596. Orange is the New Yellow

Original airdate: May 22, 2016

The premise:
After sending Bart outside to play unsupervised, Marge is put in prison, where she ends up thriving in an environment with no chores and no responsibilities.

The reaction: Sometimes I try to avoid direct comparisons, but in episodes like these, it’s almost impossible. Marge in a women’s prison? Been there, done that. But now, there’s a popular Netflix drama we can pretend to be parodying; make it the episode title, and perhaps we can glom onto another culturally relevant show! As pictured above, we get characters that look like Red and Suzanne, but the “parody” stops there. The initial set-ups of this and “Marge in Chains” are identical: Marge is the beleaguered workhorse who has a thousand things to do in a day, and one minor slip-up gets her in trouble with the law. Here, she gets Bart out of her hair by sending him outside, but when Wiggum finds him at the park without a parent, he promptly arrests Marge. I guess there’s some social commentary to be made here, but as usual, the surface is barely even scratched. Once in prison, Marge is naive, of course, but later gets pushed too far and knocks out a brutish inmate with her hair (there’s barely any build-up to this.) But after that, the plot shifts to her being a peaceful influence to the other prisoners by taking up gardening, and her being thrilled about early bedtimes and exercise time. So her knocking that woman out was just to get their respect? It doesn’t matter. In short time, she finds she loves it in prison, so much so when Homer manages to have her sentence cut short, she steals a guard’s gun and fires it in order to get more time. Even if this plot were better developed, this would be a hard pill to swallow. “Marge in Chains” was one of those shows more focused on wall-to-wall gags than its story, so I guess the core difference is this show’s attempt to do the opposite. With Marge needing a break, it’s like they blended it with “Homer Alone,” but then that brings the tally to two classic episodes they’re retreading in a much poorer fashion.

Three items of note:
– Just like “Chains,” we devote time to Homer and the kids to see how they’re faring with Marge incarcerated. But unlike the wonderful quick gag of the entire house going to shit within seconds, it’s multiple scenes of just bland nothingness. Neighbors chip in with gift baskets and baked goods to keep their spirits up, and eventually Homer decides he should probably get off his ass and do something. But not before envisioning a Ned Flanders/Marge hybrid to lust after. Between this and “Fland Canyon,” I guess these two are friends now? And like “Chains,” Marge makes friends with her fellow inmates, but none of the three pictured above have names or any real personality. Remember Philips? Tattoo Annie? And that was all within the last five minutes that Marge was actually in jail, compared to a whole two-thirds of this episode. Again, when the plots are this similar, it’s impossible not to think how fucking inept this is compared to the original.
– To kill time, we get an elaborate sequence of Homer envisioning himself as a B&W 50’s housewife, spurred by him vowing to step up as a parent. We then revisit it again for the end tag, which I promptly turned off. I’m still not completely sure why they do this four-act bullshit. Other FOX shows don’t, even comedies airing the same night. They’re just a waste of time. The story reaches a conclusion (in some cases, just barely), and then there’s just this worthless vestigial piece at the end of it.
– The ending involves Bart getting all the other kids to play without adult supervision, just in time for a tornado to roll into town and endanger them all. This occurs during a riot at the prison, where Homer just magically appears, having disguised himself a guard. But when the two of them hug and make up, the tornado magically disappears. And Marge is free to go just because. Why bother giving an explanation? We also see Wiggum talking to all the other parents, and I guess they get off with a slap on the wrist for losing their kids, unlike Marge. The very ending involves the family all hugging in the pantry, as Marge quips, “I want to say two things. I love you guys, and we’re out of peanut butter!” They all laugh. They end on a group laugh. And the line is a sub-par version of that awful sitcomy set-up for a group laugh. Once again, tired old tropes that the show mercifully skewered in the past are now embraced and played 100% straight.

One good line/moment: Michal Socha returns for another guest couch gag, featuring the family and the assemblage of the couch in the style of IKEA building instructions. A very cute and clever sequence.

