707. The Star of the Backstage

Original airdate: September 26, 2021

The premise: Marge yearns to relive her high school glory days as stage manager by putting on an encore presentation of their showstopper, “Y2K: The Millennium Bug,” but quickly finds herself ousted from the close-knit reunited cast, headlined by returning student and Broadway star Sasha Reed.

The reaction: There have been several musical episodes of the series before, but this one was promoted as the show’s first “full” musical, which is kind of accurate, as at least half of the episode’s runtime is comprised of songs. The writer, recent addition to the staff Elisabeth Kiernan Averick, previously wrote for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and the music was co-written by the composer of that series. Despite that impressive pedigree, the songs here are largely joke-free, which is really bizarre given how absurdist some of the numbers from Crazy Ex could get. The story is very rudimentary, so I guess that doesn’t help spice things up: Marge has shining memories from being stage manager and is thrilled to revisit the role, but is quickly upstaged by the returning star of the show, Sasha Reed, where she is ostracized from the rest of the cast. Marge then exposes that Sasha lied about her Broadway career, making everyone else turn on Marge even more, and then they all make amends and do the play and everyone loves it and everyone’s happy. As common with episodes these days (and especially Matt Selman-run shows like this one), there’s no ironic twist or subversive take to a cliche, simplistic story such as this; it’s just played completely straight, and as such, is very boring. Marge’s first song introduces us to her singing voice for this episode, Kristen Bell, and our next song is performed by guest star Sara Chase, so for the first act, it didn’t even feel like I was watching The Simpsons. Normally I give the show a little credit with experimental episodes like these if I could appreciate the impulse of what they were going for, but I don’t know about this one. It’s their honest tribute to Broadway with songs that feel like they could be in actual musicals… except they’re really not that entertaining or creative or funny. Again, it’s not the show actually doing anything interesting with the genre, it’s just a musical episode that looks and sounds like a musical, with the characters doing perfect choreography and singing their little hearts out. I just don’t see why I should care.

Three items of note:
– So yes, Marge’s singing voice is Kristen Bell, for obvious reasons. Last season, I feel like I talked about Julie Kavner’s weakened voice a bit too many times, and I resolved not to harp on it at all going forward, just because it was getting redundant and I didn’t want to come off as mean-spirited. The in-universe explanation is that Bell is Marge’s inner singing voice, which she cheekily compares to that of “a Disney princess,” which is fair enough. In the instances before she switches from Kavner to Bell, they depict a weird effect where there’s a magical colored mark on her throat. I get they were trying to make this cheat feel as “authentic” as they could, but it seemed a little unnecessary. Like, it’s a musical episode, I can go along with the cheat. But, like I said earlier, with Bell and Sara Chase a bulk of the first half, it felt so unlike this show. The “best” song comes from Homer in the last act trying to talk some sense into his wife. It’s not particularly funny, but the concept of a song about a husband trying to talk delicately to their stewing wife is kind of cute, and it was a little fun actually hearing a Simpsons cast member do a whole song for once.
– Floating timeline bullshit: Marge having done a Y2K musical in high school feels incredibly strange, but it is accurate. Given she has been bumped in age to 38, if she graduated at age 18, that would make her part of the class of 2001. I’m not a fan of the writers’ gradual increasing of Homer and Marge’s ages over the Mike Scully era, but the timeline does actually track. I feel when they do flashbacks now, they just shouldn’t mention anything era-specific, or at least not put a big highlight on it. I mean, the show already did an entire Treehouse of Horror segment about Y2K. I get that the idea of a Y2K musical itself is meant to be the joke and that’s it, but it just seems silly to me.
– There’s not a whole lot specifically to talk about in this one, given how the bulk of it is the songs. The Y2K cast consists of Barney, Dr. Hibbert, Smithers, Helen Lovejoy, Kirk Van Houten, and Lenny (who has to drop out after getting injured), characters who, to me, feel like are a wide range of ages, but, as we’ve seen many times over, conveniently are the same age when we see flashbacks to them as teens or as kids. Since saying maybe like two or three lines last season, we also get a good amount of dialogue out of Kevin Michael Richardson as Dr. Hibbert, and like most of the other recastings, it’s just going to have to take getting used to over time. He’s trying his best to match the cadence, and Richardson is an incredibly accomplished voice actor, but his Hibbert is definitely shaky at times. Richardson’s voice I think is just too distinctive in the world of voice acting, he just ends up sounding like a bunch of other similar characters he’s done in my head by default.