701. Uncut Femmes

Original airdate: March 28, 2021

The premise: On an overnight field trip aboard a battleship, Marge gets stuck with Sarah Wiggum, who turns out to be more of a kindred spirit than she expected. But it turns out Sarah has a secret past, as two former partners-in-crime come back to get their due, throwing Marge into an elaborate jewelry heist at the lavish Gen Gala.

The reaction: Sarah Wiggum is a non-character. Like a lot of the wives on this show, she was born in the grand cartoon tradition of men being paired up with female doppelgängers of themselves (as well as the grand cartoon tradition of largely male writing staffs being unable or uninterested in writing female characters.) Like Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck before her, Sarah was Chief Wiggum’s portly, dutiful wife, with Pamela Hayden doing her best Wiggum impression for the few instances they gave her dialogue. There are some secondary characters I can see potential in getting their own episode, but this was certainly an out-of-left-field choice. The episode certainly acknowledges it, as it’s revealed that soft-spoken Sarah is actually a lively charmer (now voiced by Megan Mullally) with a secret past, running with a girl gang of thieves in Shelbyville before her partners got arrested. Both Marge and Chief Wiggum incredulously ask, “Sarah Wiggum, who are you?” just to drill that point home. Sarah has basically no characteristics to build off of, so she’s effectively a brand new character, and then when her two former partners kidnap her and Marge, it becomes a series of dialogues and backstories between  these three new characters and their past lives of crime and their new plan to get revenge on their fourth partner who double crossed them, who is revealed to be Lindsay Naegle. It reminded me a little of the Hallmark Christmas episode this season, where the lead character was Ellie Kemper and how weird that felt since we had no emotional investment in her. Here, there’s some thread of Marge relating to Sarah as an overlooked wife, but that angle is underplayed against all of the elaborate heist planning, complete with on-screen graphics and energetic music. The final act called to mind “The Book Job,” the season 23 episode where Homer, Bart and others planned an Ocean’s 11 syle heist to get their YA novel back from some evil publishing guy or something (in an episode also showrun by Matt Selman, so the man’s already repeating himself ten years later.) Here, influence is clearly taken from the all-female Ocean’s 8, which also involved a heist at a museum gala, but this episode makes the same fumbling as “The Book Job,” in that it recreates the tone and feel of those movies without subverting them at all or having any fun with the tropes and trappings. There’s barely any jokes to be had during the heist, nor do I really give a shit about what’s going on. How can I? Why should I give a single crap about this reinvented Sarah Wiggum or her betrayal by Lindsay Naegle, who is a gag character at best? I guess there are some that just find a Simpson-ized Oceans heist to be interesting by itself? I mean, I believe “The Book Job” was looked on favorably by a decent number of current fans, so maybe they’ll view this episode with a similar fondness. For me, I just could not give a shit. We get a few sidebars of Homer and Clancy frantically searching for their wives, nailing down the point over and over that they don’t know anything about them. Half the episode was just either an exposition dump or planning/executing the heist flawlessly, it didn’t even feel like I was watching a Simpsons episode at all. What is this show trying to be anymore?

Three items of note:
– Guest star round-up, I guess: it certainly would have been nice to give Pamela Hayden a starring role in an episode, but why do that when you can stunt-cast? Megan Mullally sounds like a less shrill, breathier Gayle from Bob’s Burgers, not really attempting to emulate Hayden’s Sarah voice at all. Nick Offerman makes a brief appearance (I guess they figured since they got Mullally, they’d bring her husband in too) to reprise his beloved character, that captain guy from that episode where Homer and Bart got in a right? “Wreck of the Relationship,” it was called? It sucked ass, that’s all I remember. Bob Seger voices himself at the concert Homer and Chief Wiggum go to after saddling their wives with field trip duty. When they go backstage, Seger browbeats them, telling them they need to be good marital partners, and the joke is that he’s inserting his song titles into his dialogue. Hysterical. In re-casting news, gay stereotype Julio is now voiced by Tony Rodriguez, who does a podcast or something. He already had a new voice a couple episodes ago, why did they change it? And why didn’t they just throw away that fucking awful character and be done with it? At the start of the episode, Marge is excited to watch the Gen Gala and make catty remarks at the outfits (“I have firm commitments from several A-level gays!”) We see the grouping later and it’s all the usual suspects: Patty and Selma, Smithers, Julio and his partner, Patty’s ex-girlfriend… All our gay characters hang out together because they’re gay, and gay people are all friends because they’re gay.
– They attempt to do some continuity building with a flashback showing young Sarah distracting a young security guard Clancy to perform a heist, but she ends up sleeping with him. Her friends end up arrested, and since she was the getaway driver, Sarah blames herself for the whole thing. Turns out it wasn’t her fault, Lindsay Naegle betrayed them, but if Sarah held onto so much guilt because of this, would she really have wanted to see Clancy again? She believes she ruined her friends’ lives because of this man, but she then married him and lived life as an obedient housewife for fifteen-plus years? Oh, whatever. I recall an early Al Jean episode where Clancy and Sarah are slow dancing, and he comments, “You look as pretty as the day I arrested you!” to which Sarah blushes. That moment is more charming and cute than anything we see in this entire episode.
– Marge saves the day at the end by pulling some fabric to cause Lindsay Naegle to trip at the top of the gala stairs. She elaborately tumbles down the stairs, flopping comically from left to right, bouncing over a dozen times as she plummets to the bottom. I really don’t know why it was done so excessively, but it felt strange and weirdly uncomfortable. It would be overkill if it were Homer, but this is just watching some poor woman flail around in incredible pain for twenty seconds. Are we supposed to feel vindicated that she’s getting her just desserts? Why should I care that Naegle betrayed three characters we literally just met and don’t care that much about? She ends up being framed for a bunch of other thefts, and we get on-screen text reading “The Double Revenge That You Didn’t See Coming But Now You’re Like What!?!?” Again, it feels like they’re banking hard on us giving a shit about this story. Or is the joke that they’re observing that twists happen in movies?

Season Nine Revisited (Part Three)

14. Das Bus

  • Homer cheering for a 5pm bedtime definitely hits harder watching in my 30s than last time in my 20s.
  • “You’ve seen the movie, now meet a real-life Noah! Only this Noah has been accused of killing two of every animal! Coming up next on ‘AM Springfield!’”
  • I don’t know if I ever really processed the joke of Milhouse reading out old polish jokes as “facts,” like their submarine with the screen door. It’s certainly something I never understood as a kid watching this, I thought he was just saying a bunch of weird stuff.
  • The Model U.N. banner is pretty excellent.
  • Homer’s B-plot isn’t terrible, only because it barely feels like a story and more of just some stupid thing we keep cutting back to, helped by some pretty excellent quotes (“I think I’ll make myself… vice president. No, wait! Junior vice president!” “Oooh, they have the Internet on computers now!”)– It’s unclear where the bus crashed off the bridge, but how far away is this island from land? The bus gets caught up by a small tidal wave, sinks, then we see the kids crawling onto the island. A cutaway back to Homer and Marge talking about the kids would have at least implied somewhat of a passage of time.
    – Nelson gets two solid lines in response to Bart’s grandiose plans for island living: him asking how many monkey butlers there will be, and his excitement at Bart saying they’ll find some wine for the older kids (“Delicious wine?”)– I know I talked about it last time, but I still hear Sherri (or Terri’s) line, “I’m so hungry, I could eat at Arby’s” as “I could eat an army.” It’s probably because that’s what I heard it as for so many viewings, but the “bys” section sounds so soft and muted. It feels like if they bumped up the level of the final syllable a bit higher, it would be so much clearer.
  • Bart’s underwater adventure to get the sunken cooler feels like a big time killer. Very nice music, very nice animation, but this is a show that used to cram as many gags into twenty-two minutes as possible, and here we have a thirty-second sequence that all culminates in a blowfish biting Bart in the butt. Feels like a waste of good real estate.
  • Exactly how did Homer get an online banner ad without even having a computer? Oh, who cares. The Comic Book Guy scene is maybe one of his best, impatiently waiting for his Star Trek pornography to load, complaining “Oh, hurry up, I am a busy man!” before taking a healthy gulp of his jumbo soda.
  • It’s interesting watching Bill Gates’ appearance having just seen the new episode with J.J. Abrams, it’s a very stark compare and contrast. Gates (not voicing himself) shows up at Homer’s house, not knowing a damn thing about his business, or even caring that it’s not even a business at all, figuring the easier thing for him is to “buy them out,” meaning have his nerd goons smash the joint up (“Oh, I didn’t get rich by writing a lot of checks!”) Scathing, satirical, a truly excellent Simpsons moment attacking the rich and powerful. Compare this to J.J. Abrams (voicing himself), who is depicted as a visionary filmmaking genius who wins over everybody in the end, subject only to the lightest of ribbings about him specializing in reboots and found footage movies. Dramatically different approaches.
  • I feel like I’ve seen this episode so many times in syndication, I have some degree of nostalgia for it. But there’s an awful lot of dead space in the island story where it’s just mostly plot with some jokes peppered in. I think they were so devoted to following the Lord of the Flies template that they forgot to subvert it in any meaningful way. Bits like Nelson pummeling Milhouse in the cage and Milhouse being deadweight to Bart and Lisa in the chase are good, but the back half of the episode with the mystery of “the monster” is pretty boring, bordering on feeling like a kid’s cartoon.
  • Simpsons Archive retro review: “’Das Bus’ shows that you can have surreal setups, yet still maintain the characterization and ‘human-ness’ that makes ‘The Simpsons’ special. The civilized children’s slide into primitive behavior was generally funny, and didn’t violate anything we knew about their characters. A subplot detailing Homer’s attempts to enter the Internet business provides some good contrast and a few laughs. This show aired on creator Matt Groening’s birthday. It would make a pretty good present, indeed.”

