The premise: Discouraged when he discovers his employees don’t like him, Mr. Burns goes undercover in the plant as an average Joe named Fred thanks to a robotic body suit, and ends up reveling in his newfound friendship with Homer and his chums.
The reaction: Any episode featuring Mr. Burns actually caring about what normal people think about him is a non-starter for me. The man relishes in being in an elevated position from lowly commoners, barely treating them like fellow human beings. Despite that, I think it’s possible to craft a story that believably shows Burns appealing for actual human connection, but from “Monty Can’t Buy Me Love” to this latest outing, these episodes ain’t it, chief. The inciting incident setting Burns off is finding unflattering graffiti of himself in the dirty men’s bathroom, which shocks him (“They hate me!” he gasps). To rectify this, he does what any normal person would do: don an expensive robotic suit and ingratiate himself within the plant, posing as normal employee Fred Kranepool. Homer, Lenny and Carl quickly take a liking to him, and Burns quickly finds himself swept up in the new sensation known as friendship. But as usual with this show, none of it actually feels impactful, the guys become best buddies with Fred because that needs to happen for the story to continue, not for anything he really does to connect with them. But I guess that’s not the point, it’s about Burns experiencing friendship for the first time, which we see mostly over a montage, and then through turning the plant into a worker’s paradise, with health benefits, lunchroom options and extraneous benefits abound, running the company at the brink of bankruptcy, much to Smithers’ chagrin. Like I said before, an episode where Burns learns to be a decent person might work in another context. Perhaps he hears that creating a more comfortable work environment leads to happier workers, leading to greater efficiency, so Burns becomes more personable and giving only because the plant will be more profitable, but then grapples with having actual human emotion for once. Instead, here Burns loses himself in his alter ego (“There is no Mr. Burns. Only Fred!“) and ends up having to battle with its fractured exoskeleton like out of a Terminator movie or something. It’s pretty darn stupid. In the end, Burns still laments, “Why can’t I be loved and feared?,” but I still just don’t buy it. Again, Burns wakes up with a smile on his face each and every morning because he’s in a position of ultimate power above the average man. It’s a core part of his character’s DNA, and if you’re going to tweak it, you need to give me a compelling motivation, not because he saw some scribblings on the bathroom stall that made him go cry cry. A sad whimper of a premiere.
Three items of note:
– Over the summer it was announced that the show would no longer use white actors to portray non-white characters, so here in the season premiere, we have our first replacement, Alex Désert as the new voice of Carl. It’s not perfect, but he definitely captures the basic essence of the character, and presumably will get even stronger as he makes more and more appearances. He’s as close as Grey Delisle is as the new Martin. I don’t really want to talk a whole bunch about the larger issue of performers voicing outside their own races, but just like the Apu “controversy,” this whole thing shines a strong light on this series being really out-of-place still being around in 2020. I’d see people making lists of characters needing to be recast, and they were either incredibly short or padded with characters we haven’t seen in over a decade. Of the hundred or so majority recurring characters on this series, maybe 7 of them are non-white? And that makes perfect sense, this is a show from the 1990s that’s still creaking and scraping along three decades later. I guess recasting is a nice gesture… I guess? But at this point, in season 32, really, what does it matter? Outside of maybe Apu, the other major POC characters are secondary at best, and they don’t appear all that often, would it matter that much if Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer just kept doing the voices? For brand new shows like Big Mouth or Central Park having main black characters voiced by white actors, I get the problem, but in this case, it feels a bit more pointless, just because The Simpsons is an ancient dinosaur that no one really cares about outside of the few diehard fans still clinging to this show until the end, and dopes like me that have blogs bitching and complaining about it.
– Speaking of voices, I got incredibly sad hearing Marge speak for the first time. Julie Kavner’s voice has been on the downward spiral, but she just sounds so grated and tired here. I don’t know if this is a result of her recording from home rather than a studio, or maybe it feels “worse” because I’ve been watching the first couple seasons of the show lately, but it’s just a real bummer to hear. Kavner turned 70 this year, she’s been an absolute trooper through this entire series, and I assume she’s still in pretty good shape for her age, but Marge really is sounding more and more like her mother each passing season.
– Mr. Burns finally breaks from his Fred character due to Lenny openly mocking and insulting Mr. Burns in front of him, but there’s two issues with this. First, in all the time they’ve all spent together paling around, there’s no way the guys haven’t shit talked the boss in front of their new “friend.” Second, this all happens after Burns has given the employees everything they’ve ever asked for and more, so Lenny and everyone else should be loving him at this point.