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Some thoughts and a Top 10 of the first season of the Pokémon anime, the Indigo League.

August 11, 2014

NOTE: If anybody actually reads this and wonders what it has to do with a Futurama blog, and what happened to that original purpose, I’ll explain briefly: My laptop disc drive has, for some reason, refused to play DVDs for over a year now. I could get it fixed but I can’t be bothered and it still plays other discs without a problem. Given the fact that my time to write reviews of Futurama has drastically shrunk anyway, the prospect of doing them using another disc player is not something I’m considering.

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Over the past few months I’ve been working my way through a childhood classic: the first season of the Pokémon anime, officially titled the Indigo League. OK, so, not a classic in the sense of Alice in Wonderland, but a huge part of my childhood and the foundation of my obsessive love for the Pokémon franchise which has only grown stronger (and more informed) over the years. Thanks to Netflix, I’ve been able to return to the earliest adventures of one Ash Ketchum, naive, young wannabee Pokémon master.

Nostalgia is a tricky thing to define. Often people will say they “loved ‘x’ when they were a kid’, but there are so many things (the Pokémon video games being the best example) I loved as a child which I have never stopped loving. You can’t really feel nostalgic about something which you haven’t actually left behind. But anyway, other than a few parts of episodes of Diamond and Pearl, I haven’t religiously watched the anime since the first few Generation 3 episodes and I certainly haven’t watched the original season since it first aired.

Nostalgia can go several ways. You could find out something is as good as you remembered/hoped or you could have your hopes/memories destroyed. This show is one of those things that I’ve always seen people classify as the latter, so I went into it with very low expectations. The common mockery of the show – that each episode is just “Ash and co. meet a new Pokémon, Team Rocket try to capture said Pokémon and Pikachu, and are beaten” – hung in my mind.

But I need not have feared. It wasn’t just not terrible, it was actually rather good. In fact it was incredibly self-aware, witty and at times downright clever in its writing.  There really are not that many filler episodes in the grand scheme of things: about 15-20 in 72 episodes, depending on how you see it, which is amazing considering what the show would become, and most of them are not exactly bad.

truth

The characters, usually Misty, frequently post out that Ash is a lazy idiot who, although he cares deeply for his Pokémon and his quest, is incredibly lucky, lacks skill and knowledge, and is overly reliant on his unusually powerful and undaunted Pikachu. He actually only obtains three of his eight gym badges by beating the registered Gym Leader, and defeats only one of those at the first attempt. In the end, Ash loses because his Charizard – his strongest Pokémon – doesn’t respect him. Pokémon is not generally known for its pathos, but this is a strong example: as a Charmander, Charizard was abandoned by his original trainer, who saw him as too weak. Ash – whose strongest trait has always been to love, and see the potential, of all Pokémon regardless of their strength – rescues and adopts it. It quickly becomes incredibly powerful, evolves twice, and then forgets its bond with Ash, becoming like its first trainer, deeming Ash too weak to command it.

Yet in all this Ash still manages to get to the Top 16 of the Indigo League and loses with a weakened team and does so with grace and humility. He achieves this in the face of frequent criticism, doubting and mockery from many people, especially his rival Gary (whom he betters in terms of league placing). He does learn from his mistakes and does, throughout the Pokémon League especially, employ some excellent strategy that few would consider, showing great love and faith for his Pokémon (especially the hitherto unused Krabby and Muk). Ash initially struggles to accept his defeat (“Friends to the End”) but is soon resolutely renewed in his quest to be the greatest Pokémon master of all.

To have your main character lose in his stated central goal was both a brave and highly responsible decision by Takeshi Shudo and the other writers. It would have been easy to write Ash as brilliant from the start, and to have him win in the end regardless (fluked or not). But that would not have been believable. It’s all very well and good telling kids that they can win and do anything and be the best, but it’s far more accurate to say that there will likely be someone better than you, whatever it is you do; what matters far more than winning is doing your best, caring for those around you and the journey, experience, knowledge and fun you gain and have along the way to your goal.

For an anime spin-off of a video game, Shudo really did genuinely care about the story, characters and development. It’s a shame that such a focus has been lost with the near-cyclical re-booting that comes with each new generation.

Anyway, here’s my Top 10(ish)…

muk

10. “The Fourth Round Rumble” – I wanted to put a Pokémon League episode on here because, although most of the episodes are nothing special (especially once Ritchie turns up) the overall arc is a well crafted spectacle that justifies the hype the season built up to. This battle is the best of the League for Ash, as he displays real skill and understanding to triumph against a wily opponent. He survives a surprise near-sweep from a Bellsprout with the first battle appearance of his Muk, who along with Kingler in previous rounds, proves its worth despite never being used before. As this list will demonstrate, I love Team Rocket, and this episode contains another great moment for them, as they temporarily abandon their criminality to run a gift stall… and actually do far, far better than anything else they’ve attempted (although they’re actually, unknowingly, selling counterfeits made by Meowth). Their compulsive urge to steal Pokémon remains though, but for once they are actually stopped by some effective policing before they can do anything. This is the only time.

flagg

9. “The Pi-Kahuna” – Ash nearly gets run over and then nearly drowns. A man with a magic Pikachu saves him. This man dreams of surfing “Humunga-Dunga”, a mythical giant wave that his mentor alone has succeeded in conquering. He’s failed twice before and is now pretty middle-aged, but he and his Pikachu try one last time and, of course, succeed and he gets to put his flag (did he have that with him all the time? He wasn’t aware the wave was about to come?) in the top of a big rock. It’s filler, nothing of any consequence happens, and it has nothing much to actually do with Pokémon, but it’s a fun, simple, one-off story. And it spawned an entire mini-game in Pokémon Yellow.

poorj

8. “Holy Matrimony!” – James is actually the heir to his wealthy parent’s vast fortune and fled an arranged marriage to an insane dominatrix. Who knew? Through “The School of Hard Knocks”, “The Bridge Bike Gang”, “Snow Way Out” and “Go West Young Meowth”, the show’s resident criminal incompetents are probably its most developed characters, and this is the finest – and funniest – example. That first bit wasn’t a joke, by the way, that’s exactly what the episode is about. And did I mention that James’ parents entrap him into returning to his family home by faking their deaths? Or that his betrothed – Jessebelle – looks identical to Jessie but with a Southern accent? Or that James claims he himself died as a child in a harsh Dickensian winter, despite clearly being alive? Or the dominatrix part? Jessie and Meowth thinking they have invisibility suits? Or the dominatrix part (seriously, look at what’s in the basement!)? One of many, ahem, ‘hints’ throughout the series that James may prefer the company of men, this episode is insane and I love it.

showdown

7. “Showdown at the Poké Corral” – Great title pun. And a fun little episode. After returning home to ‘prepare’  for the Pokémon League, Ash goes to Oak’s lab. The lab is my favourite anime location: it’s a beautiful spectacle and a much nicer idea for where your Pokémon get sent that the PC Storage System, Oak’s narration of his daily routine is great stuff and we learn the other two trainers who sent off on the same day as Ash and Gary couldn’t cut it and returned home. It’s nice to see Ash’s old Pokémon whenever they go back (apart from Butterfree and Pidgeot, why oh why did you release Pidgeot? Just tell it to take all the Pidgeys and Pidgeottos to the lab!). Gary is also here and he and Ash continue their rivalry but, in a neat bit of restraint which will continue until the Johto Pokémon League (the ‘should have been finale’) they don’t actually battle. Meanwhile, Mewtwo is shown destroying and escaping from Team Rocket HQ in the final tie-in with the first movie. Giovanni doesn’t really seem to care that much that this super-powerful and dangerous Pokémon is free and presumably just killed hundreds of his employees and instead uses the opportunity to talk to Jessie and James (who had been planning on quitting). They go to raid Oak’s lab, but Ash’s completely forgotten (and in the West, never before acknowledged) Tauros save the day. And then Ash has to mend a fence.

