517. Homer Goes to Prep School

Original airdate: January 6, 2013

The premise:
Homer finds his way into an end-of-the-world survivalist group, and after inadvertently causing a town-wide power outage, carts his family off to prepare for the impending apocalypse.

The reaction: Tom Waits voices… that guy on the left. He’s never actually given a name, because I guess that would mean he would need a character as well. That happens a lot lately, like the cool hipster family they didn’t bother to give a last name to. He spews a bunch of apocalypse talk to Homer at Moe’s, and he ends up joining his prep squad or whatever. Said squad consists of Herman (makes sense), Chalmers (given recent, slightly annoying new characterization, I buy it), Lindsey Naegle (odd, but alright, whatever), and… Lt. Smash? The boy band Svengali/Navy recruiter? Did they really run out of characters? But it doesn’t really matter, none of them exhibit any real personality, they’re just there to exposit lines about stocking supplies and what to do if there’s an EMP or all this other stuff the writers read about doomsday preppers. Homer starts researching end-of-the-world strategies and hoarding food and hides it from his family, I guess to not worry or scare them? Even though the group says they’re all welcome to use their bunker outside of town. But that really doesn’t make any sense. All of the members are loner weirdos, so they happily invite Homer and his five dependents (Abe comes strapped to the car roof) to take up space and use up their supplies? The end “conflict” involves Homer being scolded by Marge about not caring about the lives of everyone else in town, as the preppers seemingly have no empathy toward their fellow man… except when it came to bringing in the Simpsons with open arms, apparently. This could have been an excellent point of contention, seeing the preppers’ animosity toward having to deal with outsiders and kids and Homer needing to defend them or something. Instead, it’s just more stuff happening for no real explained reason.

Three items of note:
– The “set-up” for Homer having paranoia about mass anarchy is from trauma he experienced when he was locked in a play place cafeteria with a bunch of dads going berserk and pummeling each other (it won’t make much more sense with more context, trust me). He envisions them all as crazed, out-of-control apes, and eight months later, he still is haunted by these memories. This feels even more like they should have constructed the episode with the preppers fueling Homer’s worries more, getting him to completely distrust and alienate himself from humanity and look out for only himself, but the episode isn’t really about that. Instead we have Homer eating a five pound bag of grain and having a magic, Looney Tunes-style fake wall in the basement. Much better material.
– So on Homer’s watch (or lack thereof), a massive generator malfunctions at the plant, causing a town-wide blackout. This is the impetus for the preppers to proclaim it’s the end of the world and skip town, in an awkward sequence where Quimby is addressing a crowd outside of town hall, and Unnamed McGee pulls Homer out of the front of the crowd about two feet to have an isolated conversation about skipping town. But really, this is it? Homer suffers no repercussions at work for this, we never see Mr. Burns, no one else at the plant can figure out what happened, etc. And then when they all return back to Springfield, everything is normal. Because of course it is. Frink explains that the power went out in Springfield, and then a few days later, it came back on. Wow. There was never any doubt the outage was only localized to Springfield… because we SEE that it was. Maybe if they had waited to reveal what happened until the end of the episode, or if they had a line talking about trying to contact neighboring towns and being unable to, it might have made more sense. Instead it’s just dumb. Real dumb.
– We’ve seen some weird end tag jokes from this show before, but this might be the most random. Lisa wraps things up talking about how civilization can endure catastrophe and that we’re gonna be around for a while, then we pan to outer space, where we see a flaming meteor on course for Earth. Said meteor is also covered in human zombies. Zombie meteor. That’s the gag we’re going out on.

One good line/moment: I genuinely enjoyed the bit with Homer climbing up the play place tower to reach Bart and Lisa, crawling and duck walking until he reached the top, only to be pummeled with balls from his two laughing kids. It was a pretty adorable moment where the kids were really acting like real kids, and Homer was a great dad for once for indulging them.

516. To Cur With Love

Original airdate: December 16, 2012

The premise:
Abe spins a tale from Homer’s youth to explain his ambivalence toward Santa’s Little Helper; li’l Homer had a boyhood dog he loved more than anything, until he was forced to give it away after he bit a young and ruthless Mr. Burns.

