722. Pretty Whittle Liar

Original airdate: March 27, 2022

The premise: Cletus is shocked to find that Brandine is actually smart and has been hiding it from him, causing them to break up. Meanwhile, Lisa stumbles upon an underground overachievers club at school, who do their best to hide their intellect to avoid getting bullied.

The reaction: Watching last season’s “Yokel Hero,” also featuring Cletus and Brandine, made me think that perhaps not every secondary character needs to be fleshed out beyond their two dimensions (or in some cases, one). The slack-jawed hillbilly cousins (or mother/son, or whatever variation of relation they’re joking about this week) have always existed, and worked, as quick and dirty jokes, but for some reason, in recent memory, we’ve seen a couple of Cletus B-plots pop up featuring him for more than one or two lines at a time, followed by a complete plot line in “Yokel Hero,” and now this episode a year later featuring his lovely wife Brandine. After speaking eloquently about A Farewell to Arms at Marge’s book club, word spreads fast that Brandine actually has a brain in her head, working its way to Cletus himself. Confronting her, she admits that she started reading a few years ago, and that she likes actually knowing things. She and Cletus split, and she moves in with the Simpsons, because of course she does. So what exactly does Brandine like about being smart? We’re never really told. We see her indulging in the very stereotypical “smart” creative pursuits like watching ballet and visiting art museums. She’s also reading the Grey’s Anatomy textbook, so is she interested in medicine? If they could narrow this down to a specific subject matter, or actually elaborate on Brandine’s feelings on why she likes all these things, maybe we could actually gleam some kind of character off of her? Instead it’s so intensely broad, like something out of a subpar kid’s cartoon. She’s smart and she likes learnin’! Does she want to actually do something with all her gained knowledge? I have no idea. She comes home from book club to pay the babysitter, who is actually a goat (“You free next Saturday?”) so I guess she’s not smart enough to know that goats can’t talk. So what the fuck does Brandine want? Instead, we eat up time with two subplots, the first being Lisa and the secret smart kids society, and honestly, the whole premise of them laying low to avoid the bullies’ wrath also kind of feels straight out of a kid’s cartoon. Lisa has been the outspoken school wide teacher’s pet for over thirty years, so this feels like a weird story to pull out now. Alongside that story is yet another goddamn Homer-Marge story, where Marge realizes that everyone thinks she could have done better than Homer, and she starts to doubt her relationship herself. It’s all a complete waste of time. “Yokel Hero” was terrible, but at least it was an episode with some kind of crazy ambition. This one felt like it didn’t even want to try.

Three items of note:
– The Brandine and Lisa plots really feel like they’re tailor-made to go hand-in-hand, but they kind of barely do. Lisa lets Brandine borrow some books when she comes to stay with them, and then toward the end, Brandine convinces Lisa not to hide her intelligence. The latter might have been sweet if it actually felt like it mattered. Showing Lisa and Brandine actually bonding over their brains would have actually meant that they’d have to actually have Brandine express a specific interest in something, so I guess that was out of the question.
– We get an extended flashback depicting how Cletus and Brandine met, which I guess is meant to be sweet? Going back to my first point, I honestly don’t give a shit about how these two characters met and fell in love. They’re the slack-jawed yokel characters, they’re the last people I want to be emotionally developed! Also, in yet another instance of this show feeling out of time, it feels really strange doing jokes about hillbillies in 2022. Cletus takes Homer to the “Hillbilly Pica-ture Palace” museum (Sponsored by Mountain Doo), featuring an exhibit on mullets and an exhibit on Hillfolk in Media (featuring busts of Hank Hill and Bill Clinton). I can’t even think of a recent contemporary example of hillbillies in media. What is this contemporary satire for? Cletus was created as a joke in “Bart the Elephant,” and kept around because Hank Azaria did a funny voice, and it was funny seeing him randomly pop up every now and again. But now I guess I’m supposed to be emotionally invested in him (“I want you to look at me not as a hick or a bumpkin, but as a human being, with feelings just like you!”) Sorry, Cletus, but in your words, I cain’t. I simply cain’t.
– Homer makes it up to Marge in the end by actually completing his neglecting home renovations, and as a cherry on top, he got “Elton John back, and he’s here to play for you again!” Except in “I’m With Cupid,” Homer usurped Elton John from arriving in Springfield to play for Apu and Manjula, who he ended up serenading at the end of the episode anyway. Ah, who gives a shit. Sir Elton is actually Lenny behind a piano, obscured in shadow behind the curtains. Also, it felt a little confusing that we go from upstairs where Homer’s fixed the big bedroom window, and cut immediately to the living room downstairs window. I had to remind myself that they had switched locations, since the windows appear the same and Homer and Marge are standing in the same place in both rooms.

