368. My Fair Laddy

(originally aired February 26, 2006)
Previously in “The President Wore Pearls,” the show tried to tackle an Evita parody, but came up short because they weren’t mindful of their characters, just shoving them in this situation to match the musical even when it didn’t make sense. This is another musical parody, and it works a thousand times better because the borrowed story and songs still work within the context of the show and its cast. Taking off of My Fair Lady,┬áLisa attempts to turn slovenly drunkard Willie into a proper gentleman as her entry into the science fair. Well… that aspect doesn’t entirely make sense, but it doesn’t really matter. When Willie’s shack is destroyed, he stays the night at the Simpsons, and he resolves that he would like to better his lot in life. With some effort, Lisa completely transforms Willie to be completely refined, eventually becoming maitre ‘d at the Gilded Truffle. But like everyone in Springfield, he finds that where he was the happiest was right back where he started, so Willie gives up his proper trimmings for his life in festering squalor.

As I said before, this parody works because it fits the characters: Lisa was shoehorned into the role of Eva Peron, but Willie as Eliza Doolittle makes more sense. The songs are also quite good, and all serve to move the story along. The first one kicks the plot off, then another during Willie’s teachings, then another when he’s completely reformed, and then a final one as he is forlorn for the life he once had. They’re all riffs on songs from My Fair Lady, which helps to make them more memorable, but I definitely think they stand out on their own. Also great is Castellaneta as Willie, giving a heartfelt performance as Willie proper, and also proper Willie, altering his voice to sound more dignified, but still maintaining the character. There are a fair amount of bits that don’t work, and a mostly uninteresting B-plot about Homer’s pants, but this is a pretty good episode, with great music and ultimately a great character study. After “Pearls” and so many other examples, I thought the show had forgotten how to properly do parody, but I guess I was wrong. Though I’m sure it won’t take long to be proven right once again.

Tidbits and Quotes
– We haven’t seen Mrs. Pommelhorst, the gym teacher that often. She dates all the way back to “The PTA Disbands,” unseen but mentioned by the girl stuck on the handlebars (“Hellloo! Mrs. Pommelhorst! I’d like to get down now!”) She was in “Little Girl in the Big Ten,” and I’m sure a couple other ones. But here we start with the big joke: this masculine, tough woman is going to get a sex change and be Mr. Pommelhorst! Hilarious, right? It just feels too obvious.
– Bombardment, bombardment, bombardment… boy, that dodgeball schtick grew old instantly, and it’s the only joke for the first four minutes of the show. And it just feels cruel to a point too, this grown man viciously pummeling children in the face with dodgeballs. They then attempt a Full Metal Jacket parody with Bart brandishing an evil grin holding the iced ball with the teacher screaming, “What is your major malfunction!” That ball could easily have killed him, but I guess I can overlook it since Bart probably isn’t smart enough to have thought that through.
– I like the false start to the first song, showing Willie’s low expectations for life (“All I want is a place somewhere…” [beat] “And?” “That’s it.”)
– Nice flashback of Willie’s father yelling and screaming at him minutes after he’d exited the wound. The reveal was pretty obvious, but it was still funny (“Would you like to cut the cord?” “Let him cut it himself! It’s time he learned life ain’t one big party!”) Baby Willie with his shaggy unibrow is pretty adorable too.
– The bullies enact their own parody of Around the World in Eighty Days. For some reason. Chalk them up as characters the writers have absolutely no clue how to write for anymore.
– “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” has become “What flows from the nose should not get on my clothes.” Willie swinging Bart and Lisa around by their nostrils is a wonderfully gross sequence, and Lisa singing her next line all nasally is pretty great.
– I actually felt for Willie in the episode. The final number “The Shack Where I Lived” leading up until the end I thought were very sweet. The shack is rebuilt with one final touch, a “Home Sweet Home” picture frame Lisa put up. Willie appears touched, but when Lisa leaves, he rips it down in disgust (“I liked it the way it was!”) A sweet ending with an amusing capper to end the episode? I’m shocked how competent most of this show is.