The reaction: I’ve mentioned before about the show’s inability to marry sentimental moments with biting humor, but this episode seemed to forget it was supposed to be funny. The entire episode is Abe telling this sob story about Homer and his dog, and it all builds into one big treacly, attempting-to-be-emotional scene after another. So as we see, since he was a baby, Homer was thick-as-thieves with his beloved dog Bongo. But at a lobbying event for the new power plant, the dog ends up biting Mr. Burns, who swears revenge on the mutt. I choose to disregard the floating continuity here; the plant was just opening in Homer’s senior year in “The Way We Was,” but it really doesn’t matter. This also happened right after Mona left Abe, so is Rita in the picture yet? Why is Abe working at a smokestack delivery company and not busing tables? Speaking of “Gone Abie Gone,” where that episode cracked the door open of sympathetic young Abe interpretations, this show burst through it. Abe sends the dog to a farm out of town to save him, and ends up working for Mr. Burns for a year training his hell hounds, all while his son is bitterly resentful for seemingly abandoning his best friend. Homer, of course, has a skewed memory of this, thinking of his dad as a cruel monster. Are all the flashbacks we’ve seen of Abe being a dick to Homer just from his skewed perspective of his youth? No, because that’s dumb. We go from Homer tearfully saying goodbye to his dog, to Abe sad that his son hates him, to Homer revisiting the farm later to find the dog has bonded with a new owner, to the resolution of the story: a Christmas card of the dog sleeping with his old sweatshirt, showing he did still care. My God… it’s trying so, so hard to pull at your heartstrings, it ends up being just a big pile of bland, sterile mush.

Three items of note:
– We get a full scene of Homer playing a town-building game on his myPad, because I guess “A Tree Grows in Springfield” wasn’t enough. It almost feels like subtle cross-promotion for the Tapped Out game, which had released the year this aired.
– The flashback story also gives the show license to revisit other characters; we see Herman getting his arm ripped off, Wiggum and Eddie on patrol as dog catchers, then learn in one scene their plans to join the police force, and where Ralph’s name came from. In the present, Bart has a handy checklist of origin stories covered in a lame meta moment (“Boy, we’re filling in a lot of gaps here!”) Also, after Abe finishes his one year, Burns demands that he forever has to wear slippers and a bolo tie, so I guess the mystery of why Abe dresses like that has been solved? Weren’t these two in the war together, with Burns as a spineless coward?
– The show was short again, so we get a minute-long vignette of Burns lamenting the Mitt Romney 2012 loss and the fiscal cliff for billionaires. Are these end tag bits going to be a common thing now? It feels weird framing Burns as a modern-day Republican, and I’m not entirely sure why. I guess since he always feels like a miserly boss from the 1920s, it’s odd to hear him talk about modern immigration reform and namedrop Marco Rubio.

One good line/moment: Nothing for this one. As I said, there weren’t really a lot of jokes in here to begin with, and what was there were attempts at being meta about the flashback, or Homer and his tablet again. Yawn.

515. The Day the Earth Stood Cool

Original airdate: December 9, 2012

The premise:
In an attempt to feel hip and young, Homer takes a shine to a trendy new family straight out of Portland, but as tensions between the two families and their parenting styles arise, Springfield finds itself over-run by pretentious hipsters.

The reaction: When did making fun of hipsters become passe? It’s hard to tell how much of a time capsule this episode is, or if the show was late to the party as usual. Portlandia premiered in January 2011, so that’s a close window, I guess. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein appear as the cool parents, with Patton Oswalt playing their 10-year-old son (I love Oswalt, but this has got to be the most egregious child-with-a-grown-ass-adult’s voice we’ve seen on the show). The show is filled to the brim with hipster jokes: their behavior, their weird, eclectic tastes, loads of gags that mostly fall flat. The main narrative thrust is Homer’s desire to seem like a cool dad, a la “Homerpalooza,” except where there it was Homer encroaching into Bart and Lisa’s interests, Homer is just trying to emulate this Terrance guy completely separate from his kids. Bart and Lisa tagging along to the new hipster lifestyle is covered in, of course, a quick music montage. Ten seconds after that, Bart and Lisa are gushing about Korean film festivals and trendy art openings, so that’s covered! Things come to a head when the snide disaffected hipster youth T-Rex (that’s his name) takes one too many potshots at Homer being a poser and Bart attacks him, resulting in Terrance ex-communicating Homer. After the act break, we see Homer is fuming in anger at Bart, but is immediately diffused when he learns what actually happened. Then Marge expresses her longstanding grievances, and he’s even more sympathetic. I guess Homer just never bothered to ask them; he was too busy cramming himself into skinny jeans and wearing a scarf soaked in sweat. Then the hipsters invade Springfield, the two families work together to stop a fire, and then the hipsters leave when Springfield is voted the coolest town in America, ergo, making it uncool. Meh. This show’s left me pretty numb, but this one wasn’t entirely terrible. Some of Homer’s eagerness to seem cool again felt genuine, and Bart’s relationship with T-Rex over the course of the show I thought worked, with the latter’s hesitance toward actually indulging and being a kid for once was enjoyable at the end. But it was all surrounded by the usual dumb nonsense that the show is always want to do.

