Better Call Saul “Something Beautiful” (S4E03)

Better Call Saul has always been two shows for the price of one where I find myself switching between both sides of my brain as I watch. I admire the world-building of this excellent Breaking Bad prequel, looking forward to the future character connections or plot points. At the same time, as a fan of the actual standalone series, I adore the slow-burn and nuanced, original storytelling that Jimmy, Kim, Chuck (R.I.P.), Howard, and Nacho bring. The drug world side of it is this looming sense of dread in which you know Jimmy is going to get absorbed into at some point. It’s a unique dichotomy that is essential to the story that’s being told. That said, I’m noticing more and more that Better Call Saul leaves a large, uncomfortable knot in my stomach the further it goes, which is something I never felt to such an extent with Breaking Bad, even though you knew Walter White’s transformation and surrounding circumstances were going to become worse and worse.

Breaking Bad is a thrill ride, regardless of whether you’re rooting for Walt, but what helps in that regard is the major turning point towards Walt’s bad behavior occurred in the very first episode with his lung cancer diagnosis. After that, it’s bang bang, full steam ahead, placing you squarely on board for its plunge into the dark, whereas with Better Call Saul we know things are going to get bad, but we’re given the opportunity to become attached to Jimmy McGill and understand the smaller details for three entire seasons before the major turning point for Jimmy, being Chuck’s death. We learn that despite Jimmy’s slippery past, he has a good heart with the genuine intention to be good and do right by others. Even while he’s cutting corners or committing flat-out criminal acts, there’s this hope for redemption with his character, despite us already knowing he’s going to become Saul. Chuck played a very important role in squashing any possibility of positive change and that makes Jimmy’s downfall seemingly more tragic.

Walt’s fallout with Gretchen and Gray Matter served as brief, contextual information towards his decision to cook meth and kill people, similar to the little explanatory background most villains are given in stories. That’s not to say morality and the concept of good vs. evil was portrayed as black and white in Walt’s journey, but that Better Call Saul is a slower turn of the knife, allowing the audience to truly experience Jimmy’s fall from grace. Walt’s transformation is more extreme but Jimmy’s hurts more. In my opinion, it’s playing out to be one of television’s greatest stories of tragedy surrounding a lead character (The Wire being a show of greek tragedy not driven by a lead, but the city of Baltimore itself). Kim’s tearful response to Jimmy reading Chuck’s letter is a perfect, long over-due underlining of this.

Jimmy McGill is irreversibly broken here. Not only is he completely vacant of any protest for the measly $5,000 he receives for not contesting Chuck’s will, but he reads his brother’s letter as if a teacher called on a student to read a passage from a textbook. There’s no reveling in the words. Just intermittent slurping of cereal the same way he did when reading the classifieds in the premiere. Jimmy is not okay and even Mike, who’s best known for rolling his eyes and not giving Jimmy a second thought, can clearly see there’s something off in how he’s taking his brother’s death. While a take of $4,000 is pocket change to Mike compared to what he’s making now and not worth the risk (stealing hummel figurines in general being small ball compared to his current line of work), he still could tell that it’s just as ill-fitting a heist for Jimmy as well. It’s an aimless, senseless crime that Jimmy is more championing for the sake of acting out than he is for the money.

Jimmy’s spinning and Kim doesn’t need to witness his recent crime in order to realize this. Her boyfriend is broken to the point where there’s no telling what’s important to him anymore. During the hummel heist, Neff listens to an audio guide on time management which delves into the theme of ‘importance vs. urgency’. This is a hint to what’s going on in the final scene as Jimmy treats Chuck’s letter not as something of importance or value, but as an urgent task to get done with and out of the way.

Impending tragedy isn’t just exclusive to Jimmy but Nacho, who is currently the frontrunner of emotional investment within the drug world narrative, seems to be getting dealt a worse hand with each passing week. I remember back in season 3’s “Off Brand” review, when Victor held Nacho at gunpoint, I made this following observation:

I believe Nacho is a guy who has no problem being a criminal and being part of a criminal organization, but despite being a ‘tough’ when he has to be, he doesn’t prefer it. He’s not Jesse Pinkman, but he does have humanity in him. I imagine when he was in the presence of Tyrus and Victor, he saw himself in them. He was among true peers in that moment, those of whom are smart and no-nonsense working for a much more well-collected, level-headed, business man. And yet, they’re unfortunately enemies. I don’t doubt that if the opportunity ever presented itself possible, Nacho would want to work for a guy like Gus where things run smoothly.

In an alternate timeline, this would have made a lot of sense, but apply that wishful thinking to his current circumstances and it’s a living nightmare. Gone are the days when Nacho could intimidatingly tell off a nerdy Daniel Wormald (Pryce) that their business is done after giving back the stolen baseball cards. Now, as his life hangs in the balance, he’s being told off by the vet, Dr. Caldera (essentially a glasses-wearing polar opposite to Wormald in terms of intimidation), to never show his face to him again. Nacho has been shot (for appearances) unsympathetically by the group he’s now working for and has been saved (Marco pumping his own blood into him) by the very group he’s betrayed. He’s eternally trapped and has lost complete ownership over his life.

An astounding performance of Tom Lehrer’s song “The Elements” aside, Gale’s surprising return at first glance could be seen as a fan-service cameo, primarily being used to help set up Gus’ relationship with him (despite Breaking Bad already establishing that Gus put him through school), but I believe it serves more than that. It needed to be acknowledged that Gale is being groomed but wouldn’t be the outside supplier Gus uses under short notice as they halt distribution across the border. Is this where the mysterious Lalo comes in? It’s obviously in Gus’ favor for an outside supplier to be used under the situation he’s orchestrated, so whoever will fill that role must be a benefit to him in some fashion.

Other things to note:

-I don’t think we know why Kim needed to be at the courthouse. Unless I’m missing something? I don’t think she tampered with Chuck’s letter either. It’s unlike her and Chuck does care for Jimmy, regardless of the last words he said to him. Plus the letter seems to have been written before the Mesa Verde drama. I did notice the mysterious score that played when Kim was pacing around Kevin Wachtell’s bank models, which didn’t cue in until Kevin mentioned their future Nebraska location (Kim’s small hometown residing near the Nebraska/Kansas border). Ever since season 2’s “Inflatable”, Kim was oddly vague in her interview with Schweikart about where she came from. It poses a question of her past life. Something of which may be connected to where she might be in the future as Gene hangs low in Omaha. I’m really interested to know what’s going on in her head in that moment other than feeling overwhelmed by what seems like an endless, unrewarding venture for Mesa Verde. She definitely seems to have no gripes with letting her new assistant take lead on most of the work.

