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Shark Week Special: Street Sharks

I made the mistake of vowing that once Discovery Channel’s Shark Week rolled around, I would return to the jawsome world of the Street Sharks. This was a mistake. Not just because the show itself you might say really bites, but because it’s hard to say anything about the show without using its own level of puns like this is a fintastrophe. In fact, as I watched it, I just wanted to go to the beach and freaking drown myself. 

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Let’s move on.

I’ve talked a lot about how kids have it good these days as far as animation goes. There’s still some stinkers out there, of course, but it’s become almost expected for even kids’ animated shows to have such fancy things as “character arcs” and “ongoing stories”. Such luxuries were largely unknown to the children of my generation, and even then shows like Street Sharks were the nadir of an already low-down trend.

Still, I thought about seeing if my hazy memories of the show were unfairly distorted, and picked out an episode that seemed like it would explore the potential of the show’s premise, “To Shark Or Not To Shark” (yes, every single episode title is a pun). See, the one thing that genuinely made the premise of Street Sharks stand out is that the sharks are supposed to be not only outcasts, but also genuine fugitives, while their archenemy Dr. Paradigm was a well-respected professor. This might have been an interesting take on the ancient “Don’t judge a book by its cover” moral if Dr. Paradigm wasn’t a sinister-looking man who went around in freakish body armor, but again I digress.

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I wanted to give this episode a chance in particular because 1) it spotlights one of the two Street Sharks with an actual tangible character trait, Streex, who is vain, which you can tell because he looks at a mirror and brushes his fin like he would hair because I guess it actually affects his appearance somehow (the other one is Ripster, whose personality trait is “leaderish”) and 2) it has like a solid premise for a cartoon with inhuman protagonists. They get a chance to become a normal human at the cost of their powers and ability to effectively fight evil. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did it. All the various iterations of “X-Men” did it probably 123,000 times, give or take a hundred. It’s a pretty stock plot, but it’s tailor-made for a series about fugitive heroes. Let’s see how they did!

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Let it never be said I can’t give a subtle hint.

Anyway, I honestly made a little checklist of things that I would consider basic to a story like this. Nothing out of the ordinary that would make something like this stand out, much less be an inspirational classic (although it is a shame we never got a groundbreaking episode of Street Sharks scripted by Maurice Sendak). It’s just for what I, as a writer myself, would consider the bare minimum for a story like this.

Streeks does something that really hits home how much he’s lost by being a humanoid shark, i.e. he frightens a bunch of children he’s trying to rescue, an old girlfriend is disgusted with him, etc.

The episode does that…kind of? The Street Sharks’ requisite human buddy, Bends, invites Streeks and…er, the brown Street Shark to check out a car he’s worked on that will be presented at a mall car show. It’s a car that can use most liquids as a fuel, even sugar water, so naturally it’s just to show off at a crappy mall. Anyway, there’s this supermodel who is stuck up and also French (you might think this is so très banal but by being snooty and French she already has more dimensions than most Street Sharks characters) who thinks the Sharks are in Halloween costumes. And they have trouble fitting into the car.

This is enough motivation for Streeks to decide to stop being the city’s only defender against a mad scientist who wants to mutate its entire human population.

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Yes, they use this exact reaction shot at two very different points in the episode. Seriously, this show makes DiC look like a golden age Disney animated film.

It turns out the opportunity to change back to human is a trap laid out by the antagonist.

Okay, this one the show actually did fully do, but even then it’s a bit off. If you go by what we see in this episode, apparently Dr. Paradigm’s plan was to:

1) Find out (somehow) that the Street Sharks were going to a mall during its off-hours.
2) Send two of his bungling henchmen to check out the car (which of course is his real objective in all this), bringing attention to his interest in the car to the Street Sharks, and to awkwardly mention to Streeks that Dr. Paradigm has invented a way to completely reverse geneslamming, while at the same time hoping that Streeks will not start a fight and instead not only believe them, but follow them back to Dr. Paradigm’s lair.
3) Assume that Streeks and the rest of the sharks will be stupid enough to just take the untested scientific formula devised by their archenemy.
4) Also assume that they will believe the information you dropped that the change back to human isn’t permanent unless the formula is drunk a second time within the span of eight hours (and they should, because you’re not lying about it to trick them into permanently becoming human for some reason).
5) Act on your plan before the eight-hour window has passed, trusting that the Sharks won’t let themselves revert back to superhuman beast-men who can effortlessly defeat you and your minions to stop you.
6) Profit!

Dr. Paradigm, you may be unmatched when it comes to making buff aquatic furries, but you really need to take some villainous scheme of the week lessons from, say, Cobra Commander.

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The protagonists are divided over whether or not they should use the “cure”, but ultimately decide to sacrifice returning to a normal life for the greater good.

Kind of, except…not really.

