The Simpsons Did a Takeoff on the Caitlyn Jenner Story and It Was…Weird

Say what you will about “Stunning and Brave”, the season premiere for South Park’s nineteenth season, which centers on Caitlyn Jenner and the public’s reaction to her transition, but in that episode, series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had a point they wanted to convey about Jenner and the surrounding media hoopla. In classic South Park style, the quick production turnaround let them have their say while the topic was still fresh in everyone’s minds. And while their commentary may have been crass, with plenty of room to disagree, Trey and Matt had a clear viewpoint and message behind their work that came through in how South Park handled the issue.

The Simpsons’s much longer production cycle means that it’s always going to be playing catch up when it comes to addressing the issues of the day. The show has tried to work around this obstacle, trying everything from turning the show’s lagging response time itself into a joke, making their easier-to-animate chalkboard gags more topical (including in support of South Park), and more recently, creating short topical clips meant for viral internet consumption. But as a general rule, the creative minds behind The Simpsons have had to wait patiently to speak their piece in the national dialogue. Until now.

Enter The Simpsons: Tapped Out, a mobile “freemium” game (the likes of which South Park has previously taken aim at), featuring the denizens of Springfield in a Farmville-meets-SimCity type of environment. Within this game, there are various “quests” — brief in-game tasks that feature minor storylines (often rehashes or sequels to the show’s most notable episodes) with small bits of written, interstitial dialogue to break up the action and add a little flavor to a mode of game play that can otherwise become repetitive. The fact that nearly all of this dialogue is conveyed via comic book-esque speech bubbles, without the need for voice acting or animation, allows it to be much more timely than in the game’s televised counterpart.

It’s in these bits of written dialogue that The Simpsons offered its take on the Caitlyn Jenner story, by having a little-known Springfield mobster become a woman as part of a bid to overthrow the local government, only for the character to just as quickly transition back to being a man, without fanfare, after the citizens turn on him. It’s odd not only for the peculiar nature of this riff on the Caitlyn Jenner story in and of itself, but because the Jenner takeoff seemed tossed off into an unrelated storyline, with no real criticism or commentary behind it.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Chaos Theory” – How We Respond When People Change

People change — some because they want to, some because they have to, and some because of factors beyond their control. It’s a fact of life. But people also have relationships with friends, family, and those closest to them. And as a person changes, so too must those relationships. But navigating how those relationships should evolve in the face of those changes can be extremely difficult, and the more drastic the change the harder it is to figure out. That’s the struggle for Melinda May in “Chaos Theory”.

But it’s also what makes her story, and her relationship with Dr. Andrew Garner compelling here. In Season 2′s “Melinda”, the show implied that May herself was so changed by her experiences in Bahrain that it led to the dissolution of her marriage. She was shaken by the events she witnessed, and these experiences made her a different person, putting a strain on her relationship with Dr. Garner.

Then, as this episode’s flashbacks to Hawaii show, May was finally able to move beyond her past and once again find common ground with the man she loves. The last scene in the episode puts too fine a point on it, but when Andrew takes her picture as she gazes off into the horizon, the implication is that May has finally made some kind of peace with who she is and who she wants to be. Then, right after May finds her equilibrium with the man she loves, he’s forced through his own change, by forces neither of them has any control of. And in “Chaos Theory” those nascent changes drive a new wedge between them. It’s tragic, and it’s not hard to understand why May feels like happiness is something meant to elude her.

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2015 Dallas Cowboys: The Season Ends Before It Began

In 2009, the Dallas Cowboys had one of their best seasons in recent memory. Despite some ups and downs in the regular season, they not only managed to beat the Eagles to win their division, but they picked up Dallas’s first playoff victory since the last gasps of the 90s Cowboys dynasty. Their season would end with a loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the second round of the playoffs, but hopes were high going into the next season. The Cowboys, it seemed, had found their winning formula, and they looked poised to capitalize on their newfound success.

