670. Thanksgiving of Horror

Original airdate: November 24, 2019

The premise: Three spine-tinging stories… wait, didn’t we do this already this year? “A-Gobble-ypto” retells the first Thanksgiving as a violent turkey massacre through the lens of an avian Simpson family. In “The Fourth Thursday After Tomorrow,” Homer buys an AI system imbued with Marge’s DNA to help with the holiday cooking, but Marge quickly finds herself jealous of her more efficient artificial counterpart. In “The Last Thanksgiving,” far from Earth on a space vessel, the kids of Springfield Elementary find themselves terrorized by a sentient blob of cranberry sauce.

The reaction: Similar to “Halloween of Horror” from five or so years ago, we get another double dipping into the TOH format for one year, this time featuring macabre Thanksgiving-themed tales. It’s not shocking that this episode was much, much better than this year’s incredibly tepid Halloween offering. It is shocking that this was one of the most competently made episodes in a good, long while. I don’t know if I’d bring it to the level of “great,” but I was surprised throughout how all three stories went decently crafted and paced. The first features a bunch of our Springfield residents as turkeys, and others as Pilgrims seeking to make them their dinner. Things get graphic real quick when turkey Maude gets her head blown off, turning her into a bloody mess. This whole episode is pretty brutal; I really don’t know why the Halloween shows have been rendered bloodless, but here it’s fine. Is it because they’re just turkeys? Anyway, it’s a decent little story of the turkey Simpsons saving each other and reuniting, which was fine enough. Hearing the voice cast gobble as their characters was disarmingly adorable, I’m not gonna lie. Story #2 felt like a reworking on “House of Whacks,” the TOH with the smart house voiced by Pierce Brosnan, but here, it’s Marge that finds herself threatened by an AI of herself. In fact, I think “Whacks” kind of hurt this story a bit, in that maybe they felt they couldn’t have had the conclusion be that the AI Marge tries to murder OG Marge and take her place, because it would just like that story they did eighteen years ago (holy SHIT do I feel old). AI Marge’s great escape over the Internet was a good conclusion though. The last segment I think I enjoyed the most just because it was mostly dumb fun, a giant blob of cranberry sauce sucking out the bones of young children. Hilarious! It’s also an Alien parody of sorts, but unlike the last decade of so of Halloween segments, this story actually work unto itself because it’s using familiar pop culture trappings to tell a different kind of story (it also helps Alien is firmly in the cultural zeitgeist as a classic movie, unlike, say, Mr. & Mrs. Smith or Dead Calm). I guess because it involves aliens and outer space, but by the end, I was reminded of “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner,” the totally-not-canon-maybe Kang and Kodos episode, which surprised the fuck out of me by actually being the best episode in years. Is that was it takes for this show to start getting better, to do these crazy-go-nuts, off-the-way, not-strictly-canonical stories? I mean, after over thirty years on the air, why not? The only thing really holding this episode back is I didn’t get a whole lot of laughs out of it, which is a big mark against it, but it’s still easily the best of the season thus far, maybe the best in the last few years.

Three items of note:
– The special begins with Marge coming out from behind a curtain on stage to address the audience, a whopping twenty-nine years after she introduced the very first Treehouse of Horror in the same fashion. I know I’ve mentioned it several times before, but sometimes I get kinda sad hearing Julie Kavner’s poor strained voice. I assume she’s not in any sort of pain doing it, but the woman’s pushing 70, and it can’t be easy to maintain that gravely tone. It was especially worrisome in the second segment when the two Marges were talking back and forth with each other. I just felt like asking Kavner to stop and offering her a lozenge.
– It got to a point in the first segment where things almost seemed like they were getting too violent. We get multiple bloody turkey beheadings in a row, Willie gets his eyes impaled by corn cobs in a town wide panic, and Lou and Eddie get horrifically picked apart and killed by a murder of crows. I’m still curious about why this show is so graphic when most of the recent TOHs aren’t. In the last Halloween show we saw Burns and Smithers get their heads bitten off completely bloodless, and yet here, it’s like an orgy of violence by comparison.
– This is Russi Taylor’s final vocal performance on the show, and it sure is a doozy. Toward the end of the last segment, Martin traps Bart, Lisa and Milhouse in a locked room with the cranberry monster, having aligned with it (“I admire its purity! Its lack of messy humanity! This ‘creature,’ as you call it, is unencumbered by the petty morality of a dying species!”) He then strips, wishing to become one with the gelatin, killing himself in a magnificently gross fashion. Aping on horror/sci-fi movie tropes and staying true to character, Taylor’s final hour as Martin proved to be a moving and effective one. What better way to go out than Martin’s formless skin slapping pathetically against a metal door? Taylor was truly one of the greats in the world of voice acting, and she will truly be missed.

