsworth’s old age has on the rest of the Planet Express crew, but also to save Farnsworth in the end ala deus ex machina.  A story device that by no means makes a story automatically bad (it certainly helps when the thing that saves the day in act 3 is introduced in act 1), especially in any experimental comedy that allows itself to break the rules in order to value laughs and a fun premise over the preoccupation of tying a story neatly and flawlessly together.

To give credit to the Pazuzu ending, I like how it’s lampshading just by committing to it’s own absurdity rather than have a character come out and bluntly state (paraphrasing) “Well this ending was a cheat.”  That said, while I would never nitpick this episode for how it structures its conclusion, I do think it’s a more commendable and a definitely possible feat when a comedy can be funny and loose while still telling a tightly-knit story.  But I still completely condone the culture of comedy doing whatever it wants with its narrative as long as the characters stay true to themselves and the jokes are good.

All that aside, this episode not only has a fun concept to play with as The Planet Express Crew becomes youth-a-sized by accident when trying to “de-age” Professor Farnsworth, but it sets itself up as a unique opportunity for Leela to live out the childhood (or teenage years) with her parents now that they have been newly reunited since “Leela’s Homeworld” in the beginning of the season.  Not only that but she gets to date Fry as his younger self which proves to be sweet and endearing.  I enjoy the little sewer race they have against the teenage mutants and how it ends up with them, as teenagers, crashing through the mutants’ public school.  Just the usual teenage hijinx.

The main meat of the story is inventive in how Leela, who still possesses the awareness of her older self is the one as her younger self who’s trying to get her kind, lenient parents to set rules and boundaries for her just so she could feel like the teenage daughter to them that she never had the chance to experience.

Leela’s dad: “Well, whatever you’re really doing, don’t wake us if you get in after 12.”

“Dad, you’re being too lenient again.  I have to be home by 11.

Leela’s mom: “Okay, okay! You’re the boss.”

“No, I’m not!”

It’s cute but it’s also met with a sense of impending doom as Professor Farnsworth’s solution to bring them back to normal only increases the rate of their backwards aging.  Now they must get to the ‘fountain of aging’ on a burnt-out sun in order to restore their ages before they die of pre-birth.  Upon reaching said fountain, it ends up being a vicious cyclone in which the crew must escape from or else the overexposure will result in regular death of old age (or just drown).  It’s Leela, who is fine staying as her younger self, who must jump in to save the crew before they get swallowed up.  It makes for good conflict, although I could have done without Farnsworth’s blatant, expositional line, “No Leela, you can’t give up your childhood.  You’ll never have another chance at it!”

It’s a humorous 22 minutes though.  I find it funny too that Bender also becomes younger throughout the episode despite it making no sense considering he’s a robot (by episode’s end, he becomes a bending-unit start-up disc).  It feels completely in character though because Bender would be so self-involved that he would defy physics just to be included with the de-aging process that the rest of the crew undergoes.  What makes this running joke great is how it’s never questioned.  Other than that, one of the jokes upon recent rewatch that got the biggest laugh out of me was here:

*Cue Pazuzu*

2. Futurama “The 30% Iron Chef” (Season 3)

“The 30% Iron Chef” is a quick-witted, biting joke-machine of an episode that follows Bender’s passion for cooking, despite the fact that he’s a robot with obviously no ability to taste, and a lack of talent in cooking anything that anyone would want to eat, let alone survive consuming.  Not only does the episode treat Bender as a pitiful underdog (crying when he hears of the Planet Express crew’s opinions of his meal despite the tray of food he drops eating away at the floor like hydrofluoric acid) but he’s quite the jackass throughout.

A lovable jackass at that.  His character in general feels like what Mike Scully’s showrunning era (seasons 9-12) of The Simpsons was trying to accomplish with Homer Simpson’s character except it’s easier to get behind Bender considering he actually is a robot incapable of empathy towards others.  He’s a bastard and always was a bastard, whereas Homer went from the lovable, flawed oaf with a heart to a completely self-interested jerk.  A jerk who is still funny, but plagued with a sacrificed fall from grace in regards to how much richer his character once was.   What helps me love Bender as a character is that he’s a unique jerk, a more fully realized and established ‘Scully Era Homer’-type, and part of an ensemble group of main characters that balances his behavior with counteracted humanity.

