Category Archives: Kevin’s Top Picks!

Top 5 Brass Tacks in Helping the Breaking Bad Movie Succeed

Back in November, a Breaking Bad film was announced to be in the works by Vince Gilligan, being a sequel to the critically acclaimed series, code named ‘Greenbrier‘.  The logline reads as following “the escape of a kidnapped man and his quest for freedom”.  If we were to run with that premise, many can confidently assume (although it’s not officially confirmed) that the film is about Jesse Pinkman after the escape from the neo-nazi compound in the series finale…

When I first learned of this announcement, I was thunderstruck with both giddiness and apprehension.  I adore the idea of the Breaking Bad universe being explored beyond the original show.  Better Call Saul, woven with such nuance, has proved to be a master class prequel that stands completely on its own as a more deliberate study of change for a character to undertake.  It’s a show that retains similar themes to Breaking Bad but tells its story in a much different way.  Even the tone and visual representation is carried over, but with enough careful tweaks to help give the show its own identity.

I was naturally skeptical of Better Call Saul when the spin-off was first announced in 2013, but then it turned into one of my favorite shows of all time.  Even executive producers Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan knew they were taking a giant risk going forward.  Thankfully, like a veteran team of surgeons, the entire creative staff were able to avoid nicking the artery in the process of crafting a disciplined, distinguished prequel to one of the greatest dramas of all time.  So why should I feel so cautious towards the idea of a single, upcoming Breaking Bad film, especially with the artist intent of Vince Gilligan?

Generally, it’s because mistakes happen.  Surgery isn’t always a success regardless if the best person suited for the job is operating.  As I’ve said before in other write-ups, a lot of success in television/film comes down to luck.  So with that, here’s my list of vital fundamentals I hope Vince Gilligan and his crew keep in mind going forward.

5. No Walter White (unless the story dictates).

I wouldn’t bat an eye at anyone who says Breaking Bad is just as much Jesse Pinkman’s main journey as it is Walter’s.  Of course that’s true.  Together, both characters were intertwined as the main leads for the show as Jesse proved almost immediately (through great writing and the phenomenal performance of Aaron Paul) to be such a remarkably developed character.  At the end of the day however, the show was rightfully intended to be Walter’s exclusive, finite story.  From his lung cancer diagnosis in the pilot, the concept of his character turning from Mr. Chips to Scarface throughout, and the death that was delivered to Walt in the show’s final shot, Breaking Bad was a tightly told, completed narrative following the iconic chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin.

Just as disciplined as the Better Call Saul writing staff has been in not unnecessarily forcing a Walter White cameo, I think the same line of thinking should follow for the movie.  Most television shows which make the leap to the big screen feel the excitable need to cram every beloved character in so as not to upset the fans (or even themselves).  Again, Vince, don’t feel obligated.   Just focus on telling the sincere story for Jesse that you wish to tell.  Can I see Walter White existing in a new scene serving as some haunting echo to Jesse’s current conflict?  Absolutely.  Flashbacks or flash-forwards are not foreign devices to either existing series, so if Bryan Cranston was to reprise his role and it made sense for the story, then by all means, fire away.  I do believe that there could be more dramatic weight though if Walter White was given as little context as possible.  Let him stand as this dark, shadowy figure that hangs over the film without him really having to show up.  Allow viewers who have never seen Breaking Bad to view Walter through the lens of a ‘mysterious and powerfully manipulative man’ who supposedly impacted this poor young soul’s life (Jesse Pinkman).  This brings me to my next point…

4. The events of Breaking Bad do not need to be explained.

Almost every start to a new season on Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul shows a cold open scene that’s completely new to the viewer, followed by the opening title sequence.  Afterwards we’re fed something of a 30 second rewind from last season which establishes where the new season is kicking off.  Here’s examples incase you forgot:

Breaking Bad:

  • Season 2 intro: Walt and Jesse’s drug deal in the junkyard with Tuco gets violent (reused footage from season 1 finale).
  • Season 3 intro: A montage of news broadcasts recaps the plane crash.
  • Season 4 intro: Jesse shoots Gale (reused footage from season 3 finale).
  • Season 5 intro: Walt tells Skyler “I won” (reused footage from season 4 finale).
  • Season 5B intro:  Hank comes out of the bathroom.

Better Call Saul:

  • Season 2 intro: Jimmy contemplates the Davis & Main job (same shot from season 1 finale) and later questions Mike why they didn’t take the Kettleman money (reused footage from season 1 finale).
  • Season 3 intro: Jimmy confesses he tampered with the Mesa Verde files to Chuck (same line of dialogue as season 2 finale, shot from different perspective) and later Mike picks up the “Don’t” message from Gus (reused footage from season 2 finale).
  • Season 4 intro: The embers of Chuck’s house float up into the night sky.

These scenes, no matter in what fashion they’re presented, are brief enough recaps to inform the viewer where the story picks up.  If the Breaking Bad movie was to follow the same traditional, unique style with reused footage after some mysterious opening scene, I think this following moment below is ominous, yet coherent enough to launch the film with for both old and new viewers.  For the sake of my point, ignore the joke ending in this video (but for the sake of the joke, enjoy, because it’s pretty funny).

Imagine this scene being shown in the movie, perhaps with a use of score towards the end to help transition into a new scene.  Prior to that, don’t show the machine gun going off.  Don’t show Walt on the phone with Lydia.  Don’t even let Walt speak here.  Just open with the long drawn out silence and show the nod between these two characters before Jesse drives off.  It would be so cool for viewers who have not seen the show to have no idea what the context of this scene is, but can figure things out in broad strokes that this was a place the lead character, Jesse, is happy to get as far away from as possible.  All the audience has to know is that the heat is hot and the police are closing in.  I’d love to watch this movie without it being clear that this is a character many Breaking Bad fans have long felt empathy towards.  If this film is to be successful as a standalone piece of work, it will give viewers the chance to decide for themselves whether Jesse deserves the freedom he seeks, regardless of if he actually achieves it.  In short, keep exposition to a minimum.  It will be more rewarding in the long run.

