Hello, Hello! I return with my (on average) monthly series of reviews, this time showcasing the work of writer, Bill Odenkirk, who’s brother you may recognize as the more famous writer/actor Bob Odenkirk. My hope with these write-ups is to paint a clearer picture of a writer’s collection of work (from what I’m familiar with) so Bill, if you somehow came across this, I hope you enjoy the read even if there’s some criticisms I might have in particular episodes. Altogether, Bill is a talented comedy writer, having worked on Mr. Show with Bob and David, The Simpsons, and Futurama. His best episodes are simply great TV. Unfortunately, despite having seen Mr. Show in its entirety over a year ago (including W/Bob and David), any episode of that written by him will not be included on this list as I don’t have the proper access to reacquaint myself. Of course this can always be edited in the future.
Let’s begin, shall we?
9. The Simpsons “The Mook, the Chef, the Wife, and Her Homer” (Season 18)
Usually when I post a clip to introduce a review, it’s with the means to highlight a joke or a moment that I found particularly worthy (this one being no different). In fact, this is probably the most prominent scene that comes to mind whenever I think of this episode. It is funny. Homer and Moe’s back and forth is sharp and the truck-truck-truck bit will always be an entertainingly absurd visual gag, but there are some issues to consider with this clip that reflects my overall opinion of the episode. It all comes down to characterization becoming overhauled to serve the mafia-centric plot which in and of itself is pretty jarring. What’s great about Homer’s character is the range. Even as a mock mob boss, he’s right at home with how the Homer Simpson we know (at his best in this era) would approach this. He has good intentions to do right by Fat Tony, the father, but is completely oblivious and incompetent to honoring the harsh scope of Fat Tony, the mob boss. Even in a rather crude, Family Guy-esque scene of Homer, Bart, Legs, and Louie holding Flanders at gunpoint is something to be taken with a grain of salt.
However, it’s Bart who I’m much more concerned with. Odenkirk seems to really be pushing the ‘bad boy’ image of Bart in an opportune scenario, but there’s something about Bart’s character throughout the episode that crosses a bit into a disingenuous place. It feels smug and commercialized as if the episode is forcibly selling to you how bad Bart is here. Compare that to season 3’s “Bart the Murderer” where Bart gets mixed up with Fat Tony’s criminal underworld while remaining consistently innocent to what he’s getting mixed up in. That was an episode that had Bart stand trial for the possible murder of Principal Skinner while being framed as the mafia syndicate’s kingpin. The promotional taglines of “Bart joins the mob!” or “Bart is a murderer!” is ripe for the picking, yet Bart still feels like a ten year old misfit who’s just got himself in too deep. How is it that something so extreme played out much more natural and fitting for Bart’s character there, but in “The Mook, the Chef, the Wife, and Her Homer”, his brief moments (the episode not even being about him) of glorifying a life of crime feel so off? Again, it’s a characterization issue.
At least a redeeming factor plays towards the end when Bart turns down the suggestion of him having a future in a life of crime (he’s much more content selling bootleg dvds instead) but it still doesn’t really fix the way he’s portrayed. Even Bart butting heads with Otto in the opening scene feels iffy, seeing as the two are usually friendly with one another. It’s an unfortunate example of sacrificing character in order to move the plot along, since the carpool with Fat Tony needed to be introduced. The idea of Fat Tony’s son, Michael, being in on Marge’s carpool came from a throwaway line of Odenkirk’s previous penned episode, “The Seven-Beer Snitch”, thus leading to this story of the Simpsons brushing shoulders with the D’amico family. The episode isn’t really going for any moral dilemma as Marge, who’s usually the family’s moral compass remains in the dark to what’s going on, and Lisa, the voice of reason, is more preoccupied with helping Michael’s gift for cooking to prosper.
It makes it all the more shocking when a hit is attempted on Fat Tony’s life and his son Michael ends up poisoning rival gang members (voiced by The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli and Joe Pantoliano) in the Simpsons dining room. It’s a bizarre scene as if something out of a non-canon treehouse of horror segment and feels especially silly considering the Simpsons family does the equivalent of shrugging their shoulders in response. I mean correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that if three people were murdered by a child under the Simpsons’ roof in the classic years of the show, even in the more outlandish, experimental installments, it would be something treated with a lot more weight and urgency. That’s not what this episode is going for though since Michael’s intentionally obvious recipe (meat, spices, poison, serves 6-10 enemies) is clearly to be played for laughs.