595. Simprovised

Original airdate: May 15, 2016

The premise:
Homer combats his fear of public speaking by turning to imrov comedy. Plus, in the show’s final few minutes, Homer appears LIVE to take a few audience questions.

The reaction: Depicting stand-up comedy on your comedy television program is a pretty big challenge, since it kind has to be funny on multiple levels. “The Last Temptation of Krust” had the fresh new wave of comics do their set, but the humor came more from audience reaction and their being contrasted by Krusty’s old hacky material. Now, over fifteen years later, we have an episode about improv, where we’re forced to watch the troupe performers, and later Homer and company, go through these stupid, unfunny skits. To enormous applause and laughter, I might add. So Homer gets enamored by improv and joins a class, and whaddya know, he’s an instant hit! He immediately “nails” the comic scenarios thrown at him, including the “one we could never crack,” so I guess this counts as a “Simpson-is-instantly-an-expert-at-something” episode. But here’s the big issue: Homer’s bits aren’t really that funny. Like, the entire show isn’t funny, but trying to be as objective as possible, his material is mildly clever at best, but the audience is just going apeshit over it. Soon, we see he’s formed a troupe with Lenny, Carl and Skinner, and they’re an instant success. After that, Lisa informs them they’ve been invited to perform on the main stage at the Springfield Fringe festival which I guess they have. Remember, all we’ve seen of Homer’s “talent” are three quick bits he did with the improv people, then him on stage doing a Paul Prudhomme “I guah-ron-tee it!” to monstrous cheering. But in the story, he’s an accomplished and respected improv performer. Still nervous, Moe proposes he feed him scenarios from the audience, but Lisa interferes, wanting to protect the sanctity of… improv comedy (“You can’t let your troupe down! They need your space work, your strong choices and scene-building skills!”) We saw Homer’s “troupe” in one scene, never saw them perform, and we’ve barely seen anything of what Homer can do. I’d say this feels flimsier that normal because they had to devote four minutes at the end for the live segment, but this episode also had a B-story with Marge fixing Bart’s treehouse, that is so thin and superfluous I have nothing to say about it. The episode has no ending either, Homer just performs, camera pull out, gotta rush to get to the live section. I’m going to assume they came up with the live gimmick first and then figured out a story to make it tangentially related. Maybe they shouldn’t have even bothered.

Three items of note:
– The impetus of this story is that Homer has to give a speech for a seminar at the plant, and apparently he gives one every year. What’s that about? He’s the safety inspector for one part of the plant, and a terrible one at that. They don’t even bother to make it into some kind of joke, or even have Burns or anyone mention what the speech is about, it’s just “Homer has to make a speech.” Again, it’s just having the bare bones of a story in place so things sort of kind of make sense played in sequence. No need to develop anything, details are too much work and don’t matter.
– I guess since she’s been so underutilized this season, they crowbar Lisa into the story halfway, acting as “CREW” for the troupe’s show at Moe’s. At that point, I guess she’s their manager or main stagehand or something since she’s the one that gets informed that they’re gonna perform at Fringe (“This is going in my log! Yaaaayyy!”) At the festival, she’s in some kind of hipster get-up with a hat, vest and tie, and gushing about all there is to see and do… even when she’s not being bitter or smug, she really is just an insufferable character. And they try to cram in an emotional conflict with her in the little time they have left, I guess to try to give the episode some weight (“I need an occupation!” “A father I can look up to!”) It’s cheap, but no cheaper than the out-of-left-field, wholly manufactured emotional endings we’ve seen before. They’ve pulled the Lisa card to generate false sympathy many, many times before; the fact that they think they can cram the same hollow nonsense in with so little time is just telling that they either think it’s a quick and easy solution, or they don’t care, or both.
– So, the live segment. Viewers were prompted to call in, and at the end of the episode, we cut to Homer seated behind a desk ready to answer some questions. This was done twice the night it aired, once for the east coast feed, once for the west coast. There’s a great article talking about how it was done, but explained simply, Dan Castellaneta performed live, and based on the audio coming in, Adobe Character Animate would register his words into the proper phonemes linked to the proper mouth shapes to make Homer look like he’s actually talking. The result is kind of neat, but it’s more of a proof of concept than a polished piece. It feels too static; aside from a slight head tilt and a raised arm or two, Homer doesn’t move all that much. Perhaps a few different poses they could have switched between would have been neat. I guess the solution to this was to have characters randomly pop onto the screen to distract you, some with sign gags who just walk in and then leave after a few seconds, like Lisa (“We Parked in Bill O’Reilly’s Space”) and Kang with some more fan service (“Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For Kodos.”) I can at least give them credit for trying something new; for all the awful gimmicks we’ve seen from this show, this one at least feels like it came out of an earnest interest.

