Thursday, February 22, 2018

22 Short Pieces About Springfield: Number Ten - “Thanks to you, we're having fun. Before-we-had-kids fun!”

Season 23, Episode 19
“A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again”
First Broadcast: April 29, 2012
Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Simpsons Wikia.

Filled with an oddly disproportionate sense of ennui, Bart believes his life is ever unchanging and that, despite him only having ten years of experience in the world, the situation is hopeless and he is doomed to his existence.  On seeing a commercial for a cruise ship holiday, he sees the opportunity of distraction, even for a little while, and sells all his worldly possessions in an attempt to fund a trip for him and his family – but this does not glean enough money.

Moved by his desperation, the family decide to fund the shortfall, and they go off for a wonderful holiday…  But as the end approaches, Bart cannot face returning to his rut, and concocts a plan to prolong his happiness by convincing the crew of the ship that there has been an outbreak of a deadly virus throughout the land masses of the world, and that they can never dock again.

Isolated from the world and with supplies running low, things quickly go south for the ship’s company, with society breaking down in short order.  Lisa discovers Bart’s deception and, upon the inevitable revelation of said, the family are dumped off the ship in Antarctica, where Bart reveals his fears.  Marge and Homer explain that life is routine, and advise him to make the most of the moments of fun he gets – starting by sliding with the penguins.  We cut to an old and happy Bart reflecting on his finest moments.


Now unfortunately Season 23 is not yet on Frinkiac, so to keep the balance before we hit the Magic Moments, here's Homer finding his niche as a gladiator in a hideously broken society:

Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Simpsons Wikia.

Bart's run through the ship's many activities.  I'm not quite sure how to describe the animation but it's pretty damn good.

The happy ending.  And if you think that's me being syrupy, you might want a sick bag ready for the final section.

“I’m going to floor.”


The guest star gets a song – we’ll come to him in a minute – called "Enjoy It While You Can", which is (perhaps unsurprisingly) reminiscent of “Enjoy Yourself”, and certainly carries the same sense of impending joylessness:

The episode also includes songs by Hot Chip and Animal Collective, because of course it contains three songs after two consecutive weeks where there hasn't been anything worth posting at all.  Of.  Fucking.  Course.  It.  Fucking.  Does.


Steve Coogan (yes!  It is he!) appears as the ship's entertainment director, Rowan Priddis.  Steve has  a great legacy of modern British comedy, and whilst he is best known for his role as sports journalist and talk show presenter Alan Partridge, he has also entertained in "Saxondale", "Coogan's Run" and "The Trip", and appeared in various Hollywood productions, including a great turn in "Tropic Thunder".

British guest stars are usually pretty entertaining in the show, and it has a good record of getting some of the most famous possible, including all of the surviving Beatles, Mick and Keef from the Stones, The Who and, er, Sting.  Who, give him his due, wasn't actually too bad in "Radio Bart".  Away from music, Eric Idle, Patrick Stewart and Simon Cowell have appeared, as has Ricky Gervais.

(But you don't have to watch that.)

Lamentably, no discussion of British guest stars would be complete without mentioning the most cringeworthy of them all: Season Fifteen's "The Regina Monologues" features a cameo by Tony Blair.  That's former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

But he wasn't then, ohhhh no.  He was Prime Minister at the time of his performance.  Drink that in for a bit - let it settle.  A man routinely described as a war criminal for his actions in our country's name took time out to record lines for an animated comedy show during his time in charge.

And no more need be said on it.


And here’s what you’re wondering: why has he put a Season 23 episode in the top ten?  This isn’t from the established classics – in fact it’s from this decade!  The storyline makes little sense and doesn’t even explain how they get home!  It shoehorns in a guest star for no good reason!

Simply put, this one hit me right in the heart.  Bart was a character that never spoke to me as a child; he seemed smart alecky and annoying, wantonly destructive and entirely unrelatable to a quiet British child growing out of that kind of televisual antic.  The show’s gradual shift to focus on Homer as its main character throughout the third to fifth seasons was what made the show an enduring classic for me.

