530. Dangers on a Train

Original airdate: May 19, 2013

The premise:
Marge accidentally signs up on an Ashley Madison-type dating site, and ends up connecting with an unhappily married man voiced by comedy darling Seth MacFarlane. She’s aggravated thinking Homer forgot their anniversary, but he, meanwhile, is busy reconstructing an old mall train from one of their greatest dates.

The reaction: Honestly, it feels like these premises are just getting thinner and thinner. It used to be that episodes would feature crazy twists and go off the rails, but now, so many of these shows feel like barely anything happens in them. We start with Marge wanting to order cupcakes for Homer’s anniversary off of DollyMadison.com, but she’s shocked when her sisters point out she’s actually on SassyMadison.com. We then see she’s already put in all of her personal information, as well as a photo, onto this dating site for married people. This is really what we’re supposed to go with? How fucking dumb is Marge? We see the giant logo on the laptop screen, with the slogan “Cheat, Stray, Love.” But whatever. I guess because she’s anal retentive, Marge responds to each message she gets personally, until the last one Ben, who seems like a nice enough guy, who she continues to talk to. She ends up running into his at the supermarket, and then later goes for coffee, and then later has a cyber date with him watching the latest transparent “parody” Upton Rectory, airing on PBC. What could that be a take on? In every single scene, she just says over and over how she’s happily married, she doesn’t want to continue this any further, but then she does. But it’s not like she even acknowledges she’s on a slippery slope, or that she’s developing feelings for him or anything. It’s just “this can’t continue,” and then it does. Over and over. The plot mostly ends with her just dumping him in her mind. No progression, no emotional arc for Marge, nothing. The entire episode she’s pissed at Homer for seemingly forgetting their upcoming anniversary, while he’s been working in secret restoring an old train from the upscale mall from their first anniversary date. That, too, has no stakes. At one point, Homer gets a call that the engine car is damaged, but then that’s it. Both plots have no conflicts; Marge exhibits no real feelings toward Ben and nothing happens, and Homer wants to fix the train, then he does. The episode culminates with the reveal of the train, as the whole family takes a ride. Homer asks his beloved, “Do you think we’ll last twenty-five years?” To camera, Bart cheekily replies, “Nothing should.” The writers know how ramshackle this show is. They must know. They must.

Three items of note:
– I’m no fan of Seth MacFarlane. That’s putting it nicely. I hate just about everything he’s done. That being said though, I’m surprised they gave him such a bland, nothing role. It’s just his normal speaking voice he uses for Brian the dog, playing a character with no discernible personality. Then later they have him sing a crooning tune in Marge’s mind, because that’s a thing he always has to do (though to be fair, to me, his Sinatra-style singing is his strongest creative merit). Lisa Lampanelli also guest stars as his insufferable wife who barely gets any lines. Just throw those guest star names on the pile!
– The opening is pretty aggravating. It’s a flashback to nine years ago, with Homer, Marge and baby Bart taking a stroll in the fancy Springfield outdoor mall, the one we saw last season in the Facebook episode. Hadn’t it just opened in that show? It certainly doesn’t feel like a location from 2003, and as mentioned in that other review, certainly doesn’t belong in a dumpy town like Springfield. They run into Ned Flanders, who Homer happily lets watch Bart. Now, in continuity, they hadn’t moved to Evergreen Terrace until about a year later, but whatever. We also see Squeaky Voiced Teen in this flashback, but my theory is that there are hundreds of clones of him throughout time, so that’s fine.
– The Sassy Madison commercial has a stylized, kind of UPA, but not really, animation quality to it, which they use again for a song at the end to kill more time. I guess they really loved how it looked, but it felt very bland to me. It reminded me of “Saga of Carl” where Bart and Lisa watch a video about probability at a museum, which contained zero jokes. Commercial and film strip parodies used to be this show’s bread and fucking butter, and they can’t even make those funny or entertaining anymore. Where are the funnies? That they rhymed “commercial” with “Herschel”?

One good line/moment: Nothing again. Normally I write these reviews quickly after I watch the episode, but I saw this and “Carl” a day ago, and scanning through both, I really couldn’t think of a thing. That’s a bad sign, right?

529. The Saga of Carl

Original airdate: May 19, 2013

The premise:
The gang at Moe’s wins the lottery, but when Carl mysteriously disappears with the winning ticket, Homer, Lenny and Moe must travel to his homeland of Iceland to uncover the mysteries of Carl’s past.