3. Preserve the Breaking Bad finale’s small shred of open-endedness.

There’s no denying Walt is dead, but the question of whether Jesse rode off into the figurative sunset or was dragged down like a dog upon his escape is one of the few pieces of open-ended material in the finale that felt artfully reassuring for a show that was intended to have more of a definitive ending.  Same goes for whether Skyler, Marie, and Walt Jr. found happiness amidst the tragedy that Walt wrought upon them.  We at least know they could find peace knowing where Hank and Gomez are buried, so the potential for coping with their losses has already been planted.

Lots of stuff has been left up in the air though.  Did Skyler become wise to Gretchen and Elliot’s “donated money”?  Was Walt’s threat of impending doom against Gretchen and Elliot even effective?  It’s questions like these that make me wonder how many answers provided in this film would be too much.  Wouldn’t it detract from the finale’s lasting impressions if we learn the answers to these questions?  At the same time, would being too vague and ambiguous detract from the film’s sense of boldness?  Or can boldness be found by maintaining a satisfying sense of ambiguity, ala the finale to The Sopranos or The Leftovers?  There’s an incredibly thin line to walk on here to the point where one would have to pull off the impossible in order to have your cake and eat it too.

Then again, Better Call Saul’s black-and-white, near silent film-esque exploration of Gene Takovic has been successfully entertaining and wondrous to the point where I perfectly support that we get to follow his character beyond Saul’s last scene on Breaking Bad.  Perhaps the same could be said for Jesse or Skyler even though they were more central to the series?  When all is said and done, Vince Gilligan is the storyteller and it’s up to him what new information he chooses to disclose.  How the film changes our perspective of the series finale is his creative choice.  In the very least, I just hope he takes this concern deeply into consideration.  Compared to the limited snippets we’ve been spoon-fed for Gene, a feature length film is a tougher puzzle to crack.

2. The film needs to prove its worth.

If the fate of Jesse Pinkman is to be answered and the wonder of that fate I once experienced at the end of Breaking Bad becomes swapped to serve as a merely satisfying, conclusive note for his role in the series (knowing I could now continue his story directly afterwards), then the film would obviously have to be well worth the ride of existing to begin with.  The choice of continuing Jesse’s story has to feel validated by the richness of the narrative and the overall impact it will leave on the audience.  It can’t just be a movie that ties up loose ends and looks stunning as always in its cinematography.  It’s a project that needs to prove meaningful.  I want to come out of this film thinking, “Wow, this utterly shook me.”  I’m sure there will be the usual heart-pumping action scenes (accompanied by the brilliant scoring of Dave Porter) and emotional moments provided by Aaron Paul, but this film must not fall into the big screen adaptation cliche’ of ‘Vince Gilligan presents: Breaking Bad: THE MOVIE!”.  Everything needs to be earned.

The Breaking Bad film needs to be unafraid to retain its identity, but to also be something else entirely, similar to Better Call Saul. Consider David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) or the 2017 reboot that continued Twin Peaks 25 years later with a completely different tone and narrative structure.  You could tell Lynch truly has something to express in those works.  Breaking Bad should follow suit if it wants to avoid the pitfalls of a poor reboot.  Don’t be afraid to be polarizing if it means you could offer something you truly feel must be put out into the world.  As much as I want to see Vince Gilligan and Aaron Paul working together once again, it needs to be for the right reasons.

Another thing to note is that Better Call Saul is a continuing series that has developed at it’s own pace in order to become distinguished from the parent series and coincide as a companion piece.  Can the format of a two hour film manage to do the same?

1. Remember, Jesse’s in the driver’s seat now.  Not shotgun.

For me, Jesse’s story in Breaking Bad is about how he’s always getting strung along in the passenger seat, never having a real say about how his life turns out.  Whether he’s being manipulated by Walt, collecting dead drops with Mike, flying to Mexico with Gus, or working as an informant for Hank, it’s always more or less against his will.  Part of that was owed to Jesse getting in his own way.  If he didn’t succumb to drug use and fall into a life of criminality, he would never have had reason to partner up with Walt.  If he didn’t feel the need to hunt down Combo’s killers, he wouldn’t have been under the threat of Gus.  If he didn’t feel the need to seek revenge on Walt for poisoning Brock, he could have moved to Alaska instead of becoming a prisoner for neo-nazis.  On the other hand, how can anyone tolerate the murder of children?  There’s a lot you can’t blame Jesse for.  His life, similar to Walt’s, was dealt a shit hand where external factors do keep him pinned down.  He’s a tragic character, no doubt.

That’s why in the finale, I strongly believe Jesse learned the value of peace of mind and the quality of freedom through that wonderful, dreamy flashback sequence of him building the wooden box, representing his full potential (mentioned in season 3’s “Kafkaesque”).

After Walt’s machine gun lays waste to all of Jesse’s captivators, followed by the death of Uncle Jack and Todd, Walt slides Jesse the gun hoping to receive his final blow, knowing it’s something Jesse very likely wants to do.  Jesse drops the gun however and denies Walt his death, telling him “Do it yourself”.  This is, importantly, the first moment in the entire series where Jesse seems to have overcome his own demons, not feeling the need to get drawn back into the drama and not feeling responsible for ridding the world of every evil.  He can walk away, climb in the driver’s seat, and take complete control of his life beyond the fence.  It’s only now the external factors of the universe, like the police and the feds, which will become a gigantic hurdle for him in the film.

It’s this moment of growth though that I would hope gets carried over thematically into the movie, regardless of how obvious it is that it will.  Out of all the things I’ve listed, this is the easiest thing for Vince Gilligan to follow through with, but nonetheless, it is the most important.  We can’t have a Jesse who gets in his own way again or else it removes so much catharsis that was accomplished from the finale.  Overall I wouldn’t put it passed Vince Gilligan if he’s fully aware of everything I touched on in this article.  I know I’m just some random guy on the internet and this is just me as a fan having fun imagining how the film could work.  I’m by no means any authority on the production of this movie but like anyone I wish the best for it.

