Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Simpsons: Season 7

I had a few problems with Season 6 of The Simpsons, feeling that in many ways, the early hints of the rot that would later infamously make the series less and less entertaining, but I have to say that other than a few episodes and that continuing feeling that it’s hard to really accept that the Simpsons are your average American family when the number of reasons they ought to be world-famous keeps mounting (Homer on tour with Hullabalooza without mentioning his successes with the B-Sharps, Bart vying for the Radioactive Boy role but nobody remembering that time he got famous on the Krusty the Clown Show), but some extremely strong episodes are in this season.

In many ways, this marks the season where the core of Simpsons characters who carried the early shows and actually developed much faster than I had expected before rewatching the whole show in order begin to seem played-out and get gradually less interesting. Bart in particular begins to be more an accessory to other stories than carrying things on his own, and the last episode of the series nicely establishes that (a) most teenagers see him as trying too hard rather than being cool and (b) sometimes his selfishness makes him look like such a jerk that it’s important that he makes amends with kinder gestures. Similarly, Homer is getting progressively more simple-minded, though he’s still a way off being a psychotic idiot. Getting morbidly obese for a more comfortable life is about as far as his crazy schemes should be able to go.

Perhaps the character to come off worst from season 7 is Mr. Burns. After the cliffhanger at the end of the previous series turned him into, as the show itself states, a cartoonish cackling villain rather than a mean but feeble old man, he begins his descent into caricature. The episode where Homer fills in for Mr. Smithers may be the last hoorah of an interesting and nuanced Mr. Burns, the one who surprised me with his complexity in the first three seasons, but when he is literally trying to kill Bart by kicking him into a safe hard enough to knock both overboard while stealing artworks, it’s easy to feel The Simpsons has moved a long way from its origins or any chance of the show portraying identifiable problems for average people.

On the other hand, this is also where the rich cast of minor characters truly begin to shine, with episodes specifically focusing on that. There is also another very strong Apu episode which is very timely even now, decades later, with illegal immigration still a hot topic. With Bart and Homer becoming less central, Lisa and Marge are also given the chance to shine and become interesting characters, Lisa’s making friends on the beach trip, newfound vegetarianism and decision to keep her town’s history a secret for the sake of others all very strong moments of development for her. It’s also nice to see the show keep attempts at continuity going here, with Lisa committing to her vegetarianism, Selma keeping Jubjub and at least Mr. Smithers remembering how central the Simpsons seem to be to his and Mr. Burns’ lives.

Marge, too, gets some strong episodes and depth. Part of the joke of her character is that she’s simple and boring in many ways, but she has her neuroses and passions too. It may seem hard to imagine her going to the work picnic and getting blind drunk on the punch by this stage, but the episode where she becomes a social climber gives her some real flaws, which go hand-in-hand with increased depth.

While the cracks are indeed showing and The Simpsons’ glory days will end soon enough, season 7 was stronger than season 6 and there are still a number of truly brilliant episodes to come before the sharp decline. And hey, even now, The Simpsons can produce good episodes. The one with Marge and Lisa competing to go to space was strong.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Adventure Time: Season 6

The sixth season of Adventure Time brought a lot of the mysteries that had been building up from the start to the fore, and answered a few of the show’s big questions. Unfortunately, when actually brought into the foreground, some of the answers we were given ended up much less exciting than the open possibilities we had before. Not only that, but a slew of throwaway or dull episodes, a strange release schedule that meant this season aired over the course of more than a year, and severe disappointment over guest animators means that this was where Adventure Time lost me. I still watched the season, at a considerable delay, and I will still at some point watch the next. But I no longer feel particularly excited about new episodes or watch them quickly. I can catch up later. Having watched since Adventure Time was but a silly, random pilot episode where it felt like anything could happen, this is a little sad for me.

Season 6 had some great ideas. The Lich was transformed into a giant baby, and a highlight came when Lumpy Space Princess did a very bad job caring for him. Finn gets an arm cut off and goes through a series of replacement limbs, though nothing much came of them. The latter half of the season constantly foreshadowed significant events coming with the approach of a ‘Catalyst Comet’, with a good sense of continuity and build-up. There was a very interesting flashback episode to long before the start of the series, with Evergreen. And Finn finally met his father, Martin.