defeat

6. “Pokémon – I Choose You!” – It’s the first episode, but it’s also a very good one. Both funny and emotional, it details the very first day of Ash’s Pokémon journey. He snoozes, he loses; he rocks up late to Oak’s lab in his PJs (nice responsible parenting from Delia in not waking him up, probably off with Oak); he gets his first mocking from Gary (“That’s Mr Gary to you!”); Oak lets him attempt to open three empty Pokéballs he thinks have the starter Pokémon in whilst just standing there passively (why does Oak have these random balls? Why does he invite four trainers to get their starters but only have three on offer? Welcome to the World of Pokémon!); he gets a disobedient electric mouse-rat called Pikachu which constantly tries to murder him; he fails to catch a Pidgey, gets robbed by a Rattata and enrages a flock of Spearow. He falls in a river; he steals some girl’s bike; he attempts to “capture and defeat” the Spearow, a.k.a. let the Spearow’s kill him to save Pikachu’s life. Pikachu decides Ash might be worth saving and massacres the Spearow with a powerful Thunder attack. Ash and Pikachu see Ho-oh over two years before it would actually appear as an official Pokémon in the video games. A legend is born.

karp

5. “Battle Aboard the St. Anne”/”Pokémon Shipwreck” – The show’s first two-parter (and it’s sort of a three-parter, but we’ll see that later) and the most genuinely tense and perilous story of the series. Ash and co. enjoy a free, luxury cruise where nothing can possi-bly go wrong! Until Ash trades his Butterfree for some creepy old guy’s Raticate (but gets it back later). And then the whole cruise is revealed to be a Team Rocket scam to steal a lot of trainer’s Pokémon (the real Team Rocket, not just Jessie and James). The plan relied on nobody putting up a fight, though, which obviously doesn’t happen, and Team Rocket are swiftly defeated. Meanwhile, James is conned out of all of our TR trio’s life savings for a worthless Magikarp. Then everything goes all Titanic as the Captain apparently forgot to do anything during the terrorist incident and a storm is about to doom them all. With no intention of going down with the ship, he bails off, as does everyone else. Apart from our heroes (and villains)! As cliffhangers go, having your main characters unconscious on a sinking ship, with absolutely nobody realizing they are still there is pretty dark for a kid’s show. Everybody has to work together to escape, with a highly informed Misty getting to take the lead. It’s exciting and it’s neat to see Pokémon used in situations other than battling. Ash and co. manage to escape the wreck and magically acquire a raft. Team Rocket, lacking a water Pokémon, have been left behind. (“Whoever said beauty doesn’t last, must have been thinking of us!/I’ll always remember what a wonderful dresser you were!/So will I!”) But wait! Magikarp! James’ smugness as he remembers the fish that ruined everything may actually save them is perhaps his finest moment. Of course, it can’t swim, but eventually manages to flop its way to the surface, by which point TR as basically half dead, and so convincing Ash and co try to throw their ‘corpses’ back down and think they’re zombies when the wake up! Magikarp evolves into Gyarados and gets revenge on his cruel master James and it, and a bunch more, Dragon Rage everyone off into the night…Another, really quite dark, cliffhanger, which will be resolved… (see no. 2)

Also, I love that Ash, Misty and Brock’s presumed deaths are announced on national TV, and then when they meet Delia and Oak two episodes later in “Beauty and the Beach”, neither apparently have even the slightest inkling that anything has happened, or are too ‘busy’ behind Ash’s back to care whether he’s dead (it’s so obvious as to basically be confirmed; they are always together and usually going on ‘holiday’ together as well).

chansey

4. “A Chansey Operation” – in the traditional sense ‘filler’, as nothing of importance happens, but it’s probably the funniest episode of the season. Now, the aftermath of a crash involving a truck filled with Pokémon might not seem like a plot ripe for comedy but this is a children’s show, so have no fear. Basically, due to Ash’s negligence (he’s asleep on bench during the day like a drunk, for some reason) Pikachu nearly chokes to death on an apple. The closest medical facility is a people hospital. There, seemingly, the only staff member present is a Dr. Doug Ross expy called Dr Proctor, who agrees to treat Pikachu only because he’s attracted to the 10-year old Misty. When he has to treat the crash victims, he ropes in the gang (and those responsible, Team Rocket of course) and some Chansey to help, but spends all the time moaning about it being the end of his shift, using superglue to cure basically every condition, hitting on Misty and Jessie and Nurse Joy, before accidentally impaling himself with a vial of anesthetic. It also includes one of Brock’s best lines; after seeing Proctor’s pathetic attempts to chat up Nurse Joy he bluntly states: “I don’t like this guy, he sounds like me!” Brilliant.

elec

3. “Electric Shock Showdown” – This is the best example of an episode showing the series’ main themes. At this point in the series Ash’s need to prove himself was still very high. He didn’t actually properly beat Brock or Misty so this was a chance to show he did have what it takes. He goes to battle Lt Surge, a brash, bullying Gym Leader who has clogged the Vermillion City Pokémon Centre with defeated Pokémon. Rather than attempting to use or catch another Pokémon, perhaps one with basic type advantage, like, say, Brock’s Onix, which he has seen is not affected by electricity, Ash forces his absolutely terrified Pikachu to fight the taunting Surge’s more powerful Raichu. It’s a great battle, in a dark, floodlit, atmospheric gym as Pikachu refuses to give in despite receiving an absolute curb stomping. While recovering, Pikachu refuses to evolve, wanting to prove that unevolved Pikachu can still be strong (thank God Pichu didn’t exist yet). With Team Rocket, moved by Pikachu’s resoluteness, deciding to cheer them on, Pikachu uses his better speed and agility to triumph over the bulkier Raichu. And then Surge is suddenly really nice.

giant

2. “Island of the Giant Pokémon” – A classic. Having survived the sinking of the St. Anne, the gang wash up on a seemingly deserted island, but Ash’s Pokémon have been separated from him. It’s the only time we get to hear what the Pokémon are saying – with the aid of subtitles – and it’s both hilarious and an excellent insight into their characters and feelings towards their relatively new trainer. Squirtle jokes that the gang got eaten, Pikachu describes Brock and Misty as “those guys” and Bulbasaur’s distrust of humans continues, as he assumes they’ve been abandoned. We also get to see Koffing and Ekans undying love for Jessie and James. And Bulbasaur and Meowth get drunk. Both Pokémon and trainers soon discover that the island is actually home to a number of giant Pokémon who have nothing to do but attempt to murder everyone. Chasing and screaming ensues. It’s a neat mystery plot because – spoilers – it turns out the giant Pokémon are actually the robot attraction of the Pokémon Land amusement park owned by, of all people, Giovanni. It will now have to close because Ash and co. have trashed it. But the highlight? Perhaps the most pathetic moment in Team Rocket’s history, having to collect call Giovanni and then, due to their seemingly obsessive-compulsive need to repeat it, beginning their motto to introduce themselves to their own boss. Hearing the distorted backing track through the phone on Giovanni’s end is probably the most wonderfully absurd moment of the series. Giovanni, obviously, has no time for this crap and hangs up. (Incidentally, as another example of the self-aware writing at this stage, there are only about 10 times in the whole season where the TR motto is not interrupted or ignored.)

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1. “Riddle Me This”/”Volcanic Panic” – Another two-parter. Ash and co. arrive on Cinnabar Island, as Ash searches for his penultimate badge. Of course, Gary is here first, but for once he hasn’t already beaten the gym leader: the gym has been closed down and the island is now a colossal tourist trap. What follows is the gang’s amusingly desperate attempts to find a room, while being pursued by a riddle-loving, moderately bi-polar old hippie. The riddles bamboozle Ash, while the hippie complains about the tourists like they’re some kind of infectious bacteria… before revealing that he himself operates a hotel… and then that he is actually the former Gym Leader: Blaine. After some solid Team Rocket antics, plus one of the most bafflingly, seemingly stereotypically er “Japanese” scenes in the franchise (it involves a Hot Spring… I’ll leave it at that) Blaine accepts Ash’s challenge.

