296. Helter Shelter

(originally aired December 1, 2002
There are times writing about certain episodes when words start to escape me, because I just have no idea what the fuck is happening in certain scenes. Or, in cases like this, entire acts. The show had taken some obligatory pot shots at reality TV recently, but here is their full episode of it, and it couldn’t be more bizarre and ridiculous… in the worst way possible, definitely in one of the worst episodes of the series. We start with our mostly tangential opening with the Simpsons getting sky box tickets at a hockey game in exchange for Homer not suing the power plant for getting injured on the job. The box is so incredibly opulent, why focus on the game when you can get a massage or dip in the jacuzzi. So Homer and Bart begin to act pompous and holier-than-thou, which I guess is funny because the environment changes their entire demeanor? This kind of “joke” will occur later, but I just don’t get it. Homer acts like he is rich and earned this right to be above commoners, but he can’t actually think that, can he? So is he play-acting? I haven’t a clue, really.

After helping a player make a shot (using her hockey knowledge from “Lisa on Ice,” a nice callback), a Russian player gives Lisa his hockey stick, which gets mounted on her wall. Unfortunately, the stick was filled with dangerous termites, which start eating away at the house. It will take six months to exterminate the whole house, leaving the Simpsons homeless, and with every hotel in town booked to boot. So where do they end up? At a TV studio looking to be on a brand new show, where a family gets to live in a house, but must live like it’s 1895. Yep, that’s their only option. Why not live with Flanders? Patty and Selma? Not ideal options for Homer, but hey, that could provide some comedy. So whatever, the family are in this 1895 house, and everything about it is not funny. Plus, I don’t quite understand why people would like watching this show. Reality TV is all about sensationalism, quick cuts, music stings, what’s hip and new. Would modern viewers care about a family living in an old-timey house? It’s like a reality show on the History Channel.

After suffering for a bit, the family gets used to living like the olden days, and starts to speak and act like they were back then too, for no reason. The network needs to spice up the show, so they bring in David Lander, aka Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley to live in the house and taze people. Was this a thing on reality TV where they’d bring in washed up celebrities to be on shows with regular people? I dunno, but one scene later, they airlift the entire house off the foundations and dump it into a river. And the house floats perfectly straight up somehow and survives mostly intact down a waterfall. Then it collapse upon stopping at a bank. So what is happening? Where the fuck are they? The Simpsons just resign themselves to wandering around, not knowing where they are or what’s happening. I guess the show now is just a family lost and confused. Then they run into some other people, victims of a Survivor clone who were lost and never recovered, wanting revenge on the network heads that stranded them there. One of them says they’re in the Amazon, so I guess we finally know where we are. So they flew that goddamn house all the way to South America? Anyway, they revolt against the crew, and then they’re back home. I really don’t even know how to comment, because I don’t understand what exactly happened in this third act. Was there a point to this that I missed? I find it hard to believe that there is, but if someone can enlighten me, please do. But what I did understand from this show I absolutely hated. Complete garbage.

