34) Pine Barrens (The Sopranos)

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Even the Poster looks like it gave up.

In 1997, National Lampoon released a movie called The Don’s Analyst, which was about what it would be like if a mob boss had to attend psychotherapy. Never mind the stupid title, it was a mediocre-at-best comedy. However, supposedly it was ripped off of a script written in 1995 by longtime TV producer David Chase, who wanted to make a movie about a Mob Boss who goes into therapy with his mother. Eventually, they decided to make it a TV series instead. The big difference was that it wasn’t a comedy. Sure, there were funny moments in the show, especially in this episode, but it wasn’t ever played strictly for laughs. It was a character-driven drama, despite the fact that its premise was immediately assumed to be a joke by others. To tell you how well it worked in comparison, nobody remembers The Don’s Analyst, while seasons of The Sopranos managed to get 12 million people to watch.

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The Two Tonys

Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is a capo, and eventually the boss, of the DiMeo crime family. At the beginning of the series, he suffers an anxiety attack. He then starts therapy with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Throughout the series, they maintain a professional, and sometimes closer, relationship, despite the fact that while Dr. Melfi is humane and dedicated to rationality, Tony tends to have people killed, and his emotions vary wildly throughout different sessions for reasons that sometimes even confuse the audience. Their sessions usually focus on how Tony balances his relationships with his family and his relationships with “the family.”

The structure of the show is often described as being like a novel, with each episode forming another chapter feeding in to the overall arc of the season, and, ultimately, the show. However, there is a notable exception to that. An episode that is almost entirely independent of the larger arc. That episode, directed by none other than Steve Buscemi, is “Pine Barrens.”

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Mr. Pink?

SUMMARY

One thing that makes this episode different is that by far the most memorable plot was filled not by Tony or his family, but by two of Tony’s crew, Christopher and Paulie (Michael Imperioli and Tony Sirico). The two characters have constantly clashed up until this point, with Christopher resenting Paulie because Paulie still outranks Chris even after Chris gets becomes a made man (if you don’t know that term, please watch Goodfellas). So, when the two of them get sent by Tony to do a routine collection from a Russian named Valery, the bad mood between them leads Chris to mock Valery until eventually a fight breaks out and Valery ends up on the floor with what appears to be a cracked windpipe. The two decide that, having already botched the collection, they should just tie Valery up, roll him in a carpet, drive him out to Pine Barrens, New Jersey, and dump him. In the middle of Winter. Because mobsters always have creative solutions.

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Pictured: “Outside of the box” thinking.

After driving out to Jersey, the two open the trunk to find that Valery has not only survived his injury, but has already freed himself. The two give him a shovel to dig his own grave, but Valery escapes, despite being shot in the head. Valery then manages to completely disappear in the snow, giving the two the slip, while the audience learns that Valery is actually former Soviet Special Forces. Paulie and Chris then get lost in the woods and end up staying in an abandoned van to avoid freezing to death. After a confrontation in the van, the two finally make peace.

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Tony finally comes out to save them as they wander through the wilderness, but they find that Valery has not only survived a night out in the snow, he stole Paulie’s car and escaped. The group gives up on finding Valery and heads home. Valery’s fate is left unrevealed, and the showrunners refuse to say any more about it, or his seeming immortality.

The B-plot of Tony dealing with a mistress who is even more emotionally disturbed than him is also great, and apparently involved Steve Buscemi having to throw a steak at James Gandolfini.

END SUMMARY

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Pictured: Spetsnaz Survival Trainer

What makes this episode great, aside from the interesting plot point of an invincible Russian mobster completely defeating two mobsters, is that the fight between Paulie and Chris is completely understandable. Paulie sees Chris coming up in the ranks, and is threatened, even telling Chris he’s going to “pull rank on him,” to which Chris says the great line “F**k you, Paulie. Captain or no captain, right now, we’re just two a**holes lost in the woods.” Conversely, Chris sees Paulie as trying to punish him for being ambitious. Paulie even ends up telling Chris not to leave him behind. It’s every inter-generational fight expressed it in a superb and darkly comic way. In a show famous for its writing, the dialogue rarely, if ever, reached this level again.

PREVIOUS – 35: Alfred Hitchcock Presents

NEXT – 33: The Bob Newhart Show

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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Watch it on HBO Go. Or:

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35) Man From the South (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)

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And tied with Kubrick and Michael Bay for Oscar wins.