This is a season premiere that sacrifices characterization for comedy and gangster film parody, requiring you to adjust you brain to enjoy it for what it is. I did laugh or find scenes humorous several times throughout, but there’s no denying the missteps taken in order for this story to play out. We know the show is capable of churning out absurdity while keeping the characters and universe intact, so it’s kind of hard to not take these criticisms into consideration.
8. The Simpsons “Crook and Ladder” (Season 18)
“Crook and Ladder” wards itself off from the more glaring issues of “The Mook, the Chef, the Wife, and Her Homer” but is still host to its own problems. In terms of characterization, Homer’s actions are merely questionable when he becomes a firefighter who steals and the rest of the characters are pretty much on point as far as season 18 goes, especially when they find out what Homer’s been up to. However, what is rather conspicuous in this episode is its fairly thin plot. Usually The Simpsons or any show will use a subplot if a writer feels the main story isn’t strong enough to fill 22 minutes, but here instead, the episode is padded with a completely disconnected first act of Maggie throwing a fit when her pacifier is taken away before shifting to Homer’s habit of sleepwalking.
It’s one of those first acts where one thing leads to another before eventually landing on the episode’s central story but in this case, this material wastes nearly half the episode’s running time to do this and it’s not particularly done well enough to feel justified. It’s funny in spots, but for so much time spent on two small developments, nothing much worthwhile is squeezed out of it. Lisa repeating Larry Flynt’s name over and over is more grating than funny and Homer repeating “mood swings” in various tones felt uninspired, almost as a means to drag things out further. That said, I enjoyed some stuff such as Marge’s smothering mother magazine (“The Deadly Truth about Oxygen”) and Bart and Milhouse taking advantage of Homer’s sleep deprived state. Even the well-animated sequence of Homer crashing into the fire station offers some snappy physical humor and the final button to the act is something that made me laugh, mostly due to its delivery and how intentionally unnatural Homer’s line is for the situation:
“Oh my God, what have I done!?” – Homer
“You’ve horribly injured the whole fire department!” – Firefighter
“What are you, a travel agent? ‘Cause you’re sending me on a guilt trip.” – Homer
“Sorry.” – Firefighter
Still, in terms of motivation, the transition to Homer immediately becoming a firefighter (I guess out of guilt?) feels forced and slapped together as if the episode finally decided what it wanted to be. When you’re 18 seasons in and ‘Homer gets a job’ ideas are far from anything new, you would hope that Homer’s motivation can at least feel earned. While the firefighter’s premise of Homer and friends stealing from various establishments is again, questionable, I do think it’s a shame that this plot didn’t have more time to breathe from the get-go because as a whole it is interesting. I like how it evolves from Mr. Burns not reciprocating any form of gratitude when Homer, Moe, Apu, and Skinner put out the fire in his mansion. There’s definitely comedy and intrigue in having Moe, the most corrupting character of their group, feel validated by sticking it to the more villainous Mr. Burns by blowing a flying ember (under the transparent mask of good intentions) towards Mr. Burns’ loot room and claim it’s valuables as smoke-damaged. From there, it becomes a tale of delusions of grandeur when they use this as an excuse to steal from the people they have volunteered to help.
The story of Homer and gang as firefighters is pretty simple. They become firefighters, Moe persuades them to steal (besides Skinner who chooses to look the other way), Marge catches Homer in the act, Homer feels guilty and he redeems himself somewhat. Primarily it’s more fun to watch these characters just be firefighters for an episode as there’s some humorous gags here, while the story is just there to push things along. If Odenkirk didn’t feel the need to pad the episode out with an unrelated first act, as well as an extended couch gag, the story could have become more fleshed out (exploring Homer’s motivation and thought process as well as offering an ending that didn’t feel so rushed) while still providing a wealth of fun material to riff on. Perhaps it would have been better if the idea behind the first act was saved for a story that could have used it more cohesively. Other than that, I at least find “Crook and Ladder’s” free-writing (albeit lazy) approach to the plot, much more easier to swallow than an episode with a wide disregard for character. It’s definitely good that Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie don’t entertain Homer’s act of thievery with anything other than disappointment.
7. The Simpsons “The Seven-Beer Snitch” (Season 16)
Thief. Mob boss. Prison snitch. Working backwards from how these episodes aired, you might notice that Bill Odenkirk loves to pit Homer within the criminal element. “The Seven-Beer Snitch” in my opinion, is the better of the three because it’s free of characterization issues (for the most part) and makes better use of its A story from beginning to end. The opening with the Simpsons family exploring the culture of Shelbyville and learning of its residents’ condescending generalization towards Springfield’s townspeople is funny and brief enough to establish Marge’s desire to build a concert hall to compensate. This concert hall of an abstract Frank Ghery design becomes a creative playground from a story point-of-view as it’s ironically transformed into a prison once the concert hall’s initial hype dies down (due to Springfield proving not to be much culturally-invested after all). It’s an eccentric structure that becomes the common ground for keeping the plot focused throughout as Odenkirk is wise enough to take advantage of its unusual setting.
