Category Archives: Season 31

674. The Miseducation of Lisa Simpson

Original airdate: February 16, 2020

The premise: A new financial windfall in Springfield’s economy leads to the opening of a brand new STEM Academy. Lisa is initially thrilled to receive an accelerated education in the gifted class, but soon grows suspicious to the true motives behind the school’s operation.

The reaction: It feels like it’s been a while since we’ve had a “big topic” episode this vacuous. For an episode that is ostensibly supposed to be satirizing STEM education, job automation, the future job market, and so forth, the “takes” in this show, there’s very, very little in the way of actual commentary here. Springfield’s new STEM Academy is a technological wonderland where Bart is thrilled to indulge in VR simulations for the cosmetic rewards and achievements, while Lisa revels in being singled out for the gifted class, where she learns about… stuff. We’re never really shown what exactly her education is, save one mention of her at the dinner table talking about science, and computer science. Things start to unravel when Lisa discovers the rest of the children at the school are being trained to perform menial tasks for side hustles like ride sharing and food delivery. The big reveal is that the school is only gearing these kids up to get ready for a world of minimum wage, low-level jobs? That’s basically all that Springfield Elementary has been doing for over thirty years, so no new satire there. And at this point we’re almost to the end of the episode, and this is all we’ve gained so far. So much of the show is just repeating the same bullet points and throwing around buzz phrases like “gig economy” rather than actually build a purpose around them. Ultimately, the head of the academy consults the almighty algorithm regarding what viable careers the future holds, and they are shocked to find there’s only one job left that hasn’t been assumed by machines: elder care. And there’s the big punchline, I guess. Funny? The school is quickly destroyed, and the episode ends with Bart and Lisa feeling crestfallen by their hopeless future prospects. Actually, it really ends with future Bart and Lisa being abused by robot drink machines forcing them to pour their own sodas. What an absolutely pointless exercise.

Three items of note:
– The opening features an extended look at the life of Springfield’s resident grizzled old sea captain, Captain McAlister, starting with his past in discovering a Springfield treasure map with his future wife, transitioning forward forty years and his fruitless attempts to unearth the booty. This show has previously seen surprisingly success in highlighting the never-before-seen private life of secondary and tertiary characters in recent past, particularly Mr. Largo on more than one occasion. I wish I could say this was a similar situation, but the glimpses at McAlister as a character we get are either too fleeting (apologizing to his wife for not having children) or too meta (admitting he pretended to be a “flimsy, one-note character” to keep people off the scent of the treasure) to really be satisfying. Also they repeatedly use the Pirates of the Caribbean score, which gets annoying real fast, and distracts from any attempts to humanize this goofy side character. In the end, McAlister’s wife betrays him by tipping off Quimby about their find, and altering the border of the town so that he can claim the treasure. What is she getting out of this? Just a big fuck you to her awful husband? Ehhh, whatever. Outside the Town Hall meeting to discuss what to do with the town’s new ill-gotten gains, we see McAlister passed out drunk in a ditch. Happy ending? Might as well leave him there to die if this is the best they got for him.
– Marge is the one who proposes a new STEM school (I don’t mean to repeat this point so often, but Julie Kavner’s voice just sounds so, so tired here. I feel really bad…) and to drive her point home, she’s invited her friend John Legend to sing a not-funny song about it! And his wife Chrissy Teigen is here too, and they talk about her Instagram and stuff! I know it’s pointless to complain about random celebrity appearances at this stage, but it feels like it’s been a while since we’ve seen one this egregious, that Marge just randomly got two mega celebrities to come to Springfield on a whim to help her out. And what great jokes they have for them, talking about the launch party for their couple’s perfume and how Teigen posts pictures of her kids every fucking day. I don’t even follow her on Twitter and I see her posts all the time, how is that possible? Just completely awful and pointless, one of the worst instances of stunt-casting this show has done in a while.
– There’s a kind of B-plot where Homer is terrified that his and everyone else’s jobs at the power plant are going to be taken over by robots. But… I seem to remember an episode where that did happen. Season 23’s “Them, Robot” featured the entire staff getting replaced by automatons, leaving Homer the sole human employee left. I know it was eight years ago, but did everyone on staff just forget that this thing that Homer’s paranoid about happening and no one believes him… already happened? Homer’s main target of scorn is the break room’s new automated soda machine, and he tries to one-up it by pouring soda himself, and… fuck, it’s so boring and stupid. Even though he passes out in his attempts, he’s quickly revived and announces that everyone’s jobs are safe, and everyone cheers for some reason. Then we pan over and see Burns is unleashing new robot workers into the plant. And that’s the end. What the hell is this? Again, we already did that episode, and it was a piece of shit.

One good line/moment: Nothing to speak of here. Total snooze fest, this one.

673. Hail To The Teeth

Original airdate: January 5, 2020

The premise: Lisa’s new braces leave her with a permanent grin, making her instantly more palatable to her fellow students. She decides to use this to her advantage by running for student body president. Meanwhile, Homer and Marge get invited to Artie Ziff’s wedding, and are shocked to find his bride-to-be is an exact copy of Marge.

