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While many people are talking about the recently aired Simpsons episode penned by Judd Apatow, let’s take a moment to look back at the midseason premier episode. In 26 seasons of any show, there are bound to be a few episodes that drop the ball, but “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner” was one of the worst in a long time. For a show that has always been an industry leader in terms of storytelling (there’s a whole South Park episode dedicated to things that The Simpsons did first), airing an episode like this one that substitutes disjointed jokes that are past their prime in place of a character driven plot is disappointing at best. Spoilers, such as they are, for the episode follow.
The Simpsons has followed a fairly regular pattern in recent years. The first few minutes are joke heavy, leading into a setup for the “meat” of the episode. The plot heavy middle has fewer jokes that are laugh-out-loud funny, but they are wittier and more likely to make viewers think for a second. The end generally goes for either heartwarming or a solid ending joke. “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner” tried hard to follow this pattern, but it forgot the funny start, it forgot to stick the ending, and there is less“meat” in the middle than there is in a Krusty Burger.
The reason that most of the jokes didn’t measure up is that they seemed both dated and recycled. It almost seemed like the episode wanted to be a clip show, given how many references there were to older episodes. The beginning segment featured a family vacation to “Diznee Land,” a parody park that first appeared in season two. The kids were doing an “Are we there yet?” routine that was funnier in the first few seasons than in the 26th. When they finally get to the park, what follows is a series of jokes that have been made about Disneyland since 1955. The lines are too long. The prices are too high. Bag checks are tedious. It’s too hot. Everything is merchandized and given a kitschy name. The most unique joke came in the mockery of the “It’s A Small World” ride, where the song threatens Bart’s life if he tried to leave the ride. That was the only joke that elicited a laugh in the entire episode.
The middle of the episode begins when the Simpson family finds a new ride that no one else is on titled “Rocket to Your Doom.” The ride is a trap set by Kang and Kodos, who are making a rare appearance outside the Treehouse of Horror episodes (which Homer notes, saying, “But this isn’t Halloween!”) As the family hurtles towards Rigel Seven, two more famous jokes from past episodes get rehashed. Homer opens a bag of chips in zero-gravity, which leads him to try floating around to catch them, like he did during his time as an astronaut. However, Bart and Maggie continually beat him to the chips, a callback to the episode where Santa’s Little Helper has puppies that like to eat Homer’s chips before he can enjoy them. It actually gets obnoxious how many times Homer’s famous catchphrase of “d’oh” is used in this 30 second joke.
Once they arrive on Rigel Seven, and after a series of ill-conceived and ill-executed bodily function jokes (Rigelians give birth, then seconds later, those birthed give birth, and so on, but there seems to be an ending point after four continuous births? Their river is made from the drool of the dead, but the dead are dumped in halfway down the river?), the Simpsons are put on display in a zoo. A Rigelian with a doctorate in humanology comes to make sure they are comfortable, mistaking many aspects of human culture and biology. When Lilo and Stitch scoops you on a joke, don’t use that joke.
The humanologist tells them that one of them is going to be ceremonially eaten, and Homer is, unsurprisingly, chosen. Homer is on stage to be eaten when a teleport tube materializes around him (and gets stuck, in a gag that has been used on the show more times than can be counted). He is rescued by rebel Rigelians, peace-loving hippies who just want to learn about earth’s achievements and party. They offer him a way back home, but Homer won’t leave his family on the (literal) chopping block. He returns to the ceremony just in time to join his family in being eaten, but a section of his ass poisons the Rigelian queen when she eats it. The family is released (after Kang tells them that everyone should forget this happened), and spends the end segment mimicking the original Star Trek.
Having Kang remove this episode from canon may have been intended to excuse the disjointed nature, an attempt to say that this was just meant to be whimsical, not a serious episode. But most of the episodes aren’t serious, and almost never does anything carry from one episode to the next (except character deaths outside of the Treehouse of Horror episodes). Expanding the background of the Rigelians, particularly Kang and Kodos, could be a great story. In each of the 25 Treehouse of Horror episodes, the viewers have gotten to learn a little more about our favorite aliens. Spreading the stories out, focusing on them once each season, has worked. That’s more time and focus than most of the hundreds of Simpsons characters get in a season. This episode was not necessary, not engaging, and not funny; yet, it still pulled in the highest ratings of the night. The ability to win ratings should not leave writers complacent and willing to put a half-assed episode into circulation.
I am not holding this episode up as an example of declining quality in the show as a whole. One bad episode does not denote a pattern. However, this episode was just that: bad. Lazy writing and old and boring jokes combined to make an episode that should not have aired. “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner” leaves a bad taste in the mouths of viewers, who hope the rest of the season will wash away this bitter pill.
The Simpsons was created by Matt Groening, stars Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer and airs Sunday nights at 8/7c on Fox.
With 104 days at your disposal, what sort of adventures and activities could you come up with to keep busy? For most of us, work or tv or books or video games would consume our time, cementing us to our couches and chairs. We wouldn’t take advantage of all the adventure and excitement that the world holds. The Disney X D show Phineas and Ferb explores this idea of making the most of each and every day, turning 104 days of sitting in front of a screen into 104 days of exploration and imagination. With three seasons and a full-length movie on Netflix, anyone can and should spend time watching how these creative kids spend their time.
