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Dec. 12 – The Futurama Holiday Spectacular

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Presented by Gundersons!

Back before the advent of home video, when a show aired you either saw it or you didn’t. Miss something all of your friends were talking about the next day and you were at the whim of re-runs until your favorite show hit syndication – if it hit syndication. When VCRs were popularized you had the option of recording television shows for later use, but re-watching a show was a great deal more difficult than it is now. When children’s shows were sold on VHS they were usually obnoxiously expensive costing upwards of twenty dollars for an episode or two. The home video market for television just wasn’t something studios paid much attention to, at least not until DVD made it a whole lot easier, and cheaper, to sell television shows to fans.

Futurama owes a great deal to home video and syndication. When the show originally debuted on the Fox Network it struggled to find consistent air time. Often banished to that time-slot before The Simpsons on Sunday nights, it was the first thing bumped if an NFL game ran too long. Many blame the poor time-slots of the show on its lack of success, because once the show was cancelled and appearing in syndication on Cartoon Network’s adult swim block, it suddenly found an audience. DVDs of the first few seasons sold well enough that Fox brought the series back, as it did with Family Guy before it. The only change was that Fox declined to broadcast the new shows and instead optioned the series to Comedy Central, who would eventually gain control of the first four seasons from Cartoon Network. After four direct-to-video Futurama movies were released, the show returned with “Re-birth” in 2010 and would run for two more seasons totaling 52 episodes.

During its original run, Futurama gave birth to two Christmas specials – “Xmas Story” and “A Tale of Two Santas.” For the return season we were gifted with “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular.” The general opinion by most fans is that the post-cancellation episodes are inferior when compared with the pre-cancellation ones. There are of course those who feel the show came back better than ever, or at least as good as it always was, but I tend to agree with those who feel the post-cancellation episodes were lacking when compared with the others. In that sense, “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular” is similar because it’s not as good as the previous two Christmas specials (I guess I should say Xmas Specials), but it’s still an enjoyable episode with some good holiday jokes and puns.

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The crew preparing for Xmas, with an obvious Gundersons tie-in to keep that joke running.

Unlike the first two Xmas specials, this one is a non-canon anthology episode like the Anthology of Interest episodes and the anthology ones that followed. It’s broken up into three segments that focus on three holidays. Only the first one is an Xmas story and the homicidal Robot Santa makes a return in this segment. The second segment concerns Bender’s made up holiday, Robanukah, which he came up with as an excuse to avoid work in the season one episode “Fear of a Bot Planet.” And the third segment is about Kwanzaa with Hermes being a celebrator of that holiday. It also features the return of Kwanzaa-bot, voiced by Coolio, who first appeared in “A Tale of Two Santas.”

Our first segment opens with an ad for Gunderson’s Nuts – they’re “nut” so good, as we pan around the Planet Express headquarters. Inside the crew is decorating for Xmas and Fry is feeling blue, much like he was back in “Xmas Story.” He’s just down because the future version of Xmas is more about survival than good cheer, and we’re soon visited by Robot Santa after Fry asks for everyone to, once again, explain this crazy holiday and do it preferably through song. A little song is sung and we get some visual gags of fruit cake bombs and egg nog molotov cocktails. Robot Santa enters and departs just as quickly, letting them know that to properly celebrate Xmas they need a “tree that’s coniferous.” Also, Scruffy dies.

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The White House Xmas tree isn’t very impressive in the year 3010.

Fry wants to get a real Xmas tree, but Professor Farnsworth explains that the pine tree has been extinct for generations and that they’ll need to head to a seed vault in Norway. Gaining access to the vault is surprisingly easy as the guard, surrounded by barking snakes in a callback to the first segment, is willing to let them in to rummage about. Next door to the vault is the germ warfare vault and Leela expresses concerns about cross-contamination with the seeds. Inside, the guard happily gives them some pine tree seeds and reveals the tree is extinct due to an emergency toilet paper need during the Fifty Year Squirts. Amy notices the seeds have traces of green crud, but no  one is overly concerned.

Back home, Fry plants his seeds and a year later we see he has a sickly looking pine tree for his efforts. Passer-by’s think it looks great, including President Nixon who is immediately advised by Vice President Dick Cheney that he needs to steal it to improve his poll numbers. He apparently does, because soon after The White House is hosting a tree lighting ceremony, and very much like A Charlie Brown Christmas, the sickly little tree suddenly appears a lot more full once decorated. Fry and the gang are there too, so apparently they weren’t too sore about their tree being stolen, but soon the tree grows massive. It was apparently mutated by being stored near the germ warfare containment vault (duh!), and at first Leela thinks it might be a good thing it mutated since it suddenly looks a lot more healthy than it did before. Soon it starts shooting off pine cones, pine cones that in addition to exploding also lead to massive reforestation.

Soon the entire planet is covered in pine trees. Leela, ever the optimist, still believes this could be a good thing and the Professor remarks that global warming has all but been eradicated as a result, and we get our required Al Gore cameo here. The Professor quickly realizes that oxygen levels are climbing dangerously high, and Bender remarks that he hasn’t done anything for awhile and lights a cigar. The air starts to sparkle before it catches fire and we get a view from space of the whole word being destroyed. Robot Santa flies into view laughing about how everyone is dead and tells us to stay tuned for more hilarity!

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Robanukah features six and a half weeks of fembot oil wrestling, let the good times roll!

The second segment centers on Bender’s made-up holiday Robanukah. It’s just after Xmas and Professor Farnsworth remarks they need to destroy all of the Xmas gifts they failed to deliver. Bender immediately gets salty about how they have to celebrate every dumb human holiday but not the robot ones. Everyone is well aware that Bender’s holiday was made up by him to avoid work, but that doesn’t stop Bender from singing a song about Robanukah in a bid to legitimize it. During that song we get a taste of the holiday and it basically takes all of the Chanukah customs and perverts them, most notably by including six and a half weeks of fembot oil wrestling. When Bender finds out they only have enough petroleum oil for four and a half weeks of wrestling, he makes the crew set out to acquire more.

