Hello again! I’m excited to be back after a brief hiatus, this time offering nine, count em’, nine reviews, ranked to the best of my ability, of all the episodes that David X. Cohen (executive producer and head writer/showrunner of Futurama) has written solo. Cohen has written many Futurama episodes teamed up with other writers, but as always it’s much more easier and practical to examine the ones he did on his own. Of course, he was also a writer on The Simpsons so all of those episodes will be featured here as well. To give some background, Cohen is a big science buff and even studied theoretical computer science before shifting his career as a comedy writer. You can tell how much influence from this goes into his writing. It’s something that I think makes him a very unique writer as he certainly offers some of most thoughtful or intelligent scripts in sitcom.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy! If you like these ‘top picks’ pieces, feel free to share your own thoughts (especially if you disagree) or subscribe so you’re notified when the next one comes out, because I’m always looking to put out more. With all the television I watch, I never know what’s going to end up on these lists.
9. Futurama “Free Will Hunting” (Season 7)
Futurama has always brought compelling scientific or philosophical concepts to the table in order to drive many of its plots and even in the (first half) last season of the Comedy Central revival, David X. Cohen is no stranger to this approach. After an accelerated first act of Bender making every bad decision possible (taking a college loan from the robot mafia, dropping out after his first day, joining a robot gang, taking robot drugs, disposing of a dead robot body, prostituting himself, before eventually attempting to rob a group of girl scouts) he finds himself in court only to get a ‘not guilty’ verdict due to being a robot who’s actions are pre-programmed by his software, and thus establishing the lack of free will in regards to the crimes he’s committed. This ironically leaves Bender in a deep existential crisis as he’s disturbed by the notion of his inability to make choices on his own accord.
This leads to a beautiful sequence at the Robot Homeworld as Bender decides to stay and wander the cold, drab environment in the means to soul search. He seeks council with the Robot Elders in the hopes for solace or answers but they cast him out after proclaiming that although robot decisions are pre-determined, it doesn’t make those decisions any less important. Eventually Bender happens upon a monastery of robot monks who have meditated on the subject and are now at peace with their pre-determined design. I admire Cohen’s creative decision to let Bender’s story meander like this in the second act. It leaves plenty of room for pathos in a character who otherwise is a despicable (yet fun) anti-hero who completely disregards the morality of his actions in place for a philosophical conflict that anyone can relate to.
I also love beforehand how Amy poses the idea in consolation that humans are just as likely to lack free will, only for Bender to interject with a quick, dismissive, “Yeah, whatever.” This is what’s great about Futurama taking the sci-fi genre and turning it on its head, because if any other sci-fi film or episode would have tackled this subject, robots might initially be used as an example of exploring determinism but then the story would transition to the scary idea of humans being just as prone to an inescapable fate. Amy’s line is the typical foot-in-the-door moment for the story to go there but Bender is so hilariously selfish that he marginalizes such subtext. “Free Will Hunting” is a Bender story, plain and simple.
After some time at the monastery, Bender learns of an empty slot in his head that is intended for a free will unit. He embarks on a mission with the help of Fry and Leela to where Bender was created, MomCorp, in search for this unit, but are caught by Mom herself who explains that Professor Farnsworth unfortunately never finished building it. In the flashback, you can see that Mom was in support of the free will unit for the diabolical hope that robots would rise up to threaten mankind’s existence, causing Farnsworth to lie about this invention ever coming to fruition, but Bender doesn’t buy it. In a really fascinating scene of full disclosure, meshing science fiction and comedy, Bender pulls a ray gun on Farnsworth demanding that he hand over the unit which is revealed to have not been destroyed but instead kept hidden away out of pride. The performance by Billy West as the professor is impeccable here as he flip-flops between laughter and pity when he places the free will unit on the table, completely exposed, which is Bender is unable to pick up.
It turns out that robots were programmed without the ability to touch the free will unit and in Bender’s case he’s also been programmed with the inability to ever harm the professor, meaning Bender can’t threaten the professor to install it for him. Sympathizing with Bender’s complete helplessness though, Farnsworth chooses to install the free will unit anyway and as a cruel test Bender attempts to shoot him, but can’t.