You know who Alfred Hitchcock is. He’s one of the probably 5 directors that have managed to become household names. He directed some of the most innovative and brilliant films of all time. But, he also hosted a television program for 10 years in which he would produce short films for other directors, or, occasionally, himself. It was very similar to the format of The Twilight Zone, with Hitchcock himself introducing the episode, and then appearing again at the end to close out the episode, often tying up loose ends in the closing monologue. Interestingly, 2 versions of the opening monologue were shot for each episode. One, for the American broadcast, would include jokes or contemporary pop culture references. The other, for the British broadcast, would mostly joke about the fact that Americans needed contemporary pop culture references in order to enjoy someone introducing artistic short films. Yeah, even 10 years after WWII, the British were taking shots at our lack of culture. Things never change.

Britain

This episode stands out because it was a combination of talents coming together to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. This episode was written by Roald Dahl, famed for his twisted mind, and directed by Norman Lloyd, a longtime collaborator of both Dahl and Hitchcock. It starred a young Steve McQueen, a man who was literally given the title “the King of Cool,” and Peter Lorre, a man who was so iconic in his creepiness that you’ve definitely heard a character do an impersonation of him at some point.

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I’ll let you guess which is which.

Rather than put it at the end, I’m going to go ahead and put the episode here, and advise you to watch it now (30 Minutes long):

SUMMARY

McQueen is a down on his luck gambler, commiserating with a young woman (played by his real-life wife Neile Adams). They’re joined by the Man from the South (Lorre), and over the course of a conversation, Lorre asks if McQueen would accept a little wager: If McQueen can light his lighter 10 times in a row, then Lorre will give him his convertible. If McQueen cannot, then Lorre will cut off the little finger on his left hand. Eventually, McQueen accepts.

Normally, the show would jump to the execution of the wager at this point, but not this episode. It shows all the details of how Lorre sets the scene of the bet. He asks for a specific kind of knife. He selects a referee for the wager. He ties down McQueen’s arm. And throughout it, you can see exactly how excited Lorre is to do this. He’s so filled with a combination of sadistic glee and perfectionism that instead of being slow, the scenes are nauseatingly suspenseful, despite the fact that, objectively, almost nothing happens.

AlfredHitchcockSceneFinally, the bet starts. McQueen starts flicking his lighter, with the room containing himself, Lorre, the referee (Character actor Tyler McVey), and Adams. Adams moves around in the background, trying to both watch and avoid watching. The referee forcefully and tensely counts the lightings, managing to convey discomfort but also determination to see this through. McQueen’s performance, however, is a little subtler. His face shows a slight glimmer of fear under a façade of confidence. Even when he throws a glance at Lorre to show some dominance, it slides back into anxiety. Lorre, meanwhile, manages to play between hopeful and disappointed with each lighting, even starting to look longingly at McQueen’s hand with its outstretched pinkie.

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To be fair, it is a luscious pinkie.

McQueen makes it to 7, at which time another woman breaks into the room and reveals herself to be Lorre’s wife. She reveals something even more horrifying: This is what Lorre does for fun. He has done it more than 50 times, and has taken dozens of fingers. They had to flee from their homeland because he was going to be locked up. Moreover,he doesn’t even have a car to lose. The car belongs to her, along with all of his other property, because she won it all from him over the years. The last shot reveals that she only has 2 fingers remaining on her left hand. As she is revealing this, McQueen goes to light a cigarette… only to have his lighter fail on the next strike. He would have lost his finger, and Lorre didn’t even have the car to satisfy his end.

AlfredHitchcockFingers

END SUMMARY

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SHE LITERALLY HAS A CLEAVER-GRABBING ROUTINE

The acting is amazing, the tension building during the set-up is phenomenal, but what really sells it in some ways is the last 30 seconds when the wife shows up. She refers to Lorre as a menace. She says that she regrets any time she leaves him alone. He’s ruined her life. But SHE’S STILL WITH HIM. She feels responsible, not for him, but for anyone he hurts. Responsibility is a theme within the episode. The woman follows McQueen because she feels responsible for not talking him out of it. The referee hesitates to start and thanks the wife for stopping it because he felt he would be responsible for what happened.

This episode itself is only 25 minutes or so long, but at the end of it, you’ll feel you aged a year. If that’s not the mark of good suspense, I don’t know what is.

PREVIOUS – 36: Newhart

NEXT – 34: The Sopranos

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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Reader Bonus: Dance Dance Resolution (The Good Place)

Okay, so, I usually don’t do this, but, since this show is relatively new, only just got put on Netflix, is worth watching, and is heavily dependent on continuity, I am going to say this:

******SPOILER ALERT******

There, that’s my warning. I usually don’t care about spoilers because I think that anything that’s worth watching should be good even if you know how it’s going to go, but I’m willing to do it just this once.

