Family Guy is a rip-off of The Simpsons. Down deep, even they know it. Or, maybe they just have flat admitted it on the show, because no one cares anymore.
Most of the time, I would argue that Family Guy never reached the level of wit and originality that came from The Simpsons seasons 2-9, partially because they had the benefit of watching those episodes, which raises the bar a bit. But, this episode, despite literally being a re-make and parody of Star Wars: A New Hope, manages to be extremely clever and original.
The show re-casts the movie with the Griffin family: Peter, Lois, Meg, Chris, Stewie, and Brian (Seth MacFarlane, Alex Borstein, Mila “I never return Joker’s letters” Kunis, Seth Green, MacFarlane, and MacFarlane again). The episode starts with them watching TV when a blackout hits. In order to entertain his family, Peter decides to tell the story of the Star Wars, beginning with Part IV.
Alright, so, I’m not going to allege that a parody of Star Wars is wholly original. This was 2007. Spaceballs had been out for 20 years. The Muppet Show had an episode with Mark Hamill. The finale of the Animaniacs/Tiny Toons animated universe was a parody called “Star Warners.” Even Muppet Babies had done one.
But, unlike all of those, this one is just Star Wars. Spaceballs, while a parody of Star Wars, and an amazing movie, just takes elements of the Trilogy and uses them to tell its own story. But this is not really an episode of the show inspired by Star Wars, this is just the movie A New Hope with the main characters of Family Guy playing the roles, and some jokes worked organically into the narrative. If you watch this episode, you get the gist of the movie, because it’s all of the key scenes, just played a little off-kilter.
For example, it starts with the opening crawl, which, while it does technically summarize the gist of Star Wars, also contains a hilarious tangent that ends up being a stream-of-consciousness commentary about Angelina Jolie and catching the lesbian scene from Gia on HBO. That really sets the tone for this, where the scene that they’re parodying will quickly be conveyed in order to buy more time for them to lampoon it quickly.
It’s this loving dedication to the movie itself that really makes it worthwhile, because this is a balance of showing the love for something and also recognizing that it is still flawed. Pointing out the almost total lack of female characters aside from Leia, pointing out that it’s kind of ridiculous that, in a super advanced society, R2-D2 needs to carry a message manually instead of just transmitting it, pointing out that the most notable casualty on the Death Star run is a guy named Porkins who is also really fat, pointing out that the Empire decides not to blow up an escape pod just because “there aren’t any life forms aboard,” etc. These are all things that come from acknowledging that Star Wars isn’t without its weak points.
Conversely, they still manage to work in some jokes that rely on the Family Guy continuity, such as having Herbert the Pervert play Obi-Wan Kenobi, which results in a humorous twist on the generic mentor/mentee relationship between him and Luke Skywalker. Having Brian play Chewbacca removes Chewie’s usual ambiguous growling and his movie relationship with Han Solo and instead replaces it with Brian and Peter’s brand of idiot/pretentious pseudo-intellectual friendship, but that really only serves to highlight how we never know exactly what relationship Han and Chewie have, in terms of balance of power. The same is true by giving R2-D2 and C-3PO Quagmire and Cleveland’s personalities, it both shakes up their relationship, but also reminds us that, since we never know exactly what R2 says, we don’t know exactly what is going on between them.
And then there are the random gags that serve to replace or speed up some of the slower parts of the movie. These are some of the weaker parts of the episode at times, but, at the same time, they manage to at least provide a break for fans of the movie to feel a bit of a tone shift so that it doesn’t JUST feel like watching Star Wars. Despite that, the episode has only a single Family Guy cutaway gag, all the other ones are actually worked into the scene. Plus, they had the discipline to not include Carrie Fisher, despite the fact that she was a recurring character in Family Guy (though, they broke down at Return of the Jedi, but, then, so did Seth McFarlane’s desire to continue). (update: Rest in Peace, you wonderful genius).
This episode manages to create a very unique experience. While the episode itself ends with the characters pointing out that other shows have done Star Wars episode, this one manages to stand out, and that’s impressive on its own. Add in the fact that they got Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo to reprise their roles as Clark and Ellen Griswold from the Vacation movies, and you’ve got an hour of comedy gold.
Up front: I was completely wasted by the end of writing my notes, and I think some of them are hilarious. I’ve put them below.
I knew I was already in trouble when I realized that I had never watched this movie without RiffTrax. I had to really be careful not to think of the jokes while watching this, because that might accidentally make this a fun experience. As it turns out, even without RiffTrax, this movie is definitely up there with The Room, Showgirls, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives! or Shark Attack 3: Megalodon in the “so awful, it’s awesome” hall of fame, so, unlike the other two bad movies I had done to this point, it wasn’t that bad. You can actually just go ahead and laugh directly at the movie.
Some background information on the film: This movie was written, directed, and produced by James Nguyen, who had made two prior films, one of which was never finished, the other of which was never watched. He attempted to finance the film with his own money, which apparently was a little under $10,000 over the course of four-and-a-half years. For perspective, this was 1/6th of the budget of the Blair Witch Project’s production, including post-production, and that movie’s 99% walking through the same woods and was shot in 8 days. So, given that there was literally no money for anyone in this film… pause for effect… it’s still bad. Really bad, in the kind of way that only someone who thought that their hard-core belief that they were a gifted artist was only matched by their complete lack of talent or basic directorial knowledge. I call this the Dunning-Kruger style of Filmmaking: You’re convinced you know what you’re doing only because you know literally nothing about what you’re doing.