He even throws the audience off when we’re set to believe that the episode is going to be another ‘Homer gets a job’ story, especially considering it plays out with the same potential trap that “Crook and Ladder” would later fall into by having Homer automatically become employed in an establishment (firefighter/supposed prison guard) after something initially went wrong within it (fire department getting injured/concert hall’s lack of revenue). And yes, while it still technically is a ‘Homer gets a role‘ story, the fact that he becomes an inmate, turned prison snitch (sporting a small hat ala Adebisi from HBO’s Oz) is a delightful twist which is executed naturally. Also, Homer never commits any real crime and only becomes incarcerated due to the corrupt power that Mr. Burns holds over the prison, police department, and town hall, allowing for a lesser jerk-ass adaptation in Homer to follow.
Other than Joe Mantegna’s Fat Tony providing a throwaway line in reference to his son Michael serving as the spark for the idea of “The Mook, the Chef. the Wife, and Her Homer”, I like to think that Moe’s line at the Springfield Cultural Activities Board preludes to his behavior in “Crook and Ladder”:
“We’ve got to upgrade Springfield’s image. Show them we’re more than just a town that’s still afraid of eclipses.” – Marge
“Hey, how ’bout we open a fancy restaurant and when people check their hats and coats, we steal them?” – Moe
“Why do you come to these meetings?” – Marge
“Free water.” – Moe
Obviously this is without conscious intention but I still appreciate any sense of accidental continuity even if just through a character trait. Not only that but once the entire prison becomes aware of Homer’s snitching, his getaway segway is of the same model and design that’s used by Homer in “Crook and Ladder”. Segway gags aside though, I like the sense of drama that builds once the inmates leak a false tip that a major breakout is going to occur. By having Homer relay this to the warden (voiced by Charles Napier), it allows the prisoners to have free reign over the prison as the guards foolishly wait outside its borders leaving Homer completely exposed. Marge coming to the rescue makes sense since she holds the key to the building from when it was a concert hall and she would have seen the news report showcasing (hilarious) thermal imagery of Homer attempting to hide from the mob of convicts. When they both hide inside a gas chamber, Marge delivers a line that’s intentionally out of character and meant to be played for laughs:
“I want you to look into the faces of those poor men. Each one is a life that you made worse with your ratting.”
It’s victim-blaming in a situation where they’re surrounded by murderers and scumbags, but that’s the joke. It does take some bending and twisting in Marge’s character in order to deliver it but it’s immensely forgivable in my opinion. Besides, even with her being a strong advocate for honesty, I like to think of this seemingly puzzling line as Marge’s way of protecting Homer in this particular situation considering there’s a time and a place for when someone should speak the truth. In this extreme case, Homer needs the common sense of when to keep his mouth shut or it could cost him his life in the future. Basically Marge values her husband’s life over instilling the correct message in him and I think that’s kind of sweet, even if it means that she’s willing to deal with Homer withholding the truth at times like whether or not he’s sneaking out in the middle of the night to grab a beer at Moe’s.
“I won’t tell if you don’t tell.” – Homer to Snowball II
If you could believe it, even with the main story being told as successfully as it is, there’s still room for a properly balanced B story. When Snowball II has gained weight, Bart and Lisa investigate the cause, only to discover that their pet cat has been cheating on them with another family. It’s a cute bit driven by a hint of curiosity in the fashion of Hansel and Gretel without any sinister catch. The family that takes Snowball II (or Smokey) in is sweet, casual and loving and that’s all they are. Even when Bart infiltrates the house, he returns to Lisa with pockets-full of pastry unharmed and willing to go back tomorrow. I love the lack of twist or resolution here. Snowball II is just simply happy visiting this family and even though it might bother Lisa, what else can you do?
6. The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror XV” (Season 16)
In the season 16 premiere (and Odenkirk’s first penned episode for The Simpsons) Treehouse of Horror returns for its fifteenth installment and is quite good as far as post-classic THOH episodes are concerned. Perhaps it’s owed to Bill Odenkirk’s experience in writing segments for Mr. Show with Bob and David but he manages to tell three fully realized stories, while also including an intro parodying lame 80’s sitcoms (shown above), without feeling like anything is being rushed to adhere to a strict running time. The short-form seems to be right in his wheelhouse here and even for a non-canon episode he surprisingly doesn’t go too far with allowing looser characterization that tends to be more welcomed in these Halloween specials.
