The premise: When Santa’s Little Helper starts exhibiting signs of extreme trauma, the Simpsons enlist the help of a renowned dog psychologist (voiced by Cate Blanchett) to figure out what’s wrong with him.
The reaction: Nothing like ending the season of your comedy program with an over dramatic tale of the family dog’s newly emerged traumatic past. Also it’s a Christmas episode! They couldn’t have saved this shit for December? The Simpsons are concerned when Santa’s Little Helper starts acting depressed. Enter Elaine Wolff, a woman who delves deep into a dog’s psyche, seeming to prefer them over human beings. The episode is all seemingly centered around the big reveal of what the fuck SLH’s deal is, as the family worries over him and the dog shrink agrees to take their case. She takes SLH back to her dog institute or whatever and monitors him, trying to get to the core of his traumatic affliction. At this point, we’re getting multiple scenes of her and the dog, and then her would-be suitor voiced by Michael York tries to propose to her and she refuses… I honestly hadn’t a clue what the hell I was watching. Does anyone really give that much of a shit that the dog is sad? I say this as a huge lover of dogs, but really, this story is just so boring. Finally, the dog shrink starts to crack the case: SLH was initially triggered by a Santa hat Marge took out of the Xmas decorations box, the very same hat that Bart wore thirty-one years (or however much time has gone by in-universe) to the dog track when they first got the mutt in the first place. They track down SLH’s original owner at his farm to get some answers. Turns out SLH misses his mother, as we see in flashbacks of him and his siblings as pups. Previously we saw the dog staring at a stain with three dots on the side of the cupboard morosely, which we find were meant to remind him of his mom’s teats, which is a bit strange. The show ends with SLH and his mother reunited, as everyone, including SLH’s original bastard owner, looks on teary eyed as Barbra Streisand belts out “The Way We Were.” Hey, isn’t this some kind of comedy show? What is this disgustingly saccharine display? When Bart realizes the fateful origins of his Santa hat, we cut to a clip for reference from “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” and really, what an utterly revealing compare and contrast. The very first Christmas special, a biting send-up on overly emotional and empty-headed holiday affairs, wherein Homer, our lovable every man hero, can’t catch a break in this horrible, cruel world, but through dumb luck manages to stumble into a happy ending by bringing home a dog for Christmas. SLH leaps into his arms and Homer takes pity on him, a sweet moment that feels genuine and motivated by everything he’s gone through in the story: he sees himself in the dog at his lowest point (“He’s a loser! He’s pathetic! He’s… a Simpson.”) Six hundred and eighty three episodes later, we get this show, a super dramatic build-up to showing the depressed dog actually has PTSD after being separated from his mother, leading his previous owner to be tracked down, slapped and admonished repeatedly, and then the dog reunites with his mommy and everybody’s happy. What in the ever loving mother of a fuck is this? The very little strands of DNA that this show still shares with its most formidable years are so few and far between, but this may be the episode that feels the most removed from the original show that I’ve ever seen. At times it’s not even trying to be funny, playing SLH’s distressed state and the dog shrink’s methods and practices completely straight. Like, I’m kind of at a loss in how to even talk about this, it was just so bizarre. Last week I talked about how this show is basically doing nothing but regurgitating ideas it’s already done, or from other shows or movies, but this certainly feels new to me, in that the original series, or any other good comedy, would never try and do something this unabashedly schmaltzy and treacly. Pair this with “Playdate With Destiny” for the perfect double feature of anti-Simpsons. What a way to close the season.
Three items of note:
– This episode vaguely reminded me of one from a few seasons back (or maybe like ten years back? Honestly, it’s hard to remember), the one that was about Homer missing his childhood dog that Abe got rid of because it bit Mr. Burns or something? I remember thinking how cloying and incredibly saccharine that was then, but I got a feeling this episode has that one beat. I hope they never make another SLH episode again, how can they possibly top this? If they did “Two Dozen and One Greyhounds” today, She’s the Fastest giving birth would be the climax, with loving shots of the proud parents and their puppies as the Simpsons look on adoringly. Holy shit.
– In trying to convince Homer to let them go to the dog shrink’s seminar, Lisa opts for a new tactic (“Dad, I need to tell you something, but I’ve come to the sad conclusion that you have difficulty hearing the female voice.”) So she has Bart ask Homer for her, to which he understands and accepts. Many have griped and complained about Lisa’s insufferable liberal/feminist/rabble rouser characterization, of which most of those criticisms have been pretty valid, but this “gag” might be one of the strangest of all. So Homer’s a big misogynist now? They have him dismiss Lisa after that first line (“Awww, I love you too, honey!”) but he’s not ignoring her “female voice,” he’s talking down to her as a kid. There have been plenty of gags at Lisa and Bart’s expenses of him not taking them seriously because they’re children, so I really don’t get it. Maybe next season that radical girl group that recruited Bart can teach Homer how to GET WOKE. I CAN’T WAIT.
– The ending is just so bizarre, where the family confront SLH’s original owner, who talks about how he tore the poor pup from his mother to make him race, prompting the dog shrink and the Simpsons to repeatedly slap him over it. Like, yeah, he’s a piece of shit, that’s incredibly clear. It’s like this weird moralizing about how awful dog racing is? It’s just so fucking weird. The Simpsons used to exist in a world where most everything was pretty shitty, a world full of scammers, lowlifes and generally pretty dumb people, but the hope spots came in how the Simpson family and other characters would boost each other up to stay afloat. In “Open Fire,” it’s clear that SLH’s owner was pretty shitty, chasing him out of the dog park (“You’ve come in last for the last time!”) We didn’t need Bart to turn to the camera and say, he’s abusing that dog, man! Not cool! Ugh.
And there you have it, another season to toss in the garbage can. I’ve noticed some commenters either saying themselves or speculating about my thoughts that this is the worst season of the show yet. Honestly, I’m not sure. Season 28 still sticks out in my mind with that distinct honor. When I re-opened the blog a few years back, I covered seven seasons in nine months, with season 28 being the last, and even after being inundated non-stop by hundreds of awful episodes, season 28 still stood out as being particularly awful to me. The seasons that followed also had the benefit of spaced out over time since I watched them live, so it’s really hard to judge, especially since so much of the episodes have (thankfully) faded from memory. But make no mistake, this season was real shit, with “Go Big or Go Homer,” “Todd, Todd, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?,” “Bart the Bad Guy,” “Warrin’ Priests” and this season finale sitting atop the dung heap. We also had “Thanksgiving of Horror” as the sole bright spot in a dark season. Does that spell any potential hope in a better season 32? No. No it does not. Even if one good episode sneaks by, we’re still left with twenty-one brand new, absolutely ghastly half-hours. CAN’T WAIT FOR SEPTEMBER!