684. The Way of the Dog

Original airdate: May 17, 2020

The premise: When Santa’s Little Helper starts exhibiting signs of extreme trauma, the Simpsons enlist the help of a renowned dog psychologist (voiced by Cate Blanchett) to figure out what’s wrong with him.

The reaction: Nothing like ending the season of your comedy program with an over dramatic tale of the family dog’s newly emerged traumatic past. Also it’s a Christmas episode! They couldn’t have saved this shit for December? The Simpsons are concerned when Santa’s Little Helper starts acting depressed. Enter Elaine Wolff, a woman who delves deep into a dog’s psyche, seeming to prefer them over human beings. The episode is all seemingly centered around the big reveal of what the fuck SLH’s deal is, as the family worries over him and the dog shrink agrees to take their case. She takes SLH back to her dog institute or whatever and monitors him, trying to get to the core of his traumatic affliction. At this point, we’re getting multiple scenes of her and the dog, and then her would-be suitor voiced by Michael York tries to propose to her and she refuses… I honestly hadn’t a clue what the hell I was watching. Does anyone really give that much of a shit that the dog is sad? I say this as a huge lover of dogs, but really, this story is just so boring. Finally, the dog shrink starts to crack the case: SLH was initially triggered by a Santa hat Marge took out of the Xmas decorations box, the very same hat that Bart wore thirty-one years (or however much time has gone by in-universe) to the dog track when they first got the mutt in the first place. They track down SLH’s original owner at his farm to get some answers. Turns out SLH misses his mother, as we see in flashbacks of him and his siblings as pups. Previously we saw the dog staring at a stain with three dots on the side of the cupboard morosely, which we find were meant to remind him of his mom’s teats, which is a bit strange. The show ends with SLH and his mother reunited, as everyone, including SLH’s original bastard owner, looks on teary eyed as Barbra Streisand belts out “The Way We Were.” Hey, isn’t this some kind of comedy show? What is this disgustingly saccharine display? When Bart realizes the fateful origins of his Santa hat, we cut to a clip for reference from “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” and really, what an utterly revealing compare and contrast. The very first Christmas special, a biting send-up on overly emotional and empty-headed holiday affairs, wherein Homer, our lovable every man hero, can’t catch a break in this horrible, cruel world, but through dumb luck manages to stumble into a happy ending by bringing home a dog for Christmas. SLH leaps into his arms and Homer takes pity on him, a sweet moment that feels genuine and motivated by everything he’s gone through in the story: he sees himself in the dog at his lowest point (“He’s a loser! He’s pathetic! He’s… a Simpson.”) Six hundred and eighty three episodes later, we get this show, a super dramatic build-up to showing the depressed dog actually has PTSD after being separated from his mother, leading his previous owner to be tracked down, slapped and admonished repeatedly, and then the dog reunites with his mommy and everybody’s happy. What in the ever loving mother of a fuck is this? The very little strands of DNA that this show still shares with its most formidable years are so few and far between, but this may be the episode that feels the most removed from the original show that I’ve ever seen.  At times it’s not even trying to be funny, playing SLH’s distressed state and the dog shrink’s methods and practices completely straight. Like, I’m kind of at a loss in how to even talk about this, it was just so bizarre. Last week I talked about how this show is basically doing nothing but regurgitating ideas it’s already done, or from other shows or movies, but this certainly feels new to me, in that the original series, or any other good comedy, would never try and do something this unabashedly schmaltzy and treacly. Pair this with “Playdate With Destiny” for the perfect double feature of anti-Simpsons. What a way to close the season.

