Television Tribune: In Defense of Character-Based Storytelling

futurama silhouettes tv tribune

By Allen

One of the core tenets of graphic design is “Show, don’t tell.” It’s a simple truism at face value, but when viewed as a way of writing television, it’s surprising how much some shows benefit from it as a method of writing character interactions. I’ve noticed that most of my favorite shows of the last few years show exactly who each character is supposed to be early on, with changes and eccentricities being introduced slowly over time. Also, viewing your characters as pieces of a larger puzzle is the best way to strengthen the viewer’s connection to them because it directly encourages empathy.

Take Futurama for example. As shown by the header of this very article, each member of the main cast can be easily identified from a silhouette. You’ve got Leela with the poofy hair and efficient bun, Zoidberg’s creepy eyes and mouth, Bender’s eye and head shape, Fry’s hair swirl and upper lip, and the Professor’s…posture/creepy head. These silhouettes actually tell you quite a bit about the characters that they represent, and how they would interact with one another. Fry and Leela both seem fairly young and relatively normal-looking, so they’re probably friends. Zoidberg and Bender look clearly alien or at least inhuman, so one could assume this is some sort of sci-fi show. And just a few more leaps of logic from there, and you can extrapolate that maybe the robot and the human male are friends based on so many films from the 80s depicting this exact idea, and that the Professor is probably a crazy person. It’s these little guesses and stories where we fill in backstory that form the basis of a good cast. From there, the show sets about to defy those expectations. Fry and Bender fight all the time, Leela has the tendency to be a little unhinged, and the Professor shows genuine pathos when some of his experiments go awry. By the end of the show, we’re attracted more to what the characters have become, and less of what they started as.

This concept doesn’t just apply to drawn animation. Lost was another show that spends most of its first season introducing and slowly fleshing out characters. Each character had a stereotypical role, and the later seasons were, at the best, all about everyone trying to defy these roles. Unfortunately, Lost started to fall apart when the story was less about the characters and more about the stories happening to them. Which of the following plots from Lost sounds more interesting to you: Locke engages in faux military training and lives in a fantasy world all his adult life before finally taking on a leadership role on the Island, or Jack got Chinese tattoos from an Asian woman? You need to write from the bottom up, with characters and their motivations coming before what happens to them. Build the silhouettes before you fill them in.

A related writing technique for television characters is the “puzzle pieces” method. The idea here is that each character is a vivid, specific piece of a puzzle. Some pieces fit in with several others, and you can make something resembling an image by arranging them randomly, but there is only one absolute configuration of characters. The many television projects of Joss Whedon are classic examples of this: In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, everyone is dating someone else at some point. The good relationships stay because they fit, but the bad ones slowly show themselves to be ugly and messy (ahem, Buffy and Riley ahem.) That doesn’t mean that Buffy can only be with the people who she fits with; it’s all about experimenting with different interactions until you see what works (Buffy and Willow, Willow and Xander, Spike and Xander, Xander and Anya, Xander and anyone). Viewing TV writing in this way makes bad episodes and pairings make much more sense, since it argues that the writers were just trying something new.

Shows that blend both of these writing methods are one in a million, and they almost always received universal praise when it works. So next time you’re watching your favorite television show, stop and think about what exactly you find so appealing about it.

Three By Three: Futurama Episodes

Futurama EpisodesThe Category

This is a bittersweet week here at Pop Modern, looking forward at what’s to come. Tonight, the penultimate episode of on of our most beloved television shows, Futurama, will air, followed by the series finale next week. Sure, the series has seen its share of finales, but this time it’s probably for good. To honor this show, the three of us have put together a list of our personal, favorite episodes. It was a hard bunch to compile, as the show has had so many hilarious outings, but we did our best. So, without further ado, let’s get to them. And to those of you who think that this introduction lacks a certain zest or pep, I bid you a fond “Bite my shiny, metal ass.”

