729. Habeas Tortoise

Original airdate: September 25, 2022

The premise: On a family trip to the zoo, Homer is shocked to find his beloved tortoise Slow Leonard is missing. Suspecting something is afoot, he reaches out to other online weirdos, finding himself the head of a social group of crackpot conspiracy theorists, all throwing out their own out-there ideas of what really happened to their beloved reptile.

The reaction: As real life continues to outpace satire more and more, I really sympathize with any comedy that bases itself in social commentary. Online conspiracy theorists almost feel unable to be parodied, since the absolute insane shit they genuinely believe, and their reasons behind it, are usually completely absurd on their own, so there’s no way you can really top that without seeming redundant. Thankfully the episode isn’t really about that, and more focused on Homer trying to find comfort in finding a group of peers who don’t look down on his lack of intelligence. We open on a town hall meeting where Homer is mocked for doing something foolish (suggesting Springfield build a library, forgetting the meeting is actually being held in a library), later bemoaning to his family that everyone thinks he’s dumb, which brings to mind the opening of “Secrets to a Successful Marriage,” and probably dozens of other episodes. Homer fretting that he’s stupid? The man’s been brain dead on TV as long as I’ve been alive, how many times does he have to re-realize this? Anyway, Homer finds kindred spirits with the likes of Comic Book Guy, Sideshow Mel, and others, all believing that there’s a greater conspiracy behind the disappearance of Slow Leonard, the 150-year-old tortoise. At one meeting, when CBG is about to criticize a suggested theory, Homer nips it in the bud quick, recalling his humiliation at the start of the episode, proclaiming, “There are no bad ideas. Nothing said here is stupid.” The conspiracy group becomes incredibly close-knit from this point, even leading to an engagement between Miss Hoover and Gil. But then the Simpson family discover something shocking: Slow Leonard walking into their kitchen. Homer explains: he accidentally uncovered the tortoise himself burrowed in a hole in the outskirts of the zoo. Him absconding with the animal is kind of glossed over, but it’s clear that Homer didn’t say anything because he doesn’t want to lose his new friends. Things are pretty quick to wrap up after this: at Miss Hoover and Gil’s wedding, the team’s ideas on how to squeeze info out of the zookeeper get way too radical and violent for Homer’s liking, and he finally reveals the truth, along with Marge, who arrives with Slow Leonard. The final resolution is kind of confusing: Homer keeps the group together by moving on to a new conspiracy (“What is calamari?”), but that doesn’t really address the problem with the group being quick to escalate to radical degrees. It’s just kind of unclear what the point of the episode is. Homer found comfort with people who spouted the same bullshit nonsense as him, but his opening goof about the library was more about him being forgetful and dumb, not believing in the kind of wackadoo stuff these other characters do. Homer’s vulnerability throughout was nice to see, but the story all culminated too quickly and ended all too nicely. Overall, a pretty soft, inoffensive season premiere.

Three items of note:
– I always find it weird when an episode will flip-flop between using real brands and fake ones. Marge says Homer can post his thoughts on “Facelook,” but then later namedrops Instagram and TikTok. I thought maybe it was because we actually see Homer using “Facelook,” but they could have easily just not shown a logo and had it be a generic-looking social media page. I feel like it must be some kind of legal concern. But then in a scene over the credits, we see a cooking TikTok Homer filmed, complete with a TikTok logo in the corner (not the actual one, but it actually says ‘TikTok.’) So why not just say ‘Facebook’ then? I don’t get it.
– The Slow Leonard group is comprised of different types of Springfieldians, from educators (Miss Hoover, Superintendent Chalmers), upper crust celebrities (Sideshow Mel, Drederick Tatum), to civil servants (Chief Wiggum), it felt a little like a missed opportunity to not show (or at least talk about) how their paranoid behavior influences their work life. Peppered throughout the episode are references to other popular conspiracy topics like flat Earth, 5G cell phone towers, and a veiled reference to COVID, which feels like easy writing, like they had a checklist of crackpot tropes to check off plugging into the script. Toward the end when Slow Leonard is revealed, the group initially doesn’t believe it’s really him, with them crafting more insane theories of what it really is. It almost feels like that could have been a better angle to take the episode: Homer supports the unhinged rantings of his new friends as to not undermine them like he experienced, but he ends up fostering a psychosis so far gone, he can’t even get them to believe the truth in front of their eyes. The group actually feels way too nice, maybe they were afraid to push beloved characters like Wiggum or Gil too far in an extremist direction, but why not? The people of Springfield are no strangers to reactionary violence.
– Homer makes a hearty serving of paella to offer his guests at their first conspiracy meeting, and later, the episode ends with him giving a live cooking of the dish recorded for a TikTok. The initial joke, I guess, is that he’s putting in greater effort to create a complicated dish for his weird new friends than he ever would his own family, but I don’t know why they bring it back up again toward the end. It might be a personal thing, though, it still feels weird to me when the Simpsons are eating food beyond a relatively basic meal. Remember the early episodes when they would just be eating weird technicolor mush on a plate for dinner? Bring back the goop!