Tidbits and Quotes
– The sky box luxuries are exaggerated enough, then they have Larry Holmes there for no apparent reason. And it’s just ridiculous since Bart off-handedly mentions him, then he appears immediately.
– Moe, Barney and Otto notice Homer up in the sky box, and logically decide to get on each others shoulders to reach him. Bart and Homer comment from above like pompous arrogant assholes for some reason (“Heads up, dad. Here comes the scum.” “Why can’t they just be happy for my success?”) Homer then dumps scalding hot fudge on them, something that certainly would give them horrific burns, and would get him kicked out of the arena. But, nope.
– I don’t like that it’s Raphael, the sarcastic guy, who’s the terrible exterminator who gnaws at a table like a termite. Normally he’s competent at his jobs, they could have just made this some other guy.
– They recreate the King of the Hill opening, but it’s just like the Sopranos bit a few episodes ago, where it’s not really a parody, as it’s just them recreating something note for note.
– I get them the family not wanting to live with the noise at Lenny’s, but they could have stayed with Comic Book Guy given they had no other options. I’d love to see that episode. I also like that CBG has some kind of meta awareness, referring to the Simpsons as “our favorite family.”
– “I’m Mitch Hardwell, creator of the 1895 Challenge, and by ‘creator,’ I mean I saw it on Dutch television, and tweaked the title.” So yeah, network executives steal other peoples’ ideas. But don’t worry, if you missed that joke, they’re going to repeat it again… twice.
– Bill Cosby auditions for the show, who is not nearly as funny as the bit from “Children From a Lesser Clod.” One executive comments, “We need a family that hasn’t been on TV forever. Let’s try the Simpsons.” They’re thrilled with them having a tiff at the dinner table (“They go to pieces over nothing! They’re perfect for reality TV!”) In the shot we see Marge and Lisa glaring at each other. What? For what reason? That’s the thing, this series has been marketed as a dysfunctional family, but it really isn’t. The only nutty cog is Homer, everyone else is generally normal. It makes no sense to me.
– To judge whether the show is doing good or bad, we cut to the residents of the retirement home watching, which makes sense that they’d like it since it’s all old timey. But is this the show’s demographic? Geriatrics? I guess it must be.
– Homer walks outside one morning, only to step into a big river. The other members of the family rush out to see what’s happening (“Lisa! Explain!” “I guess the network made our show more exciting by dumping the house in a river!”) Right, that’s a conclusion I would come to immediately. I think other thoughts would strike me first. Like, “What the fuck is happening?” “Holy shit, the house is in a fucking river!” “How did we not notice that the house was lifted into the sky and brought here?” And so forth. Homer then goes back in the house and has a dialogue with the network exec through the confessional camera, even though it’s seemingly just a one-way feed. But whatever.
– I still don’t know what to say about the third act. What aggravated me most is that we’ve never told what’s going on; we don’t know where the family is. They could be just outside of town, and therefore, could just up and leave if they wanted. If the network exec told them they dumped them in the Amazon, or explained whatever new show they were planning to do with them, then I could understand. But instead it’s like… whatever. Bart makes an off-the-cuff comment, “Is it just me, or are you guys getting sick of crazy adventures?” It isn’t just you, Bart. It isn’t just you.

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25 responses to “296. Helter Shelter

  1. There are a number of shows like the one in this episode. Around the time this Simpsons episode came out there was a show called something like ‘ american frontier’ where it was a 1800s era homestead? I remember the teenage daughters being really impressed when they learned they could take a piss without having to pull all of their extremely large and layered dresses / skirts off by hoisting up their skirts and and going all bowlegged. It was fairly entertaining.

    PBS is currently airing Manor House, which is about an Edwardian era British house lived in as they would have at that time, I believe.

    Public television jumped on the exact sort of reality shows parodied in this episode, because reality shows are cheap. Dirt cheap. No writing no sets, just camera and a location and premise, and a bit of prize money, or something. And they get to flex their historical accuracy muscles, and it is actually fairly interesting watching a modern family adapt to the stresses of pre-modern living.

    Anyway, that’s all besides the point, because at this time Simpsons has been beating their meat raw over reality shows, and this one is particularly stupid. I’m not sure if I’m more surprised or disappointed that their joke premise for a show is actually a show, and that they didn’t try at all, and that the whole episode is a huge piece of fucking unfunny shit, or…. I lost my train of thought.

    Even at the time I thought this was terrible. Fuck you the Simpsons.

  2. “I’m Mitch Hardwell, creator of the 1895 Challenge, and by ‘creator,’ I mean I saw it on Dutch television, and tweaked the title.” So yeah, network executives steal other peoples’ ideas. But don’t worry, if you missed that joke, they’re going to repeat it again… twice.

    This one is perhaps a bit more inside baseball then than it is now but at the time all the networks were combing British television for reality and game shows. Big Brother, Survivor, blah blah blah. It’s a little more sophisticated than just ‘network executives steal’ but it’s delivered in the blunt, shitty writing style of al jean’s era so it has no sting.

    – They recreate the King of the Hill opening, but it’s just like the Sopranos bit a few episodes ago, where it’s not really a parody, as it’s just them recreating something note for note.

    It’s such a damn al jean era thing to do. Now they’ve been doing it for what, almost 10 years? The mad men parody is especially egregious. it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Putting characters you like into shows you like is not humor, it’s goddamn shitty self insert fanfiction.