In my opinion, the first segment, entitled “The Ned Zone” (a play off of Stephen King’s 1979 novel The Dead Zone), is far and beyond the strongest segment where Ned suffers a concussion which grants him the ability to foresee people’s deaths, including Homer’s. Ned envisions himself shooting Homer with a gun and becomes incredibly cautious even when Homer comically taunts him to do so upon learning of his strange foretelling. It’s a clever tale of Ned’s attempt to overcome fate as he’s thrown in the difficult position of preventing Homer from destroying the entire town, which ironically only occurs by Ned’s very act of trying to stop him.
This is a fun, haunting first act containing some superb material such as the entire Hans Moleman scene, Homer’s “…but ice cream cake!” line, the core destruct button bit, and the messy garage that Homer was supposed to clean ending up in heaven. I even like the runner of Homer’s frisbee throughout being the introductory cause to Ned’s concussion (Homer trying to get it off the roof with a bowling ball), the reason Dr. Hibbert died when trying to retrieve it off the hospital’s window sill, and ultimately the subject of a fakeout towards the end when God approaches Homer after the explosion.
“Homer Simpson, it’s time you got what’s coming to you. Your frisbee!” – God
The second act’s “Four Beheadings and a Funeral” is a Sherlock Holmes spoof which shows Eliza (Lisa) and Dr. Bartley (Bart) in 1890’s London as they attempt to solve the case of the Muttonchop Murderer. The murder mystery aspect and the fantastic use of shadows during night-time scenes are arguably enough to validate this segment scraping by as a Halloween segment, but I also find that small, supernatural moments like Inspector Wiggum trying to keep a live eel down his esophagus, Ned and his kids revealed as shrunken heads, or the inanimate stool coming alive from a magic potion are enough to satisfy the unusual tone of Halloween. Plus there’s the episode’s second appearance from Kang and Kodos in a Victorian era spaceship and the surreal, disconnected twist of the story being a long, continuous dream of Ralph which helps an otherwise faithfully told murder mystery come off a tad more bizarre.
The last segment, “In the Belly of the Boss” presents a send-up to 1966’s Fantastic Voyage when Professor Frink mistakenly shrinks Maggie into a pill capsule that Mr. Burns takes with the promise of perfect health. From there, the family must pilot a micro-ship into Burns’ body in order to rescue her. This is a film that’s been tackled many times in the name of parody by an excessive amount of shows (Futurama included) but only because it’s a fun sci-fi premise to riff on. I particularly enjoy Homer’s complete disregard for science throughout and although this is the least Halloween-esque segment, it still follows the weird theme of venturing into the unknown quite well, leading to an ending that’s rather horrific.
These last two segments are just merely good compared to the favorable first segment as they still offer some pretty funny moments that helps them remain somewhat memorable. Upon airing, “Treehouse of Horror XV” is nowhere close to the best of earlier years but it’s still a good episode, especially compared to several later ones in its anthology. Because of the creative freedom that’s offered here, I think this perhaps edges out “The Seven-Beer Snitch” as Odenkirk’s best contribution to The Simpsons when it was on its decline.
5. Futurama “Kif Gets Knocked Up a Knotch” (Season 4)
Futurama’s season 4 premiere examines the budding relationship between Amy and Kif which has been consistent since season 1’s “A Flight to Remember”. When the long distance between them takes its toll, Amy sneaks into the Planet Express’s item for delivery (body-sized pill capsule ala Maggie Simpson) and veers the ship off course to meet with Kif on Zapp Brannigan’s ship, the Nimbus. It’s an adorable disregard for Professor Farnsworth’s orders and a fine romantic gesture to Kif, who’s missed her for so long. What I like about this episode however is how their romance is tested in a most humorous, unconventional, manner when Kif, being a male alien, becomes pregnant plainly from the act of holding hands.