And finally…: If you missed my post about this in August, I’m going to be branching out a bit and reviewing non-Simpsons content. I already covered The Bob’s Burgers Movie, which you can check out in the last post. I’m going to try to have some kind of a structure to them, so there’ll be an announcement post for my first new mini-series of reviews this Thursday. Thanks for reading, everyone, and hope you like what’s to come.

9 thoughts on “729. Habeas Tortoise

    1. Last season was a surprising step-up from what came before, no doubt thanks to Matt Selman.

      It looks like this show was Selman-run which is surprising to me…. hopefully this was just a slip-up.

  1. Repost from NoHomers:

    The more I think about this episode, the more it doesn’t work for me. I hesitate to criticise episodes for what they didn’t do and should have done because that’s rather trite analysis, but it’s difficult to ignore the different directions this could have gone when they leap out at me.

    I agree with others that this took the softest, safest route possible. Homer gravitating to conspiracy theories and the groups they spawn because he feels insecure and humiliated doesn’t ring true. It’s undeniable that conspiracy theorists who are humiliated feel alienated and desire kinship with like-minded individuals, but I’m not at all convinced this precipitates their engagement with conspiracy theories – it just reinforces and entrenches it. There’s a lot more involved – a wide range of forces and factors that underpin the phenomenon – but the show is uninterested in or oblivious of them.

    Conspiracy theories arise out of political cynicism and socio-economic disaffection and displacement. They stem from very real fears and anxieties pertaining to a real or imagined loss of safety, security, certainty, and trust. It’s true that governments around the world are populated by incompetent if not sinister opportunists who seek to consolidate power and wealth at the expense of everyone else. Is it that much of a stretch to think they have the resources and capability of orchestrating assassinations, false flag events, and cover ups to achieve that? It’s true that big pharmaceutical companies have nothing to gain from curing diseases. Is it really that unreasonable to think they don’t have your best interests at heart, making alternative medicine more appealing?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing in favour of these viewpoints, but people have good reason to be sceptical and wary of the systems and structures in our society because the people who are part of them routinely let us down and disenfranchise us. Not to mention access to the internet and the sheer volume of information at our disposal. These technological advancements, coupled with late-stage capitalism and various geopolitical events, have made life more chaotic and overwhelming. Is it any wonder that conspiracy theories have spread like wildfire over the last 10-20 years in the wake of 9/11, the Great Recession, the smartphone and social media? Is it any wonder that people seek out tidy explanations and narratives to make sense of the nonsensical?

    Then there are psychological factors involved.

    Conspiracies exploit doubts and suspicions, leading people down rabbit holes in search of truth and certainty. They offer tantalising mysteries or puzzles to solve, capturing our voyeuristic imaginations and impulses. They feed our ego and pride, convincing us we know something that others don’t and serving as an intoxicating outlet for contrarian or oppositional tendencies. They help bring order to chaos, giving us opportunities to organise data and resolve apparent inconsistent or contradictions. They validate and exacerbate our mistrust or lack of faith in institutions. They stimulate powerful neurological systems that prompt our primal predilections for seeking patterns, confirming biases, identifying threats, and releasing dopamine. They can be incredibly seductive for all these reasons.

    So you can see why I think Habaus Tortoise is quite shallow and sophomoric in its treatment of this subject. Was this really the best statement the show could muster in 2022? The episode is better than its most recent analogue (You Won’t Believe What This Episode is About also co-run by Rob LaZebnik), but only marginally. I criticised that episode for being too broad in its satire and failing to hone in on a brave or incisive argument about outrage culture. This one definitely tries to be more specific, but it lasers in on the wrong point. I think it might be too specific actually, focusing too much on the minutiae of Homer’s personal insecurities and missing the forest for the trees. Sorry Selman and co, I know, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

    Toothless is definitely the right word. Where’s the strain that this places on a family when someone goes off the deep end? Why is everyone portrayed so sympathetically? Do conspiracy groups even meet up in person like this? A lot of this episode doesn’t feel authentic and I wish it were closer to the likes of Bart’s In Jail or Poorhouse Rock in how all-encompassing and hard-hitting they were.

