552. The Yellow Badge of Cowardage

Original airdate: May 18, 2014

The premise:
Bart becomes a town hero for winning the annual last day of school race, but he’s wracked with guilt over it being a sham; he won by accident after Nelson attacked front-runner Milhouse, which Bart did nothing to try and stop. Meanwhile, Homer works with a childhood hero to create a magnificent 4th of July fireworks spectacular.

The reaction: Boy, what a whimper of an episode to go out on. Springfield Elementary has an end-of-the-year race that the entire town holds in high regard for some reason. Remember when the school was a dumpy embarrassment? Milhouse trained hard for this, is in the lead, then the bullies, who had been taking bets on the winner, get worried that they’ll have to pay off Martin, who overheard Milhouse’s rigorous training and put down a huge bet on him, so they must sabotage the race. Why would they feel obligated to pay Martin at all? They’re fucking bullies. So Nelson corners him in the woods, beats him up, and Bart turns away and does nothing, as seen in an overly dramatic fashion. Then he ends up winning and feels guilty of taking the glory from Milhouse… this feels so belabored. Meanwhile, Homer teams up with an old hero of his, the man in charge of the annual fireworks display, to put on a big show, so that kills some more time. The two plots intersect at the show, when Homer and old man get into a fight for no real reason, and the barge they’re on tilts perfectly ninety degrees, leaving the fireworks pointed directly at the crowd. How the hell is this happening? And is this supposed to be a moment of tension? You can’t have silly cartoon physics and expect us to treat this as serious simultaneously. Bart views this as a way to redeem himself, and he drives a bus in front of the incoming fireworks, saving the day, and having Milhouse take the credit. Through this show, we’ve seen two groups of crowds, one at the ceremony awarding Bart, and the other at the end on the beach. When Bart admits the truth about the race, the crowd fiercely boos. Agnes yells, “Bart’s a coward!” Krusty follows, “He lied to us!” Forget why they or this whole town gives so much of a shit, but why are they saying this? Why the fuck does every single character just announce what they’re feeling or repeating what’s going on with the plot? It’s the same shit at the end. The crowd are saved from being set on fire, and Lenny, calm as can be, unprompted, to no one in particular, asks, “So who’s our hero?” When Milhouse exits the van, Sideshow Mel chimes in, “Milhouse is our unlikely savior!” Then a guy in the crowd yells, “Quit explaining everything!” Well, I guess we can chalk this up as an awful trope that the writers acknowledge is terrible, but will continue to use regardless. Is it too much to ask that maybe in the coming seasons, we’ll see a little bit less of this endless incessant over-explaining expository dialogue every single goddamn episode? Is it?

Three items of note:
– The couch gag features the family running into a panel at Comic-Con, and Comic Book Guy asking if there will ever be another movie. The joke, I guess, is we see that everyone but Maggie has fled after the question is asked, leaving her worried. Or embarrassed. I can’t tell. But it’s basically a joke stolen from a Futurama episode four years prior, where Bender asks the same question, and Matt Groening’s head in a jar fires a laser at him in response.
– Lisa serves as narrator for two bland, down-to-earth stories, because I guess the characters always saying exposition is not enough, we have to have a narrator do it too. A perfect example of how shitty this is is near the start of the B-story. Homer seems particularly emphatic about demanding the fireworks show must go on despite town budget cuts. We flash back to a young, starry-eyed Homer watching the night time festivities, and behind him, out of view, we see his parents angrily bickering. Lisa explains, “It was the one night of every year that he couldn’t hear his parents argue.” Alright, fair enough, I can get behind this, I understand. But wait, let’s make it even more clear! Lisa continues, “He figured it was because they loved the fireworks just as much as he did!” Then we bring Glenn Close back to say a handful of words as we see Mona and Abe complain. Then later, she’s gone, and we get more sad, pathetic single parent Abe like we saw from that horrible dog show. And then it keeps going, and Lisa explains even more (“With his mother gone, Homer needed a hero, and no one was more of a hero than the magical little man behind the controls.”) I could watch this show with my eyes closed and understand most of what’s happening, it’s like I’m listening to an audiobook with all of the shit they openly explain.
– Another sequence ruined is when Homer and old man get boxes and boxes of fireworks from… somewhere, and they’re strapped to the hood of the car. “Now drive slowly and carefully…” old guy says. So we’re setting up this sequence where he drives through some rough and dangerous areas that could set off the fireworks. Alright, there’s some smirk-worthy comedic potential there. But, for whatever reason, the characters narrate what’s about to happen before each joke happens (“It’s in the cobblestone district.” “Oh thank God, a rickety bridge!” “We’ll be safe in the gas lamp district.”) Are they doing this show for radio? Why are they explaining everything we’re seeing? I keep asking this over and over, but I honestly don’t get it. Why? Why? For fuck’s sake, why. Toward the end of the montage, we see a barrel catch on fire, and then when they park, Homer throws his cigar on the pile, and then nothing happens. But it’s not even like the joke is that nothing happens, like Homer lighting the grill in “Lisa the Vegetarian,” they just move onto the next scene. Just terrible.