The Choices

Allen

S7E23-“Game of Tones”: A recent episode from the latest season, “Game of Tones” almost feels like the epilogue to some of the series’ most emotional episodes. As a sonic boom-emitting ship approaches Earth, Fry realizes that he’s heard it before, so the crew’s first instinct is to have him explore his dreams and remember the source of the sound before it destroys their planet. For such a high-stakes scenario, it feels like a fairly restrained episode. There are plenty of jokes, but the main emotional focus of the story is Fry reconnecting with his parents through his dreams. As they delve deeper into his subconscious, he realizes that he can’t create what wasn’t there, and he has to leave them yet again on December 31, 1999. It’s a good episode for all the reasons Futurama is one of my favorite shows: it’s got heart, it’s genuinely funny, and it takes a science fiction premise, and makes it both plausible and dramatic. The ending of the episode brought tears to my eyes, and as Fry realizes that he can say goodbye to his mother, a chord struck in me that felt incredibly personal. It may not be the most famous episode, but it’s certainly one of my favorites.

S6E26-“Reincarnation”:
The season 6 finale anthology is by far my favorite of its ilk. Each story has something to say about the characters, and the art style’s are done so true to the source material that it barely feels like Futurama. In the “Steamboat Willie”-esque segement, Fry blows up a dimondium comet to prove his love to Leela, which was the main emotional through-line of season 6. In the 8-bit video games segment, the Professor essentially “wins” science, and realizes how little there is to life when there’s nothing left to discover. This gets at the heart of Futurama‘s ethos, and takes the humor and nostalgia of gaming to represent something larger. In the final segment, the gang fights off aliens with dancing, and the style is based on Japanese anime. This one doesn’t work as well comedically, but the final scene where the aliens approach the Earth in descending rows ala Space Invaders is truly memorable.

S3E04-“Luck of the Fryrish”: My final choice was between this and the classic “Jurassic Bark” episode. Both come from the “emotional payoff first, jokes later” era of the series, but they’re both done extremely well. In this episode, we learn what Fry’s family did after he was cryogenically frozen, and how Fry and his older brother Yancy the copycat. What starts as Fry remembering how annoying Yancy was ends with him digging up his brother’s grave and realizing that there was a lot of love between them, and he truly regrets not being able to see his brother again. For a show about time-travelling pizza delivery and crazy future stuff, a lot of the best episodes just hit so close to home, and show just how much Groening and co. care about this world that they created.

James

S3E20-“Godfellas”: The plot to this episode was relatively simple. Bender gets stuck in space, and becomes the god of a race of tiny people. The real highlight here is the tone of understanding that the show demonstrates. Rather than condoning or condemning religion, it opted for an encompassing view of the difficulties of power and of raising children. By interfering with the race of tiny people, Bender had altered their environment to an unlivable state. This episode impressed me in particular because of the how tactful it was. Not only had it brought up the issue of God, but brought it up in a thoughtful, tactful way. An impressive feat for a character whose catchphrase is “Bite my shiny metal ass”.

S6E10-“The Prisoner of Benda”: This particular episode is my favorite for non-obvious reasons. The plot involves a duke and a series of disputes between Fry and Leela. That part isn’t important. What is important is the fact that the Professor has created a body-switching machine. The machine will not allow people to directly reverse a body-switch, but anybody can inhabit itself twice. The problem is solved in the episode by the legendary geniuses, the Harlem Globe Trotters. However, in real life, the problem was solved by a PhD mathematician who wanted to teach math in a fun context. The proof for this previously unsolved problem was the first ever introduced to television, making Futurama a truly ground-breaking show.

S4E07-“Jurassic Bark”: Easily the most heart-wrenching episode, Jurassic Bark showcases emotion in a re-examination of Fry’s life. The episode starts when the crew discovers Seymour, Fry’s old dog. While we were originally given an impression of Fry’s life that showed no reason for him to stay in the past, Seymour the dog challenges that assumption. The episode shows their life together, and all of the fun times that Fry had back in the 20th century, linked to the dog. At the end, Fry mentions that he thinks the dog forgot him, but the montage of the dog waiting for his boy was heartbreaking, and showcased a depth of emotion that had yet to be explored.