The reaction: Things get off to a painful start when Lisa bumps into an old man on the street (“Hey, little lady. You’d be a lot prettier if you smile!” “What? Who are you?” “I’m a man, so I know what I’m talking about!”) Awesome writing right there. So I guess this is a feminist episode then? I think? I mean, I guess it is, but I don’t know. When Lisa gets the top half of her new braces installed, she’s left with an unflinching smile, which makes her instantly and immediately popular at school. No one really cares what she’s saying, as long as she looks nice doing it. It’s an idea we’ve seen in many other pieces of media, or in this very show, all the way back to the ending of “Moaning Lisa” where Lisa takes her mother’s advice to just bury her feelings and smile, making her a more amiable presence to be taken advantage of (“Why don’t you come over my house after practice? You can do my homework!”) Here, when it’s this simple idea across to an entire plot, where Lisa’s entire class is enraptured by her book report of Charlotte’s Web, it feels more of a stretch, but thankfully some tell-not-show inner monologue from Lisa helps us out (“Can it really be people are this shallow? And am I shallow enough to enjoy this?”) But we pivot from that to Lisa finding that since she can control the mushy minds of her classmates with her new grin, she can run for student office and use her powers for good. But there’s no real specific problem she wants to solve, it’s just stuff we see in Lisa’s quick fantasy, like a unicorn sorting a recycling bin and the bullies now reformed bookish types in a nice new library. The social aspect of Lisa embracing her new shallow popularity feels like it would be a richer vein to tap, but I guess not. Lisa is seemingly a shoe-in to win, but when she gets her bottom half of her braces done, she now has a locked grimace, costing her the election. It would be an unsatisfying ending if I actually cared about what was happening. If only the episode were about something specific Lisa really wanted to change, then we could be along on her crusade and understand it. Or if she found herself really caring about being popular, as fleeting or superficial as it were, and we can feel what she lost. But I guess Lisa was just after power for its own sake, and ended up losing big time. Who does she think she is, Hillary Clinton? (laugh track) This episode was written by Elisabeth Kiernan Averick, a new young writer who previously wrote for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It reminded me of Megan Amram, who wrote the feminist-themed “Bart vs. Itchy & Scratchy,” which I enjoyed for the most part, and I theorized maybe some fresh new blood in the writer’s room could potentially shake things up on the show. But then Amram was credited on the awful “Crystal Blue-Haired Persuasion,” and now we have this garbage mess. “Thanksgiving of Horror” might have slipped through the cracks, but thankfully, the writer’s room hive mind turning scripts into bland, homogeneous goop is still in full force. So much for that incredibly brief hope spot, I guess.

Three items of note:
– The B-plot is truly bizarre and unsettling. Artie Ziff as a character has never worked beyond “The Way We Was.” The idea of him being incredibly successful but still lamenting his past mistake of letting his high school crush get away is kind of interesting, but the problem is is that’s all there is to his character. He’s a rich jerk who still wants to fuck Marge, and that wears thinner and thinner with each ensuing appearance. Here, it’s ramped to absolutely psychotic territory when it’s revealed Ziff’s bride is actually a robot he built. He then reveals his secret laboratory with his dozens of failed Marge robots, telling the real Marge the expensive wedding and bachelor party was all just an elaborate ruse to win her over. Instead of running away screaming from this deranged, obsessive lunatic, Marge wastes her breath trying to cheer Artie up (“I think this crazy project actually had some brilliance in it!”) Artie caps the scene (“I finally give up! …or do I?”) Pretty good summation of this show’s dogged refusal to advance any of these characters forward one single inch. Just like we just saw with Sideshow Bob, these tertiary guest characters are stuck doing the same song and dance every couple years or so, no new ideas or innovative concepts allowed. The show ends with Marge trying to cheer Lisa up how things are slowly getting better for women, which I guess is trying to tie the two stories together thematically? But it’s revealed that that was just one of Artie’s Marge robots, who flies off with the old man who keeps telling Lisa to smile, prompting Lisa to cheer, rather than scream “HOLY FUCK MY MOM’S A FUCKING FLYING ROBOT.” The last scene is Artie dining with his Marge robots, hoping to have sex with them, so that’s a wonderful mental image to close out on. I can’t wait for Artie’s next episode, where he traps Marge in a VR simulation to trick her into loving him or some other bullshit nonsense.
– The video tape Lisa finds in the library, “A Gal’s Guide to Wowing the Workplace,” feels like a film strip the show would have absolutely killed in the past. But here, the jokes just feel so obvious and on-the-nose (“Let me touch your body and show you the problem!” “No need to ask!”) Also Lisa being mortified that this sexist notion of women being accepted solely for their appearance actually seeming to be accurate is actually a humorous idea. It’s like something South Park would take and run with, that the “wrong” lesson is learned and how the characters deal with it. But that concept is dropped almost immediately, so don’t think about that anymore.
– Over the end credits, we get a montage of pictures over Lisa’s life of her not smiling, from being on a roller coaster, going to prom with Milhouse, appearing on not-Oprah’s show to hawk a book about how smiling sucks. But we also get random shots of eight-year-old Lisa randomly inserted between adult Lisa, so it all feels weird and messy. I guess this is all connected to Marge saying how things will get better for women, and showing how Lisa is successful in her life without smiling? It just feels strange and sad, seeing snapshots of her whole life looking miserable and not giving a shit. Episodes like this make me miss classic Lisa so much, socially conscious, wise-beyond-her-years, but above all else still a little girl, prone to naivety and childish behavior.