-I texted my friend on a commercial break, speculating that we might see Todd at some point in regards to the B&E hire considering Saul is the one who introduced Vamanos Pest to Walt and Jesse, citing that he’s been “pulling their chestnuts out of the fire, legally speaking, for five years.” I was half-right as Jimmy’s recruit was Ira, Vamanos Pests’ owner, which means Todd might be right around the corner. Ira, as far as I can tell, was never involved with Uncle Jack and the neo-nazis. I like his character and I look forward to him getting more screen time in the future. The character has a charming Brian Posehn quality and I loved Dave Porter’s choice to accompany his heist with a light-hearted, bumbling score.

-In the cold open, I still can’t tell if the hubcap bouncing off the road and hitting the camera lens was an effect story-boarded and digitally added in or was it just a wonderful accident. Gordon Smith wrote and Daniel Sackheim (The X-Files) directed this one, being the same duo who worked on last season’s climactic “Chicanery”. An opening scene like this truly shows the range of their work.

-Oh and I love the adorable opening shot of the horned lizard spiking the camera (looking straight into the lens). It was as if the creature was welcoming us into the episode.

Better Call Saul “Breathe” (S4E02)

Two episodes in and Better Call Saul has already kept me up later than usual upon the night of its airing as well as given me actual dreams of hummel figurines as I wracked my brain the following morning trying to figure out what’s going on in Jimmy’s head. That’s not to give less credit to the entire episode as a whole though. “Breathe” fires on all cylinders as it features characters finding themselves clawing for control against the near impossible odds or forces that the universe deals them.

So why did Jimmy seem to legitimately want the copier sales position, showing the utmost gumption to earn the employers’ admiration, only to tear into them once they agreed to hire him? Was this planned from the beginning or did Jimmy experience a change of heart after sincerely hoping it would be a good fit? We already know afterwards that he’s looking into how much the Bavarian boy figurine is worth ($8,740.45), but he couldn’t have been going on a string of job interviews just to scout potential items to steal, right? If Jimmy needs money, he could steal from anywhere, which is why I believe there’s a personal motivation at play (like his disdain for suckers) that was conceived in the spur of the moment.

I think there are a few factors going on in Jimmy’s head right now. Some of it may pertain to self-loathing of his own abilities. He’s basically arguing against the very shortcut the employers are taking by not considering their other options, the same way Chuck would in the name of operating thoroughly by-the-book. It’s shortcuts and illegitimate practices by Jimmy that fueled Chuck’s fire so this could be interpreted as somewhat of a tribute to his brother. I think Chuck, regardless of their feud, is the only McGill that Jimmy has ever genuinely respected. Both Jimmy and Chuck from both sides of the legal coin managed to not become a sucker like Jimmy perceives his father to be. It might have made Jimmy proud, even relieved, to know that Chuck was prepared to go to war over the insurance debacle before meeting his end.

Another aspect to consider is Jimmy’s denial to having any part in Chuck’s death and his flashy tap dance performance put on for the employers might have subconsciously reminded him of how successful his schemes work, much like the insurance leak worked too well against Chuck. Jimmy may be trying to find a place that could truly put him in line as a form of penance. On the other and more likely hand, it could be the exact opposite and Jimmy is embracing his slippery ways. Jimmy has faced rejection from legitimate business, clients, and of course, his brother, all his life. Chuck’s last words to Jimmy was the ultimate rejection. Perhaps Jimmy winning over a legitimate company with his hustling talent and then telling them off is his way of taking back control. The universe never wanted or accepted Jimmy, but if he could win the universe’s admiration, then he could be the one who does the rejecting.

Overall, it’s a grieving process which may or not be conscious, but it does seem to be taking the form of Chuck’s last advice for Jimmy to embrace who he is, free of doubt or remorse. Like a Gila monster, Jimmy could be ready to latch on after taking a bite, which is why he’ll hold no regrets in ripping off a straight and narrow company like Neff Copiers. Stealing the hummel figurine would also be symbolic in contrast to how he’s always done right by his elder clients. If it wasn’t for his back-pedaling guilt in throwing Irene Landry under the bus for his personal gain, that bridge would not be burned. An innocent elderly woman would be left in ruin, but Jimmy would be on easy street. I think besides money, stealing the figurine could be his way of rejecting the community that will no longer have him, reapplying a sense of disregard he feels he should have stuck to (according to Chuck).

This is something I’m sure is going to create tension for his relationship with Kim, because it seems like he’s heading beyond the colorful lawyer and scam artist who she knows and accepts. Here, it looks like his true criminal self is emerging, which for the moment he’s hiding from her. Meanwhile, Kim is withholding information from Jimmy with the good intentions to protect his emotional and mental state. Rhea Seehorn gives an Emmy-worthy performance as Kim angrily unloads on Howard for his misplaced considerations towards Jimmy. Of course, I feel bad for Howard here because due to his own grief of his best friend and colleague (which he’s entitled to feel), his head was not in the right position to be thoroughly sensitive and mindful. He didn’t set out to hurt Jimmy, but Kim makes excellent points of Howard purely interested in his own self-preservation. I completely understand Kim’s vitriol and this is a win for her in some ways as she’s finally telling Howard off on the subject of fairness. That said, I don’t think Kim approves of emotions getting the best of her, despite her points still being delivered soundly.

Going to the meeting on Jimmy’s behalf is something she’s refusing to disclose to Jimmy. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Kim is going to read Chuck’s letter intended for Jimmy and be the judge on whether she’ll hand it over to him. If it reads toxic or back-handed (which it most likely is), she’ll destroy it, but if it’s surprisingly apologetic or hopeful, she would have to tell him she read it first. I don’t think Jimmy would have a problem with that since her heart is in the right place, but for the moment, all secrets feed the gap that currently exists between them. Both characters are tip-toeing around each other at the moment and not being completely honest so I look forward to how this affects their relationship going forward. They also seem to be using food, movies, and sex as a mask to cover their off-beat disconnection with one other. Their sexual relationship is something that existed almost entirely off-screen up until now, so the creative decision to finally display that helps give the impression that they’re cordial and spiritual connection is spiraling.

On the drug world side of things, “master of the universe” himself, Gustavo Fring, is tasked with moving heaven and earth to ensure that Hector’s fate remains in his hands and no one else’s. As soon as I heard Gus utter the words “no one else” in the cold open, I knew he was speaking more specifically than just the laws of nature. Beyond putting however much money forward to get a doctor from Johns Hopkins to treat Hector, the Nacho problem from last episode needed to be answered to and boy, was that handled swiftly and shockingly. Back in the season 2 finale, when the truck driver was shot point blank in the face by the cousins as Mike watched from afar, I remember feeling a complete tonal shift for that moment. There’s much longer stretches from when people are murdered on this show compared to Breaking Bad, so it’s jarring when it’s creeps back up on full display. Better Call Saul has certainly set a dangerous tone the second Tuco was introduced, violently breaking the legs of two skater twins in the desert as Jimmy winces in horror, as well as when Mike’s backstory was filled out. It’s a presage of where the overall show is heading no matter how successfully the more graphic, gritty moments are kept at bay.