I mean, there’s about a few seconds of dialogue where one of the Street Sharks talks about returning to college and normal life and Ripster shows his leadership skills by saying this is a “bad idea”…but still they’re all convinced in a matter of seconds. The French model (who honestly had no idea who the Street Sharks were before she came to town; you’d think someone would have brought up the whole “fugitive shark men” thing) also returns. But rather than becoming a symbol of what Streeks can have if he goes back to being human, she gives him a tiny bit of encouragement when he rescues her from a fire started by the hench-goons and disappears from the story.

The ex-Sharks discover that Dr. Paradigm is planning to use the car able to use anything as fuel as a means by which he could cover the city with an exhaust that will mutate all the city’s human inhabitants into aquatic half-humans. They do split up, with Streeks wanting to stay human and the others deciding to attempt to stop Dr. Paradigm even though they will stay human for a matter of hours. However, when the other sharks get captured by Dr. Paradigm and he sends his goons to finish Streeks off, he pretty much makes the choice to embrace sharkdom out of necessity more than anything.

So, yeah, there’s really no sacrifice, unless not being able to fit comfortably in most car seats counts.

To hammer this non-point in, we get the last words of wisdom from Streeks after his epic adventure that forced him to mildly inconvenience himself:

“Do you miss being a human?”
“Well, there are great things about being human, but there are great things about being a shark!”

Wisdom worthy of Socrates.

Overall, my assessment is that this episode does less than the bare minimum of what a normal animated series, even in the creative wasteland of ’80s and ’90s animation, would normally do with a similar premise. But, in a way, isn’t that kind of commitment to eschewing all standards of quality what makes Street Sharks stand out from among all the other cartoons that existed only to sell toys? Well, that and its catering to the minority of gay male aquatic furries.

 

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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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Versus

The Most Effeminate Male Villain: Final Fantasy vs. Disney

So you’re writing a novel or a movie and you’re trying to decide on some quality that will make your villain more distinctive, more unusual. There’s one easy way: have them defy gender conventions! Thus we end up with villains like Ursula from The Little Mermaid, who was modeled after the Ur-drag queen Divine (yes, really) and Jafar from Aladdin, who wasn’t modeled after anyone in particular except a bunch of really dusty Arabic stereotypes. Okay, okay, I love Final Fantasy and I love Disney’s animated movies (well, most of them), so I don’t want to imply that the makers of these franchises are being reactionary or homophobic or heterocentric or whathaveyou, and I’ll just leave it to Gender Studies majors to parse out the implications. I’ll just say I think it all comes down to the cultural language we’re all programmed with, and not any attempt to respond to contemporary political or social issues – unlike, for example, the insanely homophobic portrayal of King Edward II in Braveheart (because it cannot be said enough times: screw you, Mel Gibson, even if you did an elaborate cameo in one of the greatest Simpsons episodes ever).

I just find it amusing that two franchises I like both went through the same trend in the early-mid ’90s: really effeminate bad guys. And I by “effeminate” I mean “almost in the drag-queen realm.”

Jafar vs. Emperor Palamecia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, okay, maybe Jafar isn’t halfway toward auditioning for Edna Turnbladt in Hairspray, but he does come across as a homicidal Paul Lynde. Although unlike Uncle Arthur and the real life Paul Lynde, he does enjoy kissing a princess.

But, of course, sexual orientation doesn’t mean a guy can’t sashay with the best of them.

Emperor Palamecia is trickier to pin down, because what little personality he has only comes across in Dissidia and even then it doesn’t go beyond a few lines of dialogue. Nonetheless, we just have to look at him to see he’s like the offspring of Uncle Arthur and Hedonism Bot, which can only make him the winner of this round.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scar vs. Kuja

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scar does embody a pretty old literary stereotype – the mincing, cowardly, luxury-loving, treacherous male villain in comparison to the earthy, honest, and butch male hero. But it’s hard not to like him anyway, from the moment he scorns his inconvenient nephew Simba and sneers, “Shall I curtsey?!”

Kuja, on the other hand, represents…I don’t know, glam rock’s invisible yet pervasive influence on Japan? In Final Fantasy IX Kuja is an extraterrestrial arms dealer trying to trigger an apocalyptic global war, but his costume instead makes it look like his ultimate objective is to be the next Lady Gaga.

Admittedly it’s a close call, but I have to call it for Scar.  Kuja’s got the dress, but Scar is an out-and-unashamed metrosexual lion.  Plus we know he’s the real protagonist of The Lion King.  

Ratcliffe vs. Seymour

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not only is Pocahontas‘ villain Governor Ratcliffe a fancy boy, but he even has an effeminate animal sidekick, a dog named Percy. That’s a new height for any of the villains on this list. Plus he gets his own song with the lyric, “Think how they’ll squirm when they see how I glitter!”

By rights he should win, and yet…there’s Seymour, who in Final Fantasy X is basically an evil Pope as envisioned by David Bowie’s Goblin King …

The real scandal isn’t that Seymour is an undead being (who gets beaten up by your party every two hours) or that he serves a corrupt Church that is complicit in a cycle of mass murder carried out ritualistically at the behest of a literally mindless spirit, but that at least 40 percent of the tithes paid to the Church goes to Seymour’s hair.