721. Bart the Cool Kid

Original airdate: March 20, 2022

The premise: Bart is humiliated when he finds the new trendy Slipreme sneakers Homer bought him are knock-offs. This eventually leads him to meeting Orion Hughes, the rich kid of a movie star who owns the company, and the two develop their own new shoe. Meanwhile, Homer, feeling the sting of his son calling him “un-cool,” teams up with the other middle-aged men in Springfield to wear Slipreme clothing themselves.

The reaction: As Bart stormed into the not-Supreme shoe store to livestream on his smartphone his outrage to the cashier, only for the rest of the store to pull out their smartphones to film the debacle… it all just feels so wrong. I know this is borderline “Old Man Yells at Cloud,” but seeing Simpsons characters utilizing modern technology in a modern way always feels wrong to me. I feel like there could be stories written where it would feel more palatable, but between this and the last episode featuring similar scenes of mobs live-streaming a scene, these ain’t it, chief. So, I’m not entirely sure what this episode is really aiming for, but I guess it boils down to a very thin Bart-Homer story. Homer fucks up by accidentally buying knock-off shoes, causing Bart to erupt at him how much he sucks and how lame he is. Then the kid owner of the brand shows up, Orion Hughes (voiced by The Weekend), playing damage control by getting Bart a ton of free stuff to make up for the bad press. The two bond when Bart teaches him how to skateboard, and then they’re developing their own shoe. The commentary about “Slipreme” is extremely surface level (“A sneaker the all my friends will buy?” “No, a sneaker that all your friends wanna buy, but can’t, because we won’t make enough of them,”) and Orion isn’t really much of a character. But a lot of the second half involves Homer co-opting the Slipreme look with him and his fellow middle-aged schlubs, which ultimately threatens the big launch party for Bart’s sneaker. Said event is being held in Springfield, with an appearance by Orion’s big movie star dad… why is such a huge event for a big brand being held in some nowhere town? Ah, who cares. Then we get Marge giving a speech to Homer embracing his true self instead of trying to be cool, and then Bart and Homer make amends because the episode is ending and I don’t care. It all just felt like a couple different premise ideas strung together (making fun of shoe culture, Bart befriends a rich kid, Homer laments he’s “un-cool,” middle-aged dads try to be trendy) until they realized they had officially hit the 21-minute mark. It also feels weirdly cross-promotion-y given the new line of Simpsons shoes by Adidas, but that may have just been a coincidence. …maybe.

Three items of note:
– Who manages to fuck Homer over selling him counterfeit shoes? Why, none other than Mike Wegman, the character voiced by Michael Rappaport from a few seasons ago. This seems to confirm that the writing staff must just love Rappaport that they invited him back for more. I really don’t understand it, that episode was fucking awful, and his character was a big part of that. He even makes a reference to his premiere show, insulting Bart by calling him a “bed-wetting nobody,” as a call-back to his verbal abuse of a ten-year-old that made him a fan-favorite character. It’s not like I expect him to be punished or anything, but he came off as really emotionally unbalanced in “Go Big or Go Homer,” which went completely unaddressed through the whole show. Here, Mike just shows up without much introduction as if he were a Springfield regular like Cletus or Comic Book Guy, with an incredibly rushed mention that his food truck was apparently pushed off a bridge. Remember his brilliant concept of just selling one slice of pizza at a time? What a classic episode! Can this character please never come back?
– The Weeknd voices both Orion and his movie star father Darius. His voice for Orion is alright, though weirdly, his first couple lines it almost felt like he was doing a Michael Jackson impression? Was that just me? But his voice for Darius is really bizarre. It’s hard to explain, but it almost sounds like someone doing an impression of another voice. It’s just… off. Also the tag before the credits has this incredibly bizarre sequence where Darius reveals that Orion is a clone of him? It starts off with Orion bemoaning that “he’ll never be like” his dad, to which his dad replies, “I know exactly how you feel, because you’re me.” I thought this was a cheeky reference to them being voiced by the same guy, but then it turns out, no, he’s actually a clone, inspired by Darius’ Clone Cop movies. Did someone find an old script page from an American Dad episode on the floor and accidentally mixed it into this script?
– There’s an odd scene in the middle of the episode where Homer, Marge and Lisa attempt to eat hard shell tacos at dinner, only for them to exaggeratingly explode all over their faces (with Marge and Lisa being especially incensed, “Why do I keep buying hard shells?!“) I guess it served as the impetus for Homer needing to put on a clean shirt to leave the house, and him putting on the Slipreme hoodie, but I dunno, it felt like a weirdly specific attack, like they found “hard shell tacos are hard to eat” written on a note card under someone’s desk and decided to work it into an episode. Y’know what though, sometimes a nice hard shell taco can be pretty good. It’s like a loaded nacho folded in on itself!