This is also the first scene we ever see of Gus (in this show) bringing the hammer down on someone, playing as a much different viewing experience for someone who’s never seen Breaking Bad. What I enjoy most about this part of the show right now is how Nacho’s fate is completely undetermined, giving me a reason to remain emotionally invested beyond appreciating how all the pieces are forming as a prequel story. The absolute disgust and disappointment expressed by Nacho’s father here is deserved and heartbreaking, and yet, he’s still concerned for his son’s well-being. Can these two survive long enough before Robert Forster reprises his role as Ed, the disappearer?

If there’s one brief shot that I feel sums up the entire episode, it’s when director Michelle MacLaren allows the camera to crawl along the pavement of a yellow painted line, veering it off-course to reveal Gus sweeping up trash on a parallel one. Street lines tend to be a common, symbolic image used in this show to illustrate the idea of the characters following a narrow, fixed path. From the last image of season 1, to the first meeting between Gus and Mike, it’s the equivalent of the pink teddy bear’s eye or the fly. The characters in Better Call Saul are trying to get off this path, redefine it, or work it into their favor. The title “Breathe” isn’t just in reference of Arturo’s death, but it applies to the tension felt between all these characters.

Better Call Saul “Smoke” (S4E01)

Not only does the season 4 premiere kick things off in a very big and promising way, but I really love how this episode tells a self-contained ‘aftermath’ story which subverts your expectations from how any other show has or would approach returning after a big character death. I know Jimmy McGill is a unique character, capable of way more depth than we could have imagined from his Saul Goodman counterpart, but I don’t think I ever realized up until now just how unique the character is. The DNA of Jimmy McGill is bizarre. He’s always looking for the shortcut where the ends justify the means but when it blows up in his face, he actually feels bad. He feels remorse and guilt and will even try to make things right again but the second he could justify it or find an excuse or an out, he’s back and ready to repeat the cycle. There’s a believable psychology to this that Gould and the writers absolutely nail, and in this episode Chuck’s death challenges that.

Before learning of Chuck’s fiery demise, we’re shown Jimmy waking up early to make coffee, retrieve the newspaper, and survey some job listings, all before tending to the recently injured Kim. It’s played to an upbeat jazz number which seems to suggest to the audience that this will be the last moment of routine bliss before he realizes the horrible event that will change his life forever. Many shows have done this before but I can’t recall any that ever used it as payoff to something even more compelling. I seriously remember thinking during the scene, “It’s going to be a while before we see Jimmy in this hopeful state of mind again.” The scene persuades you to feel this anticipated sense of tragedy. Add to that, an entire hour of Bob Odenkirk’s brilliant, silent performance (the most non-vocal we’ve ever seen the character) as Jimmy remains utterly side-swiped by the whole ordeal. Never would I have expected though that he would be right back to his care-free, optimistic self by first episode’s end.

It’s not that Jimmy hasn’t put two and two together that he intentionally tipped off Santa Rosa of Chuck’s mental condition and outburst in court, causing HHM’s malpractice insurance rates to go up, but that he just flat out refuses to connect that in blaming himself. When Howard can’t help but consider his own fault in the matter after having forced Chuck out of the firm, it presents Jimmy an out for absolution, despite how delusional the logic is. It’s as if Chuck’s last words, “You’ve never mattered all that much to me” have been banging around in Jimmy’s head all episode, giving him further justification to move on. That’s not to say that Jimmy isn’t deeply affected by Chuck’s death from here on out, but it shows us at the core, who Jimmy is. The same guy in season 2 who forced a commercial at Davis & Main, not computing what lines were crossed, is the same guy, even in the wake of his brother’s suicide, who will not accept that certain actions have consequences.

I don’t believe Jimmy is ever going to own up to any part of this. It’s as if the insurance leak started a chain of events for reasons that felt right to Jimmy but Howard was the last link (in that particular chain) before Chuck took his life, therefore Jimmy could wash his hands of it. I believe Jimmy’s going to remain internalized with this usual line of thinking to the point of implosion. Howard’s written obituary for Chuck was definitely another contributing factor for Jimmy’s dismissal towards Howard (Patrick Fabian giving a rockstar performance of his own) as it was a long, celebratory, pat-on-the-back for Chuck’s academic and professional achievements that gave no mention (from what Jimmy heard) of Chuck’s affection or consideration for his brother.

Let’s talk about Gene Takavic. When we last left him, he was collapsed on the floor of the Cinnabon, having previously blurted out “Get a lawyer!” to a young, captured, thief, signifying the increasing difficulty for him to live as a shell of his former self. Tensions rise as Gene is taken to the hospital surrounded by potential threats from cops to oblivious receptionists. Anyone could possibly recognize him, but the drivers license and social security number debacle was a true nail-biter played ambiguously to the universe’s charming sense of humor. Every frame of Gene’s cab ride home though was the tipping point of scary and was shot in such a fantastic way that surpasses Gene’s usual sense of paranoia. It’s over. Each flash-forward sequence, slowly but surely pushes story forward and there’s no way that Gould & Gillgian would continue to tease this as anything less. The cab driver recognizes him.

I don’t think we know this person. I don’t think he’s connected to any major Breaking Bad players like Jesse or Skyler (she being a taxi cab driver herself), but it’s simply a man who almost certainly once lived in ABQ, New Mexico who watches the news and is aware of the many, many commercials, billboards, and bus benches of our favorite crooked lawyer (besides Lionel Hutz). Speaking of The Simpsons, the Albuquerque Isotopes would have formed in 2003, the current year of Better Call Saul’s present time, explaining why Mike may have felt intrigued in tuning in to a game as he sits in his house bored out of his mind. My knowledge of chemistry was always shaky, so I decided to do a quick google search of what the actual definition of an isotope is:

Isotope: each of two or more forms of the same element that contain equal numbers of protons but different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei, and hence differ in relative atomic mass but not in chemical properties; in particular, a radioactive form of an element.

You can interpret this as symbolic to characters taking on different forms, namely alternative identities. Interestingly enough, the first and last time the ABQ Isotopes were referenced across both shows was in Breaking Bad’s first episode to feature Saul, where Walter enters the law office under the alias Mr. Mayhew wearing the team’s cap, while Jimmy embodies the form of Saul Goodman. Here, Jimmy/Saul sees the cab driver’s air freshener as Mr. Takavic and immediately after Mike catches the ball game on TV, he encompasses the fake identity of Barry Hedburg in order to infiltrate Madrigal. This metaphor is three for three and clearly intentional, right? Right?

Having worked in a warehouse, I wish there was an undercover Mike who could point out the increasing number of safety violations that goes on in most places of distribution. This was such a wonderful, light-hearted montage and overall subplot in an otherwise bleak, conflict-heavy episode. I believe Mike wants to be put to work, rather than be sent a check every week, so he’s putting his placeholder title of security consultant to use, helping his cover hold more weight while proving he could be way more beneficial to Gus’ operation than just an occasional hire. I love how this entire scene was introduced on a character we have never met, Barry, for an extensive amount of time, where you’re not only meant to question who the hell is he, but what’s about to happen to him? It felt like the car was going to explode. And what was missing (later revealed) from his briefcase? It’s excellent how the show withholds information from you until it all comes together, making even most veteran fans still squirm in their seats with uncertainty.

