My previous analyses of Family Guy’s “Road to Rhode Island” and The Simpsons’s “Mother Simpson” focused primarily on narrative structure, conflict, and resolution, and I came to the conclusion that the Simpsons episode is a work of art based on its emotional content and ability to work on multiple levels but the Family Guy episode is not because it is little more than twenty-three minutes of loosely connected gags. There is more to these shows than narrative structure, however, and I believe some further analysis will help provide additional support for my conclusion.

The animated format of these shows allows the writers a lot of freedom to use large numbers of settings and scenes and quick cuts to non sequitur gags. Both programs use this to great extent, but Family Guy seems to rely on it more than The Simpsons. Typically, a character will talk about an amusing situation and then a cut is made to the situation itself, thus both telling and then showing the joke. For example, in “Road to Rhode Island,” Lois tells Peter they have communication problems, and then they immediately cut to a new scene which illustrates Lois and Peter having communication problems. Usually, the illustration scenes last a matter of seconds and then they return to the original scene. This tactic allows Family Guy to provide visuals to any joke they want, thus doubling the potential of every gag; the viewer gets to hear the joke and react, and then also see the joke and react.

These quick cuts are trademark Family Guy, and they work well for its random style of humor. The Simpsons is also known to be random, but an episode like “Mother Simpson” is a much tighter and more focused affair. Whereas Family Guy relies on non sequitur show and tell, The Simpsons relies more on running gags for their humor. One example from “Mother Simpson” is the tombstone. Homer’s tombstone first appears at Marge’s doorstep in a wagon towed by Patti and Selma, thus revealing the initial gag of the engraving (“We are better for having lost him”). The tombstone is next seen by Homer in the graveyard, causing him to shriek and fall into his own grave. Finally, it appears in a beautiful reveal at the end of the episode, as everyone’s coffee mugs are raised and we see the reactions of Mr. Burns and his posse from the tombstone’s perspective as they learn whose tombstone Patti and Selma had purchased. An argument can be made that running gags require the viewer to be more engaged in the episode in order to appreciate them whereas non sequiturs need only be seen, appreciated, and forgotten, but both styles certainly have their merits.

This is not to say that these styles of gags are exclusive to each series, nor is it to say that their styles are completely different. One type of gag employed to good effect in both episodes in question is the defial of expectations reveal. In “Rhode Island,” Brian and Stewie agree that they need to disappear fast, and then a passing bus fills the frame. When the bus is gone, so are Brian and Stewie—until the camera pans to the right, and they state that they probably should have jumped on that bus. Naturally, the cartoon convention is for characters to disappear when blocked by passing obstructions, but here the expectation is defied and mocked. In “Mother Simpson,” Homer grandly announces that he and Bart shall make the most of their Saturday now that his death has been successfully faked, and the next shot is of two kites flying gaily in the sky, but then the camera pans and Marge and Lisa are revealed to be flying the kites while Homer lies drinking a Duff in his hammock and counting as Bart lazily pounds a hammer on the brick patio. Again, both of these gags are facilitated by the animated nature of the programs, and both shows use the reveal adroitly.

There is more than visual humor to be had in each series, however. Both Family Guy and The Simpsons demand the viewer be familiar with popular culture in order to understand certain jokes, but there is still a significant difference to be found in the types of references made. When Stewie attempts to remember his home phone number, the first sequence of numbers that come to mind are “867-5309;” when he discovers his blunder, he proclaims “Damn you Tommy Tutone!” Obviously, anyone unfamiliar with this early eighties one hit wonder will have no idea what Stewie is talking about, but others may appreciate the brainy toddler’s knowledge of power pop which predates his own time by over a decade. Stewie and Brian also play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon in the car, which requires the viewer to be familiar with this game in order to understand what they’re doing, and perhaps knowledge of the specific actors and movies named will also increase the scene’s humor, but really the main humor of the scene comes from the fact that a talking dog and a toddler have the capacity to play the game and berate each other in an intellectual fashion.

