476. Homer the Father

Original airdate: January 23, 2011

The premise:
Homer’s new obsession with old 80’s sitcoms leads to him emulating a TV dad parenting style. Frustrated that his father won’t get him a cool dirt bike, Bart ends up almost creating an international incident in his efforts to get one himself.

The reaction: I don’t think I’ve seen an episode yet with this dramatic of a gear shift. We go from absolutely nothing happening to disastrous foreign espionage within the course of a minute. The first half of the show is devoted to Homer’s binge watching of “Thicker Than Water,” an 80’s sitcom, of which we see multiple scenes of, at least a minute and a half of the total run time. Parodying these cheesy old sitcoms is like shooting fish in a barrel, but I wouldn’t say that they’re making fun of them as much as they are just recreating them. The theme song, the jokes, there’s no real edge to them. BoJack Horseman takes much better aim at garbage like this, and in a much shorter amount of time. Homer dons a not-Cosby sweater and tries to instill Bart with TV-fueled advice, and everything drags on so long with nothing happening, all the while making me wish I was watching “Saturdays of Thunder” instead. So with no recourse into getting his much desired dirt bike, Bart formulates a plan, where he writes letters to foreign nations saying he’ll give up his father’s knowledge of nuclear secrets to get what he wants. This… is kind of coo-coo bananas. They try to play the naivety card pretty hard with Bart not really acknowledging the gravity of his situation, but I refuse to believe Bart is that dumb; it casts him in a really negative light. Ultimately, the situation is rectified when Homer sacrifices himself to the Chinese, they take him to China, he supervises the build of a power plant there, it explodes, and then he comes back home. That all happens in less than a minute toward the end of the show. I’m not exactly sure what I was supposed to get out of this episode, it was just a flimsy father-son story that takes an insane right turn halfway through, with a crazy amount of padding, not only from all the sitcom snippets, but at the end, we not only get an Itchy & Scratchy, but a random tag ending of the cast of the 80s sitcom talking with James Lipton. Anything to make it to twenty minutes, I guess.

Three items of note:
– Bart gets his treasonous inspiration when Apu shows up at Homer’s door, returning his SNPP security card he left in his store. Apu then goes into a long monologue about how dangerous that access could be in the wrong hands, and goes into a list of countries. All non-Simpson characters seem to exist in this show for one of two reasons: either to spout the same kind of joke over and over again, or to show up as a walking plot device.
– Bart spends quality time with Homer in order to get close enough to him to get a USB stick of information from the plant, which I guess just automatically downloads all the pertinent info immediately when Bart plugs it in. After making the trade-off for the dirt bike, the next morning Bart is shocked to find that Homer had just gotten it for him, as thanks for spending so much time with him. This conceit feels straight out of a sitcom, which given the subject matter of the episode, could have been acknowledged or subverted in some way, but it isn’t. It’s just the plot, played straight.
– The Chinese informants seemed… I don’t know if I wanna say full on racist. But they seemed very stereotypical. This whole plot makes no sense at all. Bart sends letters out to ‘Chinese White House’ and ‘Iraq White House,’ and I guess they just get delivered, no problem. From this, all these different countries come after Bart. They didn’t think this was just a prank? And going back to Bart’s naivety, I feel like Bart is much more shrewd than that; classic Bart would have played hardball with these guys, not quiver and waver like “Ooohhhh, I don’t knoooowww…”

One good line/moment: To access the high security lock-up at the power plant, it requires an eye scan from Homer. Homer demonstrates there’s a work-around: he draws a circle with a dot in the center on a piece of paper, holds that up to the scan, and it works. I like meta jokes about the show’s art style.

475. Flaming Moe

Original airdate: January 16, 2011

The premise:
Discouraged by Mr. Burns’ fervent lack of respect for him, Smithers seeks out a new life venture, which he finds when he teams up with Moe to create a more openly accepting gay bar. But conflict arises when Moe misdirects his clientele into thinking he’s gay himself. Meanwhile, Skinner falls in love with the new music teacher for some reason.