Here, though, he is given the kind of conundrum that generally hits people much older than him; namely that life has become a glum grind through the same lows every single day, and he yearns for an escape from that, no matter how temporary.  That he attempts to make it permanent with disastrous results is by the by here; that he felt that way in the first place, and that he doesn’t so much solve the problem as learn to live for the few moments of happiness he’ll get, is at once inspiring and heartbreaking.

I can’t remember when I first saw the episode; I’ve only ever seen it twice.  But both times it somehow appeared in Channel 4’s schedule right when I needed it, to remind me that this is life – glorious, horrible, mediocre, warts and all, sun and rain, a constant struggle without tangible rewards on most levels and most of the time, that is actually entirely worth it for those few great moments: an hour with the love of your life; a perfect sunset by the river; another month without illness; a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Join us next time when we’ll be asking if you have any questions – keeping in mind that we’ve already explained about our hair.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

22 Short Pieces About Springfield: Number Eleven - “Up and at them!"

Season 7, Episode 2
“Radioactive Man”
First Broadcast: September 24, 1995

Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Frinkiac.

Set during a spate of air conditioner malfunctions, the episode begins with the revelation that Bart’s favourite comic book, “Radioactive Man”, is being adapted for the silver screen – and is being filmed (or perhaps “flimed”) in Springfield!  With the original actor from the campy sixties television adaptation long dead, “McBain” star Ranier Wolfcastle is miscast as the titular hero, and an open casting is announced for a local child to play his young ward, Fallout Boy.

Despite Bart’s not inconsiderable efforts, he is passed over for the role, which is given to Milhouse – who finds himself to not be cut out for the gruelling and boring lifestyle of a child actor, but is forced into enduring it by his parents’ extravagances.  He eventually flees and hides in Bart’s treehouse, leading to Wolfcastle discovering the futility of his goggles as he is hit by a wave of acid in a stunt gone badly wrong.

The production is hitting snag after snag, largely related to Mayor Quimby and Chief Wiggum’s totally legitimate taxes, including those on both the wearing and non-wearing of puffy director’s pants.  When Milhouse’s refusal to continue filming leaves Mickey Rooney as their best hope for a replacement, the honest, hard-working film crew pay the Leaving Town Tax and return to the loving bosom of their own kind, having been bled dry by the slick small-towners.


Krusty’s pitch for a role in the movie and his later mistimed tantrum.  He might let you down on Silly Sailor, but he still wants to talk about this coffee.

Moe Szyslak straight up murdering the original Alfalfa on the set of "The Little Rascals".

The final insult, as Mickey Rooney realises they have a perfectly good Fallout Boy after all:

Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Frinkiac.

The best bit of music in this is taken from the campy sixties television adaptation of “Radioactive Man” – a clear homage to the “Batman” series of the same era.

Not great, but better than last week...


Rainier Luftwaffe Wolfcastle's career has been on a downslide ever since this ill-fated project.  The series' version of Arnold Schwarzenegger (until the confusing introduction of President Schwarzenegger in "The Simpsons Movie", who not only looked exactly like Wolfcastle but used precisely the same voice), he began his career in bratwurst advertising before graduating to the multi-million dollar "McBain" franchise.

Since then he's been scraping the bottom of the barrel in films such as "Mrs. Mom", "I Shoot Your Face", "I Shoot Your Face Again", "Father Of The Presi-Bot" and "Help!  My Son Is A Nerd".  This run of craptacular bombs led to his yard sale in "The Strong Arms Of The Ma".  He is also probably not the correct choice to host late night talk shows, on account of his homophobia and anti-semitism.

I...  Look, I can't let this be, and I have to mention it: Mickey Rooney plays the most outrageously ill-judged, buck-toothed oriental stereotype in "Breakfast At Tiffany's".  But please - DON'T go and look for it.  Don't watch it, don't view pictures, it is literally the lowest I have seen Hollywood sink.  I'm talking sub-"Short Circuit 2" here.


By the show’s standards at the time, this is a pretty out-there, ungrounded episode – though of course by then, Homer has been in The Beatles and into space, so that’s me put in my place and no mistake – which means we can forget about any semblance of depicting a realistic family and get into a full-scale lampooning of the Hollywood system.