15. The Last Temptation of Krust

  • “What do we need church shoes for? Jesus wore sandals.” “Well, maybe if he had better arch support they wouldn’t have caught him.”
  • Gil working at the shoe store is less “desperate older employee holding on by a thread” like he was in “Realty Bites,” and more just a sad old man with a bad back. Not his best appearance. 
  • The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was making Jay Leno appear likeable in this episode, though he still does brag about his “acres of cars” that he loves so much. The other guest comedians are harmless set dressing who don’t really add or take away anything specifically. On that note comes a major problem with this episode, and with all movies/TV shows about stand-up comedy. The performed jokes are never funny, so you just sit there as you’re watching an audience applaud looking as dumb as Homer (“I get jokes!” is a very quotable line.) In terms of depicting comedy, bad jokes are easy, because it’s all about the audience’s reaction and the behavior of the performer (see: Krusty’s flapping dickey, and the amazing pan of the stunned audience.) But when it’s “good” comedy like the opening comedians, as well as Krusty’s reimagining of himself as a George Carlin-type comic, the jokes never hit right. The third act felt like the writers were coming up with routines inspired by Carlin, but not really satirizing his type of humor.
  • Dog Kills Cat, Self is a wonderfully dark newspaper headline.
  • The scene of Lisa translating each line of the Spanish movie for Marge is kind of weird. It feels like someone came up with the joke concept of an annoyed movie translator, and they decided to just slap it onto Lisa because she’s smart, but I don’t expect an eight-year-old, not even Lisa, to be able to understand full dialogue in a foreign language, especially words like “disco ball.”
  • Bart finding Krusty on the Flanders’ lawn after his bender feels like a believable way to get a Simpson back into the story, unlike future Krusty episodes where Bart and Lisa will just show up at Krustylu Studios for little to no reason at all. My favorite scene is Krusty coming face to face with all the garbage licensed products in Bart’s room, where it finally dawns on him how he’s sold himself out in exchange for his dignity and relevance as a performer. It’s really well done and funny, I almost wish it was put into a stronger episode.
  • I feel like the classic line that’s run through my head the most times watching decades of new episodes has been Krusty’s attempt at relatable comedy (“You mean like when your lazy butler washes your sock garters and they’re still covered with shmutz?”) As Springfield slowly morphed into Los Angeles, Jr. and the Simpsons found themselves recurring instant successes in lavish scenarios, that quote would instantly come to mind.
  • “Bart’s Comedy Jam” is an excellent scene, starting with Bart’s impression of his mother (Nancy Cartwright having fun mimicking Julie Kavner), much to the adorable enjoyment of Homer and Lisa. Krusty feebly tries his hand at observational humor, but falls flat (“Two cent stamps… pizza pie’s very hot these days… can’t open pickle jars… no mail on Sundays…”) I also love Bart repeating his excuse about the acoustics being bad, only to be rudely cut off by Krusty. A consistent in this episode is the classic relationship of Bart’s undying allegiance to his childhood hero, and Krusty barely giving a shit about his young fan.
  • When (or if) the show actually announces it’s ending, I will be incredibly disappointed if a reporter doesn’t ask, “Why now? Why not twenty years ago?”
  • A nice detail I don’t think I’ve noticed before, Bart’s voice has a little bit of echo on it while sitting in the incredibly spacious Canyonero.
  • There’s a bunch of good, even great, moments in this episode, but it could have been a complete dud and still been mostly saved by the Canyonero ending. Just the perfect fake ad for the obnoxiously large and questionably safe SUV (“Top of the line in utility sports! Unexplained fires are a matter for the courts!”)
  • Simpsons Archive retro review: “A dismal effort. Joke after joke failed to make me laugh, with all those comedians up there you’d think something would. Celebrity cameos do nothing for me, and neither does stand-up type of humor. A very weak outing in a very weak season… something has to change.”

16. Dumbbell Indemnity

  • Homer just completely destroying the water heater will trying to “fix” it is not a great moment. There are plenty of past moments of Homer being as stupid if not more so, but this is Scully-era Homer stupidity where it’s more aggressive and destructive, in this case, flooding the entire house as he scurries off to Moe’s to let Marge deal with it (what a guy!) To be fair, the animation of the flooding water cascading over the house looks very nice.
  • Rene appears to be the first in an incredibly long line of guest girlfriend/boyfriend characters on the show to have absolutely no personality. She’s a nice girl who likes Moe… because that’s what the plot is. No quirks, no backstory, no specific wants or desires, she’s just a plot device for the Homer/Moe story. It’s made all the more eyebrow-raising as she’s voiced by Helen Hunt, Hank Azaria’s then-girlfriend, so maybe the writers were hesitant to make her anything but the sweetest, blandest woman ever? She also gets introduced running a flower cart at night, which is never referred to again and makes no sense. It reminded me of one of the last episodes of Futurama where Zoidberg started dating a woman who ran a flower cart, but that actually played into the episode; she had no sense of smell, so Zoidberg’s horrific odor doesn’t turn her off.
  • “Bring us the finest food you’ve got, stuffed with the second finest.” “Excellent, sir. Lobster stuffed with tacos.”
  • This episode also brings us our first glimpse at softened Moe, which has been a favorite with writers over the past twenty years, and it just doesn’t work. I remember liking “Moe Baby Blues” okay, but I feel like if I rewatched it, I’d be less charitable. I’m fine with depicting Moe as more sympathetic and less of a psychopath, but he still needs to be funny or interesting, and most of the time, he’s not, he’s just sad and pathetic. 
  • I like that Lou is already noticeably buzzed before the cruise even starts.
  • Moe’s car flies off the cliff, then it sinks, then it falls down an underwater cliff, falling, falling… man, is it boring.
  • I winced when Homer tearfully said that he and Moe were best friends. His best friend originally was Barney, but that relationship has more or less faded at this point. He hangs out with Lenny and Carl all day at work and at the bar. I’ve repeated over and over why Moe and Marge should never, ever be on good terms with each other, but I also don’t like how close Homer and Moe end up becoming either. Homer can be deluded enough into thinking Moe’s a good friend of his, but I enjoy Moe the best when he’s a crass, manipulative reprobate, not the surly jerk with a heart of gold they would eventually turn him into. I guess it’s personal preference, but I just find Moe funnier and more interesting in the former characterization than the latter. As for this new Homer-Moe relationship, it’s like “The Homer They Fall” creaked the door open, and “Dumbbell Indemnity” bum-rushed its way in.
  • Moe goes to talk to Homer in the alleyway of the jail, which just happens to have a window there, but I can excuse that. Meanwhile, Rene is just standing there on the sidewalk waiting for Moe to come back, I guess not particularly caring what he was doing in the alley or who he was talking to. Homer’s jail window also becomes a huge cheat because for the rest of the scene, the window is now right up against the corner of the jail so Moe can see him from across the street.
  • Rene is such a non-character, she doesn’t even create the conflict of the episode. Moe inexplicably feels the need to spend as much money as possible on this woman, but she doesn’t seem to be a woman who enjoys the fancy things at all, evidenced by her initially turning down Moe’s suggested trip to Hawaii (“Let’s just get a can of poi and eat it in the tub.”) That’s all fine, as the episode could be about Moe’s incredible insecurities making him think he needs to spend, spend, spend to hold onto this woman, but that idea isn’t evident or fleshed out in the episode at all.
  • The ending kind of sucks, Moe and Homer fighting in the burning bar. Then Barney comes out of the bathroom, I guess being oblivious to everything, carries Moe and Homer’s bodies out, then passes out from smoke inhalation just so he doesn’t have to be in the scene anymore. Meh.
  • Simpsons Archive retro review:This was the episode I KNEW the current staff could do! Instead of the forced references and vain attempts at Simpsonesqueness other episodes this season had fallen back on, this had what the show should always be: A funny, fast-paced, decent plot with tons of originality and classic Homer. For the first time since ‘The Cartridge Family,’ I don’t need to give an episode the benefit of the doubt!”