So, the plot is that this guy and girl start dating, then, 30 minutes or so of that into the movie, Birds decide to spontaneously start attacking humans. Unlike the movie The Birds (which is on TV in one scene), these eagles don’t just claw at your face (although they do that, too), they apparently spit acid, poop fire, have razor wings, and occasionally explode when they dive-bomb the ground. The couple escapes, joins up with another couple, one of whom is a marine survivalist, rescue some kids, and generally try to escape the birdemic. The marine and his girlfriend end up dying hilariously, they meet up with a tree hugger and an ornithologist who explain that this is caused by global warming, and then they catch some fish and the birds leave. Yeah, that’s the plot.
Alright, so, this movie cannot really be described. It’s on Amazon Prime, so I recommend watching it both with and without the RiffTrax (they’re both on there).
Everything in this movie is wrong. The acting is bad. The dialogue is clearly written by someone who didn’t speak English as a first language. The special effects are literally cut-pasting clip-art graphics onto the shots. The sound-editing doesn’t really exist. Weirdly, even some of the parts where I would assume that the writer knew what he was talking about (mostly the parts involving software sales, which is what he did for a living) were completely illogical. The environmental message is so bizarrely inserted at random that it seems like a completely different movie script. Parts of the movie aren’t in focus, and I’m pretty sure it’s just because they didn’t know how to work the camera.
However, here’s the thing that really saves the movie: Almost everyone seems to really believe in it. Nobody in the movie, no matter how small their part, appears to be half-hearting this. They’re awkwardly delivering these terrible lines with all of their soul. The director didn’t shy away from putting any of this bad dialogue in, and clearly, wasn’t ashamed at all of his complete inability to do special effects. Even in Manos, the Hands of Fate, which is a terrible movie, sometimes some of the actors actually appear to realize that the scene is awful (except for Torgo, who’s going all out, and the Master, who is clearly immune to shame). This movie never has that. All of these people are really trying, which makes their blind failure all the more hilarious. Comedy is born from tragedy, and they clearly tragically misunderstood everything about this process, even the things that you would believe to be common sense.
And that’s really what makes this film beautiful, in its own way: Because everyone was really trying. They were really putting forth the effort and doing their best to make a good movie. Even though they didn’t, there’s still something inherently wonderful in people pursuing a passion project just because they can. Besides, unlike Iconoclast, this movie was constantly entertaining. I always did want to see the next scene just to see what the hell they could possibly think of next. I genuinely enjoyed the 90 minutes I spent watching this, which makes this officially better than 3 of the DCU films.
Preliminary: 2 small drinks and 2 miles. Have rum and Diet Coke in hand. Bring it.
10:12 – Pretty sure this was filmed with my dad’s old VHS camcorder.
10:15 – Okay, so, we’re on minute 3 of Dutch tilt looking out the car window, and I don’t know if this is intentional, or if they just put the camera on the dash and didn’t check the viewfinder.
10:16 – Sound editing is not a thing in this film, and I love it.
10:17 – Main character dines and dashes to chase after hot girl. Oh my god, this dialogue is just the worst, and I love it. “I’ve got an audition for a modeling job.” It really makes me realize that the writer didn’t speak English as a first language.
10:18 – They both just ceremonially exchanged cards. We really need to steal that, as a culture.
10:20 – News anchor is definitely the first real actress.
10:22 – Shit, gas is $4.60 in Silicon Valley? In 2010? Or 2006, I guess?
10:24 – The main guy, Rod, just agreed to the buyer’s terms, then gave a 50% discount on top of that. The writer of this movie is a software salesman, he should know that’s not a thing.
10:25 – Greatest. Modeling. Montage. Ever. Victoria’s Secret should sue for being mentioned in this movie. Sound Editing is still not a thing. Refill.
10:28 – Given how much of the dialogue here is dependent on watching the other scenes in the movie, I’m assuming everyone in this is psychic. (Shit, I think RiffTrax said this).
10:29 – Who plays basketball in a tucked in Polo shirt? I feel like the answer is Mark Ruffalo, but I don’t know why.
10:31 – Every salesman in this knocks off huge amounts of money after the sale has been made. I don’t understand how the writer was ever employed.
10:35 – This is the best date in human history. All the awkwardness of being hit in the nuts by a car door crammed into 10 minutes. Now the parrots are flying overhead. Parrots. Why the fuck are there parrots in California? Do I just not know where birds are? Also, refill.
10:37 – The line was so badly dubbed, I feel like her mouth said “wham, bam, shang-a-lang and a sha-na-na”
10:41 – Do… They just have a print-out of a website taped to the wall above their bed? Should I get one of those? Is that what I’m doing wrong?
10:42 – Oracle Corporation should sue for their name being mentioned in this movie. Holy shit, they’re still applauding, like just looping the applause.
