715. Mothers and Other Strangers

Original airdate: November 28, 2021

The premise: When Homer is triggered by traumatic memories of his mother on Mother’s Day, an impromptu therapy session causes him to recall a lost memory: a postcard he received as a teenager confirming his mother was alive, leading to a road trip with his father to Utah to track her down.

The reaction: This episode marks Glenn Close’s eleventh guest appearance as Mona Simpson, and while most of those have been one or two line cameos, a couple of them featured Mona in a significant role, both living and in flashback after her death. Of course, all of these episodes sit in the enormous shadow that is “Mother Simpson,” one of the most emotionally impacting episodes of the entire series, one that established who Mona was and why she was absent for most of Homer’s life. This episode attempts to stay true to this continuity, all while wedging a new story in the middle of it that kind of breaks apart the established history. Now, I try not to be a purist of Simpsons continuity, because even as big a fan as I am, it’s pretty stupid to get hung up on what is or isn’t “canon.” But it’s a little different when an episode is attempting to piggyback off such a landmark episode and rewrite its history; if you’re going to do that, you better have something really important to say, or some interesting or entertaining twist to it. And wouldn’t you know it, it doesn’t! Here, we find out that at sixteen, Homer received a postcard from his mother, telling him she’s in Utah. As he and Abe drive out to find her, they’re being tracked by the FBI, hoping it will lead them to Mona. First off, the one FBI agent comments, “Letting that postcard go through was the smartest thing we ever did.” So they’re able to track all sent mail in the country, and rather than intercept the postcard, go to its point of origin and investigate, they just trusted that this dumb fuck kid could find Mona for them? And pretty easily, as it turns out, as all they did was ask a waitress at a truck stop if they’d seen her and she led them right to her. And why would they be actively tracking her after all these years? The agents make a joke about it at the very end, but it just feels incredibly stupid. But never mind all that, this episode is now saying that Homer knew his mother was alive from sixteen to the “present” where he was reunited with her in “Mother Simpson.” He didn’t think she was dead, he knew that she was hiding out from the law all this time. Their Utah reunion gets botched, only being able to see each other from afar before the agents close in, resulting in Mona hopping into the VW van we saw at the end of “Mother Simpson.” If that’s not bad enough, Homer reveals another memory near the end: the night after Bart is born, Mona sneaks into the hospital dressed as a doctor to hold her grandchild, tell Homer she’s always with him, before leaving him once more. That feels even more traumatizing than just being gone from his life for twenty-five years. “When I heard about the baby, I just had to come and see him,” Mona tells him. How did she hear about it? Does the Springfield Shopper have birth announcements? And does she pay to have it delivered to her to God knows where? Has she kept special tabs on Homer for all these years? In the deleted scene from “Mother Simpson,” Mona told Homer she knew he went into outer space, a national news item she could have seen from afar and be filled with pride about. Here, I guess Mona has followed Homer’s life achievements his whole life and could just pop into his life at will, but chose not to. It’s just really fucking bad. Nothing has been added to Homer’s story whatsoever, just some lame reconciliation with Abe, as flashbacks continue to depict his younger self as nicer and nicer, where Homer sacrifices catching up to his mother for saving his now-loving and caring father. Again, I’m not a continuity stickler, but Homer growing up without a mother and his father being an uncaring asshole are pivotal backstory elements to who he is as a character, a source of a lot of his insecurities and character quirks. If you want to make an episode that negates those elements, you’re basically tearing apart his entire character. Al Jean himself wrote this one, who has written some pretty awful scripts over the recent years, but this has got to be his worst one yet. That such an incredible mishandling of a story from one of the most important episodes of the series comes from a man who’s been with the show from the very beginning is pretty stunning to me. Despite some fans calling for Al Jean to leave the show in favor of Matt Selman fully taking over as show runner, I’m pretty sure Jean is going to be with this show until the very end, ready to go down with this decrepit sinking ship that he helped to crash and decimate. I guess there’s some kind of honor in that, somewhere…

