Family Guy Struggles Under The Weight Of Wokeness

When you watch Family Guy, you have to take the bumps where they come. Unless you’re a straight white guy, you’re always on the show’s list of easy targets, and even then there’s a chance you’ll end up in the crosshairs. When Family Guy emerged, it was merciless, and swaggered across our screens with an untouchable attitude. Recently though, Family Guy has been less sure of itself, has pulled the trigger on those crosshairs far less often, and seems to actively resent the kind of show it is.

I’m a trans woman, and while the jokes about Ida occasionally feel forced or misinformed, it’s not a cartoon’s job to educate people. And I can’t in good conscience laugh at the jokes directed at other groups then cry foul when Family Guy turns their attention on me. Most of the Ida jokes are great, she’s a well written character and an important supporting cast member. There’s definitely an issue that – moreso a decade ago when Ida debuted – trans women only feature on television as the butt of a joke, but that’s not an issue to solely blame Family Guy for. There’s specific failings I’d like to zoom in on – being an edgy cartoon isn’t a blank cheque – but let’s save that for another time.

I’m not here to solely talk about Ida, but I think there’s an important context needed here. I’m transgender. Family Guy has laughed at me. I understand that’s how the game is played.

Unfortunately, Family Guy has changed the rules recently, and they seem to have changed them to their own disadvantage.

I first noticed this with Season 17’s Trump Guy, but I think there’s hints of it before that. Focussing on Trump Guy for now though, it sees the Griffins head to the White House to meet Donald Trump. There’s so much opportunity for Family Guy to swing for the fences here, but instead they bunt it and end up in an average chicken fight. It finishes in a bizarre monologue where Trump equates Family Guy ripping on Bob’s Burgers to Trump’s own failings, racism, discrimination, and caging migrants. Peter then argues back that it’s different, or something, because they’re just a cartoon and Trump is President. It’s a comparison nobody else was making, but Family Guy still feels the need to defend itself.

Did someone somewhere say Family Guy was as bad as Trump? Like, maybe? But who cares. The Family Guy of the late early ‘00s wouldn’t care about something so trivial, but the modern version of the show constructed a whole two episode arc around it, wasted a huge opportunity, and spent most of the time defending its own existence. I don’t think Family Guy crosses ‘the line’ as much as Trump, and even if they did, aren’t they trying to? Why do they feel guilty?

‘I can be insulting sometimes, I admit it. But so what?’ Peter asks Trump.

Oh, if only Family Guy believed it. And don’t even get me started on the way Family Guy self selects mocking Bob’s Burgers as an example of the worst thing they’ve done.

I could continue on all the ways Trump Guy stumbles, but this is less about this specific episode than it is the general issues modern Family Guy has. It routinely goes on the back foot, defending itself from criticism nobody has even made yet, dulling their sharp wit and eating up chunks of episodes which have always struggled with pacing problems.

Let’s go back to Ida and their transgender representation. In the last two seasons – 17 & 18 – there have been two transgender episodes, and both are fairly terrible. I’m not saying that because they’re transphobic; in fact, and this is never a criticism I thought I would ever have, they’re not transphobic enough.

Let me be clear; being a Family Guy fan is a strange business. You can’t laugh at the jokes about other minorities then balk at the ones about you. Watching Family Guy as a minority is a deal you make to take the punches when they come. I’m happy to discuss the transphobia any episode might have, but only within the context of what watching Family Guy means. There are certainly times when they’ve crossed the line, but recently they’ve been afraid to even be in the same room as the line.

In the first of these two episodes (Trans Fat), Peter is accidentally assumed to be transgender after using the gender neutral bathroom, and is then given a sex change on the company healthcare policy. There as are so many jokes on the table here, but instead Family Guy goes for very tame ‘Peter is a woman’ jokes, none of which land, and never address the context of being a trans woman as opposed to a cis woman.

Never, that is, until the episode’s conclusion, where Ida lectures Peter about trans peoples’ struggles in life, and how Peter has not earned the supposed ‘advantages’ being trans brings because he has not suffered for them.

Let’s unpack.

First off, Family Guy’s recent trend of ending with morality hardly ever works, but this is one of their biggest misses. It positions the pros and cons of existence as a trans person as being equal, and even seems to posit that once you reach a certain point in your transition, any disadvantages cease to exist. There’s also the dangerous idea that trans people must ‘earn’ the right to be happy and safe, while the whole thing feels the show trying to absolve themselves of their former sins, using Ida as the priest to their confession.

It’s life as a trans person looked at through a specifically cis lens, where the struggles are broad and vague, the successes specific and selfish.

It’s an attempt to walk back their earlier transphobia, but much like Peter’s argument with Trump, it’s horrendously self indulgent. The episode cares much more about trying to prove they’re not transphobic than it does about actually addressing anything. It’s the ‘I have lots of trans friends’ argument with Ida as the friend.

Secondly, there’s Bri-Da. This has Brian – who once famously non stop vomited after discovering Ida was trans – dating Ida. It again centres around the show forgiving itself. Ida is prepared to give Brian another chance, and so the sins of the past no longer exist, right? Had they committed to this arc and tried to add a bit of depth to Ida, I could see this angle working, maybe. Unfortunately, while Brian now defends Ida, she still comes in for several body blows from other gags, is used as a prop to demonstrate changes in Brian (and, by proxy, Family Guy) since Ida’s debut, and is very much the target of the episode rather than the star. They eventually break up for a flimsy reason and Ida, no longer needed, disappears again.

There are yet more examples. Season 18’s The Movement sees Peter accidentally take the knee a la Colin Kaepernick at the hall game; Peter actually had to go to the bathroom and was desperately trying to hold it in. This is an idea with legs, and initially sees Peter take advantage of the respect being ‘woke’ gets him, but ends by introducing a weird Black Panther parody where Peter discovers racism is wrong, and sees him apologise for pretending to have taken the knee. It is never addressed why he doesn’t simply actually take the knee from now on.

This empty statement about how racism needs to be taken seriously (followed with zero action) is exactly the problem with modern Family Guy. It’s not my place to speak for Black people, but when it comes to trans jokes, I’d rather they just commit to the bit than tell the jokes, apologise, pretend they’re the good guys, and keep telling slightly neutered versions while feeling guilty about laughing.