10:43 – My electric car gets 100 mpg. If it only gets 100 miles per gigajoule, your car sucks. Or does it? That’s like… 10 gallons of gas, I think, so… yeah, that’s pretty bad. Also, Al Gore should sue for An Inconvenient Truth being… eh, nevermind.
10:49 – This would actually be a pretty good tourist promo for wherever this was filmed. Half-moon bay, apparently. They have big pumpkins. Refill.
10:50 – You can’t edit sound in an enclosed room, and you decided to have a beach scene? Did you not realize the problem ahead of time?
10:51 – The presence of real seabirds only serves to make the CGI dead one all the more terrible looking.
10:52 – There are random wildfires, and all I can think of is the Canyonero song from the Simpsons “Unexplained fires are a matter for courts. Canyonero!!!!”
10:55 – This is the whitest dancing since Carlton from Fresh Prince. I love you Alfonso Ribeiro. Spell-magedon was underrated!!!
10:57 – Tippi Hedren should sue for being on TV in the background of this movie. (Edit: Holy shit, Tippi Hedren was in this director’s other movie. WHAT?) Also, these two people have never had sex, and clearly don’t want to now.
10:58 – Seriously, this town looks beautiful.
11:00 – I had forgotten how unbelievably fast the actual birdemic starts. It just went from 0 to all the birds pooping fire and gaining the strange ability to hover in like 5 seconds. Also, he put his pants and belt back on to sleep.
11:02 – The bird running into the door is the funniest thing in the history of film. If only Alex Karras could punch it…
11:05 – The keys are in the door, woman. This isn’t like one of those things where you’re fumbling. The hard part is done. Also, these birds are the greatest thing ever.
11:06 – That’s not how pistols work. Or guns.
11:07 – The child actors are somehow more believable than 2 of the corpses.
11:08 – They’ve reused the same bird getting shot scene 5 times. This is how you make movies people.
11:09 – I retract my statement on the child actors. They’re actually less believable than the copy-paste birds.
11:11 – I un-retract my statement on the child actors. The corpses are worse. The kids are still awful, but the corpses are way worse.
11:13 – So… the birds are a menace, but outdoor picnics are still fine? And leisurely walks in the middle of an open area?
11:14 – They have Bird Flu Virus? Do they also have Ham Sandwich Food?
11:15 – You just tested their blood? You’re standing in the middle of a bridge having just found them. When? Oh, wow, I forgot this whole insane global warming speech. I mean, this might be the movie that the President uses to disprove it.
11:16 – The random beachcomber in the background seems unaware of the birdemic and birdpocalypse, despite the huge number of birdsplosions.
11:17 – And the random line about the war in Iraq.
11:18 – Oh my god, I forgot the girl who randomly dies trying to poop on the side of the road. “I’ll cover you” well, no you f*cking didn’t. Refill.
11:21 – How does everyone have invisible megaphones? I need one!
11:22 – One of the guys has an Eazy-E shirt on, and he’s my favorite and now he’s dying painfully from Eagle acid blood and claws. Shit, I think they forgot to animate the eagles for this part. I feel like they’re still supposed to be there.
11:24 – All phones are dead from the Eagle Attack? Also, this is 2006 or 2010 or whatever, you should have a cell phone.
11:26 – The robber has the slowest draw in film history. And now he’s dead by eagle fly-by, and I love everything.
11:27 – You’re leaving the gun and the gas tank? It was your gas tank!You people all deserve to die. Although, guns apparently have infinibullets in this movie, so the gun might be pointless.
11:28 – This might have been too much alcohol.
11:30 – NEVER ASK THAT GUY IF YOU CAN PLAY IN HIS TREEHOUSE KIDS
11:32 – Unexplained fires are a matter for courts, Canyonero!!!!
11:34 – Mai lives in a lighthouse? I want to live in a lighthouse! Also, Mai’s dead, and wearing the shirt for the site that she was screwing under.
11:35 – Man, that sudden pointless cut was dramatic.
11:36 – These kids are adjusting well to their parents being dead. They’ve only complained about being hungry, not about being orphans. See Series of Unfortunate Events? Kids don’t miss their dead parents.
11:38 – The fish is clearly frozen.
11:39 – That’s right, girl, boil that seaweed you randomly picked up off the ground. Also, McDonalds should sue for… no, wait, this is probably their market.
11:40 – Weren’t even trying to animate the muzzle flash with the motion of the gun, I guess.
11:41 – Bird dive-bombing windshield is now my new favorite moment in film. Alex Karras needs to punch it.
11:42 – Why did the doves save them? Shouldn’t doves also be pissed? This movie might have some plot issues. Sad, it was so tight up until now.
11:46 – The birds have not actually gotten further away in the last few minutes of them flying off. And now, after just having the actors stand there through the credits, you freeze-frame.
This is the worst cancellation in TV history. Some Firefly fans are probably bitching at me right now, some Dead Like Me fans, maybe a Freaks and Geeks aficionado or two, and probably at least one person who felt slighted by there only being 6 episodes of The Winner (the rest of us thought that was too many). But, the fact is, there are only 6 episodes of Police Squad!, only 4 that got aired, and that’s just not enough, even with the Naked Gun films.