Four items of note:
– The episode barely started and it was befuddling me. While channel surfing, Bart stumbles upon “Muttflix,” a cable channel made for dogs. Then we see the screen and see that it’s a streaming service UI, which seems obvious given the sub-MAD Magazine-level riff off Netflix. So is it a channel or a streaming service? This may seem like nitpicking, but when what I’m hearing is immediately contradicted by what I’m seeing, it just feels like they just don’t give a shit. Then we get our triumphant return of She Biscuit, Santa’s Little Helper’s mother, last seen in the nauseatingly treacly season 31 finale “The Way of the Dog,” where she sits next to SLH and does nothing. In that episode, we saw She Biscuit living with the Simpsons, but now Bart says SLH “invited her over.” What? From where? I honestly couldn’t give a shit if she ever reappeared again, but they couldn’t even be bothered to write any kind of explanation of where she’s been. And why did she even need to be there anyway? The Muttflix sequence would have played exactly the same if it were just Santa’s Little Helper. Just dumb, lazy shit.
– “Oh my God! Dad’s reliving the great tragedy of his life!” “Let it out, Dad. Studies show losing a parent is the most traumatic thing that could happen to a child.” These are lines said by Lisa in immediate response to her father suffering an emotional breakdown. I literally said, “SHUT THE FUCK UP” at my computer screen. I remember Lisa had some similarly awful dialogue in the last Mona episode “Forgive and Regret,” clinically summarizing the situation rather than react like a child concerned for her parent, but this felt even worse than that.
– The wraparound story involves Homer telling this story to an online therapist over the app Nutz, where we get in plenty of jokes that I assume are taking shots at similar therapy apps like Better Help. They’re all pretty lame and boring: Homer attempting to use emojis during his session, alerts about in-app purchases and ads… Also, the family are just there while Homer is having his one-on-one session, something that could have been made into a good joke but was ignored. There was some attempts to scratch at the topic of quick-service psychotherapy in a satirical way, but it all felt very easy and surface-level, as always with this show in its attempts at satire.
– The ending features Homer dreaming a black-and-white sequence of a bunch of characters dancing in a circle, including multiple different variants of himself, bookended by some kids and his younger self playing instruments on a stage? I have absolutely no idea what that was a reference to, does anybody know? Regardless, it was confusing and I couldn’t make sense of it not knowing the reference, and it wasn’t funny, so chalk that up a a big failure in my book.

714. Portrait of a Lackey on Fire

Original airdate: November 21, 2021

The premise: Homer plays matchmaker with a despondent Smithers, pairing him up with fashion mogul and reality TV judge Michael DeGraff. It seems like the perfect relationship, until Smithers discovers Michael’s new factory in Springfield might be a more toxic presence than even the nuclear plant.