Instead, in 2010, the Cowboys found themselves with a 1-7 record after the first eight games of the season. Due to a combination of some tough breaks in close matchups early in the season, and other fits of missed opportunities and bad luck (including starting quarterback Tony Romo suffering a broken clavicle) the team looked absolutely miserable at the halfway mark. Head Coach Wade Phillips was fired in the middle of the season, and the team would finish well out of playoff contention. The fans lamented that a promising year had gone down the drain.

It’s hard not to feel the echoes of the same one-two punch when looking at the Dallas Cowboys over the last two seasons. In 2014, despite times when it seemed like all was lost, the Cowboys stormed back to outpace the Eagles in the division, win the NFC East, and pull off the team’s first playoff victory since the one in 2009. After years of false starts (both literal and figurative), Jason Garrett seemed to have finally found a winning formula on both sides of the ball. Though the team’s post-season ended in a controversial loss to another NFC North opponent, hopes were once again high for the following season, where Dallas was penciled in as a playoff, and maybe even Super Bowl, contender.

Instead, in 2015, Tony Romo suffered another clavicle injury; the team again found itself on the losing end of a number of bad breaks in close games, and the Cowboys struggled, stumbling to a paltry 2-6 record at the halfway point of the season, hopelessly out of playoff contention. Once more, a season where Dallas looked so primed for success had gone down in flames. And it felt all too familiar.

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Adventure Time: “The Comet” – The Different Shades of Meaning as Finn Finds His Place

The Land of Ooo, the setting for Adventure Time, is a bright, candy-colored world, but those garish hues mask the harsher truth revealed over the course of the show — that the series takes place not in some wholly imaginary fantasy land, but rather on Earth, generations after humanity was wiped out in “The Great Mushroom War”. That kind of contrast is also the central conceit of the show, where a series that, on the surface, appears to be a silly children’s cartoon, with brightly-colored characters and goofy adventures, reveals an unexpected depth, sensitivity, poignance, and even, occasionally, profundity, belied by the fairy tale nature of its setting and style.

Adventure Time embraces the basics of its palette in “The Comet”, the finale of the show’s sixth season. There are three distinct philosophies on life and on choosing one’s path within it offered in “The Comet”. These philosophies are symbolized by the three primary colors, and none of them is so favored or dismissed as to be dominating or irrelevant in the show’s calculus.

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Halloween’s Michael Myers and the Terror of What We Can’t Understand

To understand something is to take away its power. A look behind the curtain renders the tricks in front of it less formidable. The mechanical dinosaur isn’t as scary after the director opens it up to show us the gears and pistons that make it move. The things that we understand are less imposing, even if they are beyond our control, because they can be classified, categorized, and broken down into digestible little chunks until they no longer represent the unlimited, terrible possibilities of the unknown.

In Halloween, director John Carpenter never gives the audience a chance to fully understand the monster he crafts in celluloid. He never lets us truly know Michael Myers — what makes him tick, what produced the cold-blooded killer who emerges from the void at the film’s beginning. Indeed, through the character of Dr. Loomis, Carpenter suggests that Michael may very well be something unexplainable, something that cannot be parsed or reduced to understanding. He simply is.

And that’s a sizeable part of what gives Michael Myers so much power on the screen, so much capacity to terrorize and frighten us. Michael stands a step apart from any discernible human thought or feeling. He is simply a force, lurking in the shadows, silent, cold, and methodical as he completes his grisly labors.

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Is A Nightmare on Elm Street as Scary in 2015 as It Was in 1984?