720. You Won’t Believe What This Episode Is About – Act Three Will Shock You!

Original airdate: March 13, 2022

The premise: Homer becomes the latest target of the social media outrage machine after a series of mishaps painting him in a bad light. He is approached by The Institute to help rehab his image, being paired with fellow social pariahs to be documented doing a series of good deeds, all unaware of the Institute’s actual sinister motives.

The reaction: The first chunk of this episode feels like a modern-era adaptation of “Homer Badman,” where an innocuous action by Homer leaves him trapped in a reactionary media hells cape that even his own family distances himself from. Here, Homer’s innocent candy ass-grab has been replaced by leaving Santa’s Little Helper in the car to go get the dog some ice cream, with a manufactured set-up that he was actually a good guy by cracking down all the windows and leaving the AC on but then the dog turns and shuts them all because he’s bouncing off the seats, and the car is immediately swarmed by dozens of passerbys filming and shaming Homer. Lisa writes up an apology for Homer to deliver at church, but he just ends up digging his own grave deeper by going on a rant about all the thin-skinned busybodies harassing him, ending with him accidentally nudging Reverend Lovejoy out his stained glass window. The image instantly becomes a worldwide meme, further tarnishing Homer’s image. Now, there’s definitely more to be said about outrage culture from the time of “Homer Badman,” but what’s here doesn’t feel all that more scathing or insightful than what we saw in 1994. Performative outrage, people documenting such events for their own clout, getting off on your own dissatisfaction, obfuscating the truth, all of these topics aren’t really dove into, instead either kind of lightly touched upon or not explored at all. Eventually, rather than getting a call from God… frey Jones, Homer is randomly approached by a man from “The Institute” (I don’t believe he ever said his name, but he’s voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), a sprawling facility devoted to rehabilitating people’s public perception. He’s paired with some fellow social outcasts, with some familiar faces like Helen Lovejoy (now rebranded a modern-day Karen) and some new ones, like a Congressman who I guess accidentally flashed his dick on Zoom, and a short man who constantly flies off the handle on-camera, who I think is based on that guy who fucking lost it at a bagel store three years ago. When acts of public service don’t seem to be doing the job, the Institute guy reveals his ultimate plan: sneak into the headquarters of the biggest ad-farm Internet company to install a flash drive that will scrub all footage of Homer and company from the web. All of this is also clearly a riff on both the 2016 and 2021 versions of Suicide Squad, with the laborious introductions to each team member being like the former, and full scenes seemingly referencing the first trailer of the latter, like the team being briefed in a big lecture hall and two montages set to Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work.” Then Kirk says they’re like a suicide squad, just to make sure you get the reference. So they break into the headquarters and the rest of the team gets suckered into the clickbait articles the company makes… I don’t know, is this really a ripe topic for parody anymore? It’s based on those big blocks of random ads that appear on the bottom of lots of major websites with grabbing headlines like “You won’t believe how much this child actress weighs now!”, which also serves as the inspiration of the episode’s title. I dunno, I feel like more people are reading stuff off of social media versus going to actual websites, like this feels like it would have been a bit more potent if done five or six years ago, but maybe that’s just me. Although sometimes ads like that pop up on this very blog because my cheap ass has never upgraded to premium WordPress, so there’s also that. Anyway, Homer’s plugged in the flash drive, but then discovers the Institute’s real plan: to scrub the negative history of actual monsters the world over (including a groan-inducing “I think that guy was just President! And those are his kids!”) In the end, Homer aborts mission, and pushes the “Worldwide Broadcast” button to read Lisa’s apology note, and all is forgiven, and I guess the evil cabal that secretly runs the world has Kumail’s character executed. Unlike the last two episodes which I could sort of understand the appeal to certain viewers, this one feels like more back-to-basics, sleepwalking through topics that could be better torn apart, with a flimsy emotional center that barely feels like it’s there at all. I was surprised to see this was a Matt Selman show, I would think that button would have been mashed even harder.