One good line/moment: Nothing really. This one blew big time.

672. Bobby, It’s Cold Outside

Original airdate: December 15, 2019

The premise: Sideshow Bob gets employed as Santa Claus at a local holiday village park. When Bart threatens to disrupt his operation, Bob tries to convince him he’s made a turn for good by helping uncover who’s been stealing packages off people’s doorsteps in the nights leading up to Christmas.

The reaction: Sideshow Bob again? Honestly and truly, does anyone really care about this character anymore? As I’ve said many times, “Brother From Another Series” was the perfect denouement for Bob, genuinely turning over a new leaf, saving his arch nemesis, but being locked up forever anyway in a cruel twist of fate. Future episodes featured him flip-flopping his unwavering vendetta toward Bart (and by extension, the rest of the Simpsons) at least two more times, by my recollection. They gave him a wife and son, who have been conspicuously absent for the last ten years. But in none of these episodes did it feel like we ever learn something new about Bob, or see a different side to his character. He’s a snooty thespian, and he wants to murder a ten-year-old. That’s about all. At the start of the show when Bob’s lighthouse neighbor asks him if he’s ever thought about children (bizarrely forward of her), Bob imagines the murdered Bart ornaments adorning his tree, the draperies of tinsel bleeding profusely. It really is genuinely upsetting when you actually think about Bob and his blood-thirsty obsession with killing a small child. This of course was all born from “Cape Feare,” which only got away with it because the episode itself was so outlandish and silly. But later episode seemed to dwell on this too much. I recall the last episode “Gone Boy” had Bob talk to a therapist about it, he ended up not murdering Bart, and then gave it up forever? I think? Whatever. So what’s happening in this show? Once we get past all the Bob bullshit, he agrees to help out with the B-plot, in finding out who’s been stealing the town’s packages. Turns out it’s Mr. Burns, who wants the town of Springfield to be as miserable on Christmas as he was as a boy. Back in 1935, he told a department store Santa the only thing he wanted this holiday season was a hug from his cold, distant parents, but all he got was shipped off to boarding school. Li’l Burns as a precocious spoiled shithead is far more in character and more amusing than the poor little rich boy to spiteful, heartless parents who are the root of his emotional abuse. What, are they trying to be like fucking BoJack Horseman? Bob poses as Santa to give Burns a quick therapy session, Burns fucking cries (ugh), and he gives the town back their gifts on Christmas morning Grinch-style. Then I wake up because the episode is almost over. And then I fast forward Bob and his lighthouse neighbor singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for no reason. As I’ve said many times regarding Bob episodes, there are definitely ways you could bring him back effectively, either as a genuinely reformed member of society, or still a scheming madman. But you have to do something new and interesting with the character. We’ve seen flashes and interesting elements in the past twenty years, most notably in season 14’s “The Great Louse Detective,” where he was released from prison to find the man trying to kill Homer. In retrospect, using Bob as someone who can think like a killer for good was actually a great idea. But the episode was more interested in having multiple scenes where Bob get electrocuted over and over again. Even back then, potentially solid ideas, buried under a pile of meaningless nonsense. Same with this episode. Except for that “solid ideas” part.

Three items of note:
– It was interesting this episode regarded how the last Bob episode “Gone Boy” left off, featuring his new life living in isolation in a lighthouse. Back then, I think it was left ambiguous if he had truly escaped his Bart obsession. An elderly Bob wrote DIE BART DIE in the sand only for it to be washed away by the current, like washing his former sins away, which felt almost kind of poetic if not for my belief that I knew the next Bob episode would feature him wanting to kill Bart again. And wouldn’t you know, the first fucking scene with Bob here features him cheerily making his own Christmas ornaments of Bart getting horrifically killed. Fuck. Later, Bob has Bart in his clutches, but announces he just can’t kill him, like he did the last three or more times this happened. His excuse then was that he’s a hardcore method actor, so he couldn’t possibly harm a child as Santa Claus. I thought this would play a part in the rest of the episode, but it’s dropped immediately. So has Bob really gotten over Bart? Who knows. But more importantly, who cares?
– Following a bloody mishap with a decoy package, a seriously injured Lenny writes the initials of the package-napper in his blood: SB. Bart is adamant it’s Sideshow Bob, and after examination, the police free their other suspects: actor Scott Bakula (voicing himself), LA Clippers owner and former disgraced Microsoft CEO Steven Ballmer (also voicing himself), and Sandra Bullock, who says nothing because Sandy doesn’t need to do this bullshit. Or maybe it’s just because they wanted to do a Bird Box parody. By which she just puts a blindfold on and walks out of the scene, because that was a thing that she did in a movie that was somewhat popular in what feels like ten years ago. That, and the Simpson family singing the “Baby Shark” song, fall in the same familiar category of the show’s futile, undying attempt to directly reference modern pop culture, despite the show’s long production schedule to make any kind of specific topical humor completely pointless.
– At the end of the episode, Bob watches It’s A Wonderful Life on TV, as in the actual live-action black & white film. This has happened a couple times previously on the show, where we just randomly see the characters watching  a live action movie, and it’s always very weird. Even stranger considering Wonderful Life is owned by Paramount (I think. The film has a storied history regarding its copyright, which reading about proved far more interesting than this episode), so they would’ve had to pay for the rights to use the footage especially for this scene, which doesn’t even have a good punchline. Though I guess it’s no different when the show licenses music, I don’t know how much different in cost it would be.