I understand some people will not see the value in this critique. As a member of a minority Family Guy frequently takes swings at, I get that some people would rather it just went away. Myself, I won’t shed a tear when they pull the plug. But the biggest issue right now is that they’re desperate to absolve themselves while not really changing. Ideally, they’d turn their attention to punching up at the people who actually deserve it, but if they’re going to keep punching down, I’d rather stopped apologising in between the punches.

Recasting Characters Of Colour Is Still Much Apu About Something

The ripple effects of the Black Lives Matter movement have hit cartoons over the past week, with several prominent white actors stepping down from POC roles. Jenny Slate in Big Mouth came first, followed swiftly by Kristen Bell in Central Park; though Bell is going to remain in the show as a new character while Molly is recast. This was followed by Mike Henry stepping away from Family Guy’s Cleveland (no word on Consuela), and The Simpsons announcing they would be recasting all Black roles, such as Carl, Dr Hibbert and Lou.

It’s not defund the police, but it’s a start.

I’m going to sidestep the conversations around this, as I don’t feel it’s my place to lead them, but I will say for the record that a) I think this is the right call and b) I agree with Julie Muncy’s assertion that the timing deflates the intention, as it feels more like they could no longer get away with it more than making an active decision.

Rather than focus on these new developments, I’d like to go back a few years to when the first serious questions were asked of Apu. He’s not Black, but he is a person of colour and the way The Simpsons handled the fallout highlighted this idea that they’re only changing now because they can’t get away with it.

While The Simpsons is often thought of as the more family friendly cousin of Family Guy, you’ll still have to navigate (more slapstick than edgy-cruel) elements of homophobia, transphobia, racism and a slurry of suicide jokes, especially in the Zombie Simpsons/early HD era. Even when I’m the butt of such jokes, I can hand wave them away as being relics of a pre-enlightened time. As for whether or not you can, your mileage may vary.

That changes with No Good Read Goes Unpunished. Released in 2018, it centres around Marge reading Lisa one of her favourite stories from childhood, only to realise it’s covered in problematic storylines and racial stereotypes. Rather than address Marge’s privilege that she never realised, or have any teachable moment in there, they go the other way, defending a story they themselves have just invented.

It used to be okay to be racist, and so it’s still okay to retell racist stories, because I still like them: that’s the message delivered.

Worse, in a rare fourth wall break, they tie this defence to Apu, as if to say ‘we know you think it’s racist, but we don’t care. Thank you, come again!’

They talk about how “something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect”; the show skips over the fact it was applauded almost entirely by white people, and were so infuriated by Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary, The Problem With Apu, that they made a whole episode about why it’s okay to defend racist books.

The big ‘The Simpsons parodies everyone!’ excuse used to wash for me, I admit. But then, sea captains haven’t been exposed to decades of prejudice and violence which stem from these sorts of racist jokes.

Sure, parts of Apu are positive; he’s a successful businessman, popular both in and out of the show, and is one of the smartest people in town. But he also has an accent which goes way over the top, plays into the stereotype of foreigners having too many children and the show frequently makes jokes about India which seem to stem from Indiana Jones more than they do the country itself.

Perhaps the worst part though is how they use Lisa as a mouthpiece for this. While she’s often relegated to antagonist post Season 27 or so, she’s still the most credible voice in the household, arguably in the whole show. Tagging her onto this defence not only goes against Lisa’s character arc, but is a transparent attempt to legitimise their view that they should be above such criticism.

Since then, Apu has been quietly retired, with voice actor Hank Azaria more decisive than the show itself, opting to step down himself. Apu has gone unvoiced since Azaria’s last lines as him in Season 29’s premiere.

Again, Apu is not Black, and the issues at play in the world right now are bigger than who voices which cartoon characters. But the dominance of white people in the vocal booth, especially on characters like Cleveland and who trade on stereotype, is emblematic of the deep rooted white supremacy of our system.

The racism Indians and Black people face differs, but nevertheless the way The Simpsons handled the criticism of Apu suggests they’re only changing now because their hand has been forced. Alison Brie also apologised this week for playing Vietnamese American Diane Nguyen on BoJack Horseman, despite the fact the show has now wrapped and she never addressed these complaints when the show was still airing.

Changing who voices cartoon characters is not what these protests have ever been about, but it still reflects important changes in our media landscape, and in the sorts of characters, experiences, and voices animation will elevate from now on. If we want this to be a lasting, meaningful change, we need to keep insisting on it. Apu proves that if we don’t, shows will continue to do whatever they can get away with.

2% Of The Way To The Year 3000, How Does Futurama Hold Up?

When people talk about humour being dated, they’re usually talking about social sensibilities. Dated humour normally refers to jokes which revolve around racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia or some other discrimination; if you think humour is dated, it probably means you now feel guilty about jokes which punch down on minorities. They’re no more or less funny than they used to be… it’s you who has changed. If you find humour dated, that just means you’ve grown.

In Futurama’s case however, it means something very different. It rarely went in for shock jock jokes which played on stereotypes, but it’s most unique selling point – being set in the year 3000 – can sometimes prove to be its downfall on a rewatch. Futurama’s humour sometimes feels dated because the year 3000 we could imagine in 2000 is very different from the one we could imagine in 2020.

There are a handful of obvious ones which come to mind, but the straight forward jokes that time rendered untrue make you feel like Comic Book Guy, sat in The Android’s Dungeon, pointing out flaws to an empty room. For example, in the pilot, we learn that Suicide Booths have been operational in New York since 2008, when in the real world, they haven’t. Haha! Take that, foolish cartoon show! You call yourself Futurama, yet you have failed to predict the future!

There’s a smattering of other gags like this, but nothing that’s ever going to spoil your viewing. Heck, nothing here is going to spoil your viewing, but there are a few more thematically interesting examples which prove how much the world has changed these past 20 years, and how much these changes have impacted our view of the future. To that end though, they’ve also proven to have a stunning insight into our future in other areas, as well as having a massive influence on animation in general.

We’ll start with some negatives though, and like so many negatives these days, that means starting with the President.

