Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“Kramer, meet Feldman”: 19 TV Bizarros

Illustration for article titled “Kramer, meet Feldman”: 19 TV Bizarros

1-4. Kevin, Gene, Feldman, and Vargas, Seinfeld (1996)
Introduced to the Seinfeld universe in season eight’s “The Soul Mate,” Tim DeKay’s Kevin is depicted as a perfect match for Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine. They’re introduced through a mutual skepticism toward procreation, though those convictions aren’t as strong a connection as the couple’s shared impulsiveness. (Famous last words, from a discussion about Kevin’s spontaneous vasectomy: “Kevin, maybe I have a little doubt. I mean, nothing is 100 percent.” “This is!”) But it’s the follow-up episode, “The Bizarro Jerry,” that proves that Kevin’s true Seinfeld analogue is another boyfriend-turned-friend of Elaine’s: The show’s titular comedian. In characteristic fashion, Jerry lays it all out in a Superman analogy: Reliable, considerate Kevin is his bizarro, the “mirror image” supervillain who is Superman’s exact opposite. Since nothing is 100 percent, the logic doesn’t work out precisely—but it does coin a shorthand for a unique brand of TV doppelgänger: a double who isn’t the exact opposite of a regular character, but who provides a “grass is greener on the other side” perspective that temporarily threatens to displace their every-other-week counterpart. It turns out Seinfeld’s New York is full of these types of people, and Elaine eventually meets literate, door-locking, non-mooching alternates to George, Kramer, and Newman, too. Fittingly, they all hang out in a mirrored version of the show’s main apartment set, where a custom-made bizarro sculpture stands in for Jerry’s Superman statue.

5-6. Lester and Eliza, The Simpsons (1996)
Springfield’s bizarro versions of Bart and Lisa Simpson have legitimate ties to the characters’ pasts. The youngsters who solve a financial crisis at Itchy & Scratchy Studios, clear Apu of indecent exposure charges, and reunite Krusty The Klown with his estranged wife are designed to resemble the versions of Bart and Lisa that appeared in Matt Groening’s original Simpsons shorts. Seen exclusively in season seven’s “The Day The Violence Died,” these refugees from The Tracey Ullman Show riff specifically on the fact that no job on The Simpsons is too big to be overcome by the gumption and heroism of the two eldest Simpson children. (“You’ve even foiled Sideshow Bob on five separate occasions, and he’s an evil genius!” their mother reminds them earlier in the episode, with only a whiff of knowing sarcasm.) Bart correctly summarizes the idea that some other kids might be able to pull off these miraculous feats as “unsettling”—and it is, because it challenges some of the basic notions of TV storytelling. The shock ending, in which Lester skates by the Simpson house to stare daggers at his illustrious rival, is just gravy.

7. Ron Dunn, Parks And Recreation (2013)
Springfield has Shelbyville, Dallas has Fort Worth, and Parks and Recreation’s Pawnee, Indiana has Eagleton, the richer, snooty rival town that exists merely to make corn-syrup-addled, raccoon-infested Pawnee feel worse about itself. The season six episode “Dopplegangers” made the rivalry personal, as Leslie Knope and her staff each met their counterparts in Eagleton’s Parks Department. Cynical April takes a perverse pleasure with self-absorbed airhead Tynnyfer; even-keeled Donna bonds with Billy Eichner’s incredibly high-strung Craig; and Tom is horrified to learn that his counterpart is a web site that’s better at his job than he is. The only doppelgängers who really butt heads are laconic man’s man Ron Swanson and laconic man’s man Ron Dunn (Sam Elliott). At first glance, the two Rons seems like peas from the same incredibly stoic pod—until Swanson finds out, to his disgust, that Dunn is a laid-back, sandal-wearing vegan. Ron Swanson has a code, and not eating meat (and lots of it) is diametrically opposed to it.

8. Thomas, That ’70s Show (2002)
A multi-camera sitcom that both satirized and celebrated hoary TV tropes, That ’70s Show knocked out two familiar birds with one Pet Rock in “Jackie Says Cheese.” Early in the episode, Wilmer Valderrama’s Fez introduces his friends to Thomas, the new ambiguously accented kid on the block. Fez sees Thomas as a kindred spirit, but that changes after Thomas swiftly supplants Fez as Point Place’s favorite token character of unknown ethnicity. It’s bad enough that the new guy appropriates Fez’s catchphrase and his only defining trait (after all, “Fez” is the phonetic pronunciation of the acronym “F.E.S.”—foreign exchange student), but he winds up being more suave, more sophisticated, and more popular than Valderrama’s nerdy character could ever dream to be. But he can still try, which is where the big fantasy sequence comes in: A reenactment of Happy Days’ infamous “Hollywood: Part 3” episode, in which The Fonz proves his gutsiness by donning a pair of water skis and jumping over a live shark. It’s a cute bit of meta-commentary, with That ’70s Show using the example of another Wisconsin-set period piece to sidestep accusations that bizarro Fez marks its “jump the shark” moment.