What follows is, in my view, the coolest gym battles of the series. Or rather, hottest, because it takes place inside a volcano! At least, the first one does, because, yes, as with Surge, Ash loses his first attempt. He does put up a good fight (actually attempting to use type advantage with Squirtle!) But in the end Blaine’s hulking Magmar proves too strong. The music as Magmar approaches Pikachu is my single favourite anime track (aside from the main theme); it really conveys the danger as the hopelessly outgunned Pikachu faces the choice between running head first into the scalding Magmar, or slipping into the boiling volcanic depths below. Blaine manages to trump Surge as both amusing, honourable and menacing in the right quantities. In part 2, we witness one of the most pun-ishing scenes ever, as Team Rocket attempt to capture Magmar with a freeze-blaster, the erupting volcano being plugged with rocks (I’m no scientist, but…?) before Blaine agrees to rematch Ash. Charizard has finally found another opponent he deems worthy of his challenge, and then proceeds to beat the ever-living shit out of Magmar. Outstanding.

 

Raging Bender

December 8, 2012

EP21Original airdate: February 27, 2000

Written by Lewis Morton; Directed by Ron Hughart

I know I’ve joked a couple of times about how I don’t remember an episode, but I really don’t remember this one. I honestly think I must have totally missed it on TV all these years; watching it now, I don’t think I was missing all that much. Perhaps it’s just me, but there’s nothing about pro-wrestling and Bender becoming a transvestite that screams exciting comedy to me. I stress “exciting” comedy because my main problem with this one was that it was just really boring. The plot reads like Scully-era Simpsons: character x becomes a famous y because of reason whatever. In this case, with the crew again doing no work and going to the movies, Bender’s usual jerkiness winds him up in a fight with another patron, which he inadvertently wins. The patron is revealed to be The Masked Unit, the champion of the Ultimate Robot Fighting League, whose commissioner then decides to hire Bender as a new participant. Just cos. Well actually it’s because he loves guys who pick fights in movie theatres, which is kinda funny, but really just plot contrivance.

Bender’s initial optimism about the URFL is quashed when he realizes how dangerous it is, but he is talked into participating anyway by… Leela. Yes, the most cautious, risk-averse member of the crew tells Bender he has to do it. Again, Fry does point this out, but his concerns are brushed aside as Leela recounts her old kung-fu teacher’s sexism stopping her from becoming champion. For some reason, she can live this dream through Bender’s entirely unrelated and sudden entrance into robot wrestling (“Leela’s right, I don’t want to end up a loser like her!”) Of course, URF is just a scam and all the fights are just choreographed, with the most popular robot, in this case Bender, always winning. So yeah, that’s basically it, not really much happening, I guess we’ll wrap up…

Oh wait, Bender’s approval ratings are falling, so he is told he must lose the next fight. He is also forced to change his persona to the ‘Gender Bender’, giving us our first taste of the unmitigated joy that is feminine Bender. Woo. I mean, it’s nowhere near as tedious as the episode where he becomes a woman, but still. Bender ignores the intended purpose of his new personality and, with Leela’s help fights the overpowered Destructor, whose very usage in battle has been ruled a war crime, because his trainer is her old kung-fu teacher. It’s revealed he is actually controlling Destructor remotely so Leela gets her revenge. Bender is crushed by Destructor so still loses.

I guess this might appeal to others more than me, people who properly understand and thus appreciate the parodies. Saying that, I have no idea what a baseball is and yet I think “Homer at the Bat” is hilarious. The same cannot be said here: this just comes across as a blandly incoherent 21 minutes of nothingness, with next to no decent lines (as the section below shows), and a plot which at its best is a moderately decent parody of something I don’t care about. This is easily one of the weakest of the entire series in my view.

Trivia and Quotes

  • Nothing particularly special in the opening, but Hermes’ misfortune with the Brain Slug (and the lack of care from the others, to the point that Bender actually puts it back after knocking it off) and the cinema bits are pretty decent, especially the black and white newsreel now being back in fashion (with a nice call back to Miss Vega 4’s Miss Universe triumph from two episodes back).
  • “A fight scene’s broken out at the special effects warehouse!” All My Circuits: The Movie is, as expected, great.
  • “From Mom’s Friendly Robot Company, in America’s heartland, Mexico.”
  • As a parody of professional wrestling, this is pretty well done, I guess. Billionaire Bot, the Foreigner and the Chain Smoker (with Bender immediately taking out a cigar after beating him) are all great unpopular opponents for Bender though and that’s easily the best part of the episode. But there’s nothing much else here.
  • “It’s one thing to win a fixed fight, there’s dignity in that, but to lose?”
  • Do people actually bet on wrestling? Or was that just a joke so they could just do boxing parodies? Whatever. Bender’s odds being 1000-0, meaning you get $1000 if you bet $0, is good, especially as nobody is even taking it.
  • George Foreman’s head plugging his new grill, which allows the scalding hot fat to be drained directly into his mouth… ok? This is pretty indicative of this episode’s scatological and largely forgettable style. But the ending is ok, with Leela getting her revenge and Fry’s brain slug starving to death and a literally flattened Bender in tremendous pain. Wait, can he feel pain? I guess it depends on the joke. Not that this one is anything special.

Put Your Head On My Shoulders

September 26, 2012

Original airdate: February 13, 2000

Written by Ken Keeler; Directed by Chris Louden

Hey, remember Amy? Well she finally gets to do something again here in “Put Your Head On My Shoulders”. Amy, to me, has always been the most extraneous of the main Futurama characters. It’s not that she isn’t funny, just that she doesn’t really add much. She’s a clutzy, somewhat-smart rich girl with pushy parents who hangs around the office and like any good intern does not much at all. She serves as a contrast to Leela. That’s basically it. Wait, that’s quite a lot. Anyway, the point is that she gets to do something here.

So the set-up is thus: Amy buys a new car and goes for a spin on Mercury with Fry. After very excessive fuel usage, it breaks down and she and Fry make out whilst being towed back. On their return, they decide to begin dating but Fry quickly grows tired of what he for some reason perceives as Amy’s clinginess. So that the two will not have to be alone together, Fry brings Zoidberg on their picnic date to Europa. This successfully impedes the date but also Fry’s life as Zoidberg crashes the car. Fry’s body is crushed so Zoidberg quickly grafts Fry’s head onto Amy’s body. (How the hell did Zoidberg and Amy survive the crash in one piece? It was a head-on collision with a huge block of ice!) Fry, displaying his usual short-sightedness, proceeds to then break up with Amy. It’s kind of funny that the title and main press release-type description of the episode’s plot – Fry’s head being attached to Amy – doesn’t actually happen until 13 minutes into the episode. Not that this is a bad thing, as it means they actually take sufficient time on the set-up and characterization.

Anyway, what follows is some excellent interaction between two people trying to go about their separate lives after a break-up, especially as it’s Valentine’s Day, but being very literally unable to. Meanwhile, the subplot, the best part of the episode, shows Bender at his finest. Here he decides to exploit humans’ fondness for love to aid his fondness for money; by setting up a dating agency/scam (it’s discrete and discreet). The scam part of Bender’s business, one of my favourite of his schemes, consists of him just rounding up dates for his clients at the bus station. Amy secures a date for Valentine’s, so Fry is forced to employ Bender’s service to get one of his own: the “well-travelled” Petunia (and I don’t mean she travels alot). As their dates both leave on the 10.15 to Nutley, Leela saves Fry from having to endure Amy putting out, by distracting her date with questions about banking industry regulation. It’s another sweet moment for the two and once again continues their theme of being lonely together. Fry gets his body back and Bender takes credit for Fry and Leela spending Valentine’s together, despite not doing anything.

