Christopher Farnsworth

Author of Blood Oath, The Eternal World, and Killfile

Tag: TV

Where "The Simpsons" Went So Very, Very Wrong

I am a fan of “The Simpsons” in the way the severely mentally ill are fans of anti-psychotics. Which is to say, it’s less a TV show than the thing that keeps the bad voices at bay for me.

All this week they’re doing “Classic Simpsons Week” at Splitsider, and it’s a perfect excuse for me to indulge my neurosis.

Even though “The Simpsons” has gone downhill in the past decade or so, I still keep injecting the episodes through my eyeballs into my brain. And there are bright spots that cause me to actually Laugh Out Loud, as opposed to just typing the acronym.

But if there’s a moment the show jumped the sharkif I had to name just one — I’d go with “The Principal and The Pauper.” The second episode of Season Nine, it was the first Simpsons ep to crumple all the accumulated love and goodwill of the show and toss it in the trash for the sake of a not-very-funny joke.

Harry Shearer, who voices Seymour Skinner (and many other characters), has said he didn’t know what the hell the writers were thinking when they decided Skinner wasn’t actually Skinner, but someone named Armin Tamzerian. Many fans agree. Showrunners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein defended the episode as “an experiment,” and have said that it’s not really meant to be taken as canon.

There’s an argument to be made about what constitutes the “real” continuity of the fictional lives of a bunch of cartoon characters, but frankly, it’s the effect on the franchise itself that’s more interesting to me.

Todd VanDerWerff of the Onion has a great essay on the two types of sitcoms: the anything-for-a-laugh sitcom, which uses the characters as joke delivery vehicles, with little or no concern for their long-term development; and the character-driven sitcom, which tries for laughs based on the people and the stories rising from their cramped little worlds. Think of it like this: Type 1 is “30 Rock.” Type 2 is “Community.” (That’s at the high end, of course.)

Up until “Principal, “The Simpsons” was a Type 2 sitcom. Even as surreal as it could get — the man falling off the bridge while in line for Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie who screams “I regret nothing!” on his way down  — I’d argue its core was always the interactions between the family members. This provided some of the best laughs, but also the genuinely touching moments.

Then, with “Principal,” the show shifted gears into a Type 1 show with such a lurch that its transmission was left in pieces all over the asphalt.

Whatever the intention behind the episode, it broke the show. After “Principal,” the series was a Type 1 sitcom — and that’s something that just does not have the same kind of vital, beating heart as character-based fiction to me. Any interplay between Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie is just another gimmick now. It’s nothing that arises from a sense of them as a family. It’s simply what needs to be done to wrap up the plots and jokes in time for the credits.

You can go from a Type 2 to a Type 1 sitcom; it happened after too many seasons on “Cheers.” But once you break the heart of the story like that, you cannot go back to being Type 2. It would be like Charlie Sheen’s character suddenly asking his mother why she never loved him on Two and a Half Men.

I watch Type 1 sitcoms the same way I read plot-driven novels or watch special-effects tentpole movies — to see what happens. I rarely ever watch them again, because once that question is answered, there’s no reason to go back for more.

But with shows like “Firefly,” “Sports Night” and “Venture Bros.,” I replay them again and again, and not just because I missed some of the jokes while I was laughing. I catch new stuff, see scenes in new ways and discover little hidden meanings in the margins.

Yeah. I need to get out more.

But look back to “The Simpsons” 100th episode and you’ll see what I mean. Another Skinner-centric story, “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song” — written by Oakley and Weinstein, by the way — shows the principal getting fired from his job due to Bart’s dog getting loose in the school’s ventilation system. He and Bart actually become friends in the outside world. Of course, everything has to go back to normal at the end of the ep, but it’s not done in the ham-fisted, meta-commentary way of “Principal.” Instead, Bart places a “kick me” sign on Skinner’s back when the two hug after Skinner resumes his job. And Skinner puts a sign on Bart that says “teach me.” It’s an undeniably sweet moment.

And it’s one that the show could never pull off today.

I still love “The Simpsons.” But it’s never going to feel like that again.


Action Figures

Venture Bros.” returns Sunday (Sept. 12) to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, and it’s about goddamn time.

I can honestly say this is the one show that has never disappointed me. (I’m looking at you here, “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica.”) Admittedly, it’s not for everyone. As I’ve said before, “Venture Bros.” — created by insane super-geniuses Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer — appeals to some very specialized audiences. You have to find jokes about serial killers funny, know an ungodly amount of pop culture trivia, and still applaud when Brock Samson paints the walls with the bits of dead bad guys.

I personally believe “Venture Bros.” is aimed at a demographic so small that it includes me and a few thousand others: white males who grew up in the 70s and 80s, watched Jonny Quest and the Krofft Super Show, pored over the Sears Wish Book every September like it was the Talmud, laughed at most of the jokes in Mad magazine (excluding the ones about Spiro Agnew), and never really got over any of it.