One good line/moment: At Santa’s Village, Maggie is stuck on the Gnome in the Home boat ride, an incredibly traumatizing experience for infants of devious robot gnomes terrorizing the riders. The scene gets pretty over the top, but one bit involves one-eyebrowed baby Gerald getting snatched up by a gnome, who then slowly and silently recedes into the darkness, and then the scene cuts. It’s a pretty dark joke that made me chuckle in how out of left field it was.

671. Todd, Todd, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?

Original airdate: December 1, 2019

The premise: Still riddled with grief over his mother’s death, Todd Flanders has a crisis of faith, resulting in an angry tirade at church where he publicly renounces his belief in God. Incensed, Ned forces Todd to stay with the Simpsons, hoping living in such a sinful hellhole will strike the fear of God back in his son.

The reaction: Reading the synopsis of this episode a few weeks ago most definitely got my attention, something I can’t remember ever happening before. Ned Flanders and his two boys have really gone through a lot; our floating timeline makes it unclear exact;y how much time has gone by, but over what must feel like a tragically too short period of time, Ned has loved and lost two wives, and Rod and Todd two mothers. It’s a topic that was really only explored in Maude’s death episode “Alone Again, Natura-Diddly,” and a little bit in the following season’s “I’m Goin’ to Praiseland,” but those two shows were much more concerned with goofy dumb antics and Homer acting like an asshole, and most importantly, forcing Ned to move on and start dating again, moving swiftly past Maude, given killing the character off was directly tied with her voice actress getting the boot by FOX anyway. Ned, Rod and Todd never felt like they had any time to grieve, and while Maude was really a relatively minor character we didn’t know all that much about, an episode dealing with the effects of her absence is absolutely brimming with potential, especially when viewed through the eyes of an innocent child coping with the loss of a parent. So I got excited. Despite absolutely knowing I should know better given the shitty shit shit quality of this show, I got a little bit hopeful. I mean, we’re now almost twenty years passed since Maude’s untimely death, but I guess better late than never to tell this kind of story. I was also curious if this episode would even acknowledge Edna Krabappel and her role in the Flanders’ lives as the new stepmom or anything, but as I figured, despite her making two brief cameo appearances towards the end, she’s never mentioned. She doesn’t even appear in any of the many photos on the Flanders walls. “Nedna” was completely pointless, and there was absolutely nothing to their relationship. But who cares? I’m willing to put all of that aside, pretend it never happened, and make like this show happened like a few seasons after Maude’s passing. I was willing to give this episode some rope to tell a meaningful story about these characters… and it then proceeded to hang itself with it while shitting all over my face.

I was immediately fooled by the episode’s opening. Ned wakes up teary eyed from a dream about Maude, alerting Todd, prompting him to ask his son if he ever dreams about his mother. Todd is hesitant; we see that he has dreamed of her, but with a blank face. He somberly recounts this to Ned, “Daddy, I can’t remember what Mommy looks like.” Heartbreaking stuff. I’ll be perfectly honest, as someone who has also lost their mother, the conceit of this episode has me in the bag already. I too struggle with these kinds of things with my mother. Her face and voice becoming less clear, memories of her getting hazier, all of this is very scary stuff, the idea of someone who meant so much to you becoming more and more of just a faint recollection. This is GOOD SHIT, incredibly emotional material you could definitely center a whole episode around. This show has dealt with the topic of death in very serious and honest ways, while simultaneously remaining incredibly funny and poignant (“Old Money,” “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish,” “‘Round Springfield,”) so it’s incredibly disappointing that this episode starts to go off a cliff in the very next scene, signaled by two glaring things. Ned shows his boys an old home movie of Christmas morning to show them their dearly lost mother, a beautiful occasion quickly interrupted by a confused and irritated Abe Simpson busting through the door, and Homer abandoning him there for the day. Later, Todd watches more home videos of his mother and him, tape footage that is promptly interrupted by Homer in a bad wig playing air guitar, as we cut back to Todd holding back tears as Homer continues being an ass, having taped over Ned’s personal home video tapes for God knows why. I’ll get into this in a bit, but Todd very quickly gets steamrolled out of his own story, and his emotional pleas about his beloved mother are mostly ignored.