Three items of note:
– Marge’s problem with their new neighbors stems from her aversion toward the new mom openly breastfeeding. She’s clearly uncomfortable with all the weird hipster shit she doesn’t understand, but it never actually goes anywhere where she grows or takes anything away from it. In the end, Marge is exposed (not that way) in a nursing mother circle for using formula, and then the moms try to abduct Maggie and nurse her themselves. It’s a gag, but it all feels very weird, but I’m sure it was worth it for those wonderful boob puns the writers came up with for Marge to say (“Holy aureole!” “You nipple Nazis!”)
– Visiting the [insert last name here] family home for the first time, Marge is perplexed by The Onion newspaper on their coffee table. She reads a fake headline, thinks it’s real, then Cool Mom explains to her what The Onion is. It’s weird, it felt like a promo for a specific product wedged into the episode. The show also takes a swipe at The A.V. Club by showing their harsh movie reviews (The Wizard of Oz: D+, Citizen Kane: F), which I find very, very ironic, given how incredibly generous they’ve been in rating this show over the years; most of their ratings hover around the B-range, no matter how critical the actual review may be.
– The episode ends with the hipsters high-tailing it out of Springfield after it’s been declared the coolest city in America. It seemed a little strange considering that even before the hipster take-over, we see Homer, the kids, and Terrance indulge in a lot of cool events in the montage: rock shows, roller derby, Mexican wrestling… they even take a trip to Protozoa Records, a “parody” of Amoeba Records in Hollywood, another example of the never-ending LA-ification of Springfield. As we’ve seen, Springfield is no longer a run-down shitbucket of a town, now it’s full of trendy restaurants, nightclubs, outdoor promenades… why wouldn’t it be a cool, bustling place to live?

One good line/moment: Homer calling 911 to report a missing donut cart is the biggest moment in Chief Wiggum’s career; we immediately cut to the entire force on high alert, relentlessly scouring the city. It’s a really solid joke that I genuinely laughed at.

514. A Tree Grows in Springfield

Original airdate: November 25, 2012

The premise:
An unwavering funk washes over Homer, one that is swayed when he wins a new myPad in a raffle. When the tablet breaks, he resumes his despair, until a mysterious message of hope appears in his own backyard.

The reaction: This has got to be the emptiest episode I’ve seen yet. If I squint charitably, I can kind of see a through-line plot or theme, but it’s pretty damn thin. The first six minutes is Homer feeling depressed. Nothing specific, just life has got him down. It’s like Bart in “A Totally Fun Thing,” but that episode at least highlighting his sense of ennui going through his repetitive dull life. Here, Homer’s just bummed for no real reason, which would be fine if the episode actually made a point about his listless nature. But everything changes when he gets his hands on a sweet, sweet myPad. There’s some actual ribbing of Steve Jobs and Apple, which I was surprised to see, especially given the love fest that was “MyPods and Boomsticks” (I guess since Jobs’ death, they feel less need to suck up?), but it’s largely overshadowed by four minutes worth of sketches of Homer showing off how cool his new toy is. It literally is like the framework of a commercial: Homer’s life sucked, but now it’s awesome because he got an iPad! I mean a myPad! The segments just kept going on and on, and reaching the halfway mark, I still had no clue what this episode was doing. When his beloved tablet breaks, Homer prays to God for… something? Which he receives in a seemingly holy message, “HOPE” written in sap on a tree in his backyard. From this, it almost turns into “Lisa the Skeptic” where the whole town is inspired and gathers around the miracle tree, except there still doesn’t feel like any real direction. The miracle turns out to be a hoax, Marge convinces Homer that his feelings of hope were still real, and then it’s revealed that Homer forged the HOPE message himself. So his subconscious believed in him all along? What am I to take away from this episode? I honestly don’t know.

Three items of note:
– At the school fundraiser, we see Ned and Edna in a little scene together, I guess just to remind you they’re still together. I’m curious how many of those we have left. We also have Skinner watching sadly from afar. I mean, for God’s sakes, at this point we’re almost a decade since the episode where he left her at the altar, how many more sad, pathetic Skinner jokes does this show have in it?
– There’s so little meaning in this episode; Homer has this spiritual awakening, but we’re never clear on what exactly is going on in his fucking mind, other than HOPE. He hijacks Lovejoy’ sermon just to keep shouting about hope, and then we get one of those The Lost Weekend parodies of Homer walking against black with signs around him, except they’re all things with the word “hope” in them. The Hope Diamond, Bob Hope Film Festival… so I guess Homer is just invested in the word “hope”? What the fuck is happening?
– Since this episode basically had no story, they ran short. So to fill the last three minutes, we have “Logomania,” a toothless photocopy of the Academy Award winning short film Logorama. As I say time and again, these segments don’t really count as parodies because they aren’t really riffing or subverting anything of the original source material. The thought process presumably went like this: the writers loved the short, they know the series has no shortage of fake brands, so they decided to just do their own version. It’s not even that creative; an underdog story of a shrimpy guy (Happy Little Elf) saving the damsel in distress (Malibu Stacey) from a monster (Funzo). And it especially suffers when you put it against the original short, which is just bursting at the seams with originality and creative uses for different brands and logos. If you haven’t seen it, you really should give it a watch. Part of me feels pretty depressed in thinking more people have probably seen this episode than the short film it was ripping off… sorry, paying homage to.