It’s not like they were running low on material or ideas at this point. If anything, the show really was just starting to find its rhythm when it got cancelled. Maybe that’s a something to be held against it, that it took a few episodes to get going, but the truth is it was too far ahead of its time to do otherwise. Much in the way that Monty Python changed comedy by deconstructing traditional comedy routines and television (and, later, the Arthurian myth and, to a lesser extent, the story of Jesus), Police Squad! picked up the surrealist baton that Airplane! had carried and applied it to police procedurals.
For those of you who are younger, you might not realize that Airplane! was actually a comedic re-make of the movie Zero Hour. Some of the lines in the film, including Leslie Nielsen’s ridiculous line “The life of everybody on board depends on just one thing: Finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner” were VERBATIM lines in the original. But, more than that, the film was also a lampoon of the fact that people not only kept re-making Zero Hour (which was itself a re-make of Flight into Danger), but that there had emerged in the 1970s a series of films which were based on a book derived from Zero Hour… the Airport series. And, while the first Airport is a pretty good film, its 3 remakes/sequels were not (though they made bank). America was getting an overdose of Airport-based catastrophe movies that were progressively getting worse… which made it all the more fitting when Airplane! just decided to undermine the entire genre and premise by making everything all the more surreal to keep the audience from ever figuring out how far to suspend their disbelief. (Update: someone already did a video comparing them online, so that last paragraph was useless)
In the late 70s and early 80s, police procedurals were much the same as Airport movies: they were taking over, they were getting increasingly ridiculous, and they were STILL MAKING MONEY. So, the team behind Airplane!, Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker, along with Leslie Nielsen, decided to go ahead and make a TV show that would lampoon how insane police dramas were getting. So, they took shots and lines from other series, ran them through the ridiculous engine that is their minds, and pumped out Police Squad!
Alright, the plot of this episode is pretty boring and generic, because the point of the show is the sight-gags, puns, and weird situations. So, first, I’m going to encourage you to watch the episode, and second, I’m just going to point out some of my favorite gags from the episode.
“A Bird in the Hand (The Butler Did It!)” gets its title because in every episode of the show, they would put a graphic of the episode name on screen, but, at the same time, the narrator would read a completely different title. This was a joke on the fact that in police procedurals at the time, the words would both be on the screen, and the narrator would nar-read out the title… something that’s mercifully no longer a practice, except when a show is either mocking it or paying tribute to it.
Right off the bat, in the title sequence, they have two gags of both replacing the third lead with an unrelated actor playing a character who isn’t in the episode (it’s Abe Lincoln shooting back at Booth) and the “special guest star” Robert Goulet being executed by firing squad (which was a running gag on the show: the special guest star getting killed).
The cold open takes place at a debutante’s birthday party, where she is kidnapped from her family’s “Japanese garden,” which is literally a bunch of Japanese people standing in pots. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), who humorously gets his own rank wrong in the opening monologue, shows up to investigate. He joins Captain Ed Hocken (Alan North, George Kennedy in the movies), finding that the kidnapper has demanded $1 Million by a note which was attached to a window that was thrown into a rock. Frank asks to see the scene of the kidnapping, and Ed plays him back the filming of the earlier scene.
The kidnappers call the house and Frank tries to help keep them on the line, while Officer Nordberg (Peter Lupus, O.J. Simpson in the movies) tries to tap the phone (like a keg). Frank goes to interview the victim’s boyfriend, who is playing a pick-up basketball game. Drebin joins in the game as he interrogates the suspect, and makes a sweet three pointer and a nice steal leading to a stylish lay-up. Frank returns to the mansion, where the kidnappers have sent a tape of the victim’s voice to prove she’s alive. They then throw a mime through the window, attached to a rock. The mime proceeds to tell them, through charades, that the ransom drop will be Thursday at 10 at the Bus Depot.
This leads into the second half, called “Act II: Ball III.” Frank goes to the police lab run by Ted Olson (Ed Williams, same as the movies). Ted, who is also running an experiment where he proves gravitation by dropping a bowling ball and a person at the same time, isolates the sounds from the tape to find that the victim is near a large body of water based on a foghorn and a bell. Frank tells this to Ed while on an elevator that also goes to an opera stage. Ed orders Al (Ron “Tiny Ron” Taylor, same as the movies), a comically tall officer never shown above the shoulders, to set up a dragnet near the lakes, and to take off that sombrero.
Attempts to interview locals, who are in a bikini exercise class, prove fruitless. The victim’s father shows up with the ransom money, scared for his daughter’s life. Ed and Frank assure him that they’re working around the clock to find her. He can check for himself, because the clock is right there in the station. Frank and Ed then drive around for hours for no particular reason (that’s a quote), before finding out that the bell was from a gas station, and the foghorn was from a tuba. They realize they need to find a tuba place that’s near a gas station… which is complicated by the fact that the city is the tuba capital of the world. Frank finds out from Johnny the snitch (William Duell) that there’s a new tuba club, the El Tubadera Club, which is next to a gas station. Frank leaves as Baseball Legend Tommy Lasorda arrives to ask Johnny about pitching. Johnny gives him a list of recommendations for pitchers and makes a joke about letting Tommy John go, which is even more devastating in retrospect for baseball fans.