367. We’re on the Road to D’oh-where

(originally aired January 29, 2006)
Hey, it’s another tepid episode! Although to be fair, aside from the terrible non-ending and the B-“plot,” this one actually isn’t too bad as a ramshackle Homer-Bart show. There are scenes between them that actually feel authentic as a father and son at odds, but there are also others that don’t work at all. A recent catastrophic prank by Bart leaves Skinner urging Homer and Marge to send the boy to a rigorous reformation camp in Oregon. When Bart is unable to fly by himself, Homer is forced to drive him there, making him miss his trip to Vegas with his bar buddies. A highlight here is where Homer reflects on his miserable stasis in life (“I’m 38 years old, driving a crappy car with a son who doesn’t respect me, and I’m one Snickers Pie away from losing my foot to diabetes!”) It’s said out of rage, but it’s so unbelievably refreshing to see Homer disillusioned by his poor lot in life, rather than just giddily laughing at everything and being so upbeat all the time. Blissfully ignorant Homer is fun, just not for the entire running time of a show.

Homer and Bart bond over mocking a more loving father and son, also a great, classic-feeling scene. But Bart tries to make his escape, leaving Homer to track him down, ending up almost plummeting off a cliff. This leads to a hysterical scene where Bart raises and lowers the fender of the car to mess with his dad, giving Homer mood whiplash, going from fawning and loving, to increasingly disturbing death threats (“I’m gonna double kill you! Then I’ll bury you in a shallow grave, dig you up and kill you again! That’s the beauty of a shallow grave!”) Homer dumps Bart at the camp, feels guilty for it, then takes him back and drives off. Whatever. Back home Marge holds a yard sale to unload her husband and son’s junk, but finds her biggest seller are expired pills. I could almost buy this if they kept up Marge’s naivety, but Snake out-and-out says he’s buying illegal drugs, and Marge couldn’t be more chipper to sell them to him. Very out-of-character. The ending features Lisa returning home to find her parents are both incarcerated, and muses how she always figured the family would whittle down to just her. Not only is it an unsatisfying, unfunny ending, but continues to paint the Simpson family as rickety and dysfunctional, where they used to be loving and close-knit despite their squabbles. This show’s got some surprisingly good scenes in it, but the stupid shit weighs it down.

Tidbits and Quotes
– Milhouse is also becoming a character impossible to write for. He’s sort of like Marge, where they can’t write dialogue for a meek, out-of-touch character (“We can’t leave here without turning one little valve!” “Yeah! It’d be like going to Amsterdam and not taking a walking tour of famous doors!”) That would be slightly odd for Marge to say, but even more out-of-place for a ten-year-old boy.
– There’s barely any story here, so there’s so many sequences and jokes stretched to fill out the running time. The steam filling up the school feels so long, and other gags like Flanders singing the colors of the dreamcoat and the aforementioned bit of Homer screaming at Bart just go on foreeeeeeeever.
– It’s sort of dumb as the explanation for why Bart is “no-fly,” but I do love the flashback of Bart’s egregious transgression: removing his seat belt before the light went off upon landing (“Thanks a lot, 33C! Now we all have to go back to Minneapolis! And I’m very tired!”)
– The scene of Homer and Bart at the diner is honestly the best I’ve seen in years. It was so charming seeing those two enjoy each other’s company believably, by mocking others. Like when the family mocked Flanders’ note in “Dead Putters Society,” or the ending of “Saturdays of Thunder.”
– Why would Marge be selling the Mr. Plow jacket? She loves that thing. Just seems like more cramming in old references without really understanding what they mean.
– Smithers is buying estrogen! It’s funny because he’s a gay man, that means he wants to buy female drugs (“It’s for a friend… who’s trapped in the body of another friend.”) Wait, does that mean he wants a sex change operation? What the fuck have they done to this character?
– Homer’s Vegas nightmare with the sexy Bart waitress is incredibly disturbing (“Hey Homer, you wanna eat my shorts?”) My genitals were very confused. Burt Bacharach turning into Bart Bartabart is a pretty good gag too.

