642. My Way or the Highway to Heaven

Original airdate: October 14, 2018

The premise:
Seeing a shortage of the population in Heaven, God and St. Peter decide to lower the bar for entry a bit, observing three tangential stories of non-traditionally virtuous Springfielders.

The reaction: I’ve never been fond of these “anthology” episodes. While the Halloween shows are (well, were) finely crafted horror parodies with a distinctly darker tone from the series itself, these episodes just felt like plug-and-play re-tellings of other stories with a few paltry jokes sprinkled throughout (Lisa as Joan of Arc, Bart as Batman, Homer as Paul Bunyan, etc.) We actually haven’t had a proper one in almost a decade (Season 20’s “Four Great Women and a Manicure”), and I can’t say I’ve missed them. These three tales aren’t exactly copying public domain or documenting historical figures like episodes past, but the inane, pointless feel of the segments are present all the same. The wraparound features God and St. Peter debating what sinless non-Christians they should allow into Heaven. First up is Ned Flanders, who tells of his prior debaucherous days as a door-to-door salesmen of kids trampolines which turned out to be incredibly dangerous. After saving a young Homer from getting struck by lightning, he has a vision of seeing Jesus and vows to turn his life around. He talks about his godless life performing depraved jobs like painting dots on dice and putting bikinis on mannequins, but he’s clearly uncomfortable about doing all of it in the flashbacks. He acts like the exact same Flanders, so what’s the purpose of the story? Next up is something about Marge’s French grandmother hiding American troops from the Nazis, which feels exactly like a “Simpsonized history” segment from the old anthology shows (a younger Abe and the barflies as the Americans, Rainier Wolfcastle as the head Nazi). Grandma Bouvier is an atheist, and she lets you know it (“Because I don’t believe there is a God above, we must make our own Heaven.”) They then stop the Nazis. Part three is Lisa telling a fantasy story about a princess who rejects her gross materialistic life to make peace with herself through Buddhist teachings. And in the end, she does. These last two stories are so, so boring. There’s no investment, no stakes, no subversion to the storytelling… it’s just so bland and meaningless. I always want to give this show a little bit of credit when they try to do something different, but it only really counts if they actually, y’know, try something once they decide on a non-traditional format.

Three items of note:
– We get to see Flanders’ hippie parents at the start of his story, indoctrinating him with their carefree, rule-breaking, color-outside-the-lines rhetoric. From “Hurricane Neddy,” we saw young Ned was a little hell raiser, why not lean into that in this story? You could make a whole episode about a young, amoral Flanders and how he eventually came to be one of God’s favorite apple polishers. But like I mentioned, he acts really no different in the segment than he normally does. In his near-death experience, Jesus proclaims him a sinner who, in his selfless act of saving li’l Homer, took his “first step” on the road to redemption. Wouldn’t this line hold more weight if he was a complete dick before this? It’s also revealed that Ned got a hideous scar above his lip from this event, which I guess gives us the answer to the question that Simpsons fans have been feverishly asking for decades: why does Ned have a mustache? Boy oh boy, what a treat for us fans. Wouldn’t he want to keep his lip bare if he viewed the scar as such an important marker of this divine intervention?
– I was really checked out of this one by the halfway point. The WWII segment was just so uninteresting. It ends with the Nazis getting beaten up in a big fight set to “Non, je ne regrette rien,” which I’m sure the show has used multiple times before in a French setting. And not even in any funny ways, unless you consider Abe shooting a photo of Hitler or Lenny opening up the Ark of the Covenant in the middle of the tavern to be hilarious jokes. Lisa’s segment features a grand song about her desire for less, but none of it seems like it’s trying to be funny. It’s sort of parodying Disney princess songs about wanting more from life (Lisa cutely titles her story, “The Princess-Not-Affiliated-With-Disney. Unless we’re now owned by Disney.”) But it just doesn’t go anywhere or do anything interesting with this set up. She sets off to find enlightenment, and then she does. That’s all.
– As much as I try not to think back to the classic era, an episode like this immediately makes me recall the likes of “Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment” or “Homer the Heretic.” Episodes like these were like morality plays, with characters discussing and debating serious questions about faith, humanity, and the difference between right and wrong. Homer stealing cable for the family made him grapple with real moral dilemmas, whittling away at his excuse making until he descended further and further into a paranoid panic before finally doing the right thing, saving his soul in his daughter’s eyes. What are the stakes in these stories? What are they trying to say? Two of them aren’t even technically about our characters, so why should I care what happens to these fantasy people? It’s not like the episode has given me any reason to.

One good line/moment: Wherein the show once again gloms onto the success of a more contemporary cartoon (Rick & Morty, Adventure Time), Homer is flung into the Bob’s Burgers dimension for the couch gag, viewing their opening titles from inside the restaurant, then attempting to hide when the Belchers turn around to observe him through the glass. This seems to have been animated by the Burgers crew as Homer looks and moves a little differently, and we get an amusing back-and-forth between the Belchers as they watch this crazed jaundiced man flounce about their restaurant (“If he’s robbing us, I feel sorry for him.” “No, don’t say that! We’re fun to rob!”) It’s just sad to go from this segment to the episode itself; the Belchers feel even more authentic, humorous and full of life when immediately followed by a sterile, shambling corpse. Even entering its 9th season, Bob’s Burgers is still a joy to watch, the closest to a spiritual successor to The Simpsons as we’re ever going to get, in my opinion.