What makes a work of art a classic in one era and laughable in another? I’ve written before about the Citizen Kane Effect, or the idea that some works that were groundbreaking for their time had such a profound effect on the medium that they essentially became the new standard, to the point that the innovations of the past might appear mundane to the modern eye. But there’s a flipside to this phenomenon — sometimes a work is innovative and interesting for its time, but as the years pass on, the tropes of the genre change, or the grammar and shorthand for how particular ideas are expressed evolve. When this happens, older works can feel miscalibrated or even half-baked to viewers who come to them after their heydey, having grown accustomed to the conventions of follow-on works that build on, and eventually move away from, their hallowed predecessors.

Perhaps this is why, despite my best efforts, I essentially laughed my way through A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s prudent to go into any work of art, especially those considered landmarks of the genre, with an open mind. While some seminal works may be overpraised, it’s worth the effort to appreciate why something is considered a classic, even if a modern viewer may have trouble connecting with it. But at a certain point, no matter how hard we try, we cannot escape the baggage that we carry into our viewing experiences.

Perhaps it’s naive to expect a horror film to have the same impact thirty years after its debut that it did when it was originally released. And yet, my prelude to A Nightmare on Elm Street was The Exorcist, a film that predated Nightmare by nearly a decade, but was still just as vivid, striking, and scary in the present day as it was to audiences in the seventies. At the same time, my postscript to the film was Nightmare director Wes Craven’s own Scream, released a little more than a decade later, which manages to be both frightening and fun while trafficking in the same tropes that Craven himself helped establish in Kruger’s first slasherrific outing. So what makes the difference? Why is one scary movie chilling and another chuckle-worthy?

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Daria: “The Misery Chick” – Why Daria Is One of Television’s Most Interesting Characters


The first season of Daria is good, but not great. Many of the elements that would eventually establish the show as a touchstone for disaffected youth were already in place in these early installments. From the beginning, Daria showed off the deadpan snark that would make her famous; the rest of the Morgendorffer clan had their basic personalities sketched out, and the show was already devoted to shining a satirical light on the lumpier parts of high school and teenage life writ large.

But in the show’s early going, its bread-and-butter humor and critiques of life as a young adult are a little less sophisticated and a little more obvious. The satire isn’t as sharp or incisive as it would become later in the series, and the secondary characters are flatter and more stereotypical. Most of all, the series only gives glimpses of the depth and insight series creators Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn would eventually imbue into Daria and the show’s title character.

This all makes me sound far more negative on Season 1 than I mean to be. Even if Daria had never progressed past what it was able to accomplish in its first season– creating a fully formed protagonist who could wield witty barbs like a literate ninja, mustering a solid dose of knives-out fun directed at one-dimensional high school archetypes, and offering a fractured take on life as a teenager–it would still be an enjoyable series with a memorable hook.

But in “The Misery Chick”, an episode written by Eichler that served as the finale of the show’s first season, the folks behind Daria showed the series’s uncanny ability to address complicated, meaningful topics with a deft hand. What’s more, the episode served as something of a mission statement for Daria herself and also proved that the series could show empathy for its broader, less likeable secondary characters, revealing the hidden depths and humanity of the less-flatteringly-depicted residents of Lawndale. These are the elements that allowed Daria to transcend being a simple paean to teenage snark, and become one of the most incisive and hilarious looks at young adulthood ever on television.

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Rick and Morty: “Wedding Squanchers” – Leaning Into the Unadulterated Complexity of Rick Sanchez

Who is Rick Sanchez? Is he simply an amoral (or post-moral) mad scientist with a drinking problem? Is he a reluctantly self-sacrificing grandfather who secretly loves the family he occasionally torments? Is he an anti-authoritarian hedonist with no regard for sentient life or anything else that stands in the way of his fun? Is he a man in pain who keeps himself constantly moving forward so as not to have to face his own demons and personal failings? Is he a jaded spacefarer who’s seen a universe’s worth of crap and has to dig through it to recover the remaining scraps of his humanity buried underneath?