Your own thoughts?

Top 9 Episodes Written by Bill Odenkirk

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 DavidThe 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?

 

 

 

Top 9 Episodes Written by David X. Cohen

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.

Top 3 Episodes Written by Bruce Kirschbaum

Hello! Here’s another top picks piece before the year is out.  Bruce Kirschbaum is a writer known for his brief stint on Everybody Loves Raymond and Seinfeld.  In fact his last name is what inspired Rabbi Kirschbaum, a funny recurring character on Seinfeld from seasons 7 through 9.  This list, again, only consists of the writer’s solo credits so Seinfeld’s “The Old Man” (in which he only received ‘Story by’ credit) and his co-credit on season 6’s “The Switch” will not be included.  Keep in mind for this post, the episodes listed here are all absolutely excellent so take my rankings with a grain of salt.

I hope you enjoy and everyone have a wonderful holiday!

3. Everybody Loves Raymond “The Ball” (Season 1)

In the series’ first Christmas episode, Debra is getting rid of old stuff for a charity drive and Ray discovers his Mickey Mantle autographed baseball (which was given to him when he was a kid by his father) has mistakenly been thrown in.  Ray reminisces with the ball, explaining to Debra how much it has meant to him and how it influenced his career as a sports writer.  It wasn’t shortly before this that Ray’s friend Andy stops by and proposes the idea that the autograph might be fake due to a recent story on 60 minutes reporting that nearly 70% of Mantle’s signed balls were done by various trainers back then.  Of course Ray later goes across the street to approach his father on the subject only for Frank to reveal, quite bluntly, that the autograph was a fake.

It’s then in the second act when the story begins to focus more on one’s innocence and the theme of ‘truth vs. lies’ where Ray who is clearly upset over the ball, vows to never lie to his own children.  Ally, his five year old daughter, then poses the question of whether Santa exists leading Ray, much to Debra’s dismay, to become dangerously close to giving a truthful answer.  It’s at this point, I can’t tell so much if Ray is acting like this as a way to help Debra understand how distraught he is over the fake autograph or if he truly believes this new stance in parenting, but there’s no mistaking how hurt he is and how transparent his own inner-child is on display here.  Despite Ray’s line in the opening credits, “It’s not really about the kids”, the adult characters oftentimes do carry a significant amount of their childhood with them and when the actual kids are featured more prominently, it’s actually handled quite well.  Particularly in this episode, Ally shines in the spotlight as Robert and Frank both show up as Santa by accident and argue over who’s the genuine article.

“Why did they do that?” – Ally

“Oh honey it’s just because Grandpa and Uncle Robert love you so much and they just want you to have a wonderful Christmas, hmm?” – Debra

“Oh.” (joyfully exits) – Ally

She’s performs well in the end also when Ray, dressed as Santa, stops by her bedroom in the middle of the night to tuck her in.  A scene that makes for a sweet conclusion to the episode, even with the button joke of Ray stubbing his toe on the way out and singing Fa-la-la-la-la in the means to censor his initial expletive, which Ally adorably sings along to.

Of course, this comes after the episode’s emotional climax between Ray and his father, when Ray comes back to confront Frank on the phony autograph he lied about.  Frank explains quite matter-of-factly how he waited for five games by the stadium door only for Mickey to never show up so he practiced the signature over and over until it looked real, so as to not to disappoint Ray.  It’s a scene that succeeds on its stillness and emotional beat so transcribing doesn’t quite give it justice.  It operates like a great, sincere stage play and you can feel the pull of heartstrings from the studio audience in that moment, especially when Ray decides to keep the ball as a memento of his father’s efforts and leans in to kiss him on the forehead.  A subtle touch in the development of Ray Romano, the actor, and Ray Barone, the character, as Romano initially felt strongly that the kiss personally wouldn’t translate as honest or real coming from him, but because it felt right for the character in the moment of filming, he went for it.

“The Ball” can arguably be a bit heavy-handed in spots but it’s a great episode regardless and contributes early on to show the range and level of depth the show can reach.  What I love about Everybody Loves Raymond is it’s one of the last great sitcoms that commits to a single A story and strictly sits with it, really fleshing an episode out in the process with both comedy and drama.  It never pads itself with unrelated subplot which is something that becomes signature to the show.  That’s not to say you can’t churn out good television with subplot but keeping to this principle is a style I really admire.

2. Everybody Loves Raymond “The Dog” (Season 1)

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On paper, finding a lost dog and falling in love with him/her, only for the owner to show up to introduce the conflict of letting go, is a typical well-trodden sitcom plot.  It’s the kind of story that’s easier to stomach in a show’s first season if done right compared to a later season where it becomes glaring the show is desperate for ideas.  What makes it work in Everybody Loves Raymond’s first season is primarily the episode is more about Ray’s recently divorced, sad sack brother, Robert and the loneliness he carries which the lost bulldog is simply meant to help establish and complement rather than serve as a cute gimmick.  It helps that the bulldog shares similar, physical qualities with Robert’s character and that Robert once had a bulldog named after New York Met, Art Shamsky*, who their parents had to give away when they were younger due to Ray’s allergies.

*It’s nice to see Kirschbaum continue the runner of Robert’s identification/associatioin towards Art Shamsky since it was revealed in the episode “The Ball” that his autograph was from Shamsky instead of Ray’s more prized Mickey Mantle.  Something Robert admits to not having a problem with that back then considering Shamsky homered his first major league at bat. 