Three items of note:
– This episode vaguely reminded me of one from a few seasons back (or maybe like ten years back? Honestly, it’s hard to remember), the one that was about Homer missing his childhood dog that Abe got rid of because it bit Mr. Burns or something? I remember thinking how cloying and incredibly saccharine that was then, but I got a feeling this episode has that one beat. I hope they never make another SLH episode again, how can they possibly top this? If they did “Two Dozen and One Greyhounds” today, She’s the Fastest giving birth would be the climax, with loving shots of the proud parents and their puppies as the Simpsons look on adoringly. Holy shit.
– In trying to convince Homer to let them go to the dog shrink’s seminar, Lisa opts for a new tactic (“Dad, I need to tell you something, but I’ve come to the sad conclusion that you have difficulty hearing the female voice.”) So she has Bart ask Homer for her, to which he understands and accepts. Many have griped and complained about Lisa’s insufferable liberal/feminist/rabble rouser characterization, of which most of those criticisms have been pretty valid, but this “gag” might be one of the strangest of all. So Homer’s a big misogynist now? They have him dismiss Lisa after that first line (“Awww, I love you too, honey!”) but he’s not ignoring her “female voice,” he’s talking down to her as a kid. There have been plenty of gags at Lisa and Bart’s expenses of him not taking them seriously because they’re children, so I really don’t get it. Maybe next season that radical girl group that recruited Bart can teach Homer how to GET WOKE. I  CAN’T WAIT.
– The ending is just so bizarre, where the family confront SLH’s original owner, who talks about how he tore the poor pup from his mother to make him race, prompting the dog shrink and the Simpsons to repeatedly slap him over it. Like, yeah, he’s a piece of shit, that’s incredibly clear. It’s like this weird moralizing about how awful dog racing is? It’s just so fucking weird. The Simpsons used to exist in a world where most everything was pretty shitty, a world full of scammers, lowlifes and generally pretty dumb people, but the hope spots came in how the Simpson family and other characters would boost each other up to stay afloat. In “Open Fire,” it’s clear that SLH’s owner was pretty shitty, chasing him out of the dog park (“You’ve come in last for the last time!”) We didn’t need Bart to turn to the camera and say, he’s abusing that dog, man! Not cool! Ugh.

And there you have it, another season to toss in the garbage can. I’ve noticed some commenters either saying themselves or speculating about my thoughts that this is the worst season of the show yet. Honestly, I’m not sure. Season 28 still sticks out in my mind with that distinct honor. When I re-opened the blog a few years back, I covered seven seasons in nine months, with season 28 being the last, and even after being inundated non-stop by hundreds of awful episodes, season 28 still stood out as being particularly awful to me. The seasons that followed also had the benefit of spaced out over time since I watched them live, so it’s really hard to judge, especially since so much of the episodes have (thankfully) faded from memory. But make no mistake, this season was real shit, with “Go Big or Go Homer,” “Todd, Todd, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?,” “Bart the Bad Guy,” “Warrin’ Priests” and this season finale sitting atop the dung heap. We also had “Thanksgiving of Horror” as the sole bright spot in a dark season. Does that spell any potential hope in a better season 32? No. No it does not. Even if one good episode sneaks by, we’re still left with twenty-one brand new, absolutely ghastly half-hours. CAN’T WAIT FOR SEPTEMBER!

683. The Hateful Eight-Year-Olds

Original airdate: May 10, 2020

The premise: Lisa is excited for a sleepover at her new friend Addy’s house, but quickly finds herself the subject of ridicule of her snobby rich friends. With nowhere else to turn, Lisa enlists Bart’s help to rescue her and enact her own revenge.

The reaction: It’s pretty impressive that despite coming off an incredibly empty two-parter where it felt like nothing was happening, this episode felt like the most boring show I’ve seen in a while. We open with the Simpsons finally checking their mailbox after it’s stuffed almost to bursting, and Lisa discovers an invitation to a sleepover. At first I thought she would be bummed that she had already missed it since no one’s checked the mail in weeks, but I guess that opening bit didn’t matter, because next thing we know she’s packing her bags for it. Said sleepover is at Addy’s house, a girl she met at the library, who lives in a palatial estate with horses. There, Lisa meets Addy’s three other friends, girls who act like what the 50-year-old writer Joel H. Cohen assumes stuck up young girls nowadays act like, or rather what he and the other writers have seen on current teen shows like 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale (the girls are voiced by the actresses from that show). These little bitches immediately target Lisa to mock her, and Addy joins in on the bullying. Lisa repeatedly tries to call her parents to come get her, but they’re busy rocking out on a booze cruise so they’re of no help. This repeats like two or three times until she eventually calls Bart, who arrives via Lyft to help out. This being a Matt Selman produced show, the episode attempts to actually have two emotional pay-offs by the end: the show began with Bart and Lisa having a scuffle, with Lisa announcing she’s severing their sibling ties, and by the end, they’re back in each other’s corners. Bart helps Lisa prank the girls who ragged on her, and Lisa helps Bart get over his fear of horses (she helpfully narrates, “You didn’t let me quit when I was scared!”) They escape on horseback, but are quickly cornered by the four girls. Lisa convinces Addy to just be herself and not put up with the other girls’ having power over her, so she incapacitates them (she tells Lisa before she leaves, “You were my best gift!”) This is all well and good, but it’s incredibly basic storytelling we’ve seen a billion times before, and all done with characters and situations that I couldn’t care less about. Lisa is trapped in a house with a bunch of insipid stereotypes, but really, who cares? And all we know about Lisa and Addy’s relationship is they both like books, and reading books is totally not cool according to the three cool girls. Again, who gives a shit? This show is seriously just so boring, it’s all just regurgitation of stuff they’re already done, or things I’ve seen done on a hundred other shows. This season can’t be over fast enough…