The reaction: Season 27’s “The Burns Cage” finally at long last pushed Smithers out of the closet, abandoning his go-nowhere crush on Mr. Burns to find happiness elsewhere (at least for twenty-two minutes), in an absolutely wasted opportunity of an episode. Nowhere in the show was any real examination of Smithers as a character, or of what he really wants out of life or out of a partner. The issue is if that if you’re going to treat Smithers’ sexuality seriously, you need to explore what about Mr. Burns he’s attracted to, and what similar traits he could be attracted to in other people. Instead, the episode temporarily pairs him with the flamboyant party boy Julio, because that’s the only other gay character on the show. This episode feels like a rectification of “Cage,” and while it didn’t dig as much into Smithers as I’d hoped, it definitely felt like an earnest attempt. Perhaps credit can go to co-writer Johnny LaZebnik, who penned this episode with his father, long-time Simpsons writer Rob LaZebnik. This felt like a genuine attempt to write Smithers as an actual character in a real relationship, clearly an intended mission by Johnny, who is gay himself (and funny too, if his Twitter is any indication. His snarky promotional posts about this episode actually made me laugh out loud). So we start with Smithers at a particularly low point, which Homer tries to rectify in setting him up with another rich capitalist, the affable Michael DeGraff, played by Victor Garber. A jet-setting man of high fashion and expensive tastes, he responds very well to Smithers’ simplistic wants and desires, happy to be with someone who isn’t trying to leech off of his fame and influence. Their relationship progresses fast, and eventually Michael sets down roots in Springfield, opening up a clothing factory in Springfield so he can be closer to his new love. In all the Michael-Smithers scenes, it felt like Michael had the bulk of the dialogue, which makes sense since he’s the guest star. I also think it’s appropriate that he’s the more talkative and dominant of the relationship, since we have over thirty years of evidence that Smithers is most definitely a sub. However, like I said before, I do wish we heard more from Smithers in this episode and why he really connected with Michael. It isn’t until the ending when a lot of stuff gets rushed by that really could have been explored. When Smithers discovers that Michael’s factory is horribly damaging the environment, he confronts him about it, but Michael brushes him off with some sound logic (“I can’t believe I fell in love with a monster!” “Really? Seems to me you have a pretty consistent type.”) Yeah, Michael is his new Mr. Burns, but that reveal once again reopens the burning question about Smithers’ morality. He’s been in love with Mr. Burns for decades now, and while it seems he doesn’t approve of all of Burns’ evil inclinations, he definitely was more than willing to actively look the other way regarding all of the horrible shit he’s done. So what does that say about Smithers? Does he realize that himself? Does he just embrace that he’s willing to turn a blind eye to evil for his own happiness? Or does he rebuke it and decide to turn his life around? Well, he was about to go with option A, in another moment I wish had more time to breathe (he gives a toast, “To seeing the best in each other, and ignoring everything else!”) But then Michael is mean to the puppy that he adopted from Burns, and that’s the last straw for Smithers, and he ends the relationship. So, yeah, I was hoping for more, but this episode actually was fairly solid throughout. It felt like one or two baby steps made from “Road to Cincinnati,” a similarly admirable, if still underwhelming attempt to craft a story solely on our supporting cast. But while that episode culminated in a painfully cliche and completely unearned schmaltzy conclusion, this one wraps things up too quickly in a semi-predictable way… but it all still felt like a complete story that progressed nicely, so that is a definite step up to me. I even laughed out loud to myself at one point, which I generally don’t do with anything I watch alone, so that by itself make this episode stand out. This is easily the best executed episode of the season. Honestly, the first two acts were the best I’ve seen from this show in a while. I’ve always harped about wanting to see more episodes featuring secondary characters, and I’m hoping this is a sign of better things to come.

