Literary Corner

The Trash Culture Literary Corner: Worlds of Power: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest: Chapter 3-4

Honestly I do feel vaguely guilty riffing on this.  Once upon a time, I was commissioned to write a promotional comic book for children (don’t bother looking for it, dammit!) and the end result probably did bring shame to my ancestors.  But it is hard to do, especially when you’re chained down by a dozen editorial mandates and no one, especially not you, has any illusions that artistic merit has got anything to do with it.  It especially couldn’t have been easy given that the subject matter is Castlevania;  even the shallow, 8-bit video game isn’t all that far removed from its many horror inspirations.

On the other hand…

“Look – anyway, this is a joke, right?  Everyone has ganged up on me ’cause they know I’m an ace Castlevania player and I’m being persecuted for my hobby.”

There is the matter of Tim.  By the way, for all his bragging, I bet he couldn’t get through Stage 17 in the original on one life.

Anyway, when last we left our “ace Castlevania player,” he was confronted by a bondage-geared man in the boys’ bathroom of his school, claiming to be a character from his video game.  Rather than seeking help or saying his prayers, Tim stops to listen to him.

Here was Simon Belmont, the Hero of Castlevania, standing before him, square jaw jutting earnestly, broad chest heaving with purpose.  Yes, this was Simon all right.  Tim even noticed now that gripped feverishly in Simon’s fist was a whip.

To his credit, Tim is a bit skeptical, until Simon shows that he can answer one of Tim’s questions:  the name of Simon’s girlfriend, Linda Entwhistle.  Only she doesn’t exist anywhere in the actual game series, and even so it’s the sort of trivia a child murderer would be able to learn, even in the Dark Age of P.G. (PreGoogle).

Oh well, I guess Tim is just grateful it’s obviously not this Simon Belmont.

simonbelmont

Anyway, once the matter of credentials is settled, Simon has Tim touch his whip, which magically teleports them both back to his bedroom…okay, seriously, how is this not a really disturbing allegory?

Stepping away from that disturbing line of thought, there is something else about this set-up that I find troubling.  Simon Belmont is apparently aware that he’s a video game character.  There’s none of that “Your video game/novel/comic creators were  inspired by what they thought was their imagination, but really they were tapping into my world” kind of thing that you see in these kinds of affairs.  Simon even hails Tim as “the best Castlevania player in this dimension.”  Like Princess Toadstool and her lack of concern that her entire universe is not the “real world,” Simon seems unperturbed that his entire artificial existence is endlessly manipulated for the entertainment through countless unseen hands.  (And in case you think I’m not the only person who thought of this, it’s the kind of question that’s part of the premise of this fan sequel to Captain N where a cosmic horror is slowly wiping out Videoland by simply showing its denizens the truth of their existence.  It’s…rather brilliant, actually. )

Anyway, the book is (loosely…very, very, very loosely) based on the plot of Castlevania II.  Simon tells Tim that Dracula was killed and his body divided into five parts (wait, the author can’t talk about bloodsucking but he can make slicing up a corpse a plot point?), but a curse Dracula placed on Simon remains in effect.  The greatest departure from the game’s premise is that the curse doesn’t mean Simon is in danger of dying young and that he’s constantly harassed by zombies at night (while the player themselves are damned to read “What A Horrible Night To Have A Curse” over and over again);  instead Simon is slowly being possessed by Dracula.  Plus, Dracula’s got his girl.  

I knew something was wrong when my beautiful Linda, whom Dracula had captured, did not come back to me!

I know this is a book for children, but I think even kids, unless they’ve been raised on nothing but Sesame Street, would assume that Simon’s “beautiful Linda” is deader than a necrophiliac’s dream date.

Anyway, over the course of the explanation, Simon takes Tim to Casltevania, which “looked like a cluster of medieval towns, but drawn by a madman in a depression…”, which is about as much of a description as we get.  We don’t even have an idea of where Tim and Simon are standing once they enter the fantasy world that was supposed to be the entire point of this book.  Luckily, here Dracula does what many a video game villain should do and tries to take care of the problem before said problem can gain levels or find special weapons or whathaveyou:

…Simon Belmont was no longer totally Simon Belmont.  “Greetings, mortal!”  said the voice of Count Dracula.  “Come to Castlevania for an early and unpleasant death, I take it?”

Admittedly, I did get a kick out of imagining Christopher Lee forcing out that line.

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Uncategorized

The Trash Culture Literary Corner: Worlds of Power: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest: Prelude: Revenge of the Colons

It’s come to my attention that certain people have called into question the scientific rigor of this blog, and in fact the entire field of “trash culture studies,” so to deal with the ever persistent issue of genre elitism I’ve turned away from comics and video games toward the world of literature.  Thus on today’s docket we have…

Except for “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, I can’t think of any trash culture reading materials that were more ubiquitous among my generation.  The “Worlds of Power” books were designed by Seth “F.X. Nine” Godin and his shadowy legion of ghostwriters for one reason:  to make money, obviously, but also I think they were a sincere attempt to get young gamers into reading.  Honestly, at the time, it wasn’t a bad idea.  Nowadays, no matter what the snobs say, video games have for the most part come into their own as a storytelling medium.  It’s arguably futile to translate something like Final Fantasy VII or Silent Hill 3 into literature, since games like those are able to convey narratives on their own and those narratives are intertwined with, say, the dread that comes from exploring the “Otherworld” or the sense of determination the player might feel in facing Sephiroth after hours of seeing Cloud tortured in nearly every possible sense by the villain.

