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Monthly Archives: April 2017
For a split-second, I believed him. I believed Chuck McGill when he told the Assistant District Attorney that his brother had a good heart, that Jimmy would never actually hurt him, and that maybe there was an easier way to end all of this unpleasantness. I thought that maybe Jimmy’s speech to his brother, uttered while sitting on the curb waiting for the cops to pick him up, had made an impression. Chuck might have remembered all that Jimmy has done for him, understood that his brother means well, and wanted to avoid selling him down the river.
Better Call Saul is often a slower show, even by the standards of modern prestige dramas. To some degree, that is a necessary consequence of its status as a prequel. If it moves too quickly, suddenly it’s running into the series’s already known future. If it packs in too much incident, then it starts to seem all the more glaring that major events and shared histories are not mentioned or only grazed on Breaking Bad. Still, the show turns that slow burn into a feature, not a bug. It lets the events and conflicts of the series simmer while digging deep into the development of its characters and the details of their lives before things froth to a boil.
But even by Better Call Saul standards, “Witness” is a slow episode. That’s not a complaint, necessarily. Much of the proceedings center on Mike tracking down the people monitoring him, enlisting Saul in the endeavor, and there is a diligent, unhurried pace to that effort. The episode is content to play Mike’s mission out, evoking the sense of his dogged determination and the complexity and sophistication of what he’s up against.
Two devices, each meant to record, to track, so as to create leverage over another, are at the forefront of “Mabel.” Each, in their own roundabout way, needs its batteries replaced, and in both instances, that unintentionally exposes the person deploying it. Once again, two stories that seemingly have nothing to do with one another maintain such tight but unshowy thematic ties in a way that makes the two seems inextricably intertwined.
In other words, Better Call Saul is back! The opening salvo of the show’s third season offers a simple parallel that serves as a reminder of how great this series is at setting up the little things that will no doubt have much bigger echoes down the line. The two plots in this episode – one about the fallout from Jimmy revealing his malfeasance to Chuck, and the other hinging on Mike trying to figure out how a mysterious third party knew his intentions – both take things slow, letting the audience see the incremental progress of each story. But it’s immediately clear in each of them how these developments are building to a bigger reckoning.
There was a hue and cry after the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead. Two characters we knew and cared about died, and people were undeniably, understandably upset. Some of that reaction stemmed from the mere brutality of it – the protruding eyeball and the last gasps and the earth stained with bloody mush of it all. But more of it stemmed from the senselessness of those deaths – the sense in which these individuals had perished not as the culmination of their journeys, but as fodder for puffing up the series’s new biggest of big bads, turned into sacrifices made on the altar of “this guy means business.”
Too many talented writers have passed through the doors of The Simpsons to count. From folks who’ve gone on to create great television shows of their own like David X. Cohen (Futurama) and Greg Daniels (The Office, King of the Hill) to stellar longtime contributors like John Swartzwelder and George Meyer to those who’ve broken out as stars in their own right like Conan O’Brien, the writers’ room of The Simpsons has seen a nearly unmatched array of superb comic scribes contributing their wit and humor to the program.
But in the nearly 30 years The Simpsons has been on the air, only nine individuals (with one honorable mention) have served as showrunners for this hallowed and hilarious series. They’re the first names you see in the credits after the end of an episode, a sign that however a story began, however it may have changed and been shaped by the show’s fantastic team of writers, animators, and performers, the buck ultimately stopped with them. These nine people were responsible for shepherding each episode from the first pitch to the final cut, and it makes their contributions to The Simpsons unique, even among the scores of creative people who make the show possible.
Names are one of The Simpsons’ many strengths. There will never be another “Homer” this side of The Odyssey who isn’t compared to Springfield’s resident oaf. Only The Simpsons could mine the middle name of former President Richard M. Nixon and give it to poor Milhouse. And who could forget that Sideshow Bob’s real name is Robert Underdunk Terwilliger, an appellation as elaborate and ungainly as his hairstyle.
But there are many within the show’s expansive cast of characters who haven’t needed a name to make a big impact on The Simpsons’ universe. Whether it be surly comic book store proprietors, voice-cracking Krusty Burger employees, or feline-tossing loonies, Springfield is filled with plenty of people that stand out, even if we’re not sure what’s on their driver’s licenses.