Three items of note:
– Every time I think I’m not going to talk about voices… I end up talking about the voices. Homer runs into Lenny at the dog park, who typically doesn’t have that many lines of dialogue in a given scene, but Harry Shearer sounded particularly tired to me, but I don’t know if I blame him. We also have a one-off line from Drederick Tatum, here voiced by comedian and former SNL cast member Jay Pharoah. Unlike the other recastings, this one’s kind of unique in that it’s just Pharoah doing his impression of Mike Tyson, as Hank Azaria was doing his own. I feel like my brain automatically thinks of Azaria’s Tatum anytime I think of Mike Tyson speaking, so it’s tough to disassociate. Also, the lip sync was weirdly off… like you could tell by the phonemes that he was saying the same sentence, but it didn’t match the speed of Pharoah’s delivery, so it would drift once or twice off his dialogue. Anyway, it’s still weird to me that Drederick Tatum is still a recurring character. I was really surprised when he popped up in a major role two seasons ago as the owner of a dispensary, since Mike Tyson just seems like a really played out celebrity to poke fun at in the 2020s, in the wake of the Hangover movies and Mike Tyson Mysteries seemingly having salted the earth. This weirdly almost felt like the staff has a list of all their semi-recurring POC characters and is trying to give them all reappearances so they can try out new voices. Excluding Apu, I feel like they’ve hit them all at this point. The only other one I can think is Cookie Kwan, and they’d be doing the world a favor if they just dropped her in a ditch and left her there.
– There’s lots of lines with Kumail’s character at the Institute that feel incredibly clunky, which I guess are supposed to be intentionally bad quips that you’d find from a blockbuster movie as they’re going through describing the big plan, but they’re pretty indistinguishable from a ton of dialogue from the last twenty years that was definitely meant to be funny (“You’d have to invent something to do that!” “Funny you say that, I did invent something to do that,” “So we’re kind of like a suicide squad?” “You’re exactly kind of like a suicide squad,” “The upload is nearly complete! I can think of almost nothing at the last minute that can stop us now!”)
– Speaking of Bagel Store guy, doing a search for that video did bring up a couple of podcast interviews he did, and it reminded me that after the video went viral, he tried to somewhat embrace his image and use his newfound fame to platform himself. He beefed up his social media presence with a YouTube channel where he ranted a bunch, he got paid a lot of money for a boxing match in Atlantic City, and probably profited a lot more from other endorsements and other deals he made. All that seems to have abruptly stopped after he suffered a stroke about five months after the incident though. But that’s the opposite end of the social pariah spectrum that this episode could have touched on a bit more, but the closest we get is we see the only place that will welcome Homer is the bluntly titled “Right Wing Podcast House.” A+ writing, guys.

719. Boyz N the Highlands

Original airdate: March 6, 2022

The premise: Bart, Nelson, Dolph, and Martin are forced to take part in the “Highland Trek for Trouble Truants” as part of community service. Martin is quickly made an easy target for the bullies, which Bart participates in to fit in, but ultimately is forced to see things from Martin’s perspective and has a change of heart.

The reaction: Martin Prince is a character who’s definitely fallen into the background in the last twenty-odd years of the series, only popping up every now and again with one or two lines during a school-focused scene. In terms of the last time he had a major role in a plot, I can’t think of anything besides “Dial N for Nerder,” where Bart and Lisa witness his supposed death, but that episode featured Martin as a plot device more than a story built around him. The last major Martin moment I can recall is his crazed sacrifice to the alien cranberry sauce in “Thanksgiving of Horror,” an episode I shockingly actually liked, as well as being the final performance of Russi Taylor as the character before her death. Accomplished VO artist Grey Delisle has taken over the role in the last few years, with this episode almost seemingly written to give her time to shine. Wherein Bart and the town bullies are forced to go on this grueling wilderness hike that feels more like the Irish countryside than anywhere in Springfield, Martin is immediately the odd man out, claiming he signed up voluntarily. Eventually Bart has a crisis of conscious in actually sticking up for Martin against the bullies’ relentless taunting, which to me felt like the act two ending of “This Little Wiggy” expanded to three times the length. When Bart and Martin are left alone, Martin has his breaking point, confessing he’s actually part of the group thanks to his overbearing parents: forced to engage in extracurriculars to beef up his future prospects, he snapped under pressure and stole a bunch of drugs from a pharmacy to help him focus more. In the end, Martin debuffs his parents, as they arrive and tell him to step away from those “bad kids,” (“You’re late for your violin lesson. By the way, you play that now,”) and embraces his newfound chums. This characterization is fair enough, I guess, but I didn’t find it all that interesting. The overachieving student put under incredible pressure by their overloading parents is a trope I’ve seen play out in so many movies and TV shows, and nothing said or joked about here is anything that new. Plus, Martin always felt like a kid who enjoyed all of his quirky weird hobbies like playing the lute or model U.N., but does this episode imply that all of these things were thrust onto him and he was “forced” to like them? Like his dad telling him he plays violin now? I guess it could be implying he does actually like things like Greek chorus and waltzing, but it’s just way too many things to handle on top of academics? I dunno. All of this is combined with a weird runner featuring seemingly dangerous cultists and a sacrificial goat the boys save and protect, which has a twist ending that feels mostly overwhelming. This being another Matt Selman show, this is another episode focused more on the dramatic plot more than actual jokes, which I’ll again say is fine as long as you’re telling a story I can get invested in, but I wasn’t really. Martin saving the day thanks to his waltzing is sort of a satisfying payoff, as with him getting the respect of the bullies, but it all ultimately felt like a soft landing to me. Nothing before it felt particularly engaging or funny, so it made the ending feel not as impactful to me. I was pleased to see Martin in the spotlight, and with a pretty solid performance by Grey Delisle, but the storytelling felt like it didn’t live up to the challenge.