One good line/moment: Homer nervously walks to the stage for his speech, the entire room dead except for the sound of his footsteps. Not being quite awkward enough, Burns turns a dial on a speaker reading “Footstep Amplifier” to make it even louder.

594. To Courier With Love

Original airdate: May 8, 2016

The premise:
Homer shakes up Marge’s doldrums with a family trip to Paris, but to pay for it, he agrees to act as courier for two bumbling (and familiar) French crooks.

The reaction: I continue to be amazed as we near the 600-episode mark, how surprised I am that this show continues to get worse. You’d think I would be numb to it at this point, but as bad as this show has gotten, it feels like as the seasons go on, these episodes get flimsier and flimsier. A lot of defenders cry hyperbole when people complain about how low the show has sunk, but I feel like people aren’t nearly harsh enough. The fact that these shows make it to air, that the people making them watch them and think they’re good enough, is baffling to me. So this episode features Homer wanting to make Marge (and later his kids) happy, and then they are. To afford to go on Marge’s dream vacation to Paris, he agrees to deliver a secret package while he’s there. At the airport, Homer encounters his clients: Caesar and Uglion, Bart’s abusive captors from “The Crepes of Wrath.” Fan service? Also the briefcase contains a rare blue snake which the two crooks want to turn into a belt. Based on a cutaway joke, I guess they’ve expanded their operation from tainted wine to a whole animal cruelty factory. Lisa wants to save the snake, so she and Homer take off, being pursued by them a few times through the show. But there’s never any tension; when the two crooks show up, they end up distracting themselves, look away, and Homer and Lisa are gone. At a point, they’re looking for a place to hide, Lisa points out a local jazz district she wants to check out, and then they just go and watch music. I’m not expecting high action drama, but it’s important if your story has… y’know, stakes. Lisa ends up playing on stage, and her inner monologue narrates, “I’ve never been happier!” Bart thinks the same line when he sneaks into a fashion show and baits the skinny models with a sausage on a fishing line. And later, Marge comments the same when she’s on a romantic night walk with Homer. So, as usual, it’s tell, not show. Caesar and Uglion end up having the police ransack the Simpsons’ hotel, they find nothing, and Homer surmises it was the best trip ever. And the snake was in Marge’s hair. And then that’s it. What was the point? Just so they could cross off another country on the “Simpsons are going to…” map? There aren’t even a lot of French jokes, it’s mostly a lot of surface level stuff, like Lisa inexplicably dressed like Madeline and them sight seeing with no real gags attached. What was the significance of the blue snake? To appeal to Lisa? Except it wasn’t even about that. And they didn’t even bother to write an ending about what they did with it. These episodes are just a bunch of disconnected nonsense with something partially resembling a story going on around it. But none of this is new. I feel like so many of these points I end up repeating again and again. But I can’t just stop after I’ve gotten this far. It’d be like walking out in the middle of an autopsy. That would be rude.

