679. Highway To Well

Original airdate: March 22, 2020

The premise: Marge unwittingly is hired at Drederick Tatum’s new weed dispensary, but her cool new job is threatened when Homer teams up with Otto and Moe to sell pot their own way: in the sleazy, underground fashion of yesteryear.

The reaction: Hard to believe it’s been eighteen years since Homer was prescribed medical marijuana, in an at-the-time very controversial episode. In terms of satirizing legal cannabis culture, this episode actually has some promising ideas, but as always, their execution doesn’t hit the mark, mostly from how Homer and Marge seem completely adrift in their own stories. We start with Marge dropping Maggie off at pre-emptive daycare, and not knowing what to do with herself, just stands in a random line at a newly opened shop (“If all these people want to work here, maybe I want to work here!”) She takes a bizarre ethics assessment test, and then, by being the only person who notes the attendant’s name tag is upside down, she immediately gets hired and starts working, despite not actually knowing what the hell the store really is. It reminded me of that episode way back when where Marge worked for an erotic bakery, fulfilling many, many orders before she finally discovered the truth. She’s supposed to just be painfully naive, but the way it’s written, it just makes her look dumb and flaky. Later, Drederick Tatum reveals why they wanted to hire Marge: she serves as an honest, caring face that will put people at ease frequenting such an “edgy” establishment. This concept I do really like, as a caring and emphatic figure of the community, Marge really is the ideal candidate, and seeing how smoking pot can help people with severe anxiety or stress could make her feel better, a new venue of mothering and helping as a replacement for Maggie. Another promising concept involves Otto, whose appearance in a show like this was inevitable, who finds himself disillusioned by this brave new world of legal weed. He misses the good old days of buying some shitty skunk weed from a friend of an acquaintance of a friend in their run down apartment that smells like a wet grocery bag. And so, Moe and Homer make his dream a reality, setting up shop in the back of Moe’s to create a simulated experience of buying weed from some kinda shady guy in his mom’s basement. This conceit could work twofold: enticing similar-minded folks like Otto who miss underground pot culture, that being a more appealing lifestyle than the actual act of smoking pot itself. Or it could end up becoming even more popular that Marge’s store, with hipsters embracing the more “authentic” nature of Homer and Moe’s shady outlet. But none of these things really happen. Marge’s allegiance to Well + Good only amounts to her being excited to be a part of something outside the home, which is the core idea behind basically all Marge-gets-a-job shows since the series’ inception. Meanwhile, I have no fucking idea why Homer is so invested on his end, to the degree that when Marge performs a sting operation to get him shut down to save her own job, Homer is upset and betrayed and I really don’t understand why. What personal investment does he have in the weed business? I don’t even know if he was being paid. The finale involves Homer outing Marge for never having smoked before, so she does, she gets a bad high, and Homer helps calm her down, and that’s it. Any of the commentary about marijuana’s medicinal or helpful attributes is thrown out the window when Marge’s two co-workers are revealed to just be happy-go-lucky stoners (“What you need to understand is this: I’m high too!!” “I’m serenitied out of my gourd!”) By the time Homer accidentally blows up Drederick Tatum’s new cannabis resort and spa, I was at a loss in figuring out what the point of the episode was. What did Homer and Marge want, and what did they learn? I really couldn’t say.