Magellan

S3E01-“Amazon Women in the Mood”: The infamous “snoo-snoo” episode, this is one of those Futurama outings that doesn’t have the kind of emotional heft of a “Jurassic Bark” or a “Luck of the Fryrish,” but more than compensates for that with the strength of its jokes. The genius of Futurama as a show is its ability to support a breakneck rate of jokes per minute, and this particular episode is the pinnacle of that. It features strong character moments across the board (Zoidberg’s whole side-adventure of looking for a new shell after his decision of “So I molted, why not?” is great flavor), as well as great cultural jokes. The idea of going to an Amazon planet lets the show play with gender stereotypes, allowing it to make fun of women’s basketball while also, almost paradoxically, giving Leela and Amy a chance to shine. There are also several strong visual comedy moments, from the skeletons with shattered pelvises to the long shot of the men’s facials expressions repeatedly changing when they learn of their punishment. On top of that, this episode features my two favorite lines from one of my favorite characters, Zap Brannigan: “I find the most erotic part of a woman is the boobies.” and “She’s built like a steakhouse, but she handles like a bistro.” Really, a dozen people could watch this episode and walk away with two dozen different favorite jokes, that’s how dense it is.

S3E19-“Roswell That Ends Well”: I picked this episode to showcase the “sci-” half of Futurama‘s absurd, sci-fi world. “Roswell That Ends Well” begins with the Planet Express crew watching a star collapse, and the “red” radiation it emits interacts with the “blue” radiation created when Fry puts some popcorn in the microwave, opening a wormhole and sending the ship back to 1947. What I love is how unapologetic this show is about its twisting of science, basically saying “screw it, we wanted to make some jokes” with complete disregard for logic. It’s this flippant attitude towards the laws of physics that ends up creating one of the most memorable episodes of Futurama. From the Professor and Leela trying to be covert in a malt shop with their apocryphal slang, to the military running tests on Dr. Zoidberg, to Fry accidentally getting his grandfather killed in a nuclear blast and then having sex with his own grandmother, this episode puts the characters in hilarious, insane situations that no other show on television could reproduce.

S4E18-“The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings”: This is my personal favorite episode of Futurama, and I suspect I chose it for the same reason that many people would pick “Jurassic Bark” or “Luck of the Fryrish”: it’s a perfect blend of comedy and heart. The story revolves around Fry trading hands with the Robot Devil (my all-time favorite Futurama side character) so that he can play beautiful music to win Leela’s love. Everyone’s given a chance to shine, even Hedonism Bot, who’s thrown a few choice lines throughout. The whole thing culminates in a dramatic opera, wherein the Robot Devil forces Fry to trade their hands back, and in so doing lose his musical talent and Leela’s affection. He does so begrudgingly, but Leela still sticks around and listens to the rest of Fry’s music, rudimentary as it has become. It’s a beautiful note to end on, and given that this was the first “series finale” that the show had, it’s not surprising how pitch-perfect of an episode was produced.

The Conclusion

Lamenting the omission of your favorite episode? Lrrr didn’t get properly represented? Lost as to why we forgot Nixon’s head, or Calculon, or any of the other great side characters? Lachrymose behavior won’t get you anywhere, let yourself be heard down in our comments section. Lay into us, enlighten us with your favorite Futurama episodes.

Three By Three: Fictional Deities

Fictional DeitiesThe Category

Bow down before us, for we are Pop Modern, and we have brought this world’s reckoning! Your doom has come in the form of this week’s Three By Three, a list, etched in stone (and then typed, of course, we do all our drafts on granite slabs) and brought down from the mount to list for you the greatest fictional deities to grace the pop cultural landscape. So kneel, mortals, kneel and pray that this article drops the whole religious zealot thing, since it’s really not working for anybody.

The Choices

Allen

Russell Hammond from Almost FamousI’ll take any opportunity to talk about Almost Famous, even if it means stretching the definition of a deity. True, Crudup’s run-down rocker character only refers to himself as a golden god in one scene, but he gives off the aura of a man who sees beyond his peers. This is especially true because of how he addresses the protagonist, William Miller. Talking down to him just because he’s young and part of the “evil press monster” that constantly hound rockstars and their ilk, Hammond’s initial buffer zone of anger and pretentiousness quickly comes down as he gets to know William, and the true musician inside is laid to bare.

Raiden from the Mortal Kombat series: My favorite thing about Raiden isn’t his crazy lightning eyes, or his razor-sharp hat, or his awesome fatalities. No, it’s his willingness to stoop down to the very battlefield from which souls are offered to him, and duke it out as a mortal with the rest of the fighters, that makes him such a great god. Without reading up on his backstory or playing through the single player modes, one could go their entire life without realizing that they’ve been playing as a god among men (and women!). Raiden’s the whole package; chaotically good, magically-endowed, humble, and his ability to make limbs fly apart with lightning from his fingers makes him a huge hit with the ladies.

