708. Bart’s in Jail!

Original airdate: October 3, 2021

The premise: Abe falls for a phone scam, wiring $10,000 to supposedly get Bart out of jail, money that he originally was saving as the Simpsons’ inheritance. Homer is outraged at his father’s gullibility, but when he falls for a scam himself, the family decide to track down the swindler and get their money back.

The reaction: As this episode entered its third act, it began to remind me a lot of the morality play episodes of the show’s early years, where the family deals with right and wrong and the karmic consequences within. I’m not looking to do any comparing and contrasting, but the way this episode builds to its finale feels so much more heavy-handed and ultimately schmaltzy than I care for. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. The premise and character dynamics of this episode aren’t really that bad to start: Abe is swindled by a phone scammer who pretends to be a random grandchild on the phone calling from jail. Learning he’s been hoodwinked, he feels ashamed, while Homer, discovering his newly lost inheritance he never knew existed, can’t berate his father enough for it. He cockily claims that he’s too sharp to be scammed, and we know it’s only a matter of time before he easily falls for one himself, in the form of a MLM scheme involving fancy cut-ware. This all feels logical and within character, and it might have all worked if the storytelling were tighter and they peppered some more jokes in. When the family ventures to find the scammer and confront them, Marge affirms that this is a matter of good winning over evil, and how the good apples outweigh the bad. Upon discovering a sea of soulless telemarketers working under an unknown entity who all leave the office with zero consequence, Marge breaks, giving into the inevitable sin of existence, going along with the rest of the family’s absconding with the scammers’ swindled gift cards. This is all pretty ham fisted enough, before we get a food-induced mass hallucination of Loki, God of mischief (thankfully not appearing like the Marvel character), who flat-out says his “prize” is obtaining “an honest woman’s belief in the good of mankind.” Marge’s faith is seemingly shattered, but upon seeing a supposedly honest woman at a gas station asking strangers for a $20 and being ignored, she has an important choice to make (“Is this it? From now on, I live in a world where nobody trusts anybody? …no, not me!”) She lends the woman money, who pledges to mail her the cash back, and two weeks later, sure enough, Marge gets an envelope with a $20 and a note, “THANK YOU FOR THE TRUST.” I honestly thought this pathetic pablum would just be the ending, but in our final moments, it’s revealed that Abe sent the letter (“I’m out another twenty bucks, but I gave them something to believe in.”) This is overly saccharine enough, but I feel like it could have landed better if there was any sort of interplay between Abe and Marge, or him reacting to her repeated attempts to restore her faith in humanity. Marge stood up for Abe against Homer’s anger toward him in her trying to get him help, but there was no connection between the two beyond that. It just comes off as another aggressively sentimental ending that feels very unearned, and worst yet, with no jokes. I don’t expect these emotional moments to be undercut with a joke, or sabotaged in some humorous way, but there’s a way to balance the honest sentiment with humor in the way that great comedies should, as this show was once the champion of. But here, it’s just played straight and we’re expected to be touched, I guess? This is definitely a more successful outing than the premiere, but the final act is a perfect representation of how this show settles for easy sentimentality over real substance.

Three items of note:
– This episode was written by Nick Dahan, who was a producer’s assistant for about a decade before getting a chance to write a script of his own. There actually were a couple of jokes that landed in the first two acts, which I was surprised to see (Homer pontificating about his money dilemma in bed, causing “whip-cash,” the different people in the scammers support group, Homer’s overconfidence in his ability to not be scammed). Looking ahead, this season’s actually got a bunch of first time writers coming up, but then again, there were a bunch of those last season too, and as I continue to repeat, the credited writer doesn’t seem to matter much as all these episodes end up coming out more or less the same flavor of bland slop. Also, I think Matt Selman is now the joint-show runner with Al Jean for either most or all of this next season, so I’m prepared for more treacly bullshit endings like this one going forward.
– The family’s weird shared fever dream ends with Loki announcing his leave to add more blackout days for Disneyland annual pass holders, before morphing into Mickey Mouse and bolting out the door. Some people worried that after the Fox acquisition that Disney would “ruin” the show and exert more creative control, but it seems like with jokes like this and the ending of “Bart the Bad Guy” last season where we saw a bomb planted under Homer and Marge’s bed care of Disney/Marvel, it seems like the writers are still doing their “bite the hand that feeds” jokes. But it all definitely feels much more fang-less, given the Disney+ Simpsons shorts that are just full-on lovefests for Disney’s most beloved IPs: Star Wars, Marvel, and a newly announced third short to be released on “Disney+ Day” this November. I can’t wait to see what beloved Disney property they “parody” next!
– A one-off gag with Loki involves him showing off his many other forms, which includes Jesus Christ, as well as Bill Cipher, the maniacal triangle demon from Gravity Falls, with a three word bite by Alex Hirsch, show creator and voice of Bill (“Buy crypto, suckers!”) It’s a rather odd guest appearance, although since I assume most Simpsons diehards nowadays skew on the younger side and are overall animation fans in general, I can see how a lot of fans would appreciate this cameo. I love Gravity Falls, and knowing how big a Simpsons fan Alex Hirsch is and how big an influence the show was on his work, I’m sure he was absolutely thrilled to be on the show. It’s kind of funny how Bill looks just like his Gravity Falls self, sadly lacking a mouth to slap a Simpsons style overbite on. I guess it’s not too different than the King of the Hill cast’s appearance in “Bart Star” where they’re just sitting there in their flesh-colored, Mike Judge-drawn glory. It’s kind of weird, but whatever.