It’s established earlier that Amy is happy with things the way they are and isn’t ready to move in together just yet, so when the news is dropped of Kif’s pregnancy, she can only feign enthusiasm. For me, when it comes to the human element that grounds the story amidst its role reversal and backwardness, it’s about the act of trying in a relationship despite a strong, unmovable blot that will prevent you from being happy in it. I think it works best when it’s revealed that Leela is the “mother” after mistakenly holding hands with Kif, allowing some leniency in Amy’s conflict. It could be seen as an escape but the fact that she makes the decision to go forward with supporting Kif is a sign of their love, even if Kif helps nudge her in this direction by stating that despite who the biological mother is, he knows it was Amy who sparked the feelings he had in order to be pregnant to begin with. Everything is weird and upside-down but there’s still a careful nuance to all of it and I think that’s pretty impressive.
It makes it all the more climactic when she finally breaks and runs out at Kif’s baby shower after it’s revealed that her parents turned her party board into an ironing board while Kif gives a speech that emits the notion of a trap more than a celebration. It’s a difficult moment but a fair reaction for Amy’s character, having never prepared for being a mom, let alone ever knowing how Kif’s species reproduces. A lot of fault can be put on Kif here, being a blind romantic who never made clear to Amy the culture and science of his own biology, yet there’s still an innocence with him that you can’t help feel bad for.
He presses on with the rest of the Planet Express crew to his swampy home planet in order to give birth, which the process proves quite pitiful without his ‘smizmar’ (partner Amy). I feel as if his home planet, being this foggy cast of muted greens and browns helps illustrate an overwhelming sense of dread and bleakness which is a very important factor that’s preventing Amy from truly being on board. In contrast, such a dreary backdrop helps Amy’s sudden return (being in just in time for the birth) become much more impactful and selfless. Despite everyone else, she’s even unfazed by the grossness of his birth (shown in video above) which in light of her struggle indicates a sign of hope for their relationship.
Other than the party board/ironing board being a symbol for Amy’s youth and impending responsibility, her clumsiness throughout in performing a safe landing after riding with such grace can almost be seen as an opposite, metaphoric device for the plot overall, full of messy twists and turns, but which actually achieves a safe ending. Amy still admits that she’s not ready but she loves Kif and chooses to stay by his side which is a greater gesture than disobeying Farnsworth’s orders in the beginning. It’s conveniently mentioned by Kif though, that his offspring won’t need care until twenty years from now. It’s a cop-out but I believe an earned one in retrospect because Amy still came to terms with her selfless, loving decision in a situation that was unfair without knowing this relieving information. Regardless, Futurama would never drop a baby or babies on a character for the rest of the series. It’s just not that type of show. After an episode like this, Amy and Kif deserve a satisfying compromise and the swimming tadpoles is a pleasant note to go out on.
4. Futurama “A Tale of Two Santas” (Season 3)
After his introduction in season 2, Robot Santa makes a return, this time with the welcome change of Fry, Leela, and Bender bringing the fight to his headquarters on the North Pole of Neptune. Although the theme of ‘fear bringing everyone closer together’ is retreaded and more blatantly presented here compared to the more understated approach that made “Xmas Story” so great, there’s still enough to defend why a Christmas episode with Robot Santa is worth revisiting.
For starters, the very idea of Robot Santa is too rich and inventive to pass up as a ‘one-and-done’ episode. The original “Xmas Story” was already controversial from a censorship standpoint, being deemed too dark for an audience in the 7:00 PM timeslot, so pushing the limits even further for round two is exactly the sensational form of entertainment that should be encouraged. Beyond that, scaling upward to Robot Santa’s ice fortress with such dreadful suspense is exactly the new terrain worth delving into. I adore Fry’s unbridled determination to defeat “Santa” in order to put a stop to the horror reigned over Christmas, followed by an immediate resurgence of fear once their seemingly fool-proof plan of using paradoxical logic to ensure his self-destruction, backfires.
Upon their escape, Robot Santa gets trapped in the ice, leading to an opportunity of not only showcasing the depressingly optimistic lives of the Neptunians who have been thrown unsympathetically into the role of Santa’s elves, but also to show the humorous terror of Xmas from Robot Santa’s perspective, as Bender is tasked with delivering toys to New New York. Watching Bender (who’s usually mean-spirited and selfish) trying to convince people that he’s not the evil Santa is fun material. Being a robot who you would presume can’t feel pain, and a block-headed robot at that, you can’t help but laugh when he becomes engulfed in flames or gets repeatedly shot by Farnsworth himself when people refuse to believe he’s innocent as Robot Santa’s replacement.