But none of these satisfied very much. The Lich turning into Sweet Pea and the backstory introduced in ‘Evergreen’ both held my attention well, but what they set up has yet to develop into anything important, which is also the case for the reappearance of Simon’s wife Betty. The idea of Finn’s dad not being a hero or positive role model but an opportunist with a tendency to abandon those who bond with him is refreshing and quite clever, but makes episodes centred on him a bore. The appearance of the comet was built up well, but especially compared with the Lich in the last season was dealt with far too quickly and the random ways Finn could deal with everything he faced were deeply artificial.

I enjoyed the increased development of minor characters like The Cosmic Owl, Peppermint Butler and Jake’s family (both his kids and his brother), but at this stage I’m a little bored of Lemongrab, the King of Ooo and Magic Man – even if the latter is in a more interesting position now. Susan Strong is a character who probably didn’t need to recur, and the classic characters like The Ice King and Lumpy Space Princess felt under-used towards the end of the season. I really, really hope we never see Chips and Ice Cream or the Ghost Fly again.

Then we come to the guest animation. I was very excited to hear that Yuasa Masaaki was going to do a guest episode. Kaiba remains one of my favourite anime series of all time, and he did such a superb guest episode for Wakfu. But even though it was critically lauded, I thought ‘Food chain’ was a mess. Yes, it was experimental, to a degree, but mostly it felt bereft of new ideas, any actual sense of the established feeling of Adventure Time or any of the emotional sincerity that distinguishes his other work. For me, this was a huge disappointment.

I had no expectations of David Ferguson, but ‘Water Park Prank’ was, for me, the worst episode of Adventure Time yet and I very much doubt it will be topped. The awful ugly art style I could deal with, but the horrible pacing and story of the episode, which again seemed like there was little or no familiarity with what has been established as the Adventure Time world made me feel a faint sense of second-hand embarrassment throughout.

Still, the season was by no means disastrous. I just feel increasingly less intrigued as the show’s mysteries are answered, and feel that there’s a pressing need for the show to establish a kind of end goal for Finn to strive towards, now. Because at this stage it feels like aimless drifting. And we know how stoners can get way too stuck doing that.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Simpsons: Season 6

While season 6 of The Simpsons is still in its golden period, long before just about any estimate of shark-jumping I’ve ever read, I consider it a bit of a dip in the show’s consistent quality. This seasons has some duds and feels short on ideas, especially since season 7 feels a fair bit stronger. Crossovers have never tended to elevate The Simpsons in any way, and this season’s jarring insertion of the main character from The Critic for one episode is perhaps the most egregious example.

On the other hand, there are some very strong, classic episodes here. Season opener ‘Bart of Darkness’ is a classic well-written episode with a silly final reveal. Sideshow Bob gets another memorable episode running for mayor in an ever-more-relevant episode about populism. Lisa proves to have hidden skills in ice hockey and Bart gets his heart broken again, apparently forgetting the last time.

This is also the period where I begin to clearly remember episodes from my childhood. ‘Homer Badman’ was certainly amongst the episodes I saw first (being in the UK, I can’t claim to have been an early fan), and I remember when the mystery of who shot Mr. Burns was a genuine unsolved cliffhanger. Patty and Selma continue to have surprising depth, but Mr. Burns becomes a bit more cardboard at this stage. Flanderisation is in progress, but he still has the capacity to surprise, and the last act of ‘Bart’s Comet’ is one of my favourite Simpsons moments.

Another Simpsons staple that I don’t really like begins here, with Bart going to Australia and wreaking havoc. Over the next several seasons the Simpson family will visit a variety of countries and the writers will fall back on lazy stereotypes. The only episode in this vein I actually like is the visit to Japan, and even that only for the final reveal of the parts that make up the Mr. Sparkle mascot – probably my favourite joke in the show’s history. But that aside, whenever the family heads to another country, the humour takes a hit, no matter how quotable lines about ‘Knifey-Spoony’ may be.