    – To judge whether the show is doing good or bad, we cut to the residents of the retirement home watching, which makes sense that they’d like it since it’s all old timey. But is this the show’s demographic? Geriatrics? I guess it must be.

    I think you are hitting too hard on the show’s premise; reality show functions on the voyeuristic pleasure people take at looking into other people’s lives no mater what stupid situation they throw them in. However, the real reason you can tell the simpsons being selected for the show is bullshit is because… no teenage daughter. No teenagers period. If you want to get some real tension on a recreation show you need that rebellious “how in the fuck did I get here? fuck you mom and dad” attitude. And no, despite how they write him Bart is not a teenager.

  3. This one hurts so bad. It’s another one where I distinctly remember going “What the hell did I just watch?” after its original broadcast.

    There’s a lot of joke-beating-to-death in this episode. Like when Cletus’ daughter puts that tooth in her mouth and the camera just lingers on it for like three seconds to make absolutely sure that everybody gets the joke. (The same thing happened in “Large Marge”, where the camera actually stops during its pan between the floorboards so everybody can clearly see the hatching dinosaur eggs. Apparently the freeze frame gag is dead.) I think the most egregious example is the “A Bug’s Death” sign on the exterminator’s truck. We see it once, then Marge asks why Homer keeps hiring these weirdos, and Homer points at the sign again and says “I go by how funny the sign is.” The show never used to draw attention to its jokes like this, and it smacks of self-awareness.

    I guess you’d call this episode an idiot plot. The entire thing happens because every character behaves in a way that no sane human being would ever actually behave. Lisa only winds up in the regular seats at the hockey game because Bart and Homer have somehow transformed into insufferable assholes. The family goes on The 1895 Challenge, despite the fact that there’s still plenty of other options open to them and Marge would almost certainly object to her family being humiliated on a reality show. Not one part of this episode feels organic. It’s like it was written by a computer that had the plot points programmed into it.

  4. “They recreate the King of the Hill opening, but it’s just like the Sopranos bit a few episodes ago, where it’s not really a parody, as it’s just them recreating something note for note.”

    The worst kind of “parody”. Family Guy has frequently done this, too.

    There’s only a few jokes I like in this one, but the rest of the episode is pretty awful:
    -“Fixing this situation requires original thinking! Everyone, take our your TVs and start flipping around.”
    -“You all stink SO MUCH!”
    -“I thought I was regular BEFORE, but I was wrong!”

    • I don’t mind the recreation in this one particular case, since KOTH is an amazing show… and deserves to have an homage to it. But in general, they suck.

      The worst was definitely the MAD MEN opening recreated with Homer on a recent Treehouse of Horror, if I remember correctly. You know, NOT the episode where they actually have Mad Men guests and have Homer recreating scenes from Mad Men… but a TREEHOUSE OF HORROR… and instead of silhouette Don falling, it’s silhouette Homer falling… the end! HUH HUH HUH. “PARODY” HUH HUH.

      • Yeah, the recent self-insert references are annoying, but there’s one thing I’ve never figured out. In the classic era the show would recreate a scene from “Citizen Kane” or “The Godfather” and everyone loved it. How is that okay but doing a Mad Men or Sopranos recreation is horrible?

        I’m not even trying to make a point or anything, I’m honestly curious.

      • Krendall: in the classic era, recreations *weren’t* done note-for-note, and thus they *could* be considered parodies.

        Like, for instance, the recreation of the Psycho shower scene in “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge”.

        Whereas just about all of the recreations in the Zombie era – KOTH, the Sopranos, Mad Men, Da Ali G Show etc etc – *have* been done note-for-note, and thus can’t really be considered parodies.

    • forbidden donut

      For the writers, it seems to be a win-win. People who don’t recognize what they’re parodying will think that the storyboarders/animators are being genuinely creative and stylish. And people who do know it’s a parody seem to love it anyway for some reason (i.e. NoHomersClub members).

  5. This is one of the few (if not the only) episodes where they admit in the commentaries that things didn’t turn out so well. Al Jean mentions that he wasn’t happy with the third act, although he apparently thought the rest of it was okay.