Instead, these folks are referred to by whatever we know them best for: their place of employment, their most popular accessory, or just their overall demeanor. And yet, they are as vital and hilarious as any other denizens of Springfield, even as they soldier on in relative, nameless obscurity. In that spirit, here is our salute to the 12 best characters from The Simpsons who are known by a title, a pseudonym, or as Marge once put it, a vague description, rather than an actual name.
There’s typically a shelf life for television shows, especially comedies. Part of a comedy’s potency comes from its ability to surprise its viewers, to leave them taken aback with some hilarious and audacious line, gag, or sequence. But as a show gets on in years, the characters become more familiar, and the rhythms of a show’s storytelling and humor begin to be recognizable. That, almost inevitably, leads to escalation, where characters grow more caricatured, events start to become bigger and more dramatic, and episodes turn more and more self-referential.
And yet, even as it enters its eighth season, Archer has managed to stave off much of this standard seasonal rot. Part of that stems from the fact that it’s hard to turn the show’s already exaggerated figures into caricatures. Right from the jump, Sterling Archer was already a version of the Bond-esque superspy with all the drinking, womanizing, and death-defying qualities taken up to eleven. Part of it comes from the strength of the show’s dialogue and clever, densely layered writing, which continues to crackle even as certain plots may spin out or grow unwieldy.
But a big part of how Archer has managed to stay fresh, even as it moves within spitting distance of the 100-episode mark, comes from creator Adam Reed’s consistent willingness to reinvent and evolve the series as it carries on. Reed, who in addition to creating the show has been a credited writer on every episode, is not afraid to shake up the premise of his series — the setting the Archer gang finds themselves in, the types of stories told, and the characters’ relationships with one another.
In the opening of “Last Exit to Springfield”, one of The Simpsons’ most celebrated episodes, Homer and Bart watch a scene from the latest McBain shoot-em-up. It ends with McBain’s dastardly antagonist Mendoza laughing maniacally, having felled his adversary with a poisoned salmon puff. Bart is aghast at such villainy, but Homer reassures his son that “there’s nobody that evil in real life.” Then, in one of the show’s trademark subversions, the episode immediately cuts to Mr. Burns, who is laughing exactly as maniacally at an imperiled window washer who’s dangling just outside his office.
The lesson is clear. As much as we may wish our most fearsome of foes were confined to celluloid and pixels, sometimes the art that holds a mirror up to nature can reflect our reality with a disquieting accuracy. More to the point, given that long ago The Simpsons itself had already depicted a wealthy businessman running for office against an experienced civil servant while railing against the establishment; since it had already shown a former TV star and political outsider (with awful, awful hair) defeating an incumbent through his use of media-friendly bombast; and considering the show even went so far as to posit a future where a newly elected Lisa Simpson would inherit a budget crunch from President Trump, perhaps we should start paying closer attention to its predictions.
But The Simpsons doesn’t just provide, as Kent Brockman puts it, “a chilling vision of things to come.” It also offers guidance. While no one should aim to look, think, or act like Homer Simpson, episodes like “Last Exit to Springfield” shine a light on the way regular people can find themselves emboldened by circumstance and demonstrates how we unwashed masses can stand up to the plutocratic figureheads who might threaten to take away the things we need and hold dear.
There’s something perfect about the much-awaited third season of Rick and Morty debuting, without warning, on April Fool’s Day, even after Adult Swim had announced the show would not return until July. It fits with the series’ “pull the rug out from under you” spirit. But it also fits the specific episode that kicks off the season. The surprise debut is a way of toying with the show’s devotees, just as “The Rickshank Rickdemption” constantly finds ways to play with the audience’s expectations: about how Rick will escape from prison, about his backstory, and most importantly, about whether he is a good person in pain or merely a self-absorbed bastard.
At its best, Rick and Morty is the sum total of these things. When it’s firing on all cylinders, the show combines off-the-wall, imaginative sci-fi action with dark, introspective character moments, and if “Rickdemption” is any indication, there’s plenty more of each to come. The bits of thrilling sci-fi weirdness — from Inception-like journeys into the mind to leapfrogging consciousness transfers, to neon-hued battles between disparate forces across space — were colorful and inventive from start to finish. There are few shows on television with such a commitment to mind-bending storytelling and madcap left turns all over like Rick and Morty.
But what elevates the episode is how it serves as the perfect follow-up to the question the show asked in its Season 2 finale: What motivates Rick Sanchez? Is he a hero, as Summer thinks, some sort of demon or crazy god, like Morty thinks, or is he someone whose motivations are so opaque and arbitrary that he more or less defies that sort of binary characterization?