"Elementary School Musical"/"Harder, Better, Faster, Browner"/"And Then There Were Fewer"

"Elementary School Musical"/"Harder, Better, Faster, Browner"/"And Then There Were Fewer"

Hi, Fox animation fans.

We didn't really get off on the right foot last season, you and I. Sure, there were times when we agreed on things, but more often than not, what I was saying was heresy to about half of you and right on to the other half. There were a few times when we all agreed - I think we could all be proud of loving that post-apocalyptic Christmas episode of American Dad - but there were far more times when I said something you all thought was insane - like when I really enjoyed that Israeli tour episode of The Simpsons. I'm not going to apologize for my opinions - it's what I'm supposed to be sharing with you, after all - but I have been wondering all summer just what you guys would like out of these pieces. So I've been asking some of you that very question, and while I've gotten some contradictory information, I think I have a better idea now.

The long and short of it is that my approach has always been that no one watches these shows to get some level of deep dramatic insight. You're watching these shows for some easy laughs on a Sunday night before the work week, to hang out with characters you've enjoyed for several years now. The question, I've always felt, should be less about how far The Simpsons and Family Guy (to a lesser extent) have fallen from their glory days and more about how much the shows provided some easy, non-offensive laughs and/or storytelling. For example, that episode of The Simpsons last season where Lisa tries to save the dying whale isn't a GREAT episode of the show, not when you hold it up to "Lisa's Substitute" or "Marge vs. the Monorail," but it's a pretty damn nice little episode of animated TV, offering solid laughs and real pathos. Similarly, that Family Guy with all of the alternate universes had lots and lots of great gags, and if it wasn't Mad Men, so what? It made me laugh a lot.

Obviously, there will be episodes we disagree on in the season to come, but I hope you understand a little better where I'm coming from in that paragraph. And if you'd rather that I review these shows like I review, say, Breaking Bad, well, I can do that, but be prepared for lots of C's and D's. We all know that these aren't anywhere near the best shows on television. But when we want just a little easy entertainment, they can do just the thing to hit the spot. Similarly, I thought it might be helpful if I briefly spelled out how I feel about all of the shows in each capsule tonight, just so you know where I'm coming from as the season progresses. (Though, obviously, this leaves out American Dad, which returns next week with a solid, funny premiere. I would say that that show is my current favorite of the group, and I like its attempts to make surrealistic weirdness palatable for a mainstream audience, even though it doesn't always succeed. Of the four shows, it's the best at making me laugh consistently.)

Of course, maybe you just want me to write basic plot summaries followed by a handful of funny quotes. But I don't think any of us will enjoy that. On with the grades!

The Simpsons: Lisa Simpson has always been my favorite Simpsons character. She's not the funniest Simpsons character, and she's not the most exciting, but she's the one that strikes me as the most well-drawn. She's a very, very smart and precocious person who learns with every new episode that the world doesn't value smart and precocious people. The Simpsons is a show that I'm on record as listing as my favorite TV show of all time (so much so that I enjoy most latter-day episodes as a chance to hang out with old friends), and Lisa is my favorite character on it. Even in the terrible Mike Scully years, Lisa was the one character who could still drive pretty solid episodes (though she was also integral to "Bart to the Future," so ...). Anyway, I liked many of the elements of the season premiere of The Simpsons without thinking the elements all came together into a successful piece. I have no idea if the writers wrote new songs for the two guys in Flight of the Conchords to sing (as Lisa's arts camp counselors), but the songs they sang were pretty weak. Similarly, bringing in the Glee kids to sing a take on "Good Vibrations" that was, frankly, awful mostly just felt like an attempt to have guest stars in nothing parts so they could be promoted. (Though, admittedly, the Glee kids' voices were probably recorded well before it was certain Glee would be the mega-hit it is today.) I always like episodes where the people of Springfield keep Lisa's dreams alive, even though they know those dreams are mostly lies but they don't want to disappoint the little girl, so I liked where everything ended up, even if I didn't like the journey on the way there. The Oslo plot was mostly a throw-away (with too few laughs for such a bizarre conceit as Krusty getting the Nobel Peace Prize), but it did feature the fat, Dutch clown riding up and slapping Krusty for stealing his material, the single gag in any of the shows that made me laugh hardest tonight. Grade: C+

