736. Step Brother from the Same Planet

Original airdate: November 20, 2022

The premise: Homer is shocked to find Abe has a new long-time girlfriend Blythe, and he’s moving in with her. Even more surprising is Abe’s loving relationship with her young adopted son Calvin. Extremely jealous at how much better Abe treats this kid than he ever did him, Homer starts a bitter, childish rivalry with his new sort-of step brother.

The reaction: I’m sure I’ve talked a million times about this show’s masterful blend of emotion and comedy back in its heyday. The Simpsons was always first and foremost an exaggerated comedy, but its characters felt so earnest that when they would hit you with the emotional beats, they really resonated, and they never interrupted the flow of the comedy. In later years, the show would shoehorn in its emotional moments, almost always feeling completely unearned and totally joke-free, and nowadays, it sometimes feels like this show is content with dipping into some straight serious drama, with a mere light sprinkling of jokes, if at all, and that’s certainly what we get in the wrap-up to this story. We rush into the plot very quickly, with we learn about Abe, his girlfriend, and her son within the first three minutes. They explain how Homer has ignored over a dozen messages Abe left him about his new romance, but it feels very quick for a story about a major life change for a significant character. Although I guess it really doesn’t matter, since we’ll never see these characters again by next week (they make a quick joke about how Abe and Blythe break up over the credits). Blythe doesn’t really matter, she’s introduced as a new age hippie and that’s about it. Why did she adopt a young son in her old age? Who cares, it’s never talked about. What matters is that Abe treats this kid with love and affection, something Homer never got from him as a child. I actually do like the premise for this one. It feels like in the last ten years or so, we’ve seen numerous flashbacks that have painted Abe as a more sympathetic father, showing him actually getting along and nurturing little Homer, so it’s very refreshing to have Homer talk about Abe here as the uncaring, overcritical jackass he really was. Seeing his father in his older years have a much more gentle approach to child rearing really stings with Homer, and that would be kind of interesting to see him deal with. Instead, a big chunk of the middle of the episode focuses on Homer’s childish spat with little Calvin, and it grows old very fast. Calvin is an esoteric wunderkind, with interests in taxidermy, cooking, and other weird nerd-ery, as well as wearing a bowtie, suspenders, and one of those crown hats that Jughead from Archie Comics wears. He’s a very odd character, almost too odd, like he’s overly quirky that it distracts a bit from the meat of the story. Anyway, the final third of the episode is where the brakes hit hard and all our characters need to talk about their feelings. Calvin witnesses firsthand the difference between how Abe behaves with him and Homer, and urges Homer to tell his father how he really feels. In the end, Homer does, through his own shoddy taxidermy of two seashells with googly eyes (a callback to him mentioning selling them at the pier as a kid and Abe berating him for it). Everything is painfully spelled out: Homer says he was inspired by Calvin, who does taxidermy (even though we’re literally at a taxidermy showcase including Calvin’s work), the judge openly surmises Homer’s work being about a son yearning for his father’s love… like, we get it, but they just have to reiterate the emotional story beats just to reinforce them, I guess. Or to fill time? Abe admits that he was a shoddy dad to Homer because it felt like the end of his youth, but he’s a better dad to Calvin because it’s his last chance to feel young. They spin this into a joke (“No matter how old you are, it’s only ever been about what you need,”) but it feels like such an un-affecting ending to me. Hell, Abe’s admission is basically the same scenario of Homer’s life, where his carefree young adult life was cut short with the unexpected arrival of Bart. They could’ve done something with that, but guess not. I know there are some fans that really love these kinds of emotionally charged moments played straight they’ve been doing over the years, the most heralded example being “Pixelated and Afraid,” but I’m just not really moved by them. Most of the episodes I’ve been impressed by as of late have been the more experimental, but “Portrait of a Lackey on Fire” was a Smithers-focused character study that I thought was very successful, and made you really care about him. I guess it’s easier to pull off a fresh character piece with a side character than a Simpson, who have had hundreds of stories about each of them at this point, but I think it’s possible, with the right, original idea. But episodes like these just feel so lousy to me.