In the case of Castlevania II and most of the other console games around when the “Worlds of Power” books were published, they were still largely blank slates.  Not counting the occasionally epic sagas you might find in a game’s instruction manual, what stories games of that time had were pretty much just excuses to get you from point A to point B.  Granted Castlevania II did have one of the more interesting, if not bizarre, premises out there.  See, you play Simon Belmont, fresh off slaying Dracula in the original Castlevania.  Unfortunately, Dracula managed to curse Simon, condemning him to an early (and presumably unpleasant) death and to be hounded by zombies every night.  The only way to save himself is to collect the remaining body parts of Dracula, use them in the ruins of his own castle to resurrect him, and destroy him once again.  Even as a kid, the plot kind of bothered me, since it basically meant that Simon was willing to risk unleashing Dracula and his undead hordes upon the world yet again just to save his own ass.  On reflection, though, that did give even the vague plot a kind of edginess, a gray hue, that was lacking in the era.  Undoubtedly Castlevania II is the least popular of the three Castlevania games released on the NES (even Konami agreed, if the fact that they ditched Castlevania II’s adventure game elements – keeping them ditched until the Playstation era – and went back to the original recipe for III is any indication), but because of its premise alone it’s probably also the ripest for an ambitious, ground-up remake (of course you can always count on hardcore fans with way too much time on their hands to pick up where the actual copyright holders have dropped the ball).

All this to say, I know that the Worlds of Power books are written for a middle school audience, and even then they are to The Hunger Games what ibuprofen is to crack (or is that the other way around?).  But of course a really young target audience and being a franchise cash-in might mean the odds are a billion to one that it would be any kind of a classic, but it could still be good or at the very least a little fun.  After all, Castlevania is one of the classic video game concepts, and like I wrote above Castlevania II has one of the most interesting premises of the 8-bit era, so it would actually take more effort to screw things up than write a halfway decent story, especially since the actual games’ creators have already done all the heavy lifting for the writer.  It’s not even like the ghostwriter would have to do that much research, so…!

“I will drink your spirit like cherry pop!” said the count, flapping his cape and showing his fangs.  “Yes, Simon Belmont!  You will become one of my children of the night!”

…Dammit.

 

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The Forsaken

The Forsaken: The Edge

Out of all the performers and artists out there whose careers stalled badly after a certain point or who never seemed to get as large of a following as they deserve, Julie Brown (not to be confused with “Downtown” Julie Brown) has always been at the top of my list.

Sure, maybe her shtick had an expiration date on it, since it initially depended a lot on the ’80s’ own nostalgia craze for the ’50s and on mocking the late ’80s/early ’90s phenomenon of the “rock bimbo,” but even in her heyday she didn’t seem to get the credit she deserved.  Although we’re now pretty much in a post-Madonna world (sorry, older gay readers, but deep in your hearts you know it’s true), Medusa: Dare to be Truthful is still one of the greatest works of pop culture satire ever, if just for the song “Party in my Pants.”   Since then, sadly, her career has been marked by projects that did not make as much of a mark as her first big show, Just Say Julie!  That includes the 1993-1994 sketch comedy, The Edge.

Even more than Julie Brown spearheading the show, “The Edge” is known for being full of soon-to-bes. The show’s initial producer David Mirkin was between producing cult hit Get a Life and his historic run as the showrunner for The Simpsons, Wayne Knight was about to get a career boost from playing Jerry Seinfeld’s eternal nemesis NewmanTom Kenney would go on to be the voice of Spongebob Squarepants, and, well…

Yes, the star of Leprechaun!

Besides its notable future star cast, The Edge had other ways to set it about from the ur-American sketch comedy, Saturday Night Live,  like the fact that every episode began with the entire cast being killed.  Over the course of the show’s run, the cast had been set on fire, sucked into a vortex to Hell, shot with arrows, shot with a gun, and of course, decapitation:

But even with making a recurring gag out of the brutal homicide of the entire cast, was The Edge really edgey?  Yes and no.  Like most FOX offerings of the early ’90s, The Edge was, even more than SNL, ready and willing to not only seize the lowest common denominator, but do so with pride and aplomb;  a kind of meta-sleaze, if you will.  Also The Edge is generally faster paced with more overlap between its skits, which gives it a fundamentally different feel from SNL.  Yet it just didn’t go the lengths of David Mirkin’s cult hit Get a Life or later skit comedies like The State and Mr. Show.

 You do get pretty dark skits like the “Armed family,” featuring a family encouraged by their patriarch to gun down anyone that looks at them crosseyed, including a car full of teenagers who try to pass them.

But like with too many attempts at “morbid” humor the “morbid” element becomes the entire joke.  The other kind of skits that fall flat are the ones that are a little too SNL-like and come across as one of 30 Rock‘s parodies of comedy skits, like Cracklin’ Crotch, the cowboy with…a cracklin’ crotch!

It’s a cliche to say that a sketch comedy is a mixed bag, but it’s a cliche for a reason, and The Edge is…a mixed bag, so there’s good to be had as well.  A recurring skit has Julie Brown and Jennifer Aniston play a couple of rock groupies (for a very thinly disguised Guns N’ Roses) and it’s funnier than you’d think what is essentially a series of “dumb bimbo” jokes would be.  Then there’s a parody of “heartwarming” made-for-TV movies with Kevin Nealon portraying a man who received an ass-transplant from a baboon.

Another episode has a fast series of clips titled “People Not Connected 2 Reality”, with a nerdy pizza guy calling Madonna and Claudia Scheffer for dates and a New Jersey yuppie trying to bribe an IRS agent with a $20 bill.  My personal favorite, though, is their special sweeps episode, where morally outraged newscasters show the very lingering shots of half-naked women that they decry, all while being watched by three housewives who nervously chow down on phallic fruits and vegetables as they plot counting T&A shots from Basic Instinct.

When The Edge gets it right, it really gets it right, but the show is uneven even by sketch comedy standards.  Nonetheless, it’s worth watching for fans of Julie Brown or David Mirkin’s work on Get a Life and The Simpsons.  As far as I know there aren’t any fan-made DVDs circulating (emphasis on as far as I know), but there are some full episodes posted on YouTube, just not all 18 episodes from the show’s one and only season.  What is out there, though, is definitely worth sampling.