The character I have most imminent concern for in this premiere is Nacho. The guy wants nothing more but to be done with the criminal underbelly of the Salamanca territory but finds himself getting pulled in deeper as Juan and Gus manage the transition to uphold it. I’m pretty positive that Nacho’s biggest mistake wasn’t being seen by Victor at the bridge where he finally disposed of the pills, but when he considered to dump the pills down the drain. Gus already was curious to Nacho’s demeanor while talking to the EMT, but I wouldn’t put it passed Gus whatsoever if he had the meeting under surveillance from the get-go. During the phone call, Gus might have turned his back on Nacho on purpose in order to provide Nacho with a false sense of security. Whether it be Victor or Tyrus, they could have seen Nacho take out the pills and pace suspiciously towards the drain from a hidden vantage point and then report to Gus what they witnessed. Even worse, they could have seen Nacho’s clunkier assassination attempt with the gun that took place earlier depending on how long the place was being watched.

All of this is speculation of course, but would you put it passed Gus on being that careful? This is the same guy that had Mike fooled in the season 2 finale. Regardless, I can’t imagine these developments being anything but bad for Nacho. If I didn’t have an emotional attachment to the character, I’d tell you, based on any mob or gangster movie, that he’s an absolute goner by next episode. However, Nacho is only doing the same thing Mike once tried to do, and now look where Mike is. The difference is that Mike is useful though. I don’t think Gus sees any use in Nacho. In fact, he was pretty cold towards him, almost having the opposite concern for him than he would for his Los Pollos Hermanos employees. Gus is the same guy who slit the throat of his trusted henchman who’s now tracking Nacho at this point, so I don’t think sympathy wins here. It’s going to be a political decision on whether or not to keep Nacho alive. He’s just a goon to these guys. The only thing I can think is that Hector will survive this. I think he would be wise to Gus or Juan if his right hand man suddenly up and vanished.

You also have to consider Gus’ mention that an outside party will now move on Hector’s territory. This could mean we’ll be introduced to Lalo, the long-awaited unseen Breaking Bad character that was mentioned when Walt and Jesse has Saul on his knees in the desert. With death supposedly closing around Nacho from every corner, a gap would need to be filled why Saul mentioned Ignacio and Lalo in the same begging sentence. I’m also pretty sure that Gus’ foresight of the D.E.A. was a wink to the audience that we may see a tenderfoot version of Hank Schrader by the time this season is over.

Other stuff in no particular order:

-It was such an inspired shot to follow last season’s cliffhanger with the embers floating into the night sky while superimposing the shot over a pan of the Mesa Verde files and into Jimmy and Kim’s bedroom. I was wondering how much of the gory details were going be shown considering Breaking Bad’s season 4 premiere never shied away from flat out showing you the complete aftermath of the previous cliffhanger. I’m glad that they chose to just simply show the coroner’s van drive off because anything more would have felt gratuitous. I also liked the score of blaring trumpets during the wide shot of the destroyed house. It felt Lynchian, but also echoed the similar music that played when Chuck tore the house apart.

– I thought the shot of Kim fading away as Jimmy sat on the couch felt like a moment of foreshadowing Kim’s future involvement in Jimmy’s life, especially now when Chuck’s death will play the most significant role in transforming Jimmy into Saul. At the same time, she didn’t disappear. She was still on the couch but you can barely tell. Could this be a hint that she’ll still play some role in the Breaking Bad years from behind closed doors? It could mean nothing but I don’t think that shot was done simply because it looked cool. There was thought put behind it.

– I’d like to give a shout out to the youtube channel ScreenPrism which I find does a lot of thoughtful video analyses on various tv shows. In this video delving into Chuck’s suicide, it makes an interesting note of how Jimmy is a character who has no patience for uncertainty. Whether he has money problems, trying to sign a client, watching Ice Station Zebra with Kim, or listening to Chuck read him the story of Mabel, he needs to know that everything is going to work out. It’s why he’ll take the shortcuts to ensure that things do. While watching this premiere I noticed that he ran the sink, watching the water waste away into the drain. For me, I interpreted this as uncertainty. He’s still wondering what caused Chuck’s death and what could have been prevented. It’s an open-ended problem. By the end of the episode though, upon dumping the blame completely on Howard, he stands on the opposite side of the sink to feed his fish. The water in the tank is all contained and the fish is always in there, even if it dies. It’s simple and certain just the way Jimmy likes it.

– I’m sure many avid viewers caught on to this but I love that they used the song, “Sicilienne” for Chuck’s funeral, being the same song he played on piano during the season 2 premiere. It’s also touching because the sheet music had Rebecca’s name on it, being a song that’s meant to be played along with a violin. It was also great to see Clifford Main, Rich Schweikart, and others to help really feel the impact Chuck made on the legal community. And of course, it was especially important to see Rebecca in this moment.

– You can bet the farm I’m one of those freeze-frame fans so I’d like to mention how funny I found it that Mike signed Tina’s birthday card with “Reach for the stars! – Barry H”. Also, there was a job ad for Beneke Fabricators in the newspaper Jimmy was perusing, and no, Jimmy didn’t circle it.

Better Call Saul “Lantern” (S3E10)

“Why jump to the nuclear option? I’m saying keep it simple.” – Jimmy McGill to Tuco Salamanca (Season 1×02, “Mijo”)

“You got the nuclear option!  Launch the doomsday device.  Game over.” – Jimmy McGill to Chuck (Season 1×09, “Pimento”)

Amidst multiple references to the Cold War (you can check out my review pointing out Better Call Saul’s season 2 parallels to Dr. Strangelove here) or the Space Race (a xerox machine is referred by Jimmy to be as complicated as a space shuttle a few episodes before he uses one to sabotage Chuck), the show has always used these themes to help drive the tension between the brothers.  If Tuco from the quote above represents the smoking crater that is Breaking Bad’s world which Jimmy is not yet ready for, then Chuck is the key that would need to be turned to get him there.  If there ever was an episode where both brothers finally blow their lives up in a significant matter, it’s this finale, which appropriately kicks off with the camera pushing through the space of a backyard that almost resembles the remains of a battlefield.  As a young Chuck reads The Adventures of Mabel to his kid brother, you can sense the seeds of war destined between them as a no-nonsense Chuck endures Jimmy’s impatience to know what happens at the end of the story.  It’s reminiscent to Jimmy constantly interrupting Kim while watching Ice Station Zebra back in season 2’s “Amarillo” (“So do they all die? Tell me that much.”…. “So what I miss? Anything blow up yet?”).