Three items of note:
– The subplot involves Lisa hijacking Homer and Marge’s weekend alone (how long is this death hike Bart’s been forced onto unsupervised?), by having them indulge in her fantasies of what it would be like as an only child, even adapting a new name “Jules.” Playing Suffragette-opoly, eating all the ice cream Bart always eats first, beat poetry, Lisa is determined to cram as many of these activities in as she can before her time is up. I understand the germ of this idea, but the forcefulness that Lisa thrusts this onto her parents is a little off-putting, arranging for Maggie to stay at Patty and Selma’s herself and presenting a pie chart of the sliver of time Homer and Marge actually spend on Lisa (“If you’ll just humor a middle child’s most frivolous whimsy, I’d like you to spend the entire weekend focusing only on me.”) Like… goddamn, kid, could you be any more passive aggressive? People were bitching last week about Lisa’s childlike image of a romantic marriage inadvertently getting her parents almost killed out in the woods, but I felt her characterization was sympathetic in showing a child’s view of adult relationships. Here, it almost feels like she’s holding her parents hostage, frantically hurrying them through tasks and growling angrily when one of them fails to call her her new name. She ultimately vomits up a bunch of ice cream on screen, which weirdly felt more uncomfortable than Homer bashing a poor animal’s brains in last episode, and things end on a semi-sweet note as Homer and Marge care for her, and the next morning Lisa pushes back at Homer’s suggestions off her list (“That’s kind of a Jules thing. Right now, I’d rather just stay in bed and be a Lisa.”) I feel like this could have been a kind of sweet subplot, but things just felt off overall. Maybe a lighter touch from Lisa would have helped.
– Grey Delisle really is the best replacement for Martin we’re gonna get. From the very little we heard from the character previously, it felt like she was getting more comfortable with the voice, and now, in this prominent role, there were numerous lines that felt so incredibly close to Russi Taylor’s range. Like if you just heard some of the scenes by themselves, you’d think it was her. There are certain sections where it starts to waver, particularly during Martin’s impassioned freakout toward Bart, but I think that’s partially due to Delisle being so recognizable as many other major characters in animation. In some line readings, I’d be hearing faint reminders of Fairly OddParents‘ Vicky, one of the Loud House sisters, even Adventure Time‘s Ice Queen when Martin was really shouting. But overall, this is easily the strongest of all the recasting.
– Last week’s “Pixelated and Afraid” had a pretty warm reception by fans, and though it’s a bit early to tell, this episode seems to be getting similar accolade. There’s definitely been a noticeable shift this season, possibly due to Matt Selman basically becoming co-showrunner, giving us episodes that focus more on raw storytelling and dramatic elements over comedy, as we’ve seen with this, “Pixelated and Afraid,” and the “Serious Flanders” two-parter. I’ve reached the point that I can at least appreciate this move conceptually, trying to do new things with a 33-year-old show is more novel than hitting the same few buttons you’ve been mashing for decades. Plus, there’s a section of the fandom that seems to really love this new direction and want to see more episodes like this, and honestly, that’s perfectly fine. I feel I don’t have many specific criticisms of this episode or “Pixelated and Afraid” other than they’re not funny enough and the stories they’re telling aren’t interesting to me, which are two really subjective things, and things that the fans might not agree with. But even if they mean less for me to bitch about on this blog, I’d definitely prefer more episodes like this than “The Wayz We Were” or “Mothers and Other Strangers.”