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Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 8: One Winged Angel

I honestly can’t say if Final Fantasy VII is as divisive as it used to be, but like I said last time back in the day you were either pro-VI or pro-VII.  And I was so vehemently, fanatically pro-VI that I’m ashamed to admit that I actually refused to acknowledge VII.  It was years before I actually played it, and even longer before I actually completed it.  In a lot of ways, VII truly is in many ways the literal and spiritual sequel of VI, despite all the differences on the surface.  Both toy with if not flat-out deconstruct Japanese RPG tropes;  both make full use of their non-traditional (or more exactlynon-medieval) backgrounds; and they both push a series already known for its emphasis on plot even further.

From the very start, VII already breaks the mold.  You start the game not as a member of a group like the “Light Warriors” or as a lovable rogue like Locke from VI, but as a mercenary working for a terrorist group the game explicitly tells you is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people.  VII’s hero, Cloud, tends to get remembered as a brooding, mopey protagonist, but that’s not the whole story.  What then looks like it’s become a straightforward story of misfits – two terrorists, a bartender, the remnant of an ancient civilization “disguised” as a flower girl in the slums, a sentient lion-like being, and (possibly) an amateur ninja/thief and a gunslinging vampire-like entity – against a powerful, sinister corporation slowly killing a planet in a short-sighted quest for greed subtly becomes something else:  a  tale about identity, memory, and the fight against a tragic villain and a truly incomprehensible, Lovecraftian threat.  It takes Final Fantasy to the next level of storytelling the same time it took the series to the next level of technology.

Of course, even people who praise the game do admit that it started trends that would lead to the downfall of the series, leading to a real divide between the “pre-VII” and “post-VII” fans.  It taught Square the wrong lessons, leading the Final Fantasy games to emphasize cinematics over art and to cling to contemporary and sci-fi aesthetics rather than experiment with worldbuilding further, and unleashed the anime and cosplay hordes upon the franchise, although arguably that invasion wasn’t really launched until VIII came along.

Still, you can’t blame VII like I childishly and stupidly did, and VII definitely isn’t responsible for one of the problems that emerge later:  over-experimental and overcooked gameplay.   Instead VII‘s gameplay is beautiful simplicity.  The characters do lose a lot of the “gameplay individuality” the characters in VI has, but with the materia granted characters spells and abilities there is a certain degree of strategy to the character building, which doesn’t need to be learned inside or out just to do well.

So in the end I’ll have to conclude that both VI and VII are the golden age of the franchise.  However, the fall did come quickly…

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Spiritual Warfare, Video Games

Spiritual Warfare Part 5: Bananas Are the Ultimate Weapon

First, a confession:  I cheated a little.

Maybe cheated isn’t the right word, but I did break my own promise to myself that I’d come at this game raw.  I ended up looking at a walkthrough on GameFAQ, to spare myself the horror of trying to find another key.  Luckily, I found out that, in a rare instance of the lazy programming working in my favor, the keys respawn after a fairly short period.  This is a bigger deal than you realize, for reasons I’ll get into below.

For now, though, I want to address something mentioned by Adam, author of the walkthrough, when he said he went ahead and wrote the walkthrough (which to date is the only one on GameFAQs) because he thought Spiritual Warfare was a pretty good game, if only because the – to put it kindly – source material is so good.

I can’t really agree.  After all, here’s a game where the programming is so obviously flawed there’s no rhyme or reason to the way enemies drop items, where characters bleed into the backgrounds like they’re transparent ghosts, and there’s more than a couple of areas where the only way to progress is to suck it up and take damage.  On the other hand, it does at least meet all of the basic criteria for a game, and it is playable.  I’ll admit that on any list of Worst Video Games of All Time Spiritual Warfare should be down from, say, the infamous Plumbers Don’t Wear Tieswhich was about as much of a video game as the chapter selection menu on a DVD is  a video game.  But I will say, in defense of Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties, it did give us this:

As for Spiritual Warfare, I think you can make a defense that it isn’t bad, but at the same time…if you want to play it, there’s just no reason not to play Legend of Zelda instead.

Anyway, the last time we joined NotLink for his adventures in Dawkinsville, he was frustrated by coming to a locked door without a key after having to run through a hurricane of bullets.  Now I know that doesn’t seem like a big deal, especially if you’re going through a Zelda model, but of course in Wisdom Tree fashion this game takes a simple idea and turns it into another lash on the cat-o’-nine-tails.  Keys are few and far in between in this game, and they’re not at all contingent on the area you happen to be exploring.  Let me explain:  in Legend of Zelda, while late in the game you did have the option to buy keys and you could use different keys in different labyrinths, for the most part you were expected to be able to use the same keys in the same labyrinth.  Not so in Spiritual Welfare, where for example there’s a key but no locked door in the Airport area, while there’s a locked door but no key in the Warehouse area.   So obviously you can’t rely on finding a key to that locked door you came across anywhere nearby.  Here’s a pro-tip:  exploit the hell out of the key respawning thing and just grab two or three keys from the same room.  As an ancillary to that, here’s another pro-tip:  play a Zelda game, or just about any other game, instead.

Okay, I have to give credit where it’s due.  When I went back to the airport to get a respawned key, I did notice that there’s an area in the Airport where you can get a heart container by climbing into the airport baggage carousel.  Even here it’s a little buggy – it’s pretty obvious the programmer or programmers didn’t know how or didn’t want to bother with making the conveyor belts actually work against the player’s own movements – but it’s actually a pretty clever way to hide a bonus item in a game that takes place in a modern setting.  Another thing I noticed is that you can heal without the use of items or going through those annoying Bible quizzes.  There’s an option on the menu for “Prayer,” which lets you heal at the expense of your “spirit” – those dove thingies that are the game’s equivalent of Rupees.  It does raise the theological question of why God is sending you out to face flying demons and toughs armed with guns that shoot bullets as big as the human body, and you still have to beg him not to let you die…yet it is a decent game mechanic that actually uses the game’s Christian motif in an original way, rather than slaps it over something else.