While Nixon isn’t the most evil President the US ever had (slavers, KKK members and those who propagated the genocide of Native Americans are easily ahead of him before you even get into policy debates), he is the most cartoonish one. At least, he was, until Cadet Bonespurs headed to the Oval Office. I’m not suggesting Futurama could have predicited Trump – even if The Simpsons did – or that it would be funnier or better than Nixon if they did. Futurama’s fiction Nixon is a great character, a brilliant villain who slots in the world perfectly, and an essential part of their world building. Replacing him with Trump clearly would not have improved the show.

But undoubtedly the gag is that the worst, most over the top supervillain President is back in the White House. It’s a joke that’s just less impactful these days. A little over a decade after Futurama joked that a resurrected Nixon would be the worst possible choice for President, real life went and served up someone even more terrible.

There’s also some contemporary issues Futurama addressed, and rewatching them with modern eyes feels jarring. Again, this doesn’t mean the show is bad, or in the wrong, or that watching it is less enjoyable now. Indeed, looking back at Futurama’s take on things can act as a time capsule of how we see saw things in circa 2000. Other shows from the same time period occasionally touch on similar issues, but the fact that Futurama’s whole deal is that it’s in the future puts a much closer spotlight on them.

One example is climate change. In the episode A Big Piece Of Garbage (aired 1999), we see the biggest environmental issue is… littering. Sure, they future it up by having it be a litter asteroid they once launched into space, but still… litter. Very quaint by today’s standards. Later, the stakes get raised by Crimes Of The Hot (2002), when the big issue is greenhouse gases, the ozone layer and the planet’s temperature rising. This is closer to our current view of the climate crisis, but again it’s a bit quaint. Here, the climate issue is because robots give off too much pollution, and it’s a great insight into our developing attitudes.

Global warming is still the broad issue we’re concerned with now, but rather than just the pollution boogey man, we understand the issue is capitalism’s ceaseless hunger for resources, failure to develop adequate sustainable energy sources and mass produced single use materials. Futurama’s limited depiction of global warming fits with how little we as a society understood the problems of the climate crisis. We knew the basic issue and problem, and the way Futurama scratches the surface highlights the very rudimentary understanding we had of the issue twenty years ago. While relatively little has changed in terms of our trajectory since then, we’re all at least a lot more educated on the issue.

While these examples are negatives in the binary sense that they’re jokes or episodes which are less relevant or effective in 2020, they don’t really speak to flaws in Futurama’s storytelling. Once you get to the Comedy Central revival seasons though, more tangible cracks appear. The biggest issue is that while the earlier seasons riffed on modern life, their version of the year 3000 was still its own coherent thing. Too often, the Comedy Central episodes were less ‘year 3000’ than they were ‘year 2000 but future’.

Social media is an every day part of our lives now, but Futurama only has it featured in any meaningful way once: in the 2011 episode Attack Of The Killer App. This features eyePhones (iPhones in your eye) clearly styled around Apple, and just feels like a lazy parody of iPhones and Twitter. There’s no originality, nothing that makes use of Futurama’s unique premise, and felt a little dated even as it came out.

The robosexual marriage episode Proposition Infinity which immediately followed did the same thing for gay marriage, but at least tried to tell its own story by using robots. Killer App though scrambles for a very in the moment relevance, doesn’t really land that, and sells out Futurama’s key ideas in the process. The Comedy Central episodes don’t live up to the original Fox seasons, and this switch in attitude is a huge part of that.

Into the equation, there’s also a fair few things Futurama got right. The smelloscope and the Oculus Rift were both correctly predicted by the show, and NASA really did use a rocket to knock an asteroid off course; albeit one made of asteroid and not of garbage. Perhaps the most timeless part of Futurama though is the way it influenced cartoons which came afterwards.

Futurama was one of the first cartoons to have a meta continuity; each episode existed as a stand-alone story, but they could be woven together into more meaningful arcs. Leela & Fry’s long running love story, Kif & Amy’s marriage, the Nibblonians… these stories don’t seem too risky in isolation, but to attempt them all together while creating one of the best episodic cartoon series of all time is a huge feat.

It’s much mocked that Fox turned down Rick & Morty over fears it was too similar to Futurama, but at the same time, Futurama proved the sci fi genre worked as a mainstream cartoon. They didn’t always need to be centred around a family just trying to get by.

In short, time as eaten some of Futurama’s jokes, and while some stand up as fascinating time capsules, others have already began to rust. The humour might be dated, but strangely, that’s often a positive, and it’s difficult to understate how much Futurama’s influence has impacted both modern cartoons and modern sci fi. As time goes on, it’s likely our vision of the year 3000 will continue to divert from the one Futurama first gave us in 1999. But hey, we’ll always have Paris. Uh, New New York.

Episode Spotlight – The Ricks Must Be Crazy, Rick & Morty

The Ricks Must Be Crazy is not quite my favourite episode of Rick & Morty, but I do think it’s the most Rick & Mortyiest episode of the whole show. What I mean by that is episodes like The Ricklantis Mixup or Total Rickall are brilliant high concepts which reinvent the tropes of the show, but don’t tell a typical, straightforward Rick & Morty adventure. The Ricks Must Be Crazy does, and in doing so highlights the real magic of the show, even stripped down to its basics.

The story revolves around Rick & Morty delving into the multiverse inside Rick’s car battery, and exploring the mini reality Rick has created, including a being with a genius to rival his own, Zeep. While that’s rightly praised as one of the show’s best a-plots – and has been memorialised in meme format through ‘slavery with extra steps’ – the b-polt, which sees Summer staying in the car, is vastly underrated.

Rick asks the car to keep Summer safe, which initially results in the car murdering a vaguely threatening passerby, before psychologically torturing a police officer with a melting vision of his dead son, and finally brokering a peace treaty in the spider war. It’s overshadowed by how much the miniverse story commits to the chaos, but in most other episodes it would be strong enough to oust the a-plot.

Examining the show’s a-plot first, it’s a bit of a shame that the episode has been memefied, as that takes some of the gloss over the issues it presents. Rick has created an entire civilisation, and offers them complete freedom, as long as they generate electricity for him. The ‘slavery with extra steps’ line is worth a much closer look than impact font affords; has Rick essentially created slaves by forcing living people with hopes and dreams and free will to live a life dedicated to powering his car? Or, when he could easily have just bought and charged a regular battery, does Rick deserve some praise for creating sentient life forms and allowing them a peaceful, prosperous life?