The cold open drives up intensely close on a white-gas lantern, an object which has been a looming concern often ignored throughout the entire season/series.  The imagery of the lantern is represented with the same symmetry in following scenes of the episode, such as the glowing wooden frame behind Howard’s seat in the boardroom or the row of lights on the table that separates Chuck from Howard as they discuss the options of Chuck’s lawsuit.  There’s a moment when Chuck gets out of his chair to propose a peaceful resolution as he walks passed each lit lamp (a sign of his own mental improvement).  Intermittently our TV screen goes dark as the camera pans across the back of each chair.  It’s a perfect illustration that despite Chuck’s claim for not wanting be the cause for HHM’s destruction, he’s completely delusional to the well-positioned line of doom he’s brought upon himself the second he decided to betray his own law partner/best friend.

Howard deciding to pay Chuck out from his own pocket is awfully telling to how off-the-rails Chuck’s behavior has been.  I adore the Kubrick-like pull-back as Chuck sneers from upon the lobby’s balcony as Howard arranges their employees to give him a rushed, yet properly celebrated send-off.  As Howard coldly cuts his own applause short and a befuddled Chuck marches out the automatic doors into the blinding white sunlight, we’re once again reminded of the lantern.

“You know, sometimes you gotta play to your strengths.” – Kim

While Chuck sticks to his convictions against HHM after hitting the self-destruct button, it’s Jimmy who realizes the same nuclear option can be applied to his problem in order to right the previous wrong of getting the retirement community to turn on Irene Landry.  Chuck gets the hero’s exit from HHM’s staff as he cuts himself off from that world he held so dear, while Jimmy’s is much less ceremonious as he becomes ostracized from the elder community who have loved and supported him for three seasons now.  Jimmy consciously sacrifices his reputation with an entire client base to get Irene back in everyone’s good graces as well as ensure the residents of Sandpiper Crossing receive their highest potential earnings from the class-action lawsuit, but was it out of genuine regret of his actions or just to prove Chuck wrong that the regrets he claims to feel are real?

The thing is, he wouldn’t have shown up at Chuck’s doorstep at all if he didn’t feel bad for Kim’s car crash (he even feels the need to blame himself for being the reason Kim overworked herself).  I do believe in Jimmy’s nature of act now and feel bad later, even though most of his schemes ironically operate by foretelling the beats to where every action leads.  For Jimmy, it’s all about what seems right to do in the moment and for all he’s concerned, the universe can have fun playing catch-up in the aftermath.  However, by destroying the door of practicing elder law permanently, Jimmy, from the result of Chuck’s judgement, is showing clear potential of his ability to change.  It’s just too bad Chuck won’t be around much longer for it to even matter to Jimmy.

“I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the truth is you never mattered all that much to me.” – Chuck

It’s tragic that these are the last words Chuck will ever say to his brother and it’s probably what drove Jimmy to try and fix his mistakes throughout the hour.  What Jimmy never sees after exiting the house for the final time is that Chuck looks up towards the door suggesting that he never meant what he said.  It’s the fattest lie he could have told as everything in Chuck’s life revolves around Jimmy.  You can imagine the hurt that’s felt when he’ll later learn of Chuck’s final act, never getting any hint of closure from this moment, even if he suspected Chuck’s sentiments were false.  You can’t help but feel bad for Chuck though, because he’s clearly sick and can’t help himself from burning bridge after bridge after so many events throughout the season have lined up flawlessly for him to do so.  The final scene is certainly the most saddest and darkest moment in the show to the point where the credits sequence is the only one to date to not use the usual, upbeat closing theme.

In the beginning of this final scene, the camera tracks slowly along the ground similarly to the way it did in the cold open, this time showing the insulation and upturned furniture with the lantern’s light shining ominously in the background.  The smash cut to Chuck bobbing helplessly in his seat almost plays at first glance like he has somehow electrocuted himself.  The way the scene takes its time to reveal what’s actually happening is disturbing, especially how most of it is unveiled through a series of fixed shots, as if only the inanimate walls and stacks of newspapers are aware of what’s happening.  This really helps capture Chuck’s complete and utter loneliness in the aftermath of the scene prior where he punches holes in his walls to snuff out the last bit of mysterious electric current.  In the end, the only electricity left is what was left of his mind.  Chuck’s death will undoubtedly become a major turning point for the series as Jimmy and the rest of the characters move forward.

Kim exits this season battered and physically defeated after her near-fatal car accident.  It speaks a lot to to the work she’s buried herself with after harboring the remorse of humiliating Chuck in court in exchange to support a partner she knows is guilty.  If this is an episode where Jimmy takes stock of his own behavior, then that goes double for Kim as she chooses to re-evaluate her priorities by dropping Gatwood Oil as a client and pushing her meetings with Mesa Verde.  By stripping the band-aid of workload, it’s as if she’s allowing her questionable allegiance towards Jimmy to truly sink in. Kim’s plan to marathon nearly ten movies from Blockbuster is perhaps her way of getting back to the root of why she enjoys being in Jimmy’s corner.  If this means she has to continuously endure Jimmy’s pressing desire to take shortcuts and care more about where each story is headed, then that’s something she’s may be willing to atone for.  Does Kim survive in the end like the protagonist in The Adventures of Mabel (“Is she gonna be okay?”…”She’ll be fine Jimmy.”… “How do you know?”…”Just listen.”) or does Kim meandering through an old relic Blockbuster Video signify her own demise?  Maybe the fact that Blockbuster still exists in extremely rare locations means she’ll still be alive but at what cost?

Nacho, whose hand was already forced to inform his disappointed father of his criminal connections to the Salamanca family, is now forced into a speedy rescue mission after Hector declares Nacho’s dad to be untrustworthy.  At the risk of Manuel being expendable, Nacho must put an end to Hector once and for all, but it’s not that simple.  Even with Hector finally undertaking the serious stroke that likely leads him to the wheelchair-ridden Hector we know from Breaking Bad, Nacho now has more dangerous eyes on him.  Not only does Hector’s fate still hang in the balance after Gus surprisingly makes a valiant effort to save him, but Gus’ life-long plan to get Hector under his own thumb has been threatened once again.  Mike may have been absent from the finale, but his warning to Nacho back in “Expenses” may have just rang true.  Nacho, like Jimmy, has not taken the consequences of his actions properly into account, but unlike Jimmy, Nacho has been moving Heaven and Hell to make sure he can.  Unfortunately the conflict he finds himself in has a far deeper and wider scope than he could have forseen.  It’s something even a good study like Mike had to learn the hard way back when he made an attempt on Hector’s life.

Can you feel the heat of Better Call Saul rising?