At Mombil, they learn that petroleum oil is all gone, and Al Gore pops in again to reprimand the viewers that he warned this would happen. Bender isn’t satisfied and is determined to find more petroleum oil and he makes the crew head for the center of the earth. There they drill for oil, but the intense pressure kills everyone except Bender. Five-hundred million years pass and Bender, after apparently occupying his time by singing about how great he is, notices his friends have become petroleum oil. He heads back to HQ with his oil friends to find the two fembots still wrestling in oil – a Robanukah miracle!

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It wouldn’t be Kwanzaa without Kwanzaa-bot and beeswax candles.

Our third segment opens with the Planet Express crew arriving at the home of the Konrads and Leela is concerned her chocolate cake may be offensive in some way. They are there for Kwanzaa, and even Barbados Slim shows up shirtless and covered in snow, much to the dismay of Hermes. When everyone is gathered for dinner, it’s decided we need our third song of the episode to explain the holiday featured in the segment, so Kwanzaa-bot bursts in Kool-Aid style to rap about the holiday. The joke of the song is that even he isn’t completely sure about anything concerning the holiday, but he does know they need authentic beeswax candles to celebrate or else they might as well be white. It’s noticed that the Konrads do not have authentic candles, so Hermes takes the crew out to acquire some on the last night of Kwanzaa.

Like the trees and oil, beeswax proves hard to come by and the crew is forced to return to the hive from “The Sting” to get the necessary wax to create their candles. There they find the space bees have been infected by some kind of mite and they’re in some distress. The mites are causing the drones to crash and explode, and the workers are at odds with each other. The queen bee is the only one who appears unaffected, despite the presence of mites on her, and she explains the situation to Hermes. During this, Leela is able to acquire plenty of beeswax but Hermes can’t leave the bees like this, not on Kwanzaa! He explains the meaning of Kwanzaa to the bees, and his message of unity together with the spirit of Kwanzaa causes the bees to embrace each other and the mites to fall off and die. With their minds fully functioning once more, the bees turn their attention to the Planet Express crew. Kwanzaa-bot returns offscreen to save them, and is quickly killed, also offscreen. The bees attack and we fade to black and re-emerge to be wished a Happy Kwanzaa by Hermes who is encased in wax. The camera pans back to reveal the entire crew as wax candles and a curtain falls on the special.

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Al Gore is a reoccurring presence throughout the episode, and even gets to close the show.

Al Gore emerges, still as a floating head, to assure us, the viewers, that the crew will return next year in all new episodes. We get one final send-off from Gunderson’s, and the holiday special is ended. In re-watching it for this post I will say this episode is funnier than I remember. It still suffers from too much fan-service as many jokes exist just as a call-back to an older season (“My ice cream man-which!”) which just feels kind of lazy. There’s still plenty of witty dialogue and exchanges between characters, but the anthology format sacrifices pay-off as the stories are forced to be quick and concise with less room for everything, including jokes.

As a Christmas special, “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular” is mostly underwhelming because only a third of it is devoted to Christmas, and a bastardized version of the holiday at that. And with most of the Xmas parody handled by the past episodes, there’s little left for the show to tackle here. The inclusion of songs is the easiest form of parody, but they sometimes feel too much like padding as not a lot happens in these short segments. The best Futurama episodes are able to be funny while telling a meaningful story containing characters we genuinely care about. I suppose killing off these characters in three separate segments is kind of a play on holiday specials itself, but it’s not really as funny as it could be. It’s cool that they found room for more holiday lampooning, and not just Christmas, even if the Kwanzaa jokes felt a bit too easy. There’s always room for more holidays, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s the most obvious aspect of this special that makes it stand out. Criticisms aside, this one may do little to evoke the Christmas spirit, but it’s still a worthwhile inclusion in your annual holiday viewing.

If you want to watch this one this year, Futurama is shown on Comedy Central and they will play the crap out of the Christmas episodes (as of this update, the episode is scheduled to air Thursday December 21 at 5:20 PM EST). The show is also now syndicated on the Syfy channel and that channel is also set to air the Christmas specials this year. Syfy is showing a Christmas Eve marathon of Futurama including all of the movies and ending with the three Christmas specials. This one will be last to air at midnight, right when Santa is arriving!

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#6 – The Simpsons: Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

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“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” (1989)

The holiday most often associated with The Simpsons is clearly Halloween, thanks to the annual presence from the Treehouse of Horror series. Which is why I find it funny that the show’s very first episode was a Christmas special (though it should be noted, it was the 8th episode by production order). I can’t think of another long-running show that lead-off with a Christmas special. South Park famously originated as a Christmas short, but that wasn’t its first true episode. “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” also aired a full month before the show’s second episode so that it could air before Christmas. It was also not written by Matt Groening, or any of the other individuals most associated with the show, but cartoonist Mimi Pond. It was also her only contribution to the show and the only episode from the show to air in the 1980s.

“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” succeeds as both a Christmas special and as an introduction for the series. Homer is depicted as a screw-up who wants to give his family a good Christmas, but his miserly boss has decided not to give out bonuses this year. When Marge has to use what little savings they have to get a tattoo removed off of their son, Homer looks to get a second job to pay for Christmas. He doesn’t tell his family and decides to take a part-time job as a mall Santa. This includes a humorous sequence of Homer going through Santa training, learning how to laugh and what to say to bad kids who sit on his lap. His plan blows up in his face though when he receives a meager payout on Christmas Eve. Defeated, he and Bart decide to accompany fellow Santa Barney Gumble to the dog track and wager their bucks on a long-shot, who Homer feels compelled to bet on because of his name:  Santa’s Little Helper. The dog, of course, loses but when his owner kicks him to the curb the Simpsons gain a new pet, and a worthy Christmas present.