The reaction: One of the things that discouraged me the most as this show went on was the squandering of its insanely large cast. With such an immense parade of secondary and tertiary characters, the number of stories you could do in the town of Springfield seems almost endless to me, but for whatever reason, the show seemed dead set on always having a Simpson take center stage in some regard. Meanwhile, most of the supporting cast wasted away until they became one-dimensional shades of their former selves. An episode like this has some immediate promise; pairing up two side characters and seeing their personalities bounce off each other is certainly an intriguing idea. When Smithers first walks into Moe’s and the two have a conversation, my interest actually perked up a bit, maybe this could turn into something. But ultimately, it’s an episode that doesn’t really say anything or do anything all that interesting or new. The main thrust of the episode switches from Smithers to Moe fairly quickly; once their gentlemen’s bar opens, Moe pretends he’s gay to fit in, and Smithers becomes his nagging voice of reason, who only appears from that point on to pull him aside two or three times to confront him about it. It all felt like such a shallow conflict, and ultimately really meant nothing. There’s also this weird thing going on in the first half where they just won’t say the word “gay.” Concerning Smithers, the show at this point is still tiptoeing along the very edge of just flat out calling him gay; they finally “officially” outed him last season, I think, which felt like fifteen years too late. But Smithers and Marge both ask Moe, “Do these people think you’re really… one of ‘them’?” Like they’re another species or something. Then in the back half of the show, they champion Moe and urge him to run as the first openly gay councilman, and at that point, everyone just starts saying “gay.” It was quite strange. As far as episodes about homosexuality go, it’s nowhere near as offensive as something like “Three Gays of the Condo” was; the lazy, uncreative gay stereotyping of there (something like The League of Extra-Horny Gentlemen feels so much less progressive than The Anvil from fifteen years ago), but it’s all so banal here. It was more boring than anything else.

Three items of note:
– The B-story is so flimsy and disposable, there’s not much I can even say about it. Mr. Largo leaves the school with his new lover (though I’m sure he’ll be back in future shows; can’t afford to lose such an integral character) and is replaced by Jennifer, some stereotypical hippie dippy woman. Skinner has a crush on her, for no explainable reason. He enlists Bart to help him with his courtship; if Bart take Jennifer’s daughter out on a date (a girl we’d never heard of prior to this), Skinner could chaperone and get closer to her. What kind of plan is this, and why would he trust Bart to do this? But apparently, his asinine plan works; over the course of a fifteen second exchange chaperoning the date, Jennifer says she likes Skinner too. When Bart breaks her daughter’s heart, Jennifer announces she’s leaving the school, and begs Skinner to go with her, which he does. Then the episode ends with Skinner returning from some kind of radical rave after being dumped. This premise of a major secondary character running off with the supposed love of his life takes up making a third of the episode’s run time, everything about it feels meaningless and incoherently rushed. Also, Jennifer is voiced by Kristen Wiig, at that point a major player on SNL, and her daughter by Alyson Hannigan, star of How I Met You Mother; two pretty huge comedic actresses whose services were absolutely wasted in nothing roles like this, particularly Hannigan, who gets barely three lines.
– We’ve been spending a lot of time at the school this season, and every single time we’ve seen Superintendent Chalmers there. This is a situation that cropped up in the last five or six seasons or so; the writers I guess were so in love with Skinner-Chalmers interplay that they just had Chalmers at the school every day, all the time, even though he surely has other schools under his jurisdiction. He might as well be living in Skinner’s office at this point.
– Moe gestures to his wall of past failures to reinvent his bar: turning it into an English pub with Marge in “Mommie Beerest,” his post-modern take in “Homer the Moe,” and… Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag, in “Bart Sells His Soul.” It doesn’t happen all that often, but it’s always sad and uncomfortable when you see a sling of references to past episodes, and they throw a classic one in there. It just feels so alien being put in sequence with a bunch of other junk.

One good line/moment: Like I said, I actually enjoyed Moe and Smithers’ first scene together. It was fun at first seeing two characters who I don’t believe ever had an interaction before have a conversation (“Can I have a scotch and water?” “My scotch is a scotch and water.”)