The reaction: I’ve always posited that the show could keep things fresh by exploring the lives of the endless parade of semi-regular characters, with or without the Simpson family making an appearance. The show’s been going on so long, why not try something different and take a risk like that? But as we’ve seen, the show has done the opposite, degrading the secondary and tertiary cast to one-dimensional shadows of their previous selves. But now, we have an episode focusing on Carl Carlson of all people. Was anyone clamoring to hear his backstory? But hey, this is what I wanted, right? He’s Icelandic, he’s got a past he wants to make right, I can get on board if this is interesting. But it isn’t. Half of the episode is focused on the mystery of finding out where he went and why, sitting and waiting as they find clues to track down Carl, all the while just repeating the same lines of dialogue about not knowing who Carl is and why would he betray them. When they finally get to Iceland and track Carl down, he comes clean: he spent their winnings on a missing excerpt from an ancient text that he believes will clear up his ancestors’ besmirched name. Where did he buy this page from? We also never really see or hear anything from Carl’s parents, or hear about Carl’s past, if he was bullied or made fun of as a kid, or anything like that. This is an episode about Carl, but we really find out nothing about him. He’s remorseless about betraying his friends and stealing $150,000 from them because he doesn’t consider them friends (“We are just guys who sit next to each other at a bar, talking about… guy stuff!”) So that’s the excuse? This is especially weird after over a decade of portraying Lenny and Carl as inseparable life partners/secret lovers. Also, of the two, it always seemed Lenny as the more emotional one. I guess Carl just kept it bottled up after all these years. Whatever. Homer, Lenny and Moe take the page, discover it actually damns the Carlsons even more, and then win over the Icelanders by telling them of the many small kindnesses Carl has done for them. And that solves the conflict. And ultimately they learn nothing. Carl yearned for friendships where people actually get to know each other, but then the four just go back to sitting at the bar saying nothing. Nothing of value gained or lost, I guess.

Three items of note:
– Between this and “Whiskey Business,” in a supporting role, it seems that Marge just exists to parrot exposition and just say lines to push the plot forward. At the dinner table with the guys talking about Carl, she just repeats their jokes as she reinforces the story points in case you were falling in and out of consciousness and weren’t following. Then later, they have Homer call her on Skype from Iceland because I guess they couldn’t think of another way to get plot points out.
– Homer, Lenny and Moe begin auditioning replacements for Carl. First up? Lou, who quickly realizes why he’s there and leaves in a huff. Going out the door, he passes the next candidate: Dr. Hibbert. Yay, racism! Ugh. Carl was never the “black friend,” he was just this guy Homer knew from work. But since every character has been simplified to their basest form, now his “blackness” is a thing we can make jokes about. I remember a “joke” from way back of Carl, Hibbert, Lou and Drederick Tatum, four very, very different characters, carpooling for some reason, and Homer driving by giving the black power salute. It’s funny because they’re black? It didn’t help that right after that scene, Moe yelled at a picture of Carl, saying he never wanted to see that “moolah-stealin’ jackpot thief” again, and for a second, I thought he said “moolie,” Italian slang for a black person. What is this, Do the Right Thing?
– The middle portion of the episode is so fucking boring. Homer, Lenny, Moe: Mystery Solvers is so dull. They find out where Carl is, they go to his house, they stake out in front of his house, all while they say the same stupid shit in every damn scene wondering about Carl’s true nature and what they should do. All the dialogue just repeats. The next morning, they travel Carl by car in a long extended scene, then they chase him on foot, in a long extended scene. Snoozeville.

One good line/moment: Can’t think of anything for this one.

528. The Fabulous Faker Boy

Original airdate: May 12, 2013

The premise:
Marge makes Bart take up piano, where he is instantly smitten by his teacher, leading him to fake his talents to get her more paying students. In exchange for the lessons, Marge agrees to teach her father how to drive. Meanwhile, Homer must deal with being fully bald when his two hairs finally fall out.