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The gang’s all here for the first episode.

It’s a cute story and a good window into what the show is all about when it’s at its best. The Simpsons don’t always catch the best breaks, through some of their own doing, but they find a way to make it work. They’re basically a happy family that cares about one another, unlike a certain other animated TV family. As viewers, we like them, even though we laugh at them. There’s enough pity in Homer’s plight to get a reaction, but not so much that the episode becomes a depressing slog.

“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is still the best Christmas special produced by the long-running series and can be found on the season one box set. It’s also been released on DVD as part of a holiday collection of episodes and is guaranteed to air this season on FXX, along with the other Christmas specials. Just keep an eye out for it if you wish to catch it that way.

 


#12 – Futurama: Xmas Story

Futurama: "Xmas Story" (1999)

Futurama: “Xmas Story” (1999)

Ahh Futurama, the satirical show from the 30th century. Futurama is a great television show with wonderful animation, fantastic writing, and an exemplary cast of voice talent. The show is arguably at its best when it’s taking something familiar from the present and giving us a wild futuristic take on it. One such example is the season two episode “Xmas Story” where we see what Christmas has come to in the year  3000.

The episode opens with the Planet Express crew taking a ski holiday and Fry is frustrated by all of the changes that have occurred in the thousand years he was frozen. This causes him to reminisce fondly on Christmas, which causes confusion as no one knows what Christmas is but they soon figure out that Fry means Xmas. Xmas in the year 3000 is a horrible event due to man creating a robot Santa over a hundred years ago which was defective and determined everyone was naughty. Now every year this robot Santa goes on a rampage and slaughters anyone dumb enough to be out on the streets. Fry is disheartened by what has happened to his favorite holiday, but at least the gift-giving still remains part of the tradition. He sets out to get Leela a present, and settles on a parrot that gets away. By staying out and trying to recapture his gift he ends up attracting the attention of Santa. Leela goes out to save him and the two have to elude Santa if they hope to stay alive.

Santa Claus is gunning you down!

Santa Claus is gunning you down!

There’s a twisted sort of ending put on the episode, where they all sing a bastardized version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and the Professor takes off his clothes. The episode is full of one-liners consistent with the best of Futurama. There’s a recurring gag about the Professor mocking 20th century notions of modesty (hence the nudity mentioned above) and lots of Xmas puns repurposed for the 30th century version of the holiday. John Goodman guest stars as Robot Santa and provides a nice menacing voice for the robotic terror. There’s also a B plot featuring Bender posing as a homeless robot for free booze. He’s able to round-up a posse of homeless robots, including Tinny Tim, and they go on a robbing spree. It’s a typical Bender plot and also typically funny.

“Xmas Story” is a classic Futurama episode at this point, considering it’s over fifteen years old now. It’s probably the best holiday themed episode the show ever did, and it produced some good ones. Re-runs of Futurama air frequently on Comedy Central and “Xmas Story” will probably be featured this year as Comedy Central is pretty good at rolling out their various Christmas specials as the holiday approaches. If not, then it can be found on the season two DVD set of Futurama.


#1 Best in TV Animation: The Simpsons

The_Simpsons_LogoCould it really be another? There have been funnier shows, better looking ones, and shows with better stories to tell, but it’s hard to argue against the show that made prime time animation a thing and has lasted over 25 years. The Simpsons are an American institution at this point. There are people in their twenties who have never had a year of their life pass by without a new season of The Simpsons. That’s pretty incredible. And say what you will about the quality of the show in recent times, there’s still a large body of work that’s among television’s best.

Let me actually start with the argument against The Simpsons being number one. Really, that argument boils down to the show not being very good for the last ten or fifteen years. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a fan of the show willing to argue that the best is happening right now. The general consensus seems to be that the show’s peak was probably seasons two through seven. Seasons eight through twelve have their moments, and from there the show has been in a downward spiral of re-used plot devices and poor gags. After all, how many times have Homer and Marge split-up during an episode only to patch things up in the end? Or how often has Bart pulled some elaborate prank only to feel remorseful after the fact? For me, the best era of The Simpsons probably ended with the season nine premiere, “The City of New York vs Homer Simpson.” It was a promising start to what ended up being a mostly mediocre season. I’d argue though that The Simpsons ever since has mostly remained mediocre and has never produced a truly awful season. Though I concede one should feel fortunate if there’s at least one memorable episode per year that isn’t a Treehouse of Horror installment.

The first family of animation: Maggie, Marge, Lisa, Homer, and Bart.

The first family of animation: Maggie, Marge, Lisa, Homer, and Bart.

Even if I were to go so far as to say that The Simpsons has been bad since season nine, that’s still nearly two-hundred episodes of quality prior to that. Such an episode total dwarfs almost every other series on this list with the only comparable being South Park (which has had its own peaks and valleys over the years). When The Simpsons was operating at its best it was sharp, funny, satirical, but with enough heart to make viewers care about the characters. It operated as a pretty typical sitcom, but one willing to take advantage of the animation medium. Characters never had to age and the town of Springfield could be filled with hundreds of characters without the need to expand the cast.

What made The Simpsons a hit was its edgier brand of humor when compared with other sitcoms. The Simpson family was dysfunctional. Bart and Homer were always at odds with Homer being a rather poor example for the kids. They weren’t as hopeless as Fox’s other family, The Bundys, but they certainly weren’t The Waltons (much to the dismay of then President George H.W. Bush). Bart dominated the early episodes, often getting into trouble and just being a general delinquent. Overtime, Homer moved more and more into the spotlight as his I.Q. seemingly deteriorated more and more each season. Lisa and Marge have mostly served in a supporting role with each representing a foil for the male members of the family. Often once or twice per season one of the ladies would assume a starring role. The supporting cast became robust and episodes would even follow someone from Springfield with The Simpsons serving in a supporting role. It’s hard to pick a best character from outside the family because there are just too many to choose from. The miserly Mr. Burns is so good as the boss character/villain of the series (boss as in Homer’s boss, not video game boss, though he did serve in that role too). Krusty is well known as Springfield’s resident celebrity as is the cartoon duo Itchy and Scratchy. Moe, Barney, Troy McClure (voiced by the late, great, Phil Hartman), Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and on and on it goes. I doubt there’s ever been a larger cast in the history of television.