474. Moms I’d Like To Forget

Original airdate: January 9, 2011

The premise:
The discovery of Bart’s childhood scar reminds Marge of the three women she befriended at a Mommy and Me class, and it leads to a successful reunion. But while Marge enjoys actually having friends again, Bart doesn’t feel as strong a kinship with the mothers’ sons, who are much more extreme and reckless than he, and seeks to tear down the new relationship for his own sake.

The reaction: For an episode revealing information about the past, the story certainly doesn’t feel it. Marge was apparently very good friends with these three women, but we don’t exactly know why. We also are not given any of these women’s names or know anything about them. They, nor their husbands or kids, are characterized in the slightest, and additionally, Marge doesn’t seem to express any specific interest in any of them either. A comparison to “Scenes of the Class Struggle in Springfield” would be way too unfair, but even going back to something like “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” you at least had the leader of that group have a name and some kind of personality, and you saw Marge express great interest in the group and belonging and her feeling good about having friends. In this episode, we don’t really get any of that. The time instead is devoted to solving the mystery of how Bart and the other three boys got their weird scars. It’s built up through the whole show, and when we finally see what happened, it ultimately means nothing. The boys were a bunch of rapscallions that wandered off and got themselves hurt. We don’t see the mother group breaking up, or why they would do that because of what happened. There’s a scene where Bart and Marge have a back-and-forth where Bart wants to break up the group, but Marge is resistant (“I love you kids with all my heart, but dammit, I need something for myself!”) The problem is feebly established that the other three boys are too hardcore for Bart and he feels somewhat abused, but Marge doesn’t see any of this going on. Also, why would he have to hang out with them at all? In the end, Marge leaves the group anyway, in a super, super quick scene where one of the other moms claims Bart is the troublemaker of the bunch, and she storms out immediately (“I remember why I left this group seven years ago, and it’s why I’m leaving now!”) Huh? So, maybe the moms blamed Bart for their sons’ injuries and Marge was pissed about that? But why do I have to connect the dots for the most important part of the story, when they spend so much time on the scar mystery? Such a messy, nonsensical outing.

Three items of note:
– Not only do we have three new nameless women we know nothing about, we have three new nameless men too! Over and over, we see that whenever the four moms are hanging out and having fun, the dads are in the other room, awkwardly silent and not knowing what to do with themselves. It’s the same joke over and over. They can’t even get any comic material from Homer in this easy of a set-up? It all just feels so tired and lazy; so many of these episodes feel just like filling up space so they can barely reach the run time.
– Bart and Lisa go to confront Comic Book Guy about what happened in Bart’s past to get the scar, when Lisa chimes in, “Can we hurry this up, I feel really uncomfortable being a girl in this store.” We see her glancing at what looks like Barbarella in her tattered, revealing rags outfit chained to a boulder. It just felt like a really bizarre, awkward throwaway joke. It feels like subject matter that the show could have built an entire episode around if they cared enough to do it. Alienation of girls in nerd culture, female roles in comics, all this stuff, but the most contemporary the writers can go is a movie from the 60s, apparently.
– When Marge leaves the group for good, the three women are relieved that she’s gone, so they can proceed to make out with each other. So, they’re a swinging threesome, then? Did they want Marge to join them? Why would they want Marge to hang out with them if it was going to interrupt their sexy times? These girls-only outings are seemingly their cover to get away from their husbands, so why muck up their sexcapades by dragging along Marge if they didn’t also want to fuck her too? But why think too hard into it, it’s just a dumb joke. Like earlier this season with the LOGO and Bravo guys making out, or in the movie with the two male cops sucking face, I guess the takeaway is that gay people are weird and hilarious!

One good line/moment: The fourth graders challenge the fifth graders to a fight after school, “rain or shine.” Cut to them all standing outside in the pouring rain wearing ponchos, agreeing to reconvene during “shine” period. Then cut to them on a sunny day administering sunblock. Pretty amusing quick sequence.

473. Donnie Fatso

Original airdate: December 12, 2010

The premise: 
Homer is sent to prison for attempting to wriggle out of a series of innocuous offenses, and the only way to reduce his sentence is to become an FBI informant and infiltrate Fat Tony’s latest operation. Things get complicated when Homer and Tony form a tight bond, leaving Homer conflicted over where his allegiances lie.