The second glaring thing is that Ned is firmly in ultra-religious caricature mode, a big part of his Flanderization over time was him becoming less and less like a normal human being and more an avatar for jokes about conservative Christian zealots. Fair enough, he’s been like this forever. But what I wasn’t expecting is that after Todd passionately renounces his faith, Ned is absolutely furious at him (“Son, let me put this gently… WE’RE ALL GOING TO HELL!!”) We proceed to get more doozy lines from him going forward (“You do not question God’s real estate holdings and tax-free status!” in response to Todd asking why God needs so many churches.) Here’s the thing: this episode could have featured an incredibly conflicted Ned. Concerned for his son’s soul, but still warm and understanding considering he’s still grieving. Hell, he himself is still grieving Maude too. Todd could get increasingly obstinate about his renouncement of God, which could over time lead Ned to the brink in frustration. Ned could even have a crisis of faith himself, which was used as a joke back in “Natura-Diddly.” But instead, the episode becomes about needing to get Todd believing in God again, almost entirely disconnected from him missing Maude. Ned is furious at Todd, with no further mention from him about his son deeply missing his mother (“There must be some way to scare religion back into my son!”) He sternly casts Todd out to live with the Simpsons, where we get scenes of Homer and Marge attempting to get intimate without Todd’s keen ears hearing, and Lisa doggedly attempting to convert Todd to Buddhism for some reason. No sympathetic ears are ever extended to this poor kid. Eventually we circle back around to hearing from Todd about how he misses his mom, which actually clicks with Homer, who has also lost his mother. But from there, he abandons the young child on a park bench, rushing to Moe’s to drink away the pain, meets Ned there, the two get drunk together, then get hit by a car and sent to Heaven. Where the fuck is this episode going?

Ned and Homer are both in comas at the hospital, leading to the one and only nice moment of the episode, where Marge actually helps Todd cope with his conflicted feelings on whether or not he should pray for his father (“Prayer doesn’t have to be to God, it can also just be an honest conversation we have with ourselves. Just do what your heart tells you.”) Meanwhile, Ned and Homer are dicking around in Heaven, where the former hears Todd praying and returns to Earth. “Daddy, you came back! I believe again!” the boy cries. “Two lives saved by prayer!” Ned responds, as the family has a group hug. What am I to take from all this? I haven’t the foggiest. The episode ends with Maude’s ghost tenderly tucking in Rod and Todd, an absolutely hollow attempt at a sweet ending, so I really have no idea of the writers even acknowledge that the show wasn’t even about her death. It’s episodes like these that really convince me this show is truly unfixable, at least in how it’s been run for the last nearly twenty years. Last week’s “Thanksgiving of Horror” was admittedly fun, fleeting entertainment (an absolute rarity in over a decade of nearly uninterrupted junk), but the rot of this series runs too deep. Some shows will have glimmers of decent ideas, but through the writing and rewriting process, these concepts and themes end up completely buried in stupid nonsense. Every so often a stock character will breech ever so close to actually behaving like a human being, like Todd being sad he forgets his mother’s face, but that shit will be shot down real quick, in this case being an empty, status quo-confirming resolution that doesn’t even address why he was mourning in the first place. Over the course of its over thirty-year-long run, through all of the decaying characterization, the stupid jokes, the preposterous stories, the insulting shots at the fan base, the biggest casualty of the series is the death of its soul, of characters who behaved like real people, and the other characters, and the show itself, acknowledging and respecting that fact. Now, none of that matters, and it hasn’t for a long, long time.

Two items of note:
– Lisa repeatedly pestering Todd about converting to Buddhism reminded me of “She of Little Faith,” whose final act featured Marge attempting to discourage Lisa’s discovery of her new faith and bring her back into the fold of Christianity. I recall being annoyed by her insensitivity, but at least I can kind of understand her plight of wanting her daughter to share her faith and be with her in the afterlife. Here, Lisa knows Todd is upset and grieving his mother… but doesn’t give a shit about that, she’s out for souls to convert! For some reason? Outside of the complete insensitivity from who should be the most sympathetic Simpson, we’ve never seen Lisa militantly try to push for new converts before. And then it’s the stinger at the end of her being chewed out by Buddha by not nabbing an easy get like Todd Flanders. Scenes like those make it clear that the writers as a whole never really gave a shit about writing a serious story about Todd’s grief or Maude’s death at all.
– Glenn Close returns as Mona Simpson in her tenth guest appearance, with seven of her appearances being posthumous for the character. Here, we get more revisionist history painting Mona as unusually cold and distant, rebuffing her son’s earnest attempt at a hug in Heaven, and appearing in a flashback screaming at Abe as a young Homer cries himself to sleep (“I’d tell the kid I love him, but I’m as bad at goodbyes as I am at picking husbands!”) Why did they do this?  Outside of any continuity issues, why the fuck wouldn’t they make it that Homer bonds with Todd over their fond memories of their loving mothers? How the fuck do you not make that part of the episode? If Ned is too wrapped up in his unflinching religious bullshit to speak to his son after excommunicating him, maybe Todd’s first step back is to open up to a kindred spirit who knows how it feels to lose a mother? Instead, not only does this not happen, but they retroactively make Mona kind of an asshole? WHY.

One good line/moment: Todd’s somber retelling of his dream of his faceless mother, and Marge’s heart-to-heart with him at the end about prayer are two honestly great moments, acting as bookends to a truckload of fucking horseshit. But because of this, that the episode doesn’t even attempt to even fucking try within the body of the story, those two scenes are rendered completely inert. Fuckballs.

670. Thanksgiving of Horror

Original airdate: November 24, 2019

The premise: Three spine-tinging stories… wait, didn’t we do this already this year? “A-Gobble-ypto” retells the first Thanksgiving as a violent turkey massacre through the lens of an avian Simpson family. In “The Fourth Thursday After Tomorrow,” Homer buys an AI system imbued with Marge’s DNA to help with the holiday cooking, but Marge quickly finds herself jealous of her more efficient artificial counterpart. In “The Last Thanksgiving,” far from Earth on a space vessel, the kids of Springfield Elementary find themselves terrorized by a sentient blob of cranberry sauce.