“Then after that, right into the dumper” – Robert

The first act shows Ray bring the lost dog home with an endless string of quirky, well-written quips as he tries his hardest to convince Debra why keeping the dog can only be good for them, despite the fact that it’s tough as it is to raise three kids.  You can see the child in Ray, who like Robert, would want the dog just as much now that he’s grown and his allergies have subsided.  It’s sweet and entertaining, but most importantly makes it all the more of a gracious gesture when he finally decides to give the dog to Robert, who would make for a more compatible and fulfilled owner.  However, what raises the stakes emotionally is how instead of Ray just having to give back the dog to its rightful owner (an elderly breeder, Phyllis), he has to go across the street to take back the dog from Robert.  After such a warm exchange between these two brothers who are usually at odds with one another, it’s painful to watch and the show is not afraid to allow long pauses to let you feel that.

The stakes are also raised comically though as it turns out Frank and Marie had the dog fixed (“This was probably my mother’s idea.  This is sort of a hobby of hers” – Ray).  I love that when Phyllis sees the dog she excitedly runs over towards him but Ray intercepts by picking her up and spinning her around as a pathetic way to keep her from seeing the now fixed dog.  He awkwardly plays it off as if it’s because he’s excited too having reunited them, but what’s funny is that it’s a stall that can only last so long considering she breeds dogs for a living.  And just as you might expect, not even a few seconds pass since she’s out the door before she comes barging back in to demand money.  I like this twist, both comedically and narratively, because its such a turn in the sweet, elderly woman’s character as she completely rejects the dog as useless, but also provides such a push forward in anxiety for the story which ultimately sets up Ray’s next big gesture.  A gesture being that he will now pay $2,000 for this “useless” dog in order to make it up to his brother.

This is pretty much what I like about “The Dog” mainly because it doesn’t rely on its fuzzy spectacle (although there’s nothing wrong with that as a secondary effect), but instead is meant to drive a story of a relationship between brothers.  It’s a script that doesn’t feel required to return to the status quo by giving the dog up to its owner (Shamsky II is shown in several episodes in the future), but instead fights tooth and nail to keep the dog and naturally explore the depth of character in the process.  Altogether, it’s a funny, down to earth episode worth checking out that takes such a traditional premise, risky in its own conventions, but which achieves an impressive authenticity.

1. Seinfeld “The Conversion” (Season 5)

“The Conversion” consists of, as most usual, four plots that follow Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer.  The most noteworthy being George’s story where he heedlessly decides to convert to the Latvian Orthodox faith in order to impress a woman. Most closely related, Kramer picks up a romantic vibe from the church’s soon-to-be nun, Sister Roberta, which he attributes to a power he possesses, or Kavorka, which the priest later describes as “the lure of the animal”.  The episode has a lot of fun using Kirschbaum’s seemingly made-up religion (he got ‘thank you’ letters from a real Latvian Orthodox church some time after it aired) and uses George to channel series’ co-creator Larry David’s innocent lack of mindfulness towards religious customs.  George’s ultimate goal is to woo a woman, played by Jana Marie Hupp, who in the beginning of the episode gives a satirical rendering on the over-dramatized hangups of how one’s parents can needlessly dictate the outcome of a relationship.  In the season where George had to move back in with his parents, this is just another fine contribution to George being his own comic foil as he pathetically attempts to weasel his way around the pitfalls of society.

Meanwhile Jerry is dating a girl, Tawni, who is subletting the apartment down the hall while Elaine is dating a podiatrist.  Both plots intersect as Jerry peeks into Tawni’s medicine cabinet to find a mysterious tube of fungicide so Jerry suggests that Elaine ask the podiatrist what it might be used for.  There’s a subtle story beat that’s planted very early on where Jerry and Elaine get into a discussion of podiatrists vs. doctors after Elaine confides that her boyfriend put his hand on her heart to check her heart rate.

“On your heart?”

“Jerry, the man is a doctor.”

“Doctor… He’s a podiatrist.”

“So? Same thing.

“Anyone can get into podiatry school.  GEORGE got into podiatry school.”

It’s this brief exchange that later stews in Elaine’s head when she’s about to inquire about the tube of fungicide, causing her to casually correct her boyfriend when he pronounces himself as a doctor.  This leads to an argument that prevents Jerry from receiving any information on the tube.  It’s funny how much story is generated over something so trivial but that’s what Seinfeld has always been brilliant at and at the same time the subplot takes hilarious opportunity in traversing the topic of medicine cabinets and the unspoken rule of not opening someone else’s:

What I really appreciate about Jerry’s subplot is the airy naivety in actress, Kimberly Campbell’s performance as Tawni.  That, combined with the rare display of seeing the apartment conveniently down the hall in which she’s subletting, sets a soft, feathery tone to a story that revolves around the attempt to discover “the catch” or mysterious flaw in someone.  Even when it’s revealed that the fungicide is for her cat, Jerry is never called out for his superficiality or violation of her privacy.  Usually we’re shown how his relationships blow up in his face, but here she just kind of evaporates, never to be seen again.  Not that we were meant to, but by not explaining it, it helps add to the aura of curiosity that’s emitted from her character.

If anyone was punished, it ironically was Elaine who, throughout the entire episode was against Jerry’s snooping and incessant need to reveal the truth behind the tube of fungicide.  After Jerry mistakenly pockets the tube, he gives it to Elaine to pass on to the podiatrist, only for the podiatrist to come across it in Elaine’s medicine cabinet before she had a chance to show him.  The comedic payoff is great here as this underdeveloped one-time character looks into the bathroom mirror with the same distraught suspicion that Jerry initially had towards Tawni, thus painting Jerry, and men in general, in the same one-dimensional camp.  All in good fun.

It’s tough to place a Seinfeld and an Everybody Loves Raymond episode side by side because both comedies, while similar in having a comedian as the lead, are both completely different from one another.  The former being a sitcom showcasing four adult friends that proudly follows the mantra of “No hugging, no learning” while the latter edgily explores family dynamics, superbly embracing sincerity and emotion in its storytelling.  Seinfeld is also a show renowned for its use of multiple, often converging subplots so to put “The Conversion” as my #1 almost feels dismissive to Everybody Loves Raymond’s method of building an episode around a singular main plot in which it excels at.  I assure you that in my thorough consideration, I do not prefer one style over another.