“Well, what do you know? I guess you really don’t want to shoot me after all.” – Professor
“Oops, the safety was on.” – Bender
*shoots Farnsworth repeatedly*
I find it enthralling how many twists there are within this exchange and that even when the show comically brushed the typical sci-fi story of free will aside (shifting focus of existential crisis on the human characters), it still is successful in producing fresh and stimulating material on the subject as a substitute. Bender cheering in the court room with balloons randomly raining down from the ceiling when he’s declared guilty of attempted murder is some of the best comedic payoff you can get.
8. The Simpsons “Bart the Mother” (Season 10)
In probably one of the better episodes under the showrunning helm of Mike Scully (seasons 9-12), Bart disobeys Marge’s orders to hang around Nelson Muntz and accidentally kills a mother bird after being peer pressured to shoot it with Nelson’s BB gun. It’s a story of Marge’s frustration towards Bart through her inability to control the person he is or might become, but ultimately it’s about Bart revealing his good nature and positive impact that she has on him. As seen in the clip above, Bart never intends to shoot the bird and displays a deep, sincere sense of remorse after killing it. Marge, who is angry enough as it is when she finds out Bart snuck out to go to Nelson’s, is even more upset when she discovers what Bart has done to this innocent bird.
“I really screwed up. I deserve to be punished.” – Bart
“What’s the point, Bart? I punish and I punish and I punish, but it never sinks in. So you know what? Do what you want. You wanna play with little hoodlums? Fine. Have fun killing things.” – Marge
Marge’s line here is indeed saddening. While delivered sternly, it’s a surrender to her son’s mischief and a cold, unfortunate passing of judgement on Bart’s character which certainly disturbs him. Of course she loves him but from her perspective she’s hurt. After she leaves Bart there, he’s shocked to realize there’s eggs in the mother bird’s nest and independently decides to look after them. What makes this episode emotionally tense for the audience is that up until now, we have witnessed Bart as the three-dimensional character that he is, while Marge is only seeing him one way with a lack of any redeeming quality. It becomes all the more earned when Marge cuts off the power to Bart’s incubator and storms up the treehouse thinking he’s hiding something, only to learn that Bart is trying to keep the eggs warm.
It’s reminiscent to Bart revealing his self-portrait as a gift to Marge (not another stolen video game for himself) in season 7’s classic “Marge Be Not Proud”. In fact, both episodes are incredibly similar but there is a difference. “Marge Be Not Proud” follows the structure of act break 1 (Bart steals), act break 2 (Marge finds out), and in act 3 Bart is wracked with guilt over Marge’s disappointment in him so he seeks to redeem himself. In “Bart the Mother” Marge is already disappointed in Bart before act 1 and discovers what Bart has done to the bird in the beginning of act 2, leaving act 2 to be Bart’s road to redemption which he achieves. This leaves act 3 wide open for more story and in typical ‘Scully Era’ fashion, the story takes a wild left turn as it’s revealed the mother bird’s eggs hatch an invasive species of lizards.
Usually these ‘left turn act 3’s’ around the time of season 10 can veer into the absurdly unrelated and unnecessarily deconstructive, leading an episode to fall apart miserably, but what keeps this twist somewhat grounded is how it becomes surprisingly relevant to the initial story, metaphorically. After learning that the Bolivian Tree Lizard has been banned by federal law and must be exterminated, Bart is put into Marge’s shoes, feeling compelled to protect and care for living creatures despite relentless implications of their lesser appealing qualities. This direction further explores Bart’s resonation in what he puts his mother through while also redeems Marge’s misguided judge of character towards him in the first half of the episode, as she permits Bart to disobey the order in relinquishing the lizards. It’s a moment of celebrating the good that can come from Bart’s disobedience rather than view it as something to exclusively negate. Overall, both learn something significant from the other and the episode ends on an ironic, comedic note as the town rewards Bart with a scented candle after the lizards were let go into the wild, left to breed, leading to the decimation of the pigeon population (“…also known as the feathered rat or gutterbird” – Kent Brockman).