When Bender faces imminent execution upon capture, more mayhem ensues as Fry and Leela return to Neptune with the hope of exonerating Bender by proving the real Robot Santa exists. It’s commendable how despite the menacing overtones and destruction wrought out by Robot Santa after he escapes the ice, that the last act manages to still ironically squeeze in multiple, conventional Christmas tropes in order to resolve the story. Between having to prove “Santa” exists, the Planet Express crew dressing in Santa garb as a hilariously contrived last resort, and Robot Santa surprisingly rescuing Bender and inviting him to join on his sleigh (slaying) as the real Santa would to a child, it’s all conducted under the spirit of fear bringing everyone closer together. This is a theme that, again, while being dug out from its previously underlying subtext, at the very least redeems itself by providing a perfect lasting image as the Planet Express crew huddles together on the couch for security.
And while it’s essentially still using that same through-line in order to tell the same edgy Christmas story in an entirely different way, you can’t deny how much comedic mileage and replay value “A Tale of Two Santas” offers. Robot Santa began as a great idea, but here, John DiMaggio’s vocal performance is uncannily similar to John Goodman’s initial adaptation, and the character manifests as a valuable, recurring staple to the series from here on out.
3. Futurama “How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back” (Season 2)
In Futurama’s first episode to center on Hermes (and Bill Odenkirk’s first episode ever written on this list), we’re fed a creative tale that pokes fun at the exasperated trials of bureaucracy, but fundamentally champions the idea of embracing what you’re great at, regardless of external forces suggesting otherwise. It’s a daring episode to take a character who up until now has been underused, serving primarily as the straight man from a marginalized position in the cast, and give him an episode that buckles down on the monotonous, workaday life in which he holds so dearly. The script basically dives head-on into the dull and uninteresting, only with the return of highly inspired entertainment. It’s something easier said than done, but what helps things triumph is hilariously owed to Hermes’ ceaseless devotion towards a line of work that most people would file under tedious.
Hermes is literally prepared to jump off the roof over his accounting job which makes it interesting and darkly funny to the point where it’s difficult not to stand behind him when he’s sent away and replaced by Morgan Proctor (played by Nora Dunn), a no-nonsense bureaucrat who brings stricter regulations to Planet Express. On paper, you might expect the plot will unfold in the familiar direction of everyone at Planet Express becoming fed up with Ms. Proctor, leading to the growing appreciation of Hermes, before finally asking him to return and save the day, but it actually plays out much more intelligently to befit the story.
Hermes’ leave of absence is a decision entirely of his own doing after Bender accidentally wrecks his office upon inspection, so his return solely depends on him rather than an adversary needing to be taken down or the crew having to figure out a way to guarantee his return. “How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back” is about realizing your purpose and coming to terms with your undeniable self. It doesn’t matter if Hermes takes his paid vacation on Spa 5, only for it to turn out to be a forced labor camp because he’s already a master of the prison that is red tape. No shackles could prevent him from excelling in who he is and even though it’s played for laughs that Spa 5 is this terrible place that Zoidberg mistakenly recommends to all his patients, it turns out to be the perfect opportunity for Hermes to realize his self-worth.
“Organizing that forced labor spa rekindled my life-long love of bureaucracy.” – Hermes
“My Hermes got that hellhole running so efficiently that all the physical labor is now done by a single Australian man.” – LaBarbara
Since Morgan Proctor isn’t required to stand in Hermes way, I like how her story at Planet Express doesn’t follow your run-of-the-mill ‘enduring the strict boss’ formula. Instead we’re thrown off guard when it’s revealed she’s madly attracted towards the messy, slob lifestyle of Fry which turns south once Bender discovers their hidden fling. It’s here where this subplot becomes a rescue mission for Bender’s brain when she sends it to the Central Bureaucracy as a cover-up. It’s wonderful how both Hermes’ inner conflict and the rest of crew’s run-in with Morgan seemingly operate secondarily in place of some inventive, situational comedy (you can feel the structure of sketch in a lot of Odenkirk’s material), yet the narrative still comes together, leading them all into the heart of the Central Bureaucracy, being a grand joke in all of its whimsy.
After a fantastic musical number by Hermes (from the help of writer Ken Keeler) you’re left with a humorous, yet meaningful message to just do what you love (even if it’s a bad idea!) Don’t be afraid to do what’s considered boring or strange to others, because as long as it’s a healthy, sound thing to do and you’re happy and having fun, that’s all that counts. Even when things get difficult, think of Hermes and remind yourself that you’re the best one for the job regardless.
2. Futurama “The Farnsworth Paradox” (Season 4)
Futurama wouldn’t have much of a comedic spin on the sci-fi genre if it didn’t explore parallel universes, now would it? As frequently as this is touched on in film and TV, there’s no denying how much fun the idea of an alternate world is, and fun is exactly what Odenkirk has here. Not only has Professor Farnsworth discovered a pathway to another universe without realizing it but he manages to confine the entire alternate universe within a single cardboard box. Due to the destructive toll this random experiment has had on him, he orders the crew to destroy the box by throwing it in the sun (and also not to peek inside).