For me, it comes down to what stands out and packs the most punch, despite them all accomplishing this in one form or another.  I take note in the fact that “The Conversion” is an episode that comes from season 5 when the series was at a peak matured state, while the previous mentioned Raymond episodes, while surprisingly well-developed for a show in its first season (definitely above and beyond Seinfeld’s first), is still not quite the best the show will later have to offer.  Therefore, they aren’t quite as stream-lined for the rapid-fire humor and narrative that Seinfeld’s “The Conversion” effortlessly provides.

What I think made Seinfeld so successful in its own right is that despite it constantly paddling against the current of social norms and following the seemingly cold “No hugging, no learning” standard, the show at its best still feels warm.  The characters are identifiable and are drawn into each other’s lives for a reason.  In their day-to-day, Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer choose to meet up ritually and disclose their exclusive conflicts to one another.  They might not all be on the same page but they do get together and riff.  Even with a sense of withdraw existing between each character, there’s a comedic tension that can only derive from some undefinable sense of warmth.  When George vocally pours his heart out and contemplates converting to the Latvian Orthodox faith, Jerry and Elaine are shown more preoccupied with picking from George’s leftover lobster.  It’s funny due to the restraint of consolation, but it’s not mean-spirited.  It’s still warm.  The fact that the show is able to offer this without bringing love and sentiment into it is pretty remarkable.  It’s a celebrated trait that I feel is on full display in this particular episode and for that, along with the amount of laughs that would only be tedious to list, I tip my hat.

 

 

 

 

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?

 

 

Top 3 Episodes Written by Brian Kelley

Brian Kelley is again, not a writer I am all too familiar with, but for the sake of being able to throw a write-up together on the episodes of television he’s worked on (in which I am familiar), I will continue to take this as an opportunity to put the spotlight on a TV writer who may or may not deserve more attention.  In my opinion, Kelley’s work ranges from okay to great.  As a writer he’s worked on Saturday Night LiveNewsRadioFuturama, and The Simpsons.

*NewsRadio is a great sitcom but for now, those episodes will be omitted from this list because I’ve only seen the show a while ago in its entirety once.  The more TV I watch, the more these lists will become edited.

Without further ado, I present my top picks.

3. The Simpsons “Margical History Tour” (Season 15)

After “Simpsons Bible Stories” (season 10), “Simpsons Tall Tales” (season 12), and “Tales from the Public Domain” (season 13), “Margical History Tour” is the fourth installment of a ‘non-Treehouse of Horror’ episode featuring a trio of stories.  In the first act, Homer is King Henry VIII who is looking for a queen to bear him a son.  In the second, Lenny and Carl take on the role of Lewis and Clark who are aided by Lisa as Sacagawea.  And finally in the third, Bart is Mozart while Lisa is Salieri.  As far as these episodes go, nothing much special really stands out here compared to its predecessors.  Sure, the three stories hold some agency beyond the characters playing dress-up and each have some funny gags, but it all ranges from mediocre to pretty good in terms either segment being anything too brilliant.

Mike Scully as showrunner of seasons 9-12 might have been granted the impossible task of sustaining a show that would naturally meet its gradual decline just as any other show lasting that long would, but he still knew how to craft and deliver impeccably clever jokes.  Because of this, the fact that these trilogy episodes are non-canon and allowed to be looser in characterization, it resulted in “Margical History Tour’s” previous contenders to be pretty decent outings.  That’s not to say that Al Jean, showrunner of season 13 and beyond is incapable of sharp, biting humor (season 13’s “Tales from the Public Domain” specifically is a fine example of this), but there’s only so many times these types of episodes can strike gold.  These tend to be the hardest to write too, Treehouse of Horrors included, considering each segment has to tell a story in roughly seven minutes, and hopefully be good and funny in the process.

That said, “Margical History Tour” is by no means a bad episode.  It’s just okay and merely serviceable for what it’s trying to do.  I wish I had more to say about it.  Will there be worse trilogy episodes in the future?  Yes.  Will there be better ones? Certainly.

2. The Simpsons “A Star is Born-Again” (Season 14)

It was season 11’s “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” where Ned’s wife Maude meets her untimely end due to voice actress Maggie Roswell’s departure from the show.  Afterwards we were met with a handful of episodes that focused on Ned’s grief and his openness to eventually date other women.  By season 14, “A Star is Born-Again” showcases a Ned Flanders who is still feeling lonely and misplaced (perfectly illustrated in act 1’s jellyfish festival being a place for couples to have a romantic night together), but he’s certainly not as bogged down in mourning as he used to be.  This episode is more of an opportunity to explore Ned in a glitzy romp with a movie star, Sara Sloane (voiced by Marisa Tomei).

Surprisingly the flashy romance between the two is actually not as hollow as you might expect.  It’s ultimately not an ideal one but the Sara Sloane character isn’t as wooden as you would expect from the type of character she’s meant to represent.  If there’s one thing I like about it, it’s that she isn’t portrayed as an antagonist with any ulterior motive.  She’s rich and famous, but she’s attracted to the milquetoast Ned Flanders.  That’s interesting.  Even when Ned rejects her proposal to have him uplift his life and move to Hollywood (which easily could have been the deal-breaker to conclude this episode), she still respects his position and without hesitation embraces the decision to move to Springfield so she could be with him, no strings attached.

At the end of the day, “A Star is Born-Again” in the very least contains a memorable premise, a unique mood and charm, and while it’s not exactly belting out laughs, it’s also not without them.  The episode obviously doesn’t compare to the peak Simpsons of the first 8 seasons but it’s a fine, inoffensive episode nonetheless which definitely edges out “Margical History Tour” by a wide margin.  And hey, it’s got a James L. Brooks cameo.  What’s not to like?