But what Spiritual Warfare giveth, Spiritual Warfare taketh away.  Hence the forklift drivers that want you dead, who are such hardcore atheists they can’t be converted.  Also they’re pretty fast, they move at random, they can move blocks around allowing them to block your path of escape, and they attack you in the narrowest spaces possible.  Now I’ll admit I’m not as good a video game player as I was back when I was 13, but I hope this helps you understand why my life is so low in so many of these screenshots.

Also for a while now I’ve been noticing that the game has its equivalent of the teleporting whistle from The Legend of Zelda:  train stations.  Try to use them and you’ll be told you need a ticket.  Admittedly I haven’t really been putting my whole ass into this game (although as you may have noticed I’ve been finding the heart containers alright, but honestly they’re easier to find than they were in any of the Zelda games I’ve played), but I’m pretty sure I haven’t overlooked it.  So here’s a prophecy:  it will turn up near the end of the game, when the ability to teleport to the game’s different regions will no longer be useful. God help me, I have become psychically attuned to this game.

Even the Bible quizzes, which just inherently sucked to begin with, are getting worse.

Yeah, I’m playing a crappy Christian video game;  the answer could totally be one of the guys from the other major world religions!

But I didn’t know then that NotLink was in for another crappy, overly difficult boss fight.  For, in fact, that’s what was behind the sealed door in the Warehouse.  Like most of the other boss fights, there’s a puzzle element:  here you run at the bottom of the screen while the boss runs in and out of the room and fires  heat seeking bullet-bomb things (really) at you.  When the bullet-bomb thing is fired, one or two sections of the wall separating you from the boss will glow purple.  You’re supposed to run to a spot under that brick, so that the bullet-bomb will hit it and explode.  When part of the wall is blasted away, it reveals ladders that you can eventually use to climb up to where the boss is.  While where the boss fires the bullet-bomb and where the bullet-bomb lands is determined by where you’re standing, where the bricks glow is completely random.  This means that sometimes a section of the wall will glow near the top of the wall where it’s literally impossible to get the bullet-bomb to go, and it will glow there, in the exact same spot, four times in a row.  Worse if you’re running to catch a glowing section on the far left of the screen or just trying to dodge one of the bullet-bombs, it’s really easy to accidentally go through the door and leave the boss room, which means you’ll have to start over again completely…and, yes, it happened to me.  Weirdest and most frustrating of all, you can blast some of the bricks with your own bombs to clear a path, but you’re not given any indication of which ones.  The game only lets you know when enough of the wall has been cleared that you can blast the rest of the path away with your own bombs by the fact that the boss just doesn’t show up again.  That’s nice of him.

So, in sum, what starts out as a puzzle-based boss fight quickly turns into a test of patience based on pure luck.

Also, as with all the other boss fights, there’s an angel right through the door.  What, so it was the angel who was shooting heat-seeking missiles at me?  I don’t remember any biblical patriarchs or apostles having their faith tested that way.  “Peter, thy faith shall be tested, by me running back and forth above you, and firing magic explosives that shall follow the heat of your flesh, and you must lure the explosives toward the bricks that glow.”  -John 22:3-4.

Well, whatever sadistic plan the angels had in mind (as if Bible quizzes for NotLink’s right not to die horribly was not enough), I did get the Boots that let me walk over the lava spilling out onto the streets of Dawkinsville.  Conveniently enough, one such nightmare street linked the Warehouse to a new area, creatively titled Hotels.  To be honest, this is my favorite part of the game so far.  For starters, it’s not a maze of madness and despair like the Warehouse zone.   For another, NotLink and every enemy with any red on them in the region looks more maroon than they did elsewhere in the game. It’s not bad programming, it’s a deliberate aesthetic choice!  And finally, it just featured this building:

If this building doesn’t show up as the game’s final boss, I’ll be disappointed…well, more than I already am.  Also the game tries to help God pull an Old Testament on you all over again, but I’ve learned my lesson.  Enjoy Hell, casino goers!  God’s okay with me getting shot at, but not okay with me going anywhere where there’s drinking or gambling no matter how many souls I can save by slapping them with fruit.

There really wasn’t much to this area, sadly, except I did uncover the best weapon in the game:  the banana.  It actually reaches across the room, unlike any other weapon in the game.   How convenient…and it means I’m nearing the end of the game!  

I don’t get why it’s the banana, though.  Unless…

I guess the banana is so much the “atheist’s nightmare” that it just literally flies across the room, whacks atheists in the face (in a totally non-sexual way, of course), and turns them into evangelicals immediately.  It all makes sense now, especially if it turns out this game was in fact programmed by Kirk Cameron.

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The Simpsons

The Simpsons, Season 1, Episode 3, “Homer’s Odyssey”

Well, it didn’t take them that long before they made a reference to the Odyssey.  

Now I did say that I didn’t want these write-ups to be “reviews” in the strict sense, mostly because I’m more interested in exploring The Simpsons as a cultural phenomenon (but also because I think I suck at reviewing comedy, although in my defense it is one of the hardest elements of entertainment to explain).  However, I should say off the bat that this episode was strange to watch, because – even more so than with the last two episodes of the first season – the jokes were few and far between.  I should add right away that I think this was deliberate, and in a lot of ways the whole episode felt like more of a quasi-dramatic American sitcom than any I’ve watched yet, just with the occasional touches of the surreal made possible by the wonderful possibilities of animation.  In fact, “Homer’s Odyssey” is interesting to watch just because it contains within it a couple of potential “alternate universe” Simpsons series “in utero” – one that had a more realistic and even a dramatic bent, and one that would have been a working-class comedy like Roseanne except centered around a lazy but well-meaning father instead of a hard-working but cynical mother.