This first act is great for a couple of reasons. First, the mystery of the box’s contents provides such a necessary build-up of anticipation for an incredibly cool premise while serving as a fine platform for comedy as the crew’s curiosity gets the best of them. For instance, I love that Fry and Bender are completely satisfied when Leela diverts their attention to an identical dummy box filled with tangled Christmas lights and old booze without them questioning how that could possibly be the same items that were responsible for explosions and chaos in Farnsworth’s lab at the beginning of the episode.
*And yet, if you ever tried to hang up Christmas decorations, it makes complete sense.
Secondly, the set-up to this bizarro episode remains completely unceremonious and even dismissive to the premeditated exposition and rising action that usually plays out in any other sci-fi story which tackles this subject. That’s not to say that showrunner David X. Cohen and Bill Odenkirk didn’t go the extra mile in considering the complex, technical logic and paradoxes that the episode will hold in the bones of its story, but it’s still a story that’s introduced to the audience in a very loose manner for the sake of comedy. It’s hilarious that a parallel universe exists in something so mundane as what looks like a hat box and that Farnsworth is so oblivious and unimpressed with the creation that he’s ready to just toss it in the sun before the first commercial break. The lack of build-up comes with such ‘anti-fan service’, while still giving the audience something special once Leela, the most responsible of the crew, discovers the alternate universe after flipping a coin on whether she should look inside.
What I enjoy about this other universe is how beneficially disciplined its presentation is especially coming from an eccentric, animated show where the possibilities are endless. Beyond a wildly multi-colored sky, nothing too drastic or absurd is shown. On the surface, only slight aesthetic differences exist in skin tone or hair color when Leela is confronted with doppelgangers of the Planet Express crew. Futurama as a whole is already a show that delivers the novelty of a completely alternate world to its audience so it’s more important in an episode about parallel universes to hold the magnifying glass solely over the characters as they face their alt-selves.
It’s funny how the alt-Farnsworth presumes that our Leela is an evil Leela simply because she comes from another dimension. This seems to be a cliche’ or simple-minded assumption whenever the topic of alternate versions of ourselves is traversed in storytelling, because of course ‘alternate’ somehow means ‘opposite’ and ‘good and evil’ is a concept so black and white. This is an episode that addresses these presumptions and uses it as a smokescreen, when really it’s about the characters dealing with familiar versions of themselves who have simply made different choices. These choices were coincidentally determined from the opposite outcome of a coin flip. Alt-Leela never travels to “Universe A” (our universe) because she lost a coin flip, whereas our Leela travels to “Universe 1” because it landed in her favor. Even more surprisingly, alt-Fry and alt-Leela are married because a coin flip turned up heads whereas our Fry and Leela can barely ever go out on a date together.
“You mean you flipped a coin too? And it was tails? So that’s why you said you had to meet that ghost.” – Fry
“You really missed out on something, Leela. That date was magical.” – Alt-Leela
“One year later, I gave Leela a diamond scrunchie and we were married.” – Alt-Fry
“Ooh.” – Leela
“One year later, I got beat up at a Neil Diamond concert by a guy NAMED Scrunchie!” – Fry
There’s a tension as the characters scramble to return home to prevent Hermes (the only person still in Universe A) from firing Universe 1’s box directly into the sun, along with valued amusement as they scour through a shuffle of various universe boxes after the Zoidbergs lost the one they came through. With all of that packed in 22 minutes, it’s wonderful that there’s still a romantic thread of examination towards Fry and Leela’s relationship, which culminates to an ending where they decide to go out together despite the outcome of another coin flip. At its heart, the episode is more interested in having the characters react to their own selves. Bender, being the most selfish of the group, is infatuated with his golden counterpart, and vice-versa. Both Zoidbergs are equally pathetic, yet our Zoidberg still manages to get taken advantage of when they role-play as the king of Universe A’s box.
“All hail Zoidberg, the king with the box! (*kisses alt-Zoidberg’s feet*) Now it’s my turn, maybe?” – Zoidberg
“The box says no.” – Alt-Zoidberg
The more I write these reviews, the more I appreciate Zoidberg’s character more and more. Out of all the pathetic characters on TV, he’s just as unique and well-molded as the best of them.