Three items of note:
– Things start off aggravating as the Simpsons clean out the garage. They move the old Olmec head out of the corner, which now is like half the size that it used to be, and they uncover a classic roadstar under a sheet that apparently belonged to the old tenants. Now, the family has had this house for over eight years, and they never noticed this? And it was covered by the Olmec head, an item they acquired since they lived there. The car is there for Homer to hop in, have a fun little song about, and be emblematic of his wacky, carefree adventures that Marge envies. So where do we go from here? Have Jay Leno show up at the door, of course! You see, Jay loves old cars, so much so that there’s a whole TV show devoted to his collection, because what better way to spend your time than watch a millionaire show off all his cool stuff? So Jay wants to buy Homer’s car, pays in cash and takes it away. Homer goes back inside, proposes to Marge they go on a trip, and then the doorbell rings again. Jay’s back and he doesn’t want Homer’s car anymore. Plus, he tried to register it, found out it wasn’t Homer’s, and the police repossessed it. All within the span of… ten, fifteen seconds? There’s just so much about all of this I hate. As the “payoff” of the “bit,” Jay wants to rescind the deal because he discovered how convenient new modern cars are. So all of this just feels like him gleefully taking the piss out of his rich celebrity hobby. Remember when Jay Leno gave Krusty advice about joking about everyday life stuff? Me neither.
– Marge comments how she for once she wants to have a great vacation, echoing her sentiment from “Itchy & Scratchy Land.” She then runs down a list of all of the places/countries they’ve been to over the years, walking off and reappearing in the background still talking. Lisa takes her place in the foreground to talk a bunch of exposition with her father. As they talk, a man being hoisted by balloons floats by and ends up having them all popped by the floating house from Up. What is that doing there? Were the writers bored of their own story and felt they needed another Pixar love letter to fill the space?
– Sometimes when an episode seems particularly awful to me, I check the review thread on No Homers to see what the commentary is like. Reviews were mixed; positives seemed to rely on people liked seeing Caesar and Uglion again (so I guess transparent fan service does work) and they enjoyed seeing famous French landmarks animated. So… watch a travel special? They should just make the show a travelogue, these guys would love it! But I also came about a bunch of posts debating whether or not the end tag featuring caveman Matt Groening carving the final scene on the wall was “canon,” as well as Marge mentioning “outer space” as a vacation destination from “The Man Who Came to Be Dinner,” so I don’t know what that says about that caliber of fans. Like, who gives a shit?

One good line/moment: The one smirk I got was from when Marge wanted to indulge in plenty of pâté while her guilt-tripping daughter is away, so the waiter recommends she pick from the Extra Cruelty menu (“We have a coq Au vin made from an old rooster who was kicked to death in front of his wife and children. Very nice.”)

593. Fland Canyon

Original airdate: April 24, 2016

The premise:
We flash back to two years prior: Ned Flanders wins a trip to the Grand Canyon and invites the Simpsons along, and the two families must learn to get along.

The reaction: I once again find myself finishing another episode wondering exactly what the point of it was. Narratives usually have to be about something, right? So this is a flashback show, even though there’s really no need for it to be, pairing the Simpsons and the Flanders’ together on a vacation. We get a lot of beauty shots of the Grand Canyon which the background artists worked hard on and did a very nice job. The usual predictable nonsense ensues with the Flanders’ being namby pamby wusses, and Homer and Bart being maniacs. One bit involves Bart somehow suction cupping himself to the bottom of a glass walkway above a giant chasm just to moon his father. Homer moons back, security knocks him out and drags him away, to Marge and the Flanders’ horror. “Stupid kid…” Homer grunts as he’s slowly being pulled from the foreground with his head sunken. It seemed weirdly serious, but then we quickly cut to our next wacky scene! So there’s two things happening in this show. First, Maude is a side-eyeing and judgey mom, with Rod and Todd being perfect little angels versus Marge’s rambunctious Bart. She calls Marge “checked out” in her treatment of her little hellraiser. Does anything come of this story? Nope. No resolution at all. The conflict arises when their tour guide falls off the mountain leaving them stranded. Homer and Ned go off to find help, and eventually come upon a caravan of rich assholes at the bottom of the canyon. Ned is hesitant to steal, but Homer convinces him to do this “his way” for once, and they do. I guess this counts as the second story. Homer is mildly annoyed with Ned as usual, but then they… get along? A lot of times in these recaps I make the story sound more coherent than it is, but here, there’s barely any narrative tissue I can attempt to connect. There’s basically nothing to the Homer-Ned story, and the Marge-Maude story had like two scenes devoted to it, and then nothing else. Homer and Ned bring the food back, then we cut to the next morning and they’ve been rescued somehow. Does it matter how? Nah. I guess I can’t fault an episode for having no ambition (you can’t fail if you don’t try, after all), but what a sorry statement to make. These kinds of episodes are the most forgettable, but stuff like this and “Peeping Mom” irritate me the worst, shows that are about nothing but killing twenty minutes, but that are apparently good enough to air.