The Cleveland Show: Of the four shows in the animated bloc, The Cleveland Show has proved incredibly frustrating for me to build some sort of feeling toward. It'll have a pretty good episode one week and a pretty bad the next, but it never has great or awful episodes. It's so middle of the road that it's hard to care about it one way or the other. At least the other shows in the bloc swing for the fences every once in a while, and even if they miss as often as they hit, they're trying crazy things. The Cleveland Show all too often seems content to just be Family Guy with a different guy in the lead. It has a couple of solid characters - Cleveland, Jr., and Rallo - and while it's made Cleveland more of a buffoon than he was in Quahog, that works for the show. But it doesn't really seem to have an identity, and that makes it hard to say much about it. Take tonight's episode. I laughed quite a few times at it, enjoying the idea that Cleveland had played basketball against a young Barack Obama (and the fact that the show's Obama is kind of an asshole on the court) and the performance of Kanye West as Kenny West. But none of those laughs graduated from mild chuckles. It was all clever, but none of it was inspired. The Cleveland Show, more than any other show in the animated bloc, feels assembled by a joke-writing committee, and that hurts it, even in a pretty good episode like this one. Grade: B

Family Guy: Of the four shows that air on Sundays, I have the most complicated relationship with Family Guy. It's very much a gag-a-minute show, and that means that it's the kind of show that can produce out-and-out bomb episodes (since gag-a-minute shows are heavily dependent on their gags). But it's also the one show out of the lineup that can use the elasticity of its format to do completely random and strange things, and that means it's the one show out of the lineup that can genuinely surprise viewers. I thought the show was genuinely building toward something special in its third season (the last before its cancellation), but ever since it's come back, there's been a sense that the show is lazy at times, preferring to rest on its laurels and do random cutaway gags, rather than push for better comedy. It does ambitious things from time to time, and while they don't always work, I do wish it kept pushing the limits of what it was possible for the show to do. Because when it does, it can come up with an episode like tonight's, which was solidly funny, well-plotted, and nearly perfectly executed. I love the "a bunch of people go to an isolated place and start getting killed" murder mystery sub-genre, and this episode made fun of the conceits of the genre - like Derek being surprised by the "man or woman" who was doing all of the killing - but it also played by the rules to create a fairly satisfying mystery you could play along with at home. Sure, the resolution required the audience to have a bunch of information it just didn't and thus a lot of exposition, but that's par for the course with the genre. For the most part, this was excellent and fun, full of surprisingly gorgeous animation and a nicely creepy feel that hung over all of the jokes. This was my favorite Family Guy in quite a while. Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • I'm at a wedding next week, so someone else will be taking over the write-ups. Don't all cheer at once!
  • I hope Family Guy doesn't just resurrect all of the dead characters (and by "all of the," I mean the three semi-regulars that die and James Woods). And I wonder if Lois will somehow be able to prove that Diane was behind it all and exonerate Tom? Wait. What am I saying? Of course she will.
  • "For the purposes of that joke, I'm married."
  • "Act one. Mustard. Act two. Mayo. Act three. Relish. Act four. Corn relish."
  • "Victory for the middle child!"
  • "She can't hear us. We're stage whispering." "I can hear you." "No you can't!"
  • "I don't wanna get stuck behind the joggers from the fat camp."
  • "No! I was just describing my day!"
  • "Philosophically, we're happening, in the sense that we exist."
  • "Barry Obama. Probably sleeping in a ditch somewhere."
  • "Easy for you to say! You're a woman! You can't be president!"
  • "And I mean MY OWN, not one of my stepkids. Sometimes, I forget to feed them."
  • "Apparently, I plain ol' forgot to go to work today."
  • "They say it's rich and super-fruity and not complex at all."
  • "You got whom-ed!"
  • "Any 19-year-old who has your life should kill himself."
  • "Last time you left me there for an hour. Or ten years! There's no clock there!"
  • "Everybody on the bus was upset long before that anyway."
  • "I can't help feeling this would be sadder if she wasn't heavy."
  • "Is my eye big?"
  • "I wish you were a real ornery sea captain."
  • "That leaves one three-person team of Mort, Consuela, and Mayor West."
  • "We don't all talk like that. I happen to be a professor."
  • "What do you think, Ollie? I miss Ollie."
  • "The same thing happened to me but with a mustache."
  • "What part of that statement is supposed to lure me into a conversation?"
  • "Oh my God. You're 40!?"