Better Call Saul “Fall” (S3E09)

“Money IS the point!” – Jimmy (“Uno”)

I want to scream about this show right now.  I’ve mentioned it long ago but what I love most about Better Call Saul, down to its very core, is that there’s a story lurking underneath the surface throughout the entire series with all of its characters that never gets addressed until it does.  Mike unearthed the good samaritan’s body after nearly an entire season of never allowing Mike to even speak of it.  In season 1’s “Pimento”, Chuck finally reveals his true feelings towards Jimmy.  These are only two examples (the former being recent and the latter being central and iconic) out of alot where you could pick up on what’s really going on in the heads of these characters, regardless of when or if it’s brought to the forefront, and yet it’s always so rewarding when it is.  Even when you can’t connect certain dots, you can still feel an effect from dots that are there to connect.

“Fall” did something that was just as powerful and game-changing as what “Pimento” and “Nailed” accomplished (not just because I was hoping it would), and did it in a way we’re not used to.  Season 1 had the “You’re not a real lawyer!” moment between Jimmy and Chuck.  Season 2 had the Kim/Jimmy/Chuck standoff.  “Fall” is a penultimate hour that consisted of characters outright delivering hard truths to one another, some on the brink of severing ties, while also allowing some important developments and revelations to remain brimming in subtext to an overwhelming degree.

“Is this about Chuck?” – Howard

Back in “Chicanery”, it was very much about Chuck, but as of now, (temporarily) Jimmy is done with him.  There are wounds so strong between those two that will carry on for the rest of their lives and will serve as a surplus of fuel for Jimmy’s path to Saul Goodman.  Due to the aftermath of Chuck vs. Jimmy, the torch has now been passed to Kim.  She is the final character who can keep Jimmy rooted as Jimmy, and by the looks of it, the roots are starting to give.  Can there be any more of a divide in the scene where Jimmy comes in with a bottle of Zafiro, dressed as Matlock, wailing his arms around like a clown, while Kim prepares for a meeting with a client that Jimmy is just now aware of?

Kim has been burying herself in the work for Gatwood Oil, her first client that’s disconnected from any of Jimmy’s smarmy manipulations.  It’s a much needed distraction after the guilt she feels over what they did to Chuck, as well as being a way to distance herself from the Jimmy who’s essentially doing Mr. Show skits on the air, getting any laugh he can in making the universe out to be a fool for his fortune.  The two storylines of Jimmy and Kim in this episode are meant to work in contrast to the larger story that’s being told.

We open with a close, creeping shot of pavement as Jimmy self-seekingly rips across before pulling his car straight up to the camera, almost colliding with it.  This is a shot that’s meant to foreshadow what’s to come at very end of the episode, especially considering my belief that Kim’s crash is indirectly responsible, on a subconscious level, of Jimmy’s behavior as of late.  On Jimmy’s side of the story, after the last two episodes of Jimmy scrapping for cash, I had completely forgot about the Sandpiper money that he would have coming to him once that case settled.  I think Alan Sepinwall from last year’s review at Uproxx put it best:

“If Clifford Main were to simply call Jimmy out of the blue and reluctantly tell him his check was in the mail, that would have no dramatic weight, and would also make Jimmy so financially comfortable that there might not be much of story for him for quite some time. By making him literally hustle for it — cruelly isolating class representative Irene Landry from all her friends at the retirement home to manipulate her into pushing for an earlier and smaller settlement — the story becomes less about what the money can do for Jimmy than what Jimmy does for the money, and the moral depths to which he’ll sink to pursue his own ends.”

I can see how the audience can still be in Jimmy’s camp when he faces off against Chuck, but I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who can defend Jimmy’s actions against Irene Landry, a sweet elderly lady in a retirement home and trusted client who has been one of Jimmy’s best supporters since season 1.  I had to check the beginning of “Off Brand” to see if she was one of the clients who showed up to Jimmy’s hearing (she didn’t) but she easily could have been.  I remember back in “RICO” when Irene went for her money that was stashed in a very accessible spot, I wondered what Jimmy’s limits were in regards to taking advantage of his elderly clients.  It’s at this point of the series where I would never imagine the extent of how low Jimmy could possibly sink.  Irene wasn’t just the class representative of the Sandpiper case, but she represents that whole world who loves and champions Jimmy.  After depressingly throwing her to the wolves just to rush a class-action lawsuit, diminishing the entire retirement community’s potential earnings, it makes you question who he wouldn’t hurt for his own personal gain.

That’s where Kim comes in and the ever-looming storm cloud of a fact that she is, indeed, not in Breaking Bad.  This episode positions her in an unfamiliar setting of open, South-Western desert landscape presented in the staple wide shots you might come to expect when recalling an elusive RV, severed head on a tortoise, or a crooked lawyer’s shallow grave.  In Better Call Saul, the desert alludes to the unavoidable future and imminent danger Breaking Bad will become host to, especially for those who aren’t suited for it.

Billy Gatwood (played by Twin Peaks’ Chris Mulkey) facing a muddled predicament of determining where the line lies to prevent two different states from taxing his operation can be seen as a metaphor for where Kim’s operation lies between the two over-lapping states of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad.  It’s a question that’s becoming increasingly pertinent as Jimmy is becoming ever-closer to the world of the latter.  Can Kim Wexler survive in that world, if the case is that she exists off-screen, or will she get swallowed up entirely?  Here, we’re shown Kim alone in the desert, her car gets stuck and she chooses to independently solve the problem by wisely placing some loose stakes underneath the tire.  She’s successful but not graceful as the car almost hits one of the oil wells, leaving the question of her future endurability still up in the air.

No matter how many times I anticipate Kim’s car crash, I can never work the timing out after the elongated silence.  Even when I use the passing landmarks in the background as bearing, it still always catches me off guard.  It’s as if Kelley Dixon, longtime editor for both shows found the perfect off-beat moment to execute on.  In horror movies, jump scares can tend to be a cheap device, but there are instances when it’s done right and here it couldn’t have been a more helpful way in portraying a car crash so accurately when falling asleep behind the wheel (according to people who relay such an experience).

There’s also a moment of foreshadowing a couple of episodes back in “Expenses” when Kim sets her timer for 5 minutes so she could take a nap in her car.  It not only establishes that Kim is working on a limited amount of sleep but a jump cut is used to portray how fast time can get away from you.  All in all, the final shot that’s shown here is of a long winding road heading to the right as Kim’s car crashes to the left.  The camera pulls out to, again, a classic Breaking Bad-esque landscape, which seems to highly suggest that Kim will become estranged from such a world, as we know.  The drama to what happens between her and Jimmy feels like it’s right around the corner.

As the future of Kim and Jimmy’s relationship may remain to be seen, and Jimmy betrays an unbeknown Irene Landry, other relationships based on past love and support begin to wear out.

