Original airdate: January 6, 2019
The premise: Bart’s toy army men trigger a traumatic memory of Abe’s; originally thought to be PTSD from his war days, it’s revealed that he was actually the photo model for the toys, and his trauma is from his deep regret of getting the cameraman fired after rebuffing his romantic advances. Abe must now track the man down to make his amends.
The reaction: This is one of those episodes that’s laid out like a mystery, except I don’t particularly care what the final reveal is. The source of Abe’s trauma is milked through the entire middle section of the show: first you think the army men caused him to have a horrible wartime flashback, but then it’s revealed that that was actually just the photo shoot for the toy soldier models. This itself feels like the punchline to one of Abe’s rambling nonsense stories, but I guess nowadays it’s as good a premise as any for an actual, serious plot line. Now thinking Abe is traumatized in never having gotten royalties for his likeness being sold for decades (that would cause him to scream bloody murder and lose his mind?), the Simpsons take an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City on the toy company’s dime, only to be told they don’t owe Abe jack since he never actually signed a contract. So did they pay for all their extravagant expenses just to mess with them? Also, their office building looks kind of old and run down, why would they blow all that money for no reason like that? Finally we get our big reveal: Abe developed a friendship with the photographer, who mistook his platonic affection for romantic and kissed him, causing Abe to run out in shock and get the poor guy fired. So now, the Simpsons are going to Texas where Phillip the photographer lives so Abe can finally apologize. But I’m not completely sure of the source of Abe’s trauma. At first I thought it was getting the guy fired, but he ran out of the photo session and never knew about anything that happened after that, it seemed. So I guess maybe it was buried down feelings about the kiss, a healthy dollop of gay panic, and questioning his sexuality (“I’ve started to think that a man can love different things and still be a man.”) This idea of a senior veteran reconsidering his definition of manhood is actually kind of compelling and would have made for a great story… if that quote hadn’t been said at almost seventeen minutes in. Abe finds that Phillip has made quite the living for himself creating pop art of soldier Abe, and only got the courage to live as his true self after he got fired. This section of these two old men talking, Phillip assuring Abe it’s never too late to make a change, is interesting, but again, there’s absolutely no room for it to breathe at the end of the episode. So we rush to Abe kissing Phillip before he leaves and confirming that he is indeed 100% straight, but hey, if you gays like it, that’s cool, man. We saw at the opening that Abe threw away his wedding portrait with Mona, which wasn’t really connected to anything else… I dunno, why not make Abe gay? It certainly would be something different. Isn’t thirty years of the status quo enough? Would any fan care if they made character changes like this? It certainly would make the show more interesting.
Three items of note:
– Seeing flashbacks with Abe as time marches forward feels more and more questionable. I know I’ve talked about this floating timeline stuff before, but even if Abe was drafted in WWII when he was 18, that would put him well into his 90s in present day. Did he have Homer when he was 50? I just feel like there comes a point where you have to move on and change things up, but that seems like the number one thing this show absolutely does not want to do.
– This story of Abe’s gay panic that he blocked out of his brain for years really could have been interesting if they actually took it a bit more seriously. Recalling this event caused him to scream bloody murder, so it must have really affected him mentally. Remember when Homer couldn’t stop screaming after recalling he found Smithers’ father’s corpse when he was a kid? They played that straight. Here, after the fateful kiss, we follow it up with some very natural sounding jokes (“This is the forties! Guys like you don’t exist!”) Then Abe reasserts his manliness by running into a Rock Hudson movie, because of irony. It all felt just way too on the nose; having Abe just run out in panic would have made the plot hold a lot more weight than trying to cram jokes out of every orifice of this show. I feel like there was more breathing room allowed in the classic years to really let emotional moments sink in. I remember a fantastic moment from “Lisa the Iconoclast,” after Homer loses his town crier position but still wants to show Lisa his support for her cause, there’s a quiet moment where we see him muster up a smile for her, but then he quickly goes back to looking sullen, his attempted mask for his daughter’s sake crumbling. That’s a wonderful moment, and if they had treated the gay kiss scene with that kind of weight, it would have been a lot more successful, and made me care about Abe more.
– As Abe walks down the streets of Marfa, Texas, preparing himself for meeting the man whose life he unintentionally ruined and the source of his confused sexuality, which had been treated with seriousness up to this point, he starts singing a song to himself recapping the story set to “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”(There’s a handsome man in Texas that I’m going back to see/He was supposed to take my picture, but he got sweet on me/I buried it for decades, deep inside my brain/But then I played with army men and it came up again) Then he does a little jig and dances to his song. Firstly, ‘brain’ and ‘again’ don’t rhyme, even those Castellaneta attempted to pronounce ‘again’ like it did. Second, this is something the show is wont to do often, take a potentially emotional moment that might hold some actual weight, and completely undercut it with something stupid like this. They’re not even joke lyrics, he’s literally just repeating information we already know. There are plenty of ways we could have been Abe nervously enter the town, maybe stop in some shops or talk people to death as means of prolonging the inevitable, that could have been amusing, but still made sense within the story. But whatever.
One good line/moment: As usual this season, despite the actual story being crap, there were a handful of actually funny bits. Homer and Marge speeding through their date (taking a speedboat through the Tunnel of Love, Homer taking the reigns of their horse and buggy after the horse ran away), the toy company shredding raccoons into two sorting bins: coonskin caps and Play-Dough, the photo of Phillip taking a picture of a bathing beauty on Normandy Beach during the war… these are small moments that actually do work, but it’s just too bad that the same thought couldn’t be put into these stories. All the gags in the world can’t save an episode where I don’t give a shit about the characters and what they’re going through.