Aside from having to generate electricity, there does not seem to be much of a downside to life in the miniverse. There’s no war, no crime, and the task of generation isn’t any harder than several jobs in our – or Rick’s – reality. Rick & Morty is at its best when it raises these questions without answering them, trusting the audience to ponder them on their own. This trust is often misplaced (see: the Szechuan sauce incident), especially with such a wide, vocal and irritating fanbase, but that doesn’t change the fact that Rick & Morty examines questions other mainstream cartoons do not.

By far the most interesting thing about this miniverse though is the presence of Zeep, played by the always wonderful Stephen Colbert. Zeep has an intellect to rival Rick’s own, and so reveals another aspect of Rick’s genius. It’s not too difficult to imagine Rick could create rudimentary life forces capable of simple electricity generation – we all had sea monkeys as a kid, after all – but in creating Zeep, he’s able not only to create basic life forms, but life forms so advanced they rival his own genius; something very few life forms anywhere are capable of.

Zeep is the one who truly makes this a-plot special. Most of the enemies Rick encounters in his travels outnumber and outgun him, and/or try to beat him with brute force. On the rare occasions where he’s outsmarted, it’s because of others working together, a betrayal, or because someone got the drop on him. Zeep is essentially the only time Rick meets his match on a level playing field, and since Rick created Zeep and his universe, if anything Rick actually has the upper hand. Zeep not only matches Rick, their battle of wits is only over when Rick manages to escape from the miniverse back to his own reality, where he finds his car battery working again.

This raises another interesting thought about Zeep; he’s not only as smart as Rick, he also appears to have more humility, and is able to think more laterally. Zeep concedes that if their miniverse does not produce Rick’s electricity, he will no longer need the battery and thus will destroy it. Rick, by testing the battery, shows that he understands Zeep’s thinking; he expected Zeep to do this, and so allows Zeep and the rest to live in exchange for his continued supply of electricity. The only question is, if the shoe was on the other foot, would Rick have so openly admitted defeat to save the lives of everyone around him? Or would he rather die than let someone else get the best of him?

One final note on the a-plot is needed to address Morty himself. He’s a bit part player for most of episode, which usually means marking the episode down. Here though, it helps show how Rick is above everyone – apart from Zeep – and keeping Morty on the backburner for so long only makes his eventual explosion about masturbating to an extra curvy piece of driftwood all the more dramatic.

Speaking of being on the backburner, the episode checks in with Summer infrequently, but always manages to raise the stakes. What makes this such a strong storyline is a that a lot of shows would escalate from killing one person to killing three people, then to five, then ten, et cetera. For all Rick & Morty isn’t afraid of bloodshed, it decides to go in a more creative direction here and is all the more powerful.

After the car kills one person, Summer is distraught and begs the car not to hurt anyone. This is when the car moves on from simply shooting people to perhaps the most brutal image the show has ever concocted. As police circle the car, a small boy emerges – this turns out to be the recently deceased child of one of the officers, brought back to life for just long enough to hug his father before melting into sludge in his arms. Say what you like about Rick & Morty, but you can’t accuse it of not thinking outside the box. The escalation from this stage proves that further, as the car’s next step is to broker a peace treaty between the humans and the spiders in order to ensure Summer’s continued safety.

Finally, tribute has to be paid to the animation itself, particularly of the backgrounds. The dark and moody world of the ‘main’ universe is in complete contrast to the cartoonish, vibrant tones of the miniverse. From here, they disappear into a lighter, more washed out, sun soaked stone palette, and once they slip a level further into the microverse, this aesthetic changes again to become a lush, naturalistic green world, peppered with browns and reds to offer a more forest vibe. The characters in all four worlds don’t particularly differ all that much in personality until the bottom, so it’s really on the design and the artwork to sell the idea that these aren’t just three different places, they’re three entirely different realities.

Rick & Morty has certainly gained more plaudits when it’s broken their typical storytelling mould. Of the more regular episodes though, you’ll be hard pushed to find one better than The Ricks Must Be Crazy.

Harley Quinn’s Show Highlights The Importance Of Taking Risks

Harley Quinn’s new animated show arrived with all the chaotic energy of Harleen Quinzel herself, full of stunts, hyper stylised violence and more curse words per square inch than a sailor who just caught himself in his zipper. It’s managed to capture Harley’s frenetic personality and channel that into its momentum, with Season 2 premiering just seven weeks after Season 1 concluded. Perhaps the most Harley thing it has done so far though has been the way it’s taken big, outlandish risks and had pretty much all of them pay off.

The series begins with a face off between Batman and Joker, with Harley seen by both DC icons as a distraction to the main event, just as she has been for her entire existence. Batman: The Animated Series gave her significant focus but almost always as the Joker’s forlorn lover, the Arkham games offer decent spotlight but, again, as an accessory to Joker, and even the Suicide Squad movie – despite being built around Margot Robbie’s Harley – framed her as a part of Joker’s mythology first, her own person second.

She’s had her own solo stories in the comics, sure, but these days, it’s what you do outside of the comics which really makes you a somebody. This show – beating Birds Of Prey to the punch by a couple of months – was the first to truly explore Harley Quinn as a person. Batman and the Joker both feature in the series, but have inconsistent supporting roles (the very kind Harley herself is used to) in the first season and are absent for large chunks of the second. To avoid spoilers, we’ll say no more details on how or why.

Building a show around Harley herself is a risk. An educated one, maybe, given her rapid surge in popularity, but a risk nonetheless. She’s a villain, one without a track record as a solo star and as a female character, her place as the leading light in a comic book story is immediately put under scrutiny, however unfair that may be.

As is typical of Harley though, the show pulls no punches. Not only does it give Harley her starring role, it gives her a crew made up of Psycho, Clayface and King Shark, with the level headed Poison Ivy the only stellar name alongside Harley herself. The presence of Joker, Batman, but also Bane, Two-Face, Mr Freeze, Riddler, Aquaman, Wonder Woman (this list could go on and on) suggests that the producers weren’t limited when it came to selecting characters, but deliberately opted to go for lesser names. Part of that might be to avoid overshadowing Harley, but with Kaley Cucoco dialling it up to eleven and hyper intense action sequences in every episode, there was little chance of any of that anyway.