Rick Sanchez is all of these things. He’s a man who’s keen to kick back and watch the turmoil of a “Purge Planet” like it’s a spectator sport. He’s a man who’s willing to sacrifice his own life to save his grandson. He’s a man who would create an entire miniature universe, complete with intelligent life just to power his spaceship. He’s a man who attempts to kill himself after being left by an old flame once more and told he’s a bad influence. He’s a man who has fought in a war, walked away from a failed marriage, and accordingly refuses to leave himself vulnerable. And he is also a man who scarred his daughter by abandoning her when she was young, but who later turned himself in to the authorities to keep her and her family from having to live as intergalactic fugitives.

In short, he’s complicated. It’s easy to mistake the divergent takes on the same character that inevitably emerge from the cacophony of voices in a T.V. writer’s room for complexity. But given Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon’s history of writing damaged, multifaceted characters, it’s no stretch to see these characteristics as something more than just a jumbled series of inconsistent traits. Instead, they are signs of the conflicting impulses within one of the most three-dimensional characters to ever anchor a comedy as madcap and irreverent as Rick and Morty.

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Boogie Nights: Depiction, Endorsement, and the Wounded Humanity of P.T. Anderson’s Film

Depiction does not equal endorsement. An artist may explore the depths of something controversial or lurid or profane without giving it their stamp of approval. This is how we defend films, television shows, and other works of art against the myriad pearl-clutchers and watchdog groups who gnash their teeth, gather their pitchforks, and declare that “something must be done.” It’s how we protect the scores of transcendent works about unseemly, unsavory, or otherwise unpalatable personalities who offer compelling narratives, but who may never receive their societally-mandated dose of comeuppance or public shame by the time the story ends.

But here’s a dirty little secret – depiction is much more complicated than either the defenders or the scolds would readily admit.

Make no mistake — the fact that a film simply shows bad behavior, even in seemingly glamorous terms, does not necessarily mean that the director intends it as something to aspire to. The camera itself makes no judgments. Context speaks volumes. But merely pointing a camera at someone or something does still send a message. It says, “This is worth caring about, or at least worth paying attention to.” Aim it at a particular event, or individual, or group of people, and it says theirs is a story worth telling.

Which is to say that when Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson decided to point his camera at the lightly-fictionalized men and women of the San Fernando Valley porn industry in the 1970s and 1980s, he never truly glamorizes their existence or expresses his unqualified approval for how they live their lives. To the contrary, though the film ends on a note of bittersweet hope, the thrust of the work is how the flash and filth depicted, and the lifestyle that accompanies, thoroughly and pervasively runs these poor folks through the wringer.

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The Simpsons: “Duffless” – Homer’s Temporary Sobriety and How to Show Growth on a Sitcom

The Simpsons has never addressed Homer’s alcoholism more directly than it did in “Duffless”, and for good reason. As I discussed with the fine folks at the The Simpsons Show podcast this week, Homer’s love for beer is such an essential part of who he is to the general public, that it’s almost as synonymous with him as his dim-wittedness or his love of donuts. That essentially means the show can never truly change this facet of Homer’s personality, which, in turn, makes it pretty unlikely that The Simpsons will ever explore the issue in any greater depth than it did here. It’s a serious topic to tackle in the first place, and it’s a tough one to get right when you have to leave an iconic character the way you found him, to the point that he’s basically not allowed to make any sort of change for the better. Thus the series, as a general rule, tends to sidestep the issue.

Don’t get me wrong, The Simpsons frequently makes references to Homer’s vigorous beer consumption, but it’s generally played for laughs and never taken terribly seriously. I don’t have a problem with that either. Sure, at a big picture level there may be something mildly pernicious about depicting someone who drinks as much as Homer does never suffering any lasting consequences from it, but (1) The Simpsons is a comedy show, not an after school special and (2) Homer is, entirely independently of his drinking, already a terrible role model who rarely, if ever, suffers consequences for anything. Heck, the show centered an entire episode around that idea. If Homer Simpson is the example by which people live their lives, then they have bigger problems than one-too-many Duffs.

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