338. Sleeping with the Enemy

(originally aired November 21, 2004)
Next up on the roster of characters the show is intent on ruining is school bully Nelson. We’ve slowly seen glimmers of him being poor and his troubled family life, but this is where it really comes to a head, where Nelson is now a poor little urchin boy. The show wants to have it both ways and keep him a threat to Bart, but when you push him so far in the pathetically needy direction, any intimidation he might have had just dissolves. Following a particularly lame party she threw for Bart, and distance from Lisa concerning a B-plot we’ll get into later, Marge feels unappreciated by her children. Enter Nelson, who we first see fishing for tadpoles in a pond to eat them for lunch. Marge offers him a sandwich, which he hesitates for and quickly grabs like some kind of wounded animal. She begins to take a shine towards the boy, who seems to appreciate her kindness, and gets him to do chores around the house. Not long after that, Nelson’s mother leaves him home alone, so he’s given residence at the Simpson house, much to Bart’s chagrin.

We get a better sense of Nelson’s sad home life in this episode. We already know his father abandoned him long ago, but here we get our first good look at his disheveled, uncaring mother. The joke here is that she’s a whore: she openly talks about who she’s slept with and wanting to take her top off, and her panties drop in public. And it’s funny because she’s a dancer, but she’s haggard and old. That’s all the thought that was put into her character. Everything in this show with Nelson is treated so deadly seriously, but last season we had a show that began with him being poor and pathetic being a big gag. You’re either going to mock him for being destitute or make us feel sorry for him, you can’t do both. Or you could, if this show was written better. This series used to champion itself with having its cake and eating it too, garnering sympathy while getting laughs at the same time. Now you can literally hear the gears violently shift between a cloying and forced scene and a stupid gag.

As for the B-story, it’s another instance of writing the kids older as eight-year-old Lisa becomes conscious of her weight, and proceeds to over-exercise and not eat. It’s not really much of a plot, just this thing that’s set up at the beginning and is left running in the background. At the very least they address in the end that this kind of story about female body issues can’t be resolved in twenty minutes, but ultimately makes it feel like an exercise in futility since the story didn’t illuminate anything about the issue at all. Lisa gets teased, stresses about getting thinner, then snaps and engulfs herself inside a cake. I guess going on insane diets can turn you into a maniac? Maybe, but it just doesn’t work. I’m sure at this point there are grade school girls who are worried about them being fat, which is horrifying to think about, but this story just doesn’t work for someone as young as Lisa. So nothing in the episode really works too well. I’m definitely more annoyed with this show than “Oven War” for tearing Nelson down, but in the end, it’s just another whatever episode.