No, it’s much more likely that the producers knew, despite the risk, that b-listers offered a greater scope for creativity, more room for them to reinvent characters and played into the themes of the show that go hand in hand with elevating a perennial supporting star like Harley. We’ve seen the big names done to death: nobody picks up Mario Kart to play as Mario.

These characters are nobody’s favourites, but the show has been able to build them up into something much more interesting than a pedestrian appearance from a marquee name. The show has built each character superbly, essentially creating new personas from the pre-existing, flimsy background cast members they once were.

Clayface is especially genius, taking his transformation power to new heights with a overdramatic thespian Clayface emerging. Shark King is one of the more malleable DC characters, with various different versions of him create over the years, but Harley Quinn’s, a slightly dull witted, pencil pusher who is prone to bouts of rage, is one of the most unique.

It’s not just selecting the characters which shows a wildcard kind of bravery either. It’s the way they use them, especially the bigger guns. Bane is now a doofus, the butt of every joke in the Legion Of Doom, whose motivations for his every evil deed are both petty and ridiculous. It’s a million miles away from Bane’s characterisation, yet it also feels exactly like him.

By focussing on DC’s lesser lights and giving a fresh new flavour to already established ones, Harley Quinn shows the DCEU the light. Through the likes of Guardians Of The Galaxy, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, the MCU has been reinventing and taking risks for years. The DCEU conversely seems more bogged down, only really letting their lower budget features – Shazam! and Birds Of Prey – try something less formulaic.

At times the formula has worked (Wonder Woman) and at times it’s failed (Justice League), but it’s hard to get truly invested in the DCEU while it’s constantly playing safe.

Harley Quinn though grabs you by the shoulders and smashes its forehead into yours from the off. There’s a ballet of violence and a commitment to Harley’s foul mouth and penchant for destruction that’s difficult not be taken in by, but it’s also in the ways they’ve constructed this world as the perfect playground for the Maiden of Mischief.

The show is vintage Harley, but it’s a vintage that’s been accessorised with gloriously mismatched jewellery and all been combined into an outfit both modern and daring. Established characters, patterns, settings and themes of Gotham are all filtered through Harley’s chaotic lens into something new, something bright, brave and bold.

Everything about this show is a risk. And pretty much everything pays off.

Golden Era Plus – Brick Like Me

Brick Like Me is arguably the most ambitious episode The Simpsons has ever done, but it’s not here by virtue of its high concept alone. While The Simpsons has had success with concept episodes in the likes of The Simpsons Guy and Eternal Moonshine Of The Simpson Mind, it’s also flopped hard with The Great Phatsby and Dogtown. Brick Like Me doesn’t just pull off the concept well though, it manages to reinvent the storytelling of The Simpsons while, LEGO aside, feeling like a vintage offering from the show.

Watch If You Like: Homer The Heretic, Lisa The Iconoclast, Lisa The Greek, 22 Short Films About Springfield

Written By: Brian Kelley

Directed By: Matthew Nastuk

MVP: Homer

Brick Like Me is told primarily through LEGO, with the whole town brickified. Early on, LEGO Homer has a flashback to his cartoon self, and begins to suspect that his world is not real. They could’ve gone non-canon with the LEGO and had more freedom with it, but it’s startling how well they managed to utilise the LEGO reality while telling a story which was heartfelt, funny and, most impressively, actually made sense.

In the Futurama crossover Simpsorama, the premise for getting the Planet Express crew in the show was weak, but we went with it because we wanted Futurama in the show. With Brick Like Me though, we don’t have to just go with it. Everything just works.

The humour is a little sweeter and family friendly here to fit the LEGO brand, but it still feels right in the middle of The Simpsons’ wheelhouse. Rather than hokey advertising, the way the Elon Musk & Lady Gaga centred episodes were, Brick Like Me feels like two beloved properties coming together to create something unique.

Writer Brian Kelley has even spoken of the efforts to try and get every character possible LEGOised to make the most of the opportunity. “We pushed as much as we could to get everyone into those pews. We were like, ‘More characters! More characters!’ because we knew our audience would hate us if any of their favorites didn’t get to be LEGOs. You won’t see Señor Ding Dong or the Grumple, but I think we crammed in everyone else.”

The plot itself is built around Lisa and Homer’s relationship, as many of the all time greats are. The reason Homer is in this LEGO world at all is because the real Homer is building a LEGO diorama of the town with Lisa, but she ditches him to go and see The Survival Games, a Hunger Games parody.

His hurt at being rejected causes him to retreat inside a make believe world of LEGO. Here, he has all the time in the world to bond with Lisa, cherishing his time capsule existence. Soon though, he realises that by remaining here, he’ll never get to see Lisa grow up.

The Android’s Dungeon is central to this fantasy, with the real Homer having bought the LEGO set there he and Lisa were building in the first place. In the LEGO reality though, Comic Book Guy is part of Homer’s psyche, and represents the side of Homer who still wants to remain in the LEGO world. It’s yet another brilliant flourish which highlights how well the show folded every character into the concept intelligently, rather than simply doing another Simpsons episode, but with LEGO.

The resolution, revolving around parental connection through LEGO and the importance of letting go does bear some similarities to The LEGO Movie – which cartoon Lisa even references – but not so much that it feels a tired rip off. Brick Like Me and The LEGO Movie were developed simultaneously too, so it’s more a case of great minds think alike… or the fact that it’s an obvious theme for a LEGO story.

Eventually, Homer returns to the real world and takes Lisa to see Survival Games, learning to let his little girl grow up. A lot of Homer/Lisa episodes revolve around Lisa rediscovering her connection with her father, so seeing the relationship develop through the lens of Homer was a fresh idea and made for a new take on an old favourite.

If you’re desperate to point out a weakness, the B-plot of Bart rebuilding the school isn’t up to all that much. Yes, Skinner stifling his creativity feeds into how Homer wants to stop Lisa growing up, but this felt like a time when a full on A-plot would have been enough, especially given that it features the LEGO story and cartoon story.

Bart’s story could have been improved with more space, but that would mean either cutting the church scene with all our favourites, or taking time from the final, imaginative ninja pirate battle with LEGO Comic Book Guy. Neither seem like good choices.

By virtue of its sheer uniqueness, Brick Like Me is a Golden Era Plus episode guaranteed to be remembered when The Simpsons finally bows out for good. Don’t let the gimmick fool you though; few episodes have more heart.

