Hello, animation fans! Todd has officially resigned from this particular assignment, thus removing the “interim” tag from my position. And he took the Katy Perry episode for the team as well! These are also exciting times for Fox's Animation Domination, as Bob's Burgers adds a fifth show to the mix, so I'm mostly happy to cover them with you. More cartoons every week never hurt anyone, right?
The Simpsons: Bart has never been my favorite character on The Simpsons, but Bart-focused episodes have a pretty strong track record of being good. I don't think it's due to Bart inherently, but rather that episodes with him as a focus also tend to bring in the entirety of Springfield Elementary, which tends to bring out the best that The Simpsons has to offer. The adult characters, like Skinner and the teachers, are absurd but recognizable, and there are enough students that the ever-funny mob scenes are easy to throw together.
Tonight's episode starts promisingly, with a dodgeball game between the fourth-graders and fifth-graders at Springfield Elementary turning into a school-wide grudge match, complete with the teachers brawling in their lounge while Skinner inexplicably plays wacky comedy music on the piano. It's entertaining stuff, rendered even more interesting when, after the commercial, you realize that Homer and Marge were nowhere to be seen in the entire first act.
Would that it could have stayed that way. After the manic energy of the dodgeball rivalry, the episode settles down into a slower groove, as matching scars on Bart and the fifth-grade Bartalike lead to the discovery that he used to be friends with a crew of kids whose moms all hung around in a “Cool Moms” club. Marge, desperate for a social life, brings the crew back together, and they all have fun but turn Marge into a vaguely social animal. Nobody else is happy with the situation. Homer doesn't get along with the other dads, in a not-funny running gag notable only for how obviously it removes Homer-based jokes for the rest of the episode. Bart is somewhat unhappy about how many risks the other kids take.
The entire episode just seems to be hurtling towards a reset button: Of course Marge isn't going to end up with three new best friends, and of course Bart isn't going to have an entirely new crew to hang out with. The writers seem to know this, and the resolution is half-assed at best. Still, there's random lesbianism to close things out. That's worth somethi…no, not really. C+
Bob's Burgers: Todd handled this one officially, but I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I have fond memories of Dr. Katz but haven't watched the other stuff that gave him such hope. I enjoyed how it managed to maintain an entertaining comic system for the first two acts. I have no expectation that its particular brand of self-hatred and off-kilter animation will find an audience, but I liked it.
Family Guy: The knock on Family Guy has always been lack of heart. Supposedly, the gags, references, and cutaways cultivate a manic form of comedy, but once you're used to them and don't laugh from disorientation, it doesn't seem as interesting. And without that, there's nothing. I tend to agree with this personally, but the lasting audience for the show means that it isn't exactly universal. On the other hand, some of the more recent formal experiments that the show has done, such as the hour-long murder mystery in this season's premiere, indicate that MacFarlane & company agree with the criticism.
Tonight's episode seems to be a deliberate attempt to repudiate that criticism in the strongest possible fashion. After a first act involving Peter getting addicted to Red Bull, Lois taking it away, and Peter drinking a homemade “energy drink” concoction, Peter gets stuck in the hospital awaiting a new kidney. It turns out that Brian is a perfect match for organ donation, but since he's a dog, it would require both his kidneys, killing him in the process. Brian still volunteers to do it, with a heartfelt speech about how Peter already saved his life, so he should return the favor.
As if that's not heartfelt enough, in the B-plot, Barack Obama is visiting the kids' high school, and Chris' class is challenged to write an essay about the meaning of hope (wait, 2008 called, etc etc). Chris is stumped, but Meg helps him out with a heartfelt speech about how it's what gets her out of bed every morning and gets caterpillars out of their cocoons. Chris steals the speech word-for-word, and his speech wins the contest that allows him to introduce Obama, upsetting Meg.
This is pure family drama stuff. I keep using “heartfelt” because the episode feels like it was written expressly for the purpose of seeming heartfelt. Because of that and because of Family Guy's history of treating all of its characters as hateful, hate-worthy little jerks, it's hard to take entirely seriously. It's a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario. I spent the entire time expecting the rug to be pulled out from under me and the whole thing revealed to be Seth MacFarlane just trying to manipulate my emotions, and oh, how stupid I would be to have bought in, even a little bit! But that never happened. Of course, Brian doesn't die. The doctor ends up donating his kidney to Peter, but the Chris/Meg storyline ends with the two sharing the essay presentation in a downright loving fashion. Yikes.
I have to give props to Family Guy for going outside its wheelhouse without winking excessively at its audience, but I think it may have been a little bit too far to be truly great. B
The Cleveland Show: I guess this is the moment of truth for The Cleveland Show. While it was between The Simpsons and Family Guy, it had a decent cushion of viewers who would leave it on between watching both. Without that, I guess we'll see just how many people REALLY want to watch it. I have to say, I hope that it does far worse than American Dad, if one of these shows really is on the chopping block. Then again, apparently American Dad didn't really improve until its third season, so maybe we just have to wait Cleveland out?
Tonight's episode was, for an episode of Cleveland, solid. Which is to say that it was bad but not depressingly so. Like tonight's Simpsons, most of its good stuff came in the first act. It's “Take Your Kid to Work Day,” and Cleveland decides to take Cleveland Jr., leaving Rallo alone at school. This encourages Donna to order Cleveland to take Rallo out for some bonding, which they do begrudgingly, at least until Rallo becomes a “mutton-bustin'” champion, which is apparently a rodeo for kids on sheep.
Once the plot settles in, the jokes almost completely dry out. The episode started with some good stuff, especially the very beginning, which seems to be Cleveland teaching Cleveland Jr. to drive, as the whole thing disintegrates into an action movie and is revealed to be his “cable guy” simulation. There's also a flashback to Rallo's last “Take Your Kid to Work Day” with his deadbeat biological dad, which turns into a Pulp Fiction parody that's initially funny but manages to wear out its welcome after the first minute or so.
There's not much worth mentioning after that. The episode includes more “jokes” that aren't funny and a plot involving Cleveland Jr. trying to get revenge after he loses Cleveland's affection. Both are predictable and rather dull, but at least nothing was horribly offensive. C-
- The couch gag was very literal tonight. I approve.
- “Ah only took this refereein' gig 'cause ah was cold and they gave me this shirt.”
- “Whoa, you don't look like a mom; you look happy!”
- “I'll stay here at home and Skype with the guys at Moe's.”
- “Tell him it's the 'worst prognosis ever!' Hee hee hee.”
- “The hybrid organism exists as I have described.”
- “Yes, it's time to get jiggy with it, Quahog. I thought we'd taken that out.”
- “Whoa! Paramedics, come on down!”
- “It's a period joke.” “It's a period period joke!” “A-ha!”
- A reference to the man-sized chicken, perhaps Family Guy's most committed cutaway gag. Nice.
- “Oh man, where am I gonna find a wizard on a Saturday!”