322. I, D’oh-bot

(originally aired January 11, 2004)
What I initially figured would just be a poor man’s “Saturdays of Thunder” actually ended up surprising me. I mean… that description is still somewhat apt, but it’s still a really sweet and effective Homer-Bart show, unfortunately saddled with a bizarrely grim and uncomfortable B-plot. We start with Bart modifying his old bike with rad decals and accessories, but soon finds there’s no substitute for a real ten-speed. Homer buys and assembles one himself, which quickly falls apart, leaving Bart disappointed and disillusioned. It’s almost like a set-up from the classic years, where Homer makes a bungled attempt to help one of his kids in the first act and must make it up over the next two. In this case, inspired by Bart’s interest in a BattleBots-type show, Homer attempts to build his own fighting robot. Failing miserably, he does the next best thing: create an empty shell of one that he controls from the inside, unbeknownst to Bart. Dubbed “Chief Whack-a-Homer,” he competes on said show, winning the love of his son, as well as several nasty injuries and lacerations.

It’s not perfect, but what a breath of fucking fresh air this episode is. After slogging through so much of selfish asshole Homer as of late, seeing him actually risk life and limb, literally, for the happiness of his son is so heartening to see. This is the Homer we love, trying to do what’s best for his family in the most asinine way possible. Even in the climax when he goes up against Professor Frink’s mechanical killing machine, he’s completely brazen, and stupid, all for Bart’s sake. The scene where Homer is exposed and Bart expresses such enthusiasm over his father’s actions is really sweet and feels completely earned (“Any poindexter can throw some nuts and bolts together; you risked your own life, even though you’re a sole provider for a family of five!”) On top of the emotional core, the episode also has a lot of laughs, be it in parodying the fighting robot shows popular at the time (“Can robots feel pain? If so, we are horrible, horrible people!”) and in regards to Homer’s plights, like using a magnet to extract all of the shards of metal from his body.

The B-story… oh dear, the B-story… Snowball II is struck and killed by a car in act one. Now, the cat may not have been a prominent character, but she dates back to the first episode, and to see her bumped off and the fallout callously relegated to a side story doesn’t feel right. But the premise is that Lisa buys another cat, who is swiftly killed, then another, and another, all dead. For an eight-year-old girl, this would be absolutely traumatizing. It’s played off for laughs, but it just feels so saddening and wrong for a sweet girl like Lisa to go through so much anguish. It couldn’t clash more tonally with the main story. Our resolution is just a final kick in the teeth: coming across one last cat that actually evades danger rather than get killed by it, Lisa dubs her Snowball V, but to make things convenient, decides to call her Snowball II and forget anything ever happened. Totally makes sense for a little kid to do. Come on, guys, I know you think you’re being clever by being meta, but it just doesn’t work here. But despite the B-plot, this one’s definitely a gem buried amidst a pile of shit.

Tidbits and Quotes
– The opening bit of Milhouse rushing to the Simpson house is fantastic, a shockingly great visual piece of animation, with more life in it than I’d seen on the show for many seasons. Sure enough I see Lauren Macmullen’s name pop up as director; seems that every time I notice the show is looking exceptional visually, it’s a show she did. She only has two more episodes left unfortunately, they would have been wise to keep her around.
– The Domino’s shot, Flanders actually swearing, the bullies taunts actually feeling legitimate and not jokey, Hibbert’s Kool & the Gang air freshener (“Celebration’s over, boys,”) Homer being a bonehead (“A ten-speed bike? What did your mother say?” “She said yes.” “I said no!” “I’m confused, which is it?!”) I was completely stunned at how much was working in the first act, and continued to work through the entirety. If not for that goddamn B-plot, this one would be top of the heap of latter-day episodes. Not even the spring-loaded first aid kit could sully my mood out of act one, it was just a mild abrasion on a so-far-so-good show.
– There’s something endearing about Homer riding around on a tricycle inside that suit making robot noises. Also shocking that in basically every episode now I either hate Homer or am bewildered by him, for once not only am I on his side but I’m enthralled by him and his efforts.
– Nice banter between the Robot Rumble hosts (“He’s killing him softly with his saw!” “Killing him softly?” “With his saw!”)
– One of the only things I hate about the main story is the montage sequence, where we see Homer’s other competitors: Reverend Lovejoy and Jessica, and Chief Wiggum and Ralph. The former I don’t buy condoning this type of show, and I don’t buy either of them having the technical know-how to build a functional robot, especially the latter. Why not have it be random families like the first match? The end does bring back Frink’s son though, apparently not killed after the incident way back in “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?” I like that he doesn’t speak a word, just mimics his father’s look and movements, like he’s some kind of clone or something.
– I don’t even want to talk about the B-plot. Not even the mention of Armin Tamzarian. I will say that I definitely wouldn’t trust any cat given to me by the Crazy Cat Lady. The myriad of diseases it must carry…
– Love the animation of Homer squeezing out of the robot frame like a tube of toothpaste, and the twist that Frink programmed the robot to abide by Asimov’s rules to never harm humans. Homer is declared the winner by default (“Show me where in the rule book it says a human can’t be a robot!” “Right here. Rule one.”)

