An Unmitigated Crime Against Storytelling

“What happened to Mindy?” – Bart Simpson
“Yes, what did happen to her?” – Marge Simpson
“Enh, she hit the bottle pretty hard and lost her job.” – Homer Simpson
“Hm, good.” – Marge Simpson

I am not a big fan of Season 12’s “Trilogy of Error”.  (In case you’ve blocked it out that’s the one where Lisa invents the robot, Homer gets his thumb cut off and three different stories all unfold at once.)  But I do recognize that it took a lot of skill to weave three stories together like that.  Getting all those little elements to drop into place couldn’t have been easy.  So while I think those things were largely out of place in a Simpsons episode (where suspense and dramatic tension should never be the primary goal) I can at least see that some care went into creating it. 

Then we have this week’s “The Color Yellow”, which incorporates the worst parts of “Trilogy of Error” while not even pretending to care about its story.  Just look at the ending.  Lisa spent the entire episode obsessing over her 1860-self and her efforts to help free a slave, Virgil.  But then 1860-Marge is the one who actually helps Virgil get to freedom wherein she marries him and settles down.  Except that to do so she abandons the kid she already has.  This is awful in at least three ways. 

First of all, she abandons her child.  Regardless of any other considerations it’s tough to have sympathy for a character who walks away from her kid without a second glance.  This is compounded by the fact that the ending is played as sweet and happy. 

Secondly, in terms of continuity within this episode this makes no sense whatsoever.  (Standard disclaimer: I don’t care much about backstory continuity between episodes, but it would be nice if the story within a single episode made just a lick or two of sense.)  So Lisa isn’t actually descended from 1860-Lisa?  And none of them are related in the least to 1860-Homer?  Did the family move away from Springfield and then move back?  Even this wouldn’t be so bad if the episode hadn’t spent all of its time being so relentlessly serious about how important its story was, but it did.  The whole premise here is local family history and then the ending completely undermines that. 

Have You Seen Me? Finally, and most atrociously, in terms of competent storytelling this goes beyond indifference, disregards camp, and sets up shop in the most hacktacular place imaginable.  We spend the bulk of the episode with Lisa see-sawing back and forth over whether or not 1860-Lisa managed to actually help Virgil.  But 1860-Lisa vanishes three quarters of the way through, never to be seen, heard from, or even mentioned again.  Up until the last commercial break she’s the central character of the story and then – poof – she’s gone. 

This is especially damning when you consider how much screen time this episode wasted on useless filler.  The attic scene, the whole diary in the vent thing, the completely unnecessary error messages on Lisa’s laptop when she’s trying to give her presentation, all of those things take time that could’ve been spent giving the story a real ending.  (The computer errors were especially wasteful seeing as how they were just “update” messages with nary a joke to be seen.)  “Trilogy of Error” may have wasted a lot of time doing things that weren’t funny for the sake of its overwrought narrative, but at least it had a narrative.  “The Color Yellow” wasted time on things that weren’t funny just because. 

9 Responses to “An Unmitigated Crime Against Storytelling”

  1. 1 Celia
    23 February 2010 at 7:15 pm

    I worry that people would think I was some kind of nitpicky nerd for thinking that people who make up family backstories should put some effort into it. Of course, I haven’t watched the episode, so I am perhaps in no position to judge. But it does seem like the family tree was a little confused, and it’s not really helped by making the ancestors look exactly the same as their modern-day counterparts. I imagine I’m very much alone in this, but it annoys me that the majority of writers of fiction seem to think that relatives and ancestors should always look exactly like the primary character they’re related to. Don’t they take any pleasure in crafting new characters? Or do they just go “fuck it, it’s only for one episode” and shout at their Guatemalan houseboy to bring them more cocaine? Because it does look like they’ve got about a decade’s worth (or several hours, if you’re Glenn Stott) of “fuck it, it’s only for one episode”.

    The way I would do it is to actually draw out the fucking family tree and work out who is descended from who, and how, and all the dates of birth and death. Yeah, you might not ever need all that shit, but it’s good to have in the archives, so you can refer to it and perhaps have material for future “let us look into the past” episodes. With The Simpsons, I would have drawn out family trees for all sorts of characters, because people actually care about these things, and therefore the writers should know themselves. But I can tell the writers think of the fans as being on about the same level as something they stepped in, and none of them give a shit.

    As you can see, I’m in no position to comment on the actual story. But it does seem that this comment:

    “The Color Yellow” wasted time on things that weren’t funny just because.

    is a part of a larger problem with the most recent episodes, in which they will take an idea and then apparently say “what’s the least interesting thing we could do here? Let’s do that!” And they’ll put in things that are not only not funny, but don’t actually add anything to anything. I can’t think of any proper examples now, but I should have been in bed three-quarters of an hour ago.