Even back then, people loved to question whether The Simpsons had outstayed its welcome, whether it was growing stale. It would have a very long way to go before it could be called past its sell-by date. But that day was coming and some early indications were even then becoming visible.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Haikyuu: Season 2

Haikyuu is a very popular anime in Japan, especially with the female crowd who love that passionate homoeroticism that’s a big part of sports manga. Maybe not up there with the sheer hysteria currently surrounding Osomatsu-san, but at this stage probably outshining all other sports titles, even Kuroke no Basuke and Yowamushi Pedal. A series of decent figurines have been released and usually take up at least a couple of the crane machines in every arcade, and the new theme song, ‘Fly High’ by Burnout Syndromes, gets a fair bit of airplay anywhere that plays anime songs.

It’s my current slightly guilty pleasure, though I have to say I avoid the ugly art of the original manga, running in Jump so I won’t win any ‘true fan’ contests. I’ve been a sucker for the figurines and conbini lotteries and find the eternally optimistic main character Hinata very sweet. The rest of the fandom largely fixates on the tall, handsome and confident minor characters, but the underdog type is much more appealing to me.

In the first season, we had the admirable theme of gimmicks in sports only getting you so far. Kageyama and Hinata developed a surprising and strange volleyball attack, but once they reached competitions with actually talented, solid teams, gimmicks stopped working. So instead of relying on their bizarre talents, they work on the basics until they can perform at a good all-round level – and more critically, they learn that volleyball is a team game and they have to fit in with the rest. Even if there are moments of glory or high individual skill, they have to be cogs in the machine to win matches, and this strikes me as an admirable direction for a show about sports to go. At some point, the players have to grind, cooperate and experience less enjoyable periods to progress.

To improve, the Karasuno team head to a training camp with a number of very high-level players. They begin as the worst team by far, but keep pushing to improve and hone individual specialities until they can compete.

The series moves on to the qualifying matches for the high school nationals. The keystone of many sports anime, going to the nationals is easy fodder for storytelling – passionate matches, emotional rollercoasters and the chance to introduce any number of quirky opponent characters. Between the training camp and the nationals, Haikyuu s2 introduces a whole slew of interesting new characters as friends and foes, my favourite being the somewhat strigine Bokuto.

The worst part of watching Haikyuu is knowing it’s not a long-runner, and as expected, it ended on a high note, but at a point where I was definitely wanting more, and soon. So I hope that’s exactly what I get. 

Thursday, 3 March 2016

The Simpsons: season 5

Most fans will put the turning point a fair bit later, but in my opinion Season 5 was the beginning of the end for The Simpsons. Decades later, of course it had far further to fall, but in my opinion, this was where things started to get lazy, repetitive and far less adventurous. The characters are by now very well-established, with only the likes of one-note Cletus and the mute monobrow baby introduced into the cast at this stage.

The series begins strongly, but that seems to me largely because of holdovers and creative continuances from Season 4. Cape Feare’ in particular is a favourite episode, and while it begins the annoying trend of ‘Don’t you remember this time that ought to have made Homer incredibly famous?’, there are great moments in ‘Homer’s Barbershop Quartet.’ ‘Rosebud’ also reminds the viewer that by this stage, Mr. Burns is actually one of the most developed of the show’s characters, ‘Homer and Apu’ fleshes out a character who could so easily have been an embarrassment for the writers and this is in fact probably a golden era for Bart, what with insisting on an elephant, getting briefly famous, becoming a billionaire’s heir and getting Skinner fired and having a dilemma over testifying in court or keeping his truancy secret.

Some set-ups seem repetitive. There’s been enough wooing of Marge and her sisters, so it’s time for her mother to get an episode. Homer’s gossiping estranges Marge yet again in a rushed and very superficial season finale – oh, and is also tempted by another woman once again, only to remember that his marriage is much more important.

