Tonight's lineup got me thinking about the use of guest voices in our FOX programs. Generally there are two big warning signs that a celebrity name in the credits presages a cringe-worthy, gimmicky cameo. One, it's a non-actor, and two, he or she is appearing as themselves. Like every respectable rule, there are of course exceptions, but tonight's Simpsons pretty much hammered home Koski's Totally Unsupported, Unresearched Theory Of Animated Guest-Voice Suckitude.
Here's the thing, though: The Jim Jarmusch aspect could have been one of the highlights of this episode, if only Jarmusch hadn't been involved. Most of his gags were actually quite good (Homer asking him who he was, his fade-out sequence, him yelling at the screen), but his potato-bland delivery, coupled with the none-too-subtle (though admittedly self-deprecating) namedropping, made the whole affair seem obligatory, as if it were written and then jerry-rigged so that Jarmusch would come on board. Or, even worse (and more probable), as if the cameo were promised first and the episode written around it. But did he really NEED to come on board? Is anyone out there dying to see an animated Jim Jarmusch? Is he such a hot commodity that his voice alone can send viewers into rapturous convulsions? No and no. And no no no, dammit. The gags that worked would have worked just as well, nay, better, with any ol' voice actor behind it, and it wouldn't have the same air of ego-fellation. John C. Reilly's cameo was similarly phoned-in, but at least the actor managed to put some sort of intonation behind his lines.
(Let it be known that I have nothing against celebrity cameos as a concept, and The Simpsons has had some fabulous ones–but it's had an equal number of terrible ones, and this was one of them. A cameo crosses the line when its success rides more on the "Look who it is!" factor than its actual contribution to the episode.)
Jarmusch aside, tonight's episode piled a handful of good gags into an obnoxiously contrived storyline that was once again eerily reminiscent of an earlier episode. Sadly, Lisa's film-festival experience lacked a football in the groin, but it did have sad Nelson and that inexplicably hilarious "Charlmskin" logo. It also thankfully avoided a wacky B-story. Were a certain three-letter word not verboten around here, I would say that this episode was the definition of said three-letter word. Let's just say it falls smack-dab in the middle of the Simpsons bell curve. It was neither infuriating nor transcendent; it was just another installment in a series that's becoming more and more like your beloved, semi-senile grandpa: occasionally amusing, occasionally repetitive, often boring, but we indulge its meandering stories and would still be sad if the ol' geezer died.
King Of The Hill showed it still has its spark tonight, and featured a successful guest voice to boot. Fred Willard has appeared on KOTH (and almost every other show on television) before, never as himself, and he's a solid ringer, contributing to the action instead of distracting from it. Tonight he was Officer Brown, a disgraced cop turned middle-school watchdog whom Bobby is forced to follow around as punishment. That was the B or maybe even C story, and by far the least interesting, though it did intersect with the episode's other two plots beautifully.
Hank's dilemma this week kicks off when he goes to an obnoxious outdoor mall to return a forged Cowboys autographed photo and accidentally mugs a harried man for his wallet, thinking his had been stolen from him when he was bumped into. This sets off a chain of events that finds Hank, Bill, and Boomhauer on the run from the man, who snaps when he thinks Hank is after him, when in actuality he's just trying to return the wallet. The three end up at Bazooms, a Hooter's stand-in, where Dale has–wait for it–gotten a job after the manager saw through his scheme to sue the chain for hiring discrimination because he was a man (the "Double Bluff Reverso"). Absurd, sure, but the sight of Dale in shorty-shorts and a crop top is worth the suspension of disbelief. Bobby and Officer Brown, out in search of truants, spot the shenanigans and come to the rescue just in time.
That's a hell of a lot of plot, and I'm giving it short shrift. Yet it all came together naturally and never felt overloaded. King Of The Hill is great at following a single plot thread through an episode, sans B-story, but it's also adept at weaving together seemingly isolated storylines (see also this season's "Four Wave Intersection"). Add in some excellent one-liners from Peggy ("He's not an organ donor. Probably a drinker," and "I think it's time we re-open the fanny-pack discussion"), a Clark Peters/Dooley team-up, and Dale telling the other waitresses "He's gonna make it rain!" and you have a perfect blend of storytelling and yuks.
That's a compliment I normally wouldn't pay Family Guy (that's what we call a segue, people), but tonight the notoriously plot-light, gag-heavy show found its balance. And hey, wouldja look at that, it ALSO had a voice cameo, this time from Amanda Bynes (sure, why not?). Though Peter's foray into piratedom was touted as the main plot, most of the action tonight centered on Chris winning, losing, and re-winning Bynes' vet assistant character. The pirate gag was fine enough, in that it resulted in an amusing land-battle sequence, but it was just throwaway Peter shenanigans (as Chris said, "He'll get over it quickly enough and move on to another wacky thing"). But Chris' storyline resulted in some of the best Family Guy laughs I've had in a while, including the '40s phone-call montage, Peter trying to dispose of the dead bullfrog he caught to cheer up Chris, and Peter serenading Chris and his date with "Land Down Under." As usual, the plot was just a framing device, but the gags and cutaways mostly stemmed from the story, instead of relying too much on the ol' "This is just like the time I [insert manatee joke here]." (Those can still be mighty funny too though; see the "Best Thing Ever!" commercial.)
I didn't realize this was Family Guy's season finale until tonight. I'm not sure why the show's run has been so abbreviated this season while American Dad and the others still have two more weeks (and didn't disappear from the schedule for over a month), but I'm glad to see it go out on a high note.
In keeping with tonight's theme, let's move onto a show with one of my favorite recurring guest voices. Did you ever want to hear Patrick Stewart's basso profundo wrapped around the word "bunghole?" I didn't think I did either until tonight's American Dad. When I think of the rave reviews Stewart's getting for starring in Macbeth in New York right now, I have to giggle at that bit of juxtaposition. Tonight featured a lot of Stewart, as the action centered on the CIA, where Stan is appointed head of a task force to track down a rogue alien that's been showing up in the papers, a rogue alien who just so happens live in his attic and has been selling pictures of himself to the paper in order to finance his extensive wig collection. A series of wacky events of course ensues when a disguised Roger usurps Stan on his own manhunt (alienhunt?).
After complaining about a lack of Roger last week, I may have gotten my fill of him tonight. As always, he had most of the best lines of the evening ("You Superman Two-ed me"), but his antics sometimes veered a little too close to the wrong end of the funny-grating spectrum. The B-plot concerning Francine's repressed left-handedness was silly and didn't overshadow the main story, which zigged and zagged all over the place. Seriously, tonight's episode felt extremely full, but unlike King Of The Hill, I felt it could've used a little trimming. But not the part where Roger gets caught in the spinning globe. That was GOLD.
The Simpsons, "Any Given Sundance": B
King Of The Hill, "Cops And Robert": A
Family Guy, "Long John Peter": A-
American Dad, "Office Spaceman": B
–"No more Simpsons movies! One was enough!"
–As soon as I saw Comic Book Guy blogging, I knew it was going to result in an Aint It Cool News send-up.
–Seriously, Dale in that uniform yeesh.
–I have a pretty high tolerance for Family Guy's mean-spiritedness, but that Michael J. Fox gag made me squirm a bit.
–And yet, I was not at all disturbed by the sight of Brian's mangled face when Chris takes him to the vet. In fact, I thought it was kinda hilarious.
–Another good American Dad physical-humor moment: Francine falling down when trying to grab a facial tissue with her left hand, and her left-handed hijinks in general.