The Simpsons: There are many common shorthands for the decline of The Simpsons. For example, some people say it got too unrealistic. That argument was depicted in the Poochie episode, which is my “turning point” episode, since it showed how easily the show could do meta-humor and get away with it. Or maybe it was always impossible to sustain what was already an extended run of greatness. One of the most popular theories, however, is that a reliance on guest stars using an appearance on The Simpsons for prestige acted as a continuous distraction and dilution of quality. This is "the N'Sync theory" of what went wrong with The Simpsons, according to a friend of mine.
What makes guest stars on The Simpsons work, looking at it through this lens, is a certain weirdness, a counter-cultural playfulness. Leonard Nimoy's self-effacing turn in the monorail episode is a perfect example from one of the most-cited classic episodes. This season, like many late-season episodes, has seen an excess of pointless guest appearances: Rachel Weisz's psychiatrist character did nothing, and the Glee cameo in the season premiere did absolutely nothing, especially compared to the relatively entertaining Flight of the Concords guests.
Tonight had a perfect example of a great Simpsons guest star: Werner Herzog. With an extraordinarily distinctive voice and a reputation as cinema's trickster elder statesman, having him on The Simpsons is an excellent match. His character—a pharmaceutical executive with an interest in an anti-crankiness drug—isn't the strongest, but the way he reads lines like “As always, the frisbee is the mirror to the soul,” is delightful both within the context of the show and based on his reputation as a hilariously ponderous narrator. Could a line like that exist within Grizzly Man? And how!
Unfortunately, the rest of the episode isn't up to Herzog's strengths as a guest star. Lisa finds the anti-crankiness drug, and Grandpa starts to use it, making him much more tolerable. Lisa's shrill “drug happiness isn't real happiness!” draws on the most annoying aspects of her character, and the drug causing nasty side effects once the whole town has it is entirely obvious. The fourth act, as is often the case, is the worst, with a weird generational conflict being used to resolve the town's problems. It's not terrible, but it doesn't feel fully-formed. B-
Bob's Burgers: Kristen Schaal's Louise has been so consistently the funniest character on Bob's Burgers since its premiere that it's somewhat of a surprise that she doesn't have the best line of night. That goes to H. Jon Benjamin's Bob, after a bender with transvestite hookers, when he's rambling to Linda that “I may or may not have tried crack last night. I don't think I did! But if I did… I really liked it…” Playing drunk—or, I suppose, on crack—is almost too easy to do for laughs, so it takes a good (voice) actor to make it feel natural. This felt totally natural, and it was possibly Bob's Burgers best moment.
However, if you were a casual fan of the Fox animation and hadn't checked Bob's Burgers out, you'd probably have tuned out this week. Why? The two bits they showed in ads showed included Bob's initial gay panic at the transvestites and Gene doing a fart joke. Hell, the ads for Family Guy showed more humor and emotion, and Bob's Burgers trumps Family Guy for emotion every week, and humor this week.
Tina's 13th birthday is coming up, and based on their reading of her diary, Louise, Gene, and Linda convince Bob to give her what she wants for a 13th-birthday blowout. This involves Bob moonlighting as a cab driver (why Linda can't do this, or something else, is never explored) and meeting the city's seedy underbelly. The tranny hookers end up having a heart of gold, however, and they aid Bob in getting the second part of the party set up: Jimmy, the child of Bob's rival, comes to the party for Tina to kiss.
As funny as the episode is, it's also genuinely sweet by the end, with Bob and Tina bonding over how much work he's done. Of course, that just makes his drunken bender with transvestite hookers that much funnier, as well as Louise acting as Tina's kissing coordinator and sending her to boot camp. To all y'all commenters who kept whining about how I wasn't giving Bob's Burgers good enough grades and wanted to get into grading pedagogy arguments with me when I explained that I was waiting for it to get better, this is what I was talking about. Jerks. A-
Family Guy: After a couple of weeks of Family Guy delving into bizarre morality tales, tonight's episode was a decent return to wacky adventures of Quahog. It was still weird and a bit experimental: An awkward conversation between Meg and Joe was done almost naturalistically, while an evil Stewie clone engaged in hyper-violence beyond the usual implied cartoon violence. It wasn't as funny as it should be, but it did have its moments.