Three items of note:
– Drederick Tatum plays a huge role in this episode, maybe the biggest solo episode appearance of the entire series. It was just kind of odd hearing him talk for so long. He also sports Mike Tyson’s facial tattoo for the first time (I think?), I guess just in case you couldn’t tell this 30-year-old character is supposed to be a parody of the famous boxer. We then get great jokes like a magazine cover making fun of his speech impediment (“Bithneth Ith Booming”) Once more, the series finds itself woefully stuck in the past. After all those Hangover movies and Mike Tyson Mysteries on adult swim, isn’t the well on Mike Tyson jokes completely dried up at this point? Even now, we’re still expected to laugh at how funny he talks?
– Billy Porter and Chelsea Peretti join the long, long list of incredibly talented performers stuck slumming it through subpar material on this legacy show. Also making an incredibly brief cameo appearance is Kevin Smith; Homer claims he broke into Tatum’s exclusive gala event by claiming to be Smith’s father, and when he accidentally blows the place sky high, Smith runs in and cries, “Dad, what did you do?!” Kind of odd that an episode all about weed culture would only feature Smith for just one line. They couldn’t have given him another scene at the party or something? Kevin Smith is one of those creators whose work is a mixed bag, even terrible at times, but as a public figure, he’s just so authentic and so damn likable that I can’t be mad at him, even if Tusk made me physically vibrate I was so perplexed and aggravated by it. Smith talked a bit recently on his social media how excited and honored he was to be featured on the show, even shouting out the character designer who drew him (“I always dreamed of being on The Simpsons, but never imagined, if it happened, that I’d be rendered thinner than Homer!”) You gotta love the guy. Wish you could’ve been on like twenty years earlier. Or at the very least on Futurama as a head in a jar or something.
– The episode was so poorly plotted and aimless that Marge losing her job and Maggie being removed from daycare were relegated to a tag playing under the credits. Marge needing to find purpose in her life being a new empty nester could have been a really rich vein to keep through the entire episode, but it’s completely abandoned after the opening. Hell, maybe smoking pot could have helped Marge with her separation anxiety or something. She finds smoking helps calm her down, but has to hide her new habit from the rest of the family. There’s an idea. Although I don’t even know if you could even show a character actually smoking a joint even now on prime time television, which is probably why in the climax, Marge just takes a drop of CBD oil on her tongue.

678. Better Off Ned

Original airdate: March 15, 2020

The premise: Facing expulsion after a potentially disastrous prank, Bart is forced into a mentor ship with Ned Flanders, only to find it incredibly beneficial. Jealous of his son’s new relationship to his most hated neighbor-eeno, Homer decides to become father figure to a despondent Nelson.

The reaction: I guess this is what happens when you smash together elements from previous episodes: a Simpson takes pity on poor little dirt urchin Nelson (“Slumbering With The Enemy”), Bart forms a connection with Ned Flanders (The Simpsons Movie), and Homer and Bart gain new father/son relationships (“Dad Behavior”). The biggest parallel in my mind is “Brother From The Same Planet,” with the exact same premise of Bart gaining a new father figure out of necessity, and Homer gaining a new surrogate son out of pure spite. Despite ostensibly being a Homer/Bart episode, Homer’s bad parenting doesn’t play a role in Bart’s inciting incident involving releasing a fake live grenade during a school assembly. Ned Flanders steps in to save Bart from getting rightfully expelled, promising he’ll get the boy on the straight and narrow. Or rather, he threatens Chalmers to unleash his “Prayer Chain” after he rightfully balks at using prayer and religious teachings to save a public school child. But whatever, there’s no sense complaining about ultra-fanatical religious jokes with Ned coloring him as unlikable when the show’s been doing this for almost twenty years now. Anyway, we first see Ned having Bart wash dishes, which Bart turns into a prank where he “cuts” his hand and squirts ketchup pretending it’s blood. In a serious tone, Ned threatens, “I can turn that into real blood, you little punk!” At this, I thought they were going to revive “Hurricane Neddy” and have this episode culminate in Ned having another mental breakdown trying to manage a hellion like Bart. But this moment is never recalled again, so I guess it was just a joke that Ned threatened to violently attack a ten-year-old. Anyway, a wilderness fishing trip (remember the movie?) instantly turns Bart into a good student and choir boy, just like that, I guess, so that now nine minutes in, our “plot” begins where Homer realizes Bart doesn’t need him, and eventually comes upon a crying Nelson at the dump and decides to mentor him. Again, I can’t help but recall when almost thirty years ago, Homer was the guardian to another sad, poor boy… what was his name? Pepsi? But here, of course, it’s all tell, not show (“Am I going to do it? Is it wrong to take advantage of one child’s feelings to make another child feel bad?”) Also, unlike “Brother,” where Homer took a genuine shining to little Pepi and tried to be a good surrogate dad, here, he seems to not give much of a shit about actually helping Nelson. Even though we previously saw Mrs. Muntz in the first act as the direct source of Nelson’s misery, showing up drunk at the school and passing out in his locker, she later appears to dress Homer down about getting Nelson’s hopes up about being a father figure who won’t abandon him, as so many have done before. Homer eventually tells Nelson the truth, Nelson swears revenge by getting Bart hurt at a prayer parade Ned has him in, and then Homer gets hurt instead and he and Bart have a bonding ride in the ambulance together, and awww ain’t that sweet oh who cares. Al Jean bizarrely has a story credit for this episode, which I can only assume was the result of him falling asleep with “Brother From The Same Planet” playing on Disney+ in the background and thinking he had a great idea for a new episode. Great work, Al.