10 thoughts on “708. Bart’s in Jail!

  1. When I first read the title for this episode some months back, I thought it would be an episode about Bart doing something (say, a prank gone too far) that lands him in juvy.

    That would have made for a much more interesting episode than the milquetoast affair about scammers we got.

    Also, Bill Cipher and Mickey Mouse because Disney owns us now. And Loki because we can still be relevant, right?

      1. Oh yeah, right. The Wandering Juvie. The early Jean era is so forgettable that a lot of the episodes from that time escape my memory.

  2. I 100% bet they put Bill Cypher on for fanservice.

    And I feel like they’re gonna try something like a Pixar movie to “parody”, or maybe something like The Lion King.

  3. DAY 2

    Feeling kinda confused right now

    Okay, so the episode sucked no doubt, but at least it’s pretty much better than everything from Season 32. I’m surprised there was no glorious return of the “One good line/moment” section.” But whatever, the episode’s called “Bart’s in Jail!” yet it’s centered on Abe. Why not call it “Abe’s in Jail!” or “Abe got scammed!” or somethin’? Eh, who cares. I do feel like phone scams are a good topic for satire, and I guess the aforementioned Homer bit was kinda effective in that, but man did they pull it off so well in the days of old. Ah, the Coach’s Hotline. Good times. What else should I right about? The over-reliance on schmaltz and emotion? I’m amazed at how we’ve went from “Marge Be Not Proud,” to “Milhouse Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” to “Love is Many a Splintered Thing,” to “Way of the Dog,” to this. Actually, “Way of the Dog” was much much much worse than this but man that gas station lady put the homeless musician lady from Season 27 to shame. Ah, whatever. Still holding to my optimism that Season 33 will be a slight uptick in quality, like maybe another Season 30 or something with these newer writers. I’m sure this Dahan fella really did try to write an actual inventive satire about phone scams but dark money must’ve re-written his piece to become generic “heartwarming” teevee mush that wouldn’t be out of place in 1987. I’m bored now, I think I’m gonna prank call the local bar.

    …Do people still do that these days? Is it even legal?

    1. Mike isn’t using the good line/moment section anymore regardless of whether an episode has one or not (in this case it does).

  4. Not only are Zombie Simpsons appeasing New Dad with all of this gladhanded Disney shtick, but they’re still appeasing Old Dad by doing Fox synergy, since they played “Here Comes the Money” at one point. For those who don’t know, or don’t give a shit, that’s WWE music belonging to Shane McMahon and not something you can just plop out from the public domain. So it helps when you see a show beholden to two masters and trying to keep both happy.

    You’d assume with a title like that, the episode would revolve around a retread of “The Wandering Juvie”, but nope… it’s Grampa giving his credit card numbers to see if he won a prize only its for drama. Also, why is Homer so obsessed over $10,000 dollars, when we’ve established time and time again, money on the show comes and goes like tap water with this family thanks to Homer’s earnings and particularly his reckless spending habits. It’s not that I don’t mind finances being a plot point in shows, but The Simpsons long ago wrecked that as a potential avenue by using money as a means to advance the plot as opposed to being the plot, if that makes any sense. I guess the greater point of the episode is how Homer derides his father for being stupid, only to be a sucker himself, yet the lesson learned by Homer is to take advantage of others. Oh, but this is no longer a Homer episode; this is a MARGE episode.

    And, this sort of goes back to the problem with episodes like “Burger Kings”, where suddenly characters who weren’t responsible or within the vicinity of the plot’s incident are suddenly the primary focus and are the ones who need to matter while the characters you would hope learn something due to being directly involved don’t actually bother. I’m sure that, to the Harvard humanoid mass, all this makes sense, but us jaded folk find this obnoxious.