9. Flexo, Futurama (2000)
In the classic Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror,” certain crew members of the Enterprise are transported to an alternate dimension, one where the United Federation Of Planets is a brutal empire, Kirk is a space pirate, and Spock sports a goatee. That conceit is used to great effect when, in the Futurama episode “The Lesser Of Two Evils,” Fry runs over a robot that looks identical to Bender—identical, that is, except for his handsome robot facial hair. Flexo and Bender quickly hit it off, mostly at Fry’s expense; both robots, for instance, appreciate the comedic value of Fry getting sprayed in the face with chlorine. Fry quickly comes to suspect that Flexo is in fact an evil(er) version of Bender, and resolves to protect the Jumbonium atom that goes on the Miss Universe pageant winner’s tiara from Flexo’s machinations. Soon enough, Bender/Flexo comes snooping around, suspiciously holding a map and wearing a turtleneck in front of his chin to mask his true identity. After the atom is stolen, all signs point to Flexo being the culprit. It turns out, though, that Fry had it backwards—Flexo is the “good” twin, and Bender the incorrigible thief. The audience is then left to question everything it thought it knew about facial hair’s relationship to villainy.

10. John Russell, Psych (2014)
Burton Guster’s position as best pal to fake psychic and private eye Shawn Spencer is often a thankless one. Shawn mooches off of the hard-working Gus, continually introduces him as his sidekick (via elaborately silly nicknames), and generally takes his more dependable friend for granted as his trusty straight man. Yet there lurks the heart of a hero inside Gus’ buttoned-down frame, one that’s exposed when he encounters a man who’s Gus’ virtual duplicate in every way but one: He’s apparently committed suicide. Gus’ obsession with proving John Russell (whom he nicknames “Russ”) was murdered reveals the perpetual also-ran’s deep need to validate his existence. Dulé Hill’s ever-expressive face brings an affecting urgency to Gus’ quest, asserting to his skeptical colleagues, “This man was a responsible citizen of the world, and he did not go out like that.” Naturally, every responsible citizen of the world works an office-drone job, owns tap shoes and a sixth-place bowling trophy, and is an adamant champion of Pluto’s planetary status—just like Gus and Russ.


11. Beth Childs, Orphan Black (2013)
Beth Childs only appears directly in Orphan Black for less than a minute, making herself known to series lead Sarah just in time to jump in front of a moving train. But Beth Childs might be the most literal bizarro doppelgänger on this list, considering that she is, in actuality, one of many clones (Sarah included) the existence and examination of whom provides Orphan Black with both its thematic heft and its gaggle of dazzling Tatiana Maslany performances. But the fun of Beth is that her life—largely well-off and comfortable—provides such a seductive temptation for Sarah, who steps into the shoes of someone she might have been, if not for the fact that she was turned over to the state as an orphaned baby. Sarah’s slow immersion into her innate Beth-ness provides much of the early series with its kick, and it understands that sometimes the grass is greener on the other side because the side you’ve been on all this time pretty much sucks.

12. Arnie, Hey Arnold! (2001)
Arnold Shortman’s most defining characteristic is that he’s good—not just in the sense that he’s a good kind of guy, but that he is always trying to be good by doing good. In a chaotic city, he is the show’s true, steadfast moral compass. This makes it especially jarring when Arnold shows signs of being petty or small, like he always does when his cousin visits. Arnie grew up on a farm instead of the city and prefers grunting over giving inspirational speeches. He does, however, share Arnold’s signature football-shaped head. Arnold’s sure his hick cousin will need his guidance (“the guy collects lint”). Instead, he’s horrified when his unrequited love Lila reveals that she’s in love with Arnie. Arnold’s jealousy eventually reaches the point where he dreams a terrifying visit to Arnie’s farm, complete with a funhouse mirror version of everyone from his school and an attempted murder.

13. Russ, Friends (1996)
In the middle of Friends’ second season, Ross had broken up with his girlfriend Julie but had so irritated longtime crush Rachel with his list of pros and cons to dating her that she refused to have anything to do with him. Enter Russ. With both characters performed by David Schwimmer, Russ looked suspiciously like Ross (albeit with a more pronounced chin) and sounded like him, too. The similarity was lost on Rachel, who, when asked by Phoebe, “Doesn’t Russ remind you of someone?” responded uncertainly, “Bob Saget?” Inevitably, the magic of split-screen brings Ross and Russ together, resulting in instant annoyance between the pair, but seeing the two of them sparring also causes Rachel to finally realize why she finds Russ attractive. Disconcerted, Rachel kicks poor Russ to the curb, but the episode nonetheless concludes with two happy endings: While Russ is bemoaning his breakup to Phoebe and Chandler, Julie stops by Central Perk to give Ross back the last of his stuff. Her and Russ’ eyes meet, and—based on the sudden swirl of romantic music—there’s clearly been an instant love connection.

14-19. The Bizarros, Sealab 2021 (2002)
The early-’00s Adult Swim cartoon Sealab 2021 didn’t have much use for conventional narrative structure, but the second-season episode “Bizarro” brought the show to an anarchic creative peak. The episode opens with the crew—who aren’t pillars of ethics and intelligence in the first place—captured by bizarro versions of themselves who escalate the stupidity and amorality to unmeasurable degrees. While the characters’ personalities are reversed in interesting fashion—like Dr. Quinn’s academic genius having a double who’s an infant egg-creature—what’s really reversed are expectations of television structure. “Bizarro” is a bottle episode filled with unique animations. It’s an anti-catchphrase-based assault on the senses that represents the middle act of a story with no beginning or end. It’s an incredible annoyance that becomes brilliant through sheer repetitive force of will. It is bizarro television.

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