(originally aired January 11, 2004)
What I initially figured would just be a poor man’s “Saturdays of Thunder” actually ended up surprising me. I mean… that description is still somewhat apt, but it’s still a really sweet and effective Homer-Bart show, unfortunately saddled with a bizarrely grim and uncomfortable B-plot. We start with Bart modifying his old bike with rad decals and accessories, but soon finds there’s no substitute for a real ten-speed. Homer buys and assembles one himself, which quickly falls apart, leaving Bart disappointed and disillusioned. It’s almost like a set-up from the classic years, where Homer makes a bungled attempt to help one of his kids in the first act and must make it up over the next two. In this case, inspired by Bart’s interest in a BattleBots-type show, Homer attempts to build his own fighting robot. Failing miserably, he does the next best thing: create an empty shell of one that he controls from the inside, unbeknownst to Bart. Dubbed “Chief Whack-a-Homer,” he competes on said show, winning the love of his son, as well as several nasty injuries and lacerations.
It’s not perfect, but what a breath of fucking fresh air this episode is. After slogging through so much of selfish asshole Homer as of late, seeing him actually risk life and limb, literally, for the happiness of his son is so heartening to see. This is the Homer we love, trying to do what’s best for his family in the most asinine way possible. Even in the climax when he goes up against Professor Frink’s mechanical killing machine, he’s completely brazen, and stupid, all for Bart’s sake. The scene where Homer is exposed and Bart expresses such enthusiasm over his father’s actions is really sweet and feels completely earned (“Any poindexter can throw some nuts and bolts together; you risked your own life, even though you’re a sole provider for a family of five!”) On top of the emotional core, the episode also has a lot of laughs, be it in parodying the fighting robot shows popular at the time (“Can robots feel pain? If so, we are horrible, horrible people!”) and in regards to Homer’s plights, like using a magnet to extract all of the shards of metal from his body.
The B-story… oh dear, the B-story… Snowball II is struck and killed by a car in act one. Now, the cat may not have been a prominent character, but she dates back to the first episode, and to see her bumped off and the fallout callously relegated to a side story doesn’t feel right. But the premise is that Lisa buys another cat, who is swiftly killed, then another, and another, all dead. For an eight-year-old girl, this would be absolutely traumatizing. It’s played off for laughs, but it just feels so saddening and wrong for a sweet girl like Lisa to go through so much anguish. It couldn’t clash more tonally with the main story. Our resolution is just a final kick in the teeth: coming across one last cat that actually evades danger rather than get killed by it, Lisa dubs her Snowball V, but to make things convenient, decides to call her Snowball II and forget anything ever happened. Totally makes sense for a little kid to do. Come on, guys, I know you think you’re being clever by being meta, but it just doesn’t work here. But despite the B-plot, this one’s definitely a gem buried amidst a pile of shit.
Tidbits and Quotes
– The opening bit of Milhouse rushing to the Simpson house is fantastic, a shockingly great visual piece of animation, with more life in it than I’d seen on the show for many seasons. Sure enough I see Lauren Macmullen’s name pop up as director; seems that every time I notice the show is looking exceptional visually, it’s a show she did. She only has two more episodes left unfortunately, they would have been wise to keep her around.
– The Domino’s shot, Flanders actually swearing, the bullies taunts actually feeling legitimate and not jokey, Hibbert’s Kool & the Gang air freshener (“Celebration’s over, boys,”) Homer being a bonehead (“A ten-speed bike? What did your mother say?” “She said yes.” “I said no!” “I’m confused, which is it?!”) I was completely stunned at how much was working in the first act, and continued to work through the entirety. If not for that goddamn B-plot, this one would be top of the heap of latter-day episodes. Not even the spring-loaded first aid kit could sully my mood out of act one, it was just a mild abrasion on a so-far-so-good show.
– There’s something endearing about Homer riding around on a tricycle inside that suit making robot noises. Also shocking that in basically every episode now I either hate Homer or am bewildered by him, for once not only am I on his side but I’m enthralled by him and his efforts.
– Nice banter between the Robot Rumble hosts (“He’s killing him softly with his saw!” “Killing him softly?” “With his saw!”)
– One of the only things I hate about the main story is the montage sequence, where we see Homer’s other competitors: Reverend Lovejoy and Jessica, and Chief Wiggum and Ralph. The former I don’t buy condoning this type of show, and I don’t buy either of them having the technical know-how to build a functional robot, especially the latter. Why not have it be random families like the first match? The end does bring back Frink’s son though, apparently not killed after the incident way back in “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?” I like that he doesn’t speak a word, just mimics his father’s look and movements, like he’s some kind of clone or something.
– I don’t even want to talk about the B-plot. Not even the mention of Armin Tamzarian. I will say that I definitely wouldn’t trust any cat given to me by the Crazy Cat Lady. The myriad of diseases it must carry…
– Love the animation of Homer squeezing out of the robot frame like a tube of toothpaste, and the twist that Frink programmed the robot to abide by Asimov’s rules to never harm humans. Homer is declared the winner by default (“Show me where in the rule book it says a human can’t be a robot!” “Right here. Rule one.”)