In one of his reviews filling in for me (most likely down in comments, come to think of it), Rowan talked about how the season premiere of The Cleveland Show hit the B-/C+ sweet spot for him. As innocuous as this comment sounds, it completely gave me a better idea of what these shows should be trying to do from week to week. For the most part, all of them have settled into long runs (well, not Cleveland Show, but since it's a needless spinoff of a long-running show, it might as well be), and this means that not a one of them can do anything truly surprising anymore. All of them can try new things and try interesting things, but it's just as likely that they'll horribly screw up their attempts at something like ambition. So it makes just as much sense for the shows to crank out episodes that are more or less like every other episode of their runs, episodes that will keep the series rolling along with the minimum of effort. When I sit down to watch one of these shows, I expect it to hit about a C or C+: Something where the show isn't obviously terrific but is also not making me feel mad I'm wasting my time or anything.
Somehow, all four animation domination denizens turned in episodes that hit at least that level of non-offensive mediocrity tonight. This shouldn't sound so incredible, but it sort of is. Making an episode of TV that's pleasant without trying to do too much while still keeping a multi-billion dollar franchise humming along is harder than it looks. All four series had some solid laughs, some nice moments, and some interesting ideas tonight. It's not going to be a night of television I think back on fondly months from now, but I also didn't feel like I was sitting there, slowly watching my life slip away from me.
The Simpsons: A big reason for this was The Simpsons, which had its best episode of the season so far this week. Granted, the season's only five episodes old, but there have been some pretty dire half hours mixed in there, alongside a pretty cool Banksy couch gag. This episode had nothing as good as that, but it also had two stories that mostly worked, a surprisingly large number of laugh-out-loud moments, and a nicely emotional scene to tug on the heartstrings at the end. We've all seen stories where Lisa feels like she doesn't fit into her family before, but having her directly turn those feelings of inadequacy back on her mother was a nice turn, and the story made good use of the Marge and Lisa relationship as its emotional core, while letting Homer provide some good laughs around the edges (like his obsession with the seven of clubs). And the Bart storyline was similarly solid, with many, many laughs (particularly Nelson bringing up Toad Hall, of all things, and the fact that Marge continues to have next to no idea who the bullies at Bart's school are). I thought things kind of fell apart once Lisa went to the private school, but that scene with Marge doing the laundry at the end righted the ship. This wasn't amazing, but for late period Simpsons, it was pretty darn good. Grade: B+
The Cleveland Show: One of the problems facing The Cleveland Show has been that the relationships among Cleveland's family members are much more interesting than those among he and his friends. The show strongly resembles King of the Hill, which it replaced, but unlike on that show, Cleveland's neighbors are basically a bunch of single-joke types. Tonight's episode tried to build too much of its story off of Holt, who's largely not a character. (He's short, and he talks in a stereotypical "white guy" voice. That's it.) As such, the storyline about Holt taking the baseball team to the championships lacked a strong center, and everything was too abruptly tied up by trying to tie Cleveland, Jr.'s shop frustrations in to the rest of the storyline. The story largely felt completely formless, but I liked little bits and pieces of it. The Friday Night Lights parodies were spot-on, and I liked the idea that absolutely no one learned a lesson in the end. Had this been built more strongly around Cleveland and his son, it might have worked better. Instead, it's a near miss. Grade: C
Family Guy: Family Guy, like The Simpsons last year, is quietly turning out a pretty solid season for what the show has become in its later years. I may have underrated last week's Halloween episode just a bit (the Brian and Stewie stuff was really funny), and the show is relying much less on cut-away gags for its humor, turning instead to such time-honored bits as Brian acting like a dog or Peter acting like a 4-year-old. Granted, I'm basing a lot of this on being pretty much the only person in existence to like the season premiere, but I thought tonight's episode was another strong outing, once it got going. The stuff with Peter's birthday was pretty stupid, but once even the show seemed to realize this and abruptly cut to foxy boxing, things got much better and much funnier. Now, there have been what feel like hundreds of episodes where Peter signs Lois up for something and she's much better at it than anyone could have anticipated and so on and so forth, but this one earned extra points for avoiding the easy gags of a Million Dollar Baby parody and jumping straight into a weird mishmash of elements from the first three Rocky movies (before becoming a pretty straight-up Rocky III parody with the arrival of Lois' final opponent). There were some very funny gags throughout, and even the cutaways, like Peter belching in a parking garage, were mostly funny. All in all, a good episode, from a show that's hitting a nice stride (though I'll admit I haven't seen the much maligned Rush Limbaugh episode; just didn't have it in me). Grade: B
American Dad: I don't have a lot to say about tonight's American Dad, which had a lot of my favorite elements of the show, from Stan and Roger working together to Stan trying to realize some long lost childhood dream to Steve putting up with someone who's bonkers just to get laid, but never gelled as much as I wanted it too. Still, there were plenty of laughs, like Stan and Roger putting their argument on hold to go witness the birth of a baby calf or the increasingly insane list of things on Stan's restaurant. I think where the episode ultimately didn't work as well for me was when the dueling restaurants plotline came along, simply because that split up Roger and Stan into two separate stories in an episode that didn't have room for that sort of thing. I get why it happened, and I liked Stan realizing his dream (if briefly), but it felt like there was more to mine here than actually got mined, and that made the episode a funny one that didn't quite have a strong story to hold it together. Grade: B-
- Here are some interesting links about the quality of animation between The Simpsons then and The Simpsons now.
- "Mousy and Catsy! Aren't they great?"
- "No child of mine will go without anything, ever! Except for quality health care."
- "I wanna go read books in the car." "There are no books in the car." "I just wanna go sit in the car!"
- "Ralph! You're not a kangaroo!"
- "What is troubling you, my son? I mean, my girl son."
- "It could be anything! Scrapbooking, high-stakes poker or the Santa Fe lifestyle!"
- "Look at you, struttin' around like you're Toad of Toad Hall."
- "You'll crack like one of those chicken turds rich people eat." "You mean an egg?"
- "I never figured him for the bully type."
- "The mayor or Saracen's grandma, the only two acceptable answers."
- "Without Wilkerson, we're like Kim Cattrall's bedroom, eight scared teenage boys just waiting for it all to be over."
- "Your sister must hate you."
- "Musical theatre is for the gays. The lucky, lucky gays!"
- "Ha ha! I like that sound!"
- "In your imagination, I've got long eyelashes."
- "You knew cuz of my globe, you dick."
- "This is crazy! Is no one really making me flapjacks yet?"
- "Heart of a champion, margarine hat."
- "A broken promise is a lot like a child's pinwheel. You have to be yourself, or at least within the confines."
- "At that moment, I was 100 percent sure I was going to be molested. But it was even better!"
- "He's always doing new things he knows nothing about!"
- "Roger. Wait! Do some of the Confi-dance!"
- "I'll use the condom first."
- "Soup is not a meal, Vera!"
- "Where is it? It's in your head where it belongs. Because it's stupid! It's in your stupid little head."
- "It's a whoopee cushion. They're on all the chairs. It's funny."