366. Homer’s Paternity Coot

(originally aired January 8, 2006)
You might have noticed that first acts in later years have been becoming increasingly more tangential, having absolutely nothing to do with the main story. While they do present the opportunity for some good jokes or satire (which there have been neither of lately anyway), as a viewer, you feel a bit like your time has been wasted, that the writers couldn’t come up with a full enough story so they bullshitted for six minutes and then kicked the plot off. This episode has, bar none, the worst tangential first act of the entire series. Marge is incensed that a toll has been put up on a much-traveled road, and instead opts to take the free alternative. To combat this, Quimby installs dividers on either side to block that route, which would basically be enough, but also puts in rows of tire spikes to lock everyone in. Why entire rows? You’re already boxed in. Marge freaks out and slams into reverse, which causes an entire row of cars behind her to get rear-ended. It’s like the stupid shit in “See Homer Run,” there’s randomly like twenty cars bumper-to-bumper. So all the popped tires get thrown on the tire fire, which causes a great level of smog, so much so that it melts the ice caps of a nearby frosted mountain, revealing a frozen postman. What was he doing up there? Was he fucking flash-frozen? How are his letters still intact and not soggy and unreadable? This is the catalyst for the plot to start: the Simpsons receive a long lost letter. There are a billion ways they could have started this story, and this is the one they landed on. It’s baffling.

The main story just bored me more than anything. The letter is from an old lover of Homer’s mother, who believes that her child is actually his, leading Homer to believe Abe might not be his real father. Homer tracks down the mystery man: wealthy treasure hunter Mason Fairbanks, voiced by Michael York. He’s a delightful old Brit who Homer immediately gloms onto, tossing Abe aside like a sack of hot rocks. It’s actually not as cruel as it sounds, so I wasn’t annoyed, it was just kind of uninteresting. We know that Fairbanks isn’t his father, so the episode is meant to posit how Homer’ life would be different had he been raised by another person. Except it doesn’t do that at all; it ends with an undersea treasure salvaging where Homer nearly dies. The only thing that aggravated me here is that he has visions of his father in the past, showing him as a great dad, which as we’ve seen, he wasn’t at all. Him playing around with Li’l Homer is fine and sweet, but the bit of him giving Homer all his money on his wedding day feels so phony (“I gave you everything, and it still wasn’t enough.”) Sure, this did actually happen in “Lisa’s First Word,” but emotionally it was handled so much more efficiently and they undercut it with a joke. Here, it’s just saccharine for saccharine’s sake. In the end, Abe reveals he’s the real father… God, whatever. How could an episode with such a startling in-universe conceit be so safe and boring?

Tidbits and Quotes
– Joe Frazier has a quick guest spot, which only makes me wish I was watching “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?”
– “Voila! Which is French for ‘ta-da’!” “I’m trapped like the ‘L’ in a BLT!” These guys are really at a loss in writing dialogue for Marge. Every line makes me cringe a little bit.
– I can’t get over how fucking stupid the frozen mailman thing is. I could bitch about it for so much longer than I already did, but why bother. It’s one of the dumbest things ever done on this show.
– I definitely believe that Mona cheated on Abe, given the time period and how much of an ass he was, but it’s kind of uncomfortable to hear. I dunno, it’s like the bit from “D’oh-in’ in the Wind” where Seth and Munchie not-so-subtly admit they banged her to her own son.
– This episode would be remedied instantaneously by a DNA test. At first Grampa refuses to take one, then by the end of act two instantly agrees to one. Plus there’s the fact that Homer basically looks like a non-wrinkled Grampa, as he demonstrates to the audience. Of course they’re related, you dolts.
– The dream sequence of Li’l Homer playing catch with a question mark is kind of cute. Then they break a window and an exclamation point comes out shaking its fist.
– Marge warns Homer not to get too emotionally invested, they all seem very apprehensive about the whole thing. Next scene they’re all on Fairbanks’ boat yukking it up. Whatever.
– The treasure hunt is so uninteresting, like who cares? What is is supposed to mean, that Homer’s life would have been more exciting if this guy was his father? Is that what he wanted? I really don’t know.
– Homer’s new catchphrase seems to be a very looooong moan. They keep using the same one, but condense it when need be. It’s annoying every time. Every. Single. Time.