The reaction: Similar to “Halloween of Horror” from five or so years ago, we get another double dipping into the TOH format for one year, this time featuring macabre Thanksgiving-themed tales. It’s not shocking that this episode was much, much better than this year’s incredibly tepid Halloween offering. It is shocking that this was one of the most competently made episodes in a good, long while. I don’t know if I’d bring it to the level of “great,” but I was surprised throughout how all three stories went decently crafted and paced. The first features a bunch of our Springfield residents as turkeys, and others as Pilgrims seeking to make them their dinner. Things get graphic real quick when turkey Maude gets her head blown off, turning her into a bloody mess. This whole episode is pretty brutal; I really don’t know why the Halloween shows have been rendered bloodless, but here it’s fine. Is it because they’re just turkeys? Anyway, it’s a decent little story of the turkey Simpsons saving each other and reuniting, which was fine enough. Hearing the voice cast gobble as their characters was disarmingly adorable, I’m not gonna lie. Story #2 felt like a reworking on “House of Whacks,” the TOH with the smart house voiced by Pierce Brosnan, but here, it’s Marge that finds herself threatened by an AI of herself. In fact, I think “Whacks” kind of hurt this story a bit, in that maybe they felt they couldn’t have had the conclusion be that the AI Marge tries to murder OG Marge and take her place, because it would just like that story they did eighteen years ago (holy SHIT do I feel old). AI Marge’s great escape over the Internet was a good conclusion though. The last segment I think I enjoyed the most just because it was mostly dumb fun, a giant blob of cranberry sauce sucking out the bones of young children. Hilarious! It’s also an Alien parody of sorts, but unlike the last decade of so of Halloween segments, this story actually work unto itself because it’s using familiar pop culture trappings to tell a different kind of story (it also helps Alien is firmly in the cultural zeitgeist as a classic movie, unlike, say, Mr. & Mrs. Smith or Dead Calm). I guess because it involves aliens and outer space, but by the end, I was reminded of “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner,” the totally-not-canon-maybe Kang and Kodos episode, which surprised the fuck out of me by actually being the best episode in years. Is that was it takes for this show to start getting better, to do these crazy-go-nuts, off-the-way, not-strictly-canonical stories? I mean, after over thirty years on the air, why not? The only thing really holding this episode back is I didn’t get a whole lot of laughs out of it, which is a big mark against it, but it’s still easily the best of the season thus far, maybe the best in the last few years.

Three items of note:
– The special begins with Marge coming out from behind a curtain on stage to address the audience, a whopping twenty-nine years after she introduced the very first Treehouse of Horror in the same fashion. I know I’ve mentioned it several times before, but sometimes I get kinda sad hearing Julie Kavner’s poor strained voice. I assume she’s not in any sort of pain doing it, but the woman’s pushing 70, and it can’t be easy to maintain that gravely tone. It was especially worrisome in the second segment when the two Marges were talking back and forth with each other. I just felt like asking Kavner to stop and offering her a lozenge.
– It got to a point in the first segment where things almost seemed like they were getting too violent. We get multiple bloody turkey beheadings in a row, Willie gets his eyes impaled by corn cobs in a town wide panic, and Lou and Eddie get horrifically picked apart and killed by a murder of crows. I’m still curious about why this show is so graphic when most of the recent TOHs aren’t. In the last Halloween show we saw Burns and Smithers get their heads bitten off completely bloodless, and yet here, it’s like an orgy of violence by comparison.
– This is Russi Taylor’s final vocal performance on the show, and it sure is a doozy. Toward the end of the last segment, Martin traps Bart, Lisa and Milhouse in a locked room with the cranberry monster, having aligned with it (“I admire its purity! Its lack of messy humanity! This ‘creature,’ as you call it, is unencumbered by the petty morality of a dying species!”) He then strips, wishing to become one with the gelatin, killing himself in a magnificently gross fashion. Aping on horror/sci-fi movie tropes and staying true to character, Taylor’s final hour as Martin proved to be a moving and effective one. What better way to go out than Martin’s formless skin slapping pathetically against a metal door? Taylor was truly one of the greats in the world of voice acting, and she will truly be missed.

One good line/moment: Aside from Martin’s final moments, we get a really solid joke toward the very end when the ship crash lands on an alien world. Bart and Lisa rush to hug their parents who just woke up from their sleep pods. Santa’s Little Helper exits his own pod to join them. One final pod opens to reveal the skeleton of Snowball II and nobody reacts, and then the scene ends. Beautiful.

669. Livin’ La Pura Vida

Original airdate: November 17, 2019

The premise: Marge is thrilled to finally get invited to the Van Houten’s annual multi-family vacation to Costa Rica, hoping to have a perfect family vacation to flaunt via social media. Also tagging along is Patty and her new girlfriend, who surprisingly finds a kindred spirit in Homer. Meanwhile, Lisa frets about expensive this tropical vacation will be, and tries to uncover how the Van Houtens can afford it in the first place. Also, Chalmers and Shauna are there too and she gets engaged to Jimbo or whatever.