The reaction: Some of these episodes, halfway through, I really don’t know what’s going on or why in terms of what the drive of the story is or why I should care. Bart has the hots for his piano teacher, who wants more pupils so she can help her father’s business. So we see a montage of him improving his abilities, but then in a bait-and-switch, at a big school concert, we see that he in fact was just playing music from a CD player embedded in the piano. Seems like a pretty ritzy item for Springfield Elementary to have. He ejects the disc right on stage after the show, but I guess absolutely no one was looking, including Marge, who walks up behind him a second later. So Zenya gets a lot of new students from the exposure, but Bart seems bummed about it. He goes to his lesson with a gift, but is disappointed to find he has to wait his turn behind the other kids. “If I got you all these students, shouldn’t you be grateful?” he asks. What exactly is Bart expecting of her? It’s not even he’s asking her out or wanting to spend time with her, that quote is just so strange. But that’s the last we see of her. Then it switches to a Bart-Marge episode, where Marge signs Bart up to a junior talent show, Bart has to admit he’s a fraud, and then mend fences with his mother. Marge is furious with her son; we open act four with her washing dishes and smashing them on the floor as a genuinely saddened Bart walks in. Why is she this pissed off? The show opened with Skinner recommended to her that Bart take up an instrument to improve his behavior, which despite there being no reason why he would say this, is never brought up again. By the end, Marge goes into apologize, saying, “It was wrong of me to force my dreams on you.” What? Is that what this was about? That was never mentioned before, ever. It’s like they were trying to repeat the Marge-Lisa story from “Last Tap Dance in Springfield,” but a bunch of script pages went missing. Mother and son make up at the end, but I was never clear what the emotional stakes were other than, Bart lied. So who cares?

Three items of note:
-This episode is pretty packed on the guest star front. Zenya and her father are voiced by Jane Krakowski and Bill Hader, SNL darlings that aren’t quite as horribly wasted as we’ve seen in the past (*cough*TinaFey*cough*), but just don’t have anything to work with. Hader probably fares the best, but that’s probably because I’m a fan. He also gets the thankless job of having to close out the story; Marge forgives Bart when he tells her that all Russians succeed by cheating, and that he’s “a good boy.” Cue hug. Easy as that? Patrick Stewart shows up in the B-plot with Homer, which I don’t really have anything to talk about. He plays a bald co-worker who magically appears in the break room after Lenny and Carl leave, never introduces himself, and just waxes on about how amazing and sexy it is to be bald. And then he leaves. It was just so weird; I was expecting the scene to end with Lenny and Carl looking in on Homer talking to himself. It’s like he was just an imaginary person in his mind. But it wasn’t, I guess. Finally, we have Justin Bieber, complete with an on-screen warning before his scene. Surely the most amateur of writers can come up with some kind of smirk-worthy material ripping into the Biebs, but I guess even that’s too hard. They have Bieber try to get into the kids talent show pageant and being denied (“That’s another twenty-five bucks we’ll never see! God!”) That’s it. Nine words. Why the fuck do they bother booking these mega stars and give them nothing to do?
– The bullies refrain from giving Bart a hard time for taking piano lessons when he says he’s got a crush on the teacher. This leads to a wonderful bit of dialogue with Martin (“I have a swim lesson with a gorgeous lifeguard!” “What gender?” “You’re not allowed to ask!”) Firstly, why in the fuck would a simple-minded bully ask “What gender?” And second, this is another in a slowly developing series of jokes of laughing at Martin for being a little gay kid. Like, why else are we supposed to think that line is funny? It’s just so weird and terrible.
– Helen Lovejoy stops Marge at the supermarket, who insults Marge by comparing her to Bart (“Isn’t it great having a musical genius in the family?”) Forget that she also backhands Lisa with that comment as well, but what is this scene about? Like, Bart’s got a talent, and Marge doesn’t? Is that why she’s so mad? Also, what the fuck is going on with Maggie Roswell’s phone connection? Like with Luann Van Houten, her sound quality is so off compared to everyone else.

One good line/moment: Another outsourced couch gag, this time from the folks at Robot Chicken. A big part why I really loved it is because all of the models were based on the old Playmates line of Simpsons toys, which I feverishly collected when I was younger. So it was cool recognizing all of them; they even used the Simpsons car and school bus vehicles too. I also loved the shot of seeing the Flanders toy blow up, it felt so real, because it literally was them blowing up a real toy. Robot Chicken is hit or miss for me, but I thought this was a really well done sequence.

527. Whiskey Business

Original airdate: May 5, 2013

The premise:
A fresh new suit gives Moe a new lease on life after his latest botched suicide attempt, and things are looking up when a pair of venture capitalists express interest in his homemade whiskey. Meanwhile, Abe gets injured while babysitting Bart, leading the boy to take care of him in the basement. Also meanwhile, Lisa is disgusted to find Bleeding Gums Murphy’s image being used as a live performing hologram.