Three items of note:
– As this series enters its fourth decade on the air, its portrayal of the cool kids changes with each passing generation. Bella Ella, Sloan and Tessa Rose are flat pastiches of privileged children the writers have either seen on TV or kids of rich celebrities they know, yammering on about kombucha, bronzer, and making videos go viral on InstaSnap. They represent nothing that mean anything to Lisa other than they’re just TV bullies who happened to be bitchy rich girls the commoner audience should automatically hate. We’ve seen a couple episodes over the course of the series featuring Lisa being thrust into whatever the current popular flock of girls is at that particular cultural moment, but the show I was thinking about during this was “Lard of the Dance.” First airing in 1998, this episode also featured Lisa feeling out of sorts fitting in with a more “modern” kid like Alex Whitney. And while it still featured then-relevant pop culture references to Calvin Klein and Titanic, most of them were pretty off-hand, and moreover, the episode was actually about something: the pressure for young girls to grow up faster, and Lisa feeling uncomfortable with that, and as a result, feeling left behind. Alex was a bit of a stereotypical character, but she served a story function that thematically played into the episode, and actually had a bit of nuance, portraying her as snobby, but always congenial to Lisa, despite her reservations. Meanwhile, “Hateful” is an episode about nothing, featuring stock characters who represent nothing going through a predictable story that I don’t care about.
– Homer and Marge rock out on a booze cruise in what I don’t know if I can even call a B-plot. Homer ends up fighting with the band and knocking the bar off the ship, the other passengers get mad, and Homer placates them with a speech and oh my God who cares. Also we initially see the Michael Rappaport character from the beginning of the season get onto the boat and I was terrified that he was going to have a reappearance. Thank God he was just a voiceless extra.
– The episode ends with Weezer performing the Simpsons theme song, which I just fast-forwarded through. It reminded me of the opening of The Simpsons Movie where Green Day performed the theme, and then again during the end credits, but their appearance actually introduced the environmental theme of the film, and also ended in their quick demise (a shockingly mean joke at a celebrity’s expense in the show’s modern era that I appreciated). Here, it’s just a random coda at the end of the episode of them performing on the booze cruise to rapturous cheering. I mean, I like Weezer, but they’re kind of an older band. Who is this for? How big of an eternally apologetic super fan must you be to be entertained about a minute segment of a band performing the theme song before the end credits? Pointless filler bullshit.

682. Warrin’ Priests (Part Two)

Original airdate: May 3, 2020

The premise: Having uncovered Bode’s most terrible secret, Lovejoy returns to Springfield to expose their newly beloved reverend, inflaming the town’s ire and shaking Lisa’s newfound renewed faith.