But in the grimy places of our hearts we don’t talk about in the grown-up world, I suspect “Venture Bros.” speaks to aging fanboys like me because it’s about failure, as Zach Handlen of the AV Club points out in his review/recaps of the show.

Failure is the only real sin left in our culture. As a result, a lot of the aging white guys  in my demographic insulate ourselves with a wrapping of irony and bullshit, constantly undercutting even the things we love. This force-field doesn’t actually prevent any damage, but at least it gives us cover while we retreat.

“The Venture Bros.” dives right into the flop sweat and forces us to watch and sympathize with heroes who drip with loss.

Rusty Venture was a boy adventurer with his own fan club and TV show, son of the world-famous Dr. Jonas Venture; now he’s a bald pill-popper who’s barely able to make his dad’s old inventions work. Venture’s arch-enemy, The Monarch, named himself after a butterfly, which should tell you just how much fear he commands. His tenant, Dr. Orpheus, is a master of the mystic arts, but he lost his wife to a former student and gets no respect from anyone. The Venture Brothers themselves, Hank and Dean, face mind-blowing scenarios involving aliens, ninjas and super-villains on a regular basis and react like stunned carp every time.

Almost all the characters are a studied affront to the Indiana Jones fantasy many of us still have lurking inside. When it hits the fan, we like to believe we’d react like an omnicompetent action hero. In reality, we’d probably run around in pants-wetting panic.

And seriously, there’s nothing wrong with that. Just the opposite. Someone prepared to break his dinner companion’s neck and use the body as a shield when terrorists break in through the picture windows is not normal. Most of us concentrate on enjoying the salad and stealing glances at the dessert cart.

Brock Samson, the Venture bodyguard, is the show’s only true badass. He eschews guns for a knife and still ends most episodes drenched in the blood of his enemies. He can even turn a body cavity search against his captors (Don’t ask. Seriously. OK. I warned you.). His only weakness (aside from a love of Led Zeppelin and his Dodge Charger) is the irrational affection he’s developed for the boys and their father. He’s got a family, and they’re his only fear. And the creators manage to make this somewhat sweet and touching in a cartoon that includes jokes about dead sidekicks and sexually repressed astronauts.

As Handlen has already written, Brock’s been absent from most of the action this season, and the other characters have had a chance to develop a little street cred. Henchman 21 has turned himself from a wad of cookie dough into a somewhat lethal, only slightly doughy fighting machine. The Venture Brothers are talking to girls and showing a little self-awareness and actual courage. The Monarch has supplanted his old rival, Phantom Limb, married the hot Dr. Girlfriend (now Dr. Mrs. The Monarch) and struck fear into the hearts of a few. Dr. Orpheus settled some of his issues from his divorce, and even Dr. Venture has quit therapy.

Even if it’s not possible for everyone to grow up to be a super-hero, these developments seem to prove that it’s still possible to grow up.

That’s where things stand as we head into Season 4.5, or whatever they’re calling it. So naturally, I expect everything to go straight to hell very quickly.

UPDATE: LA Weekly has a piece about the show today. Definitely worth a read.

The Venture Brothers Are Back

I got an early gift this week when TiVo informed me that “Venture Bros.” was returning to TV ahead of schedule. (Last I heard, it was supposed to premiere in November.)

And yes, it was pure awesome sledding down a mountain of joy. For my money, “Venture Bros.” is the best show on TV. No qualifiers. Yes, that includes “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” and “Battlestar Galactica.” If you want to get Zen about it, the show is perfect because it’s exactly what it sets out to be, almost every time.

And the premiere of Season 4 was no exception. Really, just watch the damn thing. If you have to, go back to the beginning, when it was only a spoof of the old “Jonny Quest” cartoons, and see it evolve into its own weird little universe, with metaphors about the Baby Boomers and their children, the end of Space Age optimism, and of course, “Scooby Doo” deconstructed with the characters all played by serial killers.

Season 4 picked up without a pause, and used the destruction of mint-condition comic book as the framing device for all the changes at the Venture compound since last season’s massive blow-out between the Monarch and OSI. The episode ran backwards, like “Memento,” and it’s interesting to see how quickly life can morph into a parallel dimension for the cast. Friends become enemies, enemies become drug-altered by psycho-chemicals to be your bodyguard, and Hitler’s soul gets trapped inside a dog.

How can you not love a show where one of the characters gets to say, “I can cross ‘Stab Hitler to death’ off my list of cool crap I thought I’d never get to do.”

It all makes sense in context, trust me.

The Farnsworth Invention


I have a piece in this Sunday’s New York Post about my great-uncle, Philo T. Farnsworth, the real inventor of television, who’s getting a lot more attention now, thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s play about Philo, “The Farnsworth Invention.”