Frank drives to the club, and immediately sees the masked kidnapper and the victim on the street, which initiates a shootout that multiple people decide to run through instead of around. Frank gives Ed cover (by putting a blanket on him), allowing Ed to blindly stumble around to the kidnapper’s side of the street while Frank decides to take a hostage of his own (a random bystander) to even the score. The kidnapper tries to flee and trips over Ed. The kidnapper is then unmasked to be the Butler… which the title already told us. The butler is then taken away in a Black-and-White, revealed to be a zebra wearing a police light on its head.
The epilogue shows Frank and Ed talking at the station, with a chimp from another case in the background. Frank and Ed banter until they freeze-frame… which is literally just them standing still while everyone else keeps moving, including the chimp, who throws papers all over the place.
Alright, so, if you love Airplane! or Naked Gun or almost any surreal comedy, this show was perfect. Airplane! made $83 Million in the US on a $3.5 Million budget, and Naked Gun later made $78 Million on $12 Million, so it’s not like this format wasn’t without an audience. Why did it fail, then? Well, the president of ABC Entertainment explained that
it was a show that demanded too much attention from the viewer. People really had to watch it and pay attention to the words, the sight-gags, the running gags, etc. in order to appreciate how great the show was. This is, of course, both stupid and sad. Stupid, in that cancelling a TV show for taking too much effort is akin to shutting down a gym because people don’t want to sweat, and sad, because, it turns out, people actually don’t like putting effort into their viewings. Nowadays, things are a little different, because shows with faster-paced jokes and random gags can at least survive for a while (Arrested Development, anyone?), but, back in 1982, the networks didn’t have faith in the viewers to actually turn up to watch it.
Honestly, if the show had been made in the time of home video, it would have done better, because the episodes have to be re-watched many, many times to get all of the jokes. Sometimes, there is a sight-gag happening at the same time as a funny line, and you can’t really focus on either one, meaning you’d probably have to re-watch the show in order to get them. It’s a lot of comedy packed in 30 minutes. And a lot of the jokes are derived from police procedurals, especially The New Breed, which had starred Leslie Nielsen, which meant that sometimes things in the show weren’t as funny until you managed to watch the source material. But, for the most part, the jokes are pretty easy to get.
It’s sad that we only got 6 episodes of this show, even if we got 3 movies later, but we just have to be happy with that. Plus, you can re-watch them pretty often. I just re-watched this one for the 3rd time in a week, and I only just now noticed that part of the Crime Lab is a liquor cabinet hidden among the chemicals.
All of these episodes are works of art, so I recommend you watch them at some point. And then watch the Naked Gun movies. And then watch Arrested Development, which provided a slightly more realistic surreal show which contained rapid-fire jokes that range from the simple to the ludicrously complex and was clearly based on this show.
Okay, this is the third of the add-on episodes. Update: And the only show that now has its own page. Oddly, most of them are animated. I don’t know if that’s because lately animated shows are able to take more risks than live-action, or because, like in the case of WestWorld and Mr. Robot, that live-action shows that have insanely high quality are so invested in serialization that it keeps any one episode from standing out enough to be noticeable or distinctly memorable. But, whatever the reason, the animations tended to stick out.
Rick and Morty is a show about the futility of existence and other nihilist stuff most shows would consider impossible to joke about. Rick (Justin Roiland) is a super-genius on a scale that surpasses most portrayals in fiction. Rick is often called a god, because he can basically do anything. He travels between alternate universes, creates sentient life to power his car battery, destroyed planetary, galactic, and interdimensional order because they annoyed him, and even turns himself into a pickle just to show that he can… and also to get out of going to family therapy. Morty (Roiland) is his grandson, whose role in their adventures varies over the course of the series, from unwilling participant to instigator.
Rick believes that nothing means anything, and, in his case, he’s completely justified. Usually, when a character has that kind of attitude, it arises out of a religious nihilism. In Rick’s case, though, it’s different, because it arises from the fact that he has seen that there are infinite alternate worlds and infinite versions of himself, meaning that everything he ever does is being done in another world at the same time, or that he’s only doing it because another version of him is doing the opposite. Nothing matters because everything happens. Because of this, Rick is a miserable jerk most of the time, an alcoholic on a cosmic scale, and arguably out-eviled the devil through science. The last is not a metaphor, he actually drove the devil to suicidal depression through rendering him obsolete. Prior to this episode in the series, he and Morty wreck their version of the world and move to a different universe to replace the deceased Rick and Morty there, abandoning the rest of their family (not particularly caring if the others live or die).
Some people will probably be angry because they don’t think this is the best episode of Rick and Morty. Much like my entry for The Office, I can only say, this is not my favorite episode of Rick and Morty, but it is the one that I think distinguishes the show the most for two reasons.
First, most of the episode is improvised. The premise is that Rick upgrades the family’s TV to get channels from every dimension, meaning that they can see things such as “Showtime in a world where corn evolved instead of humans.” However, all of the programming, with limited exception, was improvised by series creator Justin Roiland, mostly while he was stoned. Even when other actors were asked to do the voices, they were told to copy everything about the way that Roiland had spoken. I consider this to be an extremely weird, but brilliant, way to do this episode, because it seems like ad-libbing both produces the absurd kind of things that one might encounter by looking through infinite realities, and also because it makes the inter-dimensional content very distinct from the show itself, confirming that they’re not in the same universe. Some people might not enjoy it, and maybe not all of the sketches are gold, but it at least sets it apart.