Three items of note:
– Really fun guest couch gag of the family being created from potato stamps. The credits read two Swedish names as the creators, which I looked up to find one of them on YouTube. Apparently they created a video with millions of hits that recreated Homer’s binge-eating through New Orleans from season 29’s “Lisa Gets the Blues,” which presumably got them on the Simpsons staff’s radar, and eventually got them to do this. There have only been two couch gags in the past eight episodes this season, the other being that pretty boring Crossing Swords cross-promotion, but can all future couch gags just be made by artistic fans? It’s less work for the staff to do, and all the fan-made segments so far have been so incredibly creative and original, many times more stand-out than the episode they’re attached to.
– I was kind of confused by the bit where Burns can’t fathom that Smithers is gay, but I was misremembering the events of “The Burns Cage.” Smithers almost confessed his love to Burns at the beginning, and then by the end, they did some bullshit talking around it where Burns gives him a good performance review and they’re buddies again. A moment where Burns actually gives Smithers some tough but honest advice about his life would have been refreshing, but Burns is in full-on senile mode this episode, being stymied by a child’s puzzle for most of the runtime. Instead, he full-on encourages Smithers’ relationship, acknowledging Michael is an even more ruthless capitalist than he. It definitely works within his character, but it didn’t quite hit its mark for me. Also, I know I pledged to stop commenting on the voice actors, but this is the most dialogue Mr. Burns has had in a while, and there were big stretches of it where he sounded incredibly weak. He had at least two starring episodes last season, and I don’t remember him sounding like this. Weirdly, Smithers, also voiced by Harry Shearer, seemed fine to me. At age 77, Shearer is the oldest in the main cast, with Julie Kavner at 71 as second oldest. I really don’t mean to sound unfairly critical, but even knowing this, it still creates a bit of dissonance as a viewer when I’m watching an un-aging cartoon character have a noticeably older and hoarser voice, versus a live action series where your brain can more easily accept an older performance out of a visibly older actor.
– It’s been a long time since I could list off multiple things in an episode I thought were amusing: Homer training the hound puppies (having got a puppy last fall, I definitely related to Smithers’ line about even sharper baby teeth), the reveal of Disco Stu’s bi-curiosity (“Disco Stu is hetero-flexible!”), and even Michael got in a few good lines, including the one bit I actually laughed at. At a get together in the Simpson backyard, everyone is pleading with Michael to critique their wardrobe like he does on his TV show “America’s Got Fabric.” Lenny insistently asks him if he likes his top. Noticing Carl standing behind him, Michael responds, “Yes, he seems very nice.” I was definitely caught off-guard by this kind of gag, feeling like a more authentic flavor of the Lenny-and-Carl-are-gay joke, perhaps assisted by actually being written by a gay man. Johnny’s live-tweeting of the episode was also pretty fun to read. He seems like a real funny kid. I’m certainly interested in whatever his next script is after this.

713. A Serious Flanders (Part Two)

Original airdate: November 14, 2021

The premise: Ned must grapple with having to sin in order to save Homer’s life from the bad guy, as things barrel onto their climactic conclusion.

The reaction: Of all the format-bending episodes this show has experimented with in recent years, this certainly feels like their most ambitious, and the one I have the most amount of respect for. In this second half, we get an extended flashback sequence, and a third act taking place after a three-year time jump, both segments expanding the world of their time periods and the characters within it, all within a short period of time. More thought went into these episodes than most of the typical Simpsons fare, I can at least lend it that. Whether it’s entertaining or not is more subjective, of course. This second half feels like it leans even stronger on peak TV tropes, as the aforementioned first and third act at times feel like attempts to write in that style and not differentiate much from it. Like I talked about in act one, this feels like an earnest attempt to try a different style of TV writing, but what’s missing to me is any kind of Simpsons stamp on it, or an attempt to buck these conventions in a way that’s unique to the Simpsons world. The only emotional carry-over from last week was Ned’s wrestling with his own sense of pride, not wanting to accept credit for his donation to the orphanage. He idolized his lawman grandfather as a virtuous man, but the flashback in act one reveals that he was as crooked as they come, shooting a man in cold blood in order to take off with the ill-gotten sack of money, only to get killed himself by the Bad Guy. At the very end, Ned tearfully admits to Homer that deep down he wanted to take credit and he feels shame for it, and when the Bad Guy reveals to him his beloved grandfather was a murdering sinner, Ned flips out and fights back. As much of this two-parter seems to be about Ned’s crisis of faith on whether he should sin to do good, it never really hits home for me as anything really interesting character-wise. Probably because there’s so much other shit going on in this story that feels like flashy padding. The two assassins have an all-out brawl as the house burns down around a captured Homer. The first act flashback, which really could have been done in half the time if you shaved off all the needless drama. This two-parter was split up into six self-titled “chapters,” and it felt like each chapter was treated as if it would be a full-length 42-minute episode of the “A Serious Flanders” mini-series, but in the end, I just felt the story being told wasn’t all that compelling. Or funny, as was my complaint last week. At least this episode acknowledges that, with the “Serious Flanders” streaming page opener listing it as containing “Brief Comedy.” By the time we got to the final act, I found myself thinking back to my “What even is The Simpsons now?” question. I’m all for experimenting and trying new things, but I feel like a fundamental bedrock of the series is the subversion and re-contextualization of media stories and tropes. “A Serious Flanders” is a card-carrying riff on “peak TV,” but there’s nothing in it that I would say is a true parody. Even the lame on-the-nose dialogue ripping on tropes from part one is absent in this one, save one gag at the very end when the unseen streamer fast-forwards through the Bad Guy’s super long monologue before he goes to kill Ned. Unlike the godawful “Warrin’ Priests,” I have some degree of admiration for “A Serious Flanders,” but I can’t in my heart of hearts say I enjoyed it. But I was intrigued by it, and that’s more I can say for the bulk of the series these days.