Before delving too deeply into this review, I should point out that, yes, this is a cartoon, and one originally aimed at kids. However, Disney is masterful at making cartoons for kids that appeal to adults too. The company knows that the parents are going to be dragged into watching whatever the kids are watching, so small jokes and references are added into most Disney cartoons. Phineas and Ferb takes that to an even higher level. Many of the jokes are ones that kids would never get without explanation, ones that adults will find uproariously funny. So, even if you think that cartoons are for kids, and that you won’t enjoy the show, give it a chance. You may find the show funnier than you imagined. Each episode of Phineas and Ferb follows a pretty standard formula. Without commercials, the runtime of each episode is around 23 minutes, broken into two parts. Sometimes a storyline will take the whole 23 minutes, but most episodes have the two separate stories. Within each story, there are three intermingling plots.
The first revolves around the titular characters, Phineas Flynn and Ferb Fletcher, step-brothers who are inventive and mechanical geniuses. The pair are not content with just sitting lazily around, they have to be building something new or else they get stir-crazy. These inventions often defy logic, explanation and physics. The science of the world seems to bend itself backwards in order to accommodate the brothers. Also included in their story for the episode are their three closest friends, a bully named Buford, a nerd named Baljeet and Isabella, the leader of the local Fireside Girls troop (think Girl Scouts meet Navy SEALS).
The next story involves their older sister, Candace Flynn, and their mother, Linda Flynn-Fletcher. Candace is spending her summer caught between trying to “bust” her brothers to their mom – her version of tattling and getting them in trouble – and trying to pursue the boy she likes. Linda tries to keep her daily life going despite all the interruptions by her daughter, and she never manages to see the crazy contraptions that her sons build, much to Candace’s dismay. Over time, Candace begins to believe that there’s a mysterious force at work that is plotting against her, ensuring that their mother never sees what the boys are building. More often than not, though, it’s just the work of an evil scientist fighting his nemesis.
The third plot line centers on the family’s pet platypus, Perry. While it’s weird enough for a family to have a pet platypus, this particular platypus also happens to be a secret agent named Agent P working for a group known as OWACA – the Organization Without A Cool Acronym. OWACA utilizes unusually smart and strong animal agents to combat evil; though the animals are talented, they cannot speak – they are just animals, after all. Perry the Platypus spends his days fighting Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, an inept evil scientist scheming to take over the Tri-State Area. Dr. Doofenshmirtz has a new device – which he calls an “inator” (as in “forgetinator” or “turn everything evil-inator”) – that complements whatever painful backstory he has in mind that day. The fight between Perry and Dr. Doofenshmirtz follows roughly the same formula each episode: Dr. Doofenshmirtz traps Perry in an overly elaborate trap, gives his backstory monologue, begins to activate his machine (which invariably causes whatever the boys are doing to escape the notice of their mother), and then Perry escapes, blows up the machine (and Dr. Doofenshmirtz at the same time) and flies back home, where he resumes his secret identity.
In the course of these three interwoven stories, there is always at least one musical number. The music is original to the episode, and the songs are often catchy enough that you’ll find yourself humming them days later (one of the most popular songs can be found below). Disney even released a cd of the top songs from the first season, well worth a listen. The songs are usually either funny or touching, sometimes both, and the stellar vocal cast that the show has gathered performs them to perfection. In fact, the musical numbers have earned the show four Emmy nominations, an impressive feat for an animated show.
One of the best features of this show that separates it from other cartoons is how it deals with the characters. Most cartoons – especially ones aimed toward children – will give the main character some sort of flaw that lasts for exactly one episode, and that they must overcome in order to beat the bad guy and resolve the story. Phineas and Ferb doesn’t do that. The characters have remained fairly stable since the beginning. Major changes in character are due to long-term story arc changes or due to outside forces such as one of Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s devices, not some personal failing that suddenly surfaced just in time for the character to learn some important lesson.
The language used in the show is a key factor in its appeal to adults. Now, by that, I don’t mean to suggest that the cartoon kids are doing their versions of the “Seven words you can’t say on tv.” Rather, the show does not talk down to the audience, either the kids or the adults. In fact, at times the show’s use of words may be beyond what a child could handle. Words such as sesquipedalian, techno-mimetic and septuagenarian have all appeared in just the last few episodes that I re-watched. The show managed to work them in seamlessly, too. Sesquipedalian is not an easy word to use in a punchline, but Phineas and Ferb found a way.
No show is perfect, though this one comes close. Apart from the pains of waiting for more episodes to go up on Netflix and the suspense of whether the show will continue to run, the only downside is in comparison to itself. The show has some phenomenal episodes, including two episodes that featured Disney’s recently acquired properties Star Wars and Marvel Comics. While there are no truly bad episodes of the show, some are weaker than others. This is mainly noticeable if you watch multiple episodes back-to-back in marathon style, though it can also be seen in the first few episodes of the series, while the show was still working to set itself up. Fortunately, there’s no real over-arching plot, so you can skip the early episodes and come back to them once you’re a devoted fan of the show.
Overall, I rank this in my favorite shows, so I recommend it to anyone of any age. I was introduced to the show by my 40-year-old high school physics teacher and my 22-year-old (at the time) best friend, independently of each other. I was resistant at first, thinking it to be a show for kids, and then laughed my way through the whole series. Multiple times. I’m even re-watching it as I write this review. There’s a lot of humor that will resonate with people of all ages. Give the show a try; watch two episodes, and if you’re not in love with it by then, you don’t have to watch any more. But I’m willing to bet you’ll be singing along to the theme song as you make the choice to start the third episode.
Phineas and Ferb is written by Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh and airs on Disney and Disney X D. Three seasons and the movie are available to stream on Netflix Instant.