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641. Heartbreak Hotel

Original airdate: October 7, 2018

The premise:
Marge’s longstanding dream of competing on her favorite reality show is immediately dashed when she and Homer are the first to be eliminated. Homer tries to raise her spirits by helping her embrace their new temporary life at the fancy hotel they are required to stay in until production wraps.

The reaction: Even if you don’t keep up with them, reality competition shows are still alive and kicking; genre forefathers Survivor, Big Brother and The Amazing Race are still going strong with respectable ratings (on CBS, the only network to still actually get ratings). But reality show parodies really feel old hat to me, with every show and that show’s mother getting their shots in during the reality show boom of the early 2000s, including this show, with “Helter Shelter” in season 14. So even though the characters comment that their favorite show “The Amazing Place” is in its 48th season, none of their reality jokes feel like anything I haven’t already heard over a decade ago. But unlike “Helter Shelter,” which was all about parodying the current TV landscape, this episode isn’t really about that… I’m not sure what the message of it is, exactly. Marge is a huge “Amazing Place” fan and has submitted tapes to be on the show since the beginning, so Bart and Lisa convince the producers to accept her, with her sob story being a great marketable angle. Unfortunately, she and Homer fail the first challenge immediately on arrival and are eliminated. To keep the mystery of the competition show from being ruined, the two must stay at a swanky deluxe hotel for six weeks until filming is finished. Marge is despondent she failed to live out her dream, and just as she was getting over it, she discovers that Homer was responsible for failing the challenge and gets extremely bitter. When the show’s producer returns, announcing one final challenge for the losers provided they dump their partners for it, Marge immediately accepts, but ends up failing that too by her own fault. So what’s… the take away from this? The show ends with Homer basking in for once not being responsible a screw-up, rather than actually comforting her in some way, or Marge apologizing for him for how awfully she treated him and dropping him like a sack of hot rocks to be on the show one last time. She was a hue fan girl who blew her one big chance… and that’s about it. It’s one of those episodes I’m not sure how exactly to critique because I don’t know what I’m supposed to take away from it. Every season there are always a decent handful of episodes that feel more pointless than normal to just pad the season out; pretty surprising to see one already as show #2.

Three items of note:
– A brief montage sequence of Lisa editing together Marge’s old audition tapes to make a new one to submit while Bart goofs around is set to library music frequently used in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I don’t know if the song is actually royalty-free or they had to acquire the license to used it, but that score is so intrinsically tied to Sunny that there’s no way it was unintentionally used. So why is it there? Bart feeds Santa’s Little Helper marshmallows until he gets super fat while Lisa is on her computer… that’s it. It would make more sense if it were played at Moe’s as Homer and the gang are talking about something or plotting a scheme, at least the reference would make sense. Here, it’s just… random.
– I guess once they decided to name the show after the Elvis song, they figured they could have Homer sing a parody version of it, trying to sell Marge on the cushy lifestyle they could live up stuck at the airport hotel. He sings the first stanza with no music, then there’s a weird brief pause, and the music slowly starts to come in during his second stanza. It’s hard to explain without actually watching it, but the whole sequence feels halfhearted, like they didn’t want to fully commit to a music sequence, or just didn’t want to bother.
– Act two (I think?) ends with Marge discovering it was Homer’s fault they failed the first challenge. After commercial, we come back to an elaborate black and white sequence of the two returning to their hotel and proceeding to bicker back and forth with each other. It’s an elaborate three minute tribute to the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Castellaneta and Kavner channel Richard Burton and Liz Taylor as they banter back and forth, invite over guests (another couple voted off the show), Marge flirts with the other husband, and she and Homer argue some more. First off, who the fuck is this parody for? This is a fifty year old movie; I wouldn’t have known what they were doing if I hadn’t read about it first. But here’s the thing, they’ve done this parody before. In season two’s “War of the Simpsons,” during Lovejoy’s marriage counseling, we spend a moment with John & Gloria, a bitter couple (also voiced by Castellaneta and Kavner) who are based on the two leads of Woolf. But here, you don’t need to be familiar at all with that film to understand what’s happening and find it funny. Their angry yelling over each other is amusing (“Queen of the harpies! Here’s your crown, your majesty!!”) and the kicker of Lovejoy’s request for them to look into each other’s eyes immediately making them do a complete 180 on their attitudes and solving all of their problems is just perfect (as is Lovejoy calling at them as they leave to remember their eternal happiness when he passes the collection plate the following week). This scene takes about a minute, has a lot of jokes, and works within the plot, providing an absurdly positive marital contrast to the following scene with Homer and Marge. In this episode, it’s just Homer and Marge performing the script to Virginia Woolf. With some variables changed to match the episode’s plot, there are entire sections and lines taken verbatim from the film. The neighbor, Nick, is voiced by George Segal, playing the same character as he did in the film, which I guess the staff was tickled by? There’s no parody element to this, it’s just the character performing straight scenes from this movie for no reason. The only attempt at a unique joke is Marge and Nick doing a three legged foot race that’s supposed to simulate sex (Marge repeating “In! Out!” before they collapse on the bed). The whole sequence is just embarrassing and baffling, a complete time waster in place of actual character development. We already know Marge is upset with Homer, we don’t need a three fucking minute sequence devoted to elaborating on that fact.