The cast is positively ginormous.

The cast is positively ginormous.

Every cartoon needs its own look, and visually, the series has always been distinct with its yellow skin-toned characters and circular eyes. Everyone sports three fingers and a thumb and wears the same clothes every day. The quality of the animation was a bit crude in the early going with some of the colors in the first season looking washed-out. As the series became a success, more and more money was tossed its way and the quality of the animation has steadily risen each year. In fact, that’s one thing the current episodes can boast over the classics: better animation. The show is often bright, but not distractingly so, with a lot of Springfield often appearing kind of run down. The main theme of the show was composed by Danny Elfman and is about as well-known as any other television theme. Shockingly, Fox has been able to keep the same vocal talent onboard over the years, though it hasn’t always been easy. There was a time when it appeared as if the rising costs of production due to raises for the cast would eventually kill the series, but now that seems unlikely. Everyone is past their career prime at this point and there’s less of a call for them to leave the show to pursue something else. They’re also all nearing or beyond retirement age and I imagine The Simpsons is a nice source of income they can rely on now. They’re also not stupid and know the show has gone past its peak so they’re unlikely to demand significant raises going forward, unless they collectively all decide they don’t really want to continue working on the show and demand Fox make them an offer they can’t refuse. It must be noted though that The Simpsons hasn’t avoided some tragedy over the years (it would be almost impossible for it to considering how long it’s been on) losing two popular talents. Phil Hartmen, who voiced many supporting roles, was murdered in 1998 while Marcia Wallace, voice of Bart’s hard-luck teacher Mrs. Krabappel, passed away in 2013. Both actors had their respective characters retired upon their death.

A neat graphic of the principal voice talent and the recurring characters they voice.

A neat graphic of the principal voice talent and the recurring characters they voice.

Just as it’s hard to pick a favorite character, it’s hard to pick a favorite episode or even season. The show was so good and so consistent in the early 90’s that it seemed to turn out a classic every week. “The Telltale Head” from season one is arguably the show’s first classic, along with the very first episode “Simpsons Roasting on an Open-Fire,” which is still the show’s best Christmas episode. “Bart the Daredevil” is another classic with an iconic moment even referenced in The Simpsons Movie. “Homer vs Lisa and the 8th Commandment,” “Bart the Murderer,” “Flaming Moe’s,” “Homer at the Bat,” “Marge vs The Monorail,” “I Love Lisa,” “The Last Temptation of Homer” and so many more. It truly is a daunting task to list the best of the best. Just coming up with a list of the best Halloween specials is hard (which The Simpsons must have a record for most Halloween episodes, easily)!

The Simpsons has been on television for so long that its legacy is likely going to be forever linked to its longevity. It has almost surpassed the show’s reputation for just being a damn good TV show. And how long will it go on? Who knows? The natural assumption would be 600 episodes, or maybe a 30th season, but it’s possible the show just goes on and on until someone too important decides to leave. It likely won’t go quietly as I imagine Fox would not allow the show to just end without making a big deal out of it, and they should. The show deserves as much. If it weren’t for The Simpsons it’s unclear what the landscape for adult cartoons would be. Sure, The Flintstones came first, but The Flintstones were not as nearly as impactful. While The Simpsons embraced the animated form, The Flintstones tried to be a typical sitcom that just happened to be animated. I may not watch The Simpsons on a weekly basis anymore, and really have not since the nineties ended. I still do not look forward to the day when The Simpsons has ended. It may no longer be the best show on television, but I still think the world is a better place with The Simpsons on at 8 PM every Sunday.


#3 Best in TV Animation: Futurama

FuturamaWhen Futurama was first announced I didn’t think much of it. It felt like an unofficial spin-off of The Simpsons with a stupid title. The premise, a 20th century slacker getting cryogenically frozen to awake in the 30th century, probably should have interested me more than it did. As a result, I, along with most of America, mostly ignored the show during its initial run. Only when re-runs started surfacing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block of programming did I truly give the show a chance. And what do you know? – I loved it!

Futurama follows the exploits of Fry, Bender, Leela, and the rest of the Planet Express package delivery crew as they parade around the universe getting into more trouble than a normal package delivery company would expect to. Like The Simpsons, Futurama relies on satire and a diverse cast of characters for its humor, and setting the series a thousand years in the future actually makes the satire come rather easy. It’s almost as if show runners Matt Groening and David X. Cohen watched Back to the Future Part II and decided a show that centers entirely on the future portion of that film would be a great idea. The future is a lot like our present, only America essentially rules the entire globe with President Nixon, now a head preserved in a jar, coming into power early in the show’s life. There’s also the Democratic Order Of Planets, or DOOP, which attempts to police the entire known universe with the incompetent Zapp Brannigan as its leading general. Robots handle a lot of the menial labor on earth with relations between humans and robots tenuous at best.

This picture essentially tells you all you need to know about Bender.

This picture essentially tells you all you need to know about Bender.