With the bases loaded, all that’s left is for absolutely everything to go as spectacularly wrong as possible – and it duly does, with failed stunts, overspending, reluctant actors, surly teamsters and poor-quality coffee just some of the travails that hilariously play out.  The episode even provides a slick trope inversion in its closing moments, as the failed production staff find solace in the arms of their fellow rich people.

However, Bart is our proxy throughout this episode, and his starry-eyed journey sweeps us up, with him keeping faith even as Milhouse cracks under the pressure, and never losing his sense of wonderment at that business called show.  This leads to the odd conclusion that, for all the skewering, this is a love letter of sorts to the process of film-making - albeit doubtlessly a poison pen affair.

Join us next time, when life is full of pain and misery.  Yay?

Thursday, February 08, 2018

22 Short Pieces About Springfield: Number Twelve - “Who ordered a bathtub Mint Julep?”

Season 8, Episode 18
“Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment”
First Broadcast: March 16, 1997

Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Frinkiac.

After an unfortunate set of circumstances leads to Bart becoming drunk at the Springfield St Patrick’s Day celebration, making him the media icon of a day of ill-temper and violence, an angry mob demands that Mayor Quimby bring back prohibition – an argument that quickly becomes moot when a researcher discovers that prohibition was never overturned in the first place.

The many, many drinkers of Springfield go to great lengths to illegally enjoy their repast, until hard-nosed cop Rex Banner takes over the Springfield Police at Chief Wiggum’s expense.  He drives nearly all the alcohol out of Springfield, but is stymied by the mysterious Beer Baron, who is operating utterly guilelessly from his family’s home, first with discarded booze, then with his own home brews.

With his homemade stills exploding, the Beer Baron is forced to reveal his identity, and as a favour to Chief Wiggum, allows himself to be turned in, getting Wiggum his job back.  Unfortunately the punishment for bootlegging is to be fired from a catapult into an adjoining town – but luckily, the same researcher from earlier discovers in the nick of time that prohibition was repealed almost immediately after it was brought in, and Rex Banner is the recipient of the catapulting as the booze flows back into Springfield, courtesy of the friendly local mafia.


The discovery that Springfield not only still has prohibition on the books, but also a law requiring ducks to wear long pants!
Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Frinkiac.
Rex Banner’s interrogation techniques, which quickly descend from assertiveness to randomly grabbing passers-by and asking if they're the Beer Baron.

Any time spent in Moe’s speakeasy, particularly Chief Wiggum being rumbled there and putting his drunken moves on Maude Flanders.


Plenty of roaring twenties–style musical cues in this one, along with the kind of hot jazz that rambunctious yahoos enjoy.  But there's nothing I can really link to, so here's a half-hour These Animal Men concert:


Well Rexy never came back, so let's look at law in Springfield!

We've obviously just examined an episode that revealed that spirituous beverages are prohibited in Springfield under penalty of catapult, or at least they were until 199 years previously.  And that's just the non-duck one we heard.  Other laws have made it illegal to put squirrels down your pants for the purposes of gambling ("Cape Feare"), tease a fast food order box ("Secrets Of A Successful Marriage") or destroy historic curiosities ("Lisa The Skeptic").

And since we need another sentence, how about we talk about Springfield's greatest legal eagle, Lionel Hutz?  This ambulance chaser is introduced having literally chased Bart's ambulance in "Bart Gets Hit By A Car", and after many, many failed cases, actually seemed to be doing alright as a real estate agent in "Realty Bites".  Unfortunately the character was shelved after the murder of voice actor Phil Hartman in 1998, which also robbed us of Troy McClure.

Jesus.  This format is so much better when there's music and ongoing consequences to talk about...


This is a rare episode indeed: one where Homer actually conceptualises and carries out an intelligent scheme, which does not fail by his own stupidity (despite constantly threatening to – see the exploding stills, liquor clouds, carrying brewing ingredients and equipment past Rex Banner in the street, etc, etc), and actually improves the lives of those around him, both by getting extra money for his family and allowing his friends and neighbour to continue self-drunkening.

Rex Banner is an excellent one-shot character, clearly closely modelled on “The Untouchables” frontman Eliot Ness, and the narration and aesthetic transport us to prohibition times without actually changing more than a few details of the show and its setting.