Tidbits and Quotes
– A gag where Homer illustrates “the Simpson butt” turns into a weird “how-to-draw” lesson where he sketches a perfect drawing of himself. Then he proceeds to talk to himself in a different high-pitched persona and eat a gigantic sandwich he pulls from nowhere. The man needs to be put in a clinic.
– Here we have the first of many instances where we see Skinner and Krabappel together again: they’re fucking, but Krabappel asserts it means nothing. And it doesn’t. The connection they had way back in “Grade School Confidential” was kind of sweet and endearing; now Krabappel is an uncaring, miserable harlot and Skinner a spineless wuss. The march of characterization goes on…
– A sick Milhouse appearing at the party via speaker phone, complete with a framed photo of him beside it, is an alright gag. The call quickly begins to break up (“I told him to use a LAN line!”) The rest of the party is just bizarre though, with Martin apparently being an expert artist (maybe he took lessons from Homer), and Ralph repeatedly saying “duck” in Duck, Duck, Goose, a gag the writers seemed to think was so funny they used it as the first act break, a joke that goes on far, far, faaaaaaaaaaaarrr too long.
– “Ha-ha! You’re nocturnal!” “You don’t have to impress me by making fun of others. I already like you.” “Ha-ha! I’m starting to let down my guard! Ha-ha!” I feel at some point with running gags you need to learn how to pack it in. “Ha-ha!” may be Nelson’s catchphrase, but it just feels so overplayed and overdone at this point. In the classic years we had him calling Bart on the phone to laugh at him, and greater than that, see him have an out-of-body experience so he could appear in someone’s thoughts to laugh at their misery. That’s really pushing it to a wonderfully ridiculous place, and that was a decade ago.
– This is the last episode directed by Lauren MacMullen, and she brings her usual visual flairs: panning across the Bowlarama logo to fade into a ball going down the lanes, an upshot over the frying pan of pancakes… visual flairs like these are much appreciated in such a boring show.
– “I get the feeling Bart isn’t everything he could be in the son department.” That’s a quote from Nelson. What kid, let alone Nelson, talks like that? My mind reeled after hearing that, I had to pause the episode to process exactly what I had just listened to.
– Given the episode title, the conceit of Bart’s life being made miserable living with Nelson isn’t really explored at all. We see he finds his father in the end because he wants to get rid of him, but we really don’t get much of why. It also hurts that Nelson’s been such a sad, pathetic character up to that point, that it’s jarring when he flips back into bully-mode. And then flips back when he starts singing fucking Yentl. I had to fast-forward that part, I just couldn’t take it.
– The sequence showing where Mr. Muntz had been all this time is so insulting and crazy… I barely even want to describe it. He’s at the Kwik-E-Mart and eats a candy bar, which he claims he didn’t know had peanuts in it, even though we see it’s a “Nut-Nutt.” His entire face puffs up, downgrading his speech to incoherent garbles, and he runs into a traveling circus outside. Cut to him in a burlap sack as the star circus attraction. So what, was he stuck at the circus for years as a prisoner? I guess they try to explain how he stayed in his sickly state by the audience chucking peanuts at him, but the swelling never went down even at night to the point he could talk and possibly escape? And people were chucking peanuts at him at every single show, every single day of the year? Maybe the barker told them to, like it was part of the act. In that case, maybe he knew that the peanuts would aggravate his condition and he did it on purpose. Where is this evil barker and how can he get away with this? Are there other members of his freak show that he’s kidnapped and forced to work for him? What the fuck is happening? Oh, who gives a shit…

23 thoughts on “338. Sleeping with the Enemy

  1. Nelson’s dad disappeared for several years despite the fact he was seen in Bart Star. How does time work in this damn universe? An episode ago we skipped to 3 years later and nobody aged.

  2. This is the big finale, the last show for Jon Vitti and Lauren MacMullen. Nothing of value is left after this point. This should have been the series finale.

    1. True. By this point in the series, all that was left was the classic opening credits and the awesome theme song. And… Of course… soon enough we’ll have a worthless opening credits sequence replacement and then that episode where they even replaced the theme song to “Tik-Tok” for an episode, I guess to represent that they’ve officially killed everything that was ever good on the show. In all honesty, the only thing I REALLY liked the last few seasons was a FEW of the couch gags (like the John K. and Bill Plympton ones) and those were on youtube about 3 seconds after they first aired on television. For some incredibly stupid reason I’ve kept watching the show even as I knew it was bad, just as a Sunday-night (formely Thursday-night…) weekly tradition. I am skipping season 24 though.

      1. What is wrong with the HD opening? If there is one thing the show needed, it was a new opening sequence. In fact, it should have had one way back in Season 10, because after 200 episodes, a new opening should be a requirement. Of course, I still think there should be a golden rule that states “NO TV SHOW SHALL AIR BEYOND 10 SEASONS!”

      2. Marcus, I guess there’s not much “wrong” with it beyond the fact that I just don’t like the soulless, clinic, slick, hard-to-look-at, lifeless HD look of the show (yeah, yeah, I often like lo-fi things and I also still watch VHS, but it’s not THAT, specifically, plenty of television has done well with the HD look, I just don’t think it works for the Simpsons). Also, things like “Homer gets hit by the car instead of just running away from it!” are annoying.

        I will say, it was kinda cool how they changed the opening sequence in the season premiere after The Simpsons Movie, to reflect the town being rebuilt and to tie up some loose ends from that movie — a shocking bit of continuity. But there’s just something kinda icky about watching the opening sequence now, and the best bits in them are usually references to classic episodes.

      3. Also, the old opening just flowed a lot better. The new one added a bunch of jokes that were amusing at first but now just kill the flow.