One good line/moment: Aside from Martin’s final moments, we get a really solid joke toward the very end when the ship crash lands on an alien world. Bart and Lisa rush to hug their parents who just woke up from their sleep pods. Santa’s Little Helper exits his own pod to join them. One final pod opens to reveal the skeleton of Snowball II and nobody reacts, and then the scene ends. Beautiful.

669. Livin’ La Pura Vida

Original airdate: November 17, 2019

The premise: Marge is thrilled to finally get invited to the Van Houten’s annual multi-family vacation to Costa Rica, hoping to have a perfect family vacation to flaunt via social media. Also tagging along is Patty and her new girlfriend, who surprisingly finds a kindred spirit in Homer. Meanwhile, Lisa frets about expensive this tropical vacation will be, and tries to uncover how the Van Houtens can afford it in the first place. Also, Chalmers and Shauna are there too and she gets engaged to Jimbo or whatever.

The reaction: As that longer-than-normal plot summary will tell you, this episode tries to juggle like three and a half stories with a bunch of different characters, when really it would have been better suited to focus on just one, with maybe like a light B-plot. We start with Marge losing her shit about finally being asked by Luann to go with them on their big annual Costa Rica trip (why she was never asked before, given Bart and Milhouse have been friends for many years, is unclear). She’s desperate for some excitement in her life (didn’t we go through this last week?), specifically wanting a picture perfect moment to post about Instaface, or whatever the Instagram knock-off app is called. Making her paranoid about manufacturing the perfect, calculated moment to show off online rather than actually enjoying the experience in the present is an interesting idea, and one that feels in-character for Marge, but the emotions and the story beats are given little room to breathe and develop because we have to cut back and forth to these other different stories and other characters. Also potentially intriguing is Patty’s new relationship with Evelyn, a Southern woman who quickly becomes Homer’s drinking buddy, leaving Patty shocked that she shacked up with a Homer of her own. Patty discovering she’s dating her worst fear, again, seems like it’d make for an interesting story, but we never see her and Evelyn have one conversation with each other, so we really don’t know anything about them, or why we should really care. There’s also this “mystery” as to how the Van Houtens can afford such a lavish vacation, and there’s a “shocking” reveal at the end that really doesn’t matter. Most confusingly of all is Superintendent Chalmers and his daughter Shauna, who throughout the episode, have short little scenes where Chalmers tries to connect to the aloof teenager who is glued to her phone, video-calling her boyfriend Jimbo. The two act breaks feature her aghast that Jimbo is cheating on him, then later him proposing to her, and we end on her dismissively saying they broke it off. Meanwhile, Chalmers is desperately trying to connect to his kid, and the tiny bit of it we see kind of feels like it could be going somewhere (“I’m doing my best, you understand? As a single father, it’s not always so easy to balance guidance with respect…”) But I dunno, I guess the joke is that he perpetually gets nowhere with Shauna who just blows him off because she’s on her phone, because she’s an awful character who has never been funny. But this relationship could have developed into something if it weren’t treated as a joke. Same with Patty and her girlfriend, the Van Houtens, Milhouse acting as toady to Dr. Hibbert’s teenage son rather than Bart, these story threads, given the right amount of care, could have developed into something new and interesting. Instead, they were all crammed into one script, and none of them had a chance to get off the ground. Nothing in this show was especially terrible, but it had a whole cargo full of missed potential.