Okay, so, The Good Place is a comedy version of the “Nice Place to Visit” episode of The Twilight Zone mixed with No Exit. It features four people: Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason (Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto) who spend the first season believing they are in “the Good Place” which is the heaven to which the universe sends good people. The “Good Place” is a neighborhood of ~300 people designed by Architect Michael (Ted Danson) and maintained by the AI system Janet (D’Arcy Carden).

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However, Eleanor quickly realizes that she has been sent there in error: Another woman with her name died at the same time and place, so Eleanor, who was bound for “the Bad Place” took her spot. She resolves, with the help of Chidi, her assigned “soul-mate” to become a better person worthy of the “Good Place.” Meanwhile, she finds out that Jason, a DJ and moronic small-time crook, is also there in error, taking the place of a Buddhist monk. Chidi, an ethics professor, tries to teach them ethical behavior, eventually being joined by Tahani, a charity-running heiress. At the end of the first season, however, Eleanor realizes that they aren’t actually in “the Good Place.” They’re in Hell, it’s just a hell designed so that they torture each other emotionally and mentally, rather than demons torturing them physically. However, Michael, their torturer, decides to just wipe their memories and try again, which ends the season.

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The first episode of the second season is Michael’s second attempt, which is defeated by Eleanor passing a note to herself from the past run-through. Michael discovers this, hides it from his boss, and decides to try a third time. This episode begins with that run-through.

As the episode begins, Michael, confident that his plan will work, runs through the exercise of trying to get the humans to torture each other again, but finds out that in each run-through, Eleanor figures out that they’re in hell (although, on one occasion Jason does, which Michael admits hurts more, because Jason’s mathematically the dumbest human…ever).

TheGoodPlaceDemon.jpgUltimately, after 802 tries, Michael’s demon staff goes on strike, leading Chidi and Eleanor to realize the ruse almost immediately (rather than after a few months like usual), leading them to escape to the “Medium Place” which is inhabited by the one person who didn’t qualify for heaven or hell (Mindy, a coke-addicted stockbroker from the 80s who designed an amazing charity… but died before it got off the ground). It turns out that they’ve been there many times, which annoys everyone. Mindy reveals that every time they come, they form a plan to defeat Michael and leave “the Bad Place,” but each time they fail. Also, she and Chidi are usually in love by this point (this time, they barely know each other), and usually use the “Medium Place” as an opportunity to hook up.

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Hell was originally the premise of Groundhog Day…  Wait, I mean Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties.

Meanwhile, Michael’s demon workers have gone on strike, and are threatening to tell Michael’s boss that not only did the second attempt not succeed, but that there have been hundreds of failures which Michael is lying about. Michael talks about his problems to Jason, who tells him a story about how his dance crew “Dance Dance Resolution” was challenged to a dance-off, leading Jason to unite them… in slashing the tires of the other crew. Chidi and Eleanor return to the fake “Good Place” and, together with Tahani and Jason, confront Michael, pointing out that they keep winning, which means that he’s losing. Michael immediately agrees, and offers to team up with them to beat the “Bad Place,” shocking everyone.

Okay, so, first off: I love this show. It’s an expanded, hilarious version of one of my favorite tv episodes and favorite plays, but with an actual positive twist: The reason why Eleanor keeps figuring it out is because Michael has one fundamentally incorrect assumption: Michael believes that Eleanor cannot become a better person. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Eleanor, when confronted with how her behavior impacts people, actually does work on being less selfish. The show points out that none of that counts when done for a selfish reason, but she defies everything by actually becoming more selfless as a result of performing more selfless acts (for the record, this is supported by multiple philosophies which are discussed during the show). In other words, the show treats virtue as a skill which can be practiced until it becomes second nature. You can become good just by working at being good for a long enough period of time, like learning Spanish or lifting weights.

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Next, I’m doing 12 reps of comparing systems of morality

This episode starts with all of Michael’s failures, which is hilarious, given that Michael is immortal and has now effectively had centuries to work on the process (if you estimate from his graph in the following episode, it’s about 400 years over the course of this “Groundhog Day” opening montage). He even has a failure just from forgetting to lock the door and accidentally telling Eleanor she’s in Hell immediately. Not only is he failing to torture them properly, but he actually ends up consistently making them the kind of people that don’t belong in hell. He breaks the afterlife, which really calls into question something that hasn’t been answered in the show: Why wouldn’t this be a better use of the afterlife than shoving flaming spears up someone’s butt? In fact, the episode even points out that, apparently, even demonic beings like Michael and artificial beings like Janet can aspire to be greater than they were, which makes you wonder who is actually running this universe, and what the hell they are thinking.