  3. “I guess going on insane diets can turn you into a maniac?”

    …..Yeeeeeeah. I never really understood how psychologically damaged a lot of young females are (and some males, but you know) until dating a girl for many years who would get violent and obsessive and downright, uh, maniacal, every time she ate, like, a piece of popcorn, and then the rest of the time she’d complain about being hungry. I was pretty sympathetic to her obsessions and her eating disorder(s) for a while, but then she’d blame me for buying her dinner or for NOT buying her dinner, then she’d blame me if I told her she looked good (she’d say “oh, so I didn’t look good BEFORE?” or, later, “You only complimented me that day when I didn’t eat ANYTHING FOR A WEEK!” or some nonsense), and on and on and on and on and on and on. I mean, her entire life was about food, and dieting, she would be a skeleton and passing out from not eating and still would work out 2 hours a day and she would schedule her entire days around working out and she could only eat so many calories a WEEK, she wouldn’t work a real job and she would break arrangements with any potential friends and would often break plans because she had to keep with these plans, and if you tried to get in the way of any of them at all she would get often get physically violent or scream at you.

    Of course, she was well over Lisa’s age when I dated her, but she said she was even worse when she was about 10-12 years old, so it’s not too much of a stretch to expect 8 year old Lisa to be a maniac… and the behaviour my ex exhibited was FAR worse than anything Lisa goes through in this episode.

    ….uh, anyway…

    I don’t like this episode. It’s boring, isn’t it.

  4. Sorry to hear about that A B R A C A D A V E R ! It sounds like your GF needed help from someone like Dr. Phil. Anyway, The Simpsons wants to keep going, like SNL (Saturday Night Live) for some reason, idk why, it’s an animated sitcom, not a live (or taped) sketch comedy.

    1. The only reason SNL keeps going is that the show is always rebuilding itself and changing, so that golden rule of a TV show not exceeding 10 seasons should only apply to sitcoms and dramas. Sketch comedy should be at least a case-by-case basis (because some shows, like MADtv, did fizzle out after season 10).

  5. Here’s yet another example of an episode I originally loved, for some reason, but it just doesn’t hold up that well. I recall around this time that I would praise an episode if it didn’t contain a lot of wacky Homer escapades or outlandish plots. Well, that wasn’t the problem. Both of those elements can produce funny episodes if done right. The problem is simply unnatural dialog, lame attempts at humor, parodies without much of a twist (Nelson singing “Papa Can You Hear Me?”), and stuff which insults the audience’s intelligence (the reason Nelson’s dad was gone for so long).

    That said, I -loved- Milhouse’s speaker phone gag, and yes, Lauren MacMullan’s direction was typically good. Don’t worry, this isn’t her absolute last work for the series; she would return as a sequence director for the movie.

  6. Oh dear god, the Yentl scene. This is the season where The Simpsons really starts to unashamedly turn into Family Guy – just having a character sing a song from some other movie or show and expecting that to make the audience laugh is exactly the sort of thing that Seth MacFarlane’s writing staff seems to love. There’s no parody element to it or anything, it’s just Nelson singing Streisand, and that’s supposed to be enough. Fuck this show.

    And yeah, I hated that half-assed explanation of where Nelson’s dad has been all this time. Again, the writers know it’s stupid, but they figure that if they admit it’s stupid, they can still put it on the air and that’ll be okay.

  7. The recent death of Andy Williams has me thinking (of course) of Nelson in Season 7’s “Bart on the Road,” and it really shows how much better they were at adding things to characters in ways that made sense, and enhanced what we already knew about them rather than taking away from it.

    When Nelson is at that Andy Williams concert, enraptured, it shows his dorky side but it also kind of makes sense, in a way. It’s very believable that his poor, “yellow trash” family would have a parent or relative who is a crazy Andy Williams fan, and that it would have made a big impression on Nelson at a very young age. Moreover, it’s such a hilarious moment–the joy on Nelson’s face, the boredom on the other, the way Nelson is so moved that Williams finally sang “Moon River,” as if there was any chance the guy was going to leave his greatest hit ever off the setlist. And it doesn’t take away from Nelson being a threatening bully.