Three items of note:
– I’ve spoken before about the nature of Bart’s pranks in recent years being a lot more cruel than in the classic years, where we’ve gone from Bart being a rambunctious little boy to just being kind of a little asshole. We just saw it two episodes ago where he forced the town to do his bidding out of fear of having a movie spoiled. We’ve seen him abuse Homer in numerous ways over the last five seasons or so. It just seems like there’s a big difference between painting the lines on the faculty parking lot too close together and fiddling with the water nozzles to mess with Homer’s shower, with recent “pranks” like destroying the SPRINGFIELD sign, psychologically torturing Homer into doing his bidding, and here, bringing a weapon of war into school as a goof. And yeah, Chalmers was this close from expelling him, but comedy or no, in the year 2020, Bart would immediately be expelled and/or arrested for this shit. Considering this incident and Bart tricking Ned into thinking he cut his hand, the episode could have even been about Bart learning not to take things too far, or on how desensitized he’s become to violence, or something like that. But nothing. Those two scenes feel so off for Bart to me. Even his most notorious “last straw” pranks like him using a huge line of megaphones and unleashing town-wise destruction, or flooding the entire gymnasium, feel like kid-appropriate pranks performed with non-malicious intent.
– The Simpson women take two very different approaches in response to the conflict in this episode. Marge, as always, turns an active blind eye to her husband’s emotionally destructive behavior, running back into the house to tend to Maggie (“Where are you, my little excuse?”) But the bigger reaction comes from Lisa, in maybe one of the saddest moments in series history. Seeing Homer at the bar looking the other way as Nelson steals the coins from the jukebox, Lisa offers her father a small stack of cash (“Here’s forty dollars. That’s a lot of money to me. But I want you to get some therapy about what you’re doing.”) Just think about this. This is an eight-year-old girl offering her drunk father sitting at a bar her own money, pleading him to get professional help. This is an absolutely heartbreaking scenario. Fifteen seconds later, we get a joke about Duffman doing Shakespeare. Then we see Homer actually at therapy, the therapist says what he’s doing to those two boys is awful, and then we’re done with that whole conceit. Just dreadful.
– When Bart and Ned have their day-to-night camping trip, I couldn’t help wondering where the hell Rod and Todd were. Remember those kids? One of them was incredibly distraught about his dead mother a couple months ago, until he suddenly wasn’t? They do appear mid-way through helping Ned and Bart with the prayer pride parade or whatever, and then later in the tag, we see the conclusion where Homer has Ned be Nelson’s new sorta foster dad, and the Flanders and Muntz families come together for a nice family meal. The other bullies balk at Nelson giving up the “way of the bully,” to which he replies, “What can I say? People change.” He then reveals he has Milhouse on ice in the freezer (“Thaw! Thaw!”) Sometimes I feel I can barely comment on this shit. They try to have this completely tone deaf happy ending of Nelson finding a caring family, after spending twenty minutes making jokes about him being poor, then try to dangle some kind of characterization in maybe him reforming his ways, but of course he fucking won’t because this series is in cryostasis. This show just sucks so fucking bad, you guys.

One good line/moment: Can I just retire this section again? I think I’ve threatened to do that a few times, but I may finally do it for real-sies. If there’s something truly of notable quality in an episode, I’ll make a point of mentioning it, but otherwise, there doesn’t feel like any real point in doing this part anymore.

677. Screenless

Original airdate: March 8, 2020

The premise: Marge enforces harsher restrictions on screen time for the family, but when she’s outed as being the most addicted of all, the Simpsons decide to go to rehab to get their habit under control.