One good line/moment: I kind of liked Homer’s enthusiasm about fireworks at the start, and like I mentioned, the idea behind his childhood nostalgia for it (“The Fourth of July is the one day a year our city puts on her high heels and tube top and leans into America’s car window! God bless her!”)

NOTE: I’m going to be taking a break next week, I’ve got a lot of really important stuff on my plate, so my holy crusade through yellow-toned muck will have to wait. I will return though, don’t you worry…

551. Pay Pal

Original airdate: May 11, 2014

The premise:
Marge melodramatically concludes she’ll never have any adult friends, and not wanting her daughter to suffer the same fate, pays a little girl to spend time with her and pretend to have similar interests.

The reaction: I feel like there have been a couple shows of late featuring Marge acting kind of horrible and manipulative, but this is the worst of all. When she gets invited by some new neighbors to an adult game night, it starts off like “Scenes From the Class Struggle in Springfield,” begging and pleading with Homer to be on his best behavior. He’s been pretty restrained from his insane wild outbursts the last few seasons, so it felt like a little too much. The man of the house (John Oliver) introduces this incredibly elaborate murder mystery game, then Homer unintentionally ruins it by reading his card and saying who the killer is. It was an honest mistake, but the host reacts by angrily slapping him, which Homer then retaliates, and after a very brief scuffle, the guy tosses the Simpsons out. Despite the neighbor physically attacking her husband, Marge is pissed at Homer, which then turns into passive-aggressive resignation (“I think it’s time we learned to live with being ostracized. I give up.”) Then, halfway through the episode, we switch gears to Marge wanting to get Lisa a friend. What happened to her new Starving Games friends from last episode? Her characterization waxes and wanes nowadays, she’s either a content, sometimes smug loner, or a sad nerdy girl desperate for attention. Here, she’s the former, so Marge’s efforts are really just a projection of her own yearning for companionship. One day, Lisa pairs up with some Asian girl (who is never given a name throughout the entire episode) who just so happens to share all of her interests, and a suspicious Bart discovers that Marge is paying this child to be her friend. This is really fucked up. Like, really fucked up. Can you imagine how humiliated you would be if your mom did this to you? A teary eyed Lisa confronts her mother, and runs off crying. So we got two minutes left, how do we resolve this? Abe conveniently tells a story about how he paid a young Lenny and Carl to befriend Homer, and still does to this day, to which Marge responds, “That makes me feel better!” Why? Because someone else did the same horrible mistake you did? When she leaves, Abe admits his story was bullshit, but I’m not sure if he told it to make Marge feel better, or because he’s a senile crazy person. Okay, so our final confrontation. Marge goes to Lisa’s room, and she’s still pissed. Lisa angrily tells her mother she’s going to tell future psychiatrists what she did, which makes Marge cry. Then we get some inner monologue from Lisa, because even when the character’s aren’t talking, their minds will speak the exposition instead (“Wow, I made Mom cry! What unimaginable power! I could use this to get anything I want! But, right now, all I want is for Mom to stop crying.”) This dialogue just keeps getting worse and worse. The two have a sobby reunion, Lisa apologizes with reasoning that makes no sense (“It’s funny, but hurting your feelings made me feel better,”) and Marge never apologizes or shows remorse or even understands why what she did was incredibly shitty and embarrassing to her eight-year-old daughter. And Lisa wishes her a happy Mother’s day! Marge is supposed to be the family rock, a never-ending source of love and encouragement for her husband and children. So seeing her deceive her own child, especially Lisa, and not even acknowledge how wrong it was, was pretty hard to watch.