“I don’t get it, Bart. You got all upset when you killed one bird but now you’ve killed tens of thousands and it doesn’t bother you at all.” – Lisa
“Hey, you’re right… I call the front seat!” – Bart
“You had it on the way over!” – Lisa
Everything aside, I still think “Marge Be Not Proud” is the better episode on all accounts, but I do consider “Bart the Mother” thoughtfully crafted and distinguished enough as its own story. The best jokes in this episode are still right at home with peak Simpsons humor, but there is a bit of dryness throughout where you can feel the show is running out of steam around this time, preventing the episode from really popping like the greatest ones do. Nonetheless, David X. Cohen delivered a fine script here during a time when remnants of the classic show was running on its last legs.
*Something to note:
“Bart the Mother” contains the last vocal scene from recurring character Troy McClure and overall the last voice performance from Phil Hartman before his untimely passing.
7. The Simpsons “Lisa the Skeptic” (Season 9)
“Lisa the Skeptic” handles the subject of science vs. religion combined with the common theme of people getting cheated out of their beliefs fairly well. From the beginning of the episode with the police station’s “free boat giveaway” where every scofflaw is invited to come and claim their “prize”, to the very end when the main plot’s “angel fossil” begins to rise and speak in regard to a supposed judgment day, nothing really is as it seems. I always loved the sensationalism of this episode. The reveal of the angel is so absurd and unexpected but holds ground as it rocks the entire town. There’s a tension felt between Lisa who seeks to explain this strange phenomenon through concrete science, and the townspeople who are much more eager to accept that the fossil is a definitive sign of a higher power. Most importantly, Lisa and Marge’s relationship is put to the test as Lisa is perplexed upon learning that her mother has solemnly planted herself in the camp of faith in regards to this unusual development.
“Hmm, my poor Lisa. If you can’t make a leap of faith now and then, well, I feel sorry for you.” – Marge
“Don’t feel sorry for me, mom. I feel sorry for you.” – Lisa
Many fans like to condemn “Lisa the Skeptic” for this rather harsh exchange, seeing it as unlikable for Lisa to deliver such a cold line to her mother as she walks dismissively away, but personally I love it because it’s real. I will always admire and defend the practice (especially in a show that’s been doing this since its inception) of allowing the display of an ugly, vulnerable moment played out with a character in service to an overall story. I love that this raw moment exists in an episode where everything else is drumming to the beat of the bizarre. Even when it’s revealed that the new, upcoming mega mall (introduced in act 1) hilariously created the false angel skeleton as a publicity stunt for their grand opening, the episode still manages to squeeze out a genuine, human moment between mother and daughter.
“Well I guess you were right, honey. But you have to admit, when that angel started to talk you were squeezing my hand pretty hard.” – Marge
“Well, it was just so loud and…thanks for squeezing back.” – Lisa
“Anytime, my angel.”
You can’t achieve this moment of compromise and catharsis without daring to get messy earlier on. This is an ending scene that does not have the same emotional impact without the former, blunt exchange. At the end of the day, “Lisa the Skeptic” takes on a lot as it attempts to be balanced and funny in light of subject matter that many may take very close to heart while telling a surreal story, executed it in a coherent, believable manner, as well as treading carefully with a focused character conflict. The episode maintains the show’s sense of edge and wit in which it’s best years are celebrated for. For a show nine seasons in, it did rather okay and I’m still impressed and glad to see the show challenging itself here.
6. The Simpsons “Das Bus” (Season 9)
Being a close, satirical take on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, “Das Bus” pits Bart, Lisa, and the rest of the school’s children against the odds as they must clumsily fight for survival on a deserted island after their school bus plummets off a bridge. It’s somewhat of a bottle episode (at least for the main plot) that gets a lot of breathing room in showcasing the amusing interaction between all of Springfield’s main kids and for that, it’s quite fun. I love everyone jumping down each other’s throats while trying to remain cooperative and optimistic. The funniest though is how hopelessly pathetic Milhouse is in nearly every scene regardless of whether the characters are trying to hurt or help him. Between Milhouse causing the bus crash to begin with and supposedly stealing some of the rationed food, the kid just gets in his own way regardless of what he’s guilty or innocent of.
