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#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: The Kwik-E-Mart and Mini Figures Series 2

IMG_0445Last year, Lego released its first set and series of mini figures styled after The Simpsons, the animated institution that has anchored Fox’s Sunday Night lineup longer than Justin Bieber’s been alive. Debate the merits of the program’s more recent seasons all you want, but it couldn’t diminish my curiosity for a set of Legos based on the venerable series. The first set, predictably, was the home of the Simpsons while series one of the mini figures focused on most of the key characters from the show. Because the cast is so large, and the world so developed, there was already instant demand for a series two and Lego has delivered. And for the second construction set Lego tabbed Springfield’s most iconic convenience store:  The Kwik-E-Mart.

A few months ago I blogged on the subject of a series two for Lego and concluded that the Kwik-E-Mart was the most likely follow-up set. The only location that could possibly rival it is Moe’s Tavern, but Lego’s anti-alcohol policy makes that one a no-go right from the start. The Kwik-E-Mart may seem like a smaller set when compared with the Simpsons’ house, but Lego managed to stuff almost as many bricks into it as it did for the house, due in large part to all of the goods being peddled by Apu and his corporate masters. The set retails in the US for the same $200 the house retailed for, which felt high but wasn’t enough of a deterrent to keep me from purchasing it. In hindsight, it’s probably still too high but I think I actually like this one more than the Simpsons’ house, and I’ll tell you why.

imageThe Kwik-E-Mart is fairly large when compared with the house. It’s only one story high but the floorplan is more square and deeper than the house. It too features hinged portions to open it up for viewing/play and the roof lifts off for easy access to the store’s innards. Two of the store’s walls are lined with freezers, one of which features a decal of Frostillicus, and their construction is creative and adds depth. There’s a teeny, tiny, backroom that’s not true to the actual layout of the store, but I appreciate the fact that Lego at least attempted to include it. The other walls are lined with a cash machine, arcade games, and a coffee area. The central desk features a hot dog heater and a donut rack. Behind the desk is the all important Squishee machine and display cases come with copies of Angry Dad and other prints recognizable to Simpsons fanatics. All of the little details, like the puddle of Squishee on the floor or the different levels of the fruit punch and lemonade coolers are creative and extremely well done. Some of the aisle goods are a bit bland, but they’re the exception. Much of the detail of the freezer goods is almost wasted considering how unnoticeable it is and I love that Lego included a lone hot dog wedged between the counters. Adjacent to the store is a dumpster area and the roof features a crude representation of Apu’s garden. It may not come close to resembling the television garden, but it’s great that Lego included it.

A familiar site for Apu.

A familiar site for Apu.

The set comes packed with five mini figures:  Apu, Homer, Marge, Bart, Chief Wiggum, and Snake. Of the five, only Snake is exclusive to the set. Apu and Wiggum feature new outfits with Apu in clerk attire and Wiggum in a donut-stained suit. Homer, Marge, and Bart are essentially the same figures released in wave one of last year’s mini figure line. I understand that Lego likely feels compelled to include members of the Simpsons clan in any set it does, but it could have done something to make these three feel a little special. Marge and Bart could have had screen-printed jackets and Homer could have come with the giant hat he wore to spy on Apu for the local investigative news report. Or he could have been clothed in his clerk attire from the episode he took a part-time job at the Kwik-E-Mart. At any rate, it wouldn’t have required much effort to make these three figures unique but Lego opted not to. Also included is a squad car for Wiggum that can actually fit both he and Snake inside it. Accessories-wise, Lego doesn’t really do guns but there is a piece in the set that certainly resembles a gun (pictured) that Snake can utilize. It’s the same piece that’s also used to create Bart’s spray-paint. Marge has a basket, and Wiggum has some handcuffs. Nothing exciting, but certainly appropriate. The store has the better accessories, including a better looking Squishee cup (when compared with the coffee-like cup the mini-figure of Apu came with) and tiny cans of buzz cola.

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It’s like kissing a peanut!

The Kwik-E-Mart, minor nitpicks aside, is a success for Lego and fans of the Simpsons. As for series two of the mini figures, it’s somewhat a success but not as obviously so. First, let’s talk about the bad. As expected, each member of the family gets another figure. For Homer, Marge and Lisa, they’re given more formal attire. For Homer and Marge it’s their date attire we see from time to time while Lisa is wearing the dress we most often see her wearing when the family attends church. Bart is dressed as his alter ego Bartman, which was expected. Joining him is Milhouse as Fall-Out Boy. I don’t think anyone was clamoring for another edition of Milhouse, but at least he pairs well with Bartman. Maggie is also back but this time she’s exactly the same as she was in series one. This is unacceptable. Lego could have at least put her in her white onesie she sometimes wears or her starfish snow suit. Unfortunately, Maggie comes packed with Santa’s Little Helper (who really should have been included with the house last year) so fans who want to have a complete Simpsons’ family will have to pick her up again (Lisa comes with Snowball). The other members of the wave include some familiar faces: Willie, Professor Frink, Dr. Hibbert, Pattie, Selma, Smithers, Hans Moleman, Martin, Comic Book Guy, and Mrs. Krabappel.  It’s easy to second-guess Lego here as should we really have received a Frink before a Skinner? Dr. Hibbert before Sideshow Bob? Complaints about the selection aside, most of the new characters look great. My only gripes there are with Hibbert and Frink’s lab coats, which are printed on instead of being actual pieces. Comic Book Guy also, like Wiggum from last year, appears too thin. I wish Lego would do something to make the really obese characters stand-out as such, but it’s apparent they’re not going to do that. The included accessories for each character make sense, with the Simpsons’ pets being the obvious stand-outs. Willie probably should have come with a rake, and Hans a cane, but that’s no great omission.

Like all of Lego’s mini figures, these are released in blind bags. Those willing to swallow their pride and hang out by the display case feeling-up the bags should have little trouble in coming away with a complete set with minimal doubles. I was hasty in my first attempt and mistook a Selma for a Pattie, a Hans for Martin, and a couple other screw-ups. I ended up keeping one double, the Hans, and made use of the many Barts that have been released by swapping heads and depicting Hans as he appeared in the episode “Burns’ Heir,” when he briefly joined the Simpsons.

The two sets side by side.

The two sets side by side.

In the end, this wave of figures and the Kwik-E-Mart are fun and rewarding for longtime fans. They also accomplish the goal of making fans hungry for a series three. There are numerous essential characters that have yet to be featured and still plenty of Homer and Bart variants that Lego could fall-back on. As for a third set, Springfield Elementary seems like a logical resting point, though some sacrifices would have to be made to keep it in scope with both the house and Kwik-E-Mart in terms of the amount of bricks. Other locations that could be featured are The Android’s Dungeon and Krusty Burger. Series one sold well, and as far as I know series two has continued that trend so a third seems likely. Hopefully Lego can come up with a worthwhile successor to the Kwik-E-Mart, but even if they don’t, there’s a good chance I’ll buy it anyways


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!

IMG_0153

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.


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