672. Bobby, It’s Cold Outside

Original airdate: December 15, 2019

The premise: Sideshow Bob gets employed as Santa Claus at a local holiday village park. When Bart threatens to disrupt his operation, Bob tries to convince him he’s made a turn for good by helping uncover who’s been stealing packages off people’s doorsteps in the nights leading up to Christmas.

The reaction: Sideshow Bob again? Honestly and truly, does anyone really care about this character anymore? As I’ve said many times, “Brother From Another Series” was the perfect denouement for Bob, genuinely turning over a new leaf, saving his arch nemesis, but being locked up forever anyway in a cruel twist of fate. Future episodes featured him flip-flopping his unwavering vendetta toward Bart (and by extension, the rest of the Simpsons) at least two more times, by my recollection. They gave him a wife and son, who have been conspicuously absent for the last ten years. But in none of these episodes did it feel like we ever learn something new about Bob, or see a different side to his character. He’s a snooty thespian, and he wants to murder a ten-year-old. That’s about all. At the start of the show when Bob’s lighthouse neighbor asks him if he’s ever thought about children (bizarrely forward of her), Bob imagines the murdered Bart ornaments adorning his tree, the draperies of tinsel bleeding profusely. It really is genuinely upsetting when you actually think about Bob and his blood-thirsty obsession with killing a small child. This of course was all born from “Cape Feare,” which only got away with it because the episode itself was so outlandish and silly. But later episode seemed to dwell on this too much. I recall the last episode “Gone Boy” had Bob talk to a therapist about it, he ended up not murdering Bart, and then gave it up forever? I think? Whatever. So what’s happening in this show? Once we get past all the Bob bullshit, he agrees to help out with the B-plot, in finding out who’s been stealing the town’s packages. Turns out it’s Mr. Burns, who wants the town of Springfield to be as miserable on Christmas as he was as a boy. Back in 1935, he told a department store Santa the only thing he wanted this holiday season was a hug from his cold, distant parents, but all he got was shipped off to boarding school. Li’l Burns as a precocious spoiled shithead is far more in character and more amusing than the poor little rich boy to spiteful, heartless parents who are the root of his emotional abuse. What, are they trying to be like fucking BoJack Horseman? Bob poses as Santa to give Burns a quick therapy session, Burns fucking cries (ugh), and he gives the town back their gifts on Christmas morning Grinch-style. Then I wake up because the episode is almost over. And then I fast forward Bob and his lighthouse neighbor singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for no reason. As I’ve said many times regarding Bob episodes, there are definitely ways you could bring him back effectively, either as a genuinely reformed member of society, or still a scheming madman. But you have to do something new and interesting with the character. We’ve seen flashes and interesting elements in the past twenty years, most notably in season 14’s “The Great Louse Detective,” where he was released from prison to find the man trying to kill Homer. In retrospect, using Bob as someone who can think like a killer for good was actually a great idea. But the episode was more interested in having multiple scenes where Bob get electrocuted over and over again. Even back then, potentially solid ideas, buried under a pile of meaningless nonsense. Same with this episode. Except for that “solid ideas” part.

Three items of note:
– It was interesting this episode regarded how the last Bob episode “Gone Boy” left off, featuring his new life living in isolation in a lighthouse. Back then, I think it was left ambiguous if he had truly escaped his Bart obsession. An elderly Bob wrote DIE BART DIE in the sand only for it to be washed away by the current, like washing his former sins away, which felt almost kind of poetic if not for my belief that I knew the next Bob episode would feature him wanting to kill Bart again. And wouldn’t you know, the first fucking scene with Bob here features him cheerily making his own Christmas ornaments of Bart getting horrifically killed. Fuck. Later, Bob has Bart in his clutches, but announces he just can’t kill him, like he did the last three or more times this happened. His excuse then was that he’s a hardcore method actor, so he couldn’t possibly harm a child as Santa Claus. I thought this would play a part in the rest of the episode, but it’s dropped immediately. So has Bob really gotten over Bart? Who knows. But more importantly, who cares?
– Following a bloody mishap with a decoy package, a seriously injured Lenny writes the initials of the package-napper in his blood: SB. Bart is adamant it’s Sideshow Bob, and after examination, the police free their other suspects: actor Scott Bakula (voicing himself), LA Clippers owner and former disgraced Microsoft CEO Steven Ballmer (also voicing himself), and Sandra Bullock, who says nothing because Sandy doesn’t need to do this bullshit. Or maybe it’s just because they wanted to do a Bird Box parody. By which she just puts a blindfold on and walks out of the scene, because that was a thing that she did in a movie that was somewhat popular in what feels like ten years ago. That, and the Simpson family singing the “Baby Shark” song, fall in the same familiar category of the show’s futile, undying attempt to directly reference modern pop culture, despite the show’s long production schedule to make any kind of specific topical humor completely pointless.
– At the end of the episode, Bob watches It’s A Wonderful Life on TV, as in the actual live-action black & white film. This has happened a couple times previously on the show, where we just randomly see the characters watching  a live action movie, and it’s always very weird. Even stranger considering Wonderful Life is owned by Paramount (I think. The film has a storied history regarding its copyright, which reading about proved far more interesting than this episode), so they would’ve had to pay for the rights to use the footage especially for this scene, which doesn’t even have a good punchline. Though I guess it’s no different when the show licenses music, I don’t know how much different in cost it would be.