Meanwhile, in a charmingly laid-back B story, Homer decides to start his own internet business in the naive hope for his own slice of success after receiving mail from FlanCrest Enterprises (Flanders’ home business) by mistake. What’s funny is how completely out of touch Homer is in regards to the internet or a home business altogether yet his company, Compu-Global-Hyper-Meganet seems to grab people’s attention from Comic Book Guy (the type more fluent with the internet in 1998) to billionaire Bill Gates. Usually the get-rich-quick scheme in sitcom can feel incredibly tired if not handled well, especially when it’s a subplot for an episode nearly 200 episodes in, but this one has an extra layer in it, being a timeless satire of people thinking they can profit off the internet from doing nothing. It’s a story of almost intentional datedness where Homer’s oblivious portrayal could only have worked when the internet was well-apparent and thriving but still young at this point in time. You couldn’t execute this idea today as it would be too much of a stretch for Homer to play ignorant to what the internet is, yet as a whole everything is still identifiable and the humor still holds up.
What I like about “Das Bus” is how simple it is. It’s not trying to do cartwheels in the efforts to uphold The Simpsons‘ reputation 9 seasons in for delivering A game material. It’s an episode that just allows the characters to be their characters and riff off one another within a general scenario. Whenever I think of this episode, I just remember how many great little moments exist (“I’m so hungry, I can eat at Arby’s…” – Sherri *gasps from the children*) and how enjoyably loose it can be regardless of it taking on the task of parody and satire so wonderfully. Sometimes when you have a good idea for a story, that idea just runs itself.
5. Futurama “The Why of Fry” (Season 4)
One distinctive aspect that definitely separates Futurama from The Simpsons is its sparse, but carefully connected, continuing story. At heart, the script is fueled by a depressed Fry yearning for some modicum of importance, but it’s also a long-awaited culmination to the series’ first episode, “Space Pilot 3000” where a keen eye might notice Nibbler’s shadow quickly shown just as Fry falls backwards into the cryogenic tube which will preserve him for the year 3000. “The Why of Fry” delivers the answer to this, but also infuses other notable episodes like season 3’s “The Day the Earth Stood Stupid” (where the evil brains were first introduced) and “Roswell That Ends Well” (time travel show where Fry mistakenly becomes his own grandfather) in order to help feed into this mythology-based installment.
When Leela is set to go out on a date with Chaz, the mayor’s aide, Fry is left to take her pet Nibbler out for a walk, only to be hit with a fine when he’s unable to pick up his outrageously heavy droppings. After a point of wallowing in self-pity, it is revealed to Fry that Nibbler can speak.
“Oh Nibbler, at least I’m important to you even if it’s only because I clean up your poop.” – Fry
“The poop eradication is but one aspect of your importance.” – Nibbler
Like Leela in “The Day the Earth Stood Stupid”, Fry is taken to the planet Eternium where Nibbler’s incredibly learned and adorable species, the Nibblonians, reside. They relay intel that the flying brains who once invaded Earth have built an infosphere where they plan to store the entirety of the universe’s information. Upon its imminent completion, the brains will use its information to destroy the universe as a means of preventing any new information from existing. It’s humorous but a cool concept as well for a show that’s a knock on science fiction considering the pursuit of knowledge towards the universe’s mysteries are what make any great science fiction show ultimately captivating. What makes Futurama work so well is that while it has always been a comedy that takes jabs at sci-fi genre tropes, it’s also sincere in inventing premises with fresh sci-fi concepts or theories.
Due to Fry lacking the delta brain wave (he’s dumb!), Fry is able to infiltrate the infosphere undetected with the means to plant a quantum interface bomb that will blast the brains into an alternate universe. After the bomb has been activated, Fry has enough time to escape but instead he’s stalled with curiosity when the brains reveal information that the Nibblonians (Nibbler specifically) are the reason Fry got sent into the future in the series’ pilot. He becomes distracted with this sudden news of Nibbler being responsible for him being teared away from his past life which leads to him being blasted into another universe along with the brains.