The reaction: [yawns] Full disclosure, I was quite tired when I watched this, but this still felt like one of the dullest episodes I’ve seen in a while. A modern family trying to curb their screen time feels like a premise that a lot of family sitcoms must have tackled before, so I guess it’s this show’s turn to give its enlightening social commentary on how addicted we are to our phones and shit. Of course everyone’s lives are more fulfilling without phones: Bart discovers how much he enjoyed playing with real toys, Lisa falls in love with the library’s old card catalog, and Homer get invested in doing the daily jumble. Riveting content. But the struggle is too great for Marge, and the family ends up going to “Messages,” an extremely elaborate and expensive rehab center. I was all set to complain about how the hell they could afford to stay at such a place, but the head doctor explains their services are all paid for, thanks to tech billionaires feeling guilty for the negative ramifications of their products. Therapy introduces possibly intriguing ideas, like Bart replacing wielding weaponry in a video game with using guns in real life at a shooting range, but nothing really interesting comes out of it. The “twist” reveals that the rehab staff are assuming all of their patients’ online identities in order to spam them with ads and scams. Then the Simpsons escape, the head doctor is arrested, and the episode is over. The impetus of the episode featured Marge being excited she taught infant sign language to Maggie, yet none of the family gave a shit, as pictured above. Does that premise get wrapped up in the end? Nah. Honestly, I don’t have much else to say on this one. A show like South Park has done much better episodes regarding phone addiction and screen time, an entry like this feels like it barely has anything to add that hasn’t been in an editorial cartoon by a 55-year-old artist complaining about those damned young whippersnappers on their phones.

Three items of note:
– Guest star round-up: Dr. Drew Pinsky appears at rehab, which I guess makes sense… until he turns into a Hulk because he’s mad at a phone game. He literally hulks out, and I really don’t understand why. Is this a reference to something? Former show writer/current podcaster (?) Dana Gould voices himself as a calming resource for rehab patients. And the head doctor is voiced by acclaimed documentarian Werner Herzog. A recent film of his actually was centered around humanity’s current obsession with technology (Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World), presumably that’s why he was cast in this role. It goes without saying that I am sure that film is more insightful about its subject matter than this.
– There’s a scene where Marge and Maggie visit Patty and Selma, but Marge is so off-put by her sisters’ constant texting that she leaves early. Maggie, meanwhile, is so overcome by all the cigarette smoke that she passes out. Marge sits blank-faced as Selma says her joke line, “She always sleeps so good when she’s here!” Outside the bizarre fact that Marge seems to not give a shit her 1-year-old just went unconscious due to smoke inhalation, they don’t even try to make any sort of comment about smoking being an addiction too? Why would you include Patty and Selma in an episode about addiction and not even breech that subject?
– Whenever the show makes jokes about video games, it feels like their only joke is that they’re cartoonishly violent. In this show, we get two: we see Bart watching a streamer go through all the different ways he can kill other players, then later Bart regales his rehab group with how he danced upon the digital grave of his opponents. It just feels very played out and limited, like there’s other things they can parody about modern video games.

One good line/moment: Probably nothing.

Bonus review: In case you didn’t know, playing in front of the new Disney-Pixar film Onward is a brand new Simpsons theatrical short starring Maggie, “Playdate with Destiny.” The short opens with the Mickey Mouse ears silhouette revealed to be Homer holding up two donuts above his head, followed by a card reading “DISNEY WELCOMES THE SIMPSONS.” It was maybe the most uncomfortable I’ve felt in a movie theater since I saw Bruno with my parents. Anyway, the short itself is pretty simple: Maggie meets a cute little baby at the park and falls in love, and then it’s just six minutes of the same joke where it’s like she’s going through the ups and downs of a relationship, but she’s a baby.  Using baby powder to freshen up, getting milk drunk in despair after not seeing her date, that sort of stuff. It’s cute, I guess, but pretty unremarkable on the whole. I wasn’t crazy about “The Longest Daycare,” but it’s much more clever and interesting than this saccharine affair. I would have to assume this short was in development before the Disney-Fox deal was in full swing, so I suppose I can’t blame Disney for this. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to The Simpsons being a Disney property now. Seeing billboards of Bart spraypainting on a Disney+ advertisement would always force me to double take. But anyway, yeah, the short is pretty dull. But good news, Onward actually exceeded my expectations. It follows the Pixar formula, in some cases a little too much, but the core emotional story is solid, the performances are great, there’s a lot of fun moments and small details, and it’s got the biggest Pixar cry moment since Coco. So big recommend from me. And don’t worry about showing up late, if you miss the Simpsons short, you’re not missing much.

676. Bart the Bad Guy

Original airdate: March 1, 2020

The premise: After seeing an advance copy of the latest blockbuster “Vindicators” sequel, Bart abuses his nerd privilege by getting people to do his bidding lest he spoil the movie for them. The other Simpsons worry about Bart taking this too far, while Hollywood takes their own step to ensure Bart’s silence.