Three items of note:
– There’s a brief running gag of Homer imagining Evelyn’s southern-isms in thought bubbles visually, but none of them are really jokes (“hotter than a two dollar pistol,” “Does a mama possum skip church on Sunday?”) It reminded me of asinine thought bubble gags of Homer imagining “pistol whipping” as eating Cool Whip with a handgun, or mishearing “financial planner” as “financial panther.” Those were dumb as hell, but at least I understood them as jokes. These function as Evelyn endearing herself to Homer, I guess, but it doesn’t feel like they work they way they should.
– The big reveal at the end is that the Costa Rican estate was actually inherited by Kirk and Luann, so every year, they’ve been charging the families they bring with them to pay for their vacation. We see and hear about a lot about a lot of outside activities, lavish dinners and other such expensive they all participate in, so I guess the only thing is that the Van Houtens are trumping up their “bill” to the other families for lodging to cover their own expenses. But I don’t get why no one knows how much this trip costs until the very end. I guess the idea is to distract you from the cost by thinking about how irreplaceable the experience is, which Marge communicates to Homer in bed to convince him to go, but I feel like it would have made more sense if Kirk or Luann pushed this line to further trick their friends into going.
– Kirk gets a lot of screen time here, where he’s kind of just like a huge douche, acting like a cool Costa Rican native, hoarding workout powder in his room he never actually uses, and discovered to have some very interesting bedtime reading material (“Protecting the White Male: America’s Most Endangered Species”). I remember “There Will Be Buds” tried to spearhead this new characterization of Kirk, where he was a meek, sadsack loser, but also a bit of a dick, asking Homer a bunch of weird sexual questions and trying to bro down with him or some shit. I don’t know, I want to give credit for them trying to flesh out a tertiary character like Kirk, but like so much of this episode, it feels very underdeveloped. It just makes me wonder why Luann is still with this weirdo. But then again, we find out that scamming the families out of money was her idea, so I guess the both of them are awful people.

One good line/moment: Over the last decade or so, there have been numerous explicit references that are very specific to the Los Angeles area that have always felt very annoying, considering this show is supposed to take place in bumfuck nowhere Springfield, USA. Even though I live in LA, just because I recognize this allusion to a local famous deli or talk about how the traffic sucks or some shit, it doesn’t mean I automatically laugh at it. But in this episode, they got me. They fucking got me. Homer rightfully wonders how in the fuck Kirk is able to pay for this trip every year, explaining, “His job is moving the Topless Maids van so they don’t get parking tickets!” The pink Topless Maids van is kind of infamous to the area; my wife and I would always see it past the Warner Bros. lot on Barham, to the point that we would be shocked if it wasn’t there on a certain day. We’ve seen it around other places, and just recently I see it all the time right by the McDonald’s in North Hollywood, almost like it followed me on my new commute. So this very specific reference got a surprise laugh out of me, only because it’s tied to an inside joke between my wife and I.

668. Marge the Lumberjill

Original airdate: November 10, 2019

The premise: Once again feeling the sting of her boring life, Marge falls into the world of competitive timber sports. She turns out to be a natural and is loving her new self, but Homer worries that her new trainer might be more interested in her than she thinks.

The reaction: Let’s tick the ol’ overused story trope boxes: Marge wants some excitement in her life, a Simpson takes up a new hobby/talent and is immediately a success, Homer is worried Marge might leave him… we’ve seen it all before, and done much better, of course, but at least nothing here is stupid or out of left field. Noticing Marge is pretty skillful at chopping wood, Patty introduces her to Paula, who takes Marge under her wing to be a competitive tree cutter-downer, or whatever you call it. Marge channels her pent-up frustration of being an overworked, under appreciated housewife for over thirty years out on the logs, which feels true to her character. She also is really hung up on not being called boring, as it overtly stated several times (“What could possibly be her motivation?” “I’m… not… boring!!”) This comes as a result of a school play Lisa wrote about the family, portraying Marge as incredibly lame and domesticated. Unfortunately, the Marge-Lisa connection dies soon after that; there’s been a couple shows over the last twenty years about Lisa’s perception of her mother as just a boring housewife, and Marge attempting to make her daughter proud of her, and they’ve all been terrible, but it’s definitely a rich vein the show could mine that was touched on a couple times in the classic era, but could definitely be worth revisiting. Instead, we get Homer panicked that Marge is going to get turned gay and leave him. Oh boy. Paula is presented several times as being a bit too forward to Marge (repeatedly scooching closer to her sitting on a bench, effectively living like a married couple in Portland), but of course in the end it’s just a big misdirect, as she reveals to Homer she has a wife and child. Something Marge didn’t think was relevant to bring up when Homer talked to her about his suspicions about Paula earlier, I suppose. The Homer-Marge stuff actually isn’t that bad, but still feels a bit underwhelming in the end, and again, a dynamic we’ve seen done much better before. Outside of a few unique flourishes, the episode was mostly just pretty boring, which easily makes it the best of the season thus far.

Three items of note:
– Martin, Sherri and Terri make appearances early in the first act, now being voiced by Grey Griffin, an incredibly talented voice actress who has appeared in tons and tons of stuff (probably #2 only to Tara Strong for biggest VO actress on television), most notably being Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Fairly OddParents and as Scooby-Doo‘s Daphne Blake for the last two decades. So, yeah, we recast Russi Taylor’s and Doris Grau’s characters, but Phil Hartman and Marcia Wallace’s get put in permanent retirement. I honestly don’t know what the right answer is when it comes to dealing with characters when their performers leave us. There really isn’t one. Do you write them out? Have them fade into the background in a new silent role? Or just recast?  In her very brief first outing, Griffin does a fairly solid job mimicking Taylor’s characters, so that’s good, I guess (oddly, her Martin sounds kind of like Charlene Yi to me). I just feel more than anything members of the cast dropping off our mortal coil speaks more to the needless longevity of this series than anything else.
– This episode’s handling of its LGBT material is pretty good, I suppose, given its not-so-stellar history during the 2000s (friggin’ “Three Gays of the Condo”…) Paula does come off a little bit predatory, which of course is done out of service for the misdirect, but it feels less “gay person seeking to convert a straight” and more akin to Lurleen or Mindy coming onto Homer. Except those characters and their unfolding relationship with Homer were more involved and were much better written. When Homer arrives in Portland to find his wife effectively domestically married to Paula, he’s shocked to see all of the gay in their house. A Janelle Monae poster! DVDs of Orange is the New BlackThe L Word and Tig Notaro’s stand-up special! A pennant from Bryn Mawr, an all girl’s college outside of Philadelphia! Look at all our gay references! Gay people love these gay things! Not quite offensive, only in that it’s lazy writing.
– The show can cross Portland off its big travelogue list, as we get a few bits of Homer and the kids checking out the city as they go to visit Marge. We get an extended scene of them driving past streets with the same names as beloved Springfield regulars (Quimby, Kearney, Dolph, Van Houten, Flanders), as hardcore Simpsons fans will know were Matt Groening’s hometown inspirations to name those characters. But what’s the point of this scene? Knowing this information, I get the reference immediately, and then it just keeps going. There’s no real joke at the end of it (“Stupid Flanders street” barely counts as one). And if you don’t know that piece of trivia, I guess the scene would confuse you enough to go check it out online? And then once you read about it, you’ll just be laughing your ass off, I guess. I dunno.

One good line/moment: A few good moments throughout (Lisa wearing a replica of her own hair during her play was a great touch), but I thought Homer feebly trying to communicate how much Marge means to him throughout the back half of the episode actually worked pretty well, and was genuinely sweet, which is a rarity for these Homer-Marge marital strife shows (“I miss you when we’re separated in a revolving door! I miss you when I’m putting a sweater on over my head! I miss you when I close my eyes during a sneeze! I miss you when the clock springs ahead an hour! We’ll never get the time back!”)

667. Gorillas on the Mast

Original airdate: November 3, 2019

The premise: Homer is conned into buying a boat, and tries to sucker others into buying shares in it to offset his debt. Meanwhile, Lisa convinces Bart to help her free an orca whale from a water park, which inspires Bart to perform his own selfless act in freeing a gorilla from a zoo, with much more disastrous results.

The reaction: Boy, it’s been a while since I’ve seen an episode where so little happens. Homer is swindled by a smooth talking salesman on a dock into buying a boat, which takes incredibly little effort, and not in a purposefully funny way. They try to anchor (ha ha) his impulsive purchase on his memories as a kid asking Abe if they can get a boat, and he later shows off his fancy new purchase to his dad, but that doesn’t really amount to anything. Nor does his apprehension of telling Marge about his extravagant new purchase, when he finally does fess up, she’s fine with it, so that leads to no plot progression either. Finally, something happens: the boat’s motor starts to give out, and Homer is shocked to hear the repair costs, now feeling he has to share the boat with friends and have them make payments to pay it off. We never actually hear any of these amounts, what Homer paid for the boat or the cost of repairs. If the salesman had tricked Homer into paying an extremely paltry fee for the boat itself, knowing that it was a shit boat that would quickly break down and carry a hefty fee to get it back to working order, that would make sense as a story. And I think that’s what they were trying to go for, except they didn’t actually write it that way. Homer buys a boat for X price, and now is saddled with a bill for Y price, and now there’s concern for some reason. He starts off sharing the boat with Lenny and Carl, which is fine, and then he ends up giving a share to all the usual Springfield suspects: Comic Book Guy, Sideshow Mel, Bumblebee Man, the Lovejoys, the Hibberts, Crazy Cat Lady, and so forth, who all get on the boat at once and sink it. Why were they all together at once? Shouldn’t they have divvied up shifts for when they can use the boat? I have no idea. In the final scene at Moe’s, everyone is at the bar super pissed at Homer, but he placates them by saying how great it was they owned a boat for five minutes, and that turns the crowd around and they cheer for him. It really makes absolutely no sense. I feel like my synopsis here is making the story sound more logical and coherent than it is. As it plays out in real-time, and divided between a B-plot, it really felt like nothing was happening. There was virtually no forward momentum, no stakes, no emotional investment, just… nothing.

The B-plot (or maybe the A-plot, this one seems like it has more screen time) starts with Lisa planning to free a captive whale after being aghast by their awful treatment and living conditions during a visit to a local water park. It’s all incredibly on the nose (the opening shot has the family entering ALCATRAZ WATER PARK “Subject of 5 Award-Winning Documentaries.” All of this is mostly in reference to the 2013 documentary Blackfish, and the ensuing efforts to address concerns of animal mistreatment at places like SeaWorld and to free the orca whales in captivity. It’s an issue that’s still ongoing, but it once again feels like the show missing the boat of a cultural moment by many years. SeaWorld still does have a handful of orca whales, but only because they claim they wouldn’t survive out in the wild. If the episode was actually about that, with the whale having no idea what to do once its cage was opened, or getting killed or seriously hurt immediately after being freed, that might have been interesting. But whatever. Bart is roped into helping out, and feels the strange, foreign twinge of satisfaction of a job well done, dubbed by Lisa as “altruism.” He follows up chasing after their feeling by freeing a gorilla from the zoo, who immediately goes on a rampage through town that we don’t see, and then Lisa calms him down somehow and that plot is over. Bart getting invested in a cause because it involves illegality like breaking and entering would have been an interesting enough plot for a whole episode; in fact, that element of it sounds like “Bart vs. Itchy & Scratchy,” which did a mostly adequate job in selling that premise. Here, the idea has so little room to actually grow into anything, so it’s all pretty meaningless. Much like the entire episode itself.

Three items of note:
– Bart and Lisa also enlist Willie to sneak into the water park, as he mentions that he works there during the summer. It feels pretty random, and they don’t give him anything really to do other than make some kilt jokes and at the act break, he plays “air bagpipes,” which is just Dan Castellaneta making ear-grating noises for ten seconds. Ugh.
– Homer hounds Lenny and Carl to try to get them on board (ha ha) his boat scheme. Cutting back and forth to them, we see them asleep in bunk beds with a portrait of Bert and Ernie on the wall. Later, we see them cruising on the boat with their girlfriends, both of whom look like the other in dresses. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this several times, but this joke of Lenny and Carl being inseparable/gay for each other has been pushed to its limits at this point. Who were once just two working schmoes who acted as a sounding board for Homer to bounce ideas off of have now become this weird codependent couple who are obsessed with one another. You can evolve characters’ roles and personalities as the years go on, hell, I encourage it, but these two have been stuck in this role for decades now and it’s not getting any funnier. Because it wasn’t funny in the first place.
– The gorilla is finally set free at Dr. Jane Goodall’s Pennsylvania reserve, where Lisa lays the praise on thick to Goodall, who is voicing herself. The character model is the exact same one used for Dr. Joan Bushwell from “Simpson Safari,” as her character was effectively just a rip-off of Goodall herself. I really don’t care about, mostly because that episode was a piece of shit, but probably much more entertaining than this. Goodall isn’t a very good actor, but it’s not like I expected much from her, and I don’t think there were any jokes in her scene (stringing an eager Lisa along for a maybe sort of chance for a scholarship? I guess that’s a joke? Oh, who cares.)

One good line/moment: Ehhh, whatever. This season really blows so far.