This show manages to make a ton of philosophical discussions and comparisons interesting, by putting them inside of the framework that most makes them relevant: An actual afterlife. Also, it’s freaking hilarious, especially when Ted Danson is supposed to be an evil mastermind who’s in over his head. So, I encourage all of you to watch this show, and see how this plays out. I know I will.

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Best philosophy overview since Monty Python

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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Reader Bonus: Fighting Cage (Renegade)

Renegade lasted 5 seasons for reasons that will forever elude me, but I will admit these episodes (two-parter) were a lot more entertaining than I expected.

It was one of those shows that was considerate enough to tell everyone the premise at the beginning of every episode: “He was a cop, and good at his job, but he committed the ultimate sin—and testified against other cops gone bad. Cops that tried to kill him, but got the woman he loved instead. Framed for murder, now he prowls the badlands…an outlaw hunting outlaws…a bounty hunter…a RENEGADE.”

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This isn’t even an added graphic. It just appears when you look this 90s.

The main characters were Reno Raines (Lorenzo “My last name sounds like Alpaca” Lamas), his Native-American partner Bobby Sixkiller (Branscombe Richmond), and Bobby’s sister Cheyenne Phillips (Kathleen Kinmont) who were working to clear Raines’s name and hunt down Donald “Dutch” Dixon (Stephen Cannell), the man who framed him, while earning money as bounty hunters. Raines uses the alias Vince Black, because everyone on this show has an awesome name.

Seriously, Reno Raines, Bobby Sixkiller, Dutch Dixon, Lorenzo Lamas, Vince Black? It’s like the festival of St. Kickass of Lastname.

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The 3rd Most Bad-ass Saint

This episode starts with Reno receiving an anonymous call that his brother, Mitch renegadejohnkreese.jpg(Martin “I’m the Sensei from Cobra Kai” Kove), who he thought died almost 20 years ago, is alive and literally kicking as a cage fighter. However, the person who calls him is killed after delivering a tape of Mitch. Then, in order to find out where his brother is, Reno has to enter underground kickboxing matches, because the 90s were awesome at times. So, the team heads to Mexico. Also, they have Charles Napier and Mitchell Ryan in the cast as the bad guys, presumably because they were in Rambo: First Blood Part II and Hot Shots: Part Deux (which came out the next week), which RenegadeBadGuys2parodied Rambo III. I know that’s not the real reason, but it’s why I would have put them in the episode.

Raines beats up three guys, because why not, then he’s offered a team death match, which he accepts. They give Raines a truth serum, because those exist, apparently, and he tells the fight organizers his backstory and that he’s looking for his brother. However, he apparently doesn’t remember doing this, because truth serums also do that, I guess. The organizers contact Lt. Dixon and offer him Raines if they can hold the fight at his palatial estate (apparently no one has ever questioned how a police Lieutenant affords a mansion). Reno is then put into the ring against his next opponent…

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Pause for people who don’t know how TV works…

His own brother, Mitch!

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Dun DUN DUUUUUUUUN!!!!

They fight, Reno is winning, but the fight is declared a draw so they can make it a headline fight for later. It turns out that Mitch has amnesia, and is being manipulated by the organizers. Reno then attends a party to promote the fights, which includes a bizarre scene of underwater day-glo bikini knife fighting. Reno makes contact with Mitch, whose memory starts to return. The organizers, knowing their relationship, threaten to kill Mitch’s Thai wife and Cheyenne if either Mitch or Reno refuse to fight. This fails almost immediately after the fight begins, due to Reno’s and Mitch’s abilities to round-house kick all of the people in the face. All of them. Dixon kills one of the organizers, and Reno and Mitch machine-gun down the other’s helicopter in a very cost-effective scene. Mitch then leaves to be with his new family, and Reno eats a hamburger.