17. Lisa the Simpson

  • Great snappy piece of animation of the vacuum sealed lunch. The squash and stretch of Milhouse’s face and Lisa’s hair points is just lovely.
  • I like that the Picto-Puzzle is on screen enough times that you might be able to solve it yourself. It’s also the perfect catalyst to throw Lisa off her game, a deceptively easy brain teaser, one of those things that would finally click with you after spending hours on it and kicking yourself for not thinking of the simple answer sooner. Ralph figuring it out before her just pours salt into the wound (“I don’t need a hint, Ralph!” ”But you’re suffering!”)
  • The exterior shot of the school as both the kids and teachers run out overjoyed at the final bell is so great, and made even better when you see the next day, the kids and teachers walking back in together, depressed about another school day.
  • Homer’s innocent giddiness at the nudie pens is a nice little scene, and an effective joke to carry over the time lapse before he and Apu discover Jasper in the freezer.
  • Marge cutting Abe’s hair is such a great scene. This show used to thrive on showing believable moments of a normal family, and Marge cutting her ornery father-in-law’s hair (using the kitchen tablecloth as a bib, a wonderful little touch) is a great example, even better with two characters who don’t directly interact that much. The ending of Marge “accidentally” nipping the back of Abe’s head after he insults her cooking is a great passive aggressive moment.
  • Although not his final appearance, “Someone’s in the Kitchen with DNA” feels like Troy McClure’s swan song. Each joke is a slam dunk: Troy taking off his hazmat suit, causing the other scientists to flee, two of the greatest “you may remember me” film titles ever (“Alice Doesn’t Live Anymore” and “Mommy, What’s Wrong With That Man’s Face?”) and of course, his dumbstruck look when little Billy asks him a simple question, hard-cutting to the end card.
  • The Freak-E-Mart is the perfect B-plot for this episode, a breezy, dumb-but-not-too-dumb story to offset Lisa’s tale of introspective woe. Jasper freezing himself is kind of outlandish, but nothing too crazy that I can’t go along with it. The different cheap exhibits Apu puts up are great (Haunted Cash Machine: Dispenses Images of Dead Presidents) and the conclusion of Jasper awakening in the “future” is so good (“Moon Pie? What a time to be alive.”)
  • The dramatic lighting and staging of Lisa joining Bart and Homer in front of the TV is beautiful, it really drives home the weight of Lisa’s resignation.
  • “When Buildings Collapse” and “When Surgery Goes Wrong” almost sound too much like actual programs that FOX would air in the late 90s.
  • The montage of Lisa indulging in enlightened pleasures before her “dumbening” is perfectly emblematic of the world of the show. Each one of her interactions is coated with cynicism: the art gallery guard who admits to forging the painting, the petulant music critic (“You have to listen to the notes she’s not playing.” “Pfft. I can do that at home,”) and finally the violinist who serves Lisa a cliche line about sharing your specialness with the world, but only to get her to actually buy one of her tapes. If this scene were done in a season 32 episode, it would most definitely have been played straight, this fellow musician dispensing heartfelt advice at the emotional climax of the story.
  • Jeez. Either Sanjay’s tucking himself, or he ain’t packing much.
  • This has got to be like the twentieth or so time I’ve seen this, and I just realized that Lisa getting on TV via an editorial reply was set up earlier with an editorial reply interrupting “When Buildings Collapse.” They didn’t need to connect those two dots, but they did anyway.
  • The station director letting Lisa go off script (“Let her speak. I’m trying to get fired”) is another joke that I love that would never have happened in a season 32 equivalent scene.
  • I love all the vocal variants Dan Castellaneta does for all the Simpson men. The “Simpson gene is true” ending is a bit silly, but it feels like a suitable backhanded payoff, where Lisa’s future is cleared but Bart is doomed to failure (“a spectacular failure!”) I think this is my favorite episode of season 9, with “City of New York” a close second. I do not consider it a coincidence these are both Oakley/Weinstein shows.
  • Simpsons Archive retro review: “An interesting expansion on the theory that failure is familial for Simpsons, but too general and simplistically off-the-mark in the ending. The subplot was a major drag, having no relation at all to the main plot, and being incredibly stupid, mediocre and far-fetched. Another minus is Bart’s ‘dance on her grave’ line, indicating that Ned Goldreyer could use work (namely pre-fifth season work), but is on the right track somewhat more than other writers have been. I appreciate his goal to tell a story rather than to clutter a story with inappropriate or idiotic gags that try too hard.”

18. This Little Wiggy

  • Milhouse and Nelson’s fantasies off of Robbie the Automaton’s in-class commercial feel like lesser versions of these kinds of childish dreams we’ve seen before. Milhouse touches a star and it disintegrates his arm, which feels more like a Bart fantasy, and Nelson’s really interested in the Three Stooges? This feels around the point where older references were starting to grow a little stale. Did kids in the late 90s even know who the Three Stooges were? Were they still being rerun on stations kids watched back then?
  • The Knowledgeum is a fun set piece, definitely the strongest stuff in the whole episode. Troy McClure gives a great intro on the moving walkway; I like his casual mentioning of your car may be subject to repeated break-ins much to Homer’s panic, but it’s kind of a slightly lesser version of the similar joke in “Lisa the Vegetarian,” without the expert pay-off of the Simpson car pulling up the driveway with a busted back window with no further mention.
  • Bart runs off to “toss the virtual salad,” which feels like a pretty raw entendre for him to make. It’s one thing if they had him do a general sex joke or a boner joke, but this is a ten-year-old talking about eating ass. Is there any other slang definition for “tossing salad” that I don’t know about?
  • There’s a sweet little moment when Martin takes a picture of Frink’s visible computer demonstration, and Frink gets visibly embarrassed and proud about it.
  • In this episode all about Ralph, he basically has no real agency in the story and just wanders about until he accidentally moves the plot forward. We’re a long ways from “I Love Lisa” where he was just this dim, oblivious kid still capable of actual emotions. This episode kind of firmly establishes this “new” Ralph, a literal mentally challenged child whose dialogue is 80% desperate one-liner attempts at making the next “I bent my Wookie” or “Me fail English?” There have been a few later attempts to try and give Ralph a bit more to do (he had actual sentences of dialogue recently in “Wad Goals,”) but they come off really bizarre given how he’s basically been reduced to a prop character over a decade. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, fellas, you’re stuck with what you made.
  • I really like the kernel of an idea of this episode about being stuck with an undesirable or embarrassingly playmate as a kid, where Bart butts heads with Marge about being forced to hang out with Ralph. The episode doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting with that idea, but it is there!
  • “Videotaping this crime spree is the best idea we ever had!” For all the stupid “Simpsons predicted it!” “theories” that went viral over the past year, this Jimbo line feels like an appropriate analogue for the January Capitol riots. A joke about short-sided and dumb teenage shenanigans translates perfectly to short-side, alt-right, fame-hungry dullards.
  • There’s some subtle depth to Chief Wiggum in this episode and his feelings toward Ralph, like when Marge almost sarcastically tells her, yeah, it would be nice if Ralph had some friends. He fully cops to his son having special needs and no one really wanting to be around him, and he feels bad about it, but has kind of run out of ideas of what to do. Later, when he sees Ralph and Bart playing together, his excitement over Ralph’s first friend is really endearing.
  • When Bart and Ralph run into the bullies at night, the average episode takes a big nosedive. Bart giving into peer pressure with the bullies and turning away a crying Ralph feels like cliche after school special material played completely straight. I can buy Bart standing up to Ralph getting mercilessly bullied, but when it gets to the point that he actually considers Ralph a friend, it’s just too much. Them exploring the penitentiary is boring and overly drawn out, and the grand finale of saving Quimby from the active electric chair is equally as dull, especially since they have not one but two scenes of Quimby explaining how dumb the ending is, telling his staff to not help him despite how “realistic” his convulsions are. Lisa fires a rocket with a note at the penitentiary… like, even if it did actually work, not only is the plan to fire at this building way in the distance, but were they banking on it going through the exact window where the execution room was? Is there even a window in that room? Oh, who cares.
  • Simpsons Archive retro review:Can somebody please remind me why I’ve ever been  disappointed with this season? This was amazing. Nothing OOC, plenty of original, inspired gags and every member of OFF had a respectable amount of time. The plot seemed to change dramatically in the last few seconds of the first act, but it took me until second viewing to even notice. Looking back at my past few reviews, I’ve begun to realize I love this season! As of this episode, I’m raising my standards for an A.