“Homer’s Odyssey” gives the viewer a familiar sight:  Homer goofing off at work to the point that he causes a hazardous accident right in front of Bart and his class during a field trip.  From there, though, it’s strange waters.  Homer doesn’t launch a zany scheme or a bizarre career change;  instead he’s so depressed that he’s failed the family and that Marge had to return to her job as a rollerskating waitress that he plans to commit suicide (although he intends to do so in simultaneously the most impractical, hilarious, and painful way imaginable).   When Marge and the kids rush to save him from a watery grave, Homer ends up rescuing them from a dangerous intersection.  This launches him into a crusade to get the town council to set up a stop sign at the intersection, which they do casually and with great apathy, but that doesn’t stop Homer from taking it as a life-affirming triumph.  From then on, Homer dedicates himself as Springfield’s number one safety advocate, finally leading him to confront his former employers at the nuclear power plant.  Mr. Burns gives Homer the diabolical choice of either remaining an unemployed and broke hero of principle or accepting a paying job as the nuclear plant’s chief safety inspector which would nonetheless force Homer to betray his newfound principles.  Much of his own surprise, Homer is stunned by the ethical dilemma, but decides to accept on the rationale that he could actually be a force for safety competence at the plant (which is not what happens in the slightest, but I digress).

We don’t get as scathing and thorough a look at the world of adult employment in the same way we got a look at institutionalized education in “Bart the Genius”, but regardless the episode does touch on a lot of things about modern America.  I said I suck at reviewing comedy, and maybe that’s true, yet I like to think I know enough to realize that comedy is about telling the truth, especially the truths we don’t like to think about.  In the opening act, we already see Bart punished after being set up by the “good, smart kids” Sheri and Teri  (I do wish they were developed more;  I kind of like the idea of them as malevolent versions of Lisa Simpson).  Then Bart, Sherri, Terri and the rest of their class are herded into the nuclear power plant to watch a very thinly veiled propaganda film that cheerfully explains with a friendly cartoon character why the existence of nuclear waste isn’t a big deal.  Homer does deserve to get fired, but in a society where one is defined mostly by their job and their paycheck he is so destroyed as a person he sets out to kill himself.   Another sitcom or drama would have been more explicit about Homer failing his responsibility as a “brreadwinner.”  Maybe it’s meant to be subtle, or lines making it more explicit were cut at some point, but in the end it makes it more depressing and real – especially the point that it’s not the job that’s important and validating to Americans like Homer, but just being able to claim that they get a paycheck at all.  Then there’s Mr. Burns, who makes his debut as Springfield’s leading plutocrat.  Now Mr. Burns hasn’t quite “crossed the line into supervillainy” yet by trying to block out the sun, but he shows no regard whatsoever to actually improving his plant’s safety record;  he only cares about getting the public off his back, even if it means putting the guy who by his own admission  “caused more accidents around here than any other employee and a few doozies nobody else ever found out about.”

However, there are gentler and kinder ideas here too.  Homer’s despair is very sincere, but so is his later enthusiasm for improving the community.  When Mr. Burns plays Mephistopheles by getting Homer to trade in his heroism for a steady income, Homer actually hesitates when Burns orders him to tell his supporters that the plant is safe (when Burns points out that he’s about to turn down a better-paying job for his principles, Homer admits it’s a little “far-fetched”).  There isn’t really a moral here;  it’s pretty obvious even here, and without knowledge of the episodes to come, that Homer is going to revert back to his doughnut-inhaling, accident-prone self.  Hell, he knows this.  And yet we do end knowing that Homer for all his flaws is a fundamentally well-meaning person, and the sense that maybe there is more to life than just wading through a job you can barely stand to just occasionally pick up a paycheck.  It’s that balance between cynicism and optimism that will drive the episodes that come, even here in the first season where Moe’s tavern looks completely different and where Mr. Smiths is black.

Favorite Lines and Gags 

Is the “Dumb Things I Gotta Do Today” sticky notepad on the Simpsons’ refrigerator a They Might Be Giants reference?  Or vice versa?

Mr. Burns to Homer:  “You’re not as stupid as you look. Or sound.  Or our best testing indicates.”

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The Simpsons

The Simpsons, Season 1, Episode 2: “Bart the Genius”

So it came to my attention that, around the time I started doing my “Simpsons” write-ups, Onion AV Club writer Nathan Rabin has been doing his own reviews. This was kind of discouraging, since one of the reasons I do pop culture write-ups is to make a desperate shot in the dark toward getting a paid writing gig. And while I’m just some random person on the Internet, he gets paid for writing for a major website, which in the light of the Internet’s hierarchy means that I’m a groveling peasant and he’s a bejeweled archbishop.

I honestly did think about giving up this series before I even really began it, but it occurred to me that I’m not writing these as strictly reviews but as a reflection on a show that I literally grew up with. Also I said that I would try to generate more substantial content in this space to try to get you all to throw some change my way, and so here we are.

At least most of the first two seasons of “The Simpsons” are built around Bart’s perspective, so it’s no surprise that the earliest big target of Simpsonian satire is the American public school system, if not the entire modern concept of education. If the entire city of Springfield is an American dystopia, then Springfield Elementary is a greater dystopia within dystopia. The teachers have been broken down and drained bone-dry of any idealism they started off with, the administrators are more concerned with appeasing the almighty budget or enforcing arbitrary rules than with pedagogy, a budding genius like Lisa is at best left perpetually underengaged or at worst is encouraged to become a careerist and view her education as little more than a series of hurdles, and a problem student like Bart is just treated like a nuisance who has to be ignored for the sake of the “smart” kids. Now, in what is the first post-pilot episode to hit the air, little of this is evident just yet, but the grim and all too real portrait of Springfield Elementary does start to surface here.