The principal cast revolves around the Planet Express crew itself. Fry (Billy West) is the main protagonist who is time-displaced due to a mishap in 1999 and doesn’t seem to mind it all that match. He’s a well-meaning but plainly stupid sort of character. His best friend is the robot Bender (John DiMaggio), who would rather chain smoke and steal than actually do any work around the office. Leela (Katie Sagal) is the pilot of the Planet Express ship and nominal love interest of Fry, a subplot that actually takes quite a while to fully develop. She also happens to be a one-eyed mutant. Professor Farnsworth (also voiced by West) runs the company (mostly incompetently) with the help of Hermes Conrad (Phil LaMarr), Amy Wong (Tress MacNeil)e, and Dr. Zoidberg (West). As you may have noticed, the voice cast is pretty well stocked with talented individuals, some who made a name for themselves with Groening’s Simpsons. West is the obvious star and one of the very best at his craft, but everyone is pretty top-notch making Futurama arguably the most well-voiced program in the history of animation.

Visually, the show is excellent and for most of its run was superior to its predecessor, The Simpsons. Fox clearly was pretty generous with the budget for the show’s first four seasons as traditional hand-drawn animation was blended well with computer-aided visuals where appropriate. The show is bright and vibrant and the setting helps to give it a unique look. As expected, there are some pretty standard tropes of the future setting like transportation tubes and laser weapons to go along the obvious hover cars. The show doesn’t make too many attempts at actually predicting the future, and given the setting is a thousand years away there’s little need to. The various aliens and robots are usually pretty fun to take-in and is where most of the show’s visual creativity ends up being on display.

Billy West lends his voice to many characters on the show.

Billy West lends his voice to many characters on the show.

Most importantly, the show is just plain funny. The characters tend to work well with each other. Fry and Bender are often the ones getting into mischief, and early in the show’s run, Leela was often left to play the straight man (woman). Bender is the unofficial star of the show as his general selfishness and law-breaking ways make him both hilarious and popular in the same way Bart Simpson did ten years prior, only with the debauchery and lewdness magnified considerably. Dr. Zoidberg, likely the universe’s worst doctor, is often a source of humor at the character’s expense considering he is both poor and foul-smelling. Professor Farnsworth is probably my pick for the most unsung hero of the cast. Whenever the show turns to him for a one-liner or a visual gag he seems to always deliver. The simple delivery of his “Tell them I hate them,” from “Fry and The Slurm Factory” gets me every time.

Where the show really found a way to separate itself from others is with its heart. It sounds sappy, but the show is surprisingly effective when it wants to make the viewer experience something other than laughter. The first episode where the show really successfully delivered on such was the Fry-centric “The Luck of the Fryish.” In that episode, Fry finds out his brother essentially stole his identity after he was frozen and basically lived out all of Fry’s dreams while becoming a national treasure. He owed it all to Fry’s lucky seven-leaf clover. Fry, in anger, wants his clover back and will go to great lengths to get it back, even if it means digging up his brother’s corpse. There’s a twist in the end and good luck keeping your eyes dry when it comes about. Of course, the show’s most infamous episode in this style is “Jurassic Bark,” in which we find out what happened to Fry’s dog, Seymour, after he was frozen and left him behind. I still remember the first time I caught the episode on television and the ending really snuck up on me and obviously made an impact. In general, the show does a really strong job of finding the humor in almost any situation. And even when the characters have to do something mean for laughs, the show is able to keep them from straying too far from a moral baseline so that the audience never turns against them. Even Bender has his moments where he does something nice.

Like The Simpsons, Futurama's cast became exceptionally large.

Like The Simpsons, Futurama’s cast became exceptionally large.

Futurama was originally unsuccessful during its initial run on Fox, though it did manage to last for the better part of four seasons. After the reruns performed well for Cartoon Network and DVD sales excelled, the show went the direct-to-video route with four feature-length films. They would eventually be chopped up into episodes that aired on Comedy Central, who picked up the show for an additional three seasons. Having the show come back from the dead was pretty awesome, but you would have a hard time finding a Futurama fan that felt the post-cancellation episodes were up to the same standards of quality as the first four seasons. Still, there were episodes here and there that stood out and subpar Futurama is better than most shows. The show ended with its 140th episode, a healthy run by any standard. In those 140 episodes the show made a bigger impact than all but two others, according to this list, and really stand among all television shows, animated or otherwise, as being among the very best.


Lego Simpsons

lego-simpsons-minifigs-01When I was a kid, the coolest and most colossal Lego sets were often pirate ships or castles. These things required hours upon hours to assemble and cost a lot of money. My parents, when looking to spend money on me at Christmas or for a birthday, opted for video games or a bicycle as a “big” present, not massive Lego sets. I had a cousin who was rather fortunate when it came to gifts. He usually had all of the best stuff before anyone else, be they new Ghostbusters vehicles, gaming consoles, and so on. He also had some of these massive Lego sets but anytime I would visit his home they were always just partially assembled, as if construction was started one day and then forgotten. I always wanted to get my hands on such a set (the commercials made them seem like they contained endless amounts of fun) but the closest I ever got was a lone keep that came with a dragon. It was rather small, but I liked it plenty and got many hours of enjoyment out of it. Prior to that, I only ever had a general set of Legos. They were housed in a hard, red, plastic case and I would just build whatever. There was an included book that contained plans for numerous objects but rarely did I ever make use of it. Typically, I would build a pick-up truck or Jeep but then wouldn’t want to disassemble it to create anything else.

Among those bricks was a lone Lego mini figure. This was the 1980’s so the mini figure might have been new, or maybe not. I had other generic Legos before this collection and never had I come across a little figure before. He was rather plain: a black shirt and blue pants with a black baseball cap. I thought he was pretty cool though and started noticing these more and more in toy stores and commercials. I especially liked that I could rip him apart and even take off his head without breaking him. It seemed absurd but was a lot of fun especially when I would later get mini figures dressed as knights and armed with swords to apply a purpose for figure decapitation. Over the years the mini figure has become quite popular and in the last dozen years or so the mini figure is no longer just a generic pirate or knight, it’s Luke Skywalker or Batman. The mini figure is now sold both with sets and separately, and for a brand, having a Lego version of one of your characters is like a new rite of passage. Lego, because of its popularity, is able to strike deals amongst rivals so that consumers are able to pit Lego Superman against Lego Hulk. Lego has spread to video games, and most recently, to film. The brand has never been more popular than it is today which is why we now have The Simpsons in Lego form.