Three items of note:
– Marge meets neighbor John Oliver at the Evergreen Terrace Block Party (“Two Bad Neigbors,” anyone?), where the latter tries some of Ned Flanders’ famous No-Alarm Chili (“You can only taste the spoon!”) I can’t think of a more apt direct compare and contrast for the degradation of a character. Of course, in “The Mysterious Voyage of Homer,” a crestfallen Ned must admit to Homer that his five-alarm chili is merely two alarm, two-and-a-half tops, and he just wanted to impress his two boys. What a wonderful moment; embellishing the truth to look like a big shot to his beloved children at a local carnival. It’s almost like he’s behaving like a normal, flawed human being. Nowadays, one of the only two or three legally acceptable jokes for Ned is that he’s a gigantic worrywart wuss, so the joke is that his chili is the blandest ever! I thought back to “Viva Ned Flanders” for what we can blame for this character turn, with Ned preferring plain white bread in rejection of chunky or smooth peanut butter (with a glass of water on the side for dipping!) But the point of that episode was to exaggerate Ned’s overly cautious lifestyle, which led him to want to put some spice into his way of living. But, as we’ve seen with “Lisa the Vegetarian” with Lisa, “Homer’s Enemy” with Homer, “The Old Man and the Lisa” with Mr. Burns, the writers pluck these character traits out of context, and infuse them into the characters regardless. So now that’s just who Ned is. And it’s terrible.
– Shauna appears as a cashier at not-Trader’s Joe’s, and her scene ends with her forcibly making out with Gil. Sigh. This is the last time I talk about this awful, awful character. The joke is she’s a little whore! She’s like a younger version of Mrs. Muntz. Also, I have to circle back to the age question again; she attends Springfield Elementary, and like the other bullies, her age is nebulous, but she most definitely has to be somewhere in her teens, and definitely under 18. It was creepy and weird to see her repeatedly suck face with Bart, but for her to make out with a sixty-something year old was incredibly disturbing. And also, why? What’s the joke here?
– There’s a scene in this show that is just unbelievably bad. Homer and Marge are in bed, and Marge laments the fact that they have no adult friends. First, it’s a carbon copy of a similar scene from “A Milhouse Divided,” which I don’t besmirch them for, except that instead of them talking like real people, they’re just sitcom joke spitting machines. But through the scene, we cut to Lisa, then Bart standing at the bedroom door. They appear, say the over-explanatory “joke,” and then leave the scene. It’s the worst version of this trope of characters randomly appearing I’ve seen yet. And all these characters aren’t having a conversation. They’re just saying dialogue. Lisa says she’s doing just fine without friends, then she leaves, then Marge repeats what she said to the audience (“Okay with no friends? That’s the saddest thing I can imagine my daughter saying to me.”)

One good line/moment: The opening Itchy & Scratchy starts as a parody of Ratatouille, where a little Itchy hides under Scratchy’s chef’s hat and puppeteers him to mutilate himself. I was pretty shocked, because for once they were actually doing a clever parody, and not just trying to get brownie points for making a culturally relevant reference (to a seven year old movie, but still). Unfortunately, the cartoon runs twice as long as it needs too, and as usual with I & S’s these days, it becomes unnecessarily crude and gross with no real humor to it. Also, for some reason, Bart is watching this in the kitchen on an ancient looking portable TV that looks like this. I couldn’t understand why, but thinking back on it, I think I got it. They do a joke where Marge and Bart try to drown each other out, Marge turning up the food mixer and Bart turning up the TV. But if Bart was using a tablet or a laptop to watch the cartoon like any modern day kid would, that joke wouldn’t be as easy to communicate visually than if it were an old TV with a knob on it. So, instead of thinking of another joke that would have made more sense, they give Bart an old TV to watch. But why did they give him such an old looking TV? I had a portable TV as a kid that just looked like a small tube TV. Was this an in-joke? I don’t get that part. Hm. Looks like this section that’s supposed to be positive turned pretty negative. Oh well. It was a shit episode anyway.