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The Burger was the Real Hero

Not gonna lie, I liked these episodes. I re-watched a few other episodes of Renegade to see whether I’d just forgotten that it was a good show, but, no, it was mostly just the set-up for these episodes. It was like watching a mid-range budget ’90s action movie starring Lorenzo Lamas. It pretty much just gives the main characters an excuse to punch and kick each other for a solid 20 of the 80 minutes. The plot’s super generic, sure, but it was the ’90s, that’s what we had back then. There’s amnesia, a brother who was thought dead, a lot of round-house kicks, and some bikini knife-fighting. If you had replaced Lamas with Chuck Norris, this would have easily been an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. Replace him with Michael Dudikoff, and it’s an episode of Cobra. It probably could also have been an episode of Street Justice. The point is, it was very ’90s, it was very fun, and it’s all about how brothers love each other, like me and the brother who made me watch this episode.

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I was the ’80s. Sorry, kids.

My only real question here is this: Why is there not a role for William Zabka? This could have been the Cobra Kai reunion which we were desperately seeking in the 90s, and don’t tell me that Zabka had other stuff going on, because we all know that he didn’t. Hell, why didn’t they put Steve McQueen’s son who played Dutch in Karate Kid in the episode? He’s a martial artist, and the bad guy is already named Dutch. This just seemed like a missed opportunity. But, overall, I actually enjoyed this.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

36) The Last Newhart (Newhart)

Bob Newhart was already on this list (#78) for his other show, The Bob Newhart Show. And, if you read that one, you already know that:

“One of the biggest themes of the [Bob Newhart] show is that Bob Hartley (Newhart’s character) is constantly questioning if the reality presented to him is genuine, or if the craziness surrounding him is just a vivid hallucination.”

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Or a nightmare beyond anything H.P. Lovecraft could conceive of.

Newhart was an even more exaggerated level of this theme. Bob Newhart’s character Dick Loudon is a writer of self-help books who moves to a town in Vermont to run an inn. However, the town is populated by some of the most abnormal people ever put on film. A café owner who is a pathological liar. The maid at the Inn is from a ridiculously wealthy family. Three redneck brothers named Larry, Darryl, and other Darryl (William Sanderson, Tony Papenfuss, and John Voldstad).

NewhartLarryDarryl.jpgThere’s a group of women in the “Daughters of the War for Independence,” who repeatedly protest the fact that the Inn was a brothel during the Revolutionary War. A random professional clown who marries one of the main characters. A handyman who is completely incapable of rational thought. A guy who speaks in alliteration. Every episode of this show introduces more and more incredibly quirky characters who all seem to operate on a logic that are all their own, and plots that are often so surreal that, just like in the Bob Newhart Show, Newhart’s character can’t tell if he’s insane or if he’s the only sane man in a crazy world.

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It even works a little bit better in some ways than in the Bob Newhart Show, because Dick Loudon was much more sane and rational than Bob Hartley, but was often in situations that completely defy any normal logic. What do you do when you agree to host a Senator’s press conference, and then it turns out his wife actually called it to announce their divorce? What about when the community blames you because a prisoner read one of your self-help books and it led to his escape? Or when a random visiting dignitary loses his wallet and decides to grant you a lordship to settle his bill? These aren’t things that happen to normal people.

After eight seasons, even more than the original show, Newhart finally came to a close. But, if you’re going to spend 14 years (6 on one show, 8 on another) on a theme, you have to try and end strong. Newhart decided not just to end strong, but to try the ultimate in surreal finales.

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Okay, second most surreal

First, they wrote a completely fake ending. In order to keep the ending from being revealed to the staff and, more importantly, the press, they wrote that the show would end with Bob’s character dying and going to heaven to talk to God. They even dispensed names of actors they were considering for the role of God. Then, they performed most of the episode in front of a live audience exactly as written.

SUMMARY

After 8 years of living in the crazy town, a Japanese tycoon buys the entire town to turn it into a golf course. Only Dick and his wife, Joanna (Mary Frann), refuse to sell on principle. Everyone else reveals that not only did they accept, but that they have sold their property for huge amounts of money. Even more bizarrely, they reveal this in a tribute to Fiddler on the Roof.

The show then skips five years, showing Dick’s Inn in the middle of a golf course, when the now unbelievably rich townspeople all return for a reunion. All of them, still insane but now with enough money to act on their quirks, start to argue and cause chaos within the Inn until finally Dick snaps. He storms out, shouting “You’re all crazy!” only to immediately be hit in the head by a golf ball. Now, the audience had probably heard the leaked plot up to this point, and were anticipating seeing Bob Newhart in heaven with George Burns.

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Morgan Freeman? Who dat?