  5. I found this episode to be a definite improvement over the premiere even if it was only decent at best (which is also the highest praise I’ve given anything with Selman’s name attached to it since Bart the Bad Guy). For the most part the story was fine even if it was at the expense of very few actual jokes and there wasn’t the usual problem I have with Selman’s episodes where we’re forced to feel bad for a character who doesn’t deserve any and vice-versa. You’re not supposed to feel bad for Homer when he realizes he’s been scammed after spending the last 12 minutes berating Abe for it and the episode stays very neutral regarding the people working at the call center.

    This next part is copied directly from my post for the episode on Nohomers:

    That said, the episode is still guilty of the two other big problems in Selman’s episodes that once pointed out are hard to ignore which is the pandering to a specific crowd and the sitcomy-ness of the episode without any of the classic era subversion (or at least one that works). While I did like Bill’s cameo, it was still pointless and that whole shared hallucination scene felt like they did it only because they could since Disney bought Fox. And I suspect the only reason why they didn’t use Tom Hiddleston as Loki is because they didn’t want this fact to be too obvious despite already being not very subtle. But hey, for once Alan Cumming got to play Loki in something that wasn’t a total dumpster fire even if his cameo was equally as pointless as Bill’s.

    And on the sitcom side of things, as everyone’s already said this was basically an animated PSA or very special episode about the dangers of getting scammed, and at the expense of jokes as the only other one I laughed at that I didn’t already mention was the whole visual bit of money Abe being on fire than turning to ashes. And the ending is really weird as it actually tries to be subversive and yet still comes across at sitcomy. Having Marge just outright fall for the woman and realizing she was scammed would’ve been more predictable, but so was the ending we got which reeked of the Selman sitcomy forced happy resolve that is honestly more of an Esoteric Happy Ending (just like last week’s). It would’ve been a lose-lose no matter which ending they picked, but for whatever reason they decided to go with the one that’s more problematic.

  6. When Selman’s name was first attached to episodes like Brick Like Me and Halloween of Horror I got kind of excited for the future of the Simpsons. This showrunner seemed to understand the characters better than Jean did 20 years ago. However, as he’s showrunned more episodes it’s becoming increasingly clear the problems he carries. First, the emotional endings. I know you’ve talked about this a little bit on the blog, and even on this very post. Some episodes like the Road to Cincinnati deserved those sweet endings as that’s what those very movies they were parodying had. However, some episodes like tonight’s don’t need one of those endings and can end on a sour note. When Selman tries to throw in one of those endings, it rushes the ending and makes it feel unnatural. Another problem which he believes strongly in is the floating timeline the Simpsons has. He keeps dragging his foot with this problem, and he needs to understand that not everyone is going to have the same viewpoint as him, yet he keeps shoving it in whether it be last season’s Do Pizzabots Dream of Electric Guitars? or this season’s premiere Star of Backstage. There are tons of other negatives I could bring up, but I still prefer Selman over Jean. It’s been seen clear that Jean clearly is sick of making episodes. Yokel Hero, Burger Kings, and Manger Things were some of the blandest episodes I’ve ever seen. Even Lisa Has GaGa more heart put into it. (Hot take I know lol)

    1. I think whatever freshness a Matt Selman episode used to have is gone now that he’s fully settled into the job. In the beginning, his episodes felt different because you had been getting the same style and same perspective for a decade at that point. When The Simpsons was at its best, it was constantly giving you new creative visions from new showrunners. Even when it declined, it was still giving you something different from before (the Mike Scully era). And that same rule applied when you started getting episodes from Selman. It’s no surprise that some of the best episodes in the last decade had his name in the credits. Because he shook things up.

      The problem is, his style is worn out just like Al Jean’s style. He’s been co-showrunner for the same amount of time that Jean was when episodes like “The Food Wife” and “The Book Job” came out. You can’t get anything new or fresh because everything from Selman’s perspective has been done. I think Selman is someone who understands on a fundamental level what The Simpsons is supposed to be, and what made it a good show back in the day, but it’s not possible for him to bring back the old show. Everything he does will just feel like an imitation.

      With that being said, I actually liked this episode. It was genuinely funny at times and at least I wasn’t bored out of my mind watching it. The overly sentimental endings that Selman does don’t bother me. Probably because I don’t notice them much, and I haven’t seen any examples of the show balancing humor and emotion lately. Even back in the day, how many of those ideal endings did you even get?

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