365. Simpsons Christmas Stories

(originally aired December 18, 2005)
Oh boy, another anthology show, this time a holiday edition! It’s quite… boring. I usually find these shows that insert our characters into famous stories rather lazy and uninspired, and even though only one of the three here is an adaptation, I still get that feeling anyway. The first retells the story of the very first Christmas, with the birth of Jesus Christ, here played by an adorable baby Bart. Marge is Mary, Homer is Joseph, other characters are… other characters. And there are jokes made. These segments are honestly just so uninteresting to me; you know the story they’re telling, so you’re just waiting for them to go through the motions. Maybe if they had some interesting religious commentary, or subverted the tale in some manner, but that would be too risky. Why take a chance in comedy when you can take the safe route?

The second part is the best, in that it made me the least sleepy. Grampa spins a nonsense tale of being stuck on a deserted island with Mr. Burns after being shot down during WWII. They then accidentally shoot down Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, and must help him repair his sleigh. There’s a few lines here that are amusing, but just as many that aren’t. Moreover I enjoyed seeing a younger Abe and Burns, and hearing Castellaneta and Shearer off autopilot making their characters sound sixty years younger was also nice to hear. The third segment is just a series of vignettes set to the Nutcracker Suite, the most glaring of which is a joyful montage of Moe’s many failed attempts at suicide. I had just chastised the show for not being ballsy, but in this instance it’s completely misdirected. As I’ve mentioned previously, any taboo topic can be turned into comedy, but the fact that being suicidal has become nothing more than a quirky character trait for Moe that they can joke about, it ultimately feels so completely dour and offensive. And it’s the gag that closes our show: he curses that a tracker trailer didn’t hit and kill him! Merry Christmas, everybody! A thoroughly forgettable holiday show.

Tidbits and Quotes
– Baby Bart causing miracle nodding his head a la “I Dream of Jeannie,” Homer and Skinner acting like the Three Stooges, all the bits from the first segment really fall flat. There’s only one bit that comes close to being amusingly self aware. Eddie questions the moral rightness of going in and slaughtering a baby, to which Wiggum responds, “Don’t worry, boys. No one will ever speak or write of this again.” That joke works. It’s similar to the bit earlier where the Archangel Lisa appears to explain Bart/Jesus’ life story to the disillusioned baby, but this line feels more organic. But how do they unnecessarily cap off the joke? Matthew is standing by, scroll in hand! “What a boffo beginning for my book!” See, just in case you didn’t get it, if you’ve never heard of the fucking Bible, we’ll show the guy who wrote it! So see, the story will be written of, so what Wiggum said was funny! Get it! Get it?!
– The second segment has some chuckle-worthy bits in it, like the reindeer performing CPR on Santa, and a few good lines (“Donner! Blitzen!” “He’s German! That’s good eatin’!”)
– They lead into the singing in the third act by mentioning how the Nutcracker is in the public domain, so they don’t have to pay any royalties. Fair enough, but this show has utilized so many songs they’ve had to pay for at this point, a good share of them only for a few seconds. Hell, in the next episode they play Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” for what can’t be more than eight seconds; that must have cost them something, and added nothing to the episode.
– The final bit with Marge getting Homer a gift for him to give her is kind of sweet. I guess. I’ve been lulled into a tired stupor at this point, so I’ll take anything that isn’t Homer screaming or humiliating others.