One good line/moment: There were actually a few brief moments I chuckled at: some PAs pushing Homer in front of the camera when the crew arrives at the house to film Marge, the confetti being vacuumed back up into the sky after the bait-and-switch of Marge actually losing, and the sequence of Blue Haired Lawyer monitoring Marge’s call home to make sure she doesn’t reveal anything about the show wasn’t bad either.

Wherein I become a content creator begging for cash: After being asked about it in the past, and once recently, I decided to open a Ko-Fi for donations, which you can find at the bottom of the right sidebar. I’d considered a Patreon in the past, but I feel I don’t generate enough to content to justify people paying monthly. But if you’ve enjoyed my many years of suffering through Zombie Simpsons and want to give back any amount you’d like, I would greatly appreciate it. I’m really glad people have enjoyed my writing through this entire journey and comment to tell me so, and that’s really enough thanks for me and incentive to keep slogging through the muck; you shouldn’t have to feel obligated to contribute, but I figured having the option if someone wants to is no big deal.

640. Bart’s Not Dead

Original airdate: September 30, 2018

The premise:
Bart ends up in the hospital after being dared to jump off the Springfield dam. To keep from getting in trouble, he asserts he went to Heaven and met Jesus while in his coma, a story which catches the attention of Christian filmmakers looking to make Bart’s story into a movie.

The reaction: I’ve scrolled past a handful of articles on Twitter of entertainment sites commemorating the 30th season of the show, almost customary to acknowledge the milestone of the increasingly irrelevant series, as they previously had done with their Gunsmoke-breaking record last season. But my heart goes out to these writers, as well as anyone who has to actually cover these new episodes, because really, what the fuck is left to be said about this show at this point? I guess I should know more than anyone by now. I’ve seen the show attempt to buck convention, to try new things from time to time, but with very, very rare, fleeting exceptions, this show has been the same variety of ramshackle for the last decade plus, and I don’t really see them doing any major repairs any time soon. This premiere takes aim at exploitative Christian cinema when Bart BS’s a sob story about meeting our Lord whilst in a coma, catching the attention of money-hungry pious producers. The premise is cribbed from the novel-later-film Heaven is for Real (and its less fondly regarded cousin The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven), stories meant to inflame one’s faith with tales of present day, “real life” miracles. I’ve never seen one of these Christian films, but from what I’ve read of them, they seems like very ripe breeding ground for satire, but, per usual with this show, they seem as content as ever to keep things in first gear, with softball critiques like “They keep all the money for themselves and not the church!” There’s a personal component here of Lisa acting as Bart’s guilty conscience as his lie grows bigger and bigger, and Homer’s guilt for encouraging him to take the dare and encourage his initial lie in the first place, but it’s all very surface level and nothing we haven’t seen before (Homer’s insistence Bart follow schoolyard protocol felt reminiscent of “Bart the General” or “The Telltale Head,” except if you replaced human characters with cardboard cutouts.) So, yeah, nothing really flagrantly awful, but just a very bland episode with a good amount of missed potential. Again, there’s really only so much I can say that hasn’t already been exhaustively covered in the other six hundred and thirty nine reviews… but as long as this show keeps plugging away, I might as well keep on tailing this shambling, barely-functioning jalopy, inhaling and critiquing its noxious exhaust until I die. Onward, season 30!

Three items of note:
– The bullies dare Bart to jump off the dam, which he does, plummeting hundreds of feet before smacking head first into the outcropped ledge below him. Now, the title may claim otherwise, but Bart should be dead… right? I know almost all realism has been completely thrown out the window at this point, but this feels like way too much. If falling from his treehouse in Bart of Darkness landed him with a broken leg, this stunt should have cracked his skull open. Last season finale he got struck by lightning and was in a coma for days, but here, he appears to be in no pain and awakens with no problem at all.
– Marge grills Bart for proof he’s not making up his come to Jesus story, so he tells her he also spoke to her father, Grandpa Bouvier. Overcome with emotion, Marge believes him, excusing herself. She then proceeds to remain absent for most of the rest of the episode until Bart reveals he lied, save one scene where she tells Lisa she coasts through life on blind faith and getting wine drunk. It’s a stretch to me, but if Marge really believes her son actually spoke to her dead father, don’t you think she would want to know more? That it would have really affected her? That she would have told her sisters? Even after 30 years, we barely know anything about Mr. Bouvier and his relationship with his daughters; an episode really examining Marge’s thoughts on her dad and learning more about him could be incredibly interesting. But that sounds pretty tough to write, so I’m certain they’ll never do it. But putting the Simpsons on another reality show? That sounds like a draft someone could bang out on their lunch break.
– I honestly and truly don’t go into these episodes trying to nitpick (do you really think I care enough to pay that great attention at this point?), but each episode usually has some “wrong” stuff that leaps out at me. Wonder Woman‘s Gal Gadot auditions for the role of Lisa, and they don’t even make a joke about how this full grown woman is auditioning for the part of an eight-year-old. Was it cut for time? Bart is played by what looks like a little person (he comes up to Gadot’s midsection), voiced by the 5’11” Jonathan Groff, so I don’t know what that’s about. Also, that framegrab above is from the finished movie, where we can clearly see the ceiling and stage lights of the sound stage. But it’s not a joke; we previously saw the exposed set in a previous scene during filming, so they probably just directed this scene the same way and either didn’t realize or just forgot. Again, these seem like nitpicks, but moments like these really stand out to me. Back in the 90s during the advent of VCRs, this show used to reward you for paying attention, where every line of dialogue, background sign, every element of the show was there to add to your viewing experience, not detract like in examples like these. I have no doubt the entire staff of this show works very hard, but somehow a lack of care seems to come out in the end that really baffles me.

