Tag Archives: TV Reviews

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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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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ReBoot’s First Two Seasons: The Birth of Computer Animation on Television

Toy Story, the first fully CGI feature film, would still have worked without its groundbreaking, digitally-rendered aesthetic. The film’s visuals were certainly eye-popping in 1995, and Pixar’s decision to feature toys as the main characters was partly motivated by an aim to mask the limitations of computer animation at the time. But at its core, Toy Story is a universal tale about jealousy and acceptance than transcends the particular style employed by its creators. It could have been a traditionally animated film or a comic book or even a puppet show, and while some of its elements would certainly have been lost or changed in translation, the heart of the film would still work just as effectively.

ReBoot, on the other hand, the first fully CGI television show (which, incidentally, predates Toy Story by about a year), may very well be inextricable from the medium in which it was expressed. The show’s premise is inherently tied to technology. Set in Mainframe, an electronic metropolis that represents the inner workings of a computer, the world of ReBoot is replete with a series of anthropomorphic “sprites”, “binomes”, and “viruses” who deal with reality-altering games input by a mysterious “User”, unruly visitors from “The Supercomputer”, and vague whispers about “The Web.”

As with Toy Story, the artificiality of ReBoot’s setting helped the show to overcome the fact that full photorealism was beyond the reach of computer animation in the early 90s. But that same digital aesthetic also proved to be the perfect medium for depicting this sort of world, to the point that it’s hard to imagine the series working apart from the computer-generated imagery that made the show stand out among its Saturday morning brethren. That’s why I’m more than a little leery of the upcoming, inevitable reimagining of the series. Part of what made ReBoot so inseparable from its computer-animated style is the fact that the show was not merely closely connected to technology; it was closely connected to a conception of technology as it existed in 1994.

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Futurama: “The Why of Fry” – A Series-Defining Choice and the Relativity of Importance

Philosopher David Hume disclaimed the idea that man was “the rational animal.” He argued that a human being’s capacity for reasoning was as much a slave to the caprices of passion and the weakness of will as in the simple creatures his contemporaries looked down upon. He once wrote, “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

I sincerely doubt that Philip J. Fry was inspired by David Hume, but in “The Why Of Fry”, he expresses a remarkably similar sentiment. In a pivotal scene, Fry learns that his journey to the future was no random mishap, but rather that the Nibblonians chose to cryogenically freeze him and send him a thousand years into the future, without his knowledge or consent, in the hopes that he would one day fulfill a prophecy to save the universe. Fry is outraged, and Nibbler pleads with him, “You were the only one who could help us. What is one life weighed against the entire universe?” Fry responds, clearly devastated, “But it was my life.”

“The Why of Fry” is about the relativity of importance, the way that a person, or an idea, or indeed the whole of existence can be magnified or shrunk in the funhouse mirrors of our minds. Fry is inessential to the Planet Express crew, but to the Nibblonians “the fate of all that exists and ever will exist” rests with him. Chaz has an inflated sense of importance as the Mayor’s aide, but when shown in a different light, he’s quickly revealed to be a puffed up nothing. Leela often feels lonely or isolated or uncared for, but unbeknownst to her, the fact that someone does care about her saves the entire universe from destruction.

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The Sopranos in “College”: The Seeds of the Show’s Spiritual Successors


The Sopranos is credited with ushering in a new “Golden Age of Television”. Its complex family dynamics, black-and-gray morality, and introspective bent were trademarks that set the show apart from its contemporaries. In its wake, a number of other shows emerged that embraced that approach and focused on antiheroes who, to one degree or another, were attempting to balance a double life. Two of these shows, Mad Men and Dexter, can draw a straight line from The Sopranos to their place in the television pantheon. In “College”, an episode from the groundbreaking drama’s first season, The Sopranos planted seeds that those two spiritual successors would have a hand in harvesting.

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