So a pretty solid, if not spectacular episode. It doesn’t have much of a plot, but it’s an effective Futurama twist on traditional sitcom romances, especially stuff like Three’s Company. It’s a neat character episode and it’s nice to see Amy given a larger role. The highlights come once again from some fantastic Bender action as well as some good Fry-Leela development.

Trivia and Quotes

  • So the first act is Amy, Leela, Fry and Bender going car shopping at Malfunctioning Eddie’s. Yay for not working again! Okay fine it’s President’s Day weekend so they have an excuse this time. Anyway, Amy’s parents promised her a bar if she got all Bs and she got all Cs and Bender needs to get his ass serviced to prevent explosions in low-speed collisions (“No wonder you’ve been staying at the back of conga lines recently.”) Makes sense to me. We get to see a master class of car salesman bullshit, as Amy’s shallow nature is exploited and she is brilliantly guilt-tripped in to buying the eagle-filled Beta Romero by the Ricardo Montalban-esque Victor for far more than the asking price (“No dog food for Victor tonight”). As is Fry’s immense sense of male inadequacy with the perfectly named Thundercougarfalconbird, which will certainly stop people questioning his sexual orientation.
  • “Valentine’s Day’s coming? Oh crap, I forgot to get a girlfriend again. Well, since neither of us has a date, why don’t we…/You just assume I can’t get a Valentine’s date?/Shall we say 8 o’clock?”
  • The Amy-Fry relationship is a pretty realistic and smart development for the show. They have quite similar personalities and preferences, but no deeper connection beyond sex. So it makes sense they’d get together for a while. And they get on pretty well when they are attached, what with the table tennis and bra application and all. I love Amy’s increasingly enraged Chinese singing to give Fry some privacy.
  • “I’d pay anything to end my miserable loneliness. If only I wasn’t so desperately poor!” They’re really ramping up Zoidberg’s horrific life: he’s eating out of bins and so hungry he eats a basket. “I’ll just turn the wheel to maximum fastness.”
  • “Stupid anti-pimping laws!” – This is probably one of the most famous and popular Futurama jokes. What with Bender’s pimp strut, that his plan is apparently struck down the same day he conceives it, that he expects Leela to pay his fine, and just “Shut up baby I know it!” it’s not difficult to see why. Bender is really on form in this one. Money-grabbing, scam-running Bender beats whiny, attention-seeking Bender every day of the week. “Demand suddenly skyrocketed, you all saw it!”
  • Leela’s on great, dry form in this one as well: “I’m not a one woman man Leela!/You’ll be back to zero soon enough.” And I love her coyness and shame around finally accepting she needs to use Bender’s dating service. Oh and the $500 bill features Al Gore.
  • Fry’s unjustified overreaction towards Amy is classic Futurama. He – the perennial loser who repulses women – is breaking up with her because she actually wants to spend time with him. “Amy, you know how at first you like chocolate but then you start to get tired of it because it always wants to hang out with you/Huh? You don’t like chocolate?/Look could chocolate just let me finish?”
  • “Now that I’m single, I’ll attract all sorts of women./With my body I think you’ll only attract one sort of woman./Oh!…Oh.”
  • “I still don’t understand why you wouldn’t let me graft a laser cannon on to your chest. To crush those who disobey you!…But I guess we’re just two different people.”
  • And a great ending moral lesson from Bender: “You just corralled a bunch of stiffs at the bus station and pocketed our money./True, but in the end, isn’t that what Valentine’s Day is really all about?/Yeah/I guess so.” But he gets his just desserts as Fry accidentally kicks him, making his ass explode. Kind of a random ending, but I guess that’s the point.

Eagle Eye

September 11, 2012

Source

Because the German poster is far, far better than the American one

Note: This is a trial piece I felt like writing during disc troubles. Futurama will not be sidelined, but, as with the Bill Oakley interview, I will sometimes post other things if I feel like it. Naturally, this contains substantial spoilers about the film Eagle Eye, but as that is four years old and you probably don’t care anyway, whatever.

Eagle Eye (2008). I didn’t hate this film. It is by-the-numbers, preposterous action schlock with a tacked on subtext about rights and liberties and the dangers of fighting terrorism. It’s not a good movie, but the kind that you’d watch at 1:00 AM on TV after a hard day of realizing your life is insignificant. You watch and think, ‘hey it could be worse, I could be the characters in this movie!’

I missed the first 20 minutes, but Wikipedia tells me they weren’t really vital to understanding it. The government try to kill a terrorist. Their high-tech computer tells them the intelligence is wrong and the Defense Secretary (Michael Chilkis) tells the President to abort the drone strike, but he ignores the advice. Sure enough, the strike kills civilians instead, encouraging the actual terrorists to launch a series of suicide bomb attacks in America. Meanwhile Jerry Shaw’s (Shia LaBeouf) identical twin brother (you can see where this is going) is killed in a mysterious car accident. Jerry goes home to find his apartment has been turned into that of America’s Dumbest Terrorist and a mysterious female caller (Julianne Moore) tells him he is about to be arrested by the FBI. He doesn’t believe her, is arrested by Billy Bob Thornton, but escapes after she engineers him a route out. He meets Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan) who is being blackmailed by the caller (threatening to kill her son) to help Jerry. The unlikely pair (The Bourne Identity anyone?) must work together to… whatever.

What follows is a series of increasingly nonsensical action and chase scenes as Jerry and Rachel are guided away from Bill Bob Thornton and into the Pentagon. It’s the standard bulletproof hero cliché. They get a few scratches I guess, but in real life they would have got fucking killed, even with a magic robot lady guiding them. I would have died of shock. They do actually make a point of saying that the characters are not suddenly action heroes (she can’t drive very well, neither is an expert with a firearm) which is nice. Other than that they are the usual movie experts at falling from large heights and surviving explosions.

None of the main actors are especially bad, but the script never really bothers fleshing the characters out in any way that allows them to give meaningful performances. The leads are the only ones who get any form of background or development, but are still largely bland. She is a single mother with a deadbeat ex-husband. He is a screw-up, with no direction in life, mourning his more successful but loving brother. As the lead, Shia LaBeouf is competent, but nothing more. He’s not a bad actor, but I’ve always felt he is a lot better suited for comedy roles (see Even Stevens, I, Robot). Monaghan has little to do other than worry for her son and be scared and pissed. Oh and a brief, random and totally unnecessary guilt-trip about being a bad mother because she was working and dared to take one night off rather than seeing her son play his trumpet.

The heart of the film – after all the chasing – is a conspiracy plot. It turns out the caller is actually the computer, ARIIA, that warned against the drone strike (shock) which explains why it was able to control everything to guide them to the Pentagon alive. ARIIA is Skynet, Vicky and above all GLaDOS all rolled into one. Her appearance and voice is almost grounds for a lawsuit from Valve. ARIIA was created for national defence and has concluded that – as the President ignored her advice about the strike, resulting in the suicide bombings – that regime change is the only solution to uphold the common defence. This is what happens when you programme a computer with documents like the Constitution and Patriot Act – it notices all the contradictions. She plans to kill the entire chain of command other than the Defense Secretary, by blowing up the State of the Union. Okay. Seems like an overreaction. She needs Jerry because his dead brother was a government agent, who bio-locked her controls after discovering her plot. So only his identical twin can unlock her… why couldn’t he have bio-locked her to prevent her from doing anything? You know, like stopping her from hijacking a Reaper drone?