One good line/moment: Two things I actually genuinely liked: Emily Deschanel auditioning for Marge doing her Julie Kavner impression (ruined slightly by the tortured running gag of Homer thinking she’s actually his wife), and Jesus beating up Bart in his dream, a well done use of shock humor.

Bonus (unrelated) thoughts:
Originally I thought I’d write a paragraph or two of my thoughts on Matt Groening’s new Netflix show Disenchantment, but five or six weeks since its release feels like an eternity to me now, and I don’t know how much care I have left to give about it. Sadly, the ten episode first season failed to make much of an impression on me. The show felt very much like season 1 Futurama, setting up this new fantasy world and establishing the core characters and their relations with each other, but unlike Futurama, doing it incredibly half-heartedly. The world of the series feels very static and uninteresting; from the trailer, I thought after escaping her arranged marriage, Princess Bean and her two new weird friends would travel the lands and she would try to find a sense of purpose, but instead, they just kind of bum about the kingdom doing fuck all, until the last three episodes decides it wants to be serialized, but by that point, the show hadn’t made me give much of a shit about its characters, so what’s the point? It’s not an awful show, I got sporadic laughs from it, most coming from Elfo, who was my favorite character, thanks to a great performance by Nat Faxon. But his refreshing characterization of his lovable naive openness to this strange, new world (“I like war, but I wouldn’t say I love it”) quickly takes a backseat to his unrequited crush on Bean, a boring and overplayed trope. There’s not enough about the show I liked to really recommend it, but I think it’s possible to be salvaged in its second season… but I wouldn’t hold my breath over it.

639. Flanders’ Ladder

Original airdate: May 20, 2018

The premise:
After getting struck by lightning, Bart goes into a coma, where he is haunted by ghosts of the dearly departed, looking to him to sort out their unfinished business, the most insistent of all being Maude Flanders.

The reaction: I’d say the show gets points for trying a different type of story, but those points immediately get redacted since I didn’t understand the point of it or why any of it was happening. We open on Bart tricking Lisa with a screamer prank and posting her hilarious reaction online, basically just ripping off the Scary Maze Game, an OVER TEN YEAR OLD Internet meme. I guess next season will feature Bart first discovering ytmnd. When Bart tragically falls into a coma, Lisa gets her revenge by whispering in his ear to be surrounded by the dead. And so, in Bart’s head, first he encounters Maude Flanders, who is urgent to talk to him, and soon he’s doing the bidding of a bunch of other ghosts just because they tell him to. None of this feels like the extended dream of a child though, which made me keep forgetting this was all a big coma fantasy and ultimately nothing that happened mattered. The conceit reminds me of the Futurama episode “The Sting,” where Fry seemingly dies and Leela has to deal with her grief but also starts hallucinating due to the effects of space bee honey, but then it’s revealed that she was actually in a coma, and her visions were due to Fry at her bedside talking to her and keeping her brain active. This episode attempts that a few times with Lisa saying something and a character in Bart’s dream saying the same line, but that was barely an element of the show. Whereas Leela found herself going mad as reality seemed to bend before her eyes, Bart’s coma world feels just like reality except with ghosts in it. Anyway, Maude wants revenge on Homer, since he was responsible for getting her killed by the T-shirt cannons, so Bart recruits the bullies to ambush him with T-shirts. Then Homer shows up as a ghost and Bart has to deal with him not wanting his father to leave him… Wasn’t this a Bart-Lisa story? Shouldn’t the emotional crux be Bart feeling bad for humiliating her sister? We cut from Lisa apologizing for messing with Bart at the hospital to coma Bart begging ghost Homer not to go into the light? Is this meant to be symbolic? What’s Bart’s emotional arc? What’s the point? Again, part of me appreciates the show trying to tell a different kind of story, but if I have no idea what the purpose of it was, and considering another show already did it extremely competently fifteen years prior, I just wonder why the hell they even bothered.