19. Simpson Tide

  • The Planet of the Donuts is a pretty good opening dream. Maybe not as memorable as “Birth of Man” in “Lisa’s Pony” or the donut fashion show at the start of “Treehouse of Horror IV,” but pretty good. I also appreciate it ending right when Homer gets eaten by the enormous donut; I feel like a modern episode would include some unfunny button on that scene, but instead, it got out when the going was good.
  • Homer dropping a donut into the reactor (via a post office mail slot, no less) is just stupid enough that I can go along with it. I also like what we see of the aftermath that the cooling towers are on fire; I doubt that that’s very realistic, but it seemed like a believable consequence that would be worth Homer getting fired over.
  • The Navy commercial is fantastic, just the sales pitch that would appeal to Homer: getting drunk and doing fuck all for your country.
  • The man at the recruitment office is a familiar extra, it’s the “Just Stamp the Ticket” man from “When Flanders Failed”! I don’t know if I ever noticed that. He gets a one-scene wonder as Homer attempts to answer the one crossed off application question, much to his horror. Hey, have I brought up Dankmus recently?
  • I like that during basic training, Homer is more lovable buffoon than aggravating maniac (“You like me, but I don’t like you!” “Well, maybe you’d like me if you got to know me!”) Endearing touches like that stand out in a silly premise like this. Similarly, a ridiculous gag like a gigantic untethered ship going over a waterfall is balanced by Homer actually making a competent knot but forgetting to tie it to the ship, not him completely forgetting, or worse, having a blind active hand in the accident.
  • It really feels like this episode has one of the earliest “there’s-a-Starbucks-everywhere” jokes. When did those explode in popularity? My only frame of reference is a Lewis Black routine about “the end of the universe” being somewhere in Texas, where he saw a Starbucks across from another Starbucks, from a performance performed in 2001, while this episode aired in 1998.
  • The earring subplot is fine as is. It’s not really much of a “plot,” really, but I like that Homer’s annoyance at Bart’s earring runs throughout the show, and pretty effortlessly comes back by the end to be the lynchpin to save the day.
  • It’s so dumb, but I still like the “In the Navy” scene (although throwing Smithers in felt pushing it too far), if only because they just up and drown the Village People. They weren’t actually guest stars, but it’s nice to see one of the last big celebrity fuck-yous before we get deeper into the Mike Scully era and we get NSYNC magically arriving on their speedboat to heroically save the day.
  • I like that they clearly establish that Captain Tenille is not only a partially oblivious old man who projects onto people, but he actually might be physically ill on top of it (“Maybe it’s the saltwater in my veins, or the nitrogen bubbles in my brain…”) as an explanation as to why the fuck he would leave Homer in charge of the sub.
  • “I told him that photo would come back to haunt him.”
  • I absolutely love that Skinner brought Terri up with her sister on stage only to tell her to fuck off, we’re only saving one of you. That’s some good school administrator cruelty.
  • This episode is undeniably ridiculous, and Homer the naval captain is no less crazy and ridiculous as any of his future professions, but this episode feels like it strikes the right loose tone that it doesn’t feel out-of-reach outlandish, considering the climax is Homer plugging a pin-sized hole on the ship. Him magically knowing how to say “It’s my first day” in penguin is acceptable since I like the scene as a callback to the opening. We also get a joke explanation as to why the hell Homer wasn’t arrested, as all of the commanding officers in charge of indicting her are actually in the middle of their own indictments, getting him off the hook (“You can’t spell ‘dishonorable’ without ‘honorable.’’)
  • Simpsons Archive retro review: “I just want to say that I think ‘Simpson Tide’ was great… for an episode of ‘The Critic.’ It epitomizes the worst episodes of ‘The Simpsons:’ fast-paced gags, sophomoric humor, discontinuity, little or no ironic commentary, and a tacked-on plot which just serves as a set-up for quickie sight jokes. But the worst sin of all is the fact that the gags in this show were unfunny! All-in-all a very dissatisfying episode with a couple of genuinely funny bits. And to think I missed last week’s Ralph Wiggum episode only to see this clunker!”

700. Manger Things

Original airdate: March 21, 2021

The premise: Six years ago before Christmas, Marge throws Homer out of the house after accidentally getting drunk at the power plant holiday party. Staying with the Flanderses and desperate to be home before Christmas, Homer must figure out what grand selfless gesture will get him back into Marge’s good graces.

The reaction: Another milestone has come and gone; thankfully, the self-congratulation didn’t extend any further than a chyron “700th Episode” below the main title. And wow, two flashback episodes in a row, what a treat! I seem to recall another episode where Marge threw Homer out on Christmas for not coming home, but it turned out he was staying with Moe who was borderline suicidal. This time, Homer promises not to drink at the Christmas party, but Lenny spikes his soda and Homer makes an ass out of himself. “I don’t want you coming home until I know you’ve changed!” Marge weeps as she leaves Homer behind. As the episode continues, 4-year-old Bart and 2-year-old Lisa repeatedly will ask their mother that they miss their dad and why won’t he be home for Christmas… this is really uplifting stuff! Homer’s been thrown out many a time over thirty years (to the point that it’s deflated any sort of drama or realism), but the best shows to use that card waiting until the final act, because of how sad the situation is (utilized to heartbreaking effect in “Homer’s Night Out,” when Lisa asks her brother, “I wonder when Dad’s coming home,” at an incredibly awkward family dinner.) Here, Homer’s gone for almost the entire episode, made even more devastating since Bart and Lisa are just little tots. It’s an incredibly sad scenario, leaving little room for any actual fun to do jokes. On top of this, what Homer must do to prove he’s “changed” is not only totally nebulous, but even more pointless than normal given this is a flashback episode, and we know all of the fucked up crazy shit Homer will do over hundreds of ensuing “present day” episodes. Considering this exact plot has already been done in the aforementioned “I Won’t Be Home for Christmas,” there’s no real reason this needed to be a flashback episode… except for our grand, continuity-building finale. Homer stays with the Flanderses, with an irritable and pregnant Maude. And of course, on Christmas Eve, Maude goes into labor with Ned out of the house helping the homeless…  so it’s Homer to the rescue! No mention of them calling Ned, who presumably would not have gone far, but it’s dawn when he finally returns, so who knows where the fuck he was. Marge I guess breaks into the Flanders house because he just shows up at the doorway of the rumpus room as Homer comforts Maude before the birth, and all is forgiven. So all Homer had to do was deliver a child to prove he was a good guy! Why didn’t she say so? To express his gratitude, Ned names his newborn son Todd Homer Flanders, so there’s another worthless piece of canon to throw on the pile. We also learn about “a never-before-seen room in the Simpson home,” as teased by the promotional blurb for this episode, the small storage space above the garage that Homer camps out in as he ponders his next big move to win Marge back. How cool? With these “revelations” and the upcoming episode shining a spotlight on Sarah Wiggum, this almost feels like a new tactic for the series, solving unanswered questions about different characters and locations in Springfield, because I guess hardcore fans might care about that stuff. Too bad this fan cares about engaging stories with characters we care about, and that ship sailed about 500 episodes ago. Happy 700th, one and all!