The references in “Mother Simpson,” however, take a bit more parsing to be appreciated. In the third act, Burns calls in the F.B.I. to track down his helpful hippie assailant, and the agents are none other than Bill Gannon and Joe Friday of the second version of Dragnet, with Harry Morgan providing Gannon’s voice. The characters are never named, though (except Friday is once referred to as “Joe), so unless the viewer is familiar with Dragnet already, then the gag is entirely lost. Also, Lisa and her grandmother bond over bashing John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, and anyone who had to read said book in the ninth grade can better appreciate their commentary. Strangely enough, one of the finest moments in the episode occurs when Homer discovers that what he thought was his mother’s grave is actually that of Walt Whitman, which sends Homer into a violent fury during which he exclaims, “I hate you, Walt freakin’ Whitman! Leaves of grass my ass!” Personally, this scene sends me into a violent fury of laughter every time I see it, but the gag is probably lost on anyone who has never heard of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Really, though, the funniest part is that Homer is apparently rather familiar with it, which is hilarious considering how alternately buffoonish and intellectual he can be.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of “Mother Simpson” which clearly places it in a separate league from Family Guy is Homer’s mother’s epiphany. As revealed in a flashback, Homer’s mother tucks him into bed and enters the living room to find Abe watching the first Super Bowl. As soon as she sees Joe Willie Namath’s lustrous mane of hair and wild sideburns, an entirely new world of rebellion is opened up to her, complete with a circular pan around her featuring swirling colors and psychedelic imagery in the background. This new world puts her in direct opposition to the old one to which Abe subscribes, which is represented by Johnny Unitas’s “haircut you could set your watch to.” For The Simpsons to so perfectly summarize the attitudes of the late sixties via the hairstyles of the starting quarterbacks for the New York Jets and the Baltimore Colts is nothing short of brilliance—sheer brilliance.

“Road to Rhode Island” does not offer the kind of depth that “Mother Simpson” does, and I feel confident that the same could be said of the two franchises at large. Overall, The Simpsons is a complex and intelligent television series, and even though I have not seen a large amount of Family Guy episodes, I feel confident in stating that its product is nowhere near as intelligent or complex as The Simpsons’s. These qualities help to solidify The Simpsons, and “Mother Simpson” in particular, as works of art, and hopefully this analysis provides some clarification as to what enables The Simpsons to stand above Family Guy and countless other programs, as well.

One of the greatest influences on my life comes not from a hero or a parent or a mentor, but from a television series. An unfortunate product of our age, perhaps, but I have no qualms admitting it and accepting it. For better or for worse, I grew up watching The Simpsons, and was shaped and molded by what I saw. The jokes of The Simpsons became my humor, the style became my sensibilities, and the dialogue became my vocabulary. Someday I hope to catalogue everything I learned and gained from watching the series as an impressionable youth, but this is not the time or place. Now I’d like to examine one episode from the seventh season of the series entitled “Mother Simpson,” original airdate November 19th, 1995, directed by David Silverman, and I will attempt to follow much the same format as I did in my previous entry.

The episode opens with an elaborate plot employed by Homer to skip out on a day of community service. The main conflict, however, is not introduced until the second act, and actually has nothing to do with Homer at all. The main external conflict is Mother Simpson vs. Mr. Burns, and it is established via flashback to the day when Homer’s mother was forced to abandon him. Ostensibly, the internal conflict arises once Marge announces her reservations regarding Homer’s mother, and Homer’s joy turns to anguish as he comes to the assumption that his mother must have left because he was a horrible son and she didn’t love him. Homer is perhaps too slow and naïve to jump to such a conclusion on his own, but he still carries that sadness with him until the situation is resolved.

Both conflicts come to a head at the same time in the final scene. Mr. Burns’s wrath once again sends Mother Simpson on the run, and she manages another successful evasion of the tyrant and the law with some help from a familiar ally. Before she does so, however, she takes the opportunity to give her son a proper good-bye, one for which he is actually awake and reciprocal. She assures him that she will always be a part of him, which is further illustrated by her annoyed grunt as she clumsily hits her head on the van, and Homer can live happily knowing that his mother is still alive and indeed truly cares for him.

Although the first act of the episode wildly differs from the latter two, it still contributes integrally to the main plot. In fact, this is an episode which probably qualifies as having only an A Story; one could argue that the two conflicts mentioned above naturally imply an A Story and a B Story, but the two are so intertwined that they can easily be considered part of one driving narrative. The first act takes a long time to set the stage for where the plot is headed, but everything that happens is related and relevant to the next thing that happens, or at the very least something that happens later on, thus establishing good cause and effect as well as important elements that will recur in the final act.