“You were the only one who could help us. What is one life weighed against the entire universe?” – Nibbler
“But it was MY life.” – Fry
It was not only a perfect opportunity to reveal this to Fry, seeing as the brains possess all information, but also to grant him the ability to go back to December 31st, 1999 considering only the master brain would be aware of a nexus point in space-time to allow him to do that. It also makes sense from a motivation standpoint because now Fry can go back to his past to stop Nibbler, never return to the future, and the brains can complete their mission in learning of and destroying everything in the universe (“Everybody wins!” – Fry). This is an episode that’s quite busy technically-speaking but remains focused in following a principal theme in Fry’s importance which is key to investing the viewer beyond the novelty of time travel.
When future Fry captures a regretful, yet concentrated Nibbler in the moment of sending past Fry into the cryogenic tube, future Fry is posed this time with a choice. Save his past self by returning to his not-so-glamorous past life or live a life of great meaning and save everyone in the future, including Leela who seems, from Fry’s perspective, to not think much of him. As complicated of a decision, the choice he makes is the obvious one as he’s returned to the future to stop the brains once again, this time with a better getaway vehicle than in his first attempt. Nibbler is thankful and agrees to help Fry in any way he can in regards to winning Leela’s heart.
“The Why of Fry” is a mouthful with so much packed in the duration of 22 minutes, but even with that said, we manage to still peek into how Leela’s date with Chaz is going throughout the episode. Obviously Chaz being the mayor’s aide is meant to serve in contrast to Fry, someone of significant importance to New New York but with a lack of character. We’re meant to see how the date goes badly so it can help Leela realize that clout is not the most redeeming value in an individual. All of that aside, I still find this subplot hilarious on its own to have a guy (voiced by Bob Odenkirk) oversell himself in regards to the authority he wields but be a complete, useless jerk in the process:
-Flashing his badge to get a table at a restaurant even though there’s plenty of tables.
-Letting Elzar off the hook for his next health inspection when a loaf of bread was used to squash a cockaroach, only for them to be served the same loaf of bread in gratitude.
-Telling Fry that he’ll pull some strings to get him tried as a juvenile when Fry fails to scoop up Nibbler’s leavings.
-Preventing orphan children from rocket skating as a romantic gesture for Leela (especially since she’s an orphan herself) and him to have the rink to themselves.
In the end, it makes it all the more sweet and earned when Leela returns to Planet Express happy to see Fry without her having any knowledge of just how important he truly is to the universe. This is a show that has always been pretty casual and unceremonious in regards to its ‘will they? won’t they?’ push and pull, but because of that, it only makes the simple gesture of Fry handing her a single plain flower all the more warm and satisfying. Just a really well-written episode.
4. Futurama “Xmas Story” (Season 2)
In early season 2, Futurama‘s world was still a wide open template to build upon so it’s first Christmas episode really could have done anything it wanted. It’s only in a show like this though, with such imaginary, hilarious vision of what the future might hold, could David X. Cohen reach into the pure absurd and pull back an idea so unusual, marvelous, and fitting as the one in “Xmas Story”.
When Fry experiences culture shock in how much Christmas has changed in the span of 1,000 years, he becomes glum and in the process unmindful to Leela’s own mixed feelings towards the holiday considering that growing up as an orphan, she’s never experienced Christmas with family whatsoever. In order to make it up to her, Fry plans to go out and get her a present but is warned by the crew to be back before sundown. To the crew’s astonishment, Fry brushes this notion off like it’s nothing, leading Farnsworth to inform and stress the dangers of Robot Santa (voiced by John Goodman) on Xmas Eve.
“Back in 2801, the Friendly Robot Company built a robotic Santa to determine who’d been naughty and who’d been nice and distribute presents accordingly. But something went wrong.” – Farnsworth
“Wow, 2801! Anyway…” (turns to leave) – Fry
“Wait, you fool! Due to a programming error, Santa’s standards were set too high and he invariably judges everyone to be naughty.” – Farnsworth
“If he catches you after dark, he’ll chop off your head and stuff your neck full of toys from his sack of horrors.” – Amy
First off, I find it hysterical that as commercialized as Christmas can be today, of course corporate thinking would hastily create a robotic Santa Claus just to entertain the unnecessary deciphering of who deserves a present and who doesn’t. It makes no sense but it’s so inspired (as if the holidays weren’t stressful enough) and what a clever excuse even in a Christmas special to explore artificial intelligence’s extreme take on what makes someone good or bad. I love that Futurama has created a monster mythos for Christmas in such an original way. It’s edgy and goes against everything you might expect in a traditional sitcom, but the horror and fear that’s instilled brings the characters together in a very fun and comforting manner. It’s just another form of stress which has always been one of the major key elements to allow any of the best, classic Christmas stories to flourish.