18 thoughts on “322. I, D’oh-bot

  1. This is possibly my favourite later day episode. I can ignore the b plot because I enjoy the a plot so much. Some great animation that reminds me of the very early seasons.

  2. REALLY surprised you seem to (at least somewhat) like “I, [Annoyed Grunt]bot” (cool title, though). I watched it a few months ago and found it really boring and annoying… and the whole b-plot with the cats and the armand tanzarian (sp?) reference really just kinda pissed me off for so many, many reasons. I was actually thinking, when realizing this episode was next, that you would trash the hell out of it. I personally hate this episode, but in retrospect, the plot actually somewhat makes sense, Homer isn’t jerkass, and I guess despite not being a GOOD episode, it does feel more in the spirit of the Simpsons, though I honestly think the b-plot is amongst the worst things they’ve ever done on the show. But, hey, I’m a cat lover, so maybe that’s just me.

    …One thing I was wondering was about your comment on “Flanders actually swearing”. I can’t recall that bit, what did he say? I know he’s cursed a few times before, most noteably in Homer Loves Flanders, and probably in Hurricane Neddy. But it is very rare…

    1. Bart rides by with his tricked out ride and Flanders comments, “That is one bitchin’ bike!” Maybe not entirely in-character for him to say, but after seasons of hyper-sanitized psycho Christian Flanders, it was kind of refreshing to see a moment that felt like Flanders was an actual human being.

  3. WHile I will say this is one of the better episodes of the season, I still do not think it is really all that great. However, I think you are about tl watch “Milhouse Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” which I thought was a really good episode.

  4. This is one my favorite later season episodes. I actually enjoy the B-plot as well. That type of grim humor isn’t for everyone, but I like that sort of stuff and thought it was well done here. I didn’t care for the meta gag at the end, though. It could have worked better if they cut it with Lisa deciding to call the cat Snowball II, but they overplayed it with the Tamzarian bit. I guess they expected fans to cry out that they’d done the same cop out before and they felt the need to hang a lantern on it.

    1. I wish instead of trying the stick a plate of sheet metal in front of their asses every time they do something shitty and lazy like that, they would JUST NOT DO IT.

      I wish someone would have flipped out in the writers room and made them realize that admitting something is stupid and lazy and idiotic doesn’t forgive it, and after a while just compounds it further,

      1. Pointing out how stupid or nonsensical your story is can be funny if done right and used very rarely. The show doing it practically every other episode at this point. Maybe that’s a sign you’re just shitty writers?

  5. A lot of people like this episode, but it never really worked for me. It was refreshing to see Homer be not a complete asshole, but it felt too much of a stretch here, that he would willingly face horrific and brutal bodily injuries for Bart’s sake.

    And, the subplot, yeah. Imagine the outcry if the subplot was kept mostly the same, only with Santa’s Little Helper instead of Snowball II.

    1. Well, SLH has something of a personality. And we;ve spent a lot of time with him (from the very first episode!) This is like the only moment in the show I can think of when the cat was given any focus at all, and even then it was by dying.

      Plus, you know, snowball II has always been a joke about a cat that got hit by a car. This just takes the joke further unnecessarily.

  6. I barely remember this episode, and all that I do remember comes from the crappy B-story. If it’s really above par for Season 15, I’ll have to remember to give it another look sometime.