The reaction: Did they just cram three unfinished outlines together into one script? It felt like I was watching story scraps for the two “subplots.” The fun begins with Moe planning to end it all, hoisting himself into a noose. The show has been getting plenty of yucks out of Moe attempting to kill himself for years now, but this is the first time they’ve really tried to treat it seriously. They try to have their cake and eat it by including a bunch of jokes during it, but it just doesn’t work at all. They have “Suicide is Painless” as the hold music for the suicide hotline, which feels like a terrible version of that type of joke from the classic years (playing “Crazy” on hold with the mental asylum). I just don’t like clinically depressed Moe; the few times he’s been effective is when they manage to balance his sleaze with his vulnerabilities (“Moe Baby Blues”), it’s just plain boring seeing him just sad, or then later, just happy. Once he gets a fancy new suit and renovates the bar, our “story” finally begins, thirteen minutes in. Some young hotshot assholes come in and Moe serves them his homemade liquor which we’ve never heard of, and they want to turn Moe’s into a brand they can sell as an IPO. At this point, this plot is being intercut between the other two stories, so it’s kind of hard to keep focus. Moe’s suit is destroyed in an impossibly stupid fashion, and the end involves him showing up in his drab wear at the New York Stock Exchange, which ultimately tanks his stock prices. It felt like “Simpson and Delilah” where Homer loses his hair, and despite Karl’s brilliant ideas, no one will listen to the ramblings of a bald man. But in this instance, there’s a simpler solution: just buy a new suit. Plus, there was no indication that those two suits were won over by Moe’s winning personality, it was his whiskey they loved. So who cares? Just throw anything halfway presentable on and be done with it. The ending features a fake-out where Moe doesn’t kill himself in the end; he looks wistfully at the noose in his back office, calling, “Not today, old friend. But the holidays are just around the corner.” So this is our feel good ending? Moe’s safe for now, but what if he kills himself on Christmas? Stay tuned to find out in another hilarious suicidal episode!

Three items of note:
– As mentioned, the two subplots are pretty scarce. While Homer and Marge are away trying to cheer up Moe, Abe is in charge of the kids. Seeing the old man’s senility in action, Marge tells Bart he’s actually in charge of his grandfather. Bart builds a crazy ass water slide in the span of an afternoon, and Abe injures himself on it in an over-the-top fashion. This leaves Abe on a cot in the basement as Bart tends to his injuries. In the end, it’s revealed he was only faking his injuries because he wanted to spend time with Bart. Marge I guess never questioned why Abe was missing when she returned home, and she ate up Bart’s bullshit excuse why she hasn’t been able to reach his phone for days (“He told me he was gonna nap for most of the week.” “Oh, good! He needs his sleep!”) And that’s it. She also never went in the basement ever, despite that being where the washer and dryer are. Very straight-forward, saccharine and boring. The other “plot” is very different; Lisa is at the Jazz Hole seeing her eccentric music heroes, and is stunned to see a Bleeding Gums hologram performing, as well as being used as ad-space. Before I move on, a mute Janey also stands with Lisa, wearing a cool jacket. I guess they figured it would be weird that Lisa was there all by herself? But Janey is like her default best friend, but they don’t share a lot of the same interests, especially jazz. I don’t even remember the last time she spoke. But it’s another example of characters just being used as props. The second and last scene of this plot involves Lisa writing an angry letter to Gums’ record label, only for Sonny Rollins to appear in her living room telling her to stop. It’s revealed that he is also a hologram, the van outside projects some other offensive holograms of Princess Diana and Gandhi, and then that’s the end. The whole topic of exploiting celebrities after they’ve passed and “reanimating” them is kind of fascinating, but this plot is so short and so straight-forwardly dull that they can’t wring anything out of the concept beyond the most basic joke of having Gandhi breakdance. And it’s a shame to see them bring back such an iconic character as Bleeding Gums Murphy for a disposable C-story.
– Marge arrives at Moe’s furious that Homer has yet again been wasting hours of his life there, but then cools off when she finds out about Moe. Then it’s like she becomes his life coach, proposing the road trip, dressing up in a nice pants suit for some reason, and spends the episode speaking in cliches or exposition or both (“This trip is about turning your life around!” “Every time you wear it, you’ll know how much we love you!” “Look over there, Moe!”) When Moe comes to the door in his torn apart suit, Marge regales him with the story of Dumbo… and then proceeds to explain the whole plot, relating the magic feather and his suit to both being placebos. Why was this necessary? They literally spend over thirty seconds talking about and recapping the story. But moreover, there’s no reason Marge should be bending over backwards this much for Moe. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but Marge should hate him, the man whose business her husband wastes away in every night away from her and their children. That great line from “Lisa on Ice” says it all (“I hope you understand I’m too tense to pretend I like you.”) And it’s not even that her heart was softened after learning of Moe’s suicide attempt; as we saw from the bar rag episode, among others, Marge now considers Moe a close personal family friend. Makes no sense to me.
– I’ve been noticing a lot of reused plot threads and jokes in recent episodes. Along with “Delilah,” Moe’s devastation of his destroyed suit reminded me of “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield.” And individual jokes repeat too; messing with the hot and cold water was done in “Tennis the Menace,” and Moe talking to the crowd while his stock tanks was like an unclever version of a gag from Futurama‘s “Future Stock.”