One good line/moment: At Santa’s Village, Maggie is stuck on the Gnome in the Home boat ride, an incredibly traumatizing experience for infants of devious robot gnomes terrorizing the riders. The scene gets pretty over the top, but one bit involves one-eyebrowed baby Gerald getting snatched up by a gnome, who then slowly and silently recedes into the darkness, and then the scene cuts. It’s a pretty dark joke that made me chuckle in how out of left field it was.

671. Todd, Todd, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?

Original airdate: December 1, 2019

The premise: Still riddled with grief over his mother’s death, Todd Flanders has a crisis of faith, resulting in an angry tirade at church where he publicly renounces his belief in God. Incensed, Ned forces Todd to stay with the Simpsons, hoping living in such a sinful hellhole will strike the fear of God back in his son.

The reaction: Reading the synopsis of this episode a few weeks ago most definitely got my attention, something I can’t remember ever happening before. Ned Flanders and his two boys have really gone through a lot; our floating timeline makes it unclear exact;y how much time has gone by, but over what must feel like a tragically too short period of time, Ned has loved and lost two wives, and Rod and Todd two mothers. It’s a topic that was really only explored in Maude’s death episode “Alone Again, Natura-Diddly,” and a little bit in the following season’s “I’m Goin’ to Praiseland,” but those two shows were much more concerned with goofy dumb antics and Homer acting like an asshole, and most importantly, forcing Ned to move on and start dating again, moving swiftly past Maude, given killing the character off was directly tied with her voice actress getting the boot by FOX anyway. Ned, Rod and Todd never felt like they had any time to grieve, and while Maude was really a relatively minor character we didn’t know all that much about, an episode dealing with the effects of her absence is absolutely brimming with potential, especially when viewed through the eyes of an innocent child coping with the loss of a parent. So I got excited. Despite absolutely knowing I should know better given the shitty shit shit quality of this show, I got a little bit hopeful. I mean, we’re now almost twenty years passed since Maude’s untimely death, but I guess better late than never to tell this kind of story. I was also curious if this episode would even acknowledge Edna Krabappel and her role in the Flanders’ lives as the new stepmom or anything, but as I figured, despite her making two brief cameo appearances towards the end, she’s never mentioned. She doesn’t even appear in any of the many photos on the Flanders walls. “Nedna” was completely pointless, and there was absolutely nothing to their relationship. But who cares? I’m willing to put all of that aside, pretend it never happened, and make like this show happened like a few seasons after Maude’s passing. I was willing to give this episode some rope to tell a meaningful story about these characters… and it then proceeded to hang itself with it while shitting all over my face.

I was immediately fooled by the episode’s opening. Ned wakes up teary eyed from a dream about Maude, alerting Todd, prompting him to ask his son if he ever dreams about his mother. Todd is hesitant; we see that he has dreamed of her, but with a blank face. He somberly recounts this to Ned, “Daddy, I can’t remember what Mommy looks like.” Heartbreaking stuff. I’ll be perfectly honest, as someone who has also lost their mother, the conceit of this episode has me in the bag already. I too struggle with these kinds of things with my mother. Her face and voice becoming less clear, memories of her getting hazier, all of this is very scary stuff, the idea of someone who meant so much to you becoming more and more of just a faint recollection. This is GOOD SHIT, incredibly emotional material you could definitely center a whole episode around. This show has dealt with the topic of death in very serious and honest ways, while simultaneously remaining incredibly funny and poignant (“Old Money,” “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish,” “‘Round Springfield,”) so it’s incredibly disappointing that this episode starts to go off a cliff in the very next scene, signaled by two glaring things. Ned shows his boys an old home movie of Christmas morning to show them their dearly lost mother, a beautiful occasion quickly interrupted by a confused and irritated Abe Simpson busting through the door, and Homer abandoning him there for the day. Later, Todd watches more home videos of his mother and him, tape footage that is promptly interrupted by Homer in a bad wig playing air guitar, as we cut back to Todd holding back tears as Homer continues being an ass, having taped over Ned’s personal home video tapes for God knows why. I’ll get into this in a bit, but Todd very quickly gets steamrolled out of his own story, and his emotional pleas about his beloved mother are mostly ignored.