Yes in easily the film’s dumbest set-piece, ARIIA sends a drone down a freeway to kill Jerry and Billy Bob Thornton, who now understand the plot and are heading to the Capitol to save the day. And save the day they do, although this is only due to ARIIA’s particularly convoluted and protracted method of killing everybody. Why couldn’t she just seal the Capitol and release some gas? Or fire a missile at it? Or kill them all individually? Hell if what the President did is enough to justify murdering him why doesn’t she just release the evidence of whatever he did and have him impeached? She apparently has control of every computer-related thing in America so none of this would be very hard. There has got to be an easier way for an evil super computer to get the Defense Secretary into the White House. Instead she comes up with some bafflingly pointless scheme involving some sonic trumpet activated super gem bomb thing. Whatever. Oh and Rachel’s kid is going to be playing this trumpet. I guess national security requires ARIIA to kill a bunch of innocent school kids as well.  But yeah, Bill Bob dies, but Jerry saves the day by walking into the Capitol building during the State of the Union and firing a gun into the air. Couldn’t he have just yelled “Stop, there’s a bomb”? But it’s okay because it works, and, just like real life, the Secret Service agents decide that the safest thing to do is not to immediately shoot this crazy man who just ran into the State of the Union address firing a gun into the air, in the head. They shoot him in the shoulder. Oh and some other characters (Rosario Dawson and Anthony Mackie) shut ARIIA down by smashing it, I guess. Why didn’t anyone else think of that? The ending is the weakest part of the film. Jerry should have died. I thought he was dead. They did the close-up of him closing his eyes with the sombre music like he was dead. But he wasn’t dead. This is fine in something like Hot Fuzz, but in the context of this film it really doesn’t work.

But this is all over analysing. This isn’t that kind of movie. It’s the standard, glossy action-conspiracy fare with a few half-hearted themes, which rushes from set piece to set piece barely pausing to develop any characters. It’s packed with explosions, product placement (“They’re in a black Porsche Cayenne/A black Porsche Cayenne?/Yes a black Porsche Cayenne!”), shot-reverse-shot, close-ups, manic editing and so forth. It does what it’s supposed to do – keep you moderately entertained throughout – and does it competently. That’s probably the word I’d use to describe this: competent. It’s not a good movie but it didn’t overtly offend me with its stupidity while I was watching. I wasn’t really super bored at any point, and I didn’t want to kill myself. So I guess that’s a plus. This movie doesn’t deserve to be remembered, but at the same time I guess it’s not worse than being stabbed through the eye with a rusty fish slice.

And it doesn’t follow all the clichés. The main characters do not have sex during the film. Unless they did it in the scene where they were locked in a crate, which is possible.

2/5

Directed by D. J. Caruso; Written by John Glenn & Travis Adam Wright, Dan McDermott, Hilary Seitz; Produced by Steven Spielberg, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Pat Crowley and Ed McDonnell

The Lesser of Two Evils

September 7, 2012

Original airdate: February 20, 2000

Written by Eric Horsted; Directed by Chris Sauve

Two Benders? This is the kind of thing which could have gone horribly wrong. Instead it is utilized well, with double the brashness, double the jerkiness and double the mystery. Well, not ‘double’ the mystery, but that sentence would have sounded weird without it. Anyway, “The Lesser of Two Evils” is easily amongst the best Bender and Fry episodes.

During a visit to the horribly anachronistic “Past-O-Rama” theme park, Fry, Leela and Bender hijack a 20th Century car and accidentally crash into Flexo, a bending unit from the same template as Bender, and thus identical in every way (save for his stylish goatee). Fry instantly dislikes Flexo on the basis of his brash behaviour, numerous insults and life-endangering pranks and is suspicious of his motives. Seeing as this is behaviour is entirely in line with Bender’s, Fry’s suspicions seem to be born only out of envy that his best friend now has somebody new to hang out with. But Fry is adamant that Flexo is pure evil. Meanwhile, the Professor charges the crew with delivering a tiara topped with the extremely rare and valuable Jumbonium atom, which will be awarded to the winner of the Miss Universe contest, and which if stolen, will bankrupt Planet Express. As a result, Flexo is hired as additional security (“Flexo’s great and all…/Flexo’s great you say? Well that’s good enough for me.”) Fry decides to stay with Flexo throughout his shift in order to prevent him from stealing the atom (“Eight hours of solid boredom. Nah I’m kidding you’re a wonderful man.”) This works, but like all of Fry’s plans, has a fatal flaw: namely that Fry now has to complete his own eight hour shift as well. He of course promptly falls asleep and the atom is stolen. Fry blames Flexo, who has mysteriously disappeared. But Bender is also a suspect, and he has for some reason begun wearing a scarf, map and turtleneck… which obscures exactly where Flexo’s beard is… So what follows is a pretty good comedy-mystery, as we discover who stole the atom and which bending unit is which.  The Austin Powers-esque timing of the whole Bender’s lower face-obscuring-part really is brilliantly, frustratingly animated. It turns out to just be the writers screwing the audience, as it is actually just Bender, and he’s just wearing the various items for a “little thing called style”. Fry, Leela and Bender track Flexo down at the pageant, the two robots fight, and Flexo is apprehended. But, of course, it’s revealed that the true thief was actually Bender (“I can explain: it’s very valuable”) and Flexo was just going to report him. Is this the end of Bender? Of course not. Due to their identical appearance, Flexo gets arrested for the crime instead (“Oh yeah, that looks like him, whatever.”) Leela is mistakenly declared the pageant’s winner, before losing her crown to the amoeba, Miss Vega 4, leaving both her and Bender to rue their loss of the tiara.

So, another enjoyable, well-written and directed episode, with some good jokes and character bits for all three of the main characters. Leela’s feminism, Bender’s lust for wealth, and Fry’s well-meaning idiocy. Good stuff.

Trivia and Quotes

  • “Arachno Spores: The fatal spore, with the funny name”. And a fantastic COPS parody (“unblur your face!”)
  • All of the Past-O-Rama stuff is spot on, not just for how inaccurate it is (much like the Lunar Park in “The Series Has Landed”) but for the fact that Fry’s ‘corrections’ are essentially reflective only of the lifestyle of a homeless drunk. A load of gold, ranging from the nonsense (Cowboys, on speeders, with spears, “Time for the mammoth hunt dudes!”) to the far too accurate (“Leela, get a picture of me being ‘mugged'”) and more besides (Wall Street suicide/jetpacks and the “ancient and mysterious tablet” of a parking sign)
  • “I’ve gotta say, I’m really enjoying the day out with you people. Hahey, a suicide booth! So long suckers!”
  • The attention to detail in this show is outstanding: in the traffic of New York hologram, there are two old-timey cars, continuing the whole feel of the park’s total inaccuracy. “It all started with Gerald Ford’s famous invention: the auto-ma-car, which was powered by a tank of burning fossils.” Great infomercial voice from Maurice LaMarche there. Primitive robots. “No one in New York drove, there was too much traffic.”
  • Great hospital surgery/waiting/pacing/clock progression bit. “We did all we could/Huh! You mean he’s…?/Good as new, yes!” Flexo shares Bender’s in-your-face interface, so is thus as much of a brash, insult spewing jerk. (“That’s some face though, I think they got a cream for that. Nah you’re great.”) The whole “insult, nah you’re great” tactic works well in real life.
  • “I don’t like this place: It’s 120 degrees and there’s very little oxygen.” The only downside of a robot strip club. As well as the face-crushings.
  • “Everyone get in bed with me, I have something to show you” – this whole segment only works with someone as old, immodest and somewhat perverted as the Professor.
  • Love the latest chapter in Amy and Leela’s slight contempt for each other, this time over Amy’s childhood dream of being Miss Universe, which Leela doesn’t share. At least until the end when she’s mistakenly awarded the crown by a distracted Zapp, who couldn’t actually open the envelope.
  • Fry’s failed attempt to stop Flexo getting the shift before him: he fails at the alphabet, and is for some reason outranked by Flexo. This is a good episode for Fry as, for whatever reason, he is actually trying to do a good job for once. Shame he’s such an idiot. “He must have used a sleep-ray on me. Sleep rays exist in the future right?/No/Oh, then I must of fallen asleep.”
  • “Halt who goes there!/Don’t point that at me/Fry who?” Also, much love for Bender’s very literal keeping an eye on the safe.
  • “Did you hear maracas?/No/Then it wasn’t space banditos.”
  • And this is of course the origin of the famous Fry “Not sure if” meme, with the shot of Fry squinting his eyes at Bender’s lower-face covering map and turtleneck (“And leave me high and dry in case of a scavenger hunt? I think not.”) But it’s just the image, because Fry doesn’t actually say anything similar at any point in the episode.