Best Girls – Louise Belcher, Bob’s Burgers

Bob’s Burgers is one of the best cartoons out there, but Louise Belcher deserves a special kind of praise. That she’s my favourite is largely irrelevant here; all of the family are great in their own way and it’s their dynamic which elevates Bob’s Burgers out of being simply and copy and paste of The Simpsons, Family Guy or American Dad. Regardless of who you happen to like best though, Louise is the most unique character, and it’s her charisma and malleability which helps gives Bob’s Burgers its eccentric array of episodes.

Bob is the hardworking but downtrodden father, Linda is the kindly but overfriendly mother, Gene is a lovable goofball and Tina is a butt loving horse girl, with all the associated stereotypes. The characters occasionally break out of these moulds – Linda and her hyper competitiveness, for example – but largely, episodes about these characters are about these tropes. The writers can be incredibly inventive with how they use these personality traits, but the characters remain within those boundaries. With Louise? Not so much.

Key Louise Episodes:

Hawk & Chick

Poops! I Didn’t Do It Again

Ear-sy Rider

Better Off Sled

Boyz For Now

Louise is the wildcard of the family. Sometimes episodes are built around her powers to con and manipulate her peers (or even other adults). Others as a supportive sister, albeit usually with unorthodox methods. But there’s also her creativity, her obsessive side, her touching relationship with Bob and the fact that she’s still just a kid. Tina and Gene act like children most of the time, while Louise, despite being the youngest, has the personality of the eldest, sprinkled with the chaos of being the youngest. Episodes which let Louise be a kid can be some of her strongest, and highlights Louise’s flexibility as far as shaping a plot goes.

Letting kids be kids is often a big issue for animated shows. I don’t want to continue to compare The Simpsons with Bob’s Burgers; it feels lazy and a by-product of their joint billing in Fox’s Animation Domination. There’s far less togetherness and more-husband-as-antagonist going on in all the other shows, and there are a million other differences you can pick out. Here though, for a moment, I’ll be focusing on Lisa and Louise.

Art by Fabian Lustig

It might seem lazy to compare them; while close in age, Louise is a Bart if anything. However, the modern day Lisa’s flaws can emphasise Louise’s strengths. Lisa used to be a smarter than average eight year old with an ethical heart, but 30 seasons in she’s morphed into a know it all who often plays roadblock to the family’s fun, with the intellect and maturity of a woman four times her age. Lisa is rarely allowed to be a kid anymore, because her role in the show no longer has room for it. Louise has been able to develop while keeping her childishness at the heart of what she’s about, and that’s why she’s such an interesting character.

There’ll be full Episode Spotlights on some of these to come, but here, we’ll take a look at how a few episodes have made Louise Belcher into one of the most vital characters in animation.

The first thing that just be said of Louise is how well the show presents and develops her relationship with Bob. Gene and Linda’s relationship with each other is sweet too, but it’s because Bob and especially Louise are usually so reticent with emotions that makes their bond so special.

One of the best examples of this is in Hawk & Chick. That the pair of them both enjoy watching violent samurai movies makes sense, but as the episode unfolds it’s clear the connection goes deeper than just liking the same films. Hawk & Chick, chronicling the stories of a father and daughter itself, is clearly a symbol for Bob & Louise themselves. This isn’t lost on Louise either, who’s heartbroken when she learns that the real Hawk & Chick (actual father and daughter Kojima and Yuki) are no longer speaking.

Her childish view of the world as a black and white existence demonstrates how important Bob is to her, and despite her usual facade, she’s never embarrassed to show how much she cares for her father.

Poops! I Did It Again in the most recent season is another excellent microcosm of Bob & Louise’s relationship. This time, they bond over their mutual failure to poop in public, culminating in Bob helping her get over her embarrassing fears and growing himself in the meantime. This is an essential episode in the Louise canon because it highlights all sides of their relationship. Louise so often has the upper hand in everything, and here she’s at a real low point. Not only is she struggling to do something the rest of the family (Bob aside) find easy, the thing in question is gross and embarrassing. It’s prime real estate for teasing, but rather than rib her even a little, Bob dives in with both hands to help as much as he can.

Not literally of course. Ew.

Outside of the family, Louise’s most significant relationship is with Logan. He first appears in Ear-sy Rider, which also explores the mythos of Louise’s hat. Family Guy have riffed on the show for using the hat as a cheap stand in for a personality; considering Louise shows more personality in any given episode than Meg or Chris have done for whole seasons, it’s a gag that misses its target and then some.

It is true though that the hat means a lot to Louise, but what Ear-sy Rider is best at is putting Louise on the back foot. Logan offers a real adversary for Louise, not a foil for her to riff off or a minion for her to manipulate, but an actual challenge. He turns up again a few times, most effectively in Better Off Sled. Louise usually has things her own way, and Logan changes all that. Again, Louise adapts to her new role with ease, and shows how often she is the glue that holds Bob’s Burgers together.

Finally, Boyz For Now. It sees Louise playing against type, obsessed with boyband star Boo Boo, deep in the midst of her first crush. This one is so effective because Louise has carved out such an iconic personality already, and Louise is able to be so perfectly Louise while acting completely out of character. It’s a genius take on her and fleshes her out even further; the show returns to her love for Boo Boo just the right amount as well.

Louise is, in a way, the biggest caricature the show has. She’s the most over the top, takes her stories to the furthest extremes and has the biggest reactions. Despite this, maybe because of this, the show has also managed to make her the most real. In terms of range, comedy and heart, Louise is Bob’s Burgers’ ace in the hole.

Episode Spotlight – The Sting, Futurama

Despite having very little in common apart from their creator, Futurama always seemed to be living in The Simpsons’ shadow. It’s ironic that now it’s been cancelled, we see Groening’s new show Disenchantment being unfavourably compared to Futurama, with Dreamland in the shadow of New New York. That’s all probably an argument for another time though, as The Sting highlights everything that’s brilliant about Futurama, including how and why they were able to pull off high concept episodes which much more ease than their yellow cousins.

The constant comparison between The Simpsons and Futurama can definitely be tiresome, but it is necessary here. The Simpsons could never do an episode like The Sting, and not just because of the sci fi, futuristic content. The Simpsons is obviously a brilliant show in its own right, but even in the glory years struggled to ever give an episode over to an a-plot fully.