And what better way to ground the episode than examining the parallel loneliness that Fry and Leela share? All of the characters fire on all cylinders throughout whether it’s as sentimentally spellbinding as Fry and Leela’s after-hours debacle, or the independently reckless ventures of Bender affiliating with homeless robots with the means to take advantage of people and score free stuff. I even like how the show pokes fun at hammy sitcoms cliches as Zoidberg gives Amy a set of combs for her hair, only to learn that she sold her hair to a wig-maker in order to buy a set a combs for Hermes, who is revealed to have done the same thing to buy a set of combs for Zoidberg.
“Thank you. These’ll come in handy for my new hair.” (pulls Santa hat off to reveal Amy and Hermes’ wigs) “Finally I look as pretty as I feel.” – Zoidberg
The delivery gets me every time.
Speaking of laughter, one might forget how funny “Xmas Story” is in general from start to finish. Conan O’Brien’s guest performance in the beginning is amusing and the entire opening sequence of the Planet Express crew on their ski trip (“Trees down!”) is amazingly refined material. You also can’t dismiss the plethora of great Christmas-themed gags revolved around Robot Santa (some shown in the video above) like its closing song or Leela’s line when concerned that Fry still hasn’t come home.
“Wait, you mean he’s still out? His life’s in danger!” – Leela
“Why?” – Zoidberg
“I’m telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town!” – Leela
This was an episode by the way that worried the Fox censors, believing it to be too dark for the show’s initial 7:00 P.M timeslot on Sunday nights. Robot Santa, a great addition to the show, will live on in many episodes from here on out though so you can only be grateful when a show, intended for the 18-49 demographic sticks to its guns. For me, this one is an instant classic host to a creative plot, consistently quality humor, and gorgeous animation. Some of the 3D shots are superb, especially the snow effects. Overall, it’s a half hour of entertainment not to be taken for granted.
3. The Simpsons “Much Apu about Nothing” (Season 7)
After a bear has wandered down Springfield’s Evergreen Terrace, its residents march down to town hall with the demand for an overblown bear patrol, which eventually leads to an unwanted bear patrol tax. In the attempt to divert the town’s anger from himself, Mayor Quimby declares that taxes are high due to illegal immigrants. From there, the episode offers a smart, political satire which doesn’t pull any punches as it explores prejudice and the effect it has on the community, positioning Apu as the story’s central character. It’s the underlying humanity found in Apu, a character based on an Indian American stereotype, that really shines through here as the majority of the town portrays the relentless attitudes that exist towards the issue of immigration.
Homer goes from a character who’s ignorant on the subject and completely in favor of proposition 24 (Springfield’s ban of illegal immigrants) to Apu’s #1 champion as he takes Apu into his home with the means to help him. It makes an interesting contrast to Marge, who was one of the first characters shown opposed to proposition 24 after empathizing with Apu’s situation, to someone who emits hints of complacency when she asks,”Oh Homer, are you rounding up immigrants?”. There’s an apathetic tone to her question which reflects the American public’s lack or lost of concern towards causes, even from those of which they support. Of course she intends to join Homer and help Apu as well, but that subtle inflection in her voice shows that even the best of us can lose focus.
Even when Apu successfully earns his citizenship and Homer rally’s his closest friends to vote “no on 24”, it’s announced that the ban on illegal immigrants has passed due to the townspeople’s failure to vote. You get your happy ending with Apu but the ban going through exercises the idea that this is an ongoing issue that does affect those less fortunate. All in all, “Much Apu about Nothing”, like the best political commentary taken on by The Simpsons manages to take a serious issue and confront it with thoughtful consideration while still remaining delightfully funny in the process. This is one of Apu’s greatest episodes and one as a whole that usually flies under the radar in regards to the classic era of the show.