The climax of the story occurs when Homer and his mother say good-bye. The scene recalls the flashback of Mother Simpson kissing her sleeping boy at her initial departure, and Homer even explicitly mentions how he’s glad he’s awake this time. The emotional moment between mother and son is punctuated by the gag of Homer’s mother hitting her head, but even this bit of slapstick serves to create a sweet bond between the two and reinforce their powerful connection. The scene also features significant moments of silence, which can be found elsewhere in the episode, too; simple slow zoom reaction shots go a long way to convey their emotions without words, and Alf Clausen’s musical cues always enhance the moment. The story concludes with a gorgeous shot of Homer sitting on the hood of his car watching the stars twinkle in the sky, and the credits roll over the landscape with an extremely subdued and intimate closing theme. It is endings like these that illustrate why The Simpsons is more than a funny cartoon or an animated sitcom; the show takes silly characters in crazy situations and somehow still touches the viewer on more levels than the vast majority of other shows could ever hope to achieve.

“Mother Simpson” may therefore be easily classified as a work of art. To take a twenty-two minute timeslot and construct a complete narrative with as many complexities as this episode has is an incredible feat, and it is something that The Simpsons has been able to do over the years on an impressively consistent basis. In my next entry I will delve further into these complexities and provide a side by side comparison of “Mother Simpson” with my last entry’s topic, Family Guy’s “Road to Rhode Island.” I realize that a comparison of two episodes does not equal a good assessment of the two programs as a whole, but it will at least allow me to explore a few fundamental differences between the two and draw conclusions from there. Though my proclivities for The Simpsons over Family Guy and just about any other series that isn’t The Simpsons ought to be evident, I will continue my efforts to be as objective as possible.

On “Road to Rhode Island”

February 22, 2010

Pointlessness is certainly nothing new in popular entertainment. The point of entertainment, after all, is to entertain, but the only way to determine if something is entertaining is to subjectively decide whether or not one likes it or is amused or engaged by it. My aim in this forum, however, is to determine if something is art, and to do so in a more or less objective manner. I do not deny there is a high degree of subjectivity in what I do, but I do strive to provide objective analysis of entertainment, regardless. One television series in particular that deserves attention in terms of pointlessness and entertainment is FOX’s Family Guy, a show that embraces pointlessness to the fullest and seeks to entertain with varying levels and styles of humor. The focus of this analysis is Season Two’s “Road to Rhode Island,” which originally aired May 30th 2000 and is directed by Dan Povenmire.

“Road to Rhode Island” opens with a flashback that establishes the episode’s main internal conflict: Brian has abandonment issues because his mother did nothing to prevent him from being taken away from her. The main external conflict is established later on in Act One: Brian and Stewie lose their plane tickets and must find alternate means to return home. This external conflict is also fueled by the interpersonal conflict between Brian and Stewie; their relationship is primarily based on jokes at the other’s expense, and Stewie also wants to rat Brian out for being irresponsible.

The external conflict is resolved when the travelers return home and Stewie covers for Brian, which shows a change of heart from Stewie’s earlier attempts to tattle on him over the phone, which Brian thwarts by physically restraining him. The internal conflict is resolved by Luke the farmer, who assures Brian that his mother wanted him to leave and find a better life. Brian also gains closure by absconding with his mother’s stuffed body and giving her a proper burial in a park. The episode ends with Brian contentedly reading a newspaper at home, his mommy issues now behind him.

The B Story features Lois and Peter’s adventures with marriage videos that help improve communication but ultimately turn out to be a ploy by Lois to turn Peter on. There is some conflict here because Peter is obviously terrible at communicating and then believes he is keeping a secret from Lois, except Lois apparently doesn’t care about Peter’s lack of communication and is in fact secretly trying to improve their sex life. The conflict is unimportant; the only purpose of the B Story is to provide the humor of expectations being defied through the reveals that the videos are actually sex tapes and that Lois knows it all along.

The main conflicts of the episode are irrelevant, as well—they serve only as a vehicle to the climax, which is a musical number that extols the journey of the travelers and reinforces the bonds between them. The number features cheesy Broadway choreography, cliché dress-up montages, and delightfully bad lyrical and non-lyrical barbs between the singers, all of which serve to mock the musical genre and make fun of a pointless narrative device while reinforcing its merits at the same time. The lyrics even go so far as to take jabs at FOX and the censors, because the very device of a musical number takes the audience out of the narrative and the writers choose to take them even further out by drawing attention to the network and the nature of the entertainment being consumed (thus infusing the song with humorous metafictional elements).