Second, and most important, is the B-plot. At the beginning of the episode, Morty’s dad Jerry (Chris Parnell) sees a version of himself who is a celebrated actor, and decides he wants to see other realities where he has a different life. Similarly, his wife, Beth (Sarah Chalke), and daughter, Summer (Spencer Grammer), want to see other universes where they have lived their dreams. During the course of this, Beth and Jerry accidentally reveal that Summer was an unwanted pregnancy, and that most or all of Beth’s and Jerry’s dream realities are where they broke up after having her aborted. This shakes Beth and Jerry over the fact that their marriage definitely kept them from achieving their dreams, and Summer over the fact that her entire existence was not just the result of a mistake, but one that she can confirm ruined her parents’ lives. Yeah, not the happiest moment in TV history.
Summer decides to leave the family, and Morty confronts her. She at first says that he can’t understand because, as the second child, he wasn’t the cause of her parents’ pain, only a biproduct of it. Morty responds by telling her that he’s not really her brother, that her brother is dead and buried in the yard, and that he’s a version of her brother who can tell her not to run and she’ll know it’s sincere. He then delivers 13 of the greatest words in the history of anything.
Nobody exists on purpose.
Nobody belongs anywhere.
Everybody’s gonna die.
Come watch TV?
I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve read a lot of philosophy. I’ve read the core texts of most religions, and I subscribe to one or two. I’ve been sick on a hospital bed waiting to die. But, despite all of that, I believe that I have never seen anything summarize the human condition as well as Morty does in this episode.
Morty straight up tells everyone that, despite the fact that he’s realized the futility of existence, he doesn’t care. He chooses to be happy anyway, by just enjoying what he has. Depending on your perspective, this arguably makes him better than Rick, because Rick is a miserable human being, whereas Morty can actually find enjoyment in aspects of life.
Rick insists that his unhappiness is because when you’re smart, the universe is yours, and the universe is not going to like it. It’s going to fight your desire to control or comprehend it. However, really, despite the fact that Rick has seen things that no other human has seen, done things no other humans have, or even can, do, he isn’t able to grasp the idea of just being happy by embracing futility and moving on anyway, because it requires accepting that he’s responsible for his own happiness. He constantly says that the key is NOT to think about it, but that’s wrong. You don’t have to try not to think about it, because trying to avoid thinking about it is still refusing acceptance.
Many of the episodes on this list deal with the idea of facing your mortality or the void at the end of existence. Some involve turning to God, some involve denying mortality, some involve just accepting that you’re gonna die, but this one nails it hardest. Whatever is true doesn’t matter. You get to exist. That alone is something to enjoy. Be happy anyway.
Okay, so, this is Star Trek. You already know it. I don’t know how much I have to say about it, because it’s been such a staple of American, and even just human, culture for the last few decades that I imagine almost every person alive, even if they haven’t seen the show, still knows of its existence. They probably even know some of the names of the crew of the Enterprise, like Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Vulcan Science Officer/X-O Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Doctor “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), and, of course, Scotty (James Doohan). Since most of the people who would read a list of best episodes are nerds, instead of a summary, I’m going to tell you what I think Star Trek is about.
Star Trek takes place after WWIII, the Post-Atomic horrors, the Eugenics Wars, and the first contact with an alien race (although exactly when, and in what order, they took place changes by series). But, after all that, humanity finally manages to get its collective sh*t (mostly) together, and stop fighting among themselves. Humanity stops being primarily concerned with beating other people, and instead reaches the point of self-actualization, where instead of having to worry about fighting for food or shelter or prestige, everyone just works towards advancement for the sake of advancement. Despite the fact that it requires three near total global tragedies to come about, this is still probably the most positive prediction for humanity. Because of this, the show had an inherently optimistic attitude behind it at any time, and the writing usually reflected that. Even when the episode contained something morally gray, there still usually was a statement at the end reflecting that it still will contribute to a better future. In the future:
This episode went the other way.
“The City on the Edge of Forever” was written by Harlan “seriously, I’m on this list several times, look me up” Ellison, and he basically crafted it as the anti-Star Trek episode, which makes it one of the most memorable. Of course, because it was Ellison, the guy who got fired from Disney after 4 hours because he couldn’t stop talking about making Disney-themed porn, most of his script had to be “adjusted” to get onto the show (i.e. had to remove everything that would have made the fan-base violently ill), but the result still contains his fingerprints.
The episode begins with McCoy accidentally dosing himself with a drug that makes him paranoid and delusional, causing him to beam down to a nearby planet. The team follows, and encounters a giant stone ring that talks and has a portal in it. The rock, called the “Guardian of Forever,” explains that it can take anyone to any time and place with ease. Before they can contemplate the impact of this discovery and the possibilities of all of time and space, McCoy, still insane, runs through the Guardian. Images begin to fly at Kirk and Spock, who records them. At that time, the crew lose contact with the Enterprise, and find out that the Enterprise, and the Federation itself, no longer exist. McCoy has changed history. As the first Act ends, Kirk remarks “We’re totally alone.”
Kirk and Spock follow McCoy through time into New York in the 1930s, hoping to undo whatever broke time. During their search, they find the proprietress of the 21st Street Mission, Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). Keeler is a kind woman, dedicated to preservation of human life and to peace throughout the world. Essentially, she’s part of the Federation before there was a Federation. As the episode progresses, Kirk and Keeler grow closer, until Spock, having found out that the Guardian’s images are the alternate future playing out, reveals that Keeler is supposed to die soon, but also that, in the alternate timeline, she survives. Looking into it further, Spock finally discovers that, should Keeler live, she will create a peace coalition that will delay FDR from entering into WWII, which will lead the Nazis to develop the atomic bomb first and winning the war. While they don’t know exactly when she’s supposed to die, scans show that McCoy will save her from a car accident. Meanwhile, Kirk has fallen in love with Keeler, even though he knows that her life will destroy the future.
Finally, after finding McCoy, Kirk witnesses Keeler step out in front of a vehicle, and has to stop both himself and McCoy from saving her. She dies, violently, and McCoy, not knowing about the alternate timeline, screams at Kirk “Do you know what you just did?” Spock replies only “He knows.” After the three return, appearing back in the future only a moment after they left, the Guardian of Forever offers them access to any part of space and time, allowing them to answer almost any of the questions that humanity could ever ask. Uhura, finally being able to contact the Enterprise again, asks if the crew is ready to beam up. Despite the fact that they’ve literally just been given access to all of time and space, Kirk instead ends the episode with the famous line: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
As I said before, this is the anti-Star Trek episode. It ends not with wonder or optimism, but with a firm rejection of it due to the emotional toll laid upon Kirk through the episode. That’s part of the reason that this episode resonates so firmly, because that’s a more natural response than the typical Star Trek ending. But also, this episode stands as a reminder that sometimes we cannot move forward without a cost. In this case, the cost was a woman dedicated to a peaceful world. In the case of the future of Star Trek, it’s that humanity has to suffer so much that it decides to transcend natural instinct.
M*A*S*H was already on the list once. Let me give you the description again:
M*A*S*H was a comedy about war. That’s a pretty dark place to start, and M*A*S*H was pretty famous for being able to bounce back and forth between off-the-wall humor and dark, maudlin drama.
In fact, in an episode of Futurama, iHawk, acharacter based on Hawkeye (Alan Alda), has a switch that causes him to oscillate between irreverent humor and maudlin drinking. That was not an inaccurate portrayal of the characters on the show, especially Hawkeye. In order to live on the battlefield and to treat the wounded, the crew of the M*A*S*H tent have to balance accepting the horrible reality in front of them with standing back and mocking life’s cruelties. It made M*A*S*H a show where the audience could not guess what the theme of the next show was going to be like.
From the title, people who regularly watched M*A*S*H knew this was going to be the departure of Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), because Abyssinia had been used by Blake as a way to say goodbye (because it sounds like “I’ll-be-seein-ya”). Up until this point, Blake had been the commander of the 4077th M*A*S*H, and had been notable for being a fairly laid-back character, allowing Hawkeye and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers, later Pernell Roberts) to get away with their typical hijinks, while opposing the more military discipline hard-liners Major Frank Burns (Larry Linville) and Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit). Section 8 seeker Klinger (Jamie Farr), not-too-preachy chaplain Father Mulcahy (William Christopher), and naïve Iowa farm boy Radar (Gary Burghoff) rounded out the cast for the first 3 seasons. And for the first season they had a black neurosurgeon named “Spearchucker Jones,” played by Timothy Brown. He’s not in this episode, I just like reminding people that that was a thing that happened, and was found on after-school re-runs during my childhood with no further context given. Take it as you will.
The episode opens with a message that informs the cast of Henry Blake’s impending honorable discharge. Despite how much they know they’re going to miss him, Hawkeye and Trapper John acknowledge that they don’t begrudge him anything, because they also want to finish their service. Henry calls home, telling his wife and kids that he’ll be coming back soon. During the build-up to the call, we hear Henry recount his wife and children’s weekly schedules, which he knows intimately, from halfway around the world. It’s touching. Radar and Henry then engage in a fairly serious and emotional exchange, since Radar had come to view Henry as a surrogate father. At first, Henry tries to downplay it, but then ends up giving him a family heirloom, which, in typical M*A*S*H fashion, is a rectal thermometer.
Most of the rest of the episode is a celebration in honor of Henry’s service and his general awesomeness as a person. Hawkeye, Radar, and Trapper John get drunk with him and reminisce. The next morning, Major Burns is now in charge, and tries to show the strength of his new extremely disciplined attitude towards the unit, before Henry, on his way out, tells Burns to “take it easy” and “stuff that whistle someplace.” Finally, before Henry leaves, he hugs Radar and tells him to behave himself, or he’ll “come back and kick [his] butt.” With that, he departs back to his family.