2. The Simpsons “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” (Season 8)
Despite The Simpsons’ decline in quality by its own standards and beyond, it’s not dumb luck that show has achieved the opportunity to last on the air for 29 seasons and counting. Through its highly critical and commercial acclaim during the first 8 seasons, the show has planted its foot firmly in the pantheon of great television and certainly earned the right to continue for as long as it chooses to, not just from its extraordinary success, but through the open format of an extensive, flexible universe. That said, even with it possessing an unique, timeless quality, the original run of the show, like all TV shows, still exists as an exclusive byproduct of its time. In seasons 7-8, showrunners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein were exceptionally aware of this and wanted to treat these years like they were most likely to be the last. They began to churn out stories they wanted to see before the show bowed out, whether it was a dissective tale for a particular secondary character, unexplored terrain for one of the main characters, or an episode of complete experiment and deconstruction on the show’s very foundations.
“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” is what the show has always been, a scarily self-aware vehicle for satire on the landscape and culture of the 1990’s, but here it’s tackling something very specific which not only is relevant to all continuing works of art, past and present (particularly in regards to TV), but a concern that pertains to the state of The Simpsons itself at this late stage in its existence. It’s a satire on itself as it explores longevity in television, the desperate pursuit to sustain a show’s quality, and the rabid fanbases that anticipate the initial cracks exposed when a revered series begins to lose its impact. When ratings are down, Krusty, Roger Meyers Jr., his writing staff, and the network brainstorm a way to give Itchy & Scratchy the proper boost it needs in order breathe new life into it. It’s here where we’re introduced to Poochie, the rockin’ dog. He’s edgy and totally in your face and yeah, he’s just like every lame, late-addition character that gets desperately shoehorned into every TV show when running out of creative steam.
This episode was the The Simpsons‘ answer to every Fox executive that ever suggested the show do this, which is why Roy, the family’s new houseguest casually pops in and out during this episode as a means to give further emphasis on how hacky this ill-fitted “solution” in TV is. What I love is that this aired not when the show was in decline, but when it was still in its peak. The humor here alone is The Simpsons at its best and even for such a self-referential, meta premise, it still operates with the same lovable charm as any beloved Simpsons episode does. This installment is entirely aware though that the original organism that is the show is close to being over at some point and what makes it kind of sad is that it will end up continuing for another 21+ seasons. I guess you have to give some credit to the modern show that it never resorted to something so cheap as adding a new character to the family or something so drastic along those lines in order to retool the show.
But despite the episode pointing out this particularly hackneyed cliche in television, Bart makes a great point when Comic Book Guy expresses disgust, proclaiming “The Beagle Has Landed” as the worst episode ever:
“Hey, I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain?” – Bart
“As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.” – CBG
“What? They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? I mean if anything, you owe them.” – Bart
“(pause)…Worst episode ever.” – CBG
It’s true. Art and it’s creators don’t you owe you anything, ever. That’s not to excuse deserved critical opinion when something truly isn’t performing at a certain standard of quality (Bart agrees with Comic Book Guy’s opinion after all), but basically what’s being touched on here is that content isn’t the only thing subject to being ridiculous. Sometimes the fans and people who are attracted to a piece of work can be just as flawed in their reactions towards it. Not all, but the select group of nitpickers or even those who are fair and constructive in having their opinion can forget to compose themselves properly when delivering it. The old fallacious argument of “it’s just a TV show” doesn’t take away from the fact that a critical opinion is correct, but at the same time, a TV show shouldn’t affect you to the point of hoping “someone got fired for that blunder” or to use something you disapprove of as a chance to channel a smug, snarky attitude.
“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” explores both sides of the coin here with spectacular finesse and is my #1 go-to piece in all of television when I reflect on the inevitable topic of art vs. critical opinion and the annoying trope of cheap ratings ploys in television which still occurs today. I also find it very interesting and rather hilarious that Homer, our protagonist who becomes the voice of Poochie, is hopelessly tasked to defend the character, initially not understanding why Poochie’s obnoxiousness could be such a problem. I’ll always love how he completely misses the point and suggests to the writers in the efforts to save the show that Poochie should have access to a time machine and that when Poochie’s off-screen all the other characters should be asking “Where’s Poochie?”. The best though is towards the end when he does get it and protests in the recording booth from being killed off. (Side note: The model of David X. Cohen is the writer with the squid on his shirt):
What I find so funny about this speech is that there’s a complete shift in tone that would feel so out of place in an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. If you imagine Poochie actually delivering this heartfelt speech in the middle of one of their segments, it’s hilarious. Even when Poochie is owning up to his mistakes, he’s still screwing up the pacing and stealing the spotlight.