The reaction: Sometimes it’s tricky writing up those quick plot summaries. Like, those are the story and emotional beats that the story was seemingly trying to reach for, but they’re never actually successful. The core of the story is that once Homer becomes a rat, he forms a kinship with Fat Tony, thus feels bad about betraying him. Except we don’t really delve into why Homer is so taken with the mob boss. Tony is swayed pretty quickly for plot convenience (“You have earned my complete, unquestioning trust!”), but why does Homer care about him so much? Because Tony threw him a party? He feels like he belongs in a group? Maybe we could have seen Tony had a lot to lose if he was taken down. We see him visit his wife’s grave, maybe reintroduce his son Michael and make Homer conflicted in robbing a boy of his father. Except we start out with Fat Tony and his crew already in jail and they easily break out, so with the revolving door judicial system in Springfield, I suppose it doesn’t matter all that much. But two-thirds in, Fat Tony dies, an incredibly unceremonious exit for such a big character, but a pretty ballsy move for the show. But, of course, that immediately is undone by the ending; Tony’s cousin Fit Tony steps in as boss, and then he eats a lot, and then he’s Fat Tony again. So this is like “I, D’oh-bot” with Snowball V being Snowball II, a B-plot that was so dumb and insulting that I’m such a majority of the fans hated, but here, it’s with an actual real human character that we care about. I dunno, do the writers just think that it’s so stupid, it’s funny? I don’t get why they think this plot twist ending could possibly work. Killing Fat Tony for good would actually be kind of interesting; maybe create a new character to be the boss, or you could get to know Legs or Louie better, but the show is so terrified of changing anything about the status quo, so we’re left with Fit-Fat Tony. Bleehhhhh.

Three items of note:
– There’s a pretty terrible bit at the beginning where for no reason, Homer and Moe stumble onto the stage of Wicked. Like, as a four second joke of them going from room to room for privacy, it might have worked. But instead, it just drags on and on and on for forty seconds, with Moe doing a little pantomime with a flying monkey, a joke you could have told in much, much less time. Then, ultimately, Moe tells Homer the information he wanted to tell in private, right at the bar anyway. With the other barflies gone, granted, but still, that whole detour was ultimately made pointless.
– Joe Mantegna seems to be getting up in years, because the Fat Tony voice was way, waaaay off here. It’ll be interesting to see from this point which voices the actors seem to lose grasp on as time moves forward. It’s not their fault, but given they kill Tony in this one, maybe this is all the more reason to keep him dead.
– Toward the end of the show, Fit Tony “tortures” Homer by forcing him to use the elliptical in his gym, which is completely empty. We do a time fade, it’s a tight shot of the two of them, and previously we’d seen one empty machine to Homer’ left. So, Homer says, “I worked for Fat Tony, and he was the best boss I ever had!” As soon as the word ‘boss’ was uttered, I already knew Burns was gonna be on that other machine. And sure enough, there he was, offended by Homer’s comment. Forget how he got there, why he was there in the first place, how he got on the elliptical directly next to Homer without him realizing, but why would Burns give two fucks if one of his employees didn’t think he was the greatest boss? Maybe he still desperately wants to be loved like a few episodes ago. So, so dumb.

One good line/moment: In a rare instance of utilizing class show elements in an actually effective way, Fat Tony orders Homer to burn down Moe’s after being insulted on the phone while trying to reach his Russian business contact Yuri Nater. Although the wrong number conceit is semi-reminiscent of “Homer the Smithers,” I thought it was a creative use of the prank call gag.

472. The Fight Before Christmas

Original airdate: December 5, 2010

The premise:
The Simpson family all have their own Christmas dreams; Bart travels to the North Pole seeking to confront Santa regarding an consistently overlooked gift, Lisa confronts her tree phobia with a World War II-era fantasy, Marge wishes for a picture-perfect Christmas courtesy of guest star Martha Stewart, and Maggie imagines up a comedy sketch with her family in puppet form.