550. Brick Like Me

Original airdate: May 4, 2014

The premise:
Homer wakes up in a world entirely made of LEGO, but he begins to get flashes back to his flesh-and-blood reality featuring he and Lisa finding common ground through building playsets together.

The reaction: “It’s not selling out, it’s co-branding!” Whatever lets you sleep at night, guys. This Homer line opens the show, as this episode was meant to coincide with the release of the new Simpsons LEGO figures and sets. But, to this episode’s simultaneous benefit and detriment, it also came right off the heels of the wild success of The LEGO Movie. Despite it being written and directed by super geniuses Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the brilliant minds behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Clone High, most people weren’t really expecting the movie to be as absolutely astounding as it was. It surely reignited people’s love of LEGO, so that probably helped this episode coming out during the wave of it. But, it also leaves the show in a weird place where all their cute LEGO jokes and sight gags are kind of unconscious retreads of material from The LEGO Movie, except not as sharp or gorgeous looking. But there’s no real point to comparing and contrasting these two, so let’s drop that and look at this for what it is. With pretty great looking animation and a shocking amount of jokes that actually land, this is definitely the strongest episode I’ve seen in years, but a mostly shit script holds it back from any notoriety for me. Even in CG LEGO, the never-ending problem of characters reiterating the plot and saying how they feel is in full force here, in particularly obnoxious fashion. In the real world, Homer bonds with Lisa over her LEGO sets, but is hurt when she blows him off to hang with some older girls. So he takes refuge in his coma-induced LEGO world, “everything fits with everything else and nobody ever gets hurt,” a line that is repeated verbatim at least five or six times. As he talks with others and bonds with Lisa, he continues to explain what’s happening and say exactly what he’s feeling over and over. His epiphany comes from realizing “the fact that kids grow up is what makes time with them special.” How do I know? Because he says that verbatim, and in the previous scene, he monologues all of the things he’ll never do if he’s stuck in non-progressing time. We don’t see Homer getting bored with doing the same thing day in and day out, or have a realization based on something someone else says; the only thing the writers can do is have Homer literally say aloud what his conflict is, what he feels about it, and how he can fix it. In the limitless imagination world of LEGO, the storytelling is still stuck in one dimension as always.

Three items of note:
– This episode also suffers a little bit in comparison to a similar episode of Community that aired within a month of this, wherein a 40-year-old Jeff Winger goes into a coma, taking refuge in a G.I. Joe-styled dream where he can revel in his nostalgic youth forever. It features cartoon Jeff getting flashes back to his life-action self, as well as acknowledging that they’re all just action figures, similar to the moments in this where LEGO Homer gets flesh fingers and gets flashes of his ink-and-paint “real” world. “G.I. Jeff” is a thousand times better written than this slop, so that doesn’t help.
– The scenes in the real world are written even worse than the LEGO stuff. Homer finds himself enjoying playing LEGO with Lisa, and spends an entire scene expositing that fact. Later, he walks in on her hanging out with three older girls, who all get their own dialogue explaining why they’re there, because hell if I know. They’re bonding over “The Starving Games” book series, and boy, I wonder what that’s a parody of? Terrible, just fucking terrible. The ending tag features them going to see the movie, where they show it’s just a trifling love triangle that the girls are going apeshit over. I’ve seen the movies, haven’t read the books, and I’m not, nor have I ever been, a young girl, but I don’t know if that’s the biggest appeal of this series. I’ve seen a couple other parodies that hinge on Katniss and the two guys, but it was never really a huge critical part of the movies. Maybe the writers’ daughters are all about the romance angle and so they wrote it that way, but it felt a little reductive and tone-deaf to have the only parody angle be that the Hunger Games is just like Twilight, part two.
– It really is impossible to watch this and not think about The LEGO Movie. The ending with Bart showing up in his giant robot, hodgepodged together out of various in-congruent styles and franchises felt exactly like the finale of that movie with Emmett and the gang building their machines to fight back against Lord Business. I don’t know the facts, but I’m pretty certain all of these similarities are unintentional, but it still stings a bit when they lampshade it at the end, as Homer describes his adventure (“I had this crazy dream where I was in a world made of LEGO bricks and learned important lessons about parenting!” “Isn’t that kind of the plot of-” “No it’s not. It’s a new plot.”) As usual, pointing out your shitty writing doesn’t make it any less shitty.