 

1. Futurama “Love’s Labours Lost in Space” (Season 1)

In the fourth episode of the first season, “Love’s Labours Lost in Space” continues to build the universe of Futurama by introducing two key characters (Zapp Brannigan and Nibbler) in a mission to save the animals of Vergon 6, while also exploring a unique trait in Leela that would quickly help distinguish her character from most female characters in comedy, animated or otherwise, and most specifically in this case, her role as a sci-fi heroine.  When Matt Groening conceived of Leela’s design, he wanted her to be sexy and attractive but “imperfect” due to having one eye.  An episode like this takes it one step further by applying the same line of thinking towards the dimensions of her character.

Futurama’s pilot appropriately titled “Space Pilot 3000” follows Fry, a young 20-something, pizza delivery boy who muddles through his mundane life unappreciated by those around him.  By having him be sent on delivery to a cryogenic lab and be blasted 1000 years into a whimsical future by mistake, it sets a precedent that this could be a show that caters to a young male’s fantasy for anyone who shares the remotest similarity towards this everyman protagonist.  And while the show’s universe does explore its unlimited, fun possibilities for a Slurm-chugging, free-loading misfit like Fry, I find it commendable that the introduction of Leela doesn’t exist as some attractive, imperfect “prize” for him.  There’s no objectification to her character which easily could have been the direction the show could have gone in if it was a lesser, shallower piece of work.

While there certainly is chemistry between Leela and Fry, it’s not entirely one of black-and-white romance.  There’s an indifference between the two that’s present and both combat their loneliness or sense of longing separately, until every now and then when they briefly cross each others paths.  In Leela’s case, it’s organic and human and if “Love’s Labours Lost in Space” establishes anything more, it’s that she’s flawed in her pursuit for happiness and the ability to maintain the standards she strives to hold up to.  And that’s completely okay.

It’s okay for her struggle to find the right man.  It’s okay for her to fall into bed with the wrong man (Zapp Brannigan).  And it’s okay for her to feel ashamed in the face of Fry and Bender when they learn of her actions, yet not have to make up for it by rebuilding some dignified projection of herself for them to respect .  The episode really explores the strength in one’s moment of weakness.  Leela owns up to a sense of sexual independence and is all the more stronger of a character than she ever was for it.  She was already humanized, but this is a half hour that really highlights the substantial depth her character harbors, making you realize that Futurama is a show reserved for her journey just as much as it is for Fry.  In the end, she comes away empty-handed in terms of her romantic conquests, but gains a companion in new pet, Nibbler, and that again, is completely okay.

The first two entries on this list aren’t grade A contributions but Futurama’s “Love’s Labours Lost in Space” is great television that I’d highly recommend to keep an eye on if you are about to start binge-watching the first season.  Funny too.

 

Top 3 Episodes Written by David Richardson

I don’t know much about David Richardson.  I could have gone for a better known writer to do a top episode list for, but I figure I’m probably the only one who would give the lesser-known writers the proper attention for a write-up.  All I could say is that David Richardson (I’ll say his full name again so you can get to know him better!) worked as a writer most prominently for Two and a Half Men, with early contribution to Malcolm in the Middle, and The Simpsons.  I’m not a fan of Two and a Half Men (I’ve seen enough of it to know it’s not for me) but I won’t hold it against David Richardson because he did fantastic work on the other shows that I know more about.  For all I know he did fantastic work on Two and Half Men as well.  Anyway, here’s a list.  It’s only 3 episodes which made it more easier for me to do this to begin with because these write-ups take some time to do.  I hope you enjoy and feel free to voice your own thoughts if you somehow wandered into this obscure land that is letswatchseries.

3. Malcolm in the Middle “Shame” (Season 1)

Malcolm in the Middle always had this unflinchingly grubby charm to it where the kids are allowed to be kids, not just as characters but for the child actors who encompass these characters, which resulted in a more authentic performance of this single camera comedy.  The first season alone where Frankie Muniz, Justin Berfield, and Erik Per Sullivan were at their youngest worked as a wide open template to test their chemistry, along with the tug and pull of what each of them can achieve with their characters.  It’s through the mind of Creator Linwood Boomer, and his directing staff from the likes of Ken Kwapis (The Office), Jeff Melman, Chris Koch (Scrubs), and Todd Holland (Twin Peaks) that helped provide the freedom for these young actors to be awkward or stilted in delivering their lines and get comfortable at it to the point where it completely combats the overblown and manufactured superhero children you could find on some Disney Channel program if you tune in right now.

With that unique direction in mind, “Shame” throws Frankie Muniz into the role of a kid battling with his own moral dilemma, more specifically when he beats up an annoying school bully who turns out to be a 7 year old.  What I love about this episode is how he’s the only person who is incredibly disturbed by his own mistake while the rest of the family is more preoccupied with a terrible tree with a supposedly ghoulish face that has brought the family misfortune for the last time after Dewey falls when trying to climb it.  While Hal (Bryan Cranston) gets to play the scene-stealing cool dad who is full of giddy energy when marveling in what it was like to cut down the tree in Reese and Dewey’s absence, he asks “Where’s Malcolm?”, only for Reese’s reply:

“I don’t know.  He said something about being evil and took off.” ( < Favorite line)

A couple of scenes later the three of them get to share in a fun montage of throwing random stuff in the wood chipper as Malcolm continues to wrestle with his problem elsewhere.  Even when Malcolm calls attention to himself at dinner, the family in unison breaks into laughter over the utter ridiculousness of his unusual predicament and later begin to howl like monkeys (through a fantasy of Malcolm’s) when the neighbors come knocking to complain about the tree Hal cut down.