I’m not sure how the agreement started, if those behind The Simpsons reached out first to Lego or vice versa, but The Simpsons entered the Lego universe in 2014 in both television and the material world. An episode of The Simpsons aired this past May featuring the show’s many characters in a Lego setting. Interestingly, these Lego versions of the Springfield residents were more faithful to the Lego brand than the actual Lego product which arrived at retailers a couple of weeks before the episode. The Lego version of The Simpsons characters are unique, though represent a new trend not solely reserved for The Simpsons brand, in that they make use of the standard mini figure body but have unique head pieces. This creates a more aesthetically pleasing mini figure, though it does disappoint the Lego purists out there. In my hunt for these, I encountered one girl who was a Lego fan, not really a Simpsons fan, who wanted a couple of Marge figures thinking her hair would just be a Lego piece that attached to the usuall Lego head piece. She was likely disappointed to find that it wasn’t when she got home.

Nelson doing what Nelson does.

Nelson doing what Nelson does.

Lego put out sixteen figures in May, and they are a collection of usuals and some that may have surprised fans:  Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, Grandpa, Ned Flanders, Milhouse, Ralph, Nelson, Chief Wiggum, Apu, Mr. Burns, Krusty, Itchy, and Scratchy. A pretty solid collection, especially when one considers Lego’s policy of no alcohol references which may have played a role in not having a Moe or Barney. Itchy and Scratchy are the sort of oddball choices given that they’re cartoon characters in the show, but few are likely to complain. Because the show’s cast is so massive, there’s going to be characters missing and it would have been impossible to satisfy fans with just one wave (I’m not aware of a planned second wave, but these seemed to sell well so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more). Wiggum could certainly use some help on the force, while Flanders is missing his boys, and what’s a Burns without a Smithers? There’s tons of characters people likely want, so hopefully if a wave two does come around Lego doesn’t waste slots on variants of Homer and Bart.

Each mini figure comes in a plastic pouch that conceals the identity of the figure inside. Retailing for about four dollars, some may be willing to give in to chance and pick them blind but anyone with some extra time and a little determination can prod at the bags and figure out who’s in each one. The head sculpts of the figures make this easy, but also the included accessories. Bart’s skateboard is pretty easy to pick out, as is Nelson’s baseball bat. The hardest ones for me were Ralph and Milhouse as both characters are the same size and their accessory is a flat square Lego piece. This meant finding the head, and being extra certain. I ended up with three Ralphs before I found a Milhouse. The accessories are pretty cool though. The piece that comes with Ralph and Milhouse is a bit overused, but they’re all printed differently and contain some classic show references such as Ralph’s “I Choo Choo Choose You” valentine and Grandpa comes with his newspaper with the headline “Old Man Yells at Cloud.” Homer comes with a unique donut piece and TV remote and Burns has a transparent Lego head piece with Blinky the fish printed on it. Maggie has Bobo the teddy bear, and Itchy and Scratchy each come with an instrument of violence. All of the figures look really good, the only one that looks off to me is Wiggum because he should be morbidly obese. Instead, he uses the same body as every other figure with no attachments to make him look fatter. Homer, since his shirt is white, has a line printed on him to mark his bulging stomach, but since Wiggum wears dark blue, the same technique doesn’t really work.

If Lego had stopped there with The Simpsons it still would have been cool, but they didn’t. Enter The Simpsons House!

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Consisting of over 2500 pieces, the home of The Simpsons is a large set that is a site to behold. I couldn’t resist the call

The Couch.

The Couch.

of it, even if it was excessive, and purchased my own set. The set contains bricks to construct the house and also Homer’s famous pink car complete with dents. Included with the set is another version of The Simpson family plus another Flanders. Each figure differs slightly from the stand-alone ones; Homer is dressed for work and Marge has an apron, Ned is dressed for grilling while Bart is missing his slingshot from his back pocket. Most also have half-closed eyes while Maggie has a more neutral expression compared with her other figure’s concerned look. The differences are minor, and while some may see this as a missed opportunity to get more figures, Lego pretty much had to include a set of the family in both the house set and the retail figures. Perhaps the addition of Flanders could have been re-evaluated. Lego could have just made him exclusive to the house set and put someone else in the mini figure release. The only thing I feel they really messed up on was not including Lego versions of Santa’s Little Helper and Snowball II. Both pets are featured on the box as part of the family but are strangely absent from the set.

The cut-away view of the house.

The cut-away view of the house.

Lego had a somewhat difficult task of creating a three-dimensional set of an animated home. Early in the show’s life, the house didn’t seem to always have a defined layout but over the years the animators and artists have clarified this more. The first floor is pretty standard though: through the front door is a short hallway with a closet at the end and stairs on the right. To the left is the den, to the right the dining room. Up from the den is the living room which has an entryway on the top right which goes into the kitchen which wraps around to connect with the dining room. On a few occasions there’s been a bathroom on the first floor as well as a rumpus room. There’s also a basement entrance somewhere and the door to the garage. Lego, perhaps fearing the set would be much too large, chose not to really adapt the true layout of the house and attempted to just hit on the important stuff.

The other side of the cut-away. The room on top is removable.

The other side of the cut-away. The room on top is removable.