Three items of note:
– The couch gag is yet another Bill Plympton animation. This is, what, his sixth? As usual with this show, anything that’s special once must be repeated as much as possible until it becomes bland and unremarkable. One of his earliest couch gags was like Homer fucking the couch and it got pregnant? Is that right, or did I imagine that? Now it’s just this simple, cute little animation that does nothing but eat up time so the writers can get away with writing a few less pages.
– Maude Flanders has made sporadic appearances in dreams or flashbacks over the last fifteen years or so since Maggie Roswell returned, but this is her meatiest role yet. She’s definitely much gruffer and ornery here, which at least makes sense given that she’s nine month pregnant and about to burst. But outside of demeanor, her voice definitely sounds different, and it’s not a matter of Roswell losing her step or anything, it’s just that we’re twenty years out from episodes where Maude was alive, and she definitely sounds two decades older. Likewise, Mr. Burns sounded considerably tired in his brief appearance, the 77-year-old Harry Shearer still trying his best. And, of course, there’s Marge. Part of me feels like a big piece of shit mentioning this over and over… this is, what, my third or fourth time this season? But honest and truly, during her opening monologue setting up the flashback, I genuinely was having trouble understanding her gravelly, weakened voice. This became even more pronounced in the flashback, given Marge is supposed to be 30-ish, but sounds like an elderly woman. All of this is a problem with no answer, but it’s a pretty glaring sign that maybe your show shouldn’t last over thirty years on the air.
– It’s never been established (I think?) exactly how old Rod and Todd Flanders are, but I always assumed they were always in-between Bart and Lisa since they’re not in either of their classes, making them 11 and 9 respectively. Rod is taller than both Bart and Lisa, so I figure he’s older. But now, I guess Todd is 6 in this new timeline? I don’t really give a shit about them breaking continuity, but this seems like a big oversight. I know no one really remembers or cares much for the Flanders kids (to the point that even the Simpsons wiki lists Todd as the older brother in the first sentence, and says he’s the youngest member of the Flanders family in the second) but come on.

Season Nine Revisited (Part Two)

7. The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons

  • Moe’s frozen grin as he walks across the stage to a sea of scornful women’s faces is great on its own, but even better with the weird knockoff “Stayin’ Alive” music. Also, I think the Sea Captain would be a catch for some woman in Springfield. The man owns his own restaurant and lives on a cool houseboat! I think he’s a catch.
  • “Sold to the five desperate chicks!” Kind of rude of Krusty to say, since one of the women is his secretary Miss Pennycandy.
  • This episode kind of re-frames Apu as a shy bachelor, whereas we’ve had previous examples of him being kind of a stud (dating Princess Kashmir in “Lisa’s Pony,” banging that one girl at the BBQ in “22 Short Films About Springfield.”) He seems to get back into the groove fairly quickly, so maybe he had just been out of the dating pool for a while. I wish there was more focus on Apu’s feelings through the episode, him talking about why he loves being carefree and single, as well as him separating leisuretime from his grueling work hours… there’s not much Apu characterization in this episode that’s ostensibly about him.
  • Homer growling suggestively at Apu opening a note from his mother… don’t care for it. It’s a joke off of him just reading a love note from one of Apu’s dates, but it plays so weird.
  • “Is it me or does your plans always have some horrid web of lies?” “It’s you.” This really feels like the first of many, many, many zany Homer schemes over the Mike Scully years. When he innocently suggests that Apu tell his mother he’s already married, he feels more like a normal guy throwing out suggestions, but escalating it to pretending Marge is Apu’s wife and his attitude to the ruse makes it more ridiculous and silly.
  • Very nice touch that Apu rolls out a Krusty the Clown sleeping bag next to Marge’s bed, seemingly borrowing it from Bart.
  • I really like Lisa’s innocence in not knowing what Apu’s mother’s “dot” is. A modern show would have Bart ask that question and Lisa would chastise him for being culturally ignorant and give a long explanation about it, but here, Lisa just doesn’t know, because she’s an eight-year-old who doesn’t know the specifics of every culture on Earth. We also get this great exchange between Apu’s mom and Bart (“Surely you know the background to your father’s heritage.” “So long you have no follow up questions, then yes… we do.”
  • Like I said, not a whole lot of Apu in this Apu show, because the second act is dominated by Homer living it up at the retirement home. It’s all fine material, I guess, but it just kind of becomes the wacky Homer show in the middle of what should be an Apu episode. Also when he leaves the retirement home, Apu and Marge just let him back into the house and into bed when Apu’s mother was literally just about to leave, which is stupid and makes no sense.
  • There’s a Homer line I hate, when Apu confesses to his mother, Homer judgingly reacts, “He lied to his mother…” This kind of tsk tsking attitude toward characters who are just saying and doing things that Homer pushed them into would reoccur a whole fucking lot over the next few seasons. Also included are jokes about his complete ignorance over stuff he himself started (“Oh right, the fake marriage thing. How’s that going?”) Homer really is pretty insufferable through most of this episode, and this behavior would only continue to get more flagrant as time goes on.
  • Apu’s mother just stays at the Simpson house and expects the wedding to be held in their backyard, with no real explanation, and she hates Marge. As Lisa says, why is she still staying there? Well, I guess they wrote that joke into the episode to whitewash over it, but as we will see time and time again, making a joke about a shit thing in your script doesn’t change the fact that it’s still shit.
  • “No pansies for me!” “It’s the tradition in India.” “Alright, it’ll cover the gravy stains.”
  • They make a meta joke about it, but why isn’t the elephant at the wedding just Stampy? They could’ve had a scene where they get him from the wildlife reserve, or at least just have one line explaining how the hell they were able to get an elephant in the first place.
  • The ending is kind of strange, in that it almost feels like the writers thought that making fun of arranged marriages would be too obvious, so their subversion was to make it seem like the marriage would actually work? They do the best they can; Manjula’s Fried Green Tomatoes question is clever and her interplay with Apu, what little there is, is sweet, but there’s no real emotional investment I can muster about Apu finding domestic bliss in an episode where he fought tooth and nail to avoid it. It’s more like him going, “Yeah, maybe this will work, hopefully…” As with almost all changes that would occur in the Mike Scully years, this character development doesn’t really amount to anything. He’s got a wife, and later kids, but Apu doesn’t really change, nor does any of his behavior change, other than he occasionally will do jokes about how having eight kids is hard.
  • Simpsons Archive retro review: “This was, ‘without a doubt,’ as the CBG would say, the worst episode this season. Everything from the stupid premise to the tired, sitcom-standard gags were excrutiatingly unfunny and painful to watch; I probably cracked a tiny smile once. And, once again, Homer’s antics were much more grating than they could ever be amusing. Fortunately, this has been Richard Appel’s only real clunker; let’s hope he hasn’t totally lost it.” (note: Appel’s next, and final, episode was “When You Dish Upon a Star.”)

8. Lisa the Skeptic

  • The boating scam opening isn’t bad. A casual opening of Homer being wanted by the police doesn’t bode well for the future, but here, it’s just for 235 unpaid parking tickets, and Homer’s petulance and obliviousness to the whole scheme is pretty good (“Lousy cops. Lucky for you, I’m double parked!”)
  • There’s a good amount of self-acknowledgement of Lisa’s rabble rousing, with her “Who wants to complain with me?!” and Kent commenting on her thirteenth appearance on her program. Her staunch, humorless position she takes through the whole show grows a little bit tiresome though, to be honest.
  • It’s so weird how Phil Hartman’s death lines up fairly well to the death of the show (not pleased by how that sentence came out, but I don’t know how better to put it.) As such, his few appearances in season 9 (and one in season 10) feel weird to me. Lionel Hutz or Troy McClure showing up used to be such a reliable staple of the show’s high bar for quality, so them popping up even in mixed bag early Scully episodes feels a little off. Not to say he doesn’t provide bright moments, this is Phil Hartman we’re talking about. Hutz gets a solid line here (“It’s a thorny legal issue, alright. I’ll need to refer to the case, ‘Finders vs. Keepers,’”) and the character gets an entertaining, unintentional swan song next episode in “Realty Bites.” 
  • Homer dragging the angel away chained to his car in an incredibly small amount of time in plain view of an entire crowd of people standing in front of it is a pretty huge cheat.
  • “I’ll just leave it in here for a few years and let it appreciate in value.” “It’s probably a million years old, Dad, I think it’s as valuable as it’s going to get.”
  • A good chunk of act 2 involves the mystery of what the angel is, a lot of it playing out with suspense music (like when Lisa takes the sample for analysis) without many jokes. Like, why does it feel so serious?
  • The Marge/Lisa emotional core of the show is a little interesting, but it definitely feels like something that would have benefitted with a lighter touch carried through the whole episode. Instead, Marge drops the bomb on Lisa that she believes in angels, and they have a way-too-serious dialogue about it, culminating in both of them saying incredibly hurtful things to each other (“My poor Lisa, if you can’t make a leap of faith now and then, well, I feel sorry for you.” “Don’t feel sorry for me mom, I feel sorry for you.”) Marge telling her daughter she feels sorry for her? That’s cold.
  • “Science is like a blabbermouth who ruins a movie by telling you how it ends. Well, I say that there are some things we don’t wanna know. Important things!” This episode definitely seems like patient zero for Ned Flanders’ insanely stringent religious stereotype he would devolve into. As is the case with most of these “first” episodes, it works in this “science vs. religion” episode context, but not in future examples.
  • The best part of the show may be the Pope reading his newspaper in a flimsy lawn chair (“Your Holiness, there is word from America. They say an angel has foretold the apocalypse.” “…keep an eye on it.”)
  • The ending as a concept is peak Simpsons, that the shopping mall people would play on the townspeoples’ emotions for a marketing gimmick, and said townspeople would be instantly won over by it is just perfect. I’m even willing to forgive the magical pulley track carrying the angel that clearly wasn’t there before the reveal. One big missed opportunity is we don’t get any final scene with Ned and Lovejoy, how they react to being shoved off their pious high horse.
  • It’s a pretty random guest spot, but Stephen Jay Gould is good for what little he has. I kind of like that he’s inexplicably an asshole, but it does feel weirdly unmotivated. Him shaking down a little girl for money is good (“I didn’t become a scientist for financial gain. Whatever little money you have will be just fine,”) but his ending flatly telling Lisa he never did the test (presumably after she paid him) is funny in how randomly cruel it is, but doesn’t make much sense.
  • Simpsons Archive retro review: “There was something curiously unsatisfying about this episode. Maybe it was Lisa’s irritating dismissal of the townspeoples’ faith, seemingly without justification for doing so. Maybe it was a childish fantasy, but she never gave us anything to back up this claim. Then, too, there was the annoying ‘look! they’re hypocrites!’ stuff, like with Moe voice-controlling the tv. Not that it wasn’t funny. Some of it was. But in past episodes, they have managed to take a serious issue (faith vs. science) and treat it with respect and humor. Here they just sort of hit us on the head with it.”

