The premise: Lisa is recruited into a youth philharmonic in Capital City, forcing Marge having to commute with the other kids back and forth each day and Homer to work the night shift at the plant to pay for the course. While Lisa excels, she becomes worried her success is coming at the cost of the rest of her family’s well being.
The reaction: There was a running theme in the flashback shows in the classic era of Homer sacrificing his own happiness for the sake of his family, and this feels like a belabored rehash of that same idea; you can track where the episode is going halfway through and you’re just waiting patiently for it to finally end. Following an extended intro featuring the life and times of Mr. Largo, Lisa is specially picked out by Victor, a fast-talking, no-nonsense musical instructor played by J.K. Simmons. The character is semi-based on the actor’s character in Whiplash, but with the mile-a-minute, jokey speech patterns as J. Jonah Jameson, as we’ve seen this show do with Simmons in his numerous previous guest appearances. It’s just funny that they chose to rip off another Simmons character, but can’t resist him doing his Spider-Man schtick. Simmons is fine in the role, but it’s shit we’ve seen him do so many times over, so who cares? Anyway, the characters are set in place in this plot within the halfway mark: Lisa is thrilled at being challenged musically for once, Marge, Bart and Maggie are bored and going stir-crazy by the long drives, and Homer is getting more and more sleep deprived by working nearly 24 hours a day (“Lisa’s Pony,” this ain’t, sadly.) Lisa witnesses Marge sobbing as Homer leaves for his next shift, “There’s nothing worse than being a parent of a kid with promise!” Lisa realizes how selfish she’s been, apparently… except we’re only thirteen minutes in, so we just kind of keep gliding on these same emotions until the episode’s over, where she blows her audition to the next level philharmonic for her family’s sake. I originally thought of Homer in the flashback shows having a similar moral dilemma, but this actually is very reminiscent of “Lisa’s Pony.” But rather than great moments like 8-year-old Lisa not realizing the adult realities of having her childhood dream be a reality, and Marge openly telling her she won’t make her get rid of the pony, that she needs to make that decision, we get… none of that. During her final audition, we just have an internal monologue from Lisa describing what she’s feeling, and then everything is okay. If they had bothered exploring Lisa’s lingering moral concerns, or had her interacting with the rest of the family and witnessing their harangued states at all, this might have been a decent story. Instead, it just felt very bland and paint-by-numbers.
Three items of note:
– This episode was penned by Nancy Cartwright, making her the third main cast member to take a stab at writing. The chalkboard gag reads, “I AM NOT A GRANDMOTHER,” referring to Cartwright recently becoming one. The concert hall Lisa practices in in Capital City is Daws Butler Hall, referencing the famous Hanna Barbera voice actor, who was also Cartwright’s mentor. I remember reading her autobiography as a kid; the only things I remember are her describing driving onto the lot and being told Phil Hartman died, and an entire chapter devoted her to drooling over when Mel Gibson came to record. Whoo boy. Cartwright is also a devoted Scientologist, who recorded a now-infamous robo-call as Bart to shill for a Scientologist event, and has given millions upon millions to the dangerous, brain-washing cult. Ay caramba.
– The first five minutes of the show are devoted to Mr. Largo, giving us a more in depth look at his life than we’ve ever seen. Starting on a nightmare of his graduating with honors from the Springfield Academy of Music and going nowhere with it, we see his spirits lifted once he’s informed that Victor will be attending the latest school recital. He goes into double-time to make his student orchestra the best it’s ever been, but his dreams are shot to pieces when Victor tells him he’s only interested in Lisa. When Lisa excitedly tells him the good news, Largo musters a smile for the young girl (“I’m really glad you get to represent us. It’s like a little piece of me has taken a baby practice step.”) It’s a genuinely sweet moment. I knew the episode was going to pivot to a Simpson eventually, but I really wished we could just continue watching Mr. Largo. His home life, the dynamic between him and his boyfriend, all much, much more interesting than the show that followed.
– Boy, do I love cultural references! This show does parody so well nowadays! In figuring out how to pay for Lisa’s class, Homer alludes to being like Walt in Breaking Bad, but then it turns out he meant they would sell their beloved boxed DVD set. But then Homer just says a bunch of quotes from the show, takes a Heisenberg hat and goatee out of the nightstand as the theme plays, and we get a commercial break card themed off the show’s opening title. As I’ve mentioned over and over and over again, these are references. All a segment like this tells me is how much the writers love Breaking Bad, which at this point feels even stranger than their previous shout-outs given the series concluded six years ago now. What, are they gunning for Vince Gilligan to write an episode or something? Later, we get a sleep deprived hallucination from Homer at the plant where he eventually finds himself at a fancy bar with the attending bartender trying to get him to kill his family. Not only is this, of course, material the show utilized much better twenty-five years ago, the referencing continues once Homer’s back to reality where we literally see Jack Nicholson with an axe heading toward the reactor core (Burns chortles, “There goes our head of human resources now!”) This transparent reference-based comedy is already lazy enough, but to do this when “The Shinning” exists felt even more foolish.
One good line/moment: Again, the five minute Mr. Largo opening. As I’ve said many times before, I would love to see more devotion to the other Springfield denizens, but I’m sure we never will. I don’t remember if we saw Largo’s boyfriend before, but I thought their interplay was fun (“Oh darling, you’re cursed with the memory of an elephant, and the wrinkles to match!” “Can’t you just wake me with a slice of melon and a drop of affection?!”)