The reaction: As that longer-than-normal plot summary will tell you, this episode tries to juggle like three and a half stories with a bunch of different characters, when really it would have been better suited to focus on just one, with maybe like a light B-plot. We start with Marge losing her shit about finally being asked by Luann to go with them on their big annual Costa Rica trip (why she was never asked before, given Bart and Milhouse have been friends for many years, is unclear). She’s desperate for some excitement in her life (didn’t we go through this last week?), specifically wanting a picture perfect moment to post about Instaface, or whatever the Instagram knock-off app is called. Making her paranoid about manufacturing the perfect, calculated moment to show off online rather than actually enjoying the experience in the present is an interesting idea, and one that feels in-character for Marge, but the emotions and the story beats are given little room to breathe and develop because we have to cut back and forth to these other different stories and other characters. Also potentially intriguing is Patty’s new relationship with Evelyn, a Southern woman who quickly becomes Homer’s drinking buddy, leaving Patty shocked that she shacked up with a Homer of her own. Patty discovering she’s dating her worst fear, again, seems like it’d make for an interesting story, but we never see her and Evelyn have one conversation with each other, so we really don’t know anything about them, or why we should really care. There’s also this “mystery” as to how the Van Houtens can afford such a lavish vacation, and there’s a “shocking” reveal at the end that really doesn’t matter. Most confusingly of all is Superintendent Chalmers and his daughter Shauna, who throughout the episode, have short little scenes where Chalmers tries to connect to the aloof teenager who is glued to her phone, video-calling her boyfriend Jimbo. The two act breaks feature her aghast that Jimbo is cheating on him, then later him proposing to her, and we end on her dismissively saying they broke it off. Meanwhile, Chalmers is desperately trying to connect to his kid, and the tiny bit of it we see kind of feels like it could be going somewhere (“I’m doing my best, you understand? As a single father, it’s not always so easy to balance guidance with respect…”) But I dunno, I guess the joke is that he perpetually gets nowhere with Shauna who just blows him off because she’s on her phone, because she’s an awful character who has never been funny. But this relationship could have developed into something if it weren’t treated as a joke. Same with Patty and her girlfriend, the Van Houtens, Milhouse acting as toady to Dr. Hibbert’s teenage son rather than Bart, these story threads, given the right amount of care, could have developed into something new and interesting. Instead, they were all crammed into one script, and none of them had a chance to get off the ground. Nothing in this show was especially terrible, but it had a whole cargo full of missed potential.

Three items of note:
– There’s a brief running gag of Homer imagining Evelyn’s southern-isms in thought bubbles visually, but none of them are really jokes (“hotter than a two dollar pistol,” “Does a mama possum skip church on Sunday?”) It reminded me of asinine thought bubble gags of Homer imagining “pistol whipping” as eating Cool Whip with a handgun, or mishearing “financial planner” as “financial panther.” Those were dumb as hell, but at least I understood them as jokes. These function as Evelyn endearing herself to Homer, I guess, but it doesn’t feel like they work they way they should.
– The big reveal at the end is that the Costa Rican estate was actually inherited by Kirk and Luann, so every year, they’ve been charging the families they bring with them to pay for their vacation. We see and hear about a lot about a lot of outside activities, lavish dinners and other such expensive they all participate in, so I guess the only thing is that the Van Houtens are trumping up their “bill” to the other families for lodging to cover their own expenses. But I don’t get why no one knows how much this trip costs until the very end. I guess the idea is to distract you from the cost by thinking about how irreplaceable the experience is, which Marge communicates to Homer in bed to convince him to go, but I feel like it would have made more sense if Kirk or Luann pushed this line to further trick their friends into going.
– Kirk gets a lot of screen time here, where he’s kind of just like a huge douche, acting like a cool Costa Rican native, hoarding workout powder in his room he never actually uses, and discovered to have some very interesting bedtime reading material (“Protecting the White Male: America’s Most Endangered Species”). I remember “There Will Be Buds” tried to spearhead this new characterization of Kirk, where he was a meek, sadsack loser, but also a bit of a dick, asking Homer a bunch of weird sexual questions and trying to bro down with him or some shit. I don’t know, I want to give credit for them trying to flesh out a tertiary character like Kirk, but like so much of this episode, it feels very underdeveloped. It just makes me wonder why Luann is still with this weirdo. But then again, we find out that scamming the families out of money was her idea, so I guess the both of them are awful people.

One good line/moment: Over the last decade or so, there have been numerous explicit references that are very specific to the Los Angeles area that have always felt very annoying, considering this show is supposed to take place in bumfuck nowhere Springfield, USA. Even though I live in LA, just because I recognize this allusion to a local famous deli or talk about how the traffic sucks or some shit, it doesn’t mean I automatically laugh at it. But in this episode, they got me. They fucking got me. Homer rightfully wonders how in the fuck Kirk is able to pay for this trip every year, explaining, “His job is moving the Topless Maids van so they don’t get parking tickets!” The pink Topless Maids van is kind of infamous to the area; my wife and I would always see it past the Warner Bros. lot on Barham, to the point that we would be shocked if it wasn’t there on a certain day. We’ve seen it around other places, and just recently I see it all the time right by the McDonald’s in North Hollywood, almost like it followed me on my new commute. So this very specific reference got a surprise laugh out of me, only because it’s tied to an inside joke between my wife and I.