Three items of note:
– I honestly kind of liked the Szylak brothers in the act one flashback. It felt like a believable expansion of Springfield lore that Moe’s family would be small town reprobates like him. I guess they were added so there would be at least something recognizably Simpsons going on in that flashback, but it worked well enough. Also I think the barber was a young Crazy Old Man. Or Old Jewish Man, as they’ve re-dubbed him.
– There’s moments in this part that definitely stuck out to be as direct lifts from other series. The motel where the shootout occurs in act one is based on the motel featured from season three of Fargo. The motel sign reads “Free Peak TV in Every Room,” which doesn’t make much sense given it’s set in the 1970s. Ned’s abandoned and desecrated house and his off-the-grid cabin are clearly based on the ending episodes of Breaking Bad. And the ending showdown on the ice was reminiscent to the ending of the first season of Fargo. Again, though, these are all references, but there’s no real jokes associated with them. There’s also the moment where Ned and Homer drive past each other and we get shots of the two turning their heads to acknowledge each other in the cars, which I’m sure is a direct reference to something, but I don’t remember what. Also, Homer’s various disguises to throw off his trail on his way to Ned’s cabins I feel like must be references. Him in the biker getup at the diner might be Sons of Anarchy? I dunno. Again, par for the course with this series, it’s not actually funny, but it’s like a homework assignment to the viewer to find the source of all the references.
– The flash forward seeing a 13-year-old Bart and 11-year-old Lisa for one scene almost made me want to see more of them, but this series has had a pretty shit track record recently with future episodes. Honestly though, I think an episode about Bart and Lisa in high school has potential in the right hands, but I’m not gonna be holding my breath about that.

712. A Serious Flanders (Part One)

Original airdate: November 7, 2021

The premise: In a parody of prestige crime thrillers, Ned Flanders finds an incredible amount of money and donates it to the local orphanage, which ultimately puts him in the sights of a ruthless debt collector who will do anything to reclaim his cash.

The reaction: It’s difficult to judge a two-part episode on just its first half, but this episode is definitely a much different animal than “Warrin’ Priests.” Right from the start, opening with a streaming service menu selecting “A Serious Flanders,” to the grisly cold opening depicting the Rich Texan’s death (and later graphic dismemberment), this show is a genre parody of modern day serialized thrillers, most specifically the Fargo TV series, as made clearest in the opening title parody of the “This is a true story” bit. The attempt at riffing on this source material is admirable as a change of pace, I suppose, but I felt like the attempts at parody were similar to past examples where they’re mostly just playing tropes of the source material straight with characters commenting on it. Cutting from the Rich Texan’s bloody post-mortem to the main bad guy breaking apart his pomegranate (“Its juices remind me of the bloody profession I’ve chosen. No, I agree, it’s not subtle.”) The assassins commenting on the eclectic soundtrack underscoring a dramatic moment (“How come every song you play has to be so kooky and obscure?”) All of these bits feature the writers holding giant arrows to the common trappings of these types of shows, but they don’t do much to actually play with those ideas or subvert them or make them overly comical in any way. The premise of the episode itself is played just as straight. Ned Flanders donates to the orphanage, but does it in his grandfather’s name, which is also his own (Ned Flanders the First), as we see he clearly has a big problem with pride or accepting any kind of accolade that might elevate himself. This mostly likely will culminate in something in part two, but as for now, it’s really all there is to hold onto that could be somewhat interesting. The bad guy and company are legitimate threats, killing multiple characters in a horrific, almost beyond-Treehouse of Horror-level violence, but that threat doesn’t really amount to much when not only do you know no harm will come upon our main characters, but this episode clearly isn’t canonical to begin with. They clearly worked very hard emulating the dramatic tone of these types of shows, but ultimately I don’t care about any of that if there isn’t an interesting story to go along with it. Also, jokes, which the episode also kind of put by the wayside for the most part. This certainly isn’t the disaster that “Warrin’ Priests”s first part was for many reasons, but I’d still chalk this one up as an ambitious fumble. However, we’ll see how next week’s part two might change my perspective.

