651. The Girl on the Bus

Original airdate: January 13, 2019

The premise:
Lisa befriends a girl and her intellectual, worldly experienced parents, and builds up lie after lie to hide her own disappointing family from them.

The reaction: I’ve been a bit surprised how quite a few episodes this season tread upon some original ground that somehow, over thirty years on the air, hasn’t been already thoroughly covered. How they actually executed those ideas is an entirely different story, but I certainly appreciated the effort. This episode, however, is absolutely nothing we haven’t seen before, and done so much worse. At first I thought this was a “Lisa gets a new friend” show, with Lisa wandering into the house of this girl she saw out the bus window, and immediately bonding over ecological concerns and Stan Getz music… man, Lisa is fucking boring. I’m sorry, but of the core family, her characterization slippage has hurt most of all. She was always wise beyond her years, but through it all, her childlike sweetness always kept her grounded and believable. But after years of the writers using her as a vessel for easy jokes on liberals and self-absorbed artsy types, writing her more as a 30-year-old grad student than an 8-year-old, any attempts to recapture that childlike innocence ring completely hollow. Her reactions to this new family and their mindful living and high-minded interests have her come off as smug and self-satisfied than any kind of wide-eyed awe. Anyway, the core of the episode is about Lisa sneaking out to the Monroes each night and lying about her family, feeling ashamed that they’re a bunch of lowlife slobs, which recalls both “Lisa’s Substitute” and “Lisa’s Wedding,” which is some pretty tough company to be sitting between.

Lisa is caught sneaking out by Marge, who is immediately hostile towards her daughter, sneeringly guilt-tripping, “I’m just someone who devotes every day to making your life a little better!” We earlier saw her yelling at her daughter during their nightly ritual of watching trash TV whilst eating frozen microwave dinners (“Why do we have to eat dinner together every night?” “Because it’s good for the damn family!!”) I understand this set-up is to sharply contrast with the Monroes, and when the show highlights the shittiness of the Simpson family, it’s always an issue how to portray the sweet, always sympathetic Marge in a bad light, but I’d much rather see her exhausted and ineffectively scolding Homer and Bart or something than just screaming at Lisa. There have been far too many episodes featuring Marge being cold and cruel to her daughter, and vice versa, for my tastes. But her attitude immediately flips when the Monroes are invited over, and Marge bends over backwards to make sure they all make a good impression. She specifically gives Homer a cue card with only four things to say and to never deviate, and at the night of the dinner, everything seems to be going swimmingly until Mr. Monroe probes him on his thoughts further (“I want to know what’s in your head!”) Dramatic music plays as the rest of the family looks petrified and time stands still as this reckless, mindless dullard ponders what to finally say. He eventually croaks out, “Uhh, you like beer?” Mr. Monroe emphatically says yes. I guess the joke was supposed to be all this suspenseful build-up for nothing, but it didn’t really feel like it. I’d rather things spiraled out of control as Homer put more and more of his foot in his mouth, exposing the family for who they really are; instead, Lisa just by her own sense of guilt comes clean and admits she lied and this was all a ruse. It all just feels so utterly empty. “Substitute” and “Wedding” deeply examined what Lisa craved in her life and what she valued, and how that completely clashed with the rest of her family (mostly Homer), and in the end saw how much they all truly mean to her, and how she’ll love them no matter what. We get none of that here. Instead, any kind of emotional resolution is bulldozed in favor of an out-of-left-field ending where Bart turns his bedroom into a nightclub. I thought my brain might have stroked out and I forgot something that happened earlier in the show, but no, he just invites everyone to his tricked out room, everyone hugs and that’s the ending. What a load of trash. Before when the show used to cover old topics, they felt like hollow mimicries, but now, they seemingly get too distracted by random nonsense they can’t even make a simple photocopy.