  • The pageant entrants are all great, but particular praise for Miss Unnamed Planet and the bodiless entity that is Miss Heaven. And it’s great to see Trisol’s favourite alternative comedian Florp on the judging panel alongside Calculon and Zapp.
  • Love the angry and exasperated Bob Barker (“Okay, let’s put an end to this pathetic hoedown”). Good guest voice usage.
  • “You mean Bender is the evil Bender? I am shocked, shocked! Well, not that shocked/I’m sorry we suspected you Flexo. It’s just, what with the beard and all.” The total dismissal of Fry mourning the death of his understanding of morality due to this incident is classic Futurama ambivalence.
  • “There it is, Miss Universe. There it is, looking weird.”
  • And we end with one of the show’s most brilliant jokes of all: “Well, you guys might both be losers, but I just made out with that radiator women from the radiator planet./Fry, that’s a radiator./Oh, ahem, is there a burn ward within ten feet of here?” I mean, could anything possibly capture Fry’s pathetic nature more than this? I love his pride at this ‘conquest’ but most of all I love that he doesn’t feel the need to enquire about the emergency burn ward until after he discovers he just shagged a literally hot inanimate object. He was so proud, so he failed to notice the immense pain until he realized how much of an idiot he’d been.

Why Must I Be a Crustacean in Love?

August 30, 2012

Note: Due to the disc issues I didn’t actually capture this myself, but took it from here. But it’s basically what I would have chosen.

Original airdate: February 6, 2000

Written by Eric Kaplan; Directed by Brian Sheesley

So after finally getting some good Zoidberg in the previous episode, in “Why Must I Be a Crustacean in Love?” we finally – 18 episodes into the series – get a Zoidberg centric. Seeing as we know virtually nothing about the good lobster, it’s nice to flesh his character out a bit. This is achieved by once again paying homage to the king of sci-fi TV that is Star Trek, with this ridiculous parody of the classic Trek episode “Amok Time” (a.k.a. the one where Spock has to mate and he has to fight Kirk with the things). This episode doesn’t really enhance Zoidberg’s character in a massive way, but it provides an extended look at him, with a greater focus than his usual one-line weirdness. Now we get to see that his weird rituals and behaviour are entirely common to that of the rest of his species.

It’s another well-plotted character story. Zoidberg is incredibly frisky and runs amok during a trip to the gym. It must be mating time, so he – and Fry, Leela and Bender – journey back to his home planet Decapod 10, in order to fertilize a female Decapodian’s clutch of eggs with his male jelly. However, it seems that while his appearance and behaviour are matched by his peers, being a failed doctor and pitiful loser on Earth also makes you a pitiful loser on Decapod 10, as Zoidberg fails to attract a mate. This is despite performing exactly the same absurd mating ritual as every other male (“I’ve heard that line before”). Decapodian women can presumably smell failure (“I’m sorry Zoidberg, you’re just an inferior male specimen”). It’s up to Fry to win him a mate, which given his own successes with women is surely going to only end one way. Fry tells Zoidberg about love and romance – alien concepts for the Decapodians, who care only for simply reproducing. He teaches a hilariously baffled Zoidberg the human way to woo, focusing on disingenuous feelings and compliments rather than direct desire to mate. Zoidberg’s attempt at this proves surprisingly successful, as his persuades Edna – apparently the most desirable female with the largest clutch of eggs – to go on a date with him. This goes well and Zoidberg does fall in love with her. But then Edna accidentally falls in love with Fry. Despite Fry having no interest in her, Zoidberg invokes Claw-Plach, the Decapodian tradition of fighting to the death over pointless issues. As the Decapodian ruler puts it – in a line which sums up the humour of the episode – “once invoked, the sacred tradition of Claw-Plach cannot be taken back. It is a recent tradition, only 18 years old, but it is a tradition nonetheless.” Claw-Plach is as insane as to be expected, with the usually docile Zoidberg now maniacal and fighting a giant nutcracker wielding Fry, who is once again thrust into a situation of utter incomprehensibility. It’s a great comedy fight which Fry is about to win before dropping his weapon to give a heartfelt speech about why he doesn’t want to kill his friend. Zoidberg takes this opportunity to cut Fry’s arm off, leading Fry to reverse his decision. But before either can actually kill the other, they realize everyone else has already gone to the mating frenzy, with Edna picking the leader as her mate. So Zoidberg gets no action, but on the plus side, he remains alive, as Decapodian reproduction results in death.

It’s an odd episode, which is to be expected for such an odd creature as Zoidberg. It’s nice to see another alien culture and there are a lot of great jokes here. And once again the crew don’t actually do any work. This really adds to the overall brilliance of the show, explaining the crummy failure that is Planet Express.

Trivia and Quotes

  • The episode starts almost exactly the same way as “When Aliens Attack” does, with an ultra-lazy Fry and Bender sitting watching TV, exploiting the Year 3000’s many new avenues of laziness (“What is this the Middle Ages?”) and Amy and Leela coming in and telling them to get up and go somewhere with physical activity. “No offense Fry, but you’ve become a fat sack of crap./Sack?!” In this case it’s the gym, which leads to some good little gags: Windowless rooms for ugly exercisers, the co-ed steam room bit, “Somebody must have turned down the gravity”. But the star here is the randy, head-fined Zoidberg, busting some serious weights and then terrorising the mothers-to-be in the Pregnercise pool. His maniacal facial expressions are very well drawn. “Is there a doctor in the gym?/I’m a doctor!”
  • “I wonder why Dr. Zoidberg is acting this way? Out of all of us, he always seemed the most normal.”
  • Yay for more irrational Hermes’ Zoidberg hatred: “Maybe it’s a parasite?/Maybe he is a parasite.” And yay for ditzy Amy continually releasing Zoidberg. (“Moron!”) And triple yay for Bender looking forward to cooking Zoidberg, fin rot and the Professor’s friendship with his doctor.
  • “You didn’t have to call attention to his speech impediment” is such a great little joke. Take that alien language.
  • Like the Vulcans, the Decapodians have no love. Not because they have no emotions, but because they literally have no concept of ‘love’ and all they care for is species reproduction, after which they die. Also, Claw-Plach is fought over matters of honour, and whether abbreviations count in Scrabble. And the mating ritual looks like an Arrested Development chicken impression.
  • I love the beautiful shot of Zoidberg against the sunset, capturing his lonely failure. Emotion alert. Also wonderfully drawn is the shot of Fry realizing in horror that he has a choice between death and being forced to mate with a fish. He’s pretty popular with sea-life isn’t he? And a third animation point for the excellent 360 degrees shot of Fry and Zoidberg strangling each other. Lovely stuff from Brian Sheesley.
  • Fry’s love class is great, destroying Leela’s self-esteem and “It’s all so complicated, with the flowers and the romance and the lies upon lies!” And the whole “Now ask her how her day was/Why would I want to know?/You wouldn’t, ask anyway” exchange is a perfect analysis of the pointlessness of lame socially required small talk. “Well, first I got up and had a piece of toast. Then I brushed my teeth. Then I went to the store to buy some fish…/Fry, look what you did! She won’t shut up/That’s normal. Just nod your head and say ‘uh huh’.”
  • “I’m confused Fry, I feel a strange, new emotion. Is it love when you care about a female for reasons beyond mating?/Nope, must be some weird alien emotion.”
  • The Decapod 10 national anthem being the “Amok Time” underscore is utterly brilliant – just to drive home the absurdity of what’s about to happen, the mix of seemingly ordered, civilized people with fights to the death.
  • Having prepared to cook Zoidberg earlier, Bender now is of course taking bets on his two friends’ fight to the death, and of course hoping his best friend dies so he can make some money. If this isn’t Bender I don’t know what is. Same with him being offended by the process of human reproduction. Although, him telling Fry to lose makes no sense. Surely everyone bet on Zoidberg, so Bender would want Fry to win so he won’t have to pay-out?
  • “Far be it from me to question your stupid civilization and dumb customs, but is squeezing each others’ brains out with a giant nutcracker really gonna solve anything?”
  • And we end with Zoidberg revelling in the new emotions he’s experienced: love, jealousy and the passion for disembowelling. Before proving once again just how competent a doctor he is by detaching more limbs from Fry than he was meant to reattach.

