639. Flanders’ Ladder

Original airdate: May 20, 2018

The premise:
After getting struck by lightning, Bart goes into a coma, where he is haunted by ghosts of the dearly departed, looking to him to sort out their unfinished business, the most insistent of all being Maude Flanders.

The reaction: I’d say the show gets points for trying a different type of story, but those points immediately get redacted since I didn’t understand the point of it or why any of it was happening. We open on Bart tricking Lisa with a screamer prank and posting her hilarious reaction online, basically just ripping off the Scary Maze Game, an OVER TEN YEAR OLD Internet meme. I guess next season will feature Bart first discovering ytmnd. When Bart tragically falls into a coma, Lisa gets her revenge by whispering in his ear to be surrounded by the dead. And so, in Bart’s head, first he encounters Maude Flanders, who is urgent to talk to him, and soon he’s doing the bidding of a bunch of other ghosts just because they tell him to. None of this feels like the extended dream of a child though, which made me keep forgetting this was all a big coma fantasy and ultimately nothing that happened mattered. The conceit reminds me of the Futurama episode “The Sting,” where Fry seemingly dies and Leela has to deal with her grief but also starts hallucinating due to the effects of space bee honey, but then it’s revealed that she was actually in a coma, and her visions were due to Fry at her bedside talking to her and keeping her brain active. This episode attempts that a few times with Lisa saying something and a character in Bart’s dream saying the same line, but that was barely an element of the show. Whereas Leela found herself going mad as reality seemed to bend before her eyes, Bart’s coma world feels just like reality except with ghosts in it. Anyway, Maude wants revenge on Homer, since he was responsible for getting her killed by the T-shirt cannons, so Bart recruits the bullies to ambush him with T-shirts. Then Homer shows up as a ghost and Bart has to deal with him not wanting his father to leave him… Wasn’t this a Bart-Lisa story? Shouldn’t the emotional crux be Bart feeling bad for humiliating her sister? We cut from Lisa apologizing for messing with Bart at the hospital to coma Bart begging ghost Homer not to go into the light? Is this meant to be symbolic? What’s Bart’s emotional arc? What’s the point? Again, part of me appreciates the show trying to tell a different kind of story, but if I have no idea what the purpose of it was, and considering another show already did it extremely competently fifteen years prior, I just wonder why the hell they even bothered.

Three items of note:
– We open with a transformer blowing and the family’s Internet goes out. We see a CONNECTION LOST message on the family room’s updated HD TV, Bart on the floor with his laptop with the Mac spinning rainbow circle, Lisa and Abe’s tablets don’t work… even after all this time, the Simpsons using modern technology still feels wrong to me. It gets even odder when Homer busts out his old VHS tapes, which absolutely mystify Bart and Lisa, leading to a sequence where they are stupidity by the sound of a rewinding tape and the concept of a corded remote. A big element of the pilot episode almost thirty years ago was Lisa being psyched about watching her favorite Happy Little Elves videotape, and here we are now, this show still alive and kickin’ (barely), with the kids not even knowing what a VHS is. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just really weird to see.
– We see a lot of familiar faces in the crowd of ghosts haunting Bart: beyond our beloved popular dead regulars like Marvin Monroe and Bleeding Gums Murphy, we also have Homer’s Vegas wife Amber, Rabbi Krustofski (Jackie Mason appearing again, aiming to rival Glenn Close for most posthumous repeated guest spots), Waylon Smithers Sr., that Fat Pride motor scooter guy, and then two or three other faces that seemed familiar that I didn’t recognize. I guess they had someone go on Simpsons Wiki and pull up the Deceased Characters page or something. Shary Bobbins also gets a line in, which why not, considering they got Maggie Roswell back for Maude. Speaking of which, the whole second act is building toward finding out what Maude wants from Bart, which turns out to be revenge on Homer for causing her death, and like… who cares. Like, really, who the fuck cares. “Alone Again, Natura-Diddly” was almost twenty years ago, does anyone give a flying shit about this? And I’d rather not be reminded of that episode, or of Homer’s gross behavior in it. They wedge in a (full frame) clip of her death in there in case people forgot, and you know what, as bad as that episode was, I would watch it over any episode over the last several years in a heartbeat.
– The episode was pretty much wrapping up eighteen minutes in or so, which was slightly confusing, but that left room for a lengthy, uninteresting tag depicting how and when the Simpsons and other Springfield denizens will die. It’s a “parody” of the ending of the series finale of Six Feet Under, complete with the same song scoring it, a show that went off the air thirteen years ago. I often bitch about the show making incredibly outdated references (I literally just did with the screamer videos earlier), but the show in its prime made a lot of references to TV and movies that were decades old. So what’s the difference? I feel like there are two big reasons. Firstly, as time goes on, and we get inundated with more and more media outlets spitting out more and more content at us, “big” pop culture moments tend to not have a lot of staying power. The series finale of M*A*S*H pulled in over a hundred million viewers in 1983, but flash forward to the Friends finale twenty years later and it had barely half the audience. With so many different viewing options out there, the audience is more fragmented than it’s ever been, and as such, big cultural moments aren’t quite as big and long-standing anymore. Six Feet Under was a pretty successful show, but now, over a decade later, it feels so completely irrelevant, because there have been thousands of other great dramas to take its place since then. Secondly, The Simpsons was born in an era where reruns were king; the major networks and basic cable would constantly run old shows and movies to fill up their time slots, so when this show would lampoon Citizen Kane or The Godfather, not only are those classic films, there’s a pretty good chance a then modern audience would have seen the movie playing somewhere on TV. Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find many channels running content that’s over a decade old, and that’s just on television. We’re living in a cultural landscape that is hyper focused on the now, an inevitability when everyone is connected on the Internet and can instantly make fun of whatever just happened that very day. It’s made The Simpsons‘ hallmark tradition of ripping on pop culture basically obsolete. We saw that clearly last season with their attempt to make a Pokemon Go episode, which came out nine months after the app went big, but most importantly, eight months and three weeks after every late night show, web cartoonist and Internet dweller had made ten thousand jokes and memes about it. Honestly, I really feel like the show should just retire pop culture jokes; between the poor writing and the outdated production schedule, they literally can’t be like they used to.

One good line/moment: The animation of Lisa getting stuck in Bart’s underwear and feebly struggling to get out was kind of fun. There have been a couple of fleeting fun animated moments this past season since they switched production companies, but not nearly enough for me to be crowing about what a tremendous difference it is or anything.

And there you have it, season 29 in the can. I’ll give it this, it wasn’t nearly as bad as season 28, which had some of the worst fucking episodes I’ve ever seen. But this is also the very first season I’ve watched and reviewed as it aired, so I’ve had a lot more time to completely forget almost all of it over the last nine months. “Singin’ in the Lane,” “3 Scenes Plus A Tag About a Marriage,” and “Left Behind” stick out as being particularly terrible, not to mention the tone-deaf Problem With Apu response from “No Good Read Goes Unpunished.” Most of the season I recall just being more dull than anything else. So, looks like I’m on hiatus until September then. I’d like to thank everyone reading this for sticking with the blog for another glorious season. I’m sure season 30 will provide even more wonderful, wonderful garbage for me to sift through. I’m so happy FOX canned Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Last Man on Earth so we wouldn’t miss out on more episodes of this broken down pathetic hollowed corpse of a goddamn show. Fuck.

(and yes, I know NBC picked up Nine-Nine, before anyone chimes in to deliver that news.)

638. Throw Grampa From The Dane

Original airdate: May 13, 2018

The premise:
When Abe is in need of an expensive operation, the Simpsons head off to Denmark to take advantage of their free healthcare, but Homer must make a big decision when the rest of the family wants to make the seemingly perfect country their new home.

The reaction: Wherein we find the show running out of countries for the family to visit. Will the Simpsons be going to Uzbekistan in season 35? The series only really had two international family excursions in the classic years, both with a different approach to thrusting the characters into a whole new environment: “Bart vs. Australia” had its fair share of Aussie jokes, but it was mostly focused on the absurd plot based on Bart’s unintentional international incident, and the horrible failures of US-Australia relations. Meanwhile, “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo” didn’t really have much of a story, focusing on creating a bunch of humorous set pieces, which worked because they were mostly all funny. But travel shows now are just an excuse for the show to act as a travelogue, showing off famous landmarks and rattling off trivia about different countries. This might be the greatest offender, with many scenes featuring characters literally reading off Denmark facts off their phone, with a tepid little joke at the end not at all worth the preceding info dump. In the third act, a Danish woman comes onto Homer, and three times begins sentences with “We Danes” before saying some generality about Danish people. And really, who was asking for this? I dunno, call me an uncultured swine, but I don’t see an episode full of Danish jokes full of rich, comedic potential. I mean, it could work, if it came from a show that hasn’t had almost twenty years of shit writing behind it. Circling back, the impetus of the family’s Denmark journey is needing an affordable operation for Abe, to address an ailment he never explains. He says it’s “embarrassing” and won’t talk about it, but that point is never really emphasized that much, and I didn’t think anything of it. After spending x number of days in Denmark with Homer trying to get his father into a terrible accident to be eligible for free healthcare, Abe finally comes clean: what he really needs is a tattoo removal. He reveals a heart on his chest with the word “MONA,” wanting it gone since his wife hated him up until her death. It’s unclear exactly what Abe’s endgame for all this was; I guess he went along and flew halfway around the world because he just couldn’t tell his family about this, but then once he does admit it to Homer, they barely even discuss it. You’d think Homer would be affected by this reveal, but I guess he’s already made peace that his mother fucking hated his father after “Forgive and Regret,” so whatever. The writers try and make it tie together when Abe urges Homer not to make his same mistakes and mend fences with Marge after a squabble, but it feels so limp and meaningless. This is one of those episodes that just washed over me with not much of anything really registering, and when your twist features your main character’s father wanting to completely sever emotional ties from his dead mother, and that idea is just completely swept aside, I think that says a lot.

Three items of note:
– I didn’t even remember this until I saw it mentioned elsewhere, the show literally did this plot last year, where the Simpsons took Abe to Cuba to get cheap medical care. I guess I don’t blame them, I barely recall anything about it. I think it ended with Abe co-owning a night club or something? And of course, we already saw Abe needing desperate medical attention two episodes ago. Is the only plot left with this character is him having one foot in the grave? Impulsively, I responded to an episode preview post from Al Jean, asking why they didn’t just make an episode featuring Abe finally dying. His response, “You tell Grampa that!” Lulz.
– The Abe plot starts and stops completely at will when we do all the Denmark travel stuff, and also runs completely parallel to the B-story, where Marge and the kids love this new country and want to stay. Homer’s main gripe is that he’s losing weight and won’t eat as unhealthily as he does in America. I mean, I’m sure Denmark has no shortage of fatty foods he can gorge himself on ’til his heart’s content (or gives out, whatever comes first). It felt like they were halfway toward a decent conflict, then decided this was good enough and broke for lunch.
– Homer rushes from the airport to make up with Marge after their contrived conflict, and because the episode is almost over, they of course need to be okay with going back to Springfield. But her main points are absolutely ridiculous. First, she points out that in the confined bathroom, the toilet is in the shower. Surely that’s something that shouldn’t be surprising to her or worth specifically pointing out a week into their stay. She points out the washing machine is really small too, but these are two things they could easily amend in their own home should they choose to stay. Then she points out how dark it is outside (“It’s eleven in the morning!”) We then see the sun rise and set in about two seconds. I guess all those daytime scenes we saw were playing at 100x speed, we just didn’t notice! This quick plot resolution shit is nothing we haven’t seen before, but it still elicits a groan out of me when I know a superfluous wrap-up is coming, and it never fails to disappoint in how poor it ends up being. Bart’s complaint is that the schools are good here, and as for Lisa? “I want to stay, but no one ever listens to me.” Sigh.

One good line/moment: Dr. Nick’s office is named “Bleeders Sinai Medical Center.”

637. Left Behind

Original airdate: May 6, 2018

The premise:
After the Leftorium finally shuts down, Homer gets Ned a job at the power plant, but once he’s fired from there, Ned decides to become a teacher.