There’s also some great angry mob, “think of the children!” action, last seen this dumb and voracious following the bear invasion back in the previous season’s “Much Apu About Nothing”.  In fact, for all the focus on the Beer Baron vs. Rex Banner, this is more than anything a great outing for the town of Springfield, which feels more than usual like a living, breathing, knee-jerkingly reactive modern community.

Join us next time when your favourite hero, Radio Man…  (that’s funny – I shouldn’t be able to hear that)…

Thursday, February 01, 2018

22 Short Pieces About Springfield: Number Thirteen - “Shake harder, boy!”

Season 6, Episode 24
“Lemon of Troy”
First Broadcast: May 14, 1995

Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Frinkiac.

As the episode begins, Bart begins to take more of an interest in town pride, spurred on by a telling-off from Marge.  This leads to a confrontation with kids from the neighbouring town of Shelbyville, with whom Springfield has a rivalry that dates back to Jebediah's founding of the town, and is based, naturally, on opposing stances to cousin marriage.  Of course, things almost immediately spiral out of control, and the Shelbyvillains retaliate by stealing Springfield's hitherto-unmentioned lemon tree, which stands as a symbol of the town itself and forms the cornerstone of the economy for prepubescents.

Bart goes under cover, and after a meeting of the Milhouses, they eventually find the tree in an impound lot - a fortress so impenetrable that the tree is good as gone forever.  As the episode’s title suggests, the eventual resolution comes via a Trojan Horse-inspired ploy, as the Springfieldians conspire to have Ned’s RV impounded, giving them the opportunity to reclaim the tree at the perfectly reasonable cost of major damage to the vehicle and the tree itself.

As the dust settles, the children of Springfield sit down to glasses of lemonade, glad to have most of their lemon tree back – whilst the children of Shelbyville sit down to glasses of turnip juice, glad that the haunted tree had been banished forever and inflicted on their unfortunate neighbours.


Marge's town spirit-stoking speech, replete with necessary repetition:

Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Frinkiac.
Lemon-shaped rocks, apparently a perfectly cromulent sight.

The attack dog at the impound yard, failing to be distracted by a steak.  "Faster, son!  He's got a taste for meat now!"


Erm…  Not much to report here.  We're on a really bad run with this section!  But at least Milhouse paraphrases “When Doves Cry” by Prince, so…


Shelbyville - formerly called "Morganville", as anyone who read the last entry's touching tribute to Abe Simpson already knows, you can thank me later - is Springfield's neighbouring town to the west and bitter rival.

It was founded in 1796 by Shelbyville Manhattan, a member of Jebediah Springfield's expedition to find land to settle, and the split occurred due to Jebediah's reluctance to allow cousins to marry in his town.  It's been mentioned in a few episodes before this and is also cited as the city where Luann van Houten grew up - so there's that, like.

Other cities that are nearby Springfield include Capital City, presumably the capital of what is simply referred to as Springfield's State due to the obfuscation over the years, where "Dancin' Homer" failed to make his name, and Ogdenville, which is not only featured in the episode "Coming To Homerica" and shown to have a Scandinavian culture but is, along with also-nearby North Haverbrook, one of the other unfortunate cities that let Lyle Lanley build a monorail for them...


This episode is often dismissed as mediocre, but I've a soft spot for it, so let's be super positive for once and look at all the pluses:

* This is the closest The Simpsons have got to Star Trek's "Mirror, Mirror", woth Shelbyville serving as a parallel Springfield, filled with the same archetypes (well, outside of "Treehouse of Horror" episodes anyway);

* We get Grampa Simpson imparting a speech that, for once, moves the action on rather tha acting as a stalling mechanism;

* A second appearance for Ned's RV, after Season One's "Call Of The Simpsons";

* A story that, for once, unites the town against a common enemy rather than finding comedy in cracks in the community;

* And as a subset of the above point, the kids of Springfield Elementary putting their differences aside, be they nerd, bully or prankster, leading to perhaps the greatest team-up of all time:  Nelson Muntz and Martin Prince, Team Discovery Channel.

Given those points I can't dismiss this episode as merely middling, though it would be fair to say that even I was surprised to find it this high in my own list - which suggests an episode that does somewhat fly under the radar, but when laid out, is greater than the sum of its parts.

Join us next time when we pay a loving tribute to alcohol!  The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems.