Sunday, September 29, 2013

In 2008, I sort of predicted Breaking Bad would blow up like Gus Fring

Damn, Buggin' Out looks like shit these days.
Tonight, AMC's Breaking Bad ends its run as one of TV's most genuinely nail-biting and nerve-wracking hour-long shows/trending topics, so I've unearthed from January 23, 2008 the review of the Breaking Bad pilot I wrote for another blog, which quickly folded. I'm not surprised that particular blog folded. It had the shittiest blog name in the history of shitty blog names.

As my pilot review points out, Breaking Bad wasn't the first cable drama to revolve around a morally ambiguous protagonist--or three, if you count Jesse and Skyler. But since its premiere, Breaking Bad has emerged as one of the better-made dramas with that kind of protag (while some of the other shows that you'll see me refer to at the end of the 2008 review, like Weeds and Dexter, won't stand the test of time like many individual Breaking Bad episodes will--especially the right-wing fantasy that was Dexter).

And Matt Damon.
It's interesting that the series finale of Breaking Bad--a signature example of "the age of the anti-hero" on cable--airs the same night that Showtime debuts Masters of Sex, a promising period drama that many critics are praising for veering away from the violence and nihilism of both the age of the anti-hero and the shitty newer dramas that are rehashing much of the morally ambiguous material that Breaking Bad has explored so well, but these newer shows are doing so to diminishing returns (one of these poorly received shows is AMC's own remake of the British cop show Low Winter Sun; like a Phish hater once said in Esquire about why he hates Phish's cover of Jay Z's "Big Pimpin'," these Breaking Bad wannabes know all the right notes, but they don't know what they mean). If Masters of Sex becomes a hit, will it usher in a new era for cable dramas and kill off the age of the anti-hero--just like how I presume Breaking Bad will kill off most of its entire cast tonight?

Return with me now to those thrilling days of AMC yesteryear, when the network's original series department was synonymous not with Heisenberg, zombies and Don Draper but with just Don and some PBS-y single-camera comedy called Remember WENN--and when Bryan Cranston used to look like a constipated Ned Flanders.

***

In 2008, who knew Dexter would degenerate into the total clusterfuck that it was last week? Oh, we were so young and naive back then.
This is a snapshot of the original 2008 post. I'm not going to bother linking to that inactive blog. That blog was so ugly, every time they updated it, God killed a kitten.
The original series department over at AMC (Alleged Movie Classics) had a major breakthrough last year with Mad Men, and it looks like it has another winner on its hands with Breaking Bad. Bryan Cranston, who frequently stole scenes on Malcolm in the Middle (remember Hal's roller disco act?), is at his tragicomic best as Walt White, a meek, terminally ill Albuquerque chem teacher who turns to cooking crystal meth to support his pregnant wife and disabled teenage son. I caught Breaking Bad's premiere episode on Sunday night, and this seven-week series looks promising, although like Malcolm, there are way too many shots of Cranston in his tighty-whiteys.

(Mad Men may be AMC's first original series to attain Sopranos-level success, but it actually isn't the channel's first series. Back during AMC's much-missed, commercial-free Bob Dorian/Nick Clooney days--when female nudity and curse words weren't wussily censored from AMC's broadcasts of late '60s and early '70s movies like they were during the airing of Breaking Bad's risqué pilot--the channel produced and aired Remember WENN, a cult favorite about the staff of a '30s radio station.)

Breaking Bad reunites creator Vince Gilligan with Cranston, who guest-starred in the Gilligan-penned "Drive," one of the few good eps from The X-Files' later, lesser seasons (TNT reairs that particular ep all the time, yet I never get tired of seeing it). The desperate, cancer-stricken Walt recalls Cranston's "Drive" character, a redneck carjacker who suffers from a condition that will cause his head to explode if he stops moving. Don't you hate when that happens?

The series' unconventional Albuquerque desert backdrop is an inspired choice. It makes Cranston's lower-middle-class doormat look even more minuscule and beaten-down than he already is. Plus it's nice to see an hour-long drama that wasn't shot in L.A., New York, Vancouver or some other overused coastal city. (Albuquerque seems to be turning into the it location for cable dramas. USA's upcoming show about a female Federal marshal, Karen Sisco In Plain Sight, has been filmed in the 'Bu as well.)

Jimmy McNulty, Omar Little, Vic Mackey, Tommy Gavin, Nancy Botwin and Dexter Morgan, your morally ambiguous corner of the cable dial just got a little more crowded. Make room for Mr. White.

'Here's to good friends. The night is kind of spe-- WHAT THE FUCK DID GRETCHEN AND ELLIOTT JUST SAY ABOUT ME ON TV?! FUCK A FAKE FRIEND, WHERE MY REAL FRIENDS AT?!'

Monday, September 23, 2013

Pop that brefnish: Time to look at hip-hop and R&B's immense love for the Taxi theme

What Latka doesn't know about his country's national drink is that it's actually Nyquil.
The effects of brefnish
Nah Right posted last week a lengthy and interesting interview with jazz pianist Bob James, one of the most sampled musicians in hip-hop. What started out as a contentious relationship between James and beatmakers because of their tendency in the late '80s and early '90s to sample music without permission (James sued DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince over the unauthorized use of "Westchester Lady") has mellowed into something less hostile and gone in some unexpected directions. James started collaborating with former X-Ecutioners DJ Rob Swift and has now assembled the new release Rhodes Scholar: Jazz-Funk Classics 1974-1982, a compilation of his own most sampled instrumentals that's being marketed to newer fans who were first exposed to James through hip-hop.



James' 1975 cover of Paul Simon's "Take Me to the Mardi Gras," which the late Jam Master Jay flipped in Run-DMC's 1986 classic "Peter Piper," is included on Rhodes Scholar. So are "Nautilus," a 1974 tune James originally thought of as filler but has become one of his most frequently sampled compositions (it's looped in "Daytona 500," one of my favorite Ghostface Killah joints), and 1981's "Sign of the Times," which opens with a calliope solo by James that provided Prince Paul with a catchy hook for "Keepin' the Faith," a highlight of 1991's De La Soul Is Dead, my favorite De La Soul album. Of course, Rhodes Scholar would have been incomplete without the first James tune I ever heard, "Angela (Theme from Taxi)," which also has been frequently sampled by beatmakers.

Both "Angela" and "Groove for Julie," another theme James wrote for the still-hilarious sitcom about loser cabbies in Manhattan (a show that premiered 35 years ago on September 12, 1978--I didn't need Marilu Henner's highly superior autobiographical memory to verify that), are currently in rotation on "AFOS Prime" on AFOS. Why? Is it because I'm a smooth jazz softie? No, I'm hardly a smooth jazz softie, and who cares that it's smooth jazz? James' Taxi score music is just damn good.

The stack of phone books Louie is standing on in this illustration is hella taller than Louie himself.
(Photo source: Noelle McClanahan)
When the original Law & Order was filmed on location in New York City, TV reviewers would often say the city itself was like a seventh main character on L&O. Even though Taxi also took place in the Big Apple, you see very little of the actual city during Taxi because this studio-bound show was never filmed on location and never had any scenes outdoors due to the limitations enforced by the multi-camera sitcom format, a modest budget ($260,000 per episode, much lower than the $1.5 million it cost to shoot each episode of the low-cost-by-today's-standards It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia in 2010) and the Taxi producers' insistence on a realistic look (which was achieved by having all the cab scenes occur at night and shooting them on a pitch-black stage with remarkably convincing, stage play-style lighting effects to simulate passing lights, rather than shooting them against a cheesy-looking blue screen). So instead of New York, James' score music is the eighth character on this seven-member ensemble sitcom, and it does the job of establishing the troubled but oddly alluring late '70s/early '80s New York setting that the city itself couldn't do (outside of stock footage) because like many sitcoms at the time, Taxi was filmed in front of a live studio audience in Hollywood.


That's how integral James' music is to Taxi, even though you hear only 10 or 15 seconds of it during the zoom lens-reliant establishing shots that co-creator/showrunner James L. Brooks carried over from his previous sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. James' groovetastic and mostly melancholy instrumentals--the sort of themes you'd encounter while watching a gritty poliziotto from Italy but not a multi-camera '70s sitcom--helped define and distinguish Taxi, its character-based humor and its distinctively bleak tone in the same way Henry Mancini's West Coast jazz sounds defined Peter Gunn, Angelo Badalamenti's ethereal and sometimes kitschy motifs defined Twin Peaks and Yoko Kanno's brassy, J-pop-meets-the-Knitting-Factory jams defined Cowboy Bebop.

The bleak tone was why both Taxi and the equally sophisticated and gritty Barney Miller stuck out like sore thumbs on the late '70s/early '80s ABC sitcom schedule, surrounded by much broader and more dumbed-down sitcoms like Happy Days, its gazillion spinoffs and Three's Company. It's also why Taxi continues to stick out like a sore thumb in reruns (good luck finding Taxi on cable, although I hear Me-TV network affiliates are rerunning it again) and continues to have a reputation as a slept-on classic, even though it influenced Taxi staff writers Glen and Les Charles' hit creation Cheers, the earlier seasons of The Simpsons, Brooks' biggest hit as a TV producer, the original Office, Party Down and Community--and even though the animalistic asshole persona of Danny DeVito's Louie De Palma paved the way for misanthropic Larry David creations like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm and even DeVito's own It's Always Sunny.

If Taxi were made today, viewers would be 'squeeing' online about how much they 'ship' Alex and Elaine. Squeeing and shipping are words that a grown person should not be using to describe how much they like fictional characters. Squeeing and shipping sound more like bodily functions.
(Photo source: A.V. Club)
I abhor most older sitcoms with studio audience laughter or laugh tracks, a.k.a. canned laughter. But Taxi is one of the few I still revisit either at CBS.com or in bootlegged form on YouTube (screw Paramount's DVDs of the show, which are disappointingly bare-bones and slightly butchered due to music rights issues) because the writing and acting on Taxi were always tops (even during that occasionally bumpy first season where the writers had trouble figuring out what to do with Randall Carver's John Burns, a proto-Woody Boyd who was written out of the show in the second season and replaced in the cast by a guest star from the previous season, the much more funny Christopher Lloyd as drug-addled Reverend Jim Ignatowski). It remains one of my favorite shows.

You read about--or if you're a masochist, you watch--a racist piece of shit like Dads, and its lame-ass punchlines bum you out about many things, like the shabby state of multi-camera sitcoms today. None of these newer multi-cams--even with frequent Taxi director James Burrows at the helm of many of their pilots--measure up to Taxi. Quality writing and genuine laughs elude these multi-cams like the meaning of a yellow light during Reverend Jim's driver's license exam.



Some critics and even some Taxi fans felt that Taxi's more low-key and realistic side--represented by the characters of world-weary pragmatist Alex Rieger, ambitious single mom Elaine Nardo, aspiring actor Bobby Wheeler and thick-headed prizefighter Tony Banta and what current Dissolve writer Noel Murray referred to in a 2004 A.V. Club piece as "building small stories out of the cabbies' money troubles or their offbeat passengers while dealing more honestly and humorously with the indignity of a service economy"--meshed awkwardly with the show's Simpsons-y, outlandish side. That other side consisted of Ignatowski's confused wordplay shtick and stoned hijinks; Latka Gravas and his split personality issues; the strange customs and brefnish-fueled pastimes of the unnamed Eastern European country Latka and his girlfriend/wife Simka emigrated from; and of course, tyrannical Louie and his various schemes. I never agreed that it was an awkward juxtaposition. I always thought the way Taxi juggled both sides was perfect. Speaking of perfection...

"And then there's that Bob James theme song, so pretty and forlorn, playing in the opening credits over an endless shot of a cab crossing a bridge and never getting anywhere," wrote Murray. "It's the whole mood and meaning of the show, established in less than a minute."

True. There are several interesting bits of trivia about that opening credits footage. Who's the driver inside that cab on the Queensboro Bridge (which, by the way, was renamed in 2010, in honor of former NYC mayor Ed Koch, an enemy of hip-hop culture who was famously put on blast by Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing)? He's none other than Tony Danza, and the Taxi producers culled the footage from the same shoot where they filmed the only scene shot on location in NYC in the show's history: Tony's amusingly brief "Memories of Cab 804" flashback to the moment when he stopped a passenger from jumping off the Queensboro Bridge. The problem with the footage that was chosen for the intro was that it was only 15 seconds long, which wasn't enough time to flash the credits of Taxi's sizable cast, so the editor looped the footage. It resulted in a clever and dark-humored encapsulation of the show's premise of working-class dreamers struggling to succeed. It also made the bridge as long as that airport runway in the climax of Furious 6.

The choice of "Angela" was another happy accident, and like the bridge footage, the tune wasn't originally intended for the opening credits. It was a theme James wrote for a character named Angela Matusa (Suzanne Kent), an obese and lonely phone operator Alex befriends in "Blind Date," one of the show's earliest episodes.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hayao Miyazaki's retirement means no more sublime moments of animation like my favorite food scene in The Castle of Cagliostro

Jigen and Lupin give as much a fuck about carbs as they do about the law.

I've been co-writing an article about YouTube videos that have fused anime footage with hip-hop joints (the piece will turn up over at Word Is Bond). While working on that, I binge-watched on Hulu the entire single-season run of last year's animated caper show Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, a raunchy, not-for-kids prequel to the Lupin the Third franchise, after I saw comic book critic David Brothers recommend Fujiko Mine in one of his Tumblr posts. Both the in-the-works article and Fujiko Mine got me to revisit the much-revered caper flick The Castle of Cagliostro, a 1979 theatrical spinoff of the late '70s Lupin TV series and a film I hadn't seen in 20 years.

I enjoyed rewatching set pieces like the mountainside car chase and the clock tower climax, which director Kevin Altieri memorably paid tribute to in the climax of Batman: The Animated Series' first Clock King episode ("That movie is what got me into animation," said Altieri in a 1993 Cinefantastique magazine interview where he also noted that even though Cagliostro was done with limited animation, it tells "a real story with real emotion"). But during this rewatch, I also noticed something equally sublime that I didn't quite pay attention to when I watched Cagliostro on VHS as an action scene-loving kid: the food scenes.

After the car chase, Lupin and his sidekick Jigen stop for a bite to eat and share what has to be the most delicious-looking plate of spaghetti and meatballs ever drawn in animation (it's so delicious-looking that fans of the film have attempted to re-create the same-looking dish in their kitchens). That little dining scene caught my attention this time out because spaghetti is one of the few meals I know how to cook.

Jigen what?
(Photo source: Fanpop)

It's also because the way Lupin and Jigen grab the pasta with their forks is as dynamically realized as the car chase and the clock tower fight. Again, the animation is limited, yet it's a scene that's imbued with personality and great character details, something that can't be said about the limited animation and frequently recycled shots in the Filmation Saturday morning cartoons that were being made in America at the time. Also, Lupin and Jigen's enjoyment of their meal isn't done in a comedically exaggerated way, like whenever everybody's favorite potheads Warner Bros. Animation will never admit are potheads, Shaggy and Scooby, are shown devouring submarine sandwiches (although later in the film, an injured and famished Lupin's attempt to get back in the game by binging on chicken and entire blocks of cheese is a very Shaggy and Scooby-esque bit of slapstick).

Cagliostro was the first film I ever saw that was directed by legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, so I wasn't aware of his trademark touches as a filmmaker. Since that first viewing of Cagliostro, which also happened to be the first feature Miyazaki directed, I've peeped most of his other films, and I've noticed he and his Studio Ghibli animators draw and animate food like nobody else. For instance, in Howl's Moving Castle, bacon actually looks like bacon, not unappealing sticks of Topps baseball card gum (although in the film, the bacon is served with sunny-side-up eggs, which makes the bacon slightly less appetizing for me because I hate eggs--except when they're in omelet form). Miyazaki objectifies food instead of women, which makes him the least pervy of Japanese animators (both that and his knack for writing interesting and fully dimensional female characters are why women love his films). His live-action equivalents in the food porn department are Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese, whose 1974 documentary short Italianamerican and famously food-porny GoodFellas shouldn't be watched when you're hungry.

Those little cuisine-related moments are an example of what Emily Yoshida describes in Grantland as "his intimate understanding of the most mundane human phenomena," and that understanding is what I'll probably miss the most about Miyazaki, who happened to announce his retirement from directing as I was revisiting Cagliostro. For his final directorial effort, the 126-minute Wind Rises, which was received quite well at its Toronto International Film Festival premiere earlier this week and is slated for American release in February, Miyazaki chose to do a historical drama about Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, making this his most grounded and least fantasy-driven directorial effort since Cagliostro. I don't know if there will be any tantalizing shots of food in The Wind Rises like there are in Cagliostro or Spirited Away, but if he has somehow managed to make the much quieter drama of the ambivalence over building weapons for war as interesting as those food scenes, The Wind Rises will be a solid closer to the mostly satisfying full-course dinner that has been Miyazaki's filmography.

Themes from Lupin the Third, including the 1980 Lupin main title theme, which was used as an action theme in Cagliostro, as well as selections from scores to other Miyazaki movies (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle), all can be heard during the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" block, weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

Monday, September 9, 2013

"Conan the Barbarian on a loop": Which film or TV score albums have helped us to get our work done?

Conan the Barbarian is shocked to discover that a Latina maid of his bore him a love child.
Film score music-wise, novelist Junot Díaz is all about Team Coco--the barbarian Coco, not the string-dancing Coco.

In a recent interview, Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and This Is How You Lose Her, was asked by The Daily Beast if his writing process entails any rituals, and he replied that he puts on movie soundtrack albums. "I can't listen to any music that has words in it, so soundtracks are good for this," said Díaz. "I wrote my first book listening to the soundtrack to the movie Conan the Barbarian on a loop. That's how I ride."


That must be how Ed Brubaker rides as well. A few days after The Daily Beast posted the Díaz Q&A, the creator and author of the Criminal and Fatale comics tweeted that the minimalist and moody score albums for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Brick are good soundtracks to write to, while Jerry Goldsmith's score from Planet of the Apes--a film Díaz has cited as an influence on his work, by the way--isn't such a good one to write to. Brubaker added, "It's a fantastic soundtrack, but it's like trying to write to Ornette Coleman."

True. I can understand why when you need to concentrate on writing something, ram's horn calls, cuíca riffs and dissonant chords aren't exactly helpful when you need to concentrate, and neither is avant-garde saxophone noodling.




Shit, I can't even remember the title of that Revenge clone Meagan Good starred in on NBC last season. NBC is so fucking creatively bankrupt they called her show Vengeance or some shit.
Brick (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
I wouldn't be surprised if "Emily's Theme" or some other Nathan Johnson score cue from Brick provided Brubaker with inspiration for how to pace a moment of tension or mayhem in Criminal or if he scripted dialogue between two Criminal characters while the Brick score played in his earbuds. These recent comments about film score albums from two respected authors have got me thinking about score albums I used as study music or term paper writing music when I was a university student (I also started wondering about what one of my listeners from AFOS' earlier years, Ginger Ludden, co-creator of the Brothers Grant webcomic, listens to when she draws; she simply told me, "Seeds in Pandora based upon fantasy and video game soundtracks" and "Jeremy Soule").

Back then, I lived in an apartment building on a busy downtown city street, so to block the outside noise when I needed to concentrate and finish typing up a term paper or a newspaper article, I'd bump either one of my hip-hop CDs, some local R&B or alt-rock station or a score album. As study music, score albums were especially effective because like Díaz said, they often don't contain words, so they don't distract you too much from whatever you're reading (the amount of soundtracks I used as study music led to me launch an early incarnation of AFOS at the local campus station). While Díaz prefers the orchestral bombast of the late Basil Poledouris, I preferred score music that's not too bombastic or dissonant, but not too dull either. I guess that would make me more like Brubaker.

But ever since the emergence of SoundCloud, Mixcloud and Mixcrate, which are sites where DJs post one-to-two-hour-long hip-hop, soul or house mixtapes that can be streamed or sometimes downloaded for free, those lengthy mixes have supplanted score music as my writing-time music of choice. Score albums just don't do it for me anymore as writing-time music. I play them only when I'm picking out selections to add to AFOS playlists. The following are the score albums I used to study to or finish assignments to when I was a student.

Blade Runner (Vangelis)
Below Brubaker's tweet about score albums, Abhimanyu Das of Slant Magazine tweeted that "the Blade Runner soundtrack fires my imagination like nothing else." I hope he's not referring to the Blade Runner "New American Orchestra" re-recording that Full Moon Records tried to trick moviegoers into thinking was the film's official soundtrack back in 1982. That re-recording is, as Edward James Olmos would put it, lófaszt.


Desperado (Los Lobos and Tito & Tarantula)
Los Lobos won a Best Pop Instrumental Grammy for "Mariachi Suite," the Desperado album's closing track. The East L.A. quintet's musical contributions to Desperado were solid (their score music for the 1993 Showtime movie The Wrong Man is pretty enjoyable too). But Tito & Tarantula's contributions (Tito's "White Train [Showdown]" is what's featured in the Desperado clip below) and existing songs like Dire Straits' "Six Blade Knife" and Roger and the Gypsies' "Pass the Hatchet" stole both the film and the album, which I remember playing a lot during the first semester of my first year as a university student. That album and the Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia dominated my headphones that semester, and so did the next soundtrack.



Get Shorty (John Lurie)
Featured during the cameo-laden final scene of Get Shorty that's below, the easygoing original score Lurie wrote for the 1995 screen adaptation of the late Elmore Leonard's 1990 potshot at Hollywood holds up pretty well outside the context of the movie. The existing songs in the movie are even better. Booker T. & the M.G.'s "Can't Be Still" is the track John Travolta punches the late Dennis Farina in the nose to. Greyboy's "Panacea"--the main reason why I bought the Get Shorty cassette in the first place and the Get Shorty track I remember studying to the most--is what Travolta struts to when he tosses the late James Gandolfini down the stairs. ("Jimmy, what's a cassette? Daddy, what's Vietnam?")







Malcolm X (Terence Blanchard)
If you needed music while typing up a paper about racist moments in history for a class like an Asian American Experience course and you were feeling especially militant and pissed off about white people that day, you'd put on an album by either KRS-One, Paris, the Coup or Grand Puba, who frequently refers to white men as the Devil in his verses. If you were feeling militant but you wanted Blanchard's trumpet to inspire you, then you opted for Blanchard's Malcolm X score CD to set the mood.

More Mondo Morricone: More Mindblowing Film Themes by Ennio Morricone from Italian Cult Movies
While on a trip in Italy, my big sister copped the 1996 German compilation More Mondo Morricone. She gave it to me as a gift, and it's been an inseparable part of my AFOS playlists ever since. More Mondo Morricone got me to notice that there's more to Morricone than just the spaghetti western genre, and I've ended up digging the lesser-known scores that are represented on More Mondo Morricone slightly more than his spaghetti western material. I wouldn't be surprised if Adrian Younge possesses all the soundtrack LPs that are excerpted on the Mondo Morricone CDs, which work great as study music if you prefer it to be on the loungey tip.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner Extra: Back to the Futurama past (with former Futurama assistant director A.L. Baroza)

Leela and Fry watch the skies--and the Nielsen ratings results.
Tonight, Futurama, which premiered on March 28, 1999 on Fox, airs its final episode on Comedy Central, the network that--to the delight of fans of the animated cult favorite and its direct-to-video, post-Fox cancellation spinoff movies--brought Futurama back to series form in 2010. For those who have been frozen in a cryogenic tube in the last few years, Futurama is about a 20th century pizza delivery boy named Fry (Billy West), a stranger in a strange land called the 31st century.

Helping Fry to continually adjust to 31st century life after his awakening from an accidental cryogenic sleep are his 173-year-old descendant, the unsurprisingly exposition-y Professor Farnsworth (also West), a boozy robot roommate named Bender (John DiMaggio) and Leela (Katey Sagal), a one-eyed, karate-chopping delivery ship captain who was raised in an "orphanarium." Several things have kept Futurama from being a lame retread of The Jetsons, which it appeared to be at first: the misanthropic brand of humor of Life in Hell and Simpsons mastermind Matt Groening, who co-created the show with writer David X. Cohen, gorgeous state-of-the-art animation and some brilliantly written episodes that, in addition to being genuinely funny, also hold up as solid and cerebral sci-fi, particularly "Godfellas," "The Late Philip J. Fry" and the surprisingly moving "Jurassic Bark."

And then there are episodes that are just plain funny from start to finish, like "Where No Fan Has Gone Before." An homage to Fry's favorite show, the original Star Trek, 2002's "Where No Fan" somehow managed to get the voices of nearly all the surviving (and still-bickering) '60s Trek cast members together in the same episode, if not the same recording booth (the only surviving cast member who sat out the episode was the late James Doohan, whose refusal to participate resulted in a couple of great gags about a Doohan replacement named Welshie).

I've seen the head of that smiley-face robot that's lying behind the Rocky IV robot's head before, and it's fucking bugging me that I can't remember where that robot's from!
In the recent Futurama episode "Assie Come Home," a robot chop shop is strewn with pieces of the Iron Giant; C3P0; Muffit II from the '70s Battlestar Galactica; Rosie the Robot Maid from The Jetsons; Octus from Sym-Bionic Titan; Robo Bill and Robo Ted from Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey; Alpha 5 from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers; Gigantor; Paulie's robot from Rocky IV; a Dalek; and a Cylon. (Photo source: Sexy Machine)
Animated comedy shows aren't exactly known for bringing great change and upheaval to their characters' lives and making such a thing permanent (for instance, you'll never see Bart, Lisa and Maggie age, unless it's a DC Elseworlds-style Simpsons episode about an alternate future), and Futurama was no exception. Even through all the countless body (or brain) transformations and deaths they've experienced, the Planet Express crew has remained fundamentally the same: Fry's still lazy, Bender always looks out for number one, Leela's always more sensible than the other two, Amy Wong (Lauren Tom) bangs anything that moves, as long as they're not Asian (a young Asian woman on a white show who's scripted to bone everybody except Asian guys--how surprising!), and so on.

But there's one story thread on Futurama that's evolved over the years, and it's the relationship between Fry and his fellow misfit Leela. Their gradual romance (which became an official thing in the Comedy Central years) was the focus of what was thought to have been the final Futurama episode when the series aired on Fox, and it's once again the focus of the this-time-for-real series finale. Many Futurama viewers think the show has lost some of its luster writing-wise--which often happens to shows that go past five seasons--so tonight, will Futurama go out in high style and win back those viewers?

Shortly before Futurama takes its bow for the third and most likely final time, I got A.L. Baroza, an assistant director and storyboard artist on the show during its Comedy Central run, to recall to me his five favorite Futurama episodes that he worked on. Not surprisingly, one of them involved an elaborate mechanical killing machine sequence that also happens to be one of my favorite pieces of animation the show has ever done. After Futurama wrapped up production, A.L. has moved on to storyboarding Fox's Axe Cop, based on the Nicolle brothers' completely nonsensical superhero comic of the same name.

This new Futurama coloring book is surprisingly boring.
(Photo source: The Infosphere)
"The Tip of the Zoidberg" (season 6, episode production number 6ACV18; aired August 18, 2011)
"In the earlier episode 'The Duh-Vinci Code,' I storyboarded this Rube Goldberg sequence where Fry and the Prof get launched into space from the Parthenon. I guess the Futurama powers-that-be must have liked it since in 'Tip,' I got the Murderlator sequence, which is a Rube Goldberg machine that pretty much took up an entire act of the script. It was the hardest storyboard sequence to board in my entire animation career. Although it was a somewhat painful experience, it was worth it, in no small part due to the CGI crew at Rough Draft Glendale, who modeled some (but not all!) of the Murderlator sequence. And the episode was nominated for an Emmy!"

Wow, NBC shelled out a shitload of cash for the challenges on American Ninja Warrior.

"Overclockwise" (season 6, episode production number 6ACV25; aired September 1, 2011)
"I enjoyed doing the Cosmically Aware Bender stuff where I could bring all my years of reading Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin comics to good use. Alternately, I loved doing the extended take of Fry and Leela that closed out the episode, just two characters acting and reacting silently. I love doing scenes that give viewers the feels, as the kids call it these days."

'Shoo, Fry, don't bother me!'... is a line that's not in this scene.

In panel 5, Leela slaps Fry and then in panel 6, Fry slaps Leela back. Without the animation or any slap visual FX, it looks like Fry is about to puke from bad shellfish and then Leela is about to do the same too.
(Photo source: Sexy Machine)