282. The Old Man and the Key

(originally aired March 10, 2002)
I normally don’t like to directly compare to old episodes, since it’s pretty unfair to compare a piece of crap to a bar of gold, but if you’re going to retread old ground story wise, I’m going to be reminded of the goods times of memory’s past. Grampa has a retirement home romance, so of course I’m going to think of “Old Money,” and goddamn is there ever a stark difference. But let’s get one thing out of the way first. We need to get the Simpsons to visit Grampa, so how can we do it? Have them think he’s dead. It’s something that we the audience know can’t be true, but the thing is that the characters do, and scenes must be treated as such. It’s fine that the home has people informed of their father’s death by recorded message (“He died from… complications of a medical nature. The nursing home was not responsible,”) that’s funny. But what happens next could not feel more disingenous. Marge tells Homer his father is dead, and what does he do? Scream and wail uncontrollably on a dime, then spout out a joke (“And he never even lived to be a vegetable!”) I know Homer is impulsive and emotionally unbalanced, but even he can’t go zero-to-sixty on news this mind-shattering. Think of other characters’ reactions to death: Abe in “Old Money” and Lisa in “‘Round Springfield,” they’re very quieted and internally devastated, it feels more real. Here, Homer’s reaction is treated as a complete joke; Grampa may not be dead, and the writers know we know that, but the point is the characters don’t, and they should treat it as such.

It turns out another resident actually kicked the bucket, leaving his room open for new resident Zelda, whom Grampa is immediately smitten with. Now, let’s compare, shall we? Bea is a demure, sweet grandmotherly type, who bonds over Abe over their respective health disorders, family, and an incredibly disturbing sequence of them seductively downing their pills. She doesn’t even live past act one, yet her character is completely cemented in the few scenes she’s in. Who is Zelda? She’s the love of Grampa’s life, apparently. How many lines does she have? Guess. …six. Six lines, only two of which are actually in the same scene. The two don’t even have a fucking back-and-forth conversation; why make an episode about a romance when you don’t even have the two fucking talking to each other? Well the “idea” of the episode I suppose is Grampa acting like a teenager, borrowing his father Homer’s car, acting belligerent, and ignoring his advice. Zelda is obviously just a user, only wanting someone who’s got a sweet ride. The fact that Grampa can’t see that and keeps chasing her makes him out to be a sad, horny old man, and that just isn’t him. As senile and scatterbrained as he can get, Grampa has always been feisty and strong-willed, but I’ve never thought of him as pathetic… until this episode.

Grampa ends up wrecking Homer’s car in a drag race, and with no car, Zelda drops him like a sack of hot rocks. Finding out her and her new beau have headed off to Branson, Missouri, he hot wires Marge’s car and takes off to get her, with the Simpsons following suit. The only good part in the whole episode is the Branson musical “That’s Familiar,” which basically can just be the actual theme song of the real place, a depository for Z-list celebrities (“They took Nick-at-Nite, and made it a town!”) Grampa interrupts the show to call out Zelda from the audience, call her on stage and… tell her they’re through and she’s a hootchie. Where did this come from? Homer and Marge told him this once earlier in the episode, and he ignored them; where’s the scene where Grampa had the realization that Zelda never loved him? This ending couldn’t be more random and knee-jerk; they knew they didn’t want to bring Zelda back but couldn’t cram in any realization scenes with Grampa, so just put the ending on anyway. They could have cut the completely worthless scene of Grampa pointing out hobo carvings for Bart talking to Grampa about his new girlfriend, and Grampa being unable to explain a good reason why she left him. That’s all you need. One scene. But the writers couldn’t even be bothered to do that. Whelp.