    • 2 D.N.
      23 February 2010 at 8:23 pm

      “I imagine I’m very much alone in this, but it annoys me that the majority of writers of fiction seem to think that relatives and ancestors should always look exactly like the primary character they’re related to.”

      In the case of The Simpsons, I’d say there are at least three reasons:

      1. Designing completely new characters is more expensive than simply re-using slightly-tweaked designs for existing characters.

      2. The makers of the show have a penchant for slapping period garb onto familiar characters, no doubt hoping that seeing the characters in different clothes/a different time-setting will fool viewers into thinking that what they’re seeing is something more unique than it really is. Putting the characters in different periods of history was OK for the occasional Halloween episode segment, but then there was the Bible Stories episode, the Tall Tales episode, the famous tales from history episode, the “Love, Springfieldian Style” episode…

      3. Maybe the makers of the show have a low estimation of viewers’ intelligence, and think that if the ancestors aren’t designed to look like the Simpsons characters we already know, then we’ll be confused and won’t realise who they are supposed to be.

      • 3 Celia
        24 February 2010 at 10:56 am

        I forgot that it costs to create new characters. I expect that would be a consideration, yes. Even though I’m sure they make enough cash to cover it. But maybe those high-definition computer graphics that look exactly the same as the old animation to me cost a lot, and those debauched drug-fueled orgies that people in the upper echelons of the LA entertainment industry no doubt have all the time won’t simply pay for themselves.

        • 4 Lovejoy fan
          25 February 2010 at 11:42 am

          For what it’s worth, I think your idea about a family tree is a great idea and if I worked on the show, I’d have done something similar. Heck, I actually did something for a fanfic I wrote a while back.

          Maybe the reason the writers do it is because they think it’s not worth it; “let’s just make them look like the Simpsons, no one’s gonna notice”.

          • 5 Celia
            25 February 2010 at 7:14 pm

            Well, I’m glad someone thinks I have good ideas. Actually, it’s something my mother has done for novels she never completed. It must run in the family.

            • 6 Lovejoy fan
              26 February 2010 at 6:05 pm

              Well, it’s a good idea. In fact, there actually was a Simpson family tree in an old book called “the Simpsons uncensored family album”, if I remember correctly.

  2. 7 D.N.
    24 February 2010 at 10:49 pm

    “I forgot that it costs to create new characters. I expect that would be a consideration, yes.”

    That’s related to another thing that bugs me about Zombie Simpsons: crowd scenes. In the show’s classic period, when groups of Springfieldians gathered together, there’d be faces you recognised, but you’d also see regular citizens – non-descript folks you’d never seen before and would never see again (or if you did, you wouldn’t remember them), and some of them even would get a line or two. Seeing people who aren’t meant to be zany recurring characters made Springfield seem more like a real place. But I think as time went on, it became cheaper for the makers of the show to just re-use the same commonly-used characters in scenes (easier to animate when you rely on the same character models) – I’m pretty sure this was mentioned in an audio commentary somewhere. In any case, for some time now, crowd scenes consist of the same hoary old stock-company of “amusing” characters – you don’t see any gathering without the likes of the Sea Captain, Disco Stu, Sideshow Mel, Bumblebee Man, etc (you even see characters mingling who probably would have had nothing to do with each other in the older episodes). All of which really does reduce the scope of Springfield.

    • 8 Charlie Sweatpants
      24 February 2010 at 11:23 pm

      That’s an excellent observation. At some point the crowds really did just turn into nothing but stock characters and that was definitely a loss. I’m instantly reminded of the end of “Whacking Day” when Quimby gets out of the limo with his pre-whacked snakes:

      “I’m sick of you people, you’re nothing but a pack of fickle mush heads!” – Mayor Quimby
      “He’s right!” – Anonymous Female
      “Give us hell Quimby!” – Anonymous Male

      There are some familiar faces in that crowd but it’s mostly anonymous, and the two people who heckle Quimby are never heard from again. They’re just regular people standing in for everyone. Would that have been better if Sideshow Mel and Lindsey Naegle had said those lines? No way.

      • 9 Lovejoy fan
        25 February 2010 at 11:47 am

        I thought I was the only one who noticed this. After a while, it even became the same group of stock characters.

        There’s one scene from a Zombie Simpsons episode (I think it was that one with crosswords in) that demonstrates this perfectly. It shows Bart and Lisa standing in a line. This line consists entirely of stock characters; the same ones who seem to show up in all the background scenes. I just found it, actually:

        It’s like the writers just can’t be bothered to think of different (or new) characters to put in these scenes. Or maybe they think no one cares.

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