That said, what I think is pretty bold about this episode is it gives Bender, the comedic anti-hero, a pass at every turn.  He ditches his friends after they refuse to eat his deadly brunch, kills his newfound mentor Spargle after cooking him a meal, uses that to throw in his hero, Chef Elzar’s face, then cheats to win a cooking contest against Elzar without any consequences.  Then he returns to Planet Express with the magic vial that helped him win only for it to turn out to just be water (he had the confidence to win the cooking contest all along!)….that’s laced with LSD causing the judges to give him high scores across the board.  Even the Planet Express crew are down to eat whatever radioactive deathtrap of a meal Bender stirs up next as long as he adds a dash of LSD.  Pull back upward on an establishing shot of Planet Express HQ played to Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and roll credits.  It’s so appropriate to play out the episode with a rock song because that’s essentially what the episode is to me.  Very rock and roll.  Dismissive.  No regard for morals.  Complete freedom for the episode to do whatever it wants but told in a very sharp, concise manner.  Not a lot of shows can pull this off without you feeling iffy that a line’s been crossed, but Futurama found a way very early on in order to make it approving and fun.  That’s a testament to the show that shouldn’t be looked over.

“The 30% Iron Chef” also has this funny, down-to-earth subplot where Zoidberg breaks Professor Farnsworth’s ‘ship-in-a-bottle’ and out of fear (“Oh no! The professor will hit me!”) he frames the accident on Fry.  I love that when Zoidberg tries to initially fix it, he makes even more of a mess with super-glue and uses a trenchcoat to cover up the spectacle of himself covered with random items (such as a cuckoo clock protruding from his neck).  He walks passed Fry, Leela, Farnsworth, Amy, and Hermes as unsuspectingly as possible, but they are more preoccupied with disposing of their awful food they have been served as Bender’s back is turned.

Zoidberg: “Casual hello. It’s me, Zoidberg. Act naturally. (The clock goes off and the cuckoo hits Zoidberg in the face) Ow! Ouch! Get off of me! Stop!”

Leela: “How interesting, Dr. Zoidberg. Do go on.” (Scrapes food into potted plant)

^ I love this scene because there’s obviously something absolutely suspect going on with Zoidberg but the Planet Express crew are completely uninterested with whatever his predicament is (they just chalk it up as his usual tired antics) so much that even when they try to put the attention on him to take away attention away from themselves, they still couldn’t care less what he’s up to.  Meanwhile, Zoidberg is oblivious to what they think and is riddled with guilt over his actions throughout the episode.  The topper is that when Farnsworth confronts Fry over the broken ‘ship-in-a-bottle’ (due to a note being left behind (“Fry Confesses. –From the desk of Dr. Zoidberg”), Fry is too stupid to deny these accusations and without a second thought he agrees to pay $10 to repair the model.

Zoidberg: “What have I done!?”

Because Dr. Zoidberg is so pathetically poor on this show (despite being a doctor), he becomes even more wracked with guilt when Fry pays ten bucks.  It’s material like this that’s just so chuckle-worthy to me, a subplot that takes such a non-issue and treats it from Zoidberg’s perspective as if it’s the end of the world as we know it.  It ends on a high note too when Zoidberg confesses what he did on the stage of the cooking contest and the entire crowd genuinely gasps as if they even know who Zoidberg is or about Farnsworth’s model being broken to begin with.  He takes the Japanese host’s valubale sword in an attempt to dramatically kill himself over his “crimes” but the sword breaks due to his lobster-like shell.

Koji (the host): “Oh! That sword cost 5,000 dolluu!”

Zoidberg: “Fry did it!” (runs away and woops like the end of a Three Stooges sketch).