I’m not saying this isn’t a strong season. It has a lot of classic episodes and was a show really hitting its stride. But for me, the signs of the well-known later decline are in place. This is also the stage where it feels extremely hard to continue to look at The Simpsons as the average American dysfunctional family, which was after all the show’s hook – honest pessimism with a heart of gold underneath it, as opposed to idealisation. They are in many ways average, sure, but at this stage, both father and son have been household names, even if only briefly, Lisa has released a toy line and Homer has gone to space. Yes, at every stage the idea is that it’s the loveable everyday family getting into these strange situations, but at a certain point, they’re just no longer going to be credible as loveable and everyday.

There’s still a long way to go before The Simpsons stops being fun to watch, and there are plenty of great episodes still to come. But the show has lost its fresh feeling. Luckily, by this stage it is very well-established as a true classic and an American institution. But in some ways I wish they’d taken the Fawlty Towers route rather than pushing it until inevitably the shark is jumped. 

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Simpsons season 4

By the fourth season, The Simpsons had really hit its stride. It was regularly honoured in awards shows, so much so that when the showrunners entered episodes for the Emmys in categories that until that year were only open to live-action shows, yet got no nominations for them, it was considered a snub.

Guest stars were by this point a fixture, for better or worse. Elizabeth Taylor came in to deliver Maggie’s first real word, Leonard Nimoy’s appearance cemented his general comedic persona from then on, and the final episode is a parade of famous faced and Groening-ised voices. There are some great, classic episodes, most of them keeping things simple and not being too ambitious – Mr. Plow, Marge Get a Job, A Streetcar named Marge.

On the other hand, there are some signs of laziness creeping in. There was a clip show, though not the most egregious of its kind, and the plotlines were sometimes not so well-constructed, as when Krusty’s rival ventriloquist in Krusty Gets Cancelled never has his story properly concluded – he’s last seen annoyed by the bigger line Krusty’s show gets.

There are some moments that push a little too far into the surreal, many of them in Marge vs the Monorail, and Homer occasionally goes a bit far into the persona that later ruins many a later season, where he’s less loveable oaf and more outright psychopath – including when he decides to start caring for a little neglected kid called Pepi just to spite Bart.

Marge is probably the star of this season, with her well-meaning ideas on home parenting, frustration with her marriage needing an outlet and even her reaction to being caught accidentally shoplifting being highlights.

The cast is largely established by this point, though the season introduces the one-note Sea Captain and classic authority figure stooge Superintendent (Super Nintendo) Chalmers. Oh, and Jub Jub in yet another episode that surprised me with how much development Patty and Selma get with their relatively limited screen time. I always considered them the butt of ugly women jokes, but in fact there’s a lot of depth to them, and sadness to their stories.

I don’t consider the fourth season as strong as the third or fifth, but it was still a show in very good standing. 

Friday, 29 January 2016

干物妹!うまるちゃん / Himouto! Umaru-chan

There’s a simple way of appealing to late-night anime fans – get a pretty girl to act in ways that are just like a male otaku. “Look – she’s so cute! And she’s doing all the things I do!” Well, it worked for Lucky Star.

Umaru-chan neatly filled my ‘brainless fun with a bit too much fanservice’ void. There’s very little substance here, but there’s not really mean to be.

A young salaryman called Taihei lives in his small Tokyo apartment with his schoolgirl sister. Outwardly, she is the perfect student – model-pretty, academically top of the class, and highly skilled at any sport she turns her hand to. At home, however, she is a terrible slob who loves anime, games and surfing the net – while eating sugary snacks and chugging cola. She seems callous to her brother sometimes, but is actually devoted to him, and of course has a variety of pretty friends with extreme character quirks that always involve blushing, who all also become very interested in Taihei.

The usual boxes get ticked – beach trips, Valentine’s chocolate dilemmas, sweet Christmas eve fuzziness. Umaru-chan also takes part in video game tournaments, goes to nostalgic old stores and pontificates on the best way to snack.

It’s brainless, formulaic and lazy, but that’s not to say it isn’t fun and likeable. I just miss the times when anime comedies could make me actually laugh out loud multiple times an episode, like Azumanga Daioh. I suppose Nichijou was the closest thing recently…

The key is not to follow the formula too closely, or like Umaru-san, you get a show that’s pleasant and enjoyable but leaves very little lasting impression.