One good line/moment: This is always a struggle, at times an impossibility to pick out something I actually enjoyed, but as I mentioned, this is easily the best episode they’ve done in a while, with a lot of gags that worked. My favorite scene was the church with Lovejoy, which was strong through almost the whole thing (“What if everything isn’t made of plastic? I think there’s more to this world!” “You mean, like decals? The Orthodox don’t use them, but we are a reformed congregation.”)

549. What To Expect When Bart’s Expecting

Original airdate: April 27, 2014

The premise:
Bart uses a voodoo doll on his art teacher to get out of class, but is shocked when she arrives the next day announcing she’s pregnant. When word of his magical power of fertility spreads through town, he and Homer are taken to Fat Tony, who wishes to conceive a thoroughbred racehorse.

The reaction: Man, are they running out of story lines or something? Let’s just dive right in: Bart is agitated by her ultra-positive, free-wheeling art teacher (Willie acts as nude model for a bunch of children, don’t even want to touch that one), and wants to get rid of her because he hates art. He seems more mildly annoyed by it than anything, it all feels very flimsy. He then visits a racist stereotype and gets a voodoo doll from her, calling for the spirits to give her “aching tum,” and the next day, she shows up pregnant, which for some reason means that she can’t teach anymore. But that’s the last we see of her, which is fine, since she was never a real character anyway. For some reason, this playground gossip of Bart getting someone pregnant spreads through the town and grown adults buy into it, and soon Bart has couples from all over to bless with his magical nonsense. Boy, this sure is exciting, right? Halfway through, all of this started feeling a little familiar, and then when Fat Tony enters the picture, I realized that this was like a nonsensical version of “Faith Off” (well, more nonsensical), where for whatever reason he buys into Bart’s bullshit and relies on him to breed his horses. Left alone, Bart claims this is all Homer’s fault, that he should have been a stronger male role model for him. Oh, so this is a father-son episode now? It comes completely out of nowhere. Bart cites the opening scene where Homer passes out on the lawn after a pub crawl in his defense, but we never saw him react sad or disgusted by his father before then. But this doesn’t mean anything; the ending involves Homer and Bart getting two horses to fuck with a big musical number that only at the very end did I realize they were doing a take on Les Miserables. It’s absolutely dreadful, one of the worst songs they’ve ever done. The horse is pregnant, and then that’s it! Episode over. Empty conflict, empty resolution.

Three items of note:
– Bart gets the voodoo idea from Shauna, who he didn’t notice was standing right outside the school a few feet away from him. She’s shown up a handful of times since her inception, so I guess she’s a recurring character now. Oh boy. And she locks lips with Bart again! Remember how not skin-crawlingly creepy that was the first time around? They also reveal her to be Chalmers’ daughter, so I guess that’s something. I don’t know what that something is, but it’s something, alright.
– So, they want to make a joke that the racehorse is gay, so he wants no part in this impregnation plot. There’s so many possible gags they can do to communicate this point. So what do they do? The horse trots over to a stereo that for some reason is sitting in the corner, and dances to “It’s Raining Men.” Like… how on-the-nose can you possibly get? It’s so fucking bad. Even the animation is terrible in that scene; the horse has one leg down and it’s like he’s rotating on a turntable. And then in case you still don’t fucking get it, Homer walks in and says, “Y’know, I don’t think this guy likes girls.” YOU THINK?! The way this show is written now, it’s literally like they’re making for it for an audience who’s got the TV on in the background and is 15% paying attention.
– The very ending of the episode features a recreation of the Modern Family opening with different groups of characters appearing in picture frames. Sigh. Between this and the How I Met Your Mother bit in the Halloween show, this really is just sad. Beyond the fact that these are simply references and not parodies, it just feels so pathetic, this show desperately trying to plug in elements from more successful modern shows to feel like they’re more current. This series has been on life support forever, and any time they do something like this, it’s like they’re leeching a tiny bit of life blood off of a flavor-of-the-month. It’s just a bummer.