The family dynamic creates a need for a b-plot, and while in the long run it serves to bring audiences much closer to the family as a whole, it meant they had a more structured, less free approach to storytelling than Futurama did, especially in The Sting.

It begins with Fry, Bender and Leela on equal footing, but quickly evolves into a Leela episode.

The Planet Express crew are sent to collect space honey from space bees, giving some backstory a visual gag from the very first episode. This culminates in a swarm attacking them, with a stinger going straight through Fry and hitting Leela. Spoiler alert, I guess, but everything we see from this point is actually a dream; Leela is barely scathed by the stinger while Fry is killed after it impales him.

What we don’t find out until the end is that in reality, all of the venom hit Leela and immediately sent her into a coma, while Fry being impaled is an easily fixable wound in the year 3000. This is the first great element of the episode, and perhaps the most underrated. It holds up so well because the transition from reality to dream is seamless, yet the final reveal withstands proper scrutiny.

While the bookends of the episode are key in ensuring the episode survives multiple rewatches, it’s everything in the centre which elevates it to one of the best Futurama episodes ever.

There’s a dreamlike element to the episode post-Fry’s ‘death’, punctuated by the chorus of Fry begging Leela to wake up. We slip into Leela’s hallucinations as easily as the coma began in the first place, and this fluid feeling is essential to the episode’s themes.

The episode might be ‘about’ Fry and Leela getting stung by space bees, but what it’s really about is revealing how deep Fry and Leela’s connection to each other truly is. Fry’s love for Leela has already had some emotional punches at this point in the series, and we’ve even seen a few times when she’s reciprocated, though it’s always been short lived or born out of sympathy/affection rather than a real mirroring of Fry’s feelings. Here though, we see how crucial the pair are to each other.

Leela is distraught at Fry’s ‘death’ and the guilt at causing it, but her pain goes deeper. It’s not just that Fry is dead, it’s that he’s not there anymore. He’s not there for her. Leela even takes a lethal dose of space honey as the episode ends, wanting to be with Fry forever, while back in the real world he’s never left her side.

The groundwork of their relationship has already been laid, but the impact of the finale doesn’t hit as hard without The Sting highlighting how much the pair need each other; that’s not something I see it ever getting much credit for, which is strange when you consider that Futurama always had a more arcing narrative than the episode stylings of its contemporaries Family Guy, South Park and, yes, The Simpsons.

On an animation front, the episode is spectacular. I’m a huge Futurama fan, but the animation has never been that big of a draw for me. Animation? Draw? Geddit?

Some of the world building through background art is incredibly detailed, and they have a huge range of character designs across the season; certainly, a lot of work goes into the animation of Futurama. There’s no denying that. But big sequences never seemed to be their style. Some of the space escapes can be superbly intense, but on a character to character level, the animation always felt like it just served it’s purpose; no more, no less.

Here though, with the rules relaxed via dream logic, the show goes wild. The ‘Don’t Worry, Bee Happy’ musical number makes excellent use of the character’s personalities while having fun with the sequence, while the faces on the wall as Leela sits in bed with her space honey is a great way to illustrate how suffocated she feels by her role in Fry’s death as it feeds into the trippy visuals the dreams within dreams within dreams structure provides. Elsewhere, as Leela meets Fry in her sleep, it’s the usual Futurama with gorgeous backgrounds flowing past Fry and Leela on their various exotic escapes.

The Sting is an episode which gets all of Futurama’s usual strengths right, but also brings some new ideas to the table, adds depth to the characters and manages to tell a vibrant, fantastical story with a grounded point. Well worth putting the spotlight on.

Why South Park Is The Ultimate Safe Space

South Park says things other shows won’t. That’s always been its schtick. 300 episodes in, it’s still able to shock, as the most recent season showed through Band In China and Board Girls, which tackled Chinese censorship and trans women in sport. Both important issues of our time, and South Park handled then in a typical South Park way.

We’ll get to what exactly that means, but first we need look at how South Park operates.

South Park’s simplistic animation style was made of genuine cutouts for the pilot, but every other episode uses computer software to mimic this look and speed up episode creation. Shows like The Simpsons or Family Guy take around eight months from script to air, as they have far more sophisticated animation and go through South Korean animation companies. South Park is created in house, and each episode only takes one week; sometimes less. This means the show can react to trends far quicker, and can practically guarantee topical relevance, though as we’ll see, they squander this unique position through their own ethos.

Let’s zoom in on Board Girls as our example. For the record, I’m transgender, but I also believe that comedy is inherent in every situation, you just have to find it. I do not believe Board Girls found it.

Comedy is obviously subjective, but certainly there is something very ‘South Park’ in how Board Girls draws in broad strokes. The ‘trans woman’ in question is a hairy, bearded, muscle bound Bret The Hitman Hart parody. It’s lazy, low hanging fruit, and doesn’t actually have anything substantive to say. Futurama did a similar plot point in 2003’s Bend Her, well before the ‘trans debate’, whatever that means, had even entered the sporting world. That episode poked fun at gender stereotypes and had the same punchlines as Board Girls, but Bend Her was actually funny, and didn’t just rely on “haha transgender” to land a laugh.

Where Bend Her sought to tell a story, Board Girls sought to tell a joke. It told it, but then… what else was it supposed to do for 22 minutes?

Again, it’s subjective. Board Girls was well received by fans, but that’s really the point; South Park continues to preach to the choir, and they haven’t even got anything to say.

Family Guy has taken potshots at trans people too. While the recent Trans Fat, in which Peter accidentally gets a sex change, seemed to pull its punches, Family Guy has made Ida Quagmire the butt of jokes since her introduction. Brian’s long vomit take was a little tiresome, though drawn out gags that were never too funny to begin with are vintage Family Guy anyway. Brian telling Quagmire “I fucked your dad,” or Lois telling Ida “you may use the yard,” when she asks for the bathroom are still punching down on trans people, but at least they’re actually jokes.

I struggle to balance my tolerant, inclusive world view and my love of Family Guy at times, but I figure being able to laugh at jokes which make me the punchline is at least the start. And Family Guy’s jokes are jokes. They’re quick, they speak to a real experience, they let the story move on and they make a clear point. South Park just picks a thing to laugh at, and while people might be happy to laugh at… whatever they’re pointing at this week, that’s not the same thing as telling a joke.