*Note- Scene shown below is cut into pieces*

There’s an indifference towards Malcolm in this episode that is met with a seemingly convoluted resolution straight from a cheesy sitcom when he finds a random flyer for a marathon fundraiser in his classroom which he could partake in as a way to relieve his guilt.  In the effort to raise donations, we get a funny montage of doors being slammed in his face before he uses Stevie’s wheelchair to win their sympathy.  The montage ends in ironic triumph as he escapes an angry dog which attacks an innocent bystander instead of him. Appropriately enough after all that build up, when the marathon begins, Malcolm immediately trips over his own feet, proving this quick fix of soothing his inner-demons to be a complete wash.

In the end, he confides in his mother, Lois, who reassures Malcolm to be grateful because having a conscience to begin with puts you a step above the rest and stresses ,”You will feel bad about Kevin (beaten up 7 year old) as long as you’re meant to feel bad about him.”  It’s simply a truly natural and human ending for the episode.  As Malcolm bids goodnight to his mom after getting cleaned up in the bathroom, we’re followed by one last comedic punch as he bids goodnight to his dad when the camera quickly pans right to reveal Hal reading a newspaper on the toilet, establishing he’s been off-camera throughout this heart to heart throughout the entire scene.

Meanwhile, the show’s traditional use of a parallel subplot with oldest brother, Francis, finds him in the show’s original arc setting of him rebelling within the military academy.  As Commandant Spangler, played by the late great Daniel von Bargen (Seinfeld’s Mr. Kruger) shows the young men slides for a sex education course intended to promote abstinence, Francis later breaks into Spangler’s office with his disciplined, yet accommodating friend Stanley in order to throw a monkey wrench for the Commandant’s next slideshow.  By discovering private slides of Spangler’s more intimate moments, Francis plans to sneak them into the presentation, only to become humiliated when it ends up being slides of Francis, himself, during moments he would have believed to be alone.

“A good soldier always checks the chamber.” – Spangler

It’s a snug little B Story of ‘cat and mouse’ and the lovable self-destruction that Francis brings upon on himself which most likely lead to him being thrown in military school to begin with.  The most memorable line of the entire episode lies here during Spangler’s presentation to his cadets purely from the way Daniel von Bargen delivers the line.  On paper, it doesn’t provide much justice:

“Pretty, isn’t she? Perhaps her name is Mary or Wendy or Becky Lou.  It doesn’t matter because her real name is disease.”

2. Malcolm in the Middle “Stock Car Races” (Season 1)

Having premiered in 2000, Malcolm in the Middle was the spark for the single-camera boom for primetime network television.  Within the next year, it helped influence an extensive array of new shows on other channels that ditched the studio audience.  People criticize the multi-camera format for overuse or dependence on laugh track due to feeling insulted as a viewer for “being told when to laugh”.  While that may be the case for a show like The Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men it’s still a necessary tool to keep a show alive.  Seinfeld is funny and can hold its own without the track of the live studio audience, but then it’s a completely different mood from what the show is going for.

In place of a laugh track, single camera comedies like ‘Malcolm’ or Scrubs will use eccentric audio cues, original composition (which goes for every show), and quick moves of the camera in order to maintain an energy to keep the audience attention.  Whether it’s through these techniques or a laugh track, and it’s done well, it becomes absorbed into a show’s DNA which helps set it apart with it’s own unique personality and presentation.  A show like Seinfeld has proven that it’s not impossible to provide a sense of depth in visual style when filming a multi-camera sitcom (something that can be pretty limiting for a director).  Malcolm in the Middle on the other hand showed how much freedom there is for the single-camera genre and I believe “Stock Car Races” is a great example of that.

It’s shooting on location or a studio lot that always excites me.  I can’t tell if “Stock Car Races” takes place at a real Nascar track but the magic of single camera is able to bring me there.  I’ve always enjoyed the pure spectacle of the episode.  It not only becomes an exciting twist of a premise after you’re lead to believe that Malcolm is going to be dragged to a scenario where he’ll be forced to square-dance with the krelboyne kids for the entire school to see, but it’s also used as the perfect opportunity to allow Bryan Cranston to perform his overly giddy, comedic chops as Hal.  In the very early goings of season 1, Hal is originally portrayed as a quieter, care-free drone of a dad, but as the season progressed he quickly proved to be an essential asset as the quirky, energetic character that he will be sooner known for.  This was already demonstrated successfully in David Richardson’s “Shame” but this episode almost feels like a thesis statement to the evolution of his character.  The beginning of the episode starts as a POV shot from inside the fridge.  Hal opens it and asks Lois in a rather monotonous, dreary delivery:

“Honey, which juice don’t I like? Apple or grape?”

Lois: “You don’t like either.”

“Oh, right.”

To go from that to the father who steals his children away from school in order to enthusiastically share in one of his never-before-mentioned childhood obsessions provides the free reign comedic relief that gives the episode a welcome, playful kick.  I love Hal happily teaching his kids of his idol, Rusty Malcolm, accompanied by the instant 180 degree turn he takes when he sternly barks “Shut your filthy mouth” after the man behind him attempts to make small talk regarding Rusty’s divorce.  The most brilliant sequence to me is when Hal daydreams about a stock car turning around the bend and pulling up to the pit stop.  The driver is handed a water bottle and just when you’re expecting Hal to rear his face from the driver seat, the camera shifts to the right to reveal him as a pit crew member.

Rusty: “Great beverage work, Hal!”

Hal: “My pleasure, Rusty!”

Part of Hal’s intention in sharing one of Rusty’s last races with his kids is to show them what can be achieved through determination and persistence, which is what makes it initially disappointing when Malcolm, Reese, and Dewey wander off mostly bored with the entire event.  Ironically the lesson that Hal is trying to bestow upon them applies when Malcolm and Reese choose to trespass through a door that’s marked off-limits.  You would think that their misbehavior would put a damper on Hal’s expectations of sharing a good thing with them, but just as Reese kicks the security guard in the shin (even when the guard was being nice and on the verge of letting them go ala ‘boys will be boys’), Hal exercises the same tactic followed by a hurried escape when the security guard confronts him about the damages they caused.  It’s a story of determination and persistence not just getting you into good places in life, but also hilariously getting you out of the bad, and ultimately they all return home with an exclusive shared bond, all collectively satisfied with the day.