Intermission of long-outdated content: An interview with Bill Oakley

August 22, 2012

Well my disc-drive is being an insufferable bitch. For the past few days it has refused to read Futurama Season 2 Disc 1. It reads other discs fine. And said disc works fine on my DVD players. So who knows what it’s doing.

Anyway, to make up for this shameful failure, here’s something which proves my laziness knows no bounds. This is an interview I (and Brian McClure from NoHomers) conducted with Bill Oakley, the co-showrunner of seasons 7 and 8 of The Simpsons and former Futurama consultant among many other jobs. This was conducted for the purposes of filling in the gaps for Bill’s Wikipedia page, hence some of the more asinine questions like ‘when were you born?’ and ‘what are your children’s names?’ Probably the most interesting things Bill revealed… are not going to be published here, because I don’t want to get him into trouble. But there’s still some good stuff here. Why does this show my laziness? Well this interview took place on IRC almost two years ago… and I’m only finally getting around to publishing the full thing now.* I got it run – in very, very shortened form – in my student paper last year, but this is the full (censored) thing. As I can’t use this blog for its intended purpose at this point, I’ll at least post something mildly interesting. Enjoy.

*This is why there is nothing here about Portlandia, The Cleveland Show or any of his more recent work.

  • Gran2: This is a terrible opening question, but, as birthdates are the most annoying thing to reliably source, were you born February 27, 1966?
  • Oakley: Yes
  • Gran2: Can you tell us about your early life, where were you born, and what were some of your early influences?
  • Oakley: I was born in Westminster, Maryland and grew up in Union Bridge MD. I moved to DC when I was 10. My biggest early influence was MAD magazine. My brother went to college and left about 100 issues in the attic.  I read them all over and over. Later, my influences were National Lampoon, SNL and especially SCTV, in high school. [And Monty Python], but it was hard to find back then, only on PBS late at night. I did see Holy Grail when I was little and I thought it was really scary! I did have every single MP record album though.
  • Gran2: You’ve been writing comedy since high school, is that correct? With The Alban Antic?
  • Oakley: Yes, I was primarily a cartoonist in those days, but I started the Antic and Josh was co-founder. We were brought together in the ninth grade by a shared love of comedy in what was a pretty stiff environment.
  • Gran2: Ah yes, I remembering reading something about the principal there and his view of comedy, could you tell us about that?
  • Oakley: We were not on the same wavelength. The original name of the magazine was “Happy Hour” but he did not approve of the drinking connotation so we chose the (in my mind) inferior name the Alban Antic. I have to say he was actually fairly supportive of the magazine but he wasn’t a comedy lover in general. It was a very proper school with little room for dissent.
  • Gran2: You, like many people who later wrote for The Simpsons, went to Harvard and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. What was that like and how do you think it helped shape The Simpsons?
  • Oakley: As I’m sure you know, no Lampoon people actually “created” the Simpsons. But in assembling the original staff Sam Simon did end up hiring several and I think it just built upon itself, in that Lampoon people from similar eras tend to have fairly similar comedic tastes. So that during Seasons 5-8, there was usually a very large percentage of Lampoon people (10 of 12 in our years, I think). The Harvard Lampoon magazine is very rarely good or funny but it provides the members/editors a forum for non-stop practice and improvement of their comedy-writing skills so that by the time they graduate from college, it’s as if they have the experience and skills of someone who has been a pro for four years. My classmates on the Lampoon that year included Paul Simms, David X Cohen, Steve Tompkins and also on the staff during the time I was there were Conan O’Brien, Rich Appel, Dan McGrath, Lauren MacMullen, Dan Greaney and Steve Young. I was Vice President, David Cohen was President that year, I was VP, and Paul Simms was second VP. I’m now a Trustee of the Lampoon.
  • Gran2: What did you study at Harvard?
  • Oakley: US History, but although I graduated Cum Laude, academics were not my focus. I spent almost every waking hour in the Lampoon building, working on the magazine, our pranks, etc. You may have heard that Jeff Zucker (just-fired chairman of NBC) had Conan arrested in college and also tried to have me and Dan Greaney kicked out of college after we printed his dorm phone number in a fake “Phone Sex” ad.
  • Gran2: After Harvard, how did you get into writing, it seems like a fast progression for a lot of people, was that the case for you?
  • Oakley: It only seems fast because I usually leave out the unemployment parts! First I went home to DC and I got a job writing promos at “America’s Most Wanted” which was the only non-news network TV show in DC. Anyway, it was actually almost four years of small jobs on failed projects and a lot of unemployment until we finally got that big break where Mike & Al assigned us “Marge Gets a Job”.
  • Gran2: And after that you ended up joining the staff full time, after turning down an offer from Diane English to work on a show with her?
  • Oakley: Yes, on her show “Love & War”. It was a great offer and she was a great person but we were just more “Simpsons” types than romantic comedy types.
  • Gran2: What was it like arriving on The Simpsons as big fans of the show beforehand?
  • Oakley: It was incredible. And very intimidating. We were so ignorant of the whole process that we thought as “Story Editors” we would actually be editing stories written by the others. We were thrown into a room with 8 of the best comedy writers who ever lived and for those first few weeks I wrote down everything I said that actually got used. It was a very short list.We were there every day with the original staff from May 1992 until most of them departed in October 1992. Then it was Conan, us, and Dan McGrath — alone, running the show for about six weeks until Mirkin showed up.
  • Gran2: You and Josh wrote some of the best episodes in the shows history [LIST], could you talk us through the production of the episodes you wrote, from your perspective?
  • Oakley: Sure. I am referring to seasons 4-8 here. Twice a year we would have a story retreat, one day in hotel, where everybody would present their story ideas. Josh and I usually had three or so ideas. Everybody including Matt and Jim would chime in and add their thoughts, then the showrunner would pick which ones we were going to do in what order. We would spend a day with the whole staff “pitching out” the story: going through the story, working out the plot points, everybody adding thoughts and jokes, then we would go off for two weeks and write an outline, usually about 30 pages single-spaced, and turn it in. The showrunner would give notes and revisions and then you would have two weeks to write a script, then the staff would go over it and cut and rewrite and so forth, in the room, led by the showrunner. Sometimes there were massive painful rewrites that would last more than a week, sometimes if it was a great first draft it would take two hours and the script would go to the Table read virtually unchanged then there was another usually pretty small rewrite and it would go to the stage for the actors to record on Monday morning.
  • Gran2: Out of interest, you wrote $pringfield, did you pitch it as well? You posted the original draft on Twitter.
  • Oakley: Yes, we pitched $pringfield at our first retreat, the very last retreat ever lead by Sam Simon.
  • Gran2: The first draft of $pringfield, it’s amazing to see both: classic stuff that isn’t there and also the classic stuff that is, right from the first draft.
  • Oakley: Yes, our first drafts were usually 62 pages long, that was the max allowed before you would get in trouble, but for the table reading they always had to be cut down to about 47.
  • Gran2: I was going to say, it seemed a lot longer than the actual episode, especially the first act with the extra story elements about the economic crisis.
  • Oakley: Plus that inane “Planet Hollywood” thing we were forced to cram in
  • Gran2: Let’s talk about probably your most famous episode, Who Shot Mr Burns? I read you originally wanted Barney as the shooter.