    Another noteworthy bit from the commentary is that this episode idea apparently came from the estranged Sam Simon, who saw the show 1900’s House and pitched the idea of having the Simpsons on it to Al Jean.

  6. The Glory of Being a Clown

    Isn’t this the episode where Marge kills a man at the end?

    I like the part where Squiggy is sleeping and keeps saying “Hello Laverne” in his sleep.

    • Oh yeah, she pushes a man over Lisa’s back and he falls over a cliff to his death. The two look at each other worriedly and take off. That entire finale sequence is so awkwardly paced, directed… I had no idea what was happening.

      • Y’know, I rewatched this episode just to confirm its low quality and yeesh… I forgot that Marge actually killed the reality TV guy. Besides not being done in a funny way at all (literally, there’s no joke to it; she pushes him off a cliff!), this is not the Marge we know, that wouldn’t hurt a fly. Maybe that bit -might- have worked if Homer and Bart were in their places, but Marge and Lisa? It felt so inorganic.

        And why is the third act set in the Amazon. I mean really.

        One joke I neglected to mention that I did also like, though:
        -“Mutt and Jeff comics are NOT funny! They’re gay, I GET it!”

  7. “I don’t like that it’s Raphael, the sarcastic guy, who’s the terrible exterminator who gnaws at a table like a termite. Normally he’s competent at his jobs, they could have just made this some other guy.”

    thank you! Raphael is my favorite character on the show and one of the few characters they didn’t COMPLETELY ruin — I guess because he was never fully “developed” to begin with — but that bit was HORRIBLE!

  8. This episode is just down right awful from beginning to end. It is extremely boring and it feels like it is an hour long.

    • SleekVigilantPuma

      This is a good point – the zombie episodes that I’ve seen are many things, weak, incoherent, out of character, poorly scripted, tasteless, wacky / zany, unfunny, empty celebrity vehicles (I could go on), but the overriding thing for me is that they are boring. Very boring – I think that’s the main reason that I stopped watching.

      It could be that I’m missing out (saw the ‘Canadian Ned’ clip the other day which made me chuckle), but it seems unlikely.

  9. I think I purged this episode from my memory or something.

  10. I had the misfortune of watching this on channel 4 earlier. You are a damn good reviewer Mike and feel exactly like I do about the show and had to watch it to see how spot on your review was, and yeah you nailed it perfectly. To me Series 14 was the point where Simpsons truly fell apart, although some of Series 9 was the beginning of this.

    I just feel so bad that you’ve had to sit through over ten years of diabolical episodes. Respect though.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is how keeping with the character destruction that has kicked in, why Bart no longer likes Ice Hockey. He was into it far earlier than Lisa was in Lisa on Ice, but no I guess making him mimic Homer as a total prick to everybody is a far better idea.

  11. Agreed that this episode was an atrocity from start to finish.

    The one bit I chuckled at was Homer’s disjointed whistling at the beginning after being hit in the head by that pipe.

  12. the odd thing is I can see this working. My dad and I both being fans of victoriana watched the 1900 house in 1999, and it genuinely was rather interesting particularly the little gadgits and conveniences around at the time, like the hand cranked hhoover.

    The family they had also weren’t exactly vile and I got the feeling that some of the most serious problems weren’t actually shown, like one minute the youngest boy was not eating the food he got at home, the next he was eating modern food at lunch at school which implied there was a pretty serious intervention to stop himfrom becomming ill, but not one that went nuts.

    the family were likeable too, which actually made it more watchable than a load of big brother usual reality tv sniping crap.
    So what I’m getting at is that the premise of the simpsons in a reality tv show with a pre modern era house could! have been interesting.
    Maybe the exercise and need to work helps homer and bart be better people, while marge finds she can’t cope around the house without modern appliances?

    Maybe Lisa is all for the idea in a “get back to nature” type of way, then realizes the life of a girl in that era isn’t all it’s cracked up to be with little by way of interlectual pursuit? There are so many ways they could’ve made this a character story, but no, we get whacky adventures and everyone just sort of goes with it for no reason.
    This is so much less than it could’ve been it’s down right depressing!

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