South Park fans will tell you that the show doesn’t care who it offends, and they’re right. It doesn’t care. And when it doesn’t matter to you who the target is, you’ll pick the easiest one every time.

Matt Stone, one of the creators of South Park, is on the record saying “I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals.” This stressing on liberals is important; South Park hates people who care about things. They go after conservatives who say dumb things and liberals who believe in causes. There are some exceptions to this; some liberals say and indeed believe dumb things, while there are conservatives who genuinely believe in causes, albeit usually with blinkers on to block out the suffering of poor people.

Nine times out of ten though, it’s liberals South Park will body slam, because the easy target is the person who cares about things. That’s why they laugh about things like global warming, trans people, gun control, or, ironically, safe spaces; other people care about them, so they’re easy to laugh at.

This is where South Park’s unique development style comes in. With a much faster turnaround than any other cartoon, South Park are placed to get involved in issues as they’re actually happening, rather than referencing them months after the debate has cooled and the lines have been drawn.

South Park rarely takes this opportunity though. Sure, they pick up on what’s in the news, and even build episodes around it. But they never get involved in the debate, they never take a side. They just point and laugh at those that do. Sometimes they focus on one side to mock, other times it’s both sides, but the message is consistent; caring about things is dumb.

This is how South Park has grown into a safe space.

There are people out there who genuinely believe your life experience is pretty much the same, whether you’re a straight, white, cisgender male or anything else. And they’re not bad people, even if they are a little naive.

Sure, they call their buddies ‘faggots’ if they won’t stay for another beer, but they don’t hate gay people. And they’ve got nothing against women, they’d just prefer if their doctor was a dude, that’s all. These people whose default humour is the ‘I’m going to hell for this’ kind, this is who South Park is a safe space for.

These people feel like they’re being pushed out of popular culture. The ‘I’m not racist, but’ types. The ‘let’s not make this political’ types. South Park tells them that’s it’s okay to not care about things, in fact it’s great! Those people care about things and look at them! They’re dumb!

South Park is a troll in cartoon form. It doesn’t matter what they’re saying, what matters is that they get a reaction. They aim for controversy, not because they have anything important to say, any challenges to make to the status quo, but because controversy means they won. They made someone mad, so they won. There’s an innate smugness to South Park, something deeply uncritical about its satire. People who care are just white knighting or virtue signalling; it couldn’t possibly be that they actually give a shit.

South Park can be funny, even downright hilarious at times. We don’t like to admit it, but trolls can be pretty funny too. Trolls frequently get likes/upvotes/retweets because the truth is, most people like laughing at others as long as no one is laughing at them.

Nothing is off the table in South Park, except perspective, introspection or jokes about straight white guys. You don’t have to think, you don’t have to care, you don’t have to worry and you don’t have to know. You don’t have to do anything, you just have to laugh at everyone else from your very own safe space.

Animation Review – Maggie Simpson In “Playdate With Destiny”

After debuting in selected screening of Pixar’s Onward, the latest Simpsons’ short recently hit Disney+, demonstrating that, when it really wants to, The Simpsons can still put on a show. It centres around Maggie Simpson and her crush on a baby she meets at the playpark, Hudson. Featuring zero dialogue, the five minute short is chock full of brilliant animation and no dialogue, and highlights everything that’s great about modern Simpsons, as well as a little bit of what’s wrong about it.

The Simpsons began in 1989 with incredibly janky animation, something which was initially part of the show’s charm. Since then, it has gone through a HD evolution, one which first left the show cold and sterile, before the show adopted to recover its animated flair, albeit in a much more polished fashion. This animated creativity is on full display here, most notably when Maggie wanders through the older kids’ playpark.

Modern episodes can be hit or miss, and around a third of the episodes in the last five years feature rebaked plots from better times. Homer and Marge can only have so much marital difficulty before it gets stale, and they that level a while ago now. The animation though has remained top notch, and is a big part of why fans have stuck around.

This fluid, fanciful animation is key to the characterisation, and Maggie has, strangely for a character with zero dialogue, never been short on characterisation. Episodes like A Streetcar Named Marge, Who Shot Mr Burns and Four Great Women And A Manicure have given her a wordless depth, as she’s already proven in her previous Oscar nominated outing, Maggie Simpson In “The Longest Daycare”. While fans can argue that characters like Lisa or Homer have been changed beyond recognition as the show has gone on, Maggie has remained consistent, and is perfect for a timeless short like this.

Hudson too is instantly given a personality, and the connection with the audience comes across clearly. While two babies being friends is low stakes, we feel the emotion and humanity of the story, and Playdate With Destiny manages to keep us hooked.

The animation is darling and while the story is wise not to over complicate things, you could argue it’s a little bit the middle. It sets up Maggie’s struggles well and provides a satisfying resolution, but there isn’t much between these two things. Running a total of five minutes, it has to make every second count, but it does feel slightly like a beginning followed immediately by an ending.

The Simpsons has relied on celebrity guests as a crutch far too often recently, but when they introduce actual guest characters and not just star vehicle walk ons, they can still nail it.

Hudson is cut from the same cloth, even if the show hasn’t had a Hank Scorpio or Frank Grimes level character for a decade. While Playdate With Destiny highlights that The Simpsons is much better than its given credit for right now, it also exposes its biggest flaw.

The show used to have a timeless quality mixed with its referential humour, which is a big part of its rewatchability. These days, it chases relevance far too often, and while using a podcast to frame Season 30’s The Clown Stays In The Picture was a masterstroke, episodes about YouTube influencing, e-sports, streaming sites, app development and the gig economy have fallen flat. Playdate With Destiny removes the dialogue, and while there’s definitely still some great lines in modern Simpsons, the silence of the short forces them to focus on storytelling and not just lazy gags or lowest common denominator references.

All things considered, Playdate With Destiny is a fantastic example of what The Simpsons is capable of on its a-game, reminds us of the importance of Maggie to the family and the importance of narrative to The Simpsons in general. Though the low stakes and slightly truncated middle are marks against it, Playdate With Destiny is still a clear win for modern Simpsons. Boy, did it need one.