Three items of note:
– We open with a transformer blowing and the family’s Internet goes out. We see a CONNECTION LOST message on the family room’s updated HD TV, Bart on the floor with his laptop with the Mac spinning rainbow circle, Lisa and Abe’s tablets don’t work… even after all this time, the Simpsons using modern technology still feels wrong to me. It gets even odder when Homer busts out his old VHS tapes, which absolutely mystify Bart and Lisa, leading to a sequence where they are stupidity by the sound of a rewinding tape and the concept of a corded remote. A big element of the pilot episode almost thirty years ago was Lisa being psyched about watching her favorite Happy Little Elves videotape, and here we are now, this show still alive and kickin’ (barely), with the kids not even knowing what a VHS is. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just really weird to see.
– We see a lot of familiar faces in the crowd of ghosts haunting Bart: beyond our beloved popular dead regulars like Marvin Monroe and Bleeding Gums Murphy, we also have Homer’s Vegas wife Amber, Rabbi Krustofski (Jackie Mason appearing again, aiming to rival Glenn Close for most posthumous repeated guest spots), Waylon Smithers Sr., that Fat Pride motor scooter guy, and then two or three other faces that seemed familiar that I didn’t recognize. I guess that had someone go on Simpsons Wiki and pull up the Deceased Characters page or something. Shary Bobbins also gets a line in, which why not, considering that got Maggie Roswell back for Maude. Speaking of which, the whole second act is building toward finding out what Maude wants from Bart, which turns out to be revenge on Homer for causing her death, and like… who cares. Like, really, who the fuck cares. “Alone Again, Natura-Diddly” was almost twenty years ago, does anyone give a flying shit about this? And I’d rather not be reminded of that episode, or of Homer’s gross behavior in it. They wedge in a (full frame) clip of her death in there in case people forgot, and you know what, as bad as that episode was, I would watch it over any episode over the last several years in a heartbeat.
– The episode was pretty much wrapping up eighteen minutes in or so, which was slightly confusing, but that left room for a lengthy, uninteresting tag depicting how and when the Simpsons and other Springfield denizens will die. It’s a “parody” of the ending of the series finale of Six Feet Under, complete with the same song scoring it, a show that went off the air thirteen years ago. I often bitch about the show making incredibly outdated references (I literally just did with the screamer videos earlier), but the show in its prime make a lot of references to TV and movies that were decades old. So what’s the difference? I feel like there are two big reasons. Firstly, as time goes on, and we get inundated with more and more media outlets spitting out more and more content at us, “big” pop culture moments tend to not have a lot of staying power. The series finale of M*A*S*H pulled in over a hundred million viewers in 1983, but flash forward to the Friends finale twenty years later and it had barely half the audience. With so many different viewing options out there, the audience is more fragmented than it’s ever been, and as such, big cultural moments aren’t quite as big and long-standing anymore. Six Feet Under was a pretty successful show, but now, over a decade later, it feels so completely irrelevant, because there have been thousands of other great dramas to take its place since then. Secondly, The Simpsons was born in an era where reruns were king; the major networks and basic cable would constantly run old shows and movies to fill up their airing slots, so when the show would lampoon Citizen Kane or The Godfather, not only are those classic films, there’s a pretty good chance a then modern audience would have seen the movie playing somewhere on TV. Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find many channels running content that’s over a decade old, and that’s just on television. We’re living in a cultural landscape that is hyper focused on the now, an inevitability when everyone is connected on the Internet and can instantly make fun of whatever just happened that very day. It’s made The Simpsons‘ hallmark tradition of ripping on pop culture basically obsolete. We saw that clearly last season with their attempt to make a Pokemon Go episode, which came out nine months after the app went big, but most importantly, eight months and three weeks after every late night show, web cartoonist and Internet dweller had made ten thousand jokes and memes about it. Honestly, I really feel like the show should just retire pop culture jokes; between the poor writing and the outdated production schedule, they literally can’t be like they used to.

One good line/moment: The animation of Lisa getting stuck in Bart’s underwear and feebly struggling to get out was kind of fun. There have been a couple of fleeting fun animated moments this past season since they switched production companies, but not nearly enough for me to be crowing about what a tremendous difference it is or anything.

And there you have it, season 29 in the can. I’ll give it this, it wasn’t nearly as bad as season 28, which had some of the worst fucking episodes I’ve ever seen. But this is also the very first season I’ve watched and reviewed as it aired, so I’ve had a lot more time to completely forget almost all of it over the last nine months. “Singin’ in the Lane,” “3 Scenes Plus A Tag About a Marriage,” and “Left Behind” stick out as being particularly terrible, not to mention the tone-deaf Problem With Apu response from “No Good Read Goes Unpunished.” Most of the season I recall just being more dull than anything else. So, looks like I’m on hiatus until September then. I’d like to thank everyone reading this for sticking with the blog for another glorious season. I’m sure season 30 will provide even more wonderful, wonderful garbage for me to sift through. I’m so happy FOX canned Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Last Man on Earth so we wouldn’t miss out on more episodes of this broken down pathetic hollowed corpse of a goddamn show. Fuck.

(and yes, I know NBC picked up Nine-Nine, before anyone chimes in to deliver that news.)

638. Throw Grampa From The Dane

Original airdate: May 13, 2018

The premise:
When Abe is in need of an expensive operation, the Simpsons head off to Denmark to take advantage of their free healthcare, but Homer must make a big decision when the rest of the family wants to make the seemingly perfect country their new home.