Instead, the set that was revealed was the bedroom from the original Bob Newhart Show. What follows is a scene that’s been dissected, analyzed, copied, parodied, referenced, and critiqued at nauseam. Bob Newhart wakes up in bed, now back to his Bob Hartley persona, and wakes up his wife, revealed to be not his wife from Newhart, but his original wife from the Bob Newhart Show, played by Suzanne Pleshette. He then proceeds to describe his “dream” of the last 8 years of the show, saying how much nothing made sense. His wife dismisses the entire thing, right up until he mentions that, in his “dream,” he was married to a beautiful blonde, which draws her ire. He then proceeds to insist they go back to sleep, ending with a last reference to his “dream” wife.

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Honestly, he out-kicked his coverage in either life.

END SUMMARY

This could have been corny. Honestly, it should have been corny. In most shows, this kind of lame cop-out would be offensive to the viewer. But, given how both shows had worked, it made more sense than any other ending proposed. Of course Newhart was all a dream, that’s why logic was so often twisted and the people so strange. Of course Bob Hartley dreamed about himself in a different life, but still had to define himself as the only sane man in a crazy world. That’s who he is!

This was the punchline to a joke that took more than 20 years to set up, even if nobody knew they were doing it. And maybe that’s how you know you’ve done good work: when the greatest jokes set themselves up organically.

PREVIOUS – 37: The Office

NEXT – 35: Alfred Hitchcock Presents

The Ending:

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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37) Diversity Day (The Office)

I’m gonna catch crap for this one. People often have their choice for the best episode of the US version of The Office and will defend it fiercely. As such, I have to clarify: This isn’t my favorite episode of The Office, and you will never hear me state which actually is my favorite episode. However, I think this episode the one that most distinguished the series and also managed to make some important points on modern America. This was the second episode of the series, but since the first one was basically lifted directly from the UK series that it’s based on, this was the first episode to unveil what this version of The Office was going to be like, and it took some bold steps… some of which it would later have to walk back a little.

The show focuses on a documentary crew watching over the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company’s Scranton Branch. As this was the first real episode of the show, there hadn’t been much in the way of character development: Michael Scott (Steve Carell) is the boss, Dwight (Rainn Wilson) is a very odd, uptight, and ambitious salesperson, Jim (John Krasinski) is a more laid-back and mischievous salesperson who often uses Dwight as a target of pranks, and Pam (Jenna Fischer) is a receptionist who is both overqualified for her job and the subject of Jim’s crush. Other characters who appear in the episode would get much more development later, and most of it would be amazing, but these four were the ones that were developed at this point.

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Pam, Jim, Michael, Ignore Ryan (You’ll thank me), Dwight

SUMMARY

The episode starts with Michael announcing that Corporate has sent a speaker for their “Diversity Day.” Meanwhile, the feud between Jim and Dwight keeps getting in the way of Jim completing an annual renewal that accounts for over a quarter of his yearly sales. That’s basically the perfect set-up to play with the A and B plots.

Watching Steve Carell in the show is amazing, but in this episode his performance is a treat. As Michael, he is the most glorious lack of self-awareness on film. He is not a stupid man, by some standards, but he so avoids most levels of introspection that he seems naive to the point of being insensitive. And that’s where this episode starts to get going. After the presentation by the corporate speaker for “Diversity Today,” Mr. Brown (who Michael refuses to call by his name, thinking that it’s racist), Michael is told that the presentation was required because of Michael’s own actions: Namely, retelling, nearly verbatim, Chris Rock’s 90s routine “Ni**as vs. Black People.”

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The routine’s not called “Bring the Pain” for nothing!

Up until this point, Michael had actually been attempting to take control of the presentation, believing himself qualified to administer the program. Now that he has been told that he was reported to Corporate for racist actions, he is left with two choices: A) Undergo deep introspection and resolve to address his personal flaws or B) deny that he did anything wrong and go overboard trying to prove that he isn’t racist.

Michael picks A and the episode ends with him monologuing ab- oh come on, you know he picked B because it’s what everyone picks.

TheOfficeJudge

What follows is Michael doing a presentation called “Diversity Tomorrow,” with full sincerity, and it is beautiful. It is a bloody trainwreck made by Van Gogh, a work of art whose subject is so atrocious that only its magnificent execution keeps you from looking away. No description of what happens can give it the credit it is due. You just have to watch it. Ultimately, Michael keeps escalating things until finally one of his employees is forced to stop him.

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Sorry, I meant “Slap Him.”

Meanwhile, in the B plot, Jim finds out that Dwight has stolen his massive sale out from under his nose, devastating him and potentially ruining his entire year. However, the episode ends on a positive note, with Pam falling asleep on Jim’s shoulder, and Jim, despite his massive loss, noting that it was “not a bad day.”