From the outside, the house looks pretty great, almost perfect. There’s the bay windows on the front, the ancient TV antennae on the roof, and even the chimney looks good. Veteran viewers will notice that while the garage is in the right place, the house doesn’t wrap around behind it like on the show. This becomes a bit of an issue when constructing the second floor as it’s pretty cramped. Aside from that though, the house looks great. Inside on the first floor there are just two rooms: the kitchen on the left and living room on the right. The living room is kind of an amalgamation of the den and living room from the show. The famous couch and TV are present (modeled after the old tube TV from the earlier seasons) from the living room, while the rug and piano are there from the den. Missing is the fireplace since the chimney is on the other side of the house and there’s no ceiling fan, as well as other things. There’s a closet of sorts tucked behind the stairs where

Marge can store her vacuum, and the sailboat picture is above the couch where it should be. Breaking from logic though, is the entryway to the garage being right in the living room with no door to separate it. This doesn’t make much sense and is kind of disappointing. Over in the kitchen, the color scheme is pretty faithful to the show between the two-toned floor and the pink and orange cabinets. The included table is kind of odd looking but more odd is the absence of a fridge. How are The Simpsons supposed to live without a refrigerator? Plus that ugly green fridge is kind of iconic, isn’t it? The kitchen is also pretty cramped, especially with the table in it, but space had to be sacrificed in order to make the living room larger.

 

A bird's eye view of Bart's room and part of Lisa's, as well as the garage. Grandpa is apparently over for a visit.

A bird’s eye view of Bart’s room and part of Lisa’s, as well as the garage. Grandpa is apparently over for a visit.

On the second floor, the biggest casualty is Maggie as she doesn’t get her own room. Instead, she gets a crib in Homer and Marge’s bedroom. Bart and Lisa’s rooms are done rather well with Bart’s shining brighter because his personality is captured well. Homer and Marge have a larger room but it’s strangely empty and doesn’t connect to the bathroom. The second floor should have two bathrooms, but there’s only one and it’s too small to even get a bathtub. The roof rests right on top of the house and garage as opposed to snapping on so that users can easily remove it to access the rooms underneath. Bart’s room and the top of the stairs also just rest on top of the second floor so it too can easily be lifted out to access the living room while the whole house can open vertically for a cut-away look at everything. The garage is roomy enough to fit the car in comfortably, and even includes numerous power tools for Homer to neglect. Outside the house is the mailbox as well as Ned’s grill. There’s also two lawn chairs and Bart has a skateboard ramp. The wife and I assembled the entire house over the course of about a week. We didn’t do construction on it daily and took our time though impatient builders could likely put this thing together in a day with some determination. The instructions were easy enough to follow and thankfully only a few stickers are involved (I assume hatred for stickers is pretty much universal amongst Lego builders).

We're all filthy perverts for looking at this.

We’re all filthy perverts for looking at this.

It’s easy to nitpick this set because it’s not all that faithful to the show and the show has been around for over twenty years. Fans of The Simpsons are intimately familiar with how the house is supposed to look so it must have been intimidating for Lego to even tackle it. Inaccuracies and all, this is a set worth investing the time in for Simpsons enthusiasts. Lego did do a good job of getting the smaller details right like Bart’s half-open desk drawer and the “Property of Ned Flanders” sticker adorning the air conditioner hanging off the house. It’s my hope that Lego does not stop here. We already have an Apu mini figure so how about a Kwik-E-Mart? And it would be a shame if The Android’s Dungeon were not created, at the very least, as a Comic Con exclusive or something (I assume Moe’s Tavern is a no-go considering the alcohol policy). Lego could easily milk this franchise for a lot more, so we’ll see what the future holds, but if this is all we get then at least it looks cool and The Simpsons have a place to sleep and watch TV.


The Simpsons – Season One

The list of television shows that were on the air when I was a kid and are still on the air as I near 30 is a pretty short one.  Not including non-fiction news stories, there’s really only one that was there when I was a kid and is still airing new episodes today, and that show is The Simpsons.  There are many characters that had shows when I was younger that have shows today.  There’s always a new take on Batman or Spider-Man and I lost count when it comes to the different iterations of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (there’s a new one set to air this fall).  South Park came around when I was in my early teens, and Futurama began airing when I was in high school.  The Simpsons though, that came when I was in the first grade and it’s quite amazing that it’s still on television today.

That said, there are some that would argue the show should not still be one and that it should have ended years ago.  From a business standpoint, if people are still consuming the product and it’s making money then why not keep producing episodes?  And apparently there’s a dedicated core of fans out there that will probably watch it until they can’t.  What will ultimately end that show will be rising costs, or if enough key members of the cast decide to retire.  And even though there’s a loud contingent of people on the internet decrying the quality of the show, there’s still plenty who insist it’s as funny and fresh as ever.

As for me, I guess I’m in the middle when it comes to that debate regarding the current quality of The Simpsons, but I lean towards the side that says the show is well past its prime.  I really don’t watch it anymore and haven’t for years.  When I do catch an episode I’m usually left underwhelmed.  Rarely do I hate it, but I forget about them pretty fast.  The only one I’ll go out of my way to watch is the annual “Treehouse of Horror,” and that’s mostly just out of tradition.

Recently The Simpsons has been on my mind.  I’m not sure why.  As I see other animated programs start to lose “it” and diminish in quality, it makes me wonder how much of that stems from me, the viewer, getting bored with the same old thing or if the show is actually getting worse.  To answer this question I decided to buy the first season of The Simpsons and relive some of those cartoons that I used to watch religiously.  The Simpsons was on weekly initially, but soon had enough episodes to enter into syndication.  When I was probably around 11 or 12 I would watch an hour of The Simpsons every weeknight I was home via syndication.  I got a lot of enjoyment out of it and it was my routine, so I have a lot of fond memories when it comes to those early seasons of The Simpsons.  The die hard fans insist the show started off a bit uneven, and outside of a few special moments in the first two seasons, it really didn’t take off until season three.  I’m not sure when this golden age is said to have concluded, but I suppose it doesn’t matter.

One of the more memorable scenes from the debut episode; Homer in Santa Class.