One good line/moment: Another good sign gag, this time at the Jazz Hole (Closed-Caption Scat Translation Available).

526. Pulpit Friction

Original airdate: April 28, 2013

The premise:
A new associate minister is instated at the church, who quickly supplants Reverend Lovejoy in popularity. Him appointing Homer to be a deacon becomes too much for Bart and Flanders, who team up to get rid of this new character.

The reaction: At a few points, I thought this was turning into a sorry rehash of “In Marge We Trust,” but even that would be too focused of an endeavor. As we’ve recently seen, this show can’t handle stories with the most prominent secondary characters like Flanders or Mr. Burns, so a third-string player like Timothy Lovejoy has no shot whatsoever. But despite the set-up, the episode isn’t really about him at all. The Bing Crosby Parson appears with a new reverend in tow, Elijah Hooper, who immediately wins the Springfield congregation over with meaningless pop culture references relating the word of God to Meet the Parents and Die Hard. Unlike the earnest nature of Marge as the Listen Lady, Hooper seems like a hollow fraud; he comes off as kindly and good-natured, but he never communicates any real ideas. He makes Homer his deacon for partly his own purposes; convert the least religious man in town to prove his methods and beliefs work. Ned is outraged at Homer’s promotion to the church, and Bart feels alienated from his father after he doesn’t want to moon the (G)Oogle street cam van with him. Homer and Bart being partners in crime rather than father and son is something we haven’t seen in a while, and it was a trend I was glad to see gone. But we’re supposed to feel bad for Bart feeling distant from his father in this one quick scene? And it’s not like Homer is treating his new position with seriousness and respect: we see him get out a speeding ticket, and em-blaze his name on the church marquee. Bart and Ned go to find Lovejoy, who is now selling hot tubs and believes he’s found his calling. It’s not clear why he’s there, or why he likes it, but none of that matters. Bart pulls a stupid prank to discredit Hooper, and then Lovejoy reappears to save the day, because it’s the ending and he has to come back. There’s no reasoning, no purpose, just stuff happening for twenty minutes. But that’s kind of every episode now.

Three items of note:
– I don’t think I’ve ever seen this from an episode, where the couch gag plays into the actual beginning of the episode. The Simpsons parachute down onto the couch and end up busting it (a couch gag we’ve already seen around season 7 or 8-ish), and then we open the episode with the family mourning their broken couch, and needing to buy a new one (“Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?”, anyone?). The couch gag ended with a couch spring bursting through Homer’s gut, I would have been amused if the show started with a giant bandage over his midsection.
– Also to pad time is barely a B-plot featuring Marge losing her wedding dress, and her shock and horror hearing Lisa say she doesn’t plan on getting married. This comes up about halfway through the episode, and no real plot had kicked in yet, so I wasn’t sure if this was going to turn into anything. Later on, we discover that Lisa has found the dress, currently being used by a newlywed couple at the courthouse. Marge is happy with this, and Lisa says she maybe might get married someday perhaps. And that’s it. Riveting. Marge ends up coming off unlikable in another instance of her insistent pushing of her hang-ups and beliefs on her children, and Lisa comes off unlikable in full hardcore liberal mode, positing a possible future of her getting married to a Chinese dissident for their green card.
– The ending is just so dumb. Bart and Milhouse scheme that if they infest the town will bullfrogs, Biblical plague style, they can expose Reverend Hooper as a fake. They use dead bedbugs (carried over from the opening of the show, in another shocking instance of continuity) to lure hundreds and hundreds of frogs into town. It’s a crazy amount of frogs, a veritable infestation, and for whatever reason, the town looks to their reverend to help them? It’s all just so silly and dumb. Lovejoy magically appears and saves the day because his by-the-book sermon is so boring, all of the frogs fall asleep. Hilarious!

One good line/moment: The Bingo Riots memorial plaque was a cute gag (“God pulled all their numbers that day.”)