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.”

21 thoughts on “719. Boyz N the Highlands

  1. No real comment here, all in all the plots are no better or worse than what came before. If there is any bugaboo, it’s the idea of them just DROPPING the character development for Martin. But hell, even when they DID do a plot around him (that “Bart and Lisa cover up his ‘murder'” episode from about a decade back), it seems as if either the writers could or would not do so without having to include other characters, he’s simply not complex enough to really hold his own plot. And really, what COULD they do for Martin, that hasn’t already BEEN done? That’s sorta the disadvantage of going on for so long, is that as good as you are, you WILL eventually paint yourself into a corner, WANTING to expand characters and reveal new information, but too trapped by the impenetrable vines of continuity and nostalgia to be ABLE to do anything.

    All in all, it’s a decent episode, but one aches to wonder how such an idea could’ve been handled in the classic era.

    1. Your last question is a good one. Would the earlier seasons (say season 4) have even bothered with plots like these? And even if they did, none of it would have been taken seriously and every moment would be in service of a joke, which is something the show has decided to absolutely NOT do anymore.

      1. Regarding your question of “How would the current show handle an old plot from the classic years?”

        You might get your answer next week when they do another “Homer becomes the town pariah” plot 27 years after Homer Badman.

    2. “All in all, it’s a decent episode, but one aches to wonder how such an idea could’ve been handled in the classic era.”

      I think Mike Russo is right in that the the show would never have bothered with an idea like this during its golden age (Bart on the Road is probably the closest potential analogue we have) so it’s a moot point. I understand the impulse to compare every new episode to the classic era (and often do so myself), but we’re so far removed from that now and I think it’s an exercise in…if not futility, then something like self-sabotage? I choose to keep watching this show because, for better or worse, I’m profoundly attached to these characters so I might as well take new episodes on their own terms rather than making myself miserable at how the show is not what it was. Because it never will be again.

      1. A more interesting question would be how would the current show handle an old plot from the classic years?

        I’d image a comic masterpiece like Homer’s Triple Bypass would be exceptionally upsetting and dramatic.

      2. Yeah, probably! It’s impossible to say, I guess. ‘Bart’s New Friend’ was a spec script originally written in the 90’s, but produced for season 26 so I guess that’s the closest we’ll get to some kind of answer.

  2. You mentioned Matt Selman as a reason the show is changing and that’s probably a part of it. But I also think a lot of it has to do with the show’s new overlord, the Mouse. Disney has the Simpsons, they want to milk it but they also know it has a bad reputation amongst a segment of its audience, especially those who grew up with the show.

    The solution now is to pander to those who don’t cherish the early seasons, and that would be younger fans. How do you bring in younger fans? More emotional stories, more drama, reference streaming and things that are brand new and (probably most importantly) write the kid characters in a way that will appeal to the younger audience in a positive way. So “Lisa’s Belly’ is about body positivity and yesterday’s episode is clearly about kid characters working out serious issues the show would have treated as jokes 25 years ago. I guess that’s fine for some that everyone involved with the show had decided this is the way to go and the series doesn’t need to be funny anymore, but that approach is not for me.

    I decided to give this season a chance but I don’t think I’ll be watching any more. It’s not even Zombie Simpsons anymore. At least Zombie Simpsons attempted to be funny.

    Oh well.

    1. I can’t say I agree with this take. The more dramatic, character-focused direction of the Matt Selman-produced shows has been clearly developing over the last decade, long before the Disney deal. I think Disney is more interested in using the characters for their own purposes in material outside of the show itself, as we’ve seen in the Disney+ shorts and in Disney corporate promotionals and events. I don’t think Disney really cares about the ratings or the quality of the series as it is now, or wanting it to specifically appeal to a new audience. I think there’s more brand strength to them in just having the series on Disney+, where parents can easily share their beloved series with their children.

      1. Your probably right, Mike. I mean, you’ve been watching each and every episode and I only just came back this season. For someone who just came back into it though, the change in the show is pretty jarring.

  3. A very fair critique, Mike! I didn’t mind this episode, but there were some questionable choices that sabotaged the potential. Grey Delisle’s performance was exceptional, but more time and consideration was required for Martin’s characterization to work for me. I would have liked more one or two more stepping stones to his crazed outburst and there needed to be a clearer delineation between what his parents force on him and what he actually likes/enjoys. As it stands, the episode ends with this lingering sense of dissonance and opacity with who Martin really is and what we previously knew about the character.

    I think my biggest issue with the episode is the subplot which is…cute, I guess. It’s certainly not terrible, but you’re right that Lisa comes off far too strong (at least Homer and Marge came across as generally receptive rather than resistant, offsetting her…forcefulness). I also wasn’t completely sold on the whole ‘Lisa feels neglected and starved of attention’ idea. I mean, it makes sense, but there have been dozens of episodes wherein that’s not the case. I suppose this is where, as viewers, our intimate knowledge of the series presents an obstacle to accepting such a premise.

    Just as last week’s episode (which I maintain was a triumph) benefited from having no subplot, I think the same would have been true for this week’s. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the ‘film student’ twist at the end – it was an unnecessary and clumsy attempt at satire of the kind that this show consistently fumbles these days. I would have preferred if the threat were actually genuine again, but maybe that would have been too similar to last week’s episode.

    1. *Sarcastic tone because I’m stating the obvious* Maybe they could’ve cut the subplot entirely and used that time they wasted on it to actually buildup Martin’s behavior.