After being ratted out by Martin Prince, in his gloriously fey debut, Bart gets into trouble for spraypainting a caricature of Principal Skinner (leading to the first uttering of the immortal line, “Eat my shorts”, against Martin). The day only goes downhill when in class Bart has to take an aptitude test, which Mrs. Krabappel describes in a line that is just so depressingly true: “Now I don’t want you to worry, class. These tests will have no effect on your grades. They merely determine your future social status and financial success…if any.” For some mysterious reason, the letters S, A, and T immediately sprang to mind when I heard that line. I have no recollection of how my much younger self reacted to this depiction of school life, but I know got another sense of deja vu and a chill as Bart struggled with one of those horrendous and purely evil math word-problems. His earnest try at solving the problem through visualization (after Mrs. Krabappel silences his attempt to working through it by running through the question aloud) only results in chaotic frustration and jumbled imaginary numbers. A lesser show would have all but spelled out that Bart’s class clown persona is because he is overwhelmed by school, but here the screenwriters take the chance to show without outside comment Bart’s genuine struggles with schoolwork. It’s something that gets much further developed later in “Bart Gets A F,” but it’s something else that injects an uncomfortable piece of realism into the proceedings. Back to the plot, seizing an opportunity to kill two birds with one slingshot, Bart gets his revenge on Martin by switching his test with Martin’s.

This triggers a series of events that sees Bart mistakenly identified as a child genius and sent (with the help of Principlal Skinner who one suspects must know something is up but just wants to get rid of someone who has always made his already barely bearable job even worse)to a special school for geniuses. I think here we have the first real sign that “The Simpsons” is a cut above other satires; it’s easy enough to mock the public school system, especially at a time when it was fashionable to do so among both conservatives and liberals, but it really shows commitment to “take no prisoners” satire to also skew well-meaning and suburban liberal-approved alternatives to traditional education. At the “genius school” Bart finds himself in, the students are blessed with free rein and are not even told to “Take a seat” but to “Discover your desks.” It is a step above the spirit-chewing system that is Springfield Elementary, but it also becomes clear that the students are not really challenged, but instead are just allowed to wallow in the fact that they already belong to a precocious aristocracy of the mind (the kids are even made to see comic books as a relic of the unwashed masses, which Bart learns when he comes across a Radioactive Man comic that the class used “as a prop in a film about illiteracy”). In a way, it mocks the all too easily mockable “unschooling” movement before it even exists, kind of like how “Homer Badman” was disturbingly prescient about the contemporary state of the American media.

Bart quickly finds that his situation at the “genius school” is even worse than the one at his old school. The other students quickly figure out that he’s no genius and start right away to take petty advantage of the discovery while his old friends (even Milhouse!) reject him for being an uncloseted nerd. At home Marge, who has not quite evolved yet past her persona as the quiet housefrau, feels guilty that she never noticed Bart’s “gifts” before and makes a bid for lost time by subjecting the entire family to opera and arthouse cinema. There is one bright spot for Bart; Homer, beaming with pride, is actually connecting with Bart, who wants to fess up but knows that after he does his relationship with his father goes back to its dysfunctional and borderline abusive normality. It’s not hammered in by the plot really, but watching this again I was a bit depressed by the implication that a ten year old boy is fully aware that his father’s love for him is totally conditional. Even more depressing is that Bart is absolutely correct. Once he inevitably confesses out of guilt driven how Homer has been doting over him, Homer curses him and chases him through the house, causing Lisa to grimly comment to Marge that things really are back to normal. Who knew that the “reset the status quo” nature of the sitcom could be used to put a bit of tragedy into the proceedings?

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The Simpsons

The Simpsons: Season 1, Episode 1, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”

So I realized that I do, in fact, own the first ten seasons of “The Simpsons,” which is one season plus what I consider to be the show’s “golden age.” Also I realized that I had actually been with the show all through that era, beginning with “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire.” Because I can never lack excuses to waste valuable timebuild up my writing portfolio, I thought I could start doing what I’ve been doing with “Doctor Who” and just reflect on the episodes – what made them work and why I was in love with the show for so long.

So without further Apu (rimshot)…

“The Simpsons” are the Beatles of my generation.

Honestly, I don’t think that’s hyperbole or pop culture blasphemy. More than a TV show, it was a cultural event that, on one level, was just generating the usual wrong-headed and easy-way imitators, cheesy music videos, and shitty video games (I think trying to get through “Bart vs. The Space Mutants” was a rite of passage for anyone who was a kid and owned a Nintendo in the early ’90s), but on another level it molded the way an entire generation thought about animation, social satire, and even humor itself. Like it’s impossible to imagine a world where Archduke Ferdinand was never assassinated or what rock music after 1990 would have sounded like if Black Francis and Joey Santiago were never dorm mates at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, a contemporary American cultural landscape where Matt Groening was never commissioned to produce cartoon bumpers for the “Tracey Ullman Show” is likewise beyond our comprehension.

Even though the show was clearly a rare successor to “The Flintstones” as a prime-time animated sitcom for adults, the FOX marketing gurus had unleashed an advertising blitzkrieg aimed toward children and adolescents, which for a long while skewed the public’s perception about what “The Simpsons” basically was and helped cancel out any long-term success the show might have had in showing that animated shows were not inherently juvenile (an idea still with us, in spite of the most optimistic pronouncements of anime geeks and the like, if the way the Oscars treat the animated film category is any indication). Anyway, since I was not only in elementary school when “The Simpsons” first came out but actually saw the Christmas special that first detached the Simpsons from “The Tracy Ullman Show” (I wish I could claim I was there from theabsolute beginning, but I don’t think I was even aware of “The Tracey Ulman Show”‘s existence*), I was at ground zero. I even remember kids wearing t-shirts that showed a black version of the Simpson family.