Three items of note:
– I really don’t understand the rich people element of the show. They appear as a joke earlier, with a huge caravan of cars driving down the mountain, then later Ned observes them with binoculars being extremely wasteful and hurtful to the environment. Is this supposed to be some kind of commentary? It just felt like an orphaned idea that they threw in and didn’t bother to connect with anything. It’s not like it’s contrasted with the Simpsons and Flanders’ truly embracing roughin’ it. It’s just kind of there as a solution to their food dilemma. And they just take the food and leave. No chase, no repercussions. They could have just found an abandoned truck of food and it would have been exactly the same.
– There’s a gag at the end that you can file in the sizable folder of jokes the show immediately ruins by over-explaining them. Homer and Ned present their bountiful feast they stole to their families and they dig in. Among the shots, we see six-year-old Lisa gorging herself on a pile of bacon. Alright, that’s kind of cute. But then right after, we cut back to the present where Homer and Lisa explain to Maggie (ie: the audience), remember, this story happens before Lisa’s vegetarianism. Now do you get it? You may now laugh retroactively at the previous joke. Ugh.
– Like I said, there’s absolutely no reason this story couldn’t have worked in the present. None. Also, pre-Maggie Homer should have three hairs on top of his head, but he only has two here. Boy, I sure hope someone got fired for that blunder. Minor nitpick? Yeah, of course. But I’ve run out of things to say about this episode, so there you go.

One good line/moment: This latest guest couch gag was animated by veteran Disney animator Eric Goldberg, as we see each Simpson paying tribute to a different Disney hallmark, from Maggie in glorious Mickey Mouse black and white, Lisa as Cinderella, Marge as Snow White (using a vacuum cleaner as a broom), Homer as Baloo the bear, and Bart appearing as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice to fuck everything up and return us to the horrible sterile HD designs of the regular show. The way Goldberg animates the characters is so appealing; beyond the fun Disney tribute, even seeing regular red dress Lisa wave goodbye to the pumpkin carriage before she transforms into Cinderella is a sheer delight. As great as some of these outsourced couch gags are, they almost work to the show’s detriment, since they’re so well done and enjoyably animated that they only make the actual show look that much worse. It also seems like the best pieces are always placed in front of the blandest episodes (the Michal Socha one before “What to Expect When Bart’s Expecting,” Rick & Morty before “Mathlete’s Feat,” etc.)

592. How Lisa Got Her Marge Back

Original airdate: April 10, 2016

The premise:
Marge takes Lisa on a trip to Capitol City to mend their strained relationship. Meanwhile, Bart’s prank game is reinvigorated by teaming up with Maggie.