After the reveal that every practicing attorney in HHM is going to have their insurance premiums doubled, Howard gently suggests it might be time for Chuck to pursue other avenues.  Chuck antagonizes, shooting down the notion, and Howard is faced with the more unfortunate choice of confronting Chuck on his unpredictability as of late and that it’s time to hang it up.  Chuck later retaliates by suing the firm, essentially choosing to hit the self-destruct button regardless of anyone else’s feelings.  I once compared this show to Dr. Strangelove and it’s similar themes to a Cold War back in my season 2 episode review of “Fifi”:

“Better Call Saul is essentially Dr. Strangelove as well, in how ridiculously comedic the entire conflict is when you say it out loud, yet it’s derived from something very serious and real between these two brothers where everyone within a potential blast radius of their world is forced to play in it like it’s a game. Chuck is actually incredibly similar to Jack D. Ripper being in a high position of power yet going sort of cuckoo indirectly due to being emasculated with his wife in the bedroom. Because of that, something bizarre and non-existent is now present in Chuck.

His psychosomatic condition of electromagnetic hypersensitivity is his version of Ripper’s theory of a communist plot using fluoridation to “sap and impurify” Americans of their precious bodily fluids. Communism is a real threat while Ripper’s theory is obviously all in his head, just like Slippin’ Jimmy is a real threat while Chuck’s condition is all in his head, yet it somehow proves time and again to act up whenever Slippin’ Jimmy is about. And what better correlation to communism is Jimmy himself, being the low-level and lesser deserving scam artist who wants to be of the same class and reap the same rewards as his more educated and hard-working brother?

This is why I have been defending Howard this season because despite how unfair his actions have been towards Kim, the guy is really just as much a victim to a rigged situation. To Chuck, Howard is the Lionel Mandrake who has been forced to put up with Chuck’s nonsense, but at the same time there is a real destructive threat going on beyond HHM’s window. Regardless of what fuels Chuck to be against it, it’s still a very real threat (Jimmy) and Kim continues to fool around with that threat without truly taking stock of how dangerous it is for a hard-working person like herself to entertain the experiment of keeping him under the same roof.

The Cold War was all about reaching a compromise but not without an impossible tension. Howard keeping Kim in doc review is almost like keeping a bunch of school children under a desk. It’s a means of exercising control but it’s all bullshit. He says he was hard on her because he saw something in her (and I believe that), but we all know that Kim is helpless no matter what. Howard admires that Kim will not be going to S&C and envies her for escaping and starting her own thing but in reality she’s still trapped in the McGill blast radius. The fact that Howard has stayed at HHM for his father was a great reveal but it’s also very revealing that he’s telling her this because it shows it’s been on his mind for a while to be thinking back on a moment when he too could have avoided this present reality where he’s locked in Jack D. Ripper’s office.”

I’m glad to see Howard finally standing up to Chuck, but saddened by how difficult it is to witness because, as we know, he’s has always cared for him, showing nothing but the utmost respect. Regardless, this has always been nuanced, unspoken conflict between these characters that’s been bubbling for three seasons now.

Meanwhile in the cartel world, Juan Bolsa has to set things straight with Hector, affirming that their product’s transportation will run exclusively through Gus’ chicken trucks.  This is followed by Hector’s continued resistance towards Gus, but also a complete disrespect for his association with Don Elado and Juan.  Nacho, of course, is already on the path to ending his connection to Hector, but Hector’s stroke doesn’t give and Nacho is instead faced to confront his father out of desperation.  He’s forced to reveal his involvement in the cartel, despite what that could mean for their relationship.  It’s heartbreaking.

The title of “Fall” really isn’t messing around as everything is beginning to collapse and change.  The only character who hasn’t cut or strained ties with another is Mike.  After “Slip’s” ending establishing the introductory union between him and Gus, he has become absorbed into Madrigal Electromotive with no turning back.  He has made the one connection in this entire episode that will hold for the duration, but it’s far from anything to celebrate.  This is the last we’ll see of Mike this season.  He becomes a ghost who may have just sealed his fate.  Remember, just like Jimmy, he has just as much of a transformation to make before he becomes the Mike of Breaking Bad and the stepping stones to get him there do not look good for him.

Some extra things to note:

– I’m loving this cool and collected version of Lydia.  It’s going to be a lot of fun to see Laura Fraser approach the character without the high anxiety she’s riddled with in Breaking Bad as we move forward.

– The way Howard talks down Jimmy in regards to his Sandpiper money was an incredible confrontation.  It reminded me of Howard’s first ever appearance in “Uno”, being more kind, considerate, and diplomatic, even when Jimmy would barge into his conference room, flailing his arms, demanding the money that’s owed to Chuck.  In contrast, Howard has now become the complete enemy that Jimmy once mistook him for in season 1 and it feels so deserved by this point.

Top 5 Reasons to Be Excited for Matt Groening’s New Netflix Series, ‘Disenchantment’

The one thing to always keep in the back of your mind is that the key ingredient to a great television show, let alone a successful one, is luck.  There are many factors at play that helps launch a great series, whether it’s internal with its creative process or external with its platform, marketing strategy, or whether or not it can find an audience.  You can have one of the best shows of all time in the works and it could easily fall through if a particular cylinder isn’t firing properly.  The TV industry is a tough business in which anything can rear its ugly head.  Luck is completely out of one’s hands but if you have the right tools prepared, you are more likely to end up with a true gem.  Other than Matt Groening being no stranger to the ins and outs of TV, here’s 5 reasons why I think his new Netflix series, Disenchantment, has a superb chance of being a brilliant show.  If you aren’t up to speed, here’s the official comic con trailer below of this new upcoming project:

5. Challenging Narrative

According to executive producers Matt Groening and Josh Weinstein, Disenchantment’s 10 episode first season and overall series will be concentrated with an over-arching narrative, similar to a drama series.  The show’s humor and jokes will be written around a serialized story, while each individual episode will manage to stand on its own.  How deeply serialized or dramatic this narrative may be remains to be seen, but nonetheless it’s definitely a bold change in formula compared to The Simpsons and even Futurama, which the latter to a lighter extent has delved into a specific, continuing mythology throughout its run.  Disenchantment is also implied to have moments of foreshadowing in the pilot to its season finale, as well as an end game to the entire series already in mind.

Many comedies, from Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm, or The Office to Parks and Recreation have maintained a continuing story throughout most seasons, so it’s not as if the concept is new, but I do wonder how innovative Disenchantment sets out to be here.  Will it be standalone stories with a small thread of serialization (character goals, comedic payoffs) like many great shows have previously accomplished or are we getting one of the first deeply serialized comedies?  And yes, South Park in recent seasons has been dabbling with this formula using a central idea to drive the season’s ongoing story to the point where if you missed one episode, you might get lost.  However, week to week it seems more off-the-cuff, using political satire and topical humor in the hope for some outlandish payoff that more or less falls flat.  From what we’ve seen and heard from Disenchantment, it feels like the story could be a bit more personal and carefully thought out.