However, the episode is also about the boys (Hal included) getting in their own way.  Even when Malcolm is rescued from the embarrassment of square-dancing for the whole school, he still can’t help but complain when having to sit through a Nascar race.  Even when the security guard is understanding and about to let them go, Reese kicks him in the shin in order to make a clumsy escape attempt.  Even though the boys were able to bond with their dad, Hal still will get his comeuppance for straying the kids away from school behind Lois’ back.  Lois’ subplot of having the mundane task of trying to find a misplaced paycheck leads to her tearing the house apart only to find mountains of evidence that will put her family in hot water.  It’s funny how she separates it all into different piles by name and I love how this thread of a story bookends the entire episode. But I also like how it gives Lois a chance to blow off steam with a rare, companion in Malcolm’s teacher, Caroline.

It’s pretty risque dialogue to hear a female teacher character talk about her only friends at home being her three howling cats and Bob, her shower head.  Not from a censorship standpoint but from a creative one where it’s just interesting to see a female character not feel required to play the straight-forward, classy lady, especially in the face of her most shining student’s mother.  A character like Lois is boundless when it comes to this, so I guess what I’m saying is I appreciate how the story ends up exploring Caroline from a more human perspective just by having a quick little oversharing line like that which the two end up laughing about through an unspoken understanding between two women.  It’s rich and played so nonchalantly and I like it.

In one of my favorite transitions between act breaks, Todd Rundgren’s “Band The Drum All Day” is the song that plays to introduce the surprise of Hal and the boys arriving at the Nascar stadium directly after a venomous original score is played when a snake that Francis is keeping in his footlocker is implied to escape when the lock comes undone.  The contrast is on completely different ends of a spectrum which mashes danger, misery, and toxicity with fun and joy.  Francis who is the king of getting his own way is experiencing physical harassment from his fellow cadets and is under the constant watchful eye of Commandant Spangler, yet still refuses to follow the rules.  Meanwhile Reese, Malcolm, and Dewey’s main conflict is to sustain boredom from a fun stock car race that got them out of school.

As Francis’s subplot pushes itself into a corner when the snake eats Spangler’s small dog, you are lead to believe he is about to endure the ultimate punishment from the cadets considering more of their privileges are stripped away due to Francis’ actions.  Instead they applaud Francis, exclaiming how they hated the dog and give him a ‘thank you’ punch on the shoulder as a reward.  It might not be much of an improvement, but this is much more hopeful outcome compared to what his brothers will face at home after their non-conflict (in comparison).  Lois informs Francis how lucky he is that he’s as far away from her as possible when he contacts her as a quick fix to his escaped snake problem.  For Francis, we follow his subplots as a show within a show, being the initial problem child who is deemed the most rebellious of his brothers (although they’ll have their fair opportunity to match him in their own ways), and yet he’s the closest one of achieving true independence and overcoming the recurring familial trait of getting in his own way.  We’re far from it in this stage of the series, but as a standalone, this is the feeling I get in regards to the overall episode.

Side note:  I find it hilarious that Commandant Spangler, as decorated as his uniform is, is host to an eye patch, a hook hand, a peg leg, and a missing finger, yet tells the cadets that he’s never seen any real combat.  What the hell happened to him!?

1. The Simpsons “Homer Loves Flanders” (Season 5)

“Homer Loves Flanders” is an episode that modestly turns the tables on the iconic neighboring duo where Homer becomes increasingly appreciative of Ned as a friend, while Ned, usually kind and inviting, becomes gradually irked and regretful of embracing Homer closer into his life.  It’s a carefully trekked character exploration between the two that doesn’t feel too hackneyed or trite by trying to be too meta or ‘bizarro’ with the shift in characterization.

This is one of the last episodes pitched by Conan O’Brien before he left, which was assigned for David Richardson to write and in my opinion, he did a great job at providing a plentiful batch of absolutely great jokes and parodies.  A couple that come to mind is Ned going on a murderous rampage in the fashion of The Deadly Tower (1975)…

…and Homer, obliviously blank faced, while trying to chase Ned down, Terminator-style in the hopes to go golfing.

This is an episode that manages to be incredibly off-the-wall with humor and character actions but again, due to how masterful Classic Simpsons is at commandeering the nuance of character with utmost importance while being completely conscious of what the universe can allow, the final product makes for specially unique, quality outing that blends humor with story near-flawlessly.  On paper, the fact that Homer was prepared to knock Ned out with a lead pipe in the beginning of the episode sounds mean-spirited and out-of-character (a bad Simpsons episode would have actually had him do it), but for the sake of the joke and because deep down, Homer would never do such a thing, the notion of the very idea is funny, while still establishing that Homer traditionally is a jerk to Ned throughout the series.  For Homer and Ned to go from said scene where Homer is arrogant and reluctant, while Ned is unsurpassably kind, (featured here…)

to culminate into such a heartwarming ending (shown below) after each has undergone such a dramatically shifted outlook towards the other, within reason, just shows how much of an excursion occurred in the span of 22 minutes.  And it was all fun in the process.

It’s not as cynical as season 8’s “Homer’s Enemy” and not as extreme as “Hurricane Neddy” (which still are both some of the greatest episodes) and because of this, “Homer Loves Flanders” manages to be a more organic and well-rounded experiment.  Even though it’s hilariously called attention to that the status quo will inevitably come into effect by next week’s episode, the episode still ends boldly without providing any back-pedaling reason for Homer and Ned to resort back to their traditional paradigm.  Instead, we just get a glimpse of The Simpsons family gearing up for another wacky adventure where they must spend a weekend in a haunted house.  Ned stops by the window to say Hi-diddly-ho only for Homer to snap, “Get lost, Flanders!”

Ned: “Okily Dokily!”

And with that, all of American viewership can breathe again.