Tidbits and Quotes
– The “Grampa is dead” opening stops on a dime when the real story starts; Homer is relieved that his father is alive and promises he’ll do more things with him. Grampa of course is pleased to hear that, to which Homer immediately back pedals (“Yeah, yeah, we’ll call you, or send you some fruit.”) Again, completely disingenuous. Homer just thought his father was dead a minute ago, what a complete dickhead.
– I do like Grampa’s pick-up line to Zelda (“Now that you’re here, I’m changing my instructions to do resuscitate!”)
– The bit where Grampa pretends to be dead to get what he wants is the scene that really strikes me as being pathetic. And feels especially wrong considering the episode opened with the family thinking he was dead.
– A side note, I absolutely hate it when adults call Abe “Grampa.” Like Marge will refer to him as “Grampa” to other people when the kids aren’t around. Adults don’t do that, why would they do that? His name is Abe.
– The scene is kind of dumb, but I like Grampa’s dapper zoot suit at the start of the second act (“You don’t trust your old man? You ungrateful milkshake…”)
– There’s so much screen time where Zelda is silent; it’s like they only had Olympia Dukakis in for ten minutes and had to rap it up. She doesn’t say one word during the drive-in scene, and in many of her other longer scenes she has one line of dialogue. One.
– Grampa needs to use Viagra! And one of his top hairs becomes erect! Dear Christ do I miss “Old Money” right now…
– This one bit makes my mind explode. So Grampa returns with the car and Homer is furious. The entire scene is very clearly that Grampa is like the irresponsible teenager and Homer the demanding parent. This couldn’t be more clear. Grampa throws a tantrum and runs up to his “room,” plays his rebellious music (old time swing music), and Homer bangs on the door to get him to turn down that “racket.” Marge suggests he give him another chance, to which Homer responds, “No. He’s got to learn, Marge. The way my dad made me learn.” Now that line works, it caps off the running joke, end scene. But what’s this? “He is your dad.” NO, REALLY? THANK YOU FOR EXPLAINING THE INCREDIBLY OBVIOUS JOKE. It’s like programming for dummies. Then they have no way to end the scene and have Homer say, “Cosmic…” What? Absolute shit.
– Nothing about the drag race is funny. And we get the return of Gloria, still Snake’s girlfriend, dressed in a sexy tube top. And really, I was being generous when I said she was 40 at the oldest. Look at her in that shot, she has to be in her early 30s or younger. Which makes that other episode even more creepy and wrong. I do like the second act break where Grampa smashes the car into a tree, revealed to be the Simpson backyard, and the tree where Homer is lying down in a hammock in. But when he registers that his car has been completely destroyed, his reaction? Flustered, and slightly annoyed. Homer’s reaction to hearing Abe died is an overreaction, this is an underreaction. When the beach kids glued seashells and starfish on his car in “Summer at 4 Ft. 2,” what was his reaction? “Sweet merciful crap! My car!!” Here, the car is absolutely wrecked, and he doesn’t seem all too upset.
– The Itchy & Scratchy old time radio program goes on sooooo long. I’m sure the animators loved that (“We’re going to have this minute long sequence of them listening to the radio.” “So… what should we have them do?” “I dunno, you figure it out.”) It’s clear they want to rush through it since they cut it at the very end, but there’s so much you could have done to condense it. Cut the opening theme, cut the joke about the sponsor, just get to the cartoon with the sound effects. It could have been half the length and still worked as a joke.
– The Branson bus pulling up in front of the house is an absolutely lazy joke. But then we get the best gag in the whole show, maybe the whole season, where they wind up in Bronson, where everyone inexplicably looks and acts like Charles Bronson. It’s so absurd that I love it (“Hey ma! How ’bout some cookies!” “No dice.” “This ain’t over.”)
– “That’s Familiar” is great in its brutal honestly, something the show has basically all but lost. Having Charo be all wrinkly, opening referring to the stars as washed up and pathetic, it’s great. And of course the big finish: Yakov Smirnoff. I love at the end where he seems almost pissed that the show was interrupted (“In Russia, stage is for performers only!”) Then we get Grampa recognizing Tennessee Ernie Ford backstage, knowing he’s dead because he clipped his obituary. Upon realizing this, Ford dissolves into a pile of ashes. Even as a kid, I remember thinking, “What the fuck was that?”
– Despite being family-friendly, the glitz of Branson makes Marge gambling crazy, to which she goes nuts and grabs on Lisa’s arm (“Mom! You’re hurting me!”) Hysterical! And it’s never referred to again; her gambling problem which was once treated with severity is now just a gag.
– I really feel they called Zelda a hootchie earlier so they could set up the Charo gag at the end. I wouldn’t put it past them.