The reaction: Wherein we find the show running out of countries for the family to visit. Will the Simpsons be going to Uzbekistan in season 35? The series only really had two international family excursions in the classic years, both with a different approach to thrusting the characters into a whole new environment: “Bart vs. Australia” had its fair share of Aussie jokes, but it was mostly focused on the absurd plot based on Bart’s unintentional international incident, and the horrible failures of US-Australia relations. Meanwhile, “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo” didn’t really have much of a story, focusing on creating a bunch of humorous set pieces, which worked because they were mostly all funny. But travel shows now are just an excuse for the show to act as a travelogue, showing off famous landmarks and rattling off trivia about different countries. This might be the greatest offender, with many scenes featuring characters literally reading off Denmark facts off their phone, with a tepid little joke at the end not at all worth the preceding info dump. In the third act, a Danish woman comes onto Homer, and three times begins sentences with “We Danes” before saying some generality about Danish people. And really, who was asking for this? I dunno, call me an uncultured swine, but I don’t see an episode full of Danish jokes full of rich, comedic potential. I mean, it could work, if it came from a show that hasn’t had almost twenty years of shit writing behind it. Circling back, the impetus of the family’s Denmark journey is needing an affordable operation for Abe, to address an ailment he never explains. He says it’s “embarrassing” and won’t talk about it, but that point is never really emphasized that much, and I didn’t think anything of it. After spending x number of days in Denmark with Homer trying to get his father into a terrible accident to be eligible for free healthcare, Abe finally comes clean: what he really needs is a tattoo removal. He reveals a heart on his chest with the word “MONA,” wanting it gone since his wife hated him up until her death. It’s unclear exactly what Abe’s endgame for all this was; I guess he went along and flew halfway around the world because he just couldn’t tell his family about this, but then once he does admit it to Homer, they barely even discuss it. You’d think Homer would be affected by this reveal, but I guess he’s already made peace that his mother fucking hated his father after “Forgive and Regret,” so whatever. The writers try and make it tie together when Abe urges Homer not to make his same mistakes and mend fences with Marge after a squabble, but it feels so limp and meaningless. This is one of those episodes that just washed over me with not much of anything really registering, and when your twist features your main character’s father wanting to completely sever emotional ties from his dead mother, and that idea is just completely swept aside, I think that says a lot.

Three items of note:
– I didn’t even remember this until I saw it mentioned elsewhere, the show literally did this plot last year, where the Simpsons took Abe to Cuba to get cheap medical care. I guess I don’t blame them, I barely recall anything about it. I think it ended with Abe co-owning a night club or something? And of course, we already saw Abe needing desperate medical attention two episodes ago. Is the only plot left with this character is him having one foot in the grave? Impulsively, I responded to an episode preview post from Al Jean, asking why they didn’t just make an episode featuring Abe finally dying. His response, “You tell Grampa that!” Lulz.
– The Abe plot starts and stops completely at will when we do all the Denmark travel stuff, and also runs completely parallel to the B-story, where Marge and the kids love this new country and want to stay. Homer’s main gripe is that he’s losing weight and won’t eat as unhealthily as he does in America. I mean, I’m sure Denmark has no shortage of fatty foods he can gorge himself on ’til his heart’s content (or gives out, whatever comes first). It felt like they were halfway toward a decent conflict, then decided this was good enough and broke for lunch.
– Homer rushes from the airport to make up with Marge after their contrived conflict, and because the episode is almost over, they of course need to be okay with going back to Springfield. But her main points are absolutely ridiculous. First, she points out that in the confined bathroom, the toilet is in the shower. Surely that’s something that shouldn’t be surprising to her or worth specifically pointing out a week into their stay. She points out the washing machine is really small too, but these are two things they could easily amend in their own home should they choose to stay. Then she points out how dark it is outside (“It’s eleven in the morning!”) We then see the sun rise and set in about two seconds. I guess all those daytime scenes we saw were playing at 100x speed, we just didn’t notice! This quick plot resolution shit is nothing we haven’t seen before, but it still elicits a groan out of me when I know a superfluous wrap-up is coming, and it never fails to disappoint in how poor it ends up being. Bart’s complaint is that the schools are good here, and as for Lisa? “I want to stay, but no one ever listens to me.” Sigh.

One good line/moment: Dr. Nick’s office is named “Bleeders Sinai Medical Center.”

637. Left Behind

Original airdate: May 6, 2018

The premise:
After the Leftorium finally shuts down, Homer gets Ned a job at the power plant, but once he’s fired from there, Ned decides to become a teacher.