The reaction: So here we have part two, and I still have no idea why they made this a two-parter. After a brief recap, the entirety of act one is all just repeating information we already know: Bode is a hit with the people of Springfield, Lisa admires him as a wise man of faith, and Lovejoy discovers Bode’s secret in Michigan. While he rushes back home to reveal the truth, we get some time-filling fluff with Bode vs. Ned Flanders, which really doesn’t culminate to anything. They scratch the surface of what Ned’s gripes are, but he and Bode never have much of a back-and-forth that amounts to anything interesting. Instead, their showdown in church is interrupted by a musical number from Lisa about how much she loves Bode, more fluff to pad the runtime out. Finally, at minute 15 of the episode, Lovejoy returns for the big reveal: as part of a sermon as a young pastor, Bode burned a Bible. The congregation immediately turns on him, resulting in a “trial” between him and Lovejoy, where he doesn’t even attempt to try and give an explanation, nor does the crowd demand to hear one. Also, that was the big reveal? Why would the townspeople, who at the start of part one couldn’t get the hell out of church fast enough, care so deeply now about burning a Bible? I guess what the intention was is that Bode reinvigorated the townspeople’s faith, and this represents the ultimate betrayal of the religious tenants he stood for. I guess? But their reaction is less disillusionment and betrayal, and more just standard Springfield angry mob stuff (Moe yells out, “We’ve mobbed for less, people!”) Post-trial, Lisa meets with Bode where he finally explains himself: by burning the Bible, he was trying to illustrate how people put too much stock in the literal word and symbolic nature of the Good Book and not the actual message. Lisa rebuffs that symbolism like that is way too deep for her fellow dullard citizens. And so, Bode just leaves town and the episode is over. No resolution for Lovejoy, no final statement about any of the spiritual themes or meanings behind this two episode opus, just absolutely nothing. What a completely flaccid outing. As mentioned for part one, for all of the sermonizing Pete Holmes does in both of these episodes, I honestly don’t know what the point of all of this was. The concept of instilling Springfield with a practical, malleable version of faith could be an interesting one, but that idea goes completely unexplored and goes nowhere, over the course of two episodes. Both parts of “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” are chock full of set-ups and pay-offs, great character stuff, the building and unraveling of a mystery, and laughs, laughs and more laughs. “The Great Phatsby” buffered its two parts with two B-stories to kill time. But “Warrin’ Priests” is just the A-story, and it’s a pretty shocking display of how little they manage to fill the time with. A wholly unremarkable outing.

Three items of note:
– The couch gag this week was some bizarre home-movie style thing where the Simpsons are eating outside with some horses? I eventually surmised this must be a parody of a show I wasn’t familiar with, but “thankfully” the show just flat-out told me that, showing a Kent Brockman report with the on-screen title “SHOW PARODIES OTHER SHOW.” Afterward, I figured out this was their tribute to the opening title of HBO’s “Succession,” and once again I’ll say for the ten millionth time that a) recreating a thing doesn’t count as a parody if there’s not a lick of satire to be found, and b) a good parody should still play to the people who don’t specifically know the source material. Having never seen the show, I have no fucking idea what this was supposed to be. Any readers out there big “Succession” fans? If so, please let me know how loud you laughed at the opening of this episode.
– Marge warns Lisa not to get her hopes up too much over Bode, drawing her attention to the vision board of disappointment conveniently hanging in her kitchen. On it are photos of characters and moments from previous episodes: Mr. Bergstrom, Princess the pony, Bleeding Gums Murphy, Lisa teaching Mr. Burns about recycling, and Jesse Grass. All but one of these moments are from the show’s golden era, with the lone outlier being from season 12, an episode that aired almost twenty years ago. As usual, when this show does direct callbacks, it is always something from the show’s most respected years, and it’s always the clearest indicator of how completely disposable and forgettable the last twenty years of the show have been. Where’s Laney Fontaine, the Broadway star Lisa went on tour with? Or Chloe, Marge’s high school friend and roving reporter  Lisa idolized? Lisa’s Wiccan friends? That homeless musician who was a drug addict? They’re not on that board because nobody gives a flying fuck about those episodes, and for good reason.
– Lovejoy’s trip to Michigan takes him to the doorstep of the megachurch Bode previously worked at, which only served to remind me of the wonderful HBO series The Righteous Gemstones, a very biting and truly brilliant satire on televangelist empires. Seeing the tepid jokes on display here on the subject (product placement in the stadium, the preacher being at the ready with a go bag of cash), it couldn’t be clearer how this thirty-one-year old show has been totally left in the dust by its sharper contemporaries.
– One bonus tidbit: balking at Bode’s Bible burning, Lisa comments, “Why couldn’t you have burned one of Bill O’Reilly’s books? There are so many!!” When I was a kid, my conservative father got me the best-selling book “The O’Reilly Factor For Kids,” and in a rare act of teenage rebellion, I burned it in a bonfire with some of my friends. What a little hellraiser I was. Also I am now looking at the five star Amazon ratings for the book and I’m getting sad so let me just close out this window…