Many explanations have been offered for the creative decline of The Simpsons, from standard seasonal rot to the alleged tyranny of former showrunner Mike Scully. But one of the most persistent theories has been that when Matt Groening created Futurama with Simpsons writer David X. Cohen, he took the best of The Simpsons’ staff with him. While the work of Cohen and other former Simpsons scribes who migrated to Futurama like Ken Keeler, Bill Oakley, and Josh Weinstein cannot be overlooked, the truth of the series’s fall from grace is far more complicated.
But it’s not hard to see why the Futurama theory is so appealing. Futurama came about right when The Simpsons started to lose its fastball. And though Futurama has had its fourth, and presumably final, series finale, while The Simpsons marches on, in many ways Futurama feels like the spiritual successor to The Simpsons’ greatest years. No other show has been better able to replicate the peculiar alchemy of Springfield—the combination of a cynical worldview, a devotion to absurdist humor, and an undeniable grounding in real heart and character moments—than Futurama.
I dreaded the Simpsons/Family Guy crossover. Even setting aside the inherent pitfalls of crossovers generally, it’s been a long time since either show was pitching its fastball. Despite the two series’ basic similarities, their comedic sensibilities differ pretty dramatically. The idea of one show’s staff writing the other show’s characters did not inspire confidence in either side of the writers’ room. And the tense, if playful, rivalry between The Simpsons and Family Guy did not suggest an easy fit behind the scenes.
But against all odds, Richard Appel, who served as a writer and producer for both shows, oversaw the episode, and put together a surprisingly cohesive, funny, and above all else, worthwhile crossover.
It wasn’t great, or more accurately, it wasn’t satisfying. But maybe the series finale of How I Met Your Mother made sense.
The show spent a great deal of time convincing us that the idea of a romantic relationship between Ted and Robin was toxic for them both. It seemed to hammer home the point that while Ted and Robin had a spark, or a connection, or something that continued to draw them back to each other, they would never truly fulfill each other’s needs, and they were, more often than not, only going to hurt each other in the attempt. Numerous episodes posited that there were simply fundamental differences between Ted and Robin that would keep them from working out over the long haul.
And yet much of the overall story of How I Met Your Mother is Ted and Robin having to relearn this lesson over and over again. Several times over the course of the series it seemed like they had figured that out; once and for all, only to come back to each other in moments of weakness or wanting and have to painfully learn it all over again.
Every series starts out with a basic premise – a storytelling engine that is supposed to power the show. Some shows ride that engine until, and sometimes long after, it breaks down. Others make tweaks along the way that keep things from sputtering out. Some shows will even swap their initial premise out for something totally new in the hopes that it will give the series new life going forward. The best series, however, take that initial premise and let it evolve naturally. At heart, I believe the producers of Dexter have tried to make it that sort of show.
The first season of Dexter used its original premise to great effect. That initial season was a golden time on the show where everything was still a mystery, or a possibility, or a hint of a future storyline which all stemmed from the show’s central idea. Yet, as the seasons have gone by, Dexter has faced several challenges that largely seemed organic to his two-fold identity as a secret serial killer working for the police. He’s handled a large-scale investigation into his activities. He’s tested whether he can have real relationships with others, both romantic and platonic. He’s had to balance his need to kill with his need to be a brother, husband, and father. In this way, Dexter has let its story and its protagonist grow and change in ways that feel natural to that original idea, if a bit shoehorned into season-long arcs.
But despite that evolution, Dexter has held tightly to a few pieces of its initial premise, saving them for a rainy day. Some of the biggest questions the show had asked in its very first episode have been left waiting to be answered. What if the people close to Dexter found out what he really is? What if Dexter got caught? What if his secret identity was out in the open? Season 7 of Dexter pulled the trigger on exploring the first question and thoroughly teased the second and third. And it made it a season brimming with possibilities.
Superman is an alien from beyond our solar system, but also a part of humanity. He’s a boy from Kansas, but also a demigod. He is, at once, both the other and the familiar. It’s a duality that director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer explore in Man of Steel, and they demonstrated the similar duality that’s inherent in attempting to adapt Superman for the screen.
In the film, Superman struggles with the tension between his knowledge that he is a living monument to a world and a people who have long since been destroyed and the feeling that he is a part of our world with friends and loved ones who are just as meaningful. By the same token, the film’s creative brain trust (which includes the director of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan) struggles to both honor Superman the icon, the character who has come to represent so much over the course of decades of stories in every medium imaginable, and make him a relatable character who movie audiences can connect with.
It was a noble effort, and a difficult one at that, but ultimately, an unsuccessful one as well. At the end of the film, Superman is still more icon than man and more symbol than individual.
Posted in Movies
Tagged Christopher Nolan, Clark Kent, Comic Book Movies, David S. Goyer, Dianne Lane, General Zod, Henry Cavill, Kevin Costner, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Superhero Movies, Superman, Zack Snyder
I’ll admit off the bat that this beer, which I received on tap at The Ginger Man in New York City, was just not my style. In short, the beer tasted like stale wine that had been left sitting on a radiator. No one at my table could stand more than a sip. My craft-loving friend was vehement that the bar’s keg had gone bad, and he was aghast when the waitress insisted it was supposed to taste like that.