END SUMMARY

This episode is as well-written as it is provocative. It addresses several pretty complex issues and manages to not be horribly preachy about it.

Is Michael racist? Well, he doesn’t think so, but throughout the episode he progressively says more and more objectively racist things in his quest to prove that he’s not. He argues that he knows about diversity because he’s 2/15ths Native American (this is not a typo). He asks one of his employees if he prefers a “less discriminatory term” than Mexican to describe his heritage, because of the “connotations.” He gets slapped in the face for repeatedly imitating an Indian salesperson asking people to try his “googi googi.” He believes they’re called “colored greens,” instead of “collard greens,” because he thinks they’re not eaten by “collard people.”

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Stanley sometimes is all of us.

But, the thing is, Michael doesn’t usually treat people much differently based on their skin color once he gets to know them, and throughout the episode he isn’t really a “bad guy,” in the traditional sense. He respects Martin Luther King, Jr. If you asked him if he believes that people are defined by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, he would say yes, and he would mean it. He’s aware that both slavery and the holocaust were bad. In other words, he’s basically every middle-class northern white guy.

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Okay, not EVERY middle-class northern white guy.

Here’s the thing: Everyone’s a little bit racist. There’s a whole song about it in a show that won a Tony for Best Musical.

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It has puppets! Also porn!

And not in a way where you wouldn’t hire a black guy, or you wouldn’t want your daughter dating an Indian guy, but in the way that, if you’re honest, you tend to consider either your own race or, occasionally, the most dominant local race to be the “norm.” Not necessarily superior, just, normal. And that’s okay, because it’s something that basically nobody can help. But, you need to be aware that you’re doing it so that you don’t fly completely off the handle when it causes you to make a stupid assumption or unintentionally say something really inappropriate and you get called out on it.

This episode managed to address a big issue in a clever, funny, and ultimately, not that judgmental way. Not bad for what’s essentially episode one.

PREVIOUS – 38: I Love Lucy

NEXT – 36: Newhart

Michael Getting Slapped:

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

38) Job Switching (I Love Lucy)

Lucille Ball sold more televisions than anyone else in history. I Love Lucy was so popular in the 1950s, people went out and bought their first television sets in order to watch it. That’s a record that will almost certainly last forever. Or until Holo-screens start coming out.

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Like they’ve been teasing us with for a while.

Okay, so, getting it out of the way now, the premise of this episode hasn’t exactly aged well within society. It’s based on swapping gender roles, and nowadays those aren’t as strictly defined as they were in 1952. It also has some lines based on the idea that women can’t handle money, which… well, they didn’t age well. To its credit, this episode does depict a number of working women, from line workers to supervisors. It’s only Lucy and Ethel that are depicted as incapable of working a “normal job.” Similarly, there are lines about male cooks and housekeepers in the show, so it’s only Ricky and Fred that are somehow so incompetent at basic “home economics” skills that they manage to destroy much of the house. The depiction of other members of both genders being able to switch roles successfully is probably attributable to the fact that the episode was actually written by a male-female writing team (Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr.). Still, it’s going to bug a modern audience a little bit. Let’s just go ahead and say that both stereotypes are played up just for laughs, recognize that this show made a woman the most famous comic in the US, and consider the implications no further.

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The show had a pretty general premise. Lucille “Lucy” Esmeralda McGillicuddy Ricardo and Enrique “Ricky” Alberto Fernando y de Acha Ricardo III (Ball and Arnaz) are married and they live in an apartment in New York, where they frequently interact with their friends and landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance). Ricky is a popular bandleader and singer at a club. Lucy is a housewife who dreams of stardom, despite her complete lack of talent, leading her to do things that usually are described with “Hi-jinks Ensue.” Also, credit to her, Lucille Ball’s greatest talent is her incredible ability to play someone without any talent.

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Granted, there was a ton of talent on this show.

While she and Ricky were portrayed as deeply in love, her antics still had a tendency to get on his nerves, usually denoted by him breaking out into rapid-fire Spanish. Lucy also frequently was irresponsible with money and time, something that usually caused friction between the two. Ricky, meanwhile, sometimes indulged in the nicer side of being a popular bandleader at a burgeoning nightclub, which made Lucy want celebrity all the more, which, in turn, led to more antics.  This episode focuses mostly on their marriage.

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It was a fun band to lead.