Three items of note:
– Homer texts Lisa asking where his phone is, to which she replies that he’s currently texting her on his phone, to which he replies back with the “Homer-sinks-backwards-into-the-bushes” gif. How deliciously meta. This show has never shied away from breaking the fourth wall, but it was always best when they were making some joke about television itself or the medium of animation. Here, using the popular gif is just the show telling its audience they know this meme exists, and that’s about it. Just like when they reference or namedrop popular movies and TV shows, it’s just them trying to get brownie points to skate by with minimal effort. And I barely care about this sort of thing anymore thirty years in, but stuff like this breaks the show’s already flimsy reality, that the writers care more about making a real-world reference than making their own fictional world believable. I’m actually kind of shocked they haven’t made a “steamed hams” reference yet; I feel like by the end of the year, we may get one. The couch gag is of a similar crowd-pleasing vein, featuring Thanos using Maggie’s pacifier as one of the Infinity Stones and dusting four-fifths of the family in the Great Snappening. Everyone and their mother has already made their Infinity War jokes online, but here comes this shambling dinosaur way past this cultural moment’s relevancy to get some brownie points. And for both of these examples, it works! Several sites and blogs, including TIME (!!!), talked about the Homer-in-the-bushes gif, and the original creator of Thanos posted how enthralled he was to see his character used on The Simpsons.
– The Monroes offer to drive Lisa home, who is petrified that her lies about her family will be exposed. She impromptu leaps out of the car and hugs Ned, whispering to him to play along, which he winks back and proceeds to help her out (“God bless you, and as I like to say, a hearty ‘Woo-hoo’!”) It’s the only cute moment in the whole show, and silly me, I thought it was going to actually build to something that Lisa would conspire with Ned to keep this ruse up, who would act as her moral compass to eventually want to come clean with the truth. Would they need to come up with a lie about Lisa’s “mother” and “sister”? A new wife to pose with Ned? Rod and/or Todd dressing in drag? But woah woah woah, that situation sounds like it would require way too much writing. Let’s just completely drop it. When she catches Lisa, Marge mentions that a guilt-ridden Ned told her about her whole charade, and we get a cutaway gag wherein Ned is dressed like Homer at the power plant, unable to stop his impression. Am I supposed to laugh at Ned saying Homer’s catchphrases? Instead I’m worried he has a brain hemorrhage or something. He also apparently told Marge what Lisa said about each one of the family members, a conversation she only had with the Monroes, so I guess they actually did have a conversation off screen that would have been interesting to see. But, again, way too much thinking would have been required for that.
– There’s a small moment that bugged me way too much, the act break when Marge emerges from the shadows to catch Lisa about to sneak out. Lisa screams (“Aaaaah!! Sideshow Mom!”) So… thinking about it more, Marge does say, “Hello, Lisa,” sort of like how Bob sinisterly says, “Hello, Bart,” but it’s not easily identifiable through Kavner’s reading. And the show has made a joke or two out of Bart and Lisa yelling “Sideshow Bob!” again and again before, I believe. But this little moment speaks to what I’ve decried over and over about this show, the complete lack of believably in these characters and them acting like real fucking people. As crazy and exaggerated as situations would get in the show’s first ten years, all the characters still talked and behaved in line with their personalities, and reacted how real people would react. Here, Lisa’s giddy about sneaking out and being deceptive to her family, but part of her must be pretty freaked out about getting caught. So she’s about to bike away from the backyard, when she hears her mother behind her. She’s caught, she’s done for. The ruse is over. So what does her brain tell her mouth to say? “Aaaah! Sideshow Mom!” Like, maybe if after she said it, she sheepishly was like, “Oh, sorry, just a reflex,” but even then in this non-Sideshow Bob episode it’s completely incongruous. Bob’s not exactly a main character; any casual fan watching this episode would be like, “What’d she say? Sideshow Mom? Is that like her nickname? What the fuck?” In the writer’s room, someone thought that ‘Bob’ and ‘Mom’ sort of sounded similar (they really don’t), and that it would be funny for Lisa to say this. Within the story and the emotions wherein, it’s completely ridiculous that Lisa would just blurt out this joke line when this very serious thing has happened, but, as always, none of that matters. These characters are hollow joke machines vaguely resembling actual people going through a story with the illusion of emotional stakes. And as I have said countless times, if the writers don’t care enough to treat a story seriously, why the fuck should I?

One good line/moment: I got absolutely nothing for this one. This feels like the worst episode of the season so far, it would feel right at home in season 28.

650. Mad About The Toy

Original airdate: January 6, 2019

The premise:
Bart’s toy army men trigger a traumatic memory of Abe’s; originally thought to be PTSD from his war days, it’s revealed that he was actually the photo model for the toys, and his trauma is from his deep regret of getting the cameraman fired after rebuffing his romantic advances. Abe must now track the man down to make his amends.