The reaction: This show sure switches a lot of gears over twenty minutes. An opening featuring Homer and Marge’s date night (that admittedly is a little sweet in the effort Homer puts into it) is interrupted in the middle of the night by Ned, fraught over losing his job. Homer begrudgingly refers him to the power plant, where he gets hired as the new head of HR. From there, it’s just a bunch of scenes featuring Ned being a milquetoast weenie, which I find as very boring characterization for him (we have “Viva Ned Flanders” to blame for that.) When Burns impromptu fires him, he cycles through a bunch of odd jobs that don’t quite fit. Finally, fourteen minutes in, Marge convinces him to become a teacher, specifically the new substitute for Bart’s class. At first it was mind boggling to me to see Ned taking his deceased wife’s job with absolutely zero mention of it. But it turns out the writers were holding onto that info for a manipulative ending, where we have Bart apologizing to Ned, saying he thinks he could be as good a teacher as “her,” gesturing to the picture of Edna on the wall as Clair de Lune plays (plus an archival line from the deceased Marcia Wallace). I guess they felt that saving the Edna mention for the very end would act as a solemn, heartwarming tribute, but the fact that nobody mentioned her at all before that point felt incredibly strange. How is this episode not entirely about Ned trying to step into his dead wife’s shoes and whether he’s worthy of taking her place, and the kids’ perspective on this development as well? Did they think it would be too heavy to make it about that? Why not? It certainly would make it more human. All the last minute mention did was reinforce how vacuous and empty the whole Nedna thing was. They literally couldn’t have a plot revolving on Ned reflecting on Edna because there was nothing to their relationship in the first place. It was a soulless publicity stunt from six years ago that was tragically cut short following Marcia Wallace’s death. Ultimately, Ned reaches his class by manipulating them into being docile and God-fearing through some “miracles” Bart rigs up, which I guess counts as our happy ending? Remember the ending of “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baaadaaaaass S ong”? Yeah, me too. On Twitter, Al Jean explains, “One story point conscious decision that Ned was fired for religion in school before and now is using it. Sign of the times.” If anyone wants to decipher that explanation, be my guest, but I don’t understand it at all. Also according to Jean, he’s now the permanent fourth grade teacher now. So, there it is. It only took four years, but we’ve finally filled the vacancy in our major cast. The absentee actor problem with Wallace is a thorny one, of course, and I understand the writers not knowing how soon is too soon to fill Edna’s position, but four years feels way too long, especially given we’ve had scenes in Bart’s classroom before this with no mention or care of the lack of any teacher. I know they wanted that moment at the end to hit hard and be poignant, but it really felt like a huge shrug, especially after how much time has gone by, and more especially being tacked on at the end of such a hollow and meaningless episode. Ms. Wallace deserved better.

Three items of note:
– In addition to the main story jumping from plot to plot, we also get a minor story involving Todd’s… relationship with Lisa? It’s just two scenes of her being sort of weirded out by him just kinda being around all the time, and then him revealing a little gingerbread dollhouse he made for her with the two of them inside. Lisa is touched, as revealed through painful dialogue (“Todd, I had you all wrong. You’re a wonderful kid, and I’m happy to call you my pal.”) Todd then tells her he’s glad to finally have a friend and not have to hang around with his brother all the time, at which point Lisa tells him to stop talking and go away. Also, Rod and Todd are inexplicably just hanging at the Simpsons house for some reason. I guess Marge is watching them when Ned is working his new job(s)? But who watched them beforehand after Edna’s death? And we see Bart and Lisa there at the house too, so it couldn’t have been during the week, they’d be at school. They’re just there just because. Later we see the two boys bidding Ned farewell for his first day as a teacher, and they’re just sort of standing outside the house unsupervised. Who takes care of these two small children? Also, I think the only Ned-Edna episode involved her urging Ned to enroll her new stepchildren into public school, which I think ended with him agreeing. But I guess once she died, Ned pulled them right the fuck out, and I guess now they just roam the town aimlessly until their father scoops them up and brings them home after work. No one writing this gave two fucks about Rod and Todd. They even make a joke where Todd doesn’t remember which one he is, which feels like an odd joke to make in the 29th season of your show that you confuse the two children of one of your major secondary characters.
– This episode features a few callbacks to the movie for some reason. First, Ned expresses his gratitude to Homer by making his famous cocoa, the elaborate concoction where he grates chocolate flakes and toasts the marshmallow on top, except here it’s revealed he does it in Homer’s mouth. Later, Ned tries to get Bart not to spitball him at the behest of his ravenous schoolmates, saying, “They’ve been fishing together,” like the scene from the movie where he pats him on the back in the boat, and Bart flinches at first physical contact by an adult, which feels like a very sad child abuse joke. If I remember from the commentary, I think Al Jean and the writers really, really loved the Ned-Bart stuff from the movie, but I always thought it was incredibly saccharine and ham-fisted. I also remember one joke they mentioned was cut where after the Simpsons get out of the dome, Bart spies Ned on the other side, moons the glass, but then it’s revealed to be a heart shape as he runs away. Gross. Thank God that got cut.
– Though the teacher Ned story is more potentially juicy due to the Edna issue, Ned working at the plant is also a story that could have actually been something. We have a few scenes of him trying to bolster company morale and instill good manners and a kindly demeanor on the other employees, but it never actually goes anywhere. We see that Lenny and Carl are annoyed at Homer for getting stuck with this goody two shoes, but then Ned ultimately gets fired out of the blue when he mentions he hasn’t given anything to charity. It’s like they were laying down a few tracks but then ran the train off the rails completely before they even began. But I don’t really care. The episode could have been wholly about either story and it would have been a huge festering mess anyway.

One good line/moment: The SEARS closed forever sign, “Jeff Bezos Rot In Hell.”

636. Forgive And Regret

Original airdate: April 29, 2018

The premise:
On his deathbed, Abe confesses a terrible secret to Homer about their past, and must live with his son’s heated reaction to the news during his recovery.