R’hllor from A Song of Ice and Fire: Now here’s a fictional deity that is properly worshipped and sacrificed to. Something about the blind obedience characters like Melisandre have to this mysterious lord is fascinating, like how listening to a friend talk about their Canadian girlfriend is really silly until she shows up and is super hot. While the endless conflict between R’hllor and his counterpart god of darkness are referenced frequently in the first few books, it isn’t until readers learn just what his powers can do that he truly becomes a threat. Without going into too many spoilers, worshiping the Lord of Light (who I’ll now call “R Dawg”) can allow people to cheat the rules of the real world. But it’s all handled with such a deft touch that marks the entire series, and it goes a long way to making readers feel like the actions taken by his sworn followers are justified. And seeing characters like Thoros of Myr change their entire lifestyle to better serve his holy hotness is both terrifying and incredible.

James

Arceus from the Pokémon series: For those of you who don’t have a degree in fictional theology, Arceus is the creator of the Pokémon universe. He manipulated the cosmos to give rise to life, starting with the gods of time, space, knowledge, emotion, and willpower. Having finished his work, he went into a deep sleep to last forever. Until you capture him of course. True to the Pokémon spirit, Arceus, who is technically a Pokémon, can be captured in a Pokéball and subjugated to your will, as you battle other people who don’t have gods on their side.

Anoia from the Discworld series: In the Discworld series, gods are a product of beliefs. When people truly believe in a god, a god will appear, and the more people who believe, the stronger the god is. Anoia used to be one of the many gods of volcanoes, but after a publicized incident, she became the Goddess of Things That Get Stuck in Drawers, and offerings to her can unstick even the most unholy of drawers.

Sheogorath from the Elder Scrolls series: Sheogorath is the Daedric Lord of madness. An older man with a grey goatee, he is prone to mania and dementia, teetering between psychopathic rage, and inane ramblings. The most mercurial of the Daedric lords, Sheogorath is also the Daedric Lord of order Jyggalag. His witty banter and randomness makes him an intentionally hilarious character, with a thick Gaelic accent to add a sense of charm.

Magellan

Galactus from the Marvel Universe: Now, if you want to pull hairs, Galactus is more of an incredibly powerful alien than a deity, but anybody who devours worlds for a living deserves to be on this list. I’m not saying that I particularly like Galactus stories, or the ones where he comes to Earth anyway. In fact, I think it’s lazy and convenient to say “Uh-oh, it’s that planet-eating guy that’s gonna eat our planet!” and have that be the driving force of the story. What I do like about him, though, is that he represents the crazier, outer-space side of Marvel continuity, which is equal parts weird and awesome. Also, Galactus is easily the purplest, best-dressed deity out there.

Cthulhu from The Call of CthulhuThis monstrous poster boy of Lovecraftian horror has inspired countless stories and games, and for good reason. Sure, it may seem like Cthulhu is up there with Galactus in the category of world-eating plot devices, but whereas Galactus plots often end with heroes triumphing over insurmountable odds, Cthulhu plots usually end with someone being driven mad by the thought of their insignificance and imminent death. Cthulhu is a world-destroying badass, and in stories like The Call of Cthulhu, readers see what it would actually be like to have one of those poised to devour everything.

The Robot Devil from FuturamaA lighter choice, but still just as terrifying and evil. Futurama deserves recognition for the way it handles the Christian faith: God is some kind of space computer and the Devil is a wacky robot voiced by Hank Azaria. The Robot Devil is one of the more hilarious Futurama side characters, and he’s been heavily featured in some of the best episodes of the series, like “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings,” where Fry and the Robot Devil trade hands and hilarity ensues.

The Conclusion

Is our ramshackle pantheon unfit for your worship? Irreverent rage slowly bubbling in your guts? Insane with frustration that your chosen deity has not received its due? Instead of seething and conducting secret rituals in your underground shrine, insert yourself into the comments section. Inspire us all with the benedictions of your favorite fictional deity.