Three items of note:
– There’s a B-story here that I don’t really have a lot to say about. Bart and Lisa discover that even though Abe moved out of the Retirement Castle, his room is still paid up for the next two weeks. Having previously been called out as a party pooper, Lisa uses this opportunity to use the room to throw the biggest grade-school rager ever. But her ensuing parties just get bigger and bigger as Lisa becomes addicted to the high of being the slumber party master (“I’ll sleep when I’m 9!”) It’s kind of cute, I guess, but nothing about it was really interesting to me. We don’t even get any comedy with them having the parties at the retirement home, that element of it is completely ignored. We also get extended appearances with Sherri, Terri, and Janey, her first speaking appearance in who knows how long, now voiced by Kimberly Brooks. Grey DeLisle has really gotten Martin down pat, but her Sherri/Terri voice still isn’t quite there. I guess it’s as good as it’s gonna get, but I guess over time, I’ll get used to it. Just like Carl’s new voice, he’s appeared enough times over the last couple seasons that it doesn’t sound off to me anymore. Meanwhile, I can barely even remember what Janey sounds like, nor was she ever really much of a character, so I don’t really care what voice she has. Revisiting a classic Janey scene, Brooks sounds nothing like her, but I’m sure the Simpsons staff didn’t remember what she sounds like either, and correctly surmised it didn’t matter, and just let Brooks do whatever. Sorry to all the Janey Powell fans out there.
– Calvin is voiced by Melissa McCarthy, and according to a tweet by Carolyn Omine, she is the first woman guest star to voice a little boy character, which I was surprised to read, but thinking back on it, I think that’s correct? I can’t think of another example. When there’s been a new boy at Springfield Elementary, it’s always been a grown man, a lot of times not even trying to sound like a little kid (I recall Ben Platt from a few seasons ago being a particularly egregious offender). McCarthy does a fine job, but it mostly just sounds like her pitching her voice slightly and adding a nasally touch to her delivery. I dunno, maybe her voice is just too recognizable, but it still mostly worked. Meanwhile, they got legendary actress Carol Kane in to play Blythe and she had maybe like six lines in the first act before basically disappearing for the rest of the episode.
– In the last couple years, we’ve seen some brief moments of more elaborate character animation dotted throughout certain episodes, sometimes just once an episode. Last week, we randomly got some incredibly fluid animation on Duffman seemingly commending Lisa, but actually doing it to Homer before they high-five. It’s kind of neat that they’re doing this, but sometimes it either feels random that a scene gets a cranked up animation budget for seemingly no reason, or it’s animated in a weirdly fluid way that comes off as unappealing. This episode, I noticed it in a sequence where Homer critiques Calvin’s breathing, so the two aggressively breathe at each other before they both pass out. Obviously a screen grab can’t accurately represent an animation, but it just looks weird to me. I feel like Simpsons characters without established eyebrows should never have them drawn separate from their eyeballs, like Homer is here, it’s odd-looking. But the end of this sequence gave me my only laugh of the episode, as Homer is passed out, a slow rendition of the theme song starts to play as the car slowly rolls to a stop after jumping the curb at the taxidermy studio. The little bump of the car going over the curb, as well as Homer’s lifeless body bobbling after it, that’s a nice animation touch that assists the joke.

4 thoughts on “736. Step Brother from the Same Planet

  1. Everyone criticised the HD era for its sterile, lifeless animation for years. Now it’s getting criticised for being too fluid and expressive? Damned if you, damned if you don’t.

    1. For me, I think it’s more that there aren’t really striking key poses, that a character will just have a fluid action that’s kind of neat, but not the most appealing to look at. But I’d much rather have these flourishes than the more sterile feel of the show through most of the 2010s.

  2. Remember than outrunning Gunsmoke seemed like a big milestone? Now The Simpsons have done more than 100 episodes more than Gunsmoke.

  3. Wow I didn’t even realize Calvin was played by a guest star. He just sounded like a generic Tress MacNeille voice to me. (Then again, I’m not familiar with Melissa McCarthy.)

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