The first season of The Simpsons is the shortest season the show had.  This is pretty common of first seasons, especially animation, as networks don’t want to order too many episodes only to see the show fail.  Half seasons are pretty typical, and the first season of The Simpsons contains thirteen episodes beginning with  the Christmas themed “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” and concluding with “Some Enchanted Evening.”  Not only is the first season the shortest, it’s also the most crudely drawn.  Again, not surprising as I’m sure the budget was pretty tight, but it at least looks a lot better than the shorts that used to air on the Tracey Ullman Show.  The characters are actually less defined in their roles, though the base is still there.  Homer is dim-witted and selfish, Bart is a troublemaker, Lisa a poindexter, and Marge is a stereotypical house wife.  Maggie is there too, but being that she’s a baby there isn’t much of a personality to her.  A lot of the secondary characters are introduced as well including Moe, Flanders, and Mr. Burns.  Still, there are differences and some moments where characters act in a manner that is perhaps inconsistent with how they’ll be presented in future seasons.  Some fans consider this a negative, but I kind of appreciate these moments.  Just like a real person would do, these characters have grown and changed over time.

What I hoped to see in season one was a more focused show, less reliant on Homer’s buffoonery and more reliant on the concept of the Simpsons being America’s most dysfunctional family.  For the most part, that ended up being true.  Homer wasn’t the dominant presense that he would become and while he’s definitely not a smart man, he’s not absurdly stupid either.  There’s definitely a lot of Bart though, and there would be a lot more in season two as he was the early star of the show.  I almost forgot how huge Bart Simpson was when I was a kid and he was definitely pushed as the fan favorite.  And it’s easy to see, he’s a fun character.  He’s rebellious and does whatever he wants but does pause to let us know he’s a good kid at heart.  In his first lead episode, “Bart the Genius,” he’s actually the target and the one we feel bad for and he reacts by pulling a prank that gets overblown (and earns Bart some green skin in the process).

The animation was a bit more crude in the early going.

The series premiere, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” introduces the whole family and some of the extended family (Grampa and Marge’s sisters).  We see how the family dynamic works and the themes established by the episode are still alive today.  Homer tries hard to be a good father and husband, but his low level of skills and lack of a sharp mind ultimately doom him.  And yet, they still all come out okay in the end.  From there, the writers of the show definitely wanted us to get a good look at each member of the Simpson family in season one and would devote an episode to each key member of the family.  It’s a good strategy and the writers were able to pull it off organicly.  In later seasons, it sometimes would feel like a Marge or Lisa episode was forced into the season just for the sake of having one which always drove me nuts.  Those episodes often fail because they don’t bring anything new to the table, and usually include some silly gimmick (like Marge becoming a cop).  In Lisa’s episode, “Moaning Lisa,” we’re shown just how different she is from both her peers and her family.  It’s done well enough that we really don’t need future episodes that center on that premise, but there’s dozens.

That’s not to say it’s all gravy.  Some of the episodes go for cheap laughs and the story attached isn’t very engaging.  “The Call of The Simpsons” is one such episode that relies mostly on visual gags and absurd situations.  Other episodes just don’t appeal to me too much, like “The Crepes of Wrath” which sees Bart switch places with an Albanian kid as part of a foreign exchange program.  The writers also seem to enjoy getting Homer into trouble with Marge, as it feels like their marriage is tested in every other episode.  Homer routinely does things that should probably get him in trouble, but I always felt Marge’s reaction to Homer dancing with a stripper in “Homer’s Night Out” was particularly over the top.

“The Telltale Head” features perhaps Bart’s most infamous prank.

Some of my all-time favorite episodes are in season one though, including “The Telltale Head” and “Krusty Gets Busted.”  The first is the infamous episode where Bart cuts off the head of a statue of the town’s founder, triggering a wave of patriotic anger from the locals.  It uses the story-telling gimmick of starting the episode at the end and having the events that lead the characters into their current situation relayed as a flashback.  “Krusty Gets Busted” is the first time we’re introduced to Sideshow Bob as a villain. Voiced by Kelsey Grammer, Sideshow Bob would make many returns often with the intent to kill Bart Simpson.  Grammer is one of the few guest stars of season one, which I find immensely refreshing.  So many of the newer episodes have fallen into this trap where the writers feel like each episode needs a celebrity guest of some sort.  They also don’t follow the simple format adopted by later episodes where the plot opens with one story that leads into a completely different one.

There’s some other differences and quirks I noticed about season one that separates it from future seasons.  For one, the intro is different and I had forgotten just how different.  It’s longer and features some generic characters that would be replaced for season 2 with actual supporting characters from the show.  The couch gag is in place, but there were only a couple different ones in season one, most revolving around the theme of one character getting forced off the couch.  The premiere episode actually doesn’t feature an opening at all.  There’s some other character changes too.  Smithers makes his debut in “Homer’s Odyssey” (as does Mr. Burns, voiced by a different actor) as a black man, which is kind of funny.  Apparently this was an error and is corrected for his next appearance.  Chief Wiggum also looks pretty different as he sports black hair and an odd skin complexion of his own.  In general, there’s also less use of music in each episode as well, and the transition from one scene to the next is usually sudden which gives the show a different “feel” when compared with future seasons.

Currently, The Simpsons is nearing the end of its 23rd season with a 24th already in production.  Obviously, any show that has been on that long is going to change over the years and The Simpsons has certainly undergone numerous changes.  I don’t know if season one is necessarily better than season 23.  I definitely enjoyed reliving it, and I’m currently enjoying reliving season two as well, and my opinion is tainted by nostalgia.  It’s a simpler show and I do find that more enjoyable than the current stuff.  The characters seem slightly less typecast and are a little more exciting as a result.  And whatever your opinion is of the current season, I think we can all agree it’s pretty damn amazing for a show, especially a prime-time animated one, to be on the air as long as The Simpsons have been.