The reaction: Fucking hell, another one of these? We’ve had four Lisa shows over the past five, the first two featuring her being self-righteous and smug, and the latter two being a raging, uncompromising bitch toward her own mother. The writers remember Lisa is supposed to be a sympathetic character, right? The rift occurs when Lisa overhears Marge gab on and on about how much she hates jazz, and she feels hurt over all the times her mother had encouraged her and told her the contrary. We see Homer and Marge bond over their mutual hatred, so between this and Bart ragging on jazz to her sister in select jokes over the past decade or so, it seems the entire family is against Lisa and the musical genre. It just feels weirdly negative of Marge to be so blunt about something she knows Lisa loves so much. So for once, Lisa is actually upset about something for a reason, and Marge arranges a girls trip to hopefully mend fences. In their hotel room, we seem to get a repeat of the last scene from “Pay Pal” where Marge starts crying that she hurt Lisa, and Lisa has an inner monologue explaining what she’s feeling, except this time, she chooses to stay pissy. It’s really hard to pin down exactly what the emotional arc is for this story. After Marge takes her to a terrible musical, Lisa concludes (via inner monologue again) that her taste is terrible and that she’ll have to mother herself from now on. Since when did their mother-daughter bond depend on shared cultural interests? She later gives an interminably long monologue to our helpful guest star toward the end, where she eventually talks herself into forgiving Marge by the time she finishes talking. She mentions how her mom always sees the good in everything and everyone, and that hardly anyone likes jazz, so I guess that’s okay and she hugs Marge. Then we get a musical number from Lisa with a bunch of Broadway references in the background and we wrap this one up. I once again ask, what’s our takeaway? Lisa gets mad that Marge doesn’t like jazz, but then she gets over it, because nobody likes jazz. Okay? I just don’t get it.

Three items of note:
– The B-plot seems to speak to my thoughts about how antiquated elements of this show still live on, as Bart finds that no one is falling for his pranks anymore. Classic stuff like the dollar on a string, the spring-loaded peanut brittle, and that thing where you pour salt in the napkin dispenser (?) What kid in the year 2016 with a smartphone is going to be pulling shit like this? This stuff seems even too softball for 90s Bart; the closest I can think back is when he and Milhouse ran wild in that joke shop in “Lost Our Lisa.” With Marge and Lisa gone, Bart takes to using Maggie in his pranks, and we get a bonding montage with them, set to that music they used in “Treehouse of Horror II” during Bart’s segment. I remember from the commentary that music is a riff on the music used in an old father-son anti-smoking commercial. “Treehouse” used it ironically, seeing as we were seeing all these gags with Bart bonding with his jack-in-the-box father. Meanwhile, this has got to be the third time I’ve heard them use this music over montages sincerely over the past decade-plus. As usual, the show is content to slum in the tired old tropes it used to savagely lampoon.
– Marge looks around Capitol City to find the perfect musical to take Lisa to. She glances over at three different marquees which show song clips from the musicals, and it’s the same joke each time, being musical adaptations of movies with an American Idol contestant in the cast. When she finally lands on Bad News Bears: The Musical, Lisa is weirdly offended (“Is there nothing so beautiful that they won’t keep exploiting until it’s worthless?”) Why would an eight-year-old girl have seen that movie, and why would the non-athletic Lisa even care about it if she had? But immediately after that line, we get the payoff to the joke, with “SIMPSONS SEASON 17 DVDS STILL ON SALE!!!” flashing on the screen. It’s just another example of this show’s self-awareness; as much as I’d like to think otherwise, it’s pretty clear the crew knows how subpar these shows are, and how little they seem to care.
– Andrew Rannells guest voices as the star of Bad News Bears: The Musical, and tags along with Marge and Lisa during their quick and easy emotional reconciliation. The joke with him is that he thinks he’s a bigger star than he is, but no one really cares (“It’s a tourist trap, celebrities don’t actually come in here.” “Until today, right?”) But I think Rannells is a little too unknown for that joke to work. I see he had a recurring role on Girls, but off-Broadway, I don’t think many people know who he is. To remind the audience, he gestures to a series of helpful signs: Andrew Rannells from The Book of Mormon (Not The Fat Guy). Meanwhile, “the fat guy” Josh Gad has been getting a lot of major film roles, and is arguably more well known. Maybe they could have had Rannells be bitter and jealous of Gad’s success, drop a Frozen reference or two… something.

One good line/moment: Despite having just complained about his role on the show, Rannells is very charming, and has a great voice for voice over. He also shoots Lisa down for her heartless bitching, and later digs her when she’s playing the sax (“Hey, that little turd can play!”)