646. Werking Mom

Original airdate: November 18, 2018

The premise:
An extreme makeover by Julio gets Marge mistaken for a drag queen, and while she initially is horrified, she ends up embracing the drag scene, seeing it as a confidence booster. Meanwhile, Lisa is inspired by French cinema to make the world a better place, one good deed at a time.

The reaction: Right off the bat, I gotta be honest, the conceit of husky-voiced Marge being mistaken for a drag queen is one of the most humorous ideas this show’s had in a good long while. A story about Marge finding acceptance in drag culture while having to hide who she is could have been interesting, but that damn pesky poor writing just can’t support it. With Lisa’s B-plot eating up time, we only get one quick scene of Marge getting introduced to a bunch of drag queens, then a musical number, and that’s basically it in terms of developing her relationship with these people and subculture. As usual, any further scenes would require them having to make Shantae (voiced by RuPaul) or the others actual characters who can hold a conversation, and that’s just too hard, man. Remember how well developed John from “Homer’s Phobia” was? Even as a caricatured gay man (and John Waters surrogate), he still felt like a real person who was actually emotionally affected by Homer’s ignorant homophobia. Here, none of these drag queens feel like they’ve gone through a story, they’re just there to say their joke lines and react to things on cue. The climax involves Homer’s discovery of Marge’s new identity, ruining her good time with a terrible self-aware line (“You didn’t tell me you were tricking all these people into thinking you’re a drag queen when you’re really a regular housewife in need of empowerment… and now that I say it out loud, it doesn’t seem so bad.”) I feel like they should have stuck with either extreme: have Homer wildly ignorant and belligerent and not understand why Marge is doing this, or have him be totally supportive and make the story about Marge worrying her friends will find out she’s really a woman. Instead, Homer’s emotional outburst was an impromptu mistake, one he’s genuinely sorry for and immediately tries to make up for. But this is apparently the last straw for Marge, who by the ending seems one sentence shy of wanting a divorce (“What hurts the most is I can’t imagine there’s anything he could say or do to make me come back.”) There was a long period of seasons, 13-20 or so, which featured Homer being such a flaming, selfish asshole that it teetered on Stockholm syndrome as to why Marge would allow this awful, awful man back into her life. But in the last few years, Homer hasn’t been so bad, but we’ve seen a lot of shows where Marge seems very quick to up and almost end the marriage. In addition, Marge claims Homer’s “selfishness” stands in direct contrast to the love and support the drag queens have given her, so this moment would have actually held some emotional weight if, again, we knew anything about these people or why we should care. When Marge tells them that she’s not a man, they all admit that they already knew, and that’s all. No one’s upset that a straight woman tried to co-opt their culture? Or, conversely, no heartfelt line about them being fine with helping a poor soul in need increase her self-worth? Again, if these were actual characters, we could have moments like those. After Marge says the above line, Homer appears on stage in drag himself, and that’s enough to win Marge back because we have less than one minute of show left before the worthless tag. Despite the potential of the story line, and for actually having some genuinely humorous moments throughout, the show is still missing that emotional core that keeps me at arm’s length from actually giving a shit about what’s happening.

The reaction:
– I don’t have much to comment on Lisa’s story. I think it’s supposed to be a parody of Amelie, but I’ve never seen it. Complete with a French narrator, she performs small kindnesses for the likes of Jasper, the Van Houtens, and Principal Skinner, but becomes discouraged when the happiness she’s bestowed on Skinner and his mother doesn’t last. The ending features all the people she’s helped showing up on the school roof to have lunch with her, so she’s finally have someone to eat lunch with. This feels like a conclusion the show in its prime would have viciously made fun of. The entire B-story is so lame and ham fisted, and time I wish was spent better developing the Marge plot. Also the green tint over all the scenes in the story made everything look ugly and washed out.
– Among the group of drag queens is “the mysterious Waylon,” pictured on the far left. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised they threw Smithers in there. Sure, I suppose someone formal and straight-laced like him could be into drag, an extravagant outlet for his repressed every day life, but he’s just part of the set dressing here. Instead, it feels a lot like what the show has done in the past with him, where he acts as catch-alls for all non-straight jokes. Past bits involved him taking estrogen, or hinting that he wants a sex change operations (just last season we saw a “joke” about Smithers planning on becoming a woman. Do the writers know that being gay and being transgender are two different things?) Smithers being into drag isn’t necessarily offensive, but given their history of just ascribing him all these different contradictory identities because he’s the gay of the series, it just felt incredibly eye-rolling to me. Hell, I’d watch a whole episode about Smithers getting into drag, why not? It’d be more daring than this crap.
– The tag features disheveled drag Homer at Moe’s fielding questions from Moe (“So, you’re a drag queen now?” “I dunno. I guess these days it’s okay for everyone to be everything.”) I guess you could read this as a tired, forty-year-old man trying to make sense out of a new social culture he doesn’t understand, but it reads more like the fifty-plus writing staff grappling with all this gender expression/identity nonsense the youths are up to. For an episode trying so hard to be open and accepting (as seen with Homer’s almost immediate acceptance of Marge’s drag life), this felt like a weird, snidey note to end on. There are ways to make jokes and construct humorous scenarios out of topics like this that don’t come off as mean or back-handed (i.e.: the ridiculous comedy of errors involving the asexual Todd meeting his girlfriend’s hyper-sexualized family from the recent season of BoJack Horseman)