9. Realty Bites

  • The opening bit where Homer thinks it’s Saturday is pretty great. I’ve certainly fallen victim to fake Saturdays in the past…
  • Homer driving Li’l Bandit like a maniac, him abandoning Marge on the side of the road… we’re not even halfway through season 9 and he already feels like an entirely different character.
  • “Trying is the first step toward failure” is a late game all-time series quote.
  • The kids play-acting as a couple to help Marge study is pretty adorable (“We should have lived together first…”)
  • Ah, our introduction to Gil. Funny that he shows up in Lionel Hutz’s last big episode, and would eventually sorta kinda take his place. He would certainly get a bit overused as we got into the Al Jean era, but I like Gil more than I don’t, and he’s pretty good in his first outing (“I brought this wall from home!”) We also get introduced to Cookie Kwan, who is a bad character and I have nothing further to say.
  • Never before has lumber seemed more enticing.
  • We get our first (and only?) appearance of Sideshow Mel’s wife Barbara, and man, she’s quite the stunner! And she’s got her husband’s same teal hair. She must really dig thespians.
  • Homer gauding Skinner about his dead high school sweetheart feels very sour. I dunno, it’s different from the tonal dissonance about him reminiscing fondly about Vietnam, or even the more exaggeratedly tragic flashbacks like the one from “I Love Lisa,” this is just sad.
  • “The truth” and “the truth” is a grade-A Hutz scene (“It’s time I let you in on a little secret, Marge. The right house is the house that’s for sale. The right person is anyone.”)
  • Poor Lenny. At least this scene became fodder for a lot of great shitposts.
  • Marge unable to hack it in real estate because she can’t stretch the truth is a pretty good premise, but it feels like there’s too many scenes of her trying to lie, but backpedaling, when we already get the idea. Also her big moral dilemma about telling Ned about the murder house is pretty overbearing. The overdramatic music cues started to creep in in season 8, and now they’re used in full force. Also, why are the Flanders’ moving in the first place? It seems like a thing they’d at least make a joke out of, but they don’t even bother.
  • The Flanders family lying motionless on the floor covered in “blood” marks is pretty stupid. Like, if you’re going to do a “fakeout” gag like that, it better have a damn funny explanation, or have some kind of twist, but “we were painting a room red and we got tired and passed out” isn’t it. Todd’s “red room” bit is good, though; they should have just had a scene where they were all in the room painting and done that joke.
  • Homer fighting Snake is fucking dumb. Snake’s allegiance to his beloved car is a nice character flourish (“Premiiiuuummmm! Duuuuuddee!”), and I also like how he and his cellmate are able to easily eavesdrop on the police auction from their cell, but this B-plot just sucks, and how it literally collides with the A-story in destroying the murder house is even worse.
  • The very ending at the unemployment office is really bizarre. Marge’s line feels weirdly demonizing (“Three hundred dollars for doing nothing? I feel like such a crook,”) coming off kind of heartless, which hits even more so given how countless people got fucked out of their jobs last year. Then we end on a freeze frame of George H.W. Bush picking up his check… what’s that about? The man’s been out of office for over five years, what is this a commentary on?
  • Simpsons Archive retro review: “Dan Greaney, often Simpsons’ best writer, turns in a story that is at worst mediocre. Haven’t we had enough Marge episodes where Marge gets some job to spice up her life that she ends up failing at? That, in addition to the fact Marge fails at the hands of her own sense of honesty, makes this episode look like ‘Springfield Connection’ rehash.”

10. Miracle on Evergreen Terrace

  • Busting the car heater, parking across three handicap spots, posing as a cashier to steal Xmas gifts… Jerkass Homer is out in full force immediately. It’s funny how the first two examples also happened in other episodes (“The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson,” “The Springfield Connection,”) but both of those instances had greater character or plot motivations; here, Homer’s just being a dick because that’s who he is now! Also Homer’s reply to Marge asking why they waited until last minute to do their Xmas shopping (“You know me, Marge, I just love the hustle and bustle!”) is pretty telling. Homer is a lazy oaf who would love nothing more than to sit on the couch watching TV, but he’s now Captain Wacky, searching high and low for his new scheme/crazy adventure.
  • The kids watching the televised yule log in front of the real-life fireplace is a great quick gag, one I recall they copied verbatim in a recent episode, except they literally have Lisa explain the joke for the audience (“You know, we have an actual fireplace, and we’re watching a fire on TV! Isn’t that funny? Do you get it?”)
  • Homer falling from the roof while decorating is an easy compare and contrast with “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” The more climactic and painful fall clashes with the simplistic, almost gentle tumble from the very first episode. I do like that Homer comes back into the house to call everyone outside, completely nonplussed by his accident, but the kids laughing in good nature at Homer’s small fall in “Open Fire” is much more adorable than them laughing at him here.
  • I always liked this little animation of empty-bladder Bart leaving the bathroom (“How sweet it is!”)
  • The tree on fire looks fantastic. I just love the fidelity of the old cel-era animation fire effects, I don’t know why they can’t create that great glow effect as convincingly with digital tools.
  • “Cheer up. We’ll catch this guy.” “Uhhh, Chief?” “What? You can’t rule it out…”
  • Kent Brockman gets a handful of great lines throughout the episode (“Is your husband or lover here, ma’am?” “Absolutely devastated? …absolutely devastated. The words of a heartbroken mother.”) I also love him thanking the family at the end of his last broadcast, making it crystal clear he’s just doing his job and doesn’t actually give a shit.
  • A remorseful Bart on Christmas is definitely reminiscent of “Marge Be Not Proud,” but in that episode, the conflict was handled more relatably, about a kid who disappoints a parent and has to make good. A bit too teevee-y? Perhaps at times. But it doesn’t feel phony, has a satisfying emotional payoff, and is consistently funny throughout, never descending too deep into treacle. Here, for most of the middle chunk of the episode, Bart is racked with guilt over the ridiculous tree-destroying accident he pulled, so there’s nothing else to really grab onto. All you can do is count the minutes until the inevitable confession.
  • It’s weird that the Crazy Old Man is the owner of the TV shop who shoos away the two orphans (“Come back when you get some parents!”) He was a well established resident at the Retirement Castle at this point, was this just a weird production mistake that they used his character model by accident?
  • Simpsons Scam Springfield/Angry Mob Mulls Options is a great newspaper headline/subhead.
  • The Simpson family impromptu traveling to Los Angeles so Marge can be on Jeopardy for barely a minute of screen time doesn’t bode well for the ever shrinking reality this show has left. Luckily, Alex Trebek (RIP) is great in his small role. I love him rubbing his mustache after running the family out of the studio, and the fantastic ADR line from one of his goons (“They ain’t gettin’ the home version.”)
  • I feel kind of mixed about the townspeople robbing the Simpson home ending. I like that it’s a cruel “twist” that isn’t a cloying and sappy happy ending, like how basically all episodes end nowadays, but it still feels pretty silly. What is Apu going to do with Santa’s Little Helper and Snowball II? Or Comic Book Guy with pants full of silverware? The people of Springfield are prone to riot and loot if provoked, but here, it comes off as almost pointlessly vindictive, which I guess is part of the point, but it doesn’t really work satisfyingly for me.
  • Simpsons Archive retro review: “I know these characters, but not from OFF.  The characters seemed to be caricatures of themselves in this ep. Trite plot, lack of humor, Bart-must-be-the-center style all contributed to the grade. The writers have sold out, yet again. I haven’t seen an ep like this since season 1. It also seemed as if the episode started in about the last minute — i.e. the entire ep could have been condensed into act I. All in all, a big disappointment.”