The reaction: This is one of those episodes that’s laid out like a mystery, except I don’t particularly care what the final reveal is. The source of Abe’s trauma is milked through the entire middle section of the show: first you think the army men caused him to have a horrible wartime flashback, but then it’s revealed that that was actually just the photo shoot for the toy soldier models. This itself feels like the punchline to one of Abe’s rambling nonsense stories, but I guess nowadays it’s as good a premise as any for an actual, serious plot line. Now thinking Abe is traumatized in never having gotten royalties for his likeness being sold for decades (that would cause him to scream bloody murder and lose his mind?), the Simpsons takeĀ an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City on the toy company’s dime, only to be told they don’t owe Abe jack since he never actually signed a contract. So did they pay for all their extravagant expenses just to mess with them? Also, their office building looks kind of old and run down, why would they blow all that money for no reason like that? Finally we get our big reveal: Abe developed a friendship with the photographer, who mistook his platonic affection for romantic and kissed him, causing Abe to run out in shock and get the poor guy fired. So now, the Simpsons are going to Texas where Phillip the photographer lives so Abe can finally apologize. But I’m not completely sure of the source of Abe’s trauma. At first I thought it was getting the guy fired, but he ran out of the photo session and never knew about anything that happened after that, it seemed. So I guess maybe it was buried down feelings about the kiss, a healthy dollop of gay panic, and questioning his sexuality (“I’ve started to think that a man can love different things and still be a man.”) This idea of a senior veteran reconsidering his definition of manhood is actually kind of compelling and would have made for a great story… if that quote hadn’t been said at almost seventeen minutes in. Abe finds that Phillip has made quite the living for himself creating pop art of soldier Abe, and only got the courage to live as his true self after he got fired. This section of these two old men talking, Phillip assuring Abe it’s never too late to make a change, is interesting, but again, there’s absolutely no room for it to breathe at the end of the episode. So we rush to Abe kissing Phillip before he leaves and confirming that he is indeed 100% straight, but hey, if you gays like it, that’s cool, man. We saw at the opening that Abe threw away his wedding portrait with Mona, which wasn’t really connected to anything else… I dunno, why not make Abe gay? It certainly would be something different. Isn’t thirty years of the status quo enough? Would any fan care if they made character changes like this? It certainly would make the show more interesting.

Three items of note:
– Seeing flashbacks with Abe as time marches forward feels more and more questionable. I know I’ve talked about this floating timeline stuff before, but even if Abe was drafted in WWII when he was 18, that would put him well into his 90s in present day. Did he have Homer when he was 50? I just feel like there comes a point where you have to move on and change things up, but that seems like the number one thing this show absolutely does not want to do.
– This story of Abe’s gay panic that he blocked out of his brain for years really could have been interesting if they actually took it a bit more seriously. Recalling this event caused him to scream bloody murder, so it must have really affected him mentally. Remember when Homer couldn’t stop screaming after recalling he found Smithers’ father’s corpse when he was a kid? They played that straight. Here, after the fateful kiss, we follow it up with some very natural sounding jokes (“This is the forties! Guys like you don’t exist!”) Then Abe reasserts his manliness by running into a Rock Hudson movie, because of irony. It all felt just way too on the nose; having Abe just run out in panic would have made the plot hold a lot more weight than trying to cram jokes out of every orifice of this show. I feel like there was more breathing room allowed in the classic years to really let emotional moments sink in. I remember a fantastic moment from “Lisa the Iconoclast,” after Homer loses his town crier position but still wants to show Lisa his support for her cause, there’s a quiet moment where we see him muster up a smile for her, but then he quickly goes back to looking sullen, his attempted mask for his daughter’s sake crumbling. That’s a wonderful moment, and if they had treated the gay kiss scene with that kind of weight, it would have been a lot more successful, and made me care about Abe more.
– As Abe walks down the streets of Marfa, Texas, preparing himself for meeting the man whose life he unintentionally ruined and the source of his confused sexuality, which had been treated with seriousness up to this point, he starts singing a song to himself recapping the story set to “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”(There’s a handsome man in Texas that I’m going back to see/He was supposed to take my picture, but he got sweet on me/I buried it for decades, deep inside my brain/But then I played with army men and it came up again) Then he does a little jig and dances to his song. Firstly, ‘brain’ and ‘again’ don’t rhyme, even those Castellaneta attempted to pronounce ‘again’ like it did. Second, this is something the show is wont to do often, take a potentially emotional moment that might hold some actual weight, and completely undercut it with something stupid like this. They’re not even joke lyrics, he’s literally just repeating information we already know. There are plenty of ways we could have been Abe nervously enter the town, maybe stop in some shops or talk people to death as means of prolonging the inevitable, that could have been amusing, but still made sense within the story. But whatever.

One good line/moment: As usual this season, despite the actual story being crap, there were a handful of actually funny bits. Homer and Marge speeding through their date (taking a speedboat through the Tunnel of Love, Homer taking the reigns of their horse and buggy after the horse ran away), the toy company shredding raccoons into two sorting bins: coonskin caps and Play-Dough, the photo of Phillip taking a picture of a bathing beauty on Normandy Beach during the war… these are small moments that actually do work, but it’s just too bad that the same thought couldn’t be put into these stories. All the gags in the world can’t save an episode where I don’t give a shit about the characters and what they’re going through.