Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Best Cartoon Series By Matt Groening

Okay, I did not go see The Simpsons Movie, and I do not intend to and don’t want to. I was very much a fan of "The Simpsons" back when the Simpsons were cool and funny – when Bill Clinton had more to do than hog the stage while Hillary fumes on the sidelines mentaling shrieking "It’s my turn you chunky..."

Well, okay.

"The Simpsons" went through three distinct phases. There was the early, rough era when Homer was a little too alcoholic and mean and the jokes had an unfunny edge to them. There was the all-too-brief middle era when the show was one of the funniest on TV, and then there’s the remainder of the show’s 18-decade run, which is marked by not being funny and too many episodes that have Lisa in them.

Why is it that every sitcom family, even the animated ones, have to have a socially conscious girl in them that sucks the life and humor out of the show whenever she’s on the screen? Think of Tina Yothers. Remember how much "Family Ties"stopped being even slightly entertaining when she was onscreen? You always knew that she was about 1 minute away from some patronizing speech about the rain forest. Just like Lisa Simpson. I think it’s because Hollywood writers are liberals, and because sitcom writers are in their minds important novelists who resent writing scripts for TV shows and want to spend their time writing big important books that nobody would want to read anymore than they want to hear sonorous speeches from Lisa Simpson. But because they can’t write those novels – or because they can but nobody wants to publish or read them – the writers have to make a living writing for sitcoms and so they plug those speeches into the Tina Yothers character and the studio heads go along with it because they think they’re Doing Good by letting the speeches get on the air.

I bet if I could remember much about "Alf" beyond the fact that it was a puppet that looked sort of like a baby Snuffleupagus that ate cats, that show would have a self-important daughter with concerns about the world we live in.

But Lisa was not the only problem with "The Simpsons." She was the only problem that existed for the whole too-long life of the show, true, but there were more problems and the biggest problem was that The Simpsons stopped being funny or relevant and started trying to hard. It went from being a fun mockery of us and society and people in general to something that just couldn’t buy a laugh.

I think I lost interest when Homer became a conceptual artist and flooded the town. The show that brought us "Stop The Planet of the Apes, I Want To Get Off" had devolved into an episode where Homer impossibly flooded Springfield so that Marge could paint again, or something. It was all too much – it was show-offy and unrealistic in a way that wasn’t funny, it was just painful.

I recently– okay, last year – checked in to see if I’d find it funny again, and watched half an episode in which Marge gets hooked on some online game only to find that Bart is a master character that’s killing everyone. First of all, that ripped off "South Park," which was funny because South Park had an episode in which a character keeps pointing out that the Simpsons had done something first, but not funny in a way that made you laugh because of the Simpsons; it was funny in a painful way. Second of all, making fun of online games? Wow, there’s a target nobody’s touched yet. Hey, Simpsons’ writers – what do you think of high gas prices? Aren’t they outrageous? Maybe Lisa could make a speech in favor of solar power! And Homer could wreck the sun?

If I see that as an episode, I’m suing.

What makes "The Simpsons" suckiness so remarkable is that the show sits alongside proof of Matt Groening’s actual genius, the good Groening creation, "Futurama."
Futurama got such a raw deal. It’s already a tough sell – a science fiction cartoon that’s not The Jetsons. But it was on Sundays, on Fox, which meant that it was pre-empted for 9/5 of the year because of football, and when it wasn’t pre-empted it aired immediately after football, and for most people, football and funny-sci-fi-cartoon are not an obvious link. And that combination led to its early demise on Fox and sort-of resurrection on cable.

Futurama was, is, brilliant and hilarious. Loosely the story of the adventures of Fry, who accidentally cryogenically froze himself while delivering a pizza on New Year’s Eve and woke up in the future, it managed to include science and humor and commentary on modern – our modern, nowadays – society alongside absurdities and parodies. It featured easy targets like "Slurms Mackenzie," the hard-partying mascot for the drink "Slurm," and in that episode parodied beach movies and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." And it went after harder targets, more abstract ideas, like the time the professor made an entire universe in a box, and got into a battle with the alternate selves of the characters who thought that our universe was in a box in their universe.

Futurama had great characters. Not just Fry, who was awesomely stupid but genuinely nice, but Leela the one-eyed orphan mutant kickboxing star captain who is Fry’s love interest. It had Bender, Fry’s best friend and roommate and also an alcoholic thief degenerate soap opera star robot. There was Zap Branigan, the sort-of-William-Shatner-esque space captain who might have been wearing pants and might not have been.

Futurama also was hilariously, insanely, funny. The stories were jumping off points for one-liners and site gags and twisty innuendos and plots. A stop for refueling leads Fry to buy a service station sandwich, and eat a crunchy black thing that turns out to be a tomato, resulting a worm infestation that makes him a better, smarter person who Leela loves. The professor’s invention of mutants to play against the Harlem Globetrotters results in time breaking down and jumping at random, giving the humans a chance to cooperate with the Globetrotters to save the universe – and giving Bender a chance to try to become a Globetrotter.

As absurd as they might sound, the stories always amounted to more than they started out to be – because they had a little heart in them. When Fry makes a deal with the robot devil and gets the devil’s hands, he uses them to play the holophone – a clarinet that creates holograms – like a maestro, impressing Leela with the symphony he wrote. Leela, though, goes deaf because of a trick the Robot Devil plays, and ultimately Fry must give up his hands (and his chance to impress Leela) to keep her from having to marry the Robot Devil. But in the end, we see Fry practicing the holophone on his own, determined to impress Leela through his efforts.

Futurama also has the distinction of being the only cartoon to make Sweetie cry – in the episode where Fry tries to track down his lucky 7-leaf clover, only to learn that his older brother, Yancy, had appropriated it and taken Fry’s identity to become a great space explorer. Enraged, Fry goes to rob his grave – SPOILER ALERT – but learns that Yancy had in fact named his son after Fry and given his son the clover because he missed Fry so much after Fry disappeared into the future.

It takes a special sort of genius to make you laugh and cry in an episode that features grave robbing.

That wasn't my favorite episode, though. If I had to pick one, I'd have to go with the one where Fry tries to buy underwear, only to realize he doesn't have enough money. Remembering that he had a bank account, he goes to get some cash and finds out that because of accrued interest over 1000 years, he's deliriously wealthy. Using his money, he goes on a spending spree buying... old 1980's artifacts, including the last can of sardines in the world, which for reasons too complicated to get into, the world's most loveable industrialist wants to get from him. And it's even funnier than it sounds!

Futurama presents a future that looked both inviting and scary, funny and disturbing, exciting and mundane. A world where you could work as a delivery boy but you’re delivering things to planets that are collapsing or controlled by human-hating robots or giant Amazons. A world where petting zoos included Tyrannosaurus Rexes and you could regrow your hands after the dinosaur bit them off. A world that looked a lot like the one we see all around us only it was new and different and fresh each time we blinked.

The future is like that for all of us: it’s a little bit frightening and a little bit intriguing, and it was fun and comforting to see Fry – us – deal with what we suspected (and feared) the future would be like and make it not so bad after all. It was even better to see that done with a sense of style and humor and even have all the science correct. And it was best of all, frankly, to have it done without a hectoring sister in the mix.

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