4. Distinguished World

As a cartoonist, Matt Groening has stuck to the same signature design for his characters throughout all his work.  From his comic strip Life in Hell, to The Simpsons and Futurama, all of his characters have big round eyes, an overbite for a mouth, and all strive to be recognizable in silhouette ala Mickey Mouse.  Despite this common trend, each piece of work is completely different from one another in terms of genre and presentation.  The first 13 seasons of The Simpsons used hand-drawn cel animation, eventually shifting to digital and later HD, while Futurama took advantage of a 3D city landscape and universe for its hand-drawn/digitally animated characters to occupy.  Disenchantment seems to be using a cel-shaded 3D animation for its unique fantasy setting (castle, buildings) while applying complex shadowing and coloring to certain scenes that we’ve never seen before in his previous shows.  The world has a level of vibrancy that seems fitted for today’s modern HDTVs thanks to Rough Draft Studios’ (animation company for Futurama) imaginative visualization and direction.

Animation aside, in Disenchantment, we’re being thrown head first into a world of fantasy.  If The Simpsons turned the American nuclear family sitcom on its head, and Futurama did the same for science fiction, then we can expect a similar level of subversion from typical fantasy tropes and all the while an embrace towards the genre from a sincere, learned approach.  The ecosystem of the universe’s characters are also distinguishable from The Simpsons core family or Futurama’s diverse Planet Express workplace.  It’s a princess for the lead, an elf, and a demon, all of whom seem drawn to each other as outcasts.  ‘Bizarre’ isn’t anything new in Groening’s worlds but you can bet there will be a unique chemistry here, fresh from what we’re used to seeing, especially in this beautiful new playground of a setting.

3. Quality Writing and Voice Talent

If Groening is the one to map out the conceptual universe to his shows, it’s then the collaborative effort of his writing staff and the performance from the cast to help elevate and carry it forward.  One misconception to the general layman TV watcher is that the creator of a TV show is the sole creative genius behind it, like an author to a novel.  In many instances, an artist’s vision behind a series can take the large sum of deserved credit in the mold, vision, and finishing effect of the work, but a television show at the end of the day is still owed to the entire creative team involved.  TV shows like Louie or South Park are special cases where the creators do the lion’s share of the work, but that doesn’t make a collaborative effort any less accomplished if that’s what the project asks from itself.  In some cases, it’s even more admirable when a show can sustain it’s quality when there are a variety of moving parts behind it.

That said, it’s important to note that Groening won’t be the only ‘genius’ involved, but as previously mentioned he’ll be showrunning it along with SimpsonsFuturama, and Mission Hill alum Josh Weinstein.  Weinstein not only wrote a handful of classic episodes of The Simpsons along with Bill Oakley (another hired writer of Disenchantment!) but served as showrunner with Oakley for the show’s impeccable seventh and eighth season.  Futurama’s lead showrunner David X. Cohen will also be on the writing staff along other familiars like Patric M. Verrone and Eric Horsted.

Princess Bean will be played by Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson, Elfo will be played by Nat Faxon, and Luci will be played by Eric Andre (The Eric Andre Show).  On top of that, the supporting cast will feature the voices of Futurama vets such as Billy West, John DiMaggio, David Herman, Tress MacNeille, and Maurice LaMarche.  If you ask me, I believe everyone listed here on the cast and the writing staff make the recipe for a successful hit television show all the more promising.

2. Creative Freedom

After 30 years of The Simpsons on Fox and Futurama spending the first half of its run on Fox before getting picked up, post-cancellation, by Comedy Central, Disenchantment’s debut on Netflix might be the most creatively flexible platform that Groening and team have ever worked on.  Has network and basic cable ever prevented The Simpsons and Futurama from being the critical and commercial success that they are?  Of course not.  In fact, working around network guidelines and censors can provide some of the most rewarding and inspired material.  Still, it is sweet to hear how happy Matt Groening has been with the streaming service so far.  Netflix seems to be supportive of any direction the show wants to go in.  It will be supremely captivating and fresh going forward to see what limits the show will set for itself.  What stories or jokes could be told with less restrictions that otherwise couldn’t be done on Matt’s former shows?  And yet, do lines get crossed for the sake of being crossed or will they discipline themselves from being gratuitous?

1. Vision & Timing

It’s no secret that The Simpsons, despite the powerhouse of a show it was in the first third of its lifecycle, has experienced a swift decline in quality, the same way any show would if it went for a record, back-breaking count of 639 episodes.  Futurama also saw a softer decline during its revival on Comedy Central.  So why should Disenchantment be considered in such good faith to be any less different, even from the get-go, of being a similarly hollow shell compared to Groening’s shows when they operated at their best?  I think what people need to keep in mind is that Matt Groening is not the George Lucas of his shows.  He may defend the The Simpsons as still being as great as ever but that’s just promotion and good favor.  In reality he has always been one of the show’s toughest critics even during its golden years and it was no surprise in 1999 when he focused his full attention on Futurama, because he knew The Simpsons had accomplished so much by that point.  He knew the show was in good hands (having not been a showrunner since season 2 regardless), but most importantly it was time to move on and work on something entirely new.

It was exactly this keen sense of awareness and visionary outlook that helped make Futurama become just as much of a smash as its predecessor.  Futurama was not a cash grab, but a project of beloved science fiction which he and David X. Cohen were passionately bouncing around with for a while in The Simpsons writers room long before it came to fruition.  Point is, I believe Matt Groening knows when a show has outstayed its welcome and also knows when a new show should begin.  It shouldn’t be force manufactured off a conveyor belt just because there’s a gap in time is to be filled with money to be made.  Instead, the right idea comes at the right time and in 2018, five years after his time as a more of a creative consultant on the last season of Futurama, his new passion project is here.

Any long-time Simpsons fans remember what it was like to watch Futurama’s pilot when it aired nearly 20 years ago?

It felt like The Simpsons era was possibly on its way out (we weren’t fortune tellers) and this new, strange Futurama show might be the next big thing.  In the first minutes, we instantly sympathize with the lead character as he traverses a bleak New York City alone on New Years.  All of a sudden, we’re launched 1,000 years into the future to this bright, colorful world full of endless potential.  It was hopeful and exciting and little did many viewers know that it would become one of their favorite shows.  It’s this hopefulness and excitement, feelings that most likely has been lost on many fans for a while, that I believe if you keep an open mind, we stand a likely chance of encountering again with Disenchantment.  It’s a brand new world with a totally different character to feel gravitated towards which is majorly essential in facing that new frontier of biting, edgy comedy and contemplative screenwriting.  I do not expect Disenchantment to be an old shoe masquerading as a new shoe, but a series with a pure, eager spring to its step that can only exist in this point in time of television.  And I can’t wait.

Matt Groening and Josh Weinstein as showrunners have something to offer with this show.  You could tell they’ve worked hard conceptualizing Disenchantment for who knows how long and they’re dying for people to see it.  If you’re interested, you can fire up your Netflix subscription and binge the entire 10 episode first season on August 17th.  Season 2 is already in the works.  I could be wrong, but I personally think we’re in for a real treat.  I’ll definitely be tuning in and be my own judge.  What do you guys think?

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?