11. All Singing, All Dancing

  • “Gump Roast” is handily the worst clip show, but this might be the most disposable episode of the entire series. If I want to hear any of the songs from the show, I’ll just listen to them off the CDs, or off YouTube nowadays. There’s no appeal to me having them all in one episode, and the framing device is pretty bad. Snake the hostage taker/murderer doesn’t feel appropriate, or funny, to sustain an entire episode. The only saving grace is the first few minutes, the movie night set-up stuff is all good (“Did you get ‘Waiting to Exhale’?” “They put us on the ‘Waiting to Exhale’ waiting list, but they said don’t hold your breath,”) and of course, “Paint Your Wagon” is a tremendous sequence, but after Homer ejects the tape into the wastebasket, the episode completely tanks. Really not much more to say about this one.
  • Simpsons Archive retro review:I have to register my disgust at the utter lack of humor in last night’s episode. As a general rule, I am not a big fan of the Broadway-style singing engaged in by the Simpsons on occasion. However, I tolerate it as a necessary part of watching the best show on television and occasionally have a laugh at a cleverly worded lyric. But whoever the writer(s) is/are that insist upon this inclusion of non-funny, non-necessary musical filler should be drawn and quartered. Does anyone really feel that the musical numbers are necessary to the show? Perhaps once in a while, but not every show, and certainly not a whole show dedicated entirely to singing. Does Fox/Groening, etc. get some kind of feedback from some mythical audience that requests this piffle? To quote  Lisa, ‘Do they really expect us to swallow this tripe?'”

12. Bart Carny

  • The opening with Marge trying to get the kids to do chores is actually pretty damn solid: Bart and Lisa’s “ding ding ding”s (and Homer running out for the ice cream man), their talk about chopping their hands off to avoid doing work, and Marge gloating in getting the upper hand when the carnival rolls into town, only to get undermining immediately by Homer. Marge gets the knife dug in even deeper at the carnival when Bart excitedly wants to go on the Yard Work Simulator (though she unnecessarily explains the joke, “When I ask you to do yard work…” when a simple frustrated murmur would have sufficed.)
  • The Tooth Chipper is great, but definitely makes me wince. Between this and Homer chewing the tire bolts in “New York,” this is not a good season for my weird visceral reaction to dental mishaps.
  • It’s not very clear why Homer deifies the carnies so much. I guess it would be okay if it were funny in any way, but it’s not. He’s slowly settling into being generally insufferable by default.
  • Of course the Rich Texan would own Hitler’s car. Also while driving, when he’s saying, “Out of my way! I’m Hitler!” Bart is kind of doing the Nazi salute?
  • Homer butts in and pleads to be a carny with Bart, and the Rich Texan lets him because why not. What about his job or Bart going to school?  Also, maybe I’m overthinking this, but Homer and Bart doing grunt work at the carnival will be enough to cover their debt in totaling an antique car? How long are they in Springfield? None of these questions deserved answers, I guess.
  • Agnes browbeating Skinner during the ring toss game to the point he switches to the knife prize is a dark joke I can get behind.
  • Wiggum trying to get a bribe off Homer feels wrong; maybe it’s just me, but I think Wiggum is generally stupider than Homer. Also, he carts the ring toss game away, but isn’t the entire carnival crooked? Why wouldn’t he go after the Rich Texan as the owner? These details wouldn’t matter if the show were funnier; instead, this moment is enhanced with dramatic music, so I end up thinking about how this stuff makes more sense more clearly.
  • I most certainly like how pissed Marge is at the start of act three as she grabs Homer by the collar and hauls him into the other room to chew him out for bringing two dirty carnies home. It’s a far cry from later seasons where she’s just a blank Stepford wife who puts up with all manner of crazy crap from her man child husband.
  • The sunken “sister ship” is another great dark joke (“Went down with eighty-eight souls just last week,”) but it’s partially ruined by dumbass Homer and Bart taunting the shark. Marge daydreaming about a glass-bottomed car is also a great bit (“I can’t help but wonder what we’re missing!”)
  • The Cooders squatting is pretty damn boring, and I don’t know how you’d make the last act work better, but Homer’s hula hoop trick is a pretty damn satisfying conclusion. It’s just clever enough that I believe Homer could have come up with it, and them laughing through the mail slot, with their laughter cut off when the flap closes is a great bit of karma.
  • I wish Jim Varney was in a much better episode, but he gives one hell of a solid line reading for “We were beaten by the best, boy.”
  • Simpsons Archive retro review: “Awful, awful first act, followed by very good, very funny second and third acts. What, was this episode written by John Swartzwelder or something? Bingo! While the laughs from later acts partially redeemed the ‘setup’ act, they didn’t entirely.”

13. The Joy of Sect

  • The pay-off of Homer, Bart et al coming to see the home team return just to boo and riot is pretty great, as they proceed to turn the entire plane over. A truly hilarious final touch that I don’t know if I really noticed before is the inflatable ramp that unfurls after the plane is upside-down, causing the poor suckers trying to go down it to immediately fall to the ground.
  • Homer repeatedly asking the Movementarians about the free weekend felt like a poorer imitation of his questioning of each letter in “VIP” from “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington.”
  • “Remember when those smooth-talking guys tried to sell me a timeshare vacation condo?” “You bought four of them! Thank God the check bounced.” “So I beat the system!”
  • I’m fascinated by cults, so this episode has kind of a soft spot for me. They do a solid job presenting the Movementarians as a functioning pastiche of different famous cults. I love how act one is how all of the traditional manipulation tactics used by many cults just don’t work on someone as thick as Homer, and the usage of the Batman theme to finally permeate his psyche is excellent.
  • “Church, cult, cult, church. So we get bored someplace else every Sunday. Does this really change our day to day lives?”
  • Mr. Burns the God is a completely isolated diversion from the main story, but it’s still memorable all the same, and worth it if for nothing else the quote, “Ahoy hoy, lowly mortals!” One joke I don’t quite get is when Smithers tells Burns he’ll handle creating the religion’s logo after he throws out several copyrighted options (Special K, Mickey Mouse ears), we see the final version is a giant B inside of what is clearly a Christmas tree. Is the joke supposed to be that Smithers also picked a pre-existing symbol? 
  • I like how Marge just gets more and more angry as act two goes on. She can put a brave face on anything, but she has her limits, and these are it (“Homer, you know I always try to put the best face on everything, but there’s no face on that damn bean!!”)
  • Lovejoy being a little bit too ready to burn down the church is a great scene (“I never thought I’d have to do this again…”)
  • Willie working with Marge, Ned and Lovejoy to reprogram the other Simpsons is a great usage of a side character, having them interact with other characters they normally wouldn’t in a whole new situation, and it turns out quite well (“I made some Rice Krispie squares for our hungry deprogram-orinoes!” “You ruined the atmosphere, you daft pansy!”)
  • It’s so silly, but I love the trick with the hover bikes, and even better that Ned’s weird paper comb thing to make the noise is also used by the Leader at the end.
  • The ending is pretty solid, if a little bit long, but I like the double fake out where even though a single drop of beer hits his tongue, it seems like Homer is still brainwashed, but then he goes to reveal what’s inside the forbidden barn, which is actually the foretold spacecraft. Of course we never think it’s real, but it still works really well. Also great that the beer thing is set up from the very beginning when the Movementarians tell him that alcohol isn’t permitted.
  • After having watched hundreds and hundreds of awful new episodes, I was wondering if I would be a little more forgiving to the Mike Scully era of the series, but halfway into season 9, that really isn’t the case. I certainly would take any season 9-12 episode over season 32, but the fatal problems that start creeping into the forefront here and get progressively worse aren’t any more palatable. Thinking about what episodes I would actually want to watch again so far, I think “City of New York,” “Cartridge Family,” “Bart Star” and “Joy of Sect” are all pretty solid, but the rest, I don’t know when I would care to re-watch them ever again.
  • Simpsons Archive retro review: “This episode can serve as sort of a litmus test for ‘Simpson’ fans. People who like the older shows will give a ‘C’ or lower, while the ‘New shows rule’ crowd will perhaps give an ‘A.’ I’m in-between, so I’ll award a ‘B-.’ The show’s best sequence, curiously, is also the most superfluous, but it’s generally funny when taken on its own merits.”