Of course, it was all about Bart Simpson, the twentieth century’s Dennis the Menace. In hindsight I can understand the appeal, since he came along after it became less acceptable in Hollywood to show adolescents and children, especially young children, acting and talking like foul-mouthed adults – in other words, to show them like they fairly often are in real life. Yet it was always clear that the writers did not mean for Bart to connect with the kids, but to remind adults of their own precocious (genuinely or rose-colored precocious) childhoods. Now it’s hard to imagine that “The Simpsons” was ever seriously pushed as a kids’ show. That may be because the show has been on so long that the audience literally grew up with it, but also it was not all that long before the show’s focus unquestionably shifted toward Homer. Even the video game spin-offs have moved from being about Bart to starring the entire family. Speaking for my very young self, I never got some thrill from seeing Bart defy authority figures and spout off allegedly relevant slang, but because the show felt honest. It seemed refreshingly true about what school was like, how adults and especially my parents and teachers treated me, and about the society around me in ways that barely, if at all, existed in anything else that was on television or even in most mainstream movies at the time. I can’t be sure, but I suspect it was like that for many of the other kids my age who tuned in.

To really understand why “The Simpsons” was so quickly successful and came along at the right cultural time, you have to remember that they were riding the crest of a “backlash against a backlash.” The Norman Lear philosophy of the sitcom, that they can address the social and political concerns of the day, was one of many casualties of the cultural wing of the Reagan Revolution. The dominant species of ’80s sitcom was in the main sanitized celebrations of middle-class life, designed to assure audiences that personal happiness really can come hand-in-hand with financial security. Even sitcoms with potentially controversial premises, like “My Two Dads”, tended to be straight and without bite. While you did have “Cosby Show”-esque sitcoms all through the ’90s too, I still think you can say that the sub-genre was dying out by at least the early ’90s. After all, nothing signifies the death of a sub-genre or of a specific approach to a genre like seeing it boiled down to its purest, most nauseating element. And what represents that happening to the typical ’80s sitcom better than “Full House”?

Where was I? Oh yes, the backlash. I don’t think there’s a question that the very last years of the ’80s brought about a significant and lasting backlash against “The Cosby Show”-esque television; in fact, I’d argue that the late ’80s/early ’90s were a period of revolutionary television that hasn’t been matched in network TV since. Suddenly instead of more Cosby clones, we had shows centered around single, liberal Jewish New Yorkers; about single women in their 50s enjoying active sex lives; and a working-class Chicago family who were poor, miserable, and built around a dysfunctional marriage. Most strikingly, all three of these shows had the audacity to be tremendously successful, and if it weren’t for the late ’80s backlash there probably would be no FOX network.

Even the family sitcom did not go unaltered. There were the “Roseanne”s, which purported to offer a “realistic” reflection of working and lower middle-class life, and the “Married With Children”s, which went one step further by answering the successful, loving, upper middle-class family of “The Cosby Show” with impoverished, cynical, and self-loathing lower-class families, offering a kind of deconstructed “hyper-reality,” arguably (it’s no surprise that an early working title for “Married With Children” was actually “Not The Cosbys”). As much as the show stands out now in hindsight, “The Simpsons” was meant to be sitcom in this vein, only animated. Believe it or not, but in the first season “The Simpsons” was actually intended to also be realistic. Instead of presenting a distorted and satirical view of American life, at first it was supposed to give viewers a family that had actual financial struggles and interactions that were at least somewhat relateable.

This is probably why not many people, even people who claim to be diehard fans of the show, actually like the first season. In quite a few ways, it’s a completely different show from what “The Simpsons” became by the third season, even by the standards of all long-running and popular shows that experience an inevitable process of evolution. I’ve met people who say that they want to collect every DVD set of “The Simpsons,” but they still feel free not to bother with DVD sets of the first two seasons. Is this omission warranted? Is “The Simpsons” v1.0 any good at all?

Technically “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire” was the first episode, even though it was the eighth one to be produced. Ironically, though, it works as an ideal introduction to the series, even in hindsight, since the characters really haven’t changed all too much. Lisa is intellectually precocious, gently but logically explaining to Aunt Patty that mocking her father will damage her perception of manhood and affect her adult relationships; Marge is the long-suffering but eminently forgiving mother; Patty and Selma are the joyless sisters-in-law (although they have yet to capture the je ne sais quoi of female, working-class, midlife singledom); and Bart is the softcore delinquent (if anything, he’s toned down over the years; I can’t imagine him saying “I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?” in any of the recent seasons of “The Simpsons.”) Surprisingly it’s Homer who is the least recognizable. He’s much less “borderline insane” and far more “disgruntled lower middle-class patriarch”, although there is a point where he has no idea who Tiny Tim is.

I honestly don’t have too much to say about the first episode, partially because I feel like I cut down too many digital trees already giving the background. Even with the gap between “The Simpsons” circa season one and circa season three, quite a bit of what makes “The Simpsons” great can already be glimpsed. The show is already just able to grab at the essence of American life: the pathetic nature of the elementary school play (and Lisa’s bizarre effort to breathe some life into it); the false and forced sense of “family” in work settings (although the writers do tip their hands a bit when Mr. Burns brags that safety costs have not touched management’s salaries); and Homer’s overriding sense of responsibility. There’s even a taste of reality about the way children think in Bart’s fantasy about why his mother would be overjoyed at the sight of his “MOTHER” tattoo. Even the strange logic of children is captured here and will stay on display, as we get to see more of life at Springfield Elementary.