The reaction: This show sure switches a lot of gears over twenty minutes. An opening featuring Homer and Marge’s date night (that admittedly is a little sweet in the effort Homer puts into it) is interrupted in the middle of the night by Ned, fraught over losing his job. Homer begrudgingly refers him to the power plant, where he gets hired as the new head of HR. From there, it’s just a bunch of scenes featuring Ned being a milquetoast weenie, which I find as very boring characterization for him (we have “Viva Ned Flanders” to blame for that.) When Burns impromptu fires him, he cycles through a bunch of odd jobs that don’t quite fit. Finally, fourteen minutes in, Marge convinces him to become a teacher, specifically the new substitute for Bart’s class. At first it was mind boggling to me to see Ned taking his deceased wife’s job with absolutely zero mention of it. But it turns out the writers were holding onto that info for a manipulative ending, where we have Bart apologizing to Ned, saying he thinks he could be as good a teacher as “her,” gesturing to the picture of Edna on the wall as Clair de Lune plays (plus an archival line from the deceased Marcia Wallace). I guess they felt that saving the Edna mention for the very end would act as a solemn, heartwarming tribute, but the fact that nobody mentioned her at all before that point felt incredibly strange. How is this episode not entirely about Ned trying to step into his dead wife’s shoes and whether he’s worthy of taking her place, and the kids’ perspective on this development as well? Did they think it would be too heavy to make it about that? Why not? It certainly would make it more human. All the last minute mention did was reinforce how vacuous and empty the whole Nedna thing was. They literally couldn’t have a plot revolving on Ned reflecting on Edna because there was nothing to their relationship in the first place. It was a soulless publicity stunt from six years ago that was tragically cut short following Marcia Wallace’s death. Ultimately, Ned reaches his class by manipulating them into being docile and God-fearing through some “miracles” Bart rigs up, which I guess counts as our happy ending? Remember the ending of “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baaadaaaaass S ong”? Yeah, me too. On Twitter, Al Jean explains, “One story point conscious decision that Ned was fired for religion in school before and now is using it. Sign of the times.” If anyone wants to decipher that explanation, be my guest, but I don’t understand it at all. Also according to Jean, he’s now the permanent fourth grade teacher now. So, there it is. It only took four years, but we’ve finally filled the vacancy in our major cast. The absentee actor problem with Wallace is a thorny one, of course, and I understand the writers not knowing how soon is too soon to fill Edna’s position, but four years feels way too long, especially given we’ve had scenes in Bart’s classroom before this with no mention or care of the lack of any teacher. I know they wanted that moment at the end to hit hard and be poignant, but it really felt like a huge shrug, especially after how much time has gone by, and more especially being tacked on at the end of such a hollow and meaningless episode. Ms. Wallace deserved better.

Three items of note:
– In addition to the main story jumping from plot to plot, we also get a minor story involving Todd’s… relationship with Lisa? It’s just two scenes of her being sort of weirded out by him just kinda being around all the time, and then him revealing a little gingerbread dollhouse he made for her with the two of them inside. Lisa is touched, as revealed through painful dialogue (“Todd, I had you all wrong. You’re a wonderful kid, and I’m happy to call you my pal.”) Todd then tells her he’s glad to finally have a friend and not have to hang around with his brother all the time, at which point Lisa tells him to stop talking and go away. Also, Rod and Todd are inexplicably just hanging at the Simpsons house for some reason. I guess Marge is watching them when Ned is working his new job(s)? But who watched them beforehand after Edna’s death? And we see Bart and Lisa there at the house too, so it couldn’t have been during the week, they’d be at school. They’re just there just because. Later we see the two boys bidding Ned farewell for his first day as a teacher, and they’re just sort of standing outside the house unsupervised. Who takes care of these two small children? Also, I think the only Ned-Edna episode involved her urging Ned to enroll her new stepchildren into public school, which I think ended with him agreeing. But I guess once she died, Ned pulled them right the fuck out, and I guess now they just roam the town aimlessly until their father scoops them up and brings them home after work. No one writing this gave two fucks about Rod and Todd. They even make a joke where Todd doesn’t remember which one he is, which feels like an odd joke to make in the 29th season of your show that you confuse the two children of one of your major secondary characters.
– This episode features a few callbacks to the movie for some reason. First, Ned expresses his gratitude to Homer by making his famous cocoa, the elaborate concoction where he grates chocolate flakes and toasts the marshmallow on top, except here it’s revealed he does it in Homer’s mouth. Later, Ned tries to get Bart not to spitball him at the behest of his ravenous schoolmates, saying, “They’ve been fishing together,” like the scene from the movie where he pats him on the back in the boat, and Bart flinches at first physical contact by an adult, which feels like a very sad child abuse joke. If I remember from the commentary, I think Al Jean and the writers really, really loved the Ned-Bart stuff from the movie, but I always thought it was incredibly saccharine and ham-fisted. I also remember one joke they mentioned was cut where after the Simpsons get out of the dome, Bart spies Ned on the other side, moons the glass, but then it’s revealed to be a heart shape as he runs away. Gross. Thank God that got cut.
– Though the teacher Ned story is more potentially juicy due to the Edna issue, Ned working at the plant is also a story that could have actually been something. We have a few scenes of him trying to bolster company morale and instill good manners and a kindly demeanor on the other employees, but it never actually goes anywhere. We see that Lenny and Carl are annoyed at Homer for getting stuck with this goody two shoes, but then Ned ultimately gets fired out of the blue when he mentions he hasn’t given anything to charity. It’s like they were laying down a few tracks but then ran the train off the rails completely before they even began. But I don’t really care. The episode could have been wholly about either story and it would have been a huge festering mess anyway.

One good line/moment: The SEARS closed forever sign, “Jeff Bezos Rot In Hell.”