699. Do PizzaBots Dream of Electric Guitars?

Original airdate: March 14, 2021

The premise: Through flashback, we see 90s teenage Homer’s dreams of being DJ to a Showbiz Pizza-esque robot band fall apart. In the present, the Simpson family’s efforts to recover the old robots to lift Homer’s spirits are dashed when they fall into the hands of J.J. Abrams, looking to reboot the property into a film series. Homer now has a new life’s purpose: to troll the movie online in efforts to stop it from being made.

The reaction: Holy shit, this episode was all over the fucking map; by the midpoint I was just staring in confusion as to where the hell it was going and what the point of it all was. I mean, can you even understand that premise I wrote up there? I watched the damn episode and I barely understand it. Act one is almost all flashback, as we see teenage Homer, now living in the 1990s, working as DJ at a Showbiz Pizza-type restaurant with an animatronic band. When he gets the chance to perform his own remixes with the characters, it becomes a true dream come true for him, until the establishment is shut down. In present-day, Homer is devastated when this memory gets triggered, causing the other Simpsons to try and track down the four robots to cheer Homer up. This episode presents this idea that this memory of Homer’s is so foundational that it causes him to have this severe emotional breakdown, but it’s just so incredibly stupid, and feels so far removed from what we know about Homer that it’s impossible to have any kind of investment. I mean, Homer was in the Be Sharps, but being creative in any way is not really a big part of his character. You’d think being in a world famous music group in your 20s would be more important that dicking around with some pizza robots, but who knows where that shit lines up the timeline anymore, if at all. So the final robot is absconded by J.J. Abrams’ people, and after hearing Homer’s sob story, takes them all away to create a CG animated reboot. Now we’re into act three and I’m struggling to figure out just what the fuck is happening. Homer spends almost the next year becoming an obese slob obsessing over his Reddit board trashing Abrams’ upcoming movie, spurned on by Comic Book Guy, teaching him the ways of being an over-critical fan shitting on Hollywood reboot culture. So now it’s about Homer’s obsession about the creative integrity of the pizza robots? He himself was “rebooting” the characters as a teenager by making them 90s contemporary, having them sing “Whoomp! There It Is” in new hip-hop outfits, so how is this any different? It’s the sacred memory in his mind that’s most important to him, and Abrams’ new movie is an excuse for him to lash out to him for “ruining” it. But what the fuck does any of this matter? Why does he give a shit? In the end, Marge gets Abe to apologize for being a shitty dad, and Homer realizes that’s where his trauma came from all along. Oh fuck, whatever. Boy oh boy was this a huge turd. It’s for sure one of the worst of the season, though I don’t really hate it too much since it was just more baffling than anything. It was just a big confusing mess.

Three items of note:
– So I guess we have to talk about the floating timeline again. Some fans will complain about showing Homer as a teenager in the 90s as a contradiction, but it really isn’t. If Homer is 36 (or 38?) now in present day, then he was born in the 1980s, that’s just how it has to work. I don’t care about any of that as a concept (repeated references to Abe and Skinner still having served in WWII and Vietnam despite the increasingly illogical time difference is a different story.) My problem is what is the point of showing teen Homer in the 90s? The show already ran through the 90s, satirizing current day culture along the way. Perhaps looking back at the decade with a 2021 lens could make it different, but the first act is content enough to settle with namedropping Crystal Pepsi and Digital Underground and calling it a day. It’s the same problem with “That 90s Show” way back when, it was just an exercise to see how many 90s references they could make in a story where Homer invents grunge music for some reason. I wonder why The Simpsons wasn’t doing on-the-nose reference humor in its early years? I guess they were too busy actually writing stories. For those keeping score at home, “That 90s Show” was written by Matt Selman, and now over a decade later, this episode was executive produced by him, so I guess he didn’t really progress much. Also, the fucking pizza robot band not only feels like material that’s been played on so many other shows from years and years ago (Dexter’s Lab’s “Chubby Cheese” comes to mind), but on this very show too. The Wall E. Weasel set piece in the first act of “Radio Bart” has dozens of jokes, and the robot band’s birthday song has been etched into my brain for life. To contrast, the pizza band here sings “Rock Around the Clock” with “pizza” replacing every third word. Solid writing.
– Act two starts with a seemingly normal Homer leaving the breakfast table for work. Marge nearly breaks down into tears, knowing that he’s devastated inside. Then we see little memories of all the fun things Homer used to do that he’s not doing, and then Moe randomly appears at the Simpson house and gives more memories. “He’s missing his youthful spirit! That spark that makes him who he is!” Marge croaks. This has to be the most egregious example of “tell, not show” this show has done in a while. This whole episode is basically about Homer’s obsessively emotional attachment to these pizza robots, and here we just have Marge and Moe explain how Homer is feeling, rather than actually see it from Homer in any way. After contently leaving for work, we don’t see Homer again for six more minutes.
If you want to see a story about people who truly, deeply care about their cherished memories of watching pizza robots, check out the documentary about the Rockafire Explosion, the Showbiz Pizza robot band. It’s a truly fascinating look at these people who revel in the nostalgia of their youth, and the lengths they’ve gone to to hold onto those good feelings. It really feels like this episode was directly inspired by the documentary, except they did an absolute shit job “adapting” it. Do yourself a favor and give it a watch, it’s really engaging and has a lot of charm, even as someone who’s never stepped foot in a Showbiz Pizza or a Chuck E. Cheese.
– I feel like it’s been a while since we’ve had a mega celebrity voice themselves in an episode that is just a sickening, fawning love letter to how great they are. John Legend and Crissy Teigan from a few seasons ago comes close, but they were more or less a cameo, while J.J. Abrams is pivotal to the plot of the latter half of the episode. There’s some gentle ribbing with  the introduction of Abrams’ underlings, scouring Springfield for nostalgic kitsch to fuel Abrams’ creative vision, but their worshipful reverence of their boss don’t really feel like jokes to me (“Master of story!” “He’s the ultimate architect of cinematic universes!”)  He sets up shop in Springfield in a huge warehouse with a loving staff, instantaneously buys the pizza robots’ IP rights and gets to make his Agents of P.I.Z.Z.A. movie without a hitch, winning over Homer in the end. Abrams’ pursuit in making a soulless piece of colorful cinematic tripe designed to deceptively pull at nostalgic heartstrings, and yet the third act paints Homer as the villain, aligning him with CBG as an irritable Internet nerd never satisfied with any big budget Hollywood adaptation. It’s almost like the show is running fucking damage control for Abrams and his critics, it’s really pathetic. One of the worst “jokes” is where Abrams lists off the gag names of all the digital effects studios who toiled away on his movie (Dream Prison, Indentured Servi-Dudes, Mr. No-Health-Care’s Wonder Emporium, “and too many others to count… or pay.” A guy in the audience shouts, “Yeah!”) Yeah, it’s paying lip service to how VFX artists work horrible hours and get paid shit for it… but it’s coming out of the mouth of J.J. Abrams, big time Hollywood director/producer, who has serious industry pull to actually do something about this problem with the movies he produces, and instead, he just makes a joke about it. I speak as someone who used to work in VFX (and funnily enough, actually worked on one of Abrams’ movies) and has experienced firsthand the grueling hours and stressful work environment. I hold no grudge against Abrams, but it would be like if the producers of Sausage Party showed up in “Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie,” touring the Korean animation sweatshop instead of Kent Brockman. Like, ha ha, let’s laugh at these poor digital effects artists and how miserable their lives are because the major movie studios underbid for contracts the VFX houses need to stay in business, but those GODDAMN INTERNET TROLLS, they’re the real problem! Just terrible.