The reaction: Like “Simpsons Christmas Stories” a couple seasons back, we get four vignettes that seemed to get progressively worse and worse. The first one was easily the strongest, as Bart climbs the corporate ranks of ClausCo. to get face time with the big man himself. The conceit of a North Pole with hellish working conditions isn’t incredibly original (and was seen much better done with Futurama‘s Robot Santa and his long suffering elves), but there were a couple of amusing bits sprinkled throughout. I also understood what the hell was happening in it, unlike the following segment. In the wraparound story, Lisa is protesting Christmas trees, because she’s a humorless, ecologically conscious harpy, which leads to a dream about a WWII-era Lisa being terrified of trees because it reminds her of when her mother was enlisted in the war effort. It makes about as much sense as it sounds; it’s all characters announcing what’s happening and how they feel, and is rounded out by an extended ending where Marge blows up a theater full of Nazis a la Inglorious Basterds, a scene which would make absolutely no sense had you not seen the film. The Marge story with Martha Stewart is three minutes of the exact same joke: Stewart is amazing, and she can make anything out a home decoration! And she’ll do it eight times! Then we have the grand finale, an Xmas puppet show, which is one of the worst things the show has ever done, both in terms of regular badness, and in terms of being such a wasted opportunity; I’ll delve into more detail below.

Three items of note:
– Every time Otto appears, it’s guaranteed there’ll be some sort of drug joke. As the conductor of the Polar Express, he keeps the train running by shoveling in pot leaves. It still is just so sad that all of the side characters on this show are now relegated to delivering just one type of joke. And it’s usually the same joke. Two episodes ago Otto used Burns’ body as his own bong. Drug references are funny!
-I barely even want to talk about the Lisa story, because I don’t really understand it, but the wrap-up of Lisa’s dilemma is so unbelievably ham fisted. She runs down the street horrified with everyone bringing home Xmas trees, ending up at the tree lot that Marge ended up leaving her at. In case you forgot the flashback from one minute earlier, Lisa helpfully narrates, “Oh no! This is where they took Mom from me!” But all is made well thanks to wiseguy Raphael, who has kept the tree Marge picked out from last year, and proceeds to decorate it, and trim it to resemble Marge’s head and hair. It’s such a belabored explanation, and this tender moment is coming from Raphael, a man who previously made Marge spell out ‘CUP’ for his own amusement and kicked Homer in the face riding an old timey bike. It all feels empty and meaningless, and this is all before the stupid Basterds ending.
– Okay, so that fucking last segment. The only positive I can say about it is the puppets themselves look fantastic. Everything else… what a disaster. The writing felt a lot like the terrible demo tape that Homer filmed in “Behind the Laughter,” except with none of the self consciousness. I’m not entirely sure what they’re trying to parody either; there are many allusions to the Muppets, The Muppet Show specifically, but the premise is like a bad sitcom story, the boss catching the subordinate in a lie, more than some kind of sketch. All they can think to do are some softball meta jokes (Moe crumbling up cookies like Cookie Monster, a live hand appearing beneath a puppet), nothing that really hasn’t been seen or observed before. But the biggest waste of all is the appearance of Katy Perry. This was coming off of her Sesame Street skit being canned because a certain amount of busybodies were upset that she has breasts and complained on the Internet. There’s a laundry list of things you could make fun of about that “controversy,” her pop star persona, the media machine perpetuating her style of performance and music, it’s an endless parade of material. Instead, they shove her in a tight red dress, and trot her out to be objectified, shoving Puppet Burns into her boobs and Puppet Moe going to town on her crotch. No thought, no creativity, just bland “shock” material. Rather than subverting the sex appeal of her image, the show just goes for the same base and vapid territory as TMZ would. What a complete and utter waste, especially for such a unique segment. The first live, in-person guest star and this is all you can do?

One good line/moment: The only good moments are in Bart’s story at the beginning, which has a few solid jokes, but my favorite part was when Bart takes the freight elevator down with an elven Lewis and Morton. It’s a straight ahead shot of the three awkwardly looking back and forth, with the two elves looking like they couldn’t give less of a shit.