One good line/moment: Like last week, surprisingly a handful of smirk-worthy moments: Old Jewish Man’s banter, Marge imagining the Tupperware speaking (“Did you just high-five that bowl?”), Dewey Largo and his boyfriend (“I’m not leaving until I find my butter tub!” “Look in the mirror,”) but the best moment was a rarity for the show nowadays: a successful set-up and pay-off. Earlier, Homer is befuddled at the idea of using Tupperware to store leftover lasagna (“Whoever heard of leftover lasagna?!”) Later, Marge is raking in so much money doing drag she takes Homer out to a lavish meal at Luigi’s, leaving him so stuffed that he actually gets to take lasagna home with him! Then later that night when he takes it out of the fridge to eat, all he finds in the box is a note telling himself he already ate it at the restaurant. Hey, some writing with some thought behind it!

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645. From Russia Without Love

Original airdate: November 11, 2018

The premise:
Bart pulls a prank on Moe by ordering him a Russian mail order bride. Moe is hesitant about opening himself up to love again, but when he drives Anastasia away, he decides he needs to get her back.

The reaction: Sad Moe finds love again… when the show revisits the same wells, it’s a little tough to figure out how to comment on it without repeating yourself. Despite being one of the series’ more lovably lecherous characters, Moe’s tender heart has shone through in a good way on several occasions, most notably “Moe Baby Blues,” but only when it’s balanced by his typical lowlife nature. Here, Moe is a pathetic sadsack from moment one when Homer dis-invites him to Thanksgiving dinner at Marge’s behest. When Moe manages to humiliate Bart during a prank call attempt (an actually humorous moment), Bart gets revenge by sending a mail order bride to his door. The core of the rest of the episode is Moe not wanting to take a chance on another woman who might potentially break his heart; the plot, up until the twist at the end, really has nothing to do with her being a mail order bride at all, which is strange. A lot of the episode isn’t really that bad; there’s a few bits of life that come through at points, but the story is very dull and lifeless. The Moe stuff is nothing we haven’t seen multiple times over, done better in other episodes. Eventually, he gets Anna to go through with the wedding, only for her to be exposed as an American con artist. Moe is in shock at this reveal (“You’re a scam artist! And one who didn’t aim too high!”) Anna asks him to clarify, to which he replies he’s in severe debt. Yeah, no shit. When Moe tries to win her back earlier, we see that Anna is now with Krusty, a major TV celebrity, surely a much bigger catch financially than a dirty old bartender. The show abruptly ends as Anna adopts a Scottish accent to court Willie, seemingly having learned nothing about picking your marks carefully. Rather than lean into a deep emotional place with Moe’s anguish, or something more comedic in the mail order bride material, the episode just kind of sits right in the middle: nothing flagrantly terrible, just very bland. Which makes it the best episode of the season by default.