I’ve come to understand that grape-y sewage may have been the flavor Lagunitas was going for when it brewed the Sonoma County Stout. If so, then I congratulate them on the achievement, and I can confirm that they have not only concocted a beverage suitable for anyone who enjoys the taste of skunky Guinness mixed with a jug of Welch’s that got left in the garage over the summer, but also potentially violated the Geneva convention.
Michael Scott had just hit Meredith with his car. Jim and Pam were already together. That’s where I started with The Office.
I don’t normally begin television shows in the middle. In fact, I’m pretty doctrinaire about avoiding spoilers and slogging through a series’ early growing pains to understand the foundation on which later stories and character developments will be built. But a friend had invited me to a watch party for the Season 4 premiere. I was hard pressed to say no.
And it cracked me up.
Oddly enough, some fans point to the fourth season as the beginning of the series’ decline – when it stopped being a realistic if fractured look at modern office life and descended into the wacky adventures of an increasingly cartoonish workforce. But the laughs got my attention. Every week, Michael Scott had some great line that tickled my funny bone until the next episode aired. From something as weird as “You don’t know me; you just saw my penis.” to confused statements like “New ideas are fine, but they’re also illegal.” to the even more whimsical pronouncements like “I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY!” each episode had more than its fair share of entertaining and quotable bits.
But while the buffoonery of Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute drew me in, it was the show’s emotional core – best exemplified by the relationship between Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly – that made the show something special. When I first watched them hold hands and pick out ridiculous items from a garage sale, I had no idea of the strain and struggles the characters had been through to get there. I just saw a cute couple who had a fun repartee and seemed to really enjoy each other’s company. That was what kept me coming back.
When I really think about it, it’s sad.
The characters in our favorite books, movies, and television shows are not really our friends. Their journeys–the times that they’ve struggled, succeeded, tripped, and triumphed–are events that we have, at most, witnessed, rather than participated in. Those people and their adventures do not exist. They never did, they never can, and they never will. Our having experienced those events vicariously does not make them truly belong to us. No matter how genuine those stories feel to us, no matter how much time we may have “spent” with these individuals, they are all mere reflections, tricks of light and stage and pen that create the illusion of something real, even when that illusion is earnestly felt.
But we, or at least I, cannot help but feel that kind of connection to these characters and their stories. When critics talk about the world of a book feeling “lived in,” they’re underscoring that sense of truth that can pervade a work. When they talk about an emotional moment feeling “earned,” they mean that there’s been some build, some understanding between creator and audience that has been established over time, that makes a scene or a speech or a character feel real. That’s what the best works are able to do–make their audiences feel a connection to something that’s not really there.
A professor of mine once gave a firm warning on the importance of triage. He explained, “Every year, I tell my class that each exam question is worth the same amount. And yet every year, I read the exams of students who wrote near-perfect and exhaustive answers to the first question, but who clearly did not leave enough time to answer the other two. It’s the product of an inherently flawed thought process: ‘If I just make the one answer perfect enough, it will make up for the others, despite the fact that they’re worth an equal number of points.’ Well, it won’t; it can’t, and at the end of the day, you’ll do poorly.”
This warning was stuck in my head as I watched the Dallas Cowboys’ 2013 draft, a draft that seemed as focused on perfecting the areas where the team already excels, rather than improving on the team’s glaring weaknesses.
Posted in Football, NFL
Tagged B.W. Webb, Dallas Cowboys, DeVonte Holloman, Gavin Escobar, J.J. Wilcox, Jason Garrett, Jason Witten, Jerry Jones, Joseph Randle, Martellus Bennett, Monte Kiffin, NFL Draft, Rod Marinelli, Stephen Jones, Tampa 2 Defense, Travis Frederick
It’s fairly easy to divide up the first twelve years of the The Simpsons, into different eras based on who served as the showrunner for each season. Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon established the show in its first two seasons. Al Jean and Mike Reiss took the series to new heights in Seasons 3 and 4. David Mirkin brought a more joke-heavy style in Seasons 5 and 6. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein ran the show with a more experimental bent in its seventh and eighth seasons. And finally, Mike Scully presided over the series’ creative decline in Seasons 9-12. Each period within this time frame has its own style and sensibility that can be traced back to the individuals in charge.
After that, however, things get tricky. Al Jean returned as showrunner for Season 13, and instead of the usual two-to-three year tour of duty on the job, he has proceeded to hang onto that title for over twelve years, producing more than 250 episodes in that time.
That’s nearly half of the show’s run, and it’s much more difficult to chop up those seasons up into discrete eras. Some of the show’s most ardent fans have thrown around terms like “Early Jean,” “Late Jean,” and “the HD era.” Some have tried to use The Simpsons Movie as a dividing line during Jean’s tenure. But it’s much harder to classify the gradual, sometimes rocky, evolution of the show under a single individual than it is to note the sharp changes in direction that came when different showrunners each brought their distinct visions for the series to the table.