13 thoughts on “282. The Old Man and the Key

  1. Was this the one with the newspaper clipping that had the picture of Abe shaking his fist at the cloud and the headline “Old man yells at cloud”? At least that’s become usable.

    1. Yeah, it was. I was going to mention it, until I saw the picture used as the header for the episode article on Wikipedia, and this caption: “The scene in which it appears has become one of the most popular scenes of the series.” …excuse me?

      1. “Fuck off… because of that Wikipedia caption, I’m not going to mention this clipping at all.”

        To be fair, the headline’s not *quite* as good as “Local Man Loses Pants, Life” or “Incontinent Old Man Wins Miss Teen America”.

  2. Next season apparently has an episode called — wait for it — “Gone Abie Gone” and the rumor is they ARE killing him off, kinda like how they killed Cotton off near the end of the run of King of the Hill..

    1. Oh man, if this is true, you know it’s going to be handled just as terribly – if not even worse – than Mona’s death in “Mona Leaves-a”. Post-classic status quo changes, especially character deaths, are never good. (With the possible exception of Patty being officially outed as a lesbian, but then it was clear from that episode that she wasn’t even in the closet to begin with – Marge was just ignorant – so I don’t think it counts.)

      If we’re lucky, the writers are just planning to gradually kill off all of the characters who have been ruined over the years. Then in a few seasons time we can sit back and enjoy “The Bumblebee Man Show”.

      1. But there are a lot of characters on “The Simpsons,” so killing all of them off gradually will put the show on until season 100 (if that’s possible). Couldn’t they do another movie (a series finale movie) where they all get slaughtered in some apocalyptic disaster (like make it a retread of the first one mixed in with any zombie apocalypse movie you can name…or failing that, “The Walking Dead”), except for a select few (knowing them, it will probably be The Simpsons, but, just for laughs, I think it should be, like you said, The Bumblebee Man).

  3. I remember actually liking this episode when it first aired, mostly because we hadn’t had an Abe episode in a while (what was the last one? “Homer Simpson in: Kidney Trouble”? And we all know what a chunk of shit that one was.) I think I gave Al Jean the benefit of the doubt at the time because of his willingness to bring Abe into the foreground again, something that hadn’t happened much during the Scully years. But yeah, when you compare this to “Old Money” and other classic Abe episodes, it falls flat a lot. I thought this “having a celebrity guest star play a character who only gets like three lines” thing had only begun happening in recent years, but I had never really noticed before just how little dialogue Zelda has in this show.

    I do dig the Branson song. But it’s hard to look at Act III without being reminded of the vastly superior “Bart on the Road”, which got more laughs out of Branson with significantly less screen time. “I didn’t think he was gonna do ‘Moon River’, but then BAM! Second encore!”

    Speaking of “That’s Familiar”, I still can’t fathom why they bothered to get the real Bill “Ray Jay Johnson” Saluga for one line. Especially since it’s been established in past episodes that the writers can’t stand this guy. (“That was funny for about three seconds!”)

  4. Bloody hell you really are getting worked up these days. I mean, these are still good reviews, very well written and full of detail, but sometimes I just want to tell you to calm down! a) You’d have thought by now you would have got over the fact the show is not what it was, and b) it’s just a TV show!

    Anyway, from memory, I thought this was one of the best episodes this season. Lots of good jokes (as said this is just from memory so I can’t go in to specifics), the one I remember being Homer saying “we’ll get the next one” after he sees the Flanderses get on the bus. I remember that really made me laugh. Also it just felt like a plain fun episode. An episode that was just silly fun, that they sorta pulled off (for me).

    …which is why it doesn’t make much sense to compare this with Old Money. The two are completely different in tone; though I do agree that Zelda could have been given more lines.

  5. I distinctly remember this being one of the last episodes I watched before I gave up on the show. It was so painfully boring and unfunny to me, and made me wonder why I was still watching. Plus they already went to Branson before, and it was way funnier then.

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