The second glaring thing is that Ned is firmly in ultra-religious caricature mode, a big part of his Flanderization over time was him becoming less and less like a normal human being and more an avatar for jokes about conservative Christian zealots. Fair enough, he’s been like this forever. But what I wasn’t expecting is that after Todd passionately renounces his faith, Ned is absolutely furious at him (“Son, let me put this gently… WE’RE ALL GOING TO HELL!!”) We proceed to get more doozy lines from him going forward (“You do not question God’s real estate holdings and tax-free status!” in response to Todd asking why God needs so many churches.) Here’s the thing: this episode could have featured an incredibly conflicted Ned. Concerned for his son’s soul, but still warm and understanding considering he’s still grieving. Hell, he himself is still grieving Maude too. Todd could get increasingly obstinate about his renouncement of God, which could over time lead Ned to the brink in frustration. Ned could even have a crisis of faith himself, which was used as a joke back in “Natura-Diddly.” But instead, the episode becomes about needing to get Todd believing in God again, almost entirely disconnected from him missing Maude. Ned is furious at Todd, with no further mention from him about his son deeply missing his mother (“There must be some way to scare religion back into my son!”) He sternly casts Todd out to live with the Simpsons, where we get scenes of Homer and Marge attempting to get intimate without Todd’s keen ears hearing, and Lisa doggedly attempting to convert Todd to Buddhism for some reason. No sympathetic ears are ever extended to this poor kid. Eventually we circle back around to hearing from Todd about how he misses his mom, which actually clicks with Homer, who has also lost his mother. But from there, he abandons the young child on a park bench, rushing to Moe’s to drink away the pain, meets Ned there, the two get drunk together, then get hit by a car and sent to Heaven. Where the fuck is this episode going?

Ned and Homer are both in comas at the hospital, leading to the one and only nice moment of the episode, where Marge actually helps Todd cope with his conflicted feelings on whether or not he should pray for his father (“Prayer doesn’t have to be to God, it can also just be an honest conversation we have with ourselves. Just do what your heart tells you.”) Meanwhile, Ned and Homer are dicking around in Heaven, where the former hears Todd praying and returns to Earth. “Daddy, you came back! I believe again!” the boy cries. “Two lives saved by prayer!” Ned responds, as the family has a group hug. What am I to take from all this? I haven’t the foggiest. The episode ends with Maude’s ghost tenderly tucking in Rod and Todd, an absolutely hollow attempt at a sweet ending, so I really have no idea of the writers even acknowledge that the show wasn’t even about her death. It’s episodes like these that really convince me this show is truly unfixable, at least in how it’s been run for the last nearly twenty years. Last week’s “Thanksgiving of Horror” was admittedly fun, fleeting entertainment (an absolute rarity in over a decade of nearly uninterrupted junk), but the rot of this series runs too deep. Some shows will have glimmers of decent ideas, but through the writing and rewriting process, these concepts and themes end up completely buried in stupid nonsense. Every so often a stock character will breech ever so close to actually behaving like a human being, like Todd being sad he forgets his mother’s face, but that shit will be shot down real quick, in this case being an empty, status quo-confirming resolution that doesn’t even address why he was mourning in the first place. Over the course of its over thirty-year-long run, through all of the decaying characterization, the stupid jokes, the preposterous stories, the insulting shots at the fan base, the biggest casualty of the series is the death of its soul, of characters who behaved like real people, and the other characters, and the show itself, acknowledging and respecting that fact. Now, none of that matters, and it hasn’t for a long, long time.

Two items of note:
– Lisa repeatedly pestering Todd about converting to Buddhism reminded me of “She of Little Faith,” whose final act featured Marge attempting to discourage Lisa’s discovery of her new faith and bring her back into the fold of Christianity. I recall being annoyed by her insensitivity, but at least I can kind of understand her plight of wanting her daughter to share her faith and be with her in the afterlife. Here, Lisa knows Todd is upset and grieving his mother… but doesn’t give a shit about that, she’s out for souls to convert! For some reason? Outside of the complete insensitivity from who should be the most sympathetic Simpson, we’ve never seen Lisa militantly try to push for new converts before. And then it’s the stinger at the end of her being chewed out by Buddha by not nabbing an easy get like Todd Flanders. Scenes like those make it clear that the writers as a whole never really gave a shit about writing a serious story about Todd’s grief or Maude’s death at all.
– Glenn Close returns as Mona Simpson in her tenth guest appearance, with seven of her appearances being posthumous for the character. Here, we get more revisionist history painting Mona as unusually cold and distant, rebuffing her son’s earnest attempt at a hug in Heaven, and appearing in a flashback screaming at Abe as a young Homer cries himself to sleep (“I’d tell the kid I love him, but I’m as bad at goodbyes as I am at picking husbands!”) Why did they do this?  Outside of any continuity issues, why the fuck wouldn’t they make it that Homer bonds with Todd over their fond memories of their loving mothers? How the fuck do you not make that part of the episode? If Ned is too wrapped up in his unflinching religious bullshit to speak to his son after excommunicating him, maybe Todd’s first step back is to open up to a kindred spirit who knows how it feels to lose a mother? Instead, not only does this not happen, but they retroactively make Mona kind of an asshole? WHY.

One good line/moment: Todd’s somber retelling of his dream of his faceless mother, and Marge’s heart-to-heart with him at the end about prayer are two honestly great moments, acting as bookends to a truckload of fucking horseshit. But because of this, that the episode doesn’t even attempt to even fucking try within the body of the story, those two scenes are rendered completely inert. Fuckballs.