1. The Simpsons “Lisa the Vegetarian” (Season 7)
There is no character in television more deserving than Lisa Simpson to shake up the status quo so late into a series’ existence and undergo the permanent, iconic staple of becoming a vegetarian. After a certain character was revealed to shoot Mr. Burns in the season 7 premiere, the show opened it’s floodgates with stories that would change the way you perceive characters from here on out. How much more fitting can it be for Lisa to take on this significant shift in her lifestyle? It’s bold enough upon Paul McCartney’s actual request to keep her as a vegetarian forever from an animation standpoint alone. No more establishing or throwaway shots of the family piling random food in their mouths when eating breakfast, lunch, or dinner, because it has to be clear that Lisa isn’t eating the same stuff (likely meat) that the rest of the family is eating. From a character standpoint, her newfound vegetarianism is absolutely plausible and even surprising that she hasn’t possessed this trait from the beginning. But the story is about the struggle of making a change and the overwhelming amount of obstacles that can stand in the way from achieving that which is exactly what becoming a vegetarian entails.
It’s a specific story that hasn’t really been told and owned up to in TV to the extent that’s presented here. If this was an episode that aired in its first season, you wouldn’t feel the same gravitas because the character is still being developed. However, to write this for an established, beloved character who’s graced the small screen consistently for well over six years adds an extra, appropriate layer of tension to an audience who expects the formula of the status quo in sitcom to be the overriding factor in countering Lisa’s pursuit to change. And I’m not saying a dramatic change has been applied to Lisa from a viewer’s perspective, but a substantial one certainly has which doesn’t tamper with the Lisa you have grown to watch. I find this interesting and I applaud that season 7 begins to experiment or expand on the show’s characters like this without sacrificing their familiar charm.
The main component I really admire about “Lisa the Vegetarian” is the level of catharsis it attains when Lisa visits Apu’s secret rooftop garden and learns that he’s vegan. As much as it is a story about making a change, Apu teaches Lisa about not forcing your beliefs or practices on others, namely Homer who has worked quite hard for his upcoming BBQ which Lisa previously sabotaged in protest. This lesson holds the key not only to preventing Lisa from becoming more grating or one-noted in her characterization (something some future Simpsons episodes could take note of), but also to anybody in general who’s looking to make a strong change in their life. The world may be moving in every direction possible to make it more difficult for you to stick to your beliefs or standards, but if you truly desire change, you must not hold the world accountable as an excuse not to. Work on yourself for yourself and you may naturally influence others in the process.
The reason I chose this as my #1 over the “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” is that while both are phenomenal and could only exist as late series entries, I appreciate how “Lisa the Vegetarian” manages to offer something new in an organic character study without being heavily meta. Not that I’m against highly accomplished self-referential pieces which the Poochie show is going for, but there’s a quality in this episode I prefer that just feels warmer and obviously garners a strong emotional response. The color palette and framing to the final shot as Homer and Lisa make amends followed by the pig flying over the credits (played to McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”) is powerful.
I also think both episodes are batting 1000 when it comes to delivering great jokes. In this episode’s case, I find it commendable how every joke pushes the story forward. It almost feels as if every scene was built around each gag or series of gags while also secondarily serving as a vital plot or character beat for the story. For example, it’s astounding that in the span of a minute the show manages to convey such tension between Homer and Lisa at the breakfast table leading to such a dramatic payoff while also operating as this sharp, comedic sketch:
At the end of the day, nobody is born a vegetarian. It’s something you choose to do which is what makes this story real and the seeds were always there for Lisa to make this choice. For The Simpsons to take an idea on like this for Lisa’s character and produce such a profound layer of meaning and interpretation through the story while also offering top humor to boot, it’s an episode like this that will stick with you the most.