Meg has always been a problematic character for Family Guy, and I can't say that tonight's episode does anything to change that. She's still insane, and she falls into a crush with a man who's vaguely nice to her far too easily, but at least it's treated like a teenage girl with a crush problem and not like she's some sub-human, as the show does too often. On the other hand… that doesn't make it good necessarily. The problem with Meg isn't just that she's treated as a punching bag by the show; it's that as either a normal character or as the butt of all the jokes, she's almost never funny or interesting.
The Stewie plot engages in a bit more meta-humor, but it is, at least, interesting. Stewie, realizing that he's lost his edge and is no longer the evillest baby, tries to regain his evil, but instead, accidentally creates an evil clone. The clone goes on a violent rampage, chopping off Brian's tail and force-feeding to good Stewie, before slicing a random woman in half and taking her car. Brian and Stewie eventually confront and kill the evil baby, but it's a fairly fascinating take on cartoon violence that does not appear to be consequence-free (although it is, as Brian's tail is reattached by the end of the episode, with no comment). I'm not sure I liked it, but I did engage with it, which is an improvement over the last few weeks of the show. C+
The Cleveland Show: The Cleveland Show had several interesting ideas tonight but failed to turn them into interesting or entertaining television. Cleveland, unhappy that the local drive-in is closing, sings a paean to small-town America in a town meeting, which somehow saves the drive-in and, more importantly, brings Cleveland to the attention of the local preservation society. He's happy to help them preserve the town's history, until he discovers that the town's founder was a major slave-owner and Confederate in the Civil War.
Both the idea of small-town culture being important and distinct from city values, and southern culture's relationship with the history of slavery are fertile ground for emotion, comedy, or intelligent discussion. Cleveland does nothing with those things, preferring instead to turn the concept into a watered-down parody of Ken Burns' famous The Civil War documentary and war movies in general.
This isn't a surprise, of course, but it is a disappointment. There are a couple of chuckles to be found here, and the episode isn't actively annoying. But it's a wasted opportunity, like 95 percent of everything else on The Cleveland Show. C-
In Which I Write Down Funny Lines So That You May Consider Your Tastes Justified:
- “I was gonna lose my feet!”
- “Bart, this is fool's porn!”
- “I'm sure there's a correlation, but is there a causation?” While the correlation/causation thing is really important… it's also occasionally annoying, apparently, cause The Simpsons decided to make fun of it.
- “Don't get off the bus! Don't get off the bus!”
- “Go! Save yourselves!”
- “I can hang my purple heart from it.”
- Happy Grandpa has no problem with baseball salaries: “They're just playing better than the greats of my day.”
- Bart spends all of his drug money, “Ironically on these novelty eyeglasses.”
- Everyone but Bob is reading Tina's diary. “She's better on the page than in person.”
- “Cool hat or job?” “Hat!” “Job!”
- “We're not kissing Jimmy Junior!” “YES WE ARE!”
- “Bumper-to-bumper?” “Ahhhh…”
- “There's your transvestite!” “Get the camera!” I much prefer Linda joining in the trouble to Linda the wet blanket TV mom.
- “You're gonna need a bigger hat.” Louise's throwaway line to Bob's job as a pimp.
- “Why don't you pick it out of the food you serve here. Ka-boom!”
- “Crack…?” “Just the beer then.” Bob gets invited out by the transvestite hookers.
- “Come on, boys! You're the peanut butter; girls, you're the jelly. Let's make some sandwiches!”
- “Snap.” “One more.” “Snap.”
- Stewie doesn't have time to be evil. “I'm learnin' what shapes are.”
- “Eheheheheh. I stole Meg's cutaway.” A remarkably Peter-light episode. See how I just remarked on it?
- “There's no coke in here.” “Aw, fuck, Ricardo's gonna kill me.”
- “This feels right. But it tastes like a dirty penny.” I love raunchy Patrick Stewart.
- “…and pork my small-town wife…”
- Cleveland finally listens to the town's official, racist song: “Those are the words??”
- “Should we have brought something?” “No! You're here to yell at him!” “Still…”
- Donna tells Cleveland to hit the chief racist where it hurts. “You're right! His mistress!”
- “Dressed up like a civil war guy. Nailed a chick with pink-eye in the Taco Bell bathroom.”