    Homer’s characterization was also the weakest it’s been in some time. Again, it doesn’t ring true to me just how sulky he gets and also how engaged he is. Homer is insecure, sure, but he shouldn’t be this vigorous. He’s a lazy man who wants to be left alone. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have him succumb to conspiracy theories at home browsing the internet? The real Homer wouldn’t go to the effort of organising social gatherings or cooking paella. On that note, the composition of the Lost Leonard group seems kinda random to me. I can understand Gil being there because he’s always hard done by, Miss Hoover because she’s bitter and jaded, and even Comic Book Guy because he’s something of an outcast who’d spend copious amounts of time on the internet. But Chief Wiggum? Superintendent Chalmers? Where’s Moe? Or Cletus? Or, hell, even Helen?

    I actually don’t think this should have been a Homer-centric episode to begin with (we already have The Computer Wore Menace Shoes). I considered Lisa, but someone suggested that Marge would have made more sense and I agree. Marge is reasonably intelligent, down-to-earth and rational. She’s often lonely and deprived of a social circle. She’s also the glue that keeps the family together. It would have more impact had she been the one to go down the rabbit hole (clever little joke, btw, but it didn’t need explaining to us), fracturing the family as she loses herself to the kind of echo chamber extremism that the internet fosters. Imagine an inciting incident where a fear, anxiety or suspicion proved true, turning her away from her family and the mainstream media in favour of insular conspiracy groups that get increasingly detached from reality and radicalised.

    I think I’ve written more than enough at this point. Habaus Tortoise misses the mark in a big way, but I didn’t hate it. The plot was fairly competent, there was some clever joke writing worthy of some light chuckles, and it certainly wasn’t hampered by the kind of weird third act turn that You Won’t Believe What This Episode Is About pulled on us. It was also less confusing than that episode (though arguably just as ineffectual) in its messaging. I wish this was edgier, harsher, and more focused on the wider issues associated with the likes of QAnon with a better character at its core.

    Sorry to hi-jack the thread! That post got away from me haha.

    1. Here’s the reality. Disney wants the Simpsons to be a show for kids and families now. Safe and toothless. Those were words you used. And youre right. The series feel like something out of Cartoon Network now in terms of who its directing its material to. It’s not going to attempt those complicated, adult themes anymore. There are t-shirts they need to sell to kids, dammit!

      1. I don’t think it has much to do with Disney specifically. This has been a gradual shift over many years and it has, uncoincidentally, gained traction in the last 10 years as outrage culture has proliferated. It coincides with an increasingly sanitised media landscape in general, where challenging or provoking the audience is anathema to survival let alone success. So much of what gets produced now is about making us feel validated and comfortable. Viewers, writers, and producers are all to blame for that.

        My belief is that The Simpsons should just outright avoid topics of this nature. Poorhouse Rock was uncharacteristically good for modern Simpsons in its satire, but it was also a lot more sweeping and the decision to deliver that through an extended musical sequence was relatively inspired. More traditional episodes like this one (and You Won’t Believe What This Episode Is About) are less effective, revealing how ill-equipped and deficient the show is at tackling such issues. Better to stick to slice-of-life stories or love letters to different genres.

  2. I have an insane relationship with Current Simpsons: I haven’t watched an episode in 5-10 years but I still keep very much up-to-date through your blog and various YouTube channels.

    I understand that Homer is now a completely different character, unrelated to both Classic Homer and Jerkass Homer. Just a nice, mellow family guy, with little temper. If the characters actually aged that could have made a lot of sense. As is, it’s just a different show for no good reason.

  3. ” I always find it weird when an episode will flip-flop between using real brands and fake ones.”
    I don’t get it either, I can’t say it’s a rights or licensing issue since this is the Simpsons and they’re free to do whatever they want. So maybe it’s a slipshod attempt to try and fictionalize brands? Honestly, until someone on the staff actually opens up on the situation (which I doubt they will), We can only speculate.

    I also don’t get why they waited until now to do an episode of conspiracy theories. The shit I’ve read from those morons are borderline self-parody when they aren’t incredibly dangerous.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s