Three items of note:
– Also in this episode is Ned pursuing a romance with Barb, the director of the orphanage, voiced by Cristin Milioti, who played Betsy Solverson in the second season of Fargo, with the character clearly modeled on Molly Solverson, that character’s daughter, from the first season. This semi-plotline ends with the twist that Barb is married to Sideshow Mel, who are in an open relationship, which turns real weird real fast. Again, I don’t know if anything will come of this in part two, but I kind of doubt it. I think it was just supposed to be a gag ending representing this good thing for Ned blowing up because of his guilt over the other events of the episode, but it just felt weird seeing Mel walk out with that Xbox controller totally cool with another guy about to bang his wife in front of him. Also, we’d seen Mel’s wife, also named Barb, in a few episodes in the past, and she looks nothing like who we see here. I don’t really care about the continuity of it, but it’s a strange coincidence they gave Mel an all-new wife and gave her the same name. Or maybe they actually did look up and see her name was Barb, but wanted to redesign the character to resemble the kindly Midwestern Molly character, and just said fuck it.
– This episode actually pulled off a pretty clever plot turn: the assassins are given Ned Flanders’ address, but accidentally lose it. They know it’s 74-something Evergreen Terrace, and immediately train their eyes on the Simpson yard, which is littered with items with “Property of Ned Flanders” labels on them. Even on Homer’s person later, they find credit cards and IDs on him, all with Ned’s name. Wow, taking a long-running joke and utilizing it in a new setting with an entirely different tone, in that Homer’s rampant “borrowing” could have resulted in his own death… I have to give the writers credit for that, I actually enjoyed that bit. I wish the rest of the episode was able to blend Simpsons staples with a dramatic twist like that.
– The episode ends with the bad guy taking out Fat Tony and the rest of the mafia, as well as Disco Stu, in an absolute bloodbath. I was unsure of this episode being non-canon based on the Rich Texan’s death early on, but this ending certainly cinched it. Especially when Mr. Burns randomly walked in with a “Free Donut on your Birthday” sign and got his head blown up. Now, I really don’t know why Burns would be at a Lard Lad Donuts in the first place (“Dough-nuts? I told you I don’t like ethnic foods!”), or why he would care about getting something for free… I guess both of those could just be the joke? It just felt bizarre, even more so that his head just bursts open like it was made in pottery class with no blood, which stood out even more considering we just saw the bad guy use Disco Stu as a human shield, getting riddled with bloody bullet holes. What a hilariously violent ending! I guess the bad guy turning Fat Tony’s head into a donut (off-screen) is meant to be funny, but it all just came off as very uncomfortable. Like it was just straight-up violence, not exaggerated Treehouse of Horror-style violence. Again, it’s trying to replicate the sensationalized violent scenes from these types of shows, but it ultimately comes off as jarring when it’s done on the goddamn Simpsons with no winking twist to soften it. Snake appearing to rob the place afterwards and being horrified at what he sees I guess is an attempt to do that, but it felt like too little, too late.