      The subplot is easily the episode’s weakest link. I can ignore the lack of buildup to Martin’s unhinged attitude in the context of this episode (we’ve seen him act this way before) and the film students reveal if it weren’t for the former which just stopped the episode dead every time it’d cut to it. I can see what they were trying to do with it on paper (portray Lisa as an actual child), but in execution it didn’t work.

  4. As someone who went into the episode with it’s one and only selling point being Martin’s first major role since he was recast and not who was show running or writing it (both if whom I actually don’t hold in a high regard like most fans), for the most part it lived up to it.

    I can’t even remember the last time Martin showed so much range. Comparing this to the first few episodes where Grey Griffin was voicing him it’s completely night and day. Though there were a few times where I was being reminded of the likes of Daphne or Frankie.

    The main plot itself was fine and had a few more noticeable funny bits when compared to last week like the subversion of how Dolph ended up on the trail or Moe’s reaction to his quarters being stolen by Nelson.

    However, while we’ve seen shades of Martin being unhinged before in the context of this episode it felt like it came out of nowhere like they somehow forgot about the simple tactic of “Show, don’t tell”. Also, the reveal of the satanists being film students was kinda weak and created more questions than answers. Though I’ll give them credit for not resorting to a “Blood over substance” moment that seems to be a semi-regular occurrence in Selman episodes which I was half expecting based on the promo pics.

    The episode’s biggest undoing which is also what prevents me from rating the episode any higher than a 2.5 out of 5 is easily the subplot. On the surface, I can see what they were going for with having Lisa for once acting like a kid which could slightly appease the people who hate the way she’s been for at least the last ten years or so. Unfortunately, they ultimately fail as all they end up doing is making her come across as a very self-entitled brat which does nothing except give her haters further ammunition for why they despise her… And… From my perspective I guess you can count this as another case of one of the stock flaws in a Selman episode which is forcing the audience to sympathize with the character who actually doesn’t deserve it based on their actions.

  5. Happy 777th blog entry!

    Honestly, for me, this episode was a bizarre combination of boring and weird as fuck.

  6. DAY 13

    Feeling curious about what lays ahead this season

    Yeah, I guess I should give props to the legendary Grey Delisle. I guess this episode really was a big test to see if Delisle could live up to the legacy of the late great Taylor and I’m glad to see she pulled of pretty much Taylor’s only character on the show. Hey, maybe Season 34 will have a Dr. Hibbert episode so we can give KMR his own test. But I’m genuinely shocked that ZS remembered Martin exists again and while this episode kinda sucked (Hey, at least I said kinda, not really!) and I dislike Martin’s new characterization of becoming a pressured overachiever I at least can appreciate they show actually making Martin a main focus. It’s not like that godawful “Replaceable You” which is now the same age as Bart Simpson where Martin is with Bart for the entire episode but is basically a mute prop the whole time. That being said, this episode was weird and not the good kind and the B-plot with Lisa forcing Homer and Marge to overparent her made me feel confused. Still, I’ll take it over any of the garbage episodes that were thrust upon us from Season 32. But yeah, with this and “Pixelated and Afraid,” this season seems to be the new Season 30 having episodes that while mediocre, still show a sign of them trying to climb their way up from the bottom of the barrel. I’m actually genuinely looking forward to next episode with Homer becoming a town pariah after being accused of a heinous action that he clearly didn’t do. That sounds like really interesting concept which makes me think of the actually human Homer from the early seasons. Plus, the clickbait-esque title is actually really funny. Okay, I’m tired of being in the highlandz with a bunch of nerds and bullies. Can I go now?

  7. Hey guys, how has it been? It’s been a while, but I needed to comment as I saw an article the other day that said Season 33 has saved the show from mediocrity? is this true? Looking at some of the blogs for this season, and the dreadful THoH, I find that hard to believe. What exactly makes this season good?

    1. I don’t think I can really say it’s good. It’s been shifting towards being more of a straight drama with a few laughs. I find most of the jokes to be weak and for the most part I’m not really interested in the drama because of the pacing or weird plot elements. They’re been giving us more focus on side characters in the past couple seasons.
      At the very least, it’s a bit more interesting and varied than the seasons leading up to it. My biggest criticisms would simply be that the humor is pretty bad, things feel pretty lifeless (aging voices, really boring-to-watch animation, even the music and establishing shots are dull and minimal), and some of the dramatic moments (especially in the Mona episode) just feel unearned. Most seasons are just consistent downs these days and it’s interesting to see a season as varied in both styles and qualities as this one.

  8. “You’re late for your violin lesson. By the way, you play that now” is such a frustrating type of line and I’m struggling to really put into words why. t reminds me of Family Guy’s “we’ll just complain about some thing and then show you that thing” setups.

    1. I think it’s frustrating because no one talks like this and it’s a cheaper way of conveying information than natural, believable dialogue.

      It feels like the writers aren’t putting in even a little effort to make the story feel natural (though most likely, it’s because they think being incredibly on the nose is funnier — which I can’t say I agree with).

  9. “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”

    And like that you’ve nailed it on the head regarding these types of episodes. The jokes and storytelling are fairly weak. Also Lisa was very obnoxious in the subplot, which knocked it down from being a mediocre episode to a flat out bad one.

    1. Honestly the main plot was fine and had a few more funny moments when compared to last week, but the subplot is it’s biggest undoing. Should’ve scrapped it completely and used that time to actually buildup Martin’s unhinged behavior within this episode’s context.

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