  • Oakley: Yes, here is the story of how that happened: Matt came into our office a week or so before the story retreat and was just musing and he said we should do some stunt like “Who Shot Mr Burns” or something and Josh and I thought was a great idea. We pitched it with just the broadest strokes we hoped it would be an actual mystery and one character would actually be the shooter and be sent to prison. We wanted Barney as it seemed like his drunk jokes were running dry, plus he’s a desperate sort. At the story retreat James L. Brooks pitched that it be Maggie as a joke. We were not crazy about this but the retreat ended and we all left. A few weeks later it came time to pitch the story with the writers in the room prior to writing the outline, we were still not happy about having it be a “joke” shooter, but David Mirkin suggested that perhaps Maggie could “dart her eyes” at the end, thus suggesting that it was all intentional. We thought that was a good compromise and wrote it that way
  • Gran2: You and Josh took over running the show in Seasons 7 and 8. They contain some of the show’s most memorable episodes (“Two Bad Neighbors”, “Homer’s Enemy etc.). A lot of the episodes were what you have termed experiments and expanded the characters backstories etc. Was this something you were especially interested in or did you even think the show would end soon, so wanted to flesh out the mythology as it were?
  • Oakley: We were NOT doing that because we thought the show would end soon although I don’t think anybody at the time thought it would continue past another season or so. We came to the showrunning job with a specific plan: To do “classic”-style family episodes, plus one Itchy& Scratchy and one Sideshow Bob per year, plus at least one “format-bending” episode a la “22 Short Films About Springfield”. I think we did those backstory episodes because we were genuinely interested in what made those characters tick and wanted to flesh them out a bit, plus we did not want to repeat ourselves so we had to start looking outside the family for some of the episodes.
  • Gran2: “The Principal and the Pauper” [where it is revealed Principal Skinner is an imposter] proved to be probably the only negatively received episode of your era. Having listened to [writer] Ken Keeler’s explanation on the DVD, I understand the episode’s premise as an experiment in TV, and I never hated it anyway.
  • Oakley: Good, I think the commentary is pretty much the end-all be-all on that topic.
  • Gran2: With, hindsight, do you think you would have changed the episode in anyway to make it clearer? Perhaps a “Springfield Files” like narration?
  • Oakley: I certainly never thought anybody would hate it. Again, it was drawn from a real-life story that Ken found and “Return of Martin Guerre”. I’m not sure clarity was the problem.  I think it was pretty clear what happened. I think people reacted much more violently to the tampering-with-backstory thing than anyone expected they would.
  • Gran2: Out of interest, who gets the Emmy when you win for Outstanding Animated program? Do they make one for everybody?
  • Oakley: Everyone who is listed as “Producer” or above on the credits as well as writer and director (in general). But it’s not an exact science. Lots of people who had nothing to do with it get one, and people who were instrumental to it get nothing sometimes.
  • Gran2: You and Josh left the show to create Mission Hill, was there anything you learnt from the Simpsons that aided that (or left you unprepared?)
  • Oakley: We were aided by the fact that we really knew how to write and produce and execute an animated show and bring it in on time and hire the right people to act in and animate it. What we were NOT prepared for — and what few people who leave the world of the Simpsons are prepared for — are the harsh realities of working with a studio and network and having to deal with dozens and dozens of executive of every stripe second-guessing you. Although the creative execs at the now-defunct WB were mostly great and nothing short of encouraging, I think the network never really committed to promoting the show and, really, why should they?  It was clearly on the wrong network on at the wrong time. I think the WB just hoped that the sheer fact that an animated series by us was on, that it would draw 10 million viewers to a night they had never programmed in a doomed time slot — and no show could deliver that. It was destined for Adult Swim from the moment it was invented, a much better home for it anyway.
  • Gran2: The Simpsons is a largely collaborative show, and an episode credited to you might actually contain little material pitched by you. Are there any jokes you wrote or pitched that have been well-received by fans?
  • Oakley: The most well-received thing I have ever written entirely by myself was “Skinner & the Superintendent” from 22 Short Films. I was just looking through the first draft and aside from some trims, what went on the air was what I turned in. Also in the broader sense, the 3D Halloween segment was my notion although David Cohen wrote it and it was my idea for Homer to have an enemy who was a stiff although it went through a lot of work by other before becoming Frank Grimes.
  • Gran2: I will say that the Skinner and Chalmers scene from 22 Short Films is my single favourite scene in the show’s history.
  • Oakley: That’s pretty sweet to hear.
  • McClure: Did you pitch any jokes that you’re particularly proud of?
  • Oakley: I don’t know if they’re anyone’s favorites (aside from “Skinner & the Superintendent”) but I loved to make up Troy McClure moves and I pitched “The Boat-Jacking of SuperShip ’79” and “They Came to Burgle Carnegie Hall”, I feel like I have a lot of jokes in the George Bush show and the 300 lb Homer show but I cannot remember the specifics, I am more of a character comedy person than a gag man.
  • Gran2: Do you think Phil Hartman would have succeeded in making a live-action Troy movie had he not died?
  • Oakley: It would’ve been tough as it would have been, by necessity, a parody of crummy movies and since most of the movie-going audience is rather thick, intentional parodies of that nature have not done well historically. Thus, getting some studio to finance that sort of thing would’ve been tough but I bet it would have been the funniest script of all time.
  • McClure: I was actually surprised to learn that there was a pilot written for a live-action Krusty the Clown TV show, did you have any knowledge of that? Do you think it could have worked?
  • Oakley: It was being written and developed right when we started in late Season Three. It was supposed to star Dan Castellaneta as Krusty and I think that Krusty had moved to LA, maybe? It was written by Michael Weithorn and we talked about it briefly when (for a very short period) we worked together on Sit Down, Shut Up. I imagine it was one of those intentionally-crummy things like Police Squad that tend to get cult followings but sail right over the heads of most people but I never read the script so I don’t really know.
  • McClure: Do you know if any other spin-offs made it into script form?
  • Oakley: Not to my knowledge, but Josh and I did have several meetings with Matt about creating and launching a “Springfield Stories” spinoff, but it hit a dead end with Jim Brooks.
  • Gran2: After Mission Hill, you and Josh worked on Futurama?
  • Oakley: We worked on Season Three of Futurama.  Its air schedule was varied but we worked there during most of the year 2000. We “consulted” on the show, helping with rewrites and story pitches. The episode we were most involved in was “Roswell That Ends Well”, which won an Emmy but because we were “Consulting Producers” and that was below the Emmy cutoff, we did not receive one that year.
  • Gran2: Just to clarify that you are married to Rachel Pulido and you have three (not two) children: James, Mary and Elizabeth?
  • Oakley: Correct
  • Gran2: And, finally, what future projects are you working? Is there any chance we will get to see them?
  • Oakley: Here’s the deal, for every movie that gets to the theaters, there are thousands that never get made. TV is similar. Josh and I have made a lot of terrific television over the past few years which nobody saw except execs in screening rooms, but I can’t complain, it’s fun and a good living. Working separately now, I still do that. I have four projects in various stages at various places, but no idea which, if any, may make it to air. The project I am most excited about and the one that seems to have the most potential is “Robot Lab”. I am working with the team behind “Yo Gabba Gabba” who I think are today’s Jim Henson’s and we are creating a live-action show where all the main characters are actual, working (or semi-working) robots ala Star Wars robots.  Except this show takes place today in the real world, and it’s a comedy. The writing is in the same vein as the Simpsons in that it’ll be sophisticated, satirical, and adult — but kids will also love it as well just by the show’s nature. [We pitched it the networks] and I am thinking this is more of a cable show.

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