SUMMARY

When Ricky finds out that Lucy has bounced a check, he snaps at her for being irresponsible. Lucy and Ethel try to downplay the issue, but Ricky and Fred both respond by mocking their wives for sitting home all day while the men go to work. I assume this happens in the episode because the men already slept in separate beds from their wives, so they weren’t planning on ever getting laid again. Otherwise, mocking your wife is considered a bad idea. But, Lucy and Ethel respond with a challenge. The men and women will switch places for a week.

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At first, Ricky tries to one-up Lucy with a fabulous breakfast in bed, only for Lucy to discover that he just bought it at the corner diner and carried it upstairs. Ricky and Fred don’t fare much better at any of the other things their wives usually do. They break dishes, ruin most of the clothes trying to do laundry, and manage to destroy the kitchen trying to make dinner. Ricky even falls over his own rice and injures himself… which wasn’t part of the script. Desi Arnaz actually fell on accident, and the audience loved it, so he did it again on purpose. He also apparently bruised himself badly doing it, but it’s funny nonetheless.

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Meanwhile, Lucy and Ethel go to an employment agency, and, out of a long list of unattainable potential jobs, they blatantly lie to get jobs at a candy factory. Hopefully, after reading that sentence, every one of you now remembers this episode. If not, hopefully you have time to watch the video below. Lucy and Ethel each get assigned to various jobs around the factory, failing spectacularly at all of them, while being yelled at by the ultra-strict foreman. Finally, they’re put on the chocolate-wrapping assembly line, and the pair are told that, if even one piece of unwrapped candy makes it all the way down the line, they’ll be fired. At first, the chocolate coming down the conveyor belt is at a reasonable pace, and the two manage, but it quickly speeds up to the point that the pair are unable to wrap, and can only grab chocolates from the belt and hide them. Despite this, the foreman congratulates them on not letting any unwrapped chocolates get to the end… and tells them that now they’re going to have to do it at high-speed. As the chocolates come careening down the line, the two completely abandon any attempt at wrapping and instead just stuffing the chocolates in their clothing or eating them.

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Ironically, they both were terrible at Hungry, Hungry Hippos

Arriving home later, the pair are sick from all the chocolate they ate. The ladies see a note telling them not to go into the kitchen, but Lucy’s curiosity overtakes her. She immediately starts screaming and comes out rambling about how there’s a mess all over the walls, the floor, even the ceiling. The men come home and ask to end the bet, conceding that they’ve lost, while the women confess they also didn’t fare well on the job market. The men apologize for thinking that running a house is easy, and offer the girls a gift… of 10 pounds of chocolate.

END SUMMARY

This episode is remembered for a few reasons. The first is that it contains some amazing physical comedy. Lucille Ball studied clowning for years before she got this show, and it paid off in spades. Her expressions during most of the scenes are so over-the-top that you can’t help but find them funny. While the conveyer belt scene is the best known, I honestly recommend that you watch the episode in its entirety, because the physical humor goes beyond just that one scene. I didn’t even remember the near-silent scene in which Lucy is pretending to copy a professional candy dipper with all the skills of a chimpanzee. She has such enthusiasm for it, however, until the fact that she’s screwing it up finally starts to hit her. Then, she swats a fly on a woman’s face, causing the woman to hit her back, covering Lucy in chocolate. Ball, afraid the other woman wouldn’t hit her hard enough to be funny, intentionally hit the other woman much harder than they had rehearsed, so that her reflexive response would daze Lucy. That’s how you suffer for your art. Vance, Arnaz, and Frawley are no slouches, either, each managing to hold their own against Ball in every scene they’re in.

The second reason is that the candy factory is basically the best representative of employment problems on film (aside from maybe Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”). When Lucy and Ethel go to the employment agency, they are qualified for literally no jobs, because all of them require some form of training or education. So, they lie in order to get a job. Then, when they show up at that job, they’re given no form of training, and immediately put into a wide variety of positions, with no introduction. Eventually, they end up on the conveyor belt, with everything coming at them too fast. They manage to cope with it well enough, which just leads to a massive increase in workload to the point that they can’t handle it, at which point they’re fired. Almost every step in the employment process is needlessly complicated and done wrong. At some point in your life, you’ve probably been on that conveyor belt being inundated by tasks at a pace that you can only barely handle, only to find out that, congratulations, because you handled it, you’re going to get more. And all to get slap-dash candy out to the consumer.

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When the joke goes back to black and white TV, is it still funny?

Either for the subtext or the slapstick, it’s always worth watching I Love Lucy.

Here’s the scene you’re all waiting for:

PREVIOUS – 39: The Outer Limits

NEXT – 37: The Office

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.