“The Farnsworth Paradox” is an installment where if you wanted to, you can take the the time out of your day to find the flaws in the theoretical science that drives the episode, especially with the paradox of both universes trading boxes in order for each to own their respective box in which their own universe resides. Or, like Fry ignorantly sitting on his universe’s box at the end, you can remain content with the entertaining half hour of television you’ve received without calling attention to the warped logic and twisting of reality in order to make sense out of it. I personally choose the latter.
1. Futurama “Insane in the Mainframe” (Season 3)
“Insane in the Mainframe” is an episode that I originally wasn’t too fond of on first watch. I found it psychologically exhausting as it takes Fry, our usual protagonist, and throws him into an aggravating environment for a strenuous amount of time, being an asylum for criminally insane robots. As a viewer, it felt like I was getting repeatedly poked and zapped as Fry endured a punishment he didn’t deserve. The more times I’ve watched the episode though, the more I’ve come to love it as I give in to its absurd sense of helplessness. By doing so, the comedy becomes all the more illuminated and you grow to appreciate a character like Fry, who possesses such unwavering resilience as the show’s comical everyman, being one few and far between capable to take you along for such a uniquely wild trip.
The entire point to the episode is to push Fry to his breaking point which helps it feel all the more earned when the crew faces a life-or-death situation and he comes out the hero due to dumb luck of the delusions bestowed upon him prevailing as his superpower. He may not have luck on his side when hoping a lottery ‘scratch and sniff’ (whiff-and-win) can ensure himself a retirement fund, and he may get caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time after becoming an unwanted accomplice in a bank robbery lead by psychopathic robot, Roberto, but when push comes to shove, dumb luck will always be his saving grace. He’s not just a character that can travel 1,000 years into the future, but is one who, conceptually, can come out the other side of hell unscathed even if he gets batted around in the process. In an episode that launches itself on the idea of ensuring one’s future, the events Fry endures becomes unequivocal proof that he’ll be okay. At the end of the day, we’re all human and we’re all unprepared for our future.
Despite the hell Fry undergoes, it’s the comedy that’s found throughout which really shines within the disturbed anomaly that is Roberto. How does a robot malfunction to the point of satirically mimicking every fictitious criminal cliche’? How is it that this robot is so predictably evil yet can’t be controlled to an extent where he robs the same bank three times throughout the episode? The fact that Roberto runs eternally free in Futurama’s world is just so side-splittingly funny to me. He’s like a Sideshow Bob to the show but with less stall and more stab. His hammerhead design is frighteningly fitting yet unsuspicious. The whole time you’re waiting for that glimpse of sympathy he may have towards his victim, but it’s always immediately met with hilarious mercilessness. Roberto is a character that just can’t be figured out, yet clearly should have been stopped long ago, except he’ll continue to somehow run rampant even after he’s caught. His introduction to the show here along with the spoofing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is a finely demonstrated example of exerting humor from terror.
It’s also fun to see Fry act like a robot so unconvincingly in the last act, especially as it’s an amusing transition from nobody taking Fry’s plea for help seriously throughout most of the story to “Robot Fry” not taking any of their pleas seriously. It’s sweet to see he eventually receives the strong concern for his well-being that he originally needed under such bizarre circumstances. Overall, there’s an energy to this episode I really love. The jokes come at you at a mile a minute and it’s another episode that’s rooted firmly in the city of New New York which can sometimes be the most appealing setting for me. The animation direction is consistently on top of its game with the beautiful establishing shots like the opening truck-in on Planet Express Headquarters across a 3D body of water or the swarm of police hovercars surrounding the building towards the end. I can’t tell you how many times I replay Roberto’s manic leap from the top story window. It’s animated so frenetically and for a flashing millisecond before he hits the ground you feel a bit sorry, if not ultimately relieved.
Side Note: This episode marks the return of Judge Ron Whitey, an ‘Odenkirk Original’ who was last seen for his first appearance in the previously written episode “A Tale of Two Santas”.
To conclude, I honestly feel that comparing Bill Odenkirk’s work on Futurama to that of The Simpsons is night and day. It’s not a criticism of his talent as a writer, but simply that he wrote for Futurama when the show was fresh and in the top quality of its time. There’s so much potential to work with there. However, you can find the greatest writer in the universe and put them on the current Simpsons staff and they’re just not going to get it exactly right. It’s a miracle when a great post-classic episode comes through simply because the classic run of The Simpsons has already long-done what it was meant to do. That said, I still think he’s funny and brings something worthwhile to the show passed its prime as best as anyone else could.
What do you guys think?
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.