668. Marge the Lumberjill

Original airdate: November 10, 2019

The premise: Once again feeling the sting of her boring life, Marge falls into the world of competitive timber sports. She turns out to be a natural and is loving her new self, but Homer worries that her new trainer might be more interested in her than she thinks.

The reaction: Let’s tick the ol’ overused story trope boxes: Marge wants some excitement in her life, a Simpson takes up a new hobby/talent and is immediately a success, Homer is worried Marge might leave him… we’ve seen it all before, and done much better, of course, but at least nothing here is stupid or out of left field. Noticing Marge is pretty skillful at chopping wood, Patty introduces her to Paula, who takes Marge under her wing to be a competitive tree cutter-downer, or whatever you call it. Marge channels her pent-up frustration of being an overworked, under appreciated housewife for over thirty years out on the logs, which feels true to her character. She also is really hung up on not being called boring, as it overtly stated several times (“What could possibly be her motivation?” “I’m… not… boring!!”) This comes as a result of a school play Lisa wrote about the family, portraying Marge as incredibly lame and domesticated. Unfortunately, the Marge-Lisa connection dies soon after that; there’s been a couple shows over the last twenty years about Lisa’s perception of her mother as just a boring housewife, and Marge attempting to make her daughter proud of her, and they’ve all been terrible, but it’s definitely a rich vein the show could mine that was touched on a couple times in the classic era, but could definitely be worth revisiting. Instead, we get Homer panicked that Marge is going to get turned gay and leave him. Oh boy. Paula is presented several times as being a bit too forward to Marge (repeatedly scooching closer to her sitting on a bench, effectively living like a married couple in Portland), but of course in the end it’s just a big misdirect, as she reveals to Homer she has a wife and child. Something Marge didn’t think was relevant to bring up when Homer talked to her about his suspicions about Paula earlier, I suppose. The Homer-Marge stuff actually isn’t that bad, but still feels a bit underwhelming in the end, and again, a dynamic we’ve seen done much better before. Outside of a few unique flourishes, the episode was mostly just pretty boring, which easily makes it the best of the season thus far.

Three items of note:
– Martin, Sherri and Terri make appearances early in the first act, now being voiced by Grey Griffin, an incredibly talented voice actress who has appeared in tons and tons of stuff (probably #2 only to Tara Strong for biggest VO actress on television), most notably being Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Fairly OddParents and as Scooby-Doo‘s Daphne Blake for the last two decades. So, yeah, we recast Russi Taylor’s and Doris Grau’s characters, but Phil Hartman and Marcia Wallace’s get put in permanent retirement. I honestly don’t know what the right answer is when it comes to dealing with characters when their performers leave us. There really isn’t one. Do you write them out? Have them fade into the background in a new silent role? Or just recast?  In her very brief first outing, Griffin does a fairly solid job mimicking Taylor’s characters, so that’s good, I guess (oddly, her Martin sounds kind of like Charlene Yi to me). I just feel more than anything members of the cast dropping off our mortal coil speaks more to the needless longevity of this series than anything else.
– This episode’s handling of its LGBT material is pretty good, I suppose, given its not-so-stellar history during the 2000s (friggin’ “Three Gays of the Condo”…) Paula does come off a little bit predatory, which of course is done out of service for the misdirect, but it feels less “gay person seeking to convert a straight” and more akin to Lurleen or Mindy coming onto Homer. Except those characters and their unfolding relationship with Homer were more involved and were much better written. When Homer arrives in Portland to find his wife effectively domestically married to Paula, he’s shocked to see all of the gay in their house. A Janelle Monae poster! DVDs of Orange is the New BlackThe L Word and Tig Notaro’s stand-up special! A pennant from Bryn Mawr, an all girl’s college outside of Philadelphia! Look at all our gay references! Gay people love these gay things! Not quite offensive, only in that it’s lazy writing.
– The show can cross Portland off its big travelogue list, as we get a few bits of Homer and the kids checking out the city as they go to visit Marge. We get an extended scene of them driving past streets with the same names as beloved Springfield regulars (Quimby, Kearney, Dolph, Van Houten, Flanders), as hardcore Simpsons fans will know were Matt Groening’s hometown inspirations to name those characters. But what’s the point of this scene? Knowing this information, I get the reference immediately, and then it just keeps going. There’s no real joke at the end of it (“Stupid Flanders street” barely counts as one). And if you don’t know that piece of trivia, I guess the scene would confuse you enough to go check it out online? And then once you read about it, you’ll just be laughing your ass off, I guess. I dunno.

One good line/moment: A few good moments throughout (Lisa wearing a replica of her own hair during her play was a great touch), but I thought Homer feebly trying to communicate how much Marge means to him throughout the back half of the episode actually worked pretty well, and was genuinely sweet, which is a rarity for these Homer-Marge marital strife shows (“I miss you when we’re separated in a revolving door! I miss you when I’m putting a sweater on over my head! I miss you when I close my eyes during a sneeze! I miss you when the clock springs ahead an hour! We’ll never get the time back!”)