The reaction: Making specific pop culture references basically means you’re dooming your show to be dated within a few years. This isn’t to say that you should never do it, but I consider something like a MAD Magazine-level “parody” like Avengers/Vindicators to be very dull and uninspired, rather than something a little broader and more substantial. None of the Vindicators material in this episode is really saying anything about blockbuster movies, it’s just recreating stuff from real-life: people being emotionally moved by the tragic ending of Avengers: Infinity War, and then being bummed they have to wait a whole year for the conclusion in the sequel. So they’re literally just doing their satirical take on the last two Avengers movies… but then where’s the satire? There’s plenty of criticisms one could make about the films of the MCU, both creatively as movies themselves, and regarding the big business media juggernaut behind them. They approach a bit of the latter with the two movie executives (voiced by the Russo brothers) talking about how imperative the box office of their movie is to the global economy, but by that point, the episode is basically over. So all the Vindicators stuff is mostly just empty referencing and meaningless filler. What are we left with? A story where Bart acts like a dick, only to mend his ways thanks to manipulation. By means I won’t bother explaining here, Bart watches an advance copy of the new Vindicators movie, and uses his spoiler knowledge to get people to do anything he wants, which we see as him taking everything from Comic Book Guy’s store, and ultimately forcing the entire town to build him a giant treehouse. I know the episode is called “Bart the Bad Guy,” but Bart’s not just a little scamp pulling pranks because it’s funny, he’s actively abusing people to do his bidding for no real reason other than he’s just a shit. I guess the episode is about the crisis of Bart’s morality, as clearly spelled out by Marge toward the end (“Bart’s soul is at stake!”) The ending involves the Vindicators executives kidnapping Bart and trapping him in a VR simulation where he discovers his actions have caused his beloved Vindicators to be in danger of being defeated by the sinister villain Chinnos (get it, because Thanos has a big chin? BRILLIANT WRITING YOU GUYS). Rather than team up with him, Bart chooses to defeat the evil villain, and everything is all good. So he learns the errors of his ways via massive hallucination and manipulation by a huge corporation? That feels like an ending that shouldn’t be played so straight. We end on the executives, satisfied Bart won’t blab spoilers anymore, disarming the explosive device under Homer and Marge’s bed, in a knee-slapping jab at their new Disney overlords. Any sort of bite-the-hand humor the show used to excel at goes right out the freaking window after this embarrassing mess. After this episode-length Avengers commercial, I can’t wait to see what new synergistic effort Disney’s got cooked up next.

…I guess I didn’t have to wait long.

Three items of note:
– “Vindicators: Crystal War” is a Marble Studios film, but when characters are talking about “Marble movies,” it really just sounds like Marvel, which makes me wonder what the fuck is even the point of doing the whole legally distinguishable charade. Disney owns this shit, why not have it actually just be Marvel Studios and the Avengers? Who gives a crap?
– Embracing his spoiler powers,  Bart arrives at school acting cool as the other kids are terror stricken, set to the music used in Spider-Man 3 when Venom-infected Peter Parker is strutting his stuff down the New York City streets. My knee jerk reaction is to complain about such a dated reference (we are thirteen years out from Spider-Man 3) at this point, just in case you wanted to feel old today), but considering Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame are more contemporary and those references also suck, it’s basically a no-win scenario. But this is all stuff I’ve talked about numerous times: this is literally as fast as their production cycle can go in terms of contemporary references, and in the age of memes and satire on the Internet, you’re inevitably going to miss the boat bagging on the hot new movie or cultural moment if you wait more than a week. But also, as the show in its prime knew well, a reference doesn’t mean shit unless it’s funny outside of its context, or is adding or subverting something from the source material. What’s the point of using the Spider-Man 3 music? I haven’t a clue, other than please laugh at reference.
– One of Bart’s spoiler victims is Principal Skinner, who gets robbed of his hairpiece. I remember on an early DVD commentary, Matt Groening talking about how he was adamant against the idea of Skinner wearing a toupee, because he felt it was a very cliche trope for a humorless principal character. The only time I recall a mention of this was in one of the very first Simpsons comics, where we see Skinner gluing his hair on his head to ensure the toupee doesn’t budge. But here we are nearly thirty years later, and we finally circled back to this idea, and I guess Groening didn’t give a shit anymore, or was too busy relaxing in his solid gold mansion with his rocket car to notice this addition. Not that I really care either, it’s just an interesting thing I noticed.

One good line/moment: Nothing to be had here. Man, this one was an absolute dud. It was aggressively boring more than anything, maybe second worst of the year after the Todd Flanders episode.