Three items of note:
– Herman makes a reappearance after I don’t know how long as the one who aids Bart in his revenge mission by introducing him to the “dark net.” He proceeds to freak Bart and the boys out by flicking the lights in the basement, and then seemingly rips his one good arm off, only for him to pull out his good arm from inside his jacket. It was actually kind of charming to see him messing with the kids, even if outside his typical hardened characterization. But he was always a tertiary character at best, so why not mess with his personality a bit?
– Moe thinks back to his past lady loves, which includes his fling with little person Maya, and Laney Fontaine, aka not-Elaine Stritch. It’s a rare instance of the show recalling back to events within the past decade; it’s not necessarily fan service, but it requires one to actually remember these old, disposable characters. I remember liking the Maya episode, it actually had some heart to it, certainly more than we get here. And while I don’t care for Laney, I liked the reveal of her wringing Moe out as being part of her one-woman show (“She won a Tony tearing me apart, yet I left humming the songs.”)
– The always worthless tag features Nelson going to Mars to find his long-lost dad (he alluded to the lie his dad gave him about going into space earlier in the episode), only for him to abandon him once more by blasting off the planet. I always found these Nelson bits to be pretty uncomfortable, be it him pining for his worthless runaway father or just making fun of him for being poor. I remember one bit of him being thrown off the bus for not having money for a field trip, ending with him tearfully seeing his reflection in top hat and tails with him sadly assuring, “Someday…” Are we supposed to laugh at this poor pathetic kid? It’s like in South Park when Cartman rips on Kenny for being poor, but in-universe it’s acknowledged by the other characters as being a dickish thing for him to do. Here, I guess we’re supposed to bust a gut at this stuff? Same with Moe’s regular suicide attempts; there’s gallows humor to be made on topics such as these, but more often than not, we’re seemingly supposed to laugh directly at the characters’ plight, which is weird to me.

One good line/moment: There are actually a couple moments that could work here, but I think Moe sabotaging Bart’s prank call was actually pretty great, especially the blase manner he does it in (“I’m looking for a Mr. Buttface, first name Ima.” “‘Ima’? Nobody’s been named that in like a hundred years. And as for the rest, why don’t you double check that name. Try saying it out loud.” “Ima Buttface?” “Mistakes are how we learn there, young fella. Good luck in your journey into adulthood.”)

644. Baby You Can’t Drive My Car

Original airdate: November 4, 2018

The premise:
Homer and Marge get hired at a new, trendy self-driving car company with a fun, laid-back work environment, but become conflicted when they find the company is stealing personal data from its drivers.

The reaction: Sometimes I do actually feel bad for this show, since it’s gotta be so hard to come up with new ideas that not only the series itself hasn’t done, but also social satire topics that haven’t been tackled sufficiently by other shows either. This isn’t to say different shows can’t deal with the same subject matter, but if you’re going to double dip, you’ve got to have something new to say, and pretty much every time this show goes to an already frequented well, it brings back swill. The fun business campus of CarGo (is that even a joke name?), corporate spying and taking advantage of consumer data, even the self-driving car itself, all topics covered by HBO’s Silicon Valley, in much greater detail, and much more cleverly and intelligently. As usual with this show, the targets here feel so much like a first draft: lavish office toys and doo-dads that never get used, nerds talking nerd talk, the elements that other shows like Silicon use as their base to build upon, this show is content with using them as is for their actual big jokes. This outing is also ostensibly a Homer-Marge episode; when Marge rouses the coders’ spirits with a hearty game of foosball, she’s hired as some kind of morale booster for the company, despite one of Marge’s core character traits that she’s a no-nonsense worrywart fuddy-duddy. When it’s revealed the self-driving cars listen in on your conversations and transport you directly to the company’s corporate sponsors, Homer flies off the handle while Marge is not too quick to abandon the company she loves for whatever reason. This seems like it should be reversed, but no real reasoning is given why either character reacts or feels the way they do about the situation. Mr. Burns meanwhile investigates CarGo after the plant goes understaffed to see the secret to their success, and despite being wowed by their business model of keeping workers at work for no substantial extra cost, he doesn’t decide to actually do anything about it. In the end, he, Homer, and eventually Marge shut down CarGo, and the episode just abruptly ends. Watered down satire seen much better in other shows, and a Homer-Marge story that tells us nothing new or interesting or funny about the two of them, but it killed another twenty minutes, so throw that episode up on the board!

