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Johnny Unusual

(He/Him)
Puffless

I don't have a lot of the conventional vices. I don't smoke, I don't drink, the only time I've tried drugs is some marijuana that at best made me a little queasy (what's a good way to get giddy, guys?) and I don't fuck (maybe someday. Just shy about meeting people and online dating has not gone well). I am an overeater but even that is... somewhat under control (I gained some of my weight back but I'm still 40 pounds lighter than where I was). Oh, and I guess I have a screen addiction. And I should try to treat those but I feel like those are more accepted vices. I feel like if I did get into smoking or drinking it would get bad. I never feel like I have strong self-control and while I never had a real interest in alcohol, if I did, I could see it being a bad scene. And I'd be worried that maybe I would use it to push away the few friends I have.

In this episode, the Simpsons visit Marge's mother's house for her 80th birthday only to learn what really killed her father; lung cancer. Patty and Selma take it as a wake up call to finally quit smoking but it turns out Patty is taking it much more seriously than Selma. Patty moves out and each of the twins feels lonely. Eventually, Selma promises to do better but soon neither can resist smoking again. Meanwhile, Maggie has an adventure with animals.

As you can see, there's very little meat on this bone. A few years back, it seemed like the show tried to experiment with two interconnected a-plots with mixed success (or rather little but the issues with those episodes weren't the new formula, they were just mostly poorly written). This episode feels more like the a-plot is religated to the b-plot and the b-plot kind of overwhelms the whole endeavor. The whole episode isn't "bad" per se, it's just very incomplete. It hints at getting to some emotional matters and the episode is primed for that; addiction is not easy to break and that can put a rift in a relationship. And a long-lived relationship like this means not seeking other avenues might put some regrets in there. When Patty opens up and admits to Homer that she's envious that Marge has someone like Homer in her life is interesting. Patty came out a while back but unlike Selma, we rarely see her in a relationship but there is a yearning for love she put on the backburner. As someone who also feels lonely but is simply too shy to put himself out there, I can relate. And I also appreciate that after years of "hag" jokes or the twins just trying to break up Homer and Marge, they get to have some depth again.

The problem is, like many episodes of this era, is it just kind of ends. I actually don't mind that they go back to smoking in the end on paper. It could be a fun subversion of expectations when looking at their relationship. But it really feels more about a hand-wavy "OK, let's set the clock back to zero" It's pretty witless and not clever and after a very brief moment of genuine emotion, we need Selma to quit, Patty to say "OK", for them to both quit quitting and there's very little time for this to register for the characters or the audience as a journey beyond
a bunch of stuff that happens". They make a play at "one last temptation for Selma" but I think it has very little to say on these characters who only had each other for most of their lives. And thinking about their mortality is interesting; they only have each other so what if one dies and the other doesn't. That's an interesting angle for them to consider before they decide to break themselves up. Also, Ling is referenced but I feel like only grudgingly, as Selma's goddamned baby just barely enters into the episode in any capacity.

The b-plot that overwhelms the episode isn't very good but it's not for a lack of trying. It's interesting because it's a cutesy Maggie story that feels like a response to the Disney acquisition but that's a few years away. So I guess it's just