To be honest, it’s not a particularly funny episode, especially if you’re used to the gag-a-minute nature of the later seasons. But it’s still quite good, a look at the very core of what will drive the show for years to come. Plus, even the stone-hearted among you have to admit that the plot – a desperately poor family salvaging a crappy Christmas by taking in an abandoned dog – is pretty damn sweet.

Favorite Lines and Gags

I don’t know why, but Maggie’s immobilizing star-shaped coat never fails to crack me up.

“And now, our boss and friend, Mr. Burns…”

Manager: “Do you like children?”
Homer: “What do you mean? All the time, even when they’re nuts?”

Homer stealing a Christmas tree from someone’s property – pretty funny. The fact that he apparently didn’t notice the birdhouse in it when he put it up – hilarious.

*Like 99.97% of all Americans, apparently. Zing!

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Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: Cobra Has a TV Network

Growing up I never really got into G.I. Joe, but instead was a Transformers kid.  I realize now that was a mistake.  After all, the fact that it was a kids’ show in a country that tolerates little or no anime-style violence or Doctor Who-style bleakness in its mainstream children’s entertainment meat that G.I. Joe couldn’t do a lot of the things you’d expect from a show about an American paramilitary organization.  No storylines about Cobra supporting the Lord’s Resistance Army in order to create a power vacuum in the Central African Republic, and no episodes that show G.I. Joe storming Pyongyang to rescue a group of tortured hostages.  This meant that instead the writers of G.I. Joe had to eschew the obvious and aim for the creative – and by “creative” I mean “drug-trippingly insane.”

The challenge of taking a potentially very serious topic and making it mostly toothless also meant that Cobra had to be the most bizarre, non-threatening terrorist organization ever, sort of what Al Qaeda would be if you took away their death toll and left them with nothing but their attempts at corporate branding and hip-hop.  This episode more than most really reveals why that makes Cobra one of the more memorable villains to come out of Saturday mornings.  Who else would steal a bunch of satellites in order to launch their own TV network?  Not the Decepticons!

Feel free to make your own FOX News jokes.

All this is from the episode titled “The Wrong Stuff”, and as you might guess from the almost thirty-year old reference it’s sadly not really about Cobra’s TV network.  See, the Himalayan base Cobra is broadcasting from is, according to Cobra Commander, too well-hidden for the Joes to uncover.

Jesus Christ!  Even Dr. Wiley would accuse Cobra Commander of being too flamboyant!  Well, I guess at least this base doesn’t have a giant cobra on top of it like so many of their other ones.  I guess in Cobra terms that is a secret base.

Well, apparently the Joes really aren’t that bright after all or they really need to put more money into their reconnaissance budget, because the only way to stop Cobra is actually go out into space and take out their satellites.  it’s all just an excuse to get G.I. Joe to fly a space shuttle, and fight in zero gravity,  and there’s a training montage while they’re tested to see who can go out of space that takes up about five minutes, and…well, how can you keep up your interest with the heroes when the villains are airing things like Mr. C?

Unfortunately, we only get to see him say “I pity the fool that doesn’t join Cobra!”  Does he sing songs like “Treat the Baroness right!” or does he travel the world with a gymnastic team as they steal state secrets for Cobra?  Sadly we will never know.  At least Mr. C“wasn’t the worst, most shameless attempt to exploit Mr. T’s good name by a powerful organization promoting a deranged, nonsensical ideology.

Speaking of which, we do also get to see Cobra Commander on his very own talk show, where we learn, “I was six when I realized that I could run society better than the morons that are in charge!”

This just raises even more questions that Mr. C.  For example, is really just a full hour of Cobra Commander ranting at an empty suit?  Or would they have kidnapped and/or blackmailed celebrities as guests?  “We’ll hear some more about Cobra Commander’s trying years in junior high, but now…Cher!”  Or would it just be the other members of Cobra?  Would the host ever ask the Baroness and Destro about their simmering sexual chemistry?!  Anyway, it’s the Cobra Commander interview that proves the last straw to the Joes, with Lady Jaye angrily commenting, “Some people would watch anything!” Now this is an episode that literally speaks to me.

But it’s not just infotainment and knock-offs of popular shows;  CTN also has original programming designed to promote what Cobra Commander calls Cobra’s “social philosophy,” like The Likeables.  Three Smurf-like beings (only green) are walking down a road, with one complaining that nobody likes him.  The other two cheerfully remind him that it’s because he’s “different” and use their magic to make him look more like them.  Then we get some hardcore Cobra “social philosophy”:  “”Only when everyone looks alike and acts alike and thinks alike and never ever gets angry, can we achieve world peace.”  Leave it to an international terrorist organization to finally give us a young children’s show moral that realistically prepares viewers for what school and, let’s be honest, what working in most offices is like.

I kind of lost interest after the show was clearly done with the CTN idea.  From then on, it’s just space battle, space battle, Destro is awesome as usual, Joes win, hooray.  Well, to be fair we do also get Cobra Commander playing with a giant globe for absolutely no reason.  Who wouldn’t follow this man?  And, really, I’m not sure if I meant that as a joke.

That is one of the things that made G.I. Joe so much fun, and still makes it more distinctive than the inevitable “darker and edgier” adaptations.  Destro and the Baroness come across as at least very rational, competent villains, but they still play second fiddle to the backstabbing, cowardly, inept, and pretty crazy Cobra Commander.  It’s Dilbert before Dilbert, The Office before The Office…but with hi-tech terrorists!  Seriously, if Shredder and Krang were the dysfunctional sitcom family of kids’ shows, then Cobra had the screwball office environment.

Really, though, this episode would have been so much more fun if it had Cobra trap the Joes in some kind of Running Man-like game show, or if we had more clips from CTN’s Thursday night line-up.  But at least we do get to see Cobra host a fundraising telethon, but that’s a tale for another time…

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