    Nelson singing “Yentl,” on the other hand, makes no sense. Streisand is the kind of thing old Jewish ladies would like, not Nelson or anyone he is connected to. And there is almost nothing funny about the scene–yeah, Nelson singing the song is silly, but just because it’s out of character. And any other old-fashioned song would have the same effect. Andy Williams worked BECAUSE IT WAS ANDY WILLIAMS–a perfect choice for the character.

  8. An awkward scene not far into the episode is when Bart brings home his perfect test and Homer doesn’t believe him it’s genuine. After Bart keeps insisting it is real, Homer jumps over the kitchen table to Bart and strangles him. Behind them is Marge, with a terrified look on her face, holding Maggie close to her. She is scared of her violent husband, unable to protect her son from him and afraid of her little daughter getting hurt, too. It’s a very uncomfortable moment IMO.

  9. This episode isn’t too bad. I mean, it has a lot of bad moments like the needlessly long scene of Ralph doing “duck duck” for no reason whatsoever and Nelson’s dad being gone for years even though he was one of their sports coaches (I think for the Big Brother episode), but it does have some funny moments.

    I laughed at the scene when Krabappel revealed that everyone got a 100 because she forgot about the classroom map. A single laugh makes an episode decent to me, which is why I don’t hate this one.

    Of course, that is kind of sad that I can only rate an episode on how many times I laugh, but still.

    Not sure I understand which song is from Streissand, I’m going to guess it is the one when Nelson is singing to the sky, but I like Bart’s reaction to it.

    The Lisa plot is pretty bad, but I have seen kids less than her age get upset when they are called fat or something. It’s a sad thing to see, especially when it is a kindergartener from other kindergarteners.

  10. Sometimes it feels like you have a biased view on even the best post-classic era The Simpsons episodes, despite what you told me in The Simpsons Movie that you do go into every new episode just to dump on it. I do not think that having some depth into Nelson’s character and loneliness and showing his more sensitive side ruins his character as a bully. I do not even know if you would rather flanderize Nelson and make him more unlikable.

    Sure, Mr. Burns and Nelson are less of a threat now than they were 20 years ago, but it’s good to introduce us to new character traits that don’t destroy the original character or give them hidden depths. I see your problem with Lisa being too young for a plot about body insecurities and weight watching, but why is that a thing that would be exclusive to teenagers? I mean Lisa is already a very insecure person so it doesn’t seem completely out of left field or right field for her to be concerned about her body at some point.

  11. My point is, giving Nelson a personality beyond being a bully doesn’t automatically ruin his character like you think it does. As for Mona Leaves-a, I agree that Apu and Ned have never been a religious odd couple, but I do not think that having a joke about them arguing about reincarnation does not ruin their characters.

  12. I feel like this episode had a lot to put out in a short amount of time. 22 minutes can’t really address the depth of both of these stories, plus the added setup with Bart’s party and the minor subplot of Bart dealing with living with Nelson but for what it’s worth, there was a pretty solid effort here for an episode this late into the show. In fact, I’d say this is one of the best post-classic episodes, this one’s definitely a gem within dirt.
    Personally I don’t see how this really changed Nelson’s character much because him being poor and having issues with his father abandoning him had been established since pretty early in the show, and all this episode does is expand on that. His bully persona is still there in this episode. The only thing that felt off was the admittedly ridiculous Yentyl scene.
    It also felt nice to see them handling eating disorders in a way that was respectful; I get that Lisa is being written as above her age but I was just happy to see any show take on this subject in a way that wasn’t insulting, as I’ve had an eating disorder myself and seeing my favorite show have an episode of that even if it was long after it had been good, I don’t know, that just felt nice to see.
    This episode was also just pretty enjoyable in general, it had quite a few good jokes and bits and the stories kept me interested throughout.
    In a way it almost feels bittersweet; the last episode by both Lauren MacMullen and Jon Vitti (whose later season episodes always seemed to be bright spots in weak seasons), with both them down, it feels like this is the last hurrah for every last bit of what was left. Unsurprisingly, the show went from inconsistently weak to straight up terrible around this season/the next one, IMO.
    I’m rambling now. This is one of the very few post-classic eps I rush to defend, I’m sorry lol

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