As a story, this episode is basic and weak. The plot is nothing more than a generic series of events around which jokes and gags may be displayed. There is no real emotional content to be had—Brian’s internal conflict is resolved by two lines of dialogue from an incidental character, and then he recapitulates with his mother by burying her, but any emotional impact is instantly deflated by Stewie’s nonsensical eulogy. There is no emotional impact in Stewie and Brian’s bonding, either—it simply culminates in another defial of expectations (one expects Stewie to make Brian his slave à la an episode of The Brady Bunch, but really he only wants him to record said episode). Family Guy doesn’t care about emotional content, though—it only cares about laughs.

Ultimately, Family Guy succeeds as a work of pointless entertainment, but lacks the element of beauty requisite for art. Of course, beauty and perhaps even emotional content are hardly concepts that can be objectively defined, but they are still unavoidable aspects of this analysis and must suffice for discussion purposes. Though my exposure to Family Guy is limited, it does not strike me as a work that strives to be beautiful, and is therefore content to be entertainment. This particular episode goes out of its way to parody the conventions of the buddy genre, and does so to fair comedic effect (the title sequence is even altered for this purpose, which perhaps even separates this episode from other “regular” episodes in the series). Though aspects of the show are clever and it succeeds in providing gags upon gags, Family Guy is not something I would classify as art.

“Exposé” Exposed

February 1, 2010

When considering a television series, one must take the series as a whole in order to properly analyze it and draw conclusions. However, individual episodes deserve attention as well, both as stand-alone works and as a part of the whole grand project. In Season Three of Lost, there is an episode which seems out of place on the whole and its merit is even questionable on its own. This episode is entitled “Exposé.”

As far as the whole of the series is concerned, “Exposé” contributes nothing to the plot. It features two characters that are only introduced at the beginning of the third season, which means that the bulk of the episode involves establishing what they were doing while all the main survivors were busy endearing themselves to the audience. Nikki and Paulo (Kiele Sanchez and Rodrigo Santoro, respectively) were pretty much only concerned with themselves and their own business on the Island, and so do not really affect the other characters or the story in any meaningful way.

The business with which they are concerned is rather banal, as well. Their story is a morality tale, and it is extremely simplistic compared to the other storylines one would expect from Lost. Nikki is little more than greedy and manipulative, and Paulo is simply a liar, albeit an idealistic one who ultimately gets used and abused by the girl with whom he’s smitten. In the end, they die because of their faults, and then no one thinks twice about them ever again; their entire run on the series is incredibly inconsequential. Everything you need to know about them is contained in a single episode, except there’s not much worth knowing about them anyway.

It’s clear that the episode is pointless, but is it something one would call art? Notwithstanding the weak story, “Exposé” still adheres to the same quality of every Lost episode. The main characters are still in play, with Hurley and Sawyer carrying much of the load, and Locke providing a memorable exchange with Paulo via flashback. The manufactured suspicion of Sawyer doesn’t work for a minute, but at least it’s suspicion that comes from Hurley, meaning you’re not supposed to take it seriously anyway. In fact, “Exposé” itself is not something that is meant to be taken seriously. Call it comic relief if you will, but it’s a break from the action to take some weight off the overly intense borderline-melodrama of the main plot.

Labeling the episode comic relief does not excuse it from contributing something to the series overall, though, which is why the writers take the effort to make “Exposé” about something bigger than the Island and its inhabitants—they make it about entertainment and Lost itself. The metafictional elements of “Exposé” are what make the episode truly stand out from the rest. For a more in-depth analysis of these elements, check out my guest contribution to the premiere metablog on the web—Narrative in the Blog—here.

Not only does “Exposé” meet most of the standards of excellence set by Lost, it also goes a step further and solidifies the metafictional element of the series, which I believe is enough to push it over the edge and establish it as art. It goes without saying that Lost, though an incomplete work so far, is indeed a work of art, and I’m confident in saying that “Exposé” deserves credit for being art as well and does more than a little to reinforce the artfulness of the series.

That’s not to say that anything meta is automatically art, but that statement is not too far from the truth. Any work that contains the self-awareness by the author to include metafictional elements is already a notch above the average work because, as I’ve stated before, metafiction doesn’t often happen by accident. Being meta requires effort and a keen sense of the medium or genre or narrative with which one is working. Even if the stolen diamonds plot of “Exposé” is about as trite as can be, that’s alright because that’s exactly what the writers were attempting to do. For just one episode, Lost becomes less like Lost and more like the fictional television show Exposé, all in order to enhance the meta nature of the program. Pulling that off requires some serious guts and some serious skill—all in the name of not being that serious at all.