****STOP HERE FOR (FAKE) HAPPY ENDING****
And then, the end comes. In the last scene, in the camp O.R., Radar comes in on Trapper John and Hawkeye performing surgery. He barely manages to relay the famous message: “Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. It spunin… there were no survivors.” Hawkeye and Trapper John professionally and dutifully finish operating on their patient as the audience is shown that the usually uptight and adversarial Burns and Houlihan have broken down crying at the news. And it is with this juxtaposition, Hawkeye and Trapper John firmly doing their duty and Burns and Houlihan breaking down in emotion, that the episode closes. There is a small tribute to McLean Stevenson afterwards before the credits.
When this episode aired, this kind of thing didn’t happen. You didn’t just kill a character off after you’d given him his happy ending, especially when it was such a beloved character as Henry. People hated it so much, that in some re-runs, they cut the ending. But, honestly, it was perfect for what M*A*S*H was going for. War sucks. People die randomly, whether they deserved it or not. It’s why it’s supposed to be avoided unless it is worth that high cost. Trying to ignore the cost is not the solution. M*A*S*H decided to shock America by reminding them of that cost, and, in 1975, it was something that they definitely didn’t want to hear. Nonetheless, it bears repeating:
Taxi was one of the many traditional sitcoms that revolved around “let’s find an excuse for a bunch of strange characters to converse with each other in a central location.” Gonna give you a second to guess where this one takes place. Most of you probably correctly guessed that it’s the fleet garage of the Sunshine Cab Company, and the cast are the employees. The guys who did this episode, director James Burrows, and Producers the Charles Brothers, would later create another, similar show, called Cheers. The writer of this show, James L. Brooks, wrote several episodes on this list, including the number 1, and, of course, was the guy who helped Matt Groening make the Simpsons. So, you know, there was a lot of talent off-screen.
On-screen, Alex Geiger (Judd Hirsch) is the cynical protagonist, and the only one who acknowledges that he drives a cab for a living, and not for a side project. Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conaway) is the struggling actor with big dreams. Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner) is the working mother of two. Tony Banta (Tony Danza) is a veteran and failed boxer (one of his only wins was when the opponent tripped on the ropes and knocked himself out).
Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman) was a foreign mechanic and an excuse for Andy Kaufman to be insane. Of course, he’s Andy Kaufman, so it worked out pretty well. Perhaps most brilliantly, because Andy Kaufman chose to make up his own country, language, and customs which don’t really resemble any actual country, it doesn’t come off as racist or insensitive even if you watch it today.
Louie De Palma (Danny De Vito) is… I don’t exactly know how to describe him. He’s the bad guy, most of the time. He’s a scumbag, but he’s also so funny that you find yourself loving him. TV Guide ranked him as the best character of all time, and the fact that he was hard to nail down into an archetype at the time he was created is part of why. Now, there are other characters that act like him, but the archetype they’re following is Louie De Palma.
All of these characters, even Latka, have a sort of air of sadness or futility surrounding them. That’s really one of the themes of the first season of the show, the fact that only our protagonist, Alex, has actually come to terms with his lot in life. He’s a cab driver. He has no higher aspirations. The others are all just shown to be people who want to be better, but keep getting swatted back into their place by life. Then, this episode happens in the second season, and slightly changed the show’s dynamic by dredging up a former guest character by the name of the Great Reverend Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd).
Jim Ignatowski is the waste of potential that comes from being wasted. He is an unbelievably intelligent former Harvard student, but he partied so hard in the 60s that, by the 70s, he now is a homeless street preacher. Despite the fact that he is seen as being spaced out most of the time to the point that he’s basically useless or childish, Jim’s biggest redeeming factors are that he is usually happy, he has one of the biggest hearts of any characters on television, and, because it’s Christopher Lloyd, he is freaking hilarious. This episode both re-introduces him as a main character, and contains some of the best scenes the character ever got.
The main characters run into Reverend Jim, and find out that he’s lost his unofficial church. Jim recounts his history as a “living embodiment of the 60s,” as well as some of his past and present issues, saying “I kept finding God all over, but he kept ditching me.” Feeling sad for him, they decide they’re going to get him a job as a taxi driver. What follows is one of the best routines ever, as the cast all work together to get Jim hired by Louie and to help Jim pass his driving test. Probably the most memorable part is the Yellow Light bit. It is truly a sketch that should never have worked. However, Brooks and Burrows had so much faith in it that, instead of scripting it fully, director James Burrows just told Conway and Lloyd to keep going until the audience stopped finding it funny. It lasts a full minute, consisting only of 8 words. Right before the cut, you can even see the other cast members starting to break character and laugh at Lloyd’s delivery.
As I said earlier, this changed the feel of the show, by adding a character who, despite his horrible life, didn’t feel down about it. He was positive and happy, even if he didn’t believe he had any real meaning left in his existence, saying that he thought he’d reach Nirvana, but all he found were images of the original mouseketeers popping out of seedpods. He had realized the absurdity of any further search for meaning, and, rather than be horrified or depressed by it, he chose to accept it and reach a state of contented happiness. Albert Camus once wrote of the same concept, the absurd hero, in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” So, rather than making the audience start to feel worse about the state of the cast’s unchanging lots in life, Taxi introduced someone who had accepted it and chosen to be happy anyway. Bet you didn’t see a French Absurdist philosophy reference coming here, did you?