  7. Sorry for the late reply, but I am watching back all the Simpspns episodes (just like you were), because I never saw all the episodes. and I wanted so say some things.
    First of all, I liked the main story in the episode. It was funny and original, and because I used to love those Robot-war shows like 10 years ago, it was great to see.
    I do not really remember if I saw this one before. I never knew that the real Snowball II died, so that was very sad to find out after more than nine years after this episode aired.
    I don’t like the B-plot, because as a cat-liker and owner, I know how it feels like to lose your favorite cat. Five days ago, one of my two cats died (had her for like 6 years).She misteriously fell into the canal in front of my house (don’t know how that happened, ’cause she w as always very careful). So the scene with Snowball III floating dead in the water was kinda…painful. I also had a cat that got run over, so that was sad to see too. So I don’t like the B-plot, because the cat has been around for 322 episodes (over 14 years). Ok, she wasn’t really what you call a main character, but it always gave me a nice feeling to see the cat from time to time. Now that I know Snowball II isn’t Snowball II anymore, it makes me feel sad. I believe they maybe wanted to say at the end: ‘here, think of it like the pauper episode and pretend it didn’t happen.’ Doesn’t work that way in this case.
    They could at least made this about a whole episode and not just a B-plot.

    (btw sorry for any bad typing)

  8. At least the Lisa plot has a funny Gil line.

    “All right. Old Gil’s gonna collect big from insurance. I’ll be eating food tonight!”

  9. This has to be the last good episode. Just watch the ‘a’ plot and skip the dead cat crap!

    Funny thing is – ‘battlebots’ is back now!

  10. Oh God, this one. You say the A-plot was good? I honestly don’t remember it. All i remember is that dreadful B-plot. This was one of the absolute worst episodes in the series. Callous, bad characterization and worst of all, not funny. I agree with whoever it was above who said that grim humor can be funny. I agreed, but it has to be handled properly. The Simpsons generally isn’t the right vehicle for it, and the way The Simpsons was written in season 15 absolutely wasn’t.

    Fuck this episode. I don’t care what the A plot was.

    This isn’t because I’m a huge Snowball II fan, either. The show never did anything with her. She was the only member of the Simpson family never to get her own episode. Basically, she owed her entire existence to a throwaway joke in the very first episode.

  11. The subplot is best left in the back burner, really, but this is hands down the finest Simpsons episode since Oakley and Weinstein left the show. It’s amazing just to see how Homer is willing to put his neck on the line if it’ll win him his kids’ love and appreciation. Compare and contrast crap like “Barting Over”.

  12. I was surprised to see that you praised this episode this highly. Yeah, it was nice to see Homer act like a loving father again for a change, I’ll hand the episode that. But this was still among the worst episodes of the entire series for me, since it solidified Zombie Simpsons’ cynical premise that violence, suffering and death equals humor, and while most Jean era shows have no emotional impact on me whatsoever, this one left me with revulsion.

    The Zombie Simpsons trend of “Homer enduring pain = funny” is taken to its extreme here, with realistically depicted deep flesh wounds and metal shards in his torso and eye. None of this was even remotely funny, it was just disconcerting and revolting. These moments were actually the first time that a Simpsons episode was physically painful for me to watch.

    Plus we had Homer shooting the Wiggums’ robot in its Ralph face (which was even pointed out by the fight announcers), and Gil apparently getting killed in a car explosion. And let’s not forget that Maggie is inside that robot suit with Homer (we see her for a few seconds while the suit is shaken by the Frinks’ robot), yet she doesn’t emerge when the other robot steps on it and squeezes Homer out, so apparently, she got crushed. Comedy gold, everybody!

    Together with the absolutely atrocious b-plot, which used a little girl’s desparation over the repeated deaths of her pets as nothing more than a source of cheap laughs without giving it any sort of emotional depth, the whole episode basically came down to a number of people and animals suffering. At least, in Homer’s case, his suffering wasn’t completely pointless, since it earned him Bart’s admiration, so there is still one tiny flicker of light in this otherwise dark and depressing episode.

  13. At first I was ready to completely disagree with you, but you did make some good points I hadn’t thought of while watching the episode. Yes, Homer isn’t an asshole here and he is doing everything he can for Bart. That’s quite sweet. The story is flawed and there were times when I sat there waiting to laugh, especially at the end.

    I love the Dominos joke Wiggum makes. That is so freaking hilarious. The same goes for Ned’s “bitchin” comment and his response to Todd about it.

    On the other hand, the Lisa story is atrocious. Not because they kept killing the cats (honestly, very little offends me as I am not an overly sensitive person), but just because it was way too stupid. The whole ending bit too was dumb and acts as if the audience is not smart enough to get it.

    Sure, this episode was no where near as bad as the rest of the season has been, but I can think of at least 30 post-classic episodes that are far better.

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