364. The Italian Bob

(originally aired December 11, 2005)
Poor Sideshow Bob. After redeeming his character and given a suitable farewell in season 8, Mike Scully and Al Jean dragged him back out and whitewashed him to be a generic evil villain, wanting to kill the Simpsons because he’s eeevvil. It’s the Mr. Burns complex: motivations are out the window, this character’s a bad guy so he does bad guy things. But this isn’t only a Bob show, it’s another travel show. The Simpsons are going to Italy! Burns buys himself a sharp new European car, and needs someone to go overseas to ship it back to him. Not only does he choose Homer, he allows the entire family to go, for some reason. After the obligatory sight-seeing gags, the family ends up at a small Tuscan village, and is shocked to find the mayor to be Sideshow Bob. The story of how Bob got there is actually pretty satisfying: he went to Europe to get a fresh start, and ended up being the toast of the town during wine season, able to crush a multitude of grapes with his gargantuan feet. Utilizing established character lore to comic effect? I’m shocked.

Bob’s got a great new life in Italy, a lovely wife and kid, and in exchange for not exposing his criminal past, welcomes the Simpsons to his village with open arms, and fixes their car for them. You really feel good for Bob’s new lot in life, and are almost dreading the inevitable moment it comes crashing down and he reverts back to his boring murderous default. A drunk Lisa spills the beans about Bob’s past, and is further clinched when she stumbles and rips off his suit, revealing his Springfield Prison orange jumpsuit. Why in the ever loving fuck would he be wearing that? Does it even matter? It’s times like these I feel the writers hold the audience in such contempt; they must realize how dumb this stuff is, but decide it’s good enough to air anyway. Bob swears revenge on the family, and inexplicably, his wife and son are on board too. The Simpsons hide out at the Coliseum where Krusty is performing Pagliacci. Bob and family move in for the kill, but Krusty drives away with the Simpsons and everything’s fine. How boring. I think there’s a lot of potential for Bob’s character, but if they’re just going to do the same old evil murder schtick, then why even fucking bother. Classic Simpsons acknowledged when things were growing stale and put them to bed. New Simpsons then goes and jostles them awake to do the same old song and dance in place of new ideas.

Tidbits and Quotes
– Mr. Burns’ car breaks down in front of the school, and the kids taunt him. He then gets out an old timey camera to take their pictures to remember them by for vengeance purposes, then falls asleep under the curtain. It’s funny because he’s old! Later we see Cletus and Brandine, where she comments how Cletus is the most wonderful husband and son she’s ever had. It’s funny because they’re inbred! I know I’ve mentioned this many times, but it’s such a bummer that secondary characters have been reduced to one type of joke. Once they’re on screen, you can pretty much call the gag immediately.
– Li’l Liberal Lisa arrives in Italy with a Canadian flag on her backpack (“Some people in Europe have the impression that America has made some stupid choices over the past… five years…”) There’s something in Smith’s delivery that feels self-righteous, beyond Lisa’s character. Bush has been in office five years, get it? We’re saying his presidency is terrible, without actually saying it! Again, I’ll say this show is toothless for making these sort-of kind-of rips on the sitting President, where in the past the show had no problem with any target.
– My lord, Bob’s wife’s voice is sexy. I mean, just look at her voice actress. Hachi machi. But unfortunately with that, we have Tress MacNeille as Bob’s son, who is so goddamn annoying I want to strangle that little fucker.
– I actually enjoy most of the second act. Bob’s new life is interesting and believable within his character, and it’s nice to see the high-minded, genteel side of him, as well as his buffoonish show business side when he clowns around playing soccer with the kids. The fact that it’s ruined at the end of the act when Bob must be forced back to villainy is so disheartening, and that it’s handled so stupidly and unbelievably is like pouring salt on the festering wound. Not even the American Dad ‘Plagiarismo Di Plagiarismo’ bit can quell my great annoyance. It’s the lesser of three MacFarlane evils, the only one remotely watchable, and I’d much rather be watching it than this show.
– “I don’t wish to brag, but he’s evil at an eighth grade level.” Not only has Bob become a cartoonish villain, but he acknowledges himself as one.
– Another show with no ending. Krusty drives in for no reason to save the Simpsons, and Bob and family just walk home, while we hear Tress MacNeille continually screeching as that damn kid.