The reaction: Homer’s upbringing is really quite tragic, as we know from “Mother Simpson.” His mother stood up for what she believed in, and her reward for her unwavering compassion even towards Mr. Burns, her own adversary, makes her a wanted woman and forces her to leave her son for his own protection. Once loved and encouraged by his mother, Homer is now left with his cold and stubborn father, who spends the rest of his adolescence tearing down his son’s self-esteem piece by piece. In present day, Homer can easily come off badly for neglecting and often ignoring his senile, elderly father, but this family history creates a new shade to this relationship, a deep seeded animosity Homer feels towards Abe for never believing in him, always putting him down, and perhaps also blaming him for his mother leaving (especially given Abe’s flimsy lie to young Homer that his mother died when they were at the movies). This is a lot of rich material to delve into, which makes this episode frustrating since it attempts to scratch the surface of it, and ultimately ends on such a meaningless, who-gives-a-shit note. Believing he’s finally on his way out the door, Abe whispers his biggest regret to Homer, but after he recovers, he has to deal with him being furious with him. Finally, halfway through, we find out what happened: when Mona left him, Abe chucked everything she left behind off a cliff, including a box of recipe cards she wrote over many years of baking with her son, a treasured memory for li’l Homer (Lisa irritating exposits, “If this man had had those notes, his life would have been different! He would have had confidence! He would have had his mother with him!”) Any sort of heated discourse between Homer and Abe about this event, or hearing more about their feelings are paved over in exchange for extended sequences of the Simpson family being angry and relishing over their hate boners. Everything falls apart with the ending, featuring Abe attempting to scale the cliff to retrieve the recipes; rather than featuring a father and son heart-to-heart with Abe apologizing to his son for what he did and everything he put him through as a kid and them making peace with Mona’s passing, Homer finds the recipe card box on a ledge near the bottom of the cliff, but it’s empty. Then at a diner at the base of the cliff, it’s revealed that the owner had the recipe cards showered down on her all those years ago, and she returns them to Homer (literally tied up in a bow, as the show gleefully pounds on the fourth wall.) I almost feel foolish for having hope watching this show, but when they tapped directly into such a rich emotional vein from the show’s past, I thought maybe it would actually go somewhere, but the writing nowadays just isn’t strong enough to say anything new or of any substance. Everything in the flashback is so sappily on-the-nose (young Homer tearfully saying “Love you” to his mom as he eats, followed by Mona directly explaining the emotional meaning behind the cards) and they completely sidestep any grievances Homer may have with Abe by putting all vitriol in his mother’s mouth (we end on Homer looking at one of Mona’s notes, “I love you, because your father’s a mean S.O.B.”) I’m not surprised that they managed to bungle an episode like this, but I am a bit disappointed given the little moments of promise that were actually there in the writing.

Three items of note:
– In case you missed the minor slew of articles from entertainment journalists desperately mustering up the energy to care about this lumbering fossil of a series, this is the landmark episode that bumps The Simpsons in front of Gunsmoke as the longest running scripted primetime show by number of episodes. Thankfully, the self-congratulation is very short, a ten-second opening featuring Maggie gunning down who I presume is the lead sheriff from the Western series. But here we are, the show’s broken its final notable record, and still shows no sign of ending any time soon. A year or so ago, I thought that maybe there was a chance that this latest contract going up to season 30 would be its last. They’d have broken the Gunsmoke record, 30 is a nice round number, maybe this will be the time to finally, at long last, close the curtains. Then there was some article where the head of FOX television saying she’d love for the show going as long as the crew wanted. And now with the Disney deal, the chance of the show ending at season 30 is pretty much nil. I’m sure Disney’s gonna want to keep this cash cow alive, and even if they wanted to cancel it, it wouldn’t be very good press for them to do it immediately after acquiring it. But how much longer could it possibly go? I still hold onto the morbid belief that the only definite show killer would be the death of one of the six core voice actors; whenever that might be, I feel like Al Jean and company wouldn’t feel right about recasting and quietly wrap things up.
– Abe being moments from death is treated fairly seriously. His skin a sickly shade of pale yellow, he regales this horrible secret to Homer, which now in retrospect makes his immediate forgiveness to his dying father hold more weight. We then cut to him staring blankly at the candy machine, desperately awaiting Dr. Hibbert to come in with an update. As all this played out, I started considering what an episode where Abe actually dies would be like. And really, why the fuck not kill him off? I’d be interested in seeing how they’d handle it. It’s just amazing to me that a show pushing thirty years on the air is so uninterested in any kind of change whatsoever (barring the death of a voice actress, i.e.: Marcia Wallace.) The last big “permanent” change I can think of is Selma’s adopted daughter, and in recent major Selma appearances, like her marriage to Fat Tony and her giving up smoking, I don’t even think she appeared.
– Glenn Close returns for the ninth time to play Mona Simpson again, six of those appearances being posthumous. In the flashback, we see Homer’s lively and vibrant mother hoarsely and timidly voiced by a 71-year-old Close. In the same vein, Dan Castellaneta’s young Homer voice certainly sounds a lot deeper than it did in “Mother Simpson,” especially during his song. I don’t mean to shame these great actors for getting older, but it just speaks to how stagnant this show is; they want to keep going over the same twenty-year-old material again and again, not realizing that they just can’t. Because of time.

One good line/moment: There were a few bits in the first half that made me chuckle, like the two dividers in Homer’s car and Marge’s congratulatory balloons (“Speaking Terms” and “You’re Reconciled!”)