One good line/moment: The first minute or so of the rainy day I actually enjoyed. Homer’s nonsense dream was fun (“We’ll be right back after this word from oxygen, which Homer desperately needs to live!”). We also get a pretty fantastic gag of the church sign holding water and the letters floating, which I genuinely laughed out loud at.

513. Penny-Wiseguys

Original airdate: November 18, 2012

The premise:
Homer finds out his new bowling buddy Dan is actually Fat Tony’s accountant, and in Tony’s brief absence, is now a temporary mafia don. Meanwhile, Lisa adds more iron to her diet by taking up eating insects.

The reaction: There’s a moment two-thirds into the episode where Dan (voiced by Steve Carrel) is having a crisis of conscience, that to truly succeed in business one must purge all human emotion, to justify himself in killing off some of Fat Tony’s gang to cut costs. He’s telling all this to Homer, who looks very uncomfortable watching this guy unravel before his eyes. This scene could have been written a little stronger (as with everything nowadays), but I like the idea of it, and the progression of this character: a meek, put-upon accountant becoming a cold, ruthless mafia don who regards the bottom line stronger than human life. Except the story is very thin and clumsy. I love Steve Carrel so I was smiling through a lot of this show, but there were also a couple of strange, random turns. One nonsensical pep talk from Moe about being a hardass as a boss changes Dan on a dime, and later on, he repeatedly flip flops from being nice and innocent to brandishing a gun and looking to shoot to kill. After his realization of his own bloodlust, Dan has Homer tie him up in the Simpson basement. Then a bunch of grasshoppers crawl over and inside his body for hours (more on that later). Then when he’s discovered, he immediately pulls a gun on Homer so he can escape. So there was no point to that creepy crawly trauma other than a feeble attempt to have some connection between the A and B plots, and to get Carrel to scream a couple times. The ending involves Dan confronting Fat Tony’s goons, and Homer throwing him off killing them, which for some reason, Dan just moves onto the next one after a single inconvenience. And eventually he ends up working at a mall kiosk piercing ears. I feel like there was potential with this character, but things ended up coming out a bit muddled. Not as much as usual, but still muddled.

Three items of note:
– Boy oh boy, three boring Lisa B-plots in a row! Lisa passes out during a recital (no, this isn’t “Lisa’s Rival”), which leads to her needing to take iron pills to supplement her vegetarian diet. But the dead comes to her aid, or rather Lunchlady Doris with Tress MacNeille not even trying to match Grau’s gravels anymore. She informs Lisa that eating food made from insects is a sort of vegetarian gray area, so she joins a foodie society consisting of her, Professor Frink, Cookie Kwan, Herman and Old Jewish Man (did they just throw darts at that giant Simpsons cast poster to come up with this roster?) And yeah, it’s gross. Really gross. And there’s not much else to this story other than it’s gross. Lisa has a nightmare about the bugs telling her they’re living creatures that feel pain, which feels exactly like “Lisa the Vegetarian,” and gives it all up. She had been growing grasshoppers in a tank in the basement (which get loose and swarm Dan) and then lets them out into the wild. And that’s the end. Lisa is really such a boring character now. I mentioned “Rival” and “Vegetarian,” those episodes saw her run through a whole spectrum of emotions and they felt so real. Now Lisa stories involve her being a smug pseudo-intellectual in pursuing some cause, where she’s either moderately content, or shocked/disappointed by some kind of twist ending or reveal. Yawn.
– In a hollow act of nostalgia mining, the opening features the Pin Pals versus the Holy Rollers. Dan has replaced Otto, who hilariously has his head caught in the ball return because he’s high. The Holy Rollers, in place of Helen and the deceased Maude, we have the not-Bing-Crosby Parson, and Rabbi Krustofski. I feel like at this point, psycho Christian Flanders wouldn’t be comfortable having a Jew on his bowling team. Remember when he needed to “re-bless” his hand after shaking it with a Catholic?
– We see Louie eating a TV dinner in his apartment watching Jeopardy, and we actually hear actual audio from the show with Alex Trebek, who gets credited as a guest voice at the end. It’s kind of weird to hear a real audio clip from another show in an episode; I feel like that has to have been done before, but I’m blanking on when. I’m sure someone will post it in the comments.

One good line/moment: There were a good handful here, honestly. Dan stabs a knife down on the table, just barely missing piercing Legs’ hand. He recoils in shock (“What’re yah doin’! I talk with that hand!”)