One good line/moment: Another guest directed couch gag, this time by Polish animator Michal Socha, featuring a red and black tinted nightmarish trip through Homer’s body. It’s so surreal and oddly beautiful, it’s probably my favorite outsourced couch gag so far. They should just do these every week.

548. Days of Future Future

Original airdate: April 13, 2014

The premise:
Thirty years into the future, Bart is still dealing with the heartbreak from his divorce, Lisa struggles to deal with her husband Milhouse’s zombie disease, and Marge finally breaks it off with Homer, who after years of being replaced with clones, is now reduced to just a floating head on a screen.

The reaction: I guess after the unusually strong positive response the last future episode received, it makes sense they would go back to that well one more time. So this is, what, the fifth future show? At this point, it just feels like a hodgepodge of elements we’ve already seen from the last two. Bart is a deadbeat dad living in the school, Lisa is still inexplicably with Milhouse, Homer and Marge break up again… none of this is new material. But before we get to the future, we’re one minute into our present day when Homer drops dead, and Professor Frink wheels into the funeral with a Homer clone. In present day. It’s glossed over quickly with a joke as to why the fuck Frink would have cloned Homer at all, then we get a hilarious montage of Homer dying or killing himself over and over and over again throughout the years, without explaining why Frink would bother creating new clones. So we get to the future, and like I said, everyone is more or less in the same place as we saw them in the last future episode. Bart’s still a big loser who can’t get over his ex-wife, so he goes to get his heartbreak wiped from his memory (so they’re ripping off an old episode where they ripped off a movie now?) Then he fucks a bunch of girls, because we needed to have that mental image, then he and Jenda get back together, and then they break up, both instances being incredibly simplistic and formulaic. Bart experiences a single moment of clarity around Jenda, and she instantly becomes putty in his arms, and then later she gets mad at him for not paying attention to when she’s talking, like all women folk do, am I right, men?! So in the end, Bart accepts that he’s done with Jenda, a character we don’t really know or care about, and also Homer and Marge get back together because of course they do, all while we’re inundated with more half-baked, rejected Futurama jokes that the writers fished out of their trash bins. Bleh.

Three items of note:
– This is now the third episode where we’ve seen Jenda, Bart’s wife. You’d think after this much screen time, we would know a little bit about her, likes, dislikes, personality quirks, why she fell in love with Bart to begin with… but no. Nothing. Can anyone tell me one goddamn thing about her? She rode a skateboard and was kind of like a cool kid in “Future Drama,” but here, she’s just a blank slate. And she’s voiced by Amy Poehler, who now, almost a decade after the first appearance of this character, is way too big a star to be slumming it with shit scripts like this one.
– Homer’s robot body goes to Moe’s on its own and guzzles down beer. I guess they were gearing themselves up for that Futurama crossover early.
– Toward the end of the episode, Bart and Lisa drunkenly tell each other their problems (y’know, like they did in the last future show), and a drunk Marge appears out of nowhere to tell them the secret to a successful marriage or something. She then decides it’s stupid to stay mad at Homer for the billionth time because she knows she’s going to go crawling back eventually, so she downloads herself into the monitor with Homer, and gleefully allows him to devour her entire head, complete with Pac-Man sound effects. Bart and Lisa look on dumbfounded, as does Moe, who comments, “I can’t tell if that was love, suicide or a really boring video game.” It’s like he’s speaking for all of us. Especially that “really boring” part.

One good line/moment: Bart works for the Jurassic Park rip-off Cretaceous Park (“Now Correctly Named.”)