Juxtaposed to the main plot, it’s funnier how Zoidberg confesses at the cooking contest over something so minor and insignificant but ends up getting in much serious hot water when he breaks the valuable sword.  Meanwhile, Bender is cooking horrible, deadly food that actually ends up killing his mentor, and he cheats in the cooking contest, but never gives an inch of confession or faces any comeuppance.  That’s comedy.

1. The Simpsons “On a Clear Day I Can’t See My Sister” (Season 16)

I’m sure those privy to the ins and outs of The Simpsons’ decline in quality are wondering why I would place a season 16 episode above a season 3 episode of Futurama, but it’s really pretty simple and not a decision I made lightly.  For one, on its own, an episode deeply revolved around sibling rivalry played to the comedic exaggeration of Lisa getting a restraining order against Bart, and determining the situation through the slapstick of a 20 foot pole she carries around, is material which stands out more to me than Bender’s main plot above.  Second, I’m a firm believer that if Al Jean’s early showrunning era (seasons 13-16) aired without the classic body of work ever existing (seasons 1-8), then the show would still scrape by to make it onto a top 100 list despite being a lesser presentation.  Futurama’s “The 30% Iron Chef” is more consistent and is hitting more highs with its comedy, but with “On a Clear Day I Can’t See My Sister” it’s still funny, if not quirky in its missteps, and has a successful, underlying, emotional element that really helps give the episode some oomph.

Another reason the episode stands out to me is the unnecessary nitpicking that seems to surround it (“Lisa is too mean-spirited”, “Bart didn’t deserve this punishment”, “The plot makes no sense”, etc.).  See, I think the first act of Bart constantly teasing Lisa and showing no sympathy or remorse about his actions during the field trip to Springfield Glacier serves as a pretty fair launch pad for Lisa to initiate the restraining order premise.  A premise, by the way, that operates loosely as an underappreciated sibling’s fantasy intended to play for laughs and never pretends it’s any less bizarre or implausible than it actually would be.  Even when Bart first hears of the restraining order, he (off-camera) “wails” on her which immediately gets him thrown in a jail cell as a temporary punishment from Chief Wiggum.  After that, it’s pretty fair game to allow Lisa to enjoy his punishment.  Any harm or discomfort she bestows upon him from here is all rather innocent and tasteful.

And while Lisa does have fun in poking Bart and takes advantage of him when the restraining order gets extended to 200 feet, she still owns up to getting carried away in the end, especially when she discovers that Bart is about to burn an effigy of her in the backyard.  Most importantly, Bart apologizes and it’s a moment of forgiveness that’s shared unconditionally between the two that, in my opinion, is surprisingly earned in an episode where their conflict becomes increasingly chaotic within an otherwise exaggerated premise of sibling rivalry.  Overall, I’m obviously not saying this plot comes anywhere close to The Simpsons’ peak emotional moments of the classic era, but it still sticks the landing in serving a story that’s rooted in emotion.  It’s not over-played or forced, which is something Al Jean’s showrunning era can very much be guilty of when trying to recapture any of that classic Simpsons magic.

From an animation standpoint, I’ve always loved the color palette and use of shading on the final scene, played to Herp Alpert’s “Tijuana Taxi”:

In the subplot, Homer becoming a Sprawl-Mart greeter after Grampa (previously established as a Sprawl-Mart greeter in season 15’s “The Fat and the Furriest”) runs amok in a shopping cart that crashes into a display of garden gnomes.  It’s a merely fine, inoffensive, ‘Homer gets another job’ story that was concocted primarily due to the buzz of the time of Walmart employees being treated poorly by management and not being compensated enough.  I must say, between Futurama’s “The 30% Iron Chef” and The Simpsons’ “On a Clear Day I Can’t See My Sister”, one of the other factors that made it tougher for me to place the latter in the better position is because I find Zoidberg’s subplot is infinitely more brilliant than this one.  In my gut though, I prefer many aspects of “On a Clear Day’s” main plot over Bender’s cooking plot…  I suppose it makes for a good debate in regards to what triumphs over what.  An episode with consistent, high comedy that dismissively plays to the beat of its own drum, or one with alright comedy and an honest, successful (but not nearly the best from the show) display of emotion between two characters.  What would you think?

 

 

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