I mean, I’m sure Radcliffe leads a pricey, lavish lifestyle, but Seymour wins simply because his annual hair care budget surpasses the GDP of some small countries.  Truly that makes him the maester of metrosexuals, and in the world of Spira which includes girly frat boy Tidus that’s quite an accomplishment.

Winner:  Final Fantasy  

Disney put in some strong contenders in the early-mid ’90s, but the award goes to the Final Fantasy franchise.

Our Western sensibilities just couldn’t compete with a franchise from a culture that has formed entire genres out of having men with ambiguous sexualities and androgynous genders.

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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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Adventures in Revisionism

Adventures in Revisionism: The Secret Ending of “G.I. Joe”

In all the 16 times he had been to the White House in the past, Duke had been in full military regalia and with the honed persona of a devout patriot to match.  This time, he came stinking of alcohol, in worn khakis and a dirty camouflage t-shirt.

“Come on, man.  I gotta see him.  I already told you a bunch of times I’m not armed.” Duke was slurring his words to the Secret Service agent, who Duke knew should have sent him kissing the pavement of Pennsylvania Avenue at least five minutes ago.  Whether he was restrained by a combination of pity and reverence for a member of the celebrated G.I. Joe team or by terror justly inspired by Duke’s reputation, Duke did not know or care.

“Sargeant Hauser, I…”

“God dammit, it’s Duke.  That’s the name I…”

“Duke, sir, I respect everything you’ve done for this country but I can’t let you see the President when you’re…uh…”

“It’s okay, Sam,” a voice said from down the hallway.  It was Flint, dressed in a tuxedo that complimented his square jaw.  However, Duke never got used to seeing him in anything outside camouflage jeans and v-neck shirt.  In Flint’s current civilized state, it took Duke a full thirty seconds to match the voice to the strange, almost unrecognizable figure before it.

“Flint!  You’re still in the Secret Service, right?  You gotta help me.  They won’t…”

“I’ll take care of it,” Flint said through a forced smile.  Turning to Sam, he said in a soft voice that verged on a preemptive apology, “I promise to take full responsibility.”

With a sigh, Sam began to leave.  “Alright.”  He didn’t even look back at Duke.

With Flint positioned carefully right at Duke’s side, they began the walk to the Oval Office.  Duke laughed.  “I’m sorry.  I know I look like shit.”

“You look fine, Duke.  Right now you probably think I look like a joke in this monkey suit.  You know, that’s what made getting shot at with lasers all the time worth it;  getting to pick our own damn uniforms.”

“Amen, man.”  Duke sighed, and for a minute the floor seemed like it would drop out from under him.

“You okay?”  Flint asked, stopping and grabbing Duke’s arm.  Duke looked at him with eyes not unlike the expression of an injured pet.

“No. No, I’m not.  And I have to ask…did you know?  I mean, do you know why I’m here?”

Flint froze for a minute.  “I…I think I know.  I swear I didn’t know at all when I was with the Joes, but when I joined the Secret Service…”

“Yeah?”

“I got hammered too.”

Duke laughed, a little too long and hard.  Flint forced himself to laugh too.  For the first time in his career, Duke thought about abandoning a mission and letting Flint take him somewhere, anywhere.  But the things Zartan said in the interrogation room, and what Duke’s own contacts in the government finally told him after weeks of threatening and badgering about the real reason COBRA helped the Joes fight some drug lord that one time…

“We were so stupid,” Duke blurted out.

“I know,” Flint agreed.

“I mean it.  All the stupid bases in plain sight, their access to laser weaponry, those damn recreation centers in freakin’ Antarctica…we kept guessing that they were getting money from the Ayatollah and the Soviets and Kim il-Sung…”

“It wasn’t just guessing, Duke,” Flint said, although he barely sounded convinced himself.  “The paper trails…”

“Never led to their real big donor, the American taxpayer.  God, every time I think…”

“We’re here, Duke,” Flint interrupted, knocking on the door.  “Mr. President?”

Reagan sat at his desk, and beamed when he saw Duke.  He had always been an enthusiastic supporter of G.I. Joe, or was that also a lie?

“Mr. President, I…”  Before Flint could finish, Duke stumbled forward slightly, the words he had rehearsed being unleashed in a tone miraculously free from the influence of booze.

“All these years, we were fighting, risking our lives against what we thought was a terrorist organization being funded by every bad guy in the world.  But you were paying both of us!  And for what?  The War on Drugs?  Destabilize a foreign regime here and there?!  All the times we risked our lives, all the terrible things COBRA did to our allies, our own country…Jesus Christ, for what?!   Why’d you do it, Gipper?!”

Reagan shined serenity.  Then, after what seemed to be an eternity of silence and careful thought, he said uncertainly:  “Duke, I…I just do not recall.”

The mere words felled Duke more effectively than anything COBRA or Jack Daniels could muster.  He collapsed to the rug of the Oval Office, christening the fabric with the tears of a truly fallen soldier.

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