Three items of note:
– We start with a prime example of the show’s bad habit of taking potentially amusing quick jokes and elongating them, thus ruining them. Homer goes through the Krusty Burger drive-thru, where he is presented with his nuggets. “Chicken nuggets?” Homer inquires. Cashier Shauna’s eyes darts. “Yess…” she responds noncommittally. That, alone, would be decent. But then we keep going. “Including things that ate or were eaten by a chicken!” Belabored line, and unnecessary, but not awful. But then, we get a thought bubble from Homer of what those animals or things might be, an elephant, a rat, a boot, basically just a repeat of the hot dog bit from “Lisa the Vegetarian.” Homer contently drives away, chicken nuggets on his dashboard, and he sings a song about them, a sort-of parody of a Jim Croce song that’s not really amusing at all. This nugget bit could have been more than sufficient if left alone after the first five seconds, but it just kept on going, eventually being part of the impetus for Homer losing his job, by choking on his nuggets, careening into a construction area at the plant and flying his car upside down through Burns’ office window. Later, during a montage with the self-driving car, we open with seeing a Krusty Burger box labeled “Chicken” Nuggets as Homer sings the Jim Croce song again, in case you weren’t already sick of those two jokes from before. Unbelievable. I assume the writers and staff just love to hear Dan Castellaneta sing, but did they really think they struck gold with the chicken nuggets bit?
– Homer is gobsmacked to discover the lush cafeteria at CarGo is free of charge to employees. As “Pure Imagination” plays, he’s overcome with emotion and goes on a binge. A lot of the posing and camera movements are pulled straight out of the classic “Land of Chocolate” sequence (I guess as a tribute?), but as usual with all references to the classic years, all it does it reinforce how empty and shallow the show is now. “Chocolate” featured Homer at his more feverishly and deliriously happy, in this fantasy world made entirely out of chocolate, skipping merrily down to Fudge Town and marveling at the “CHOCOLATE HALF PRICE” sign in the store. Here, Homer’s just excited he gets to eat a bunch of normal food. Do we need to devote an entire minute to this bit? Homer already said he loves working there, he doesn’t need to be sold anymore. It’s just unfunny nonsense that adds nothing.
– The coders at CarGo act very much like classic Revenge of the Nerds type nerds, making those crazy nerd noises (can’t think of how to best describe them) as Marge calls on them to power down and have some fun. Also part of the staff are the old college nerds, but with different sounding voices, because who gives a shit about looking that crap up to make sure the voices are correct, right? But it all feels so easy, and at this point, so detached from reality. Silicon Valley shows us a wide variety of different types of tech nerds, from the traditionally socially awkward, to the over compensating, to the overtly weird and creepy. This show has no interest in delving into anything of the sort; they’re just a bunch of fucking nerds.

One good line/moment: Homer’s “Holy crap!” taking the self-driving car to the church with its drive-thru confessional (Lovejoy immediately closes the window upon seeing Homer). Marge surmises the company must be up to some monkey business, then cut to the two of them returning to work flanked by monkeys, with Homer wearing a “Marcel’s Monkey Rentals” shirt. Contrast with the fucking endless nugget bits, these jokes are quick, aren’t overstated, do their job and get out.

Just as a heads up, next week’s review is definitely gonna be late. Getting married tends to make one a little tardy, or so I’ve heard…

643. Treehouse of Horror XXIX

Original airdate: October 21, 2018

The premise:
In “Intrusion of the Pod-y Snitchers,” strange alien spores start to infect Springfield residents, replacing them with pod people . In “MultipLisa-ty,” a crazed, dissociative Lisa enacts her bloody revenge on Bart, Milhouse and Nelson. In “Geriatric Park,” Mr. Burns opens up a scientific facility rejuvenating the elderly with dinosaur DNA, which of course goes horribly wrong.

The reaction: These Halloween reviews are somewhat of a slog to write, mostly in that I’ve had the same two major criticisms of them for the last twelve or so installments. First off, most of the segments are parodies of contemporary films, but light on the actual “parody” aspect. The second segment I think is supposed to be the story from Split, except it’s just Lisa talking in goofy voices for five minutes until we get the tired “explanation” of why she snapped. Bart wrote on her paper and got her an F on a spelling test! What a knee slapper, huh? Moments before the reveal, we see her snarl and growl as she pushes Milhouse into a newspaper crusher and has Nelson impaled on a forklift. None of it is shocking or scary, it was just very bizarre and uncomfortable watching this young girl murder her classmates for no reason. “Geriatric Park” came as a result of spending a couple minutes listing what words rhyme with “Jurassic” and building a flimsy story atop that. What monetary gain does Mr. Burns have for opening this facility, where he spent $30 million on giant doors alone? Surely it would be exclusive to those who can pay through the nose for this experimental treatment, not open doors to elderly riff-raff like Jasper or Hans Moleman. But none of that matters, they all turn into dinosaurs where we get some bloodless decapitations and limbs getting ripped off for some tepid gags (Willie shoves Kirk’s head in the “Heads” bin! What a riot!) But the bigger problem that’s hung over these annual events for a while now is the lack of any sort of dramatic or scary tone. Characters react to terrifying and deadly situations with no regard for the danger they’re in to spout off their labored jokes. Moments before her demise to the pod spores, Lisa gets in a lengthy jab about YA dystopian movies. Despite being chained to the wall and terrorized by the love of his life, Milhouse gets in a couple random humdingers (“I think encores are a ridiculous tradition! Just sing your songs and go!” “Careful, Lisa! If you keep yelling like that, you’ll get vocal polyps! Like Adele!”) Think back to the classic Halloween segments; though they had their goofier moments, the characters always treated the scenarios seriously. The kids at school were terrified that Willie would kill them in their dreams. Seeing his happily lobotomized family, Homer fearfully escapes Flanders’ Re-Ned-Ucation facility. Bart was ultimately driven mad at the gremlin on the side of the bus. Here, after seeing Groundskeeper Willie’s corpse with an axe through his head, Milhouse reacts to an effigy of himself burning with, “Wish I could burn the calories off that easy.” You can almost hear the corny laugh track playing. I’ve said it many times before, if the characters don’t give a shit about the stories they’re in, why in the hell should the viewer? This is a problem that plagues the entire series now, but it’s especially an issue in the Halloween shows where the life-or-death stakes are seemingly so much higher, but the characters don’t seem to care in the slightest.

Three items of note:
– We’ve actually already seen a Simpsons take on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in one of the first Treehouse of Horror comic books I read as a kid. Not that the show can’t encroach on territory the completely unrelated comic series did, but it doesn’t help when they do it much, more worse. The comic starts in media res with Homer being hauled off to the insane asylum screaming about pod people, then telling his story from the beginning how everyone in Springfield slowly got replaced by emotionless pod copies who preferred tepid tap water to beer, much to Homer’s horror. The story wraps up at the end when Homer is vindicated, but everything goes off the rails as other post-apocalyptic cliches appear, and Sideshow Bob destroys the fourth wall revealing their entire existence is a fictional comic book. Re-reading it, it’s filled with a lot of fun moments, humorous lines, and even in a comic, a sense of real danger and risk. In “Pod-y Snitchers,” the alien species run Mapple, and are able to infect the planet from above because everyone is busy staring at their phones. Wow, what insightful social commentary for 2018. The twist ending has everyone’s consciousness being transported to an alien utopia, but then what was the purpose of the pod duplicates staying on Earth? Bah, who cares.
– Upon finally being “snatched,” Lisa goes into full 2001: A Space Odyssey mode, seeing flashing images of plant-related things. We then get a reprise of Homer and Bart’s “You don’t win friends with salad!” conga line from “Lisa the Vegetarian.” Is this supposed to be an ironic echo? Or yet another instance of the show reaching into their past for positive recognition points. We also get a short clip of Luci the demon from Disenchantment smoking, so maybe this is just all random, because that ain’t plant related. And I still couldn’t care less about a season 2.
– On the helicopter ride to Geriatric Park, the aircraft flies past five other facilities for each of the five Jurassic movies, with the brilliant punchline of the final one having the subtitle “This Time It’s Safe.” Later, when Burns reveals his grandiose facility, there’s a song set to a soundalike of the Jurassic Park theme touting how suspiciously safe this all is. What a biting commentary, huh? “Itchy & Scratchy Land,” which aired a year after Jurassic Park was in theaters, completely nailed this category of joke with the helicopter pilot’s “possi-bly” blunder. Why did they even make this segment? Everyone’s made their jokes about this series at this point. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was an even more absurdist take on the franchise than this segment, and I actually laughed during it too. A lot.

One good line/moment: Eh, I got nothing for this. I don’t know what I would consider the worst Treehouse of Horror, but this one has got to be up there. They’re just so completely unremarkable and disposable. The only segment in the last decade or so that actually felt like it took some kind of creative risk was that one from last year where Homer ate himself, but even that was just more gross than shocking.

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.

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.