"The Squirt and the Whale"/"Bully for Steve"

"The Squirt and the Whale"/"Bully for Steve"

How much do we want to care about the characters on these animated shows? I ask this because Jaime Weinman was wondering why it's rare for a Simpsons fourth-wall breaking reference to work while Family Guy can seemingly get away with it all of the time. To that, your friend and mine Zack Handlen suggested that this is because we want to care about the characters on The Simpsons, want to believe that they exist in some parallel animated universe and hang out when we're not watching them. Obviously, this idea is ridiculous, but I think Zack is on to something. The idea of the Simpsons as fictional characters - no matter how far down they are from their height as TV entertainment - is still less appealing than the thought of the Griffins as same. When The Simpsons all but admit they're TV characters, it's somehow less satisfying.

I'm thinking about this also because the only two shows on this week were, again, The Simpsons and American Dad, the two shows in the line-up that seem to take their characters seriously to some degree. Furthermore, The Simpsons had an episode that threatened to turn very serious indeed before ending with a pretty lame cop-out of an ending. I wouldn't call American Dad serious in any way, shape or form, but it definitely based its storyline on one of its best developed relationships, and that tends to make the show better. While The Simpsons wasn't as funny as some episodes this season have been, it tried some pretty daring things in its midsection. And while some of the storytelling on American Dad was pretty stupid, I laughed at the episode. A lot. Out loud.

Anyway ...

The Simpsons: I do love me a good Lisa episode. I'm on record as saying "Lisa's Substitute" is one of the show's finest hours, an episode that blends the heart and humor that the series was best known for early in its run. And there have been numerous great Lisa episodes over the years, usually playing off of her relationship with her father or her relationship with her brother. I don't think there's a Simpsons fan who doesn't enjoy "Lisa's Wedding," and the character, in general, is one of the few that the show hasn't gradually turned into a complete shell of her former self. Yeah, the character has gotten a little shrill and smug over the years, but the series generally keeps her good-heartedness upfront.

That's why I was so taken with this episode in its middle and so disappointed in it when it ended. Sure, Homer's sudden obsession with renewable energy (granted, mostly prompted by the fact that it was cheap) came out of nowhere and was kind of a schlocky way to turn the episode into an Earth Day episode (even if it had some pretty fun jokes about Homer not really thinking through going off the grid). And the transition from that plot to the beached whale plot was more random and abrupt than usual. But once the beached whale plot got going, I thought it was a really well done version of a story we've seen a number of times, where Lisa becomes involved with some sort of improbable cause, finds herself disappointed, and is only brought out of her bad mood when her family rallies around her.

The second act break here - Lisa sitting beside the dead whale - is surprisingly and admirably bleak, and the animation in the scene is suitably gorgeous, with lots of nice lighting and beautiful coloring. The episode kind of steps on that moment in the next act when it has the townspeople trying to blow up the whale butting up against Lisa's very real (and actually pretty funny) grief, and it's really let down by the ending - which actually features Homer accidentally riding on a whale at one point and tries too hard to push for a happy ending. That ending made me like the episode less than I probably would have normally, since it just seemed like the episode didn't want to take any of this as seriously as the show might have early in its run. But, by and large, The Simpsons is the only show in the lineup that's capable of these sorts of moments, and this episode was a good reminder of that. Grade: B

American Dad: Now this episode - scattershot as it was - was just purely funny. I think I laughed more at various moments in this episode than I have at any other episode this season, especially every time that Stan said the phrase "homosexual giant." I admired the episode's willingness to go on complete tangents, like that scene where we seem to follow an old lady around the deli for something like two or three minutes before realizing that it's Steve. And I liked the episode's casual throwaway gags, like Roger not knowing where he was off to next after his one big scene in the episode or Stan missing more and more work for this ridiculous quest to make Steve a better man. And everything with Stelio Cantos and his carry-around theme song was great too. And a werewolf? Awesome.

The episode also worked because it was built around American Dad's version of the Homer/Lisa relationship. The relationship between Steve and Stan is the one the show treats with any kind of emotional honesty at any given time, and when the show gets into the two's mutual lack of understanding, it can turn out some very good episodes indeed. Now, the series never takes this as seriously as The Simpsons has taken some of its Homer and Lisa storylines, but there's a very real relationship underneath the gags that keeps the storylines about the two from getting so bizarre that they float off into nothingness, as some of the other relationships on the show can.

But, that said, the Haley and Reginald stuff, which seems to have reached its ending or at least AN ending, continues to just not work, and I wonder if the show has realized this as well, since the ending to the storyline was fairly abrupt and out of nowhere. Now, obviously, Reginald will be back at some point, but I can't help but think that this might have been better if either character was better developed or if it had been built to a little more or if the show had really given a shot at making the two a believable couple, instead of just burying them in a C-story every week they were on. The rest of the episode made me laugh enough to overlook this. Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • I'm still trying to figure out just how the rest of these episodes are going to be burned off this season, while accepting that American Dad will probably stretch into the summer. Family Guy has next week's hourlong episode (which Fox aired a really irritating ad for tonight) and the Empire Strikes Back episode, but how is Cleveland Show going to get out of this season having aired all of its episodes?
  • "South Park - We'd stand beside you if we weren't so scared."
  • "From the producers of Duck, Duck, Goose; Got Your Nose; and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich."
  • "Where there's Expos, there's free Frisbees!"
  • "From now on, the Simpsons are living intermittently."
  • "Now, we're cooking with wind!"
  • "How hard can it be? We're just rolling it into the ocean from the beach. It's not like it's stuck in a well or a Mexican prison. But that would make a great movie!"
  • "It was my idea to put the whale in the water."
  • "Behold! I am Captain Kirk from Star Trek 1! 2 ... 5 ... Generations ... Boston Legal."
  • "Now, Lisa, I know you miss your whale, so I got you a pet that will never die: An invisible dog!"
  • "Maybe the blood will scare the sharks off."
  • "Steve, a homosexual giant called. He said he wants his shirt back."
  • "Between me and you, I just wanna see the landscaping."
  • "You followed Steve all day?" "Yup, I do stuff like that."
  • "It gave me ass rabies. My anus was frothing like a capuccino."
  • "Is there anything better than night tennis?" "Yah! A racially pure Europe!"
  • "Francine, we need to go home and talk. I'm having an affair with a homosexual giant."
  • "Gotta go to my xylophone lesson!"
  • "I'm gonna go down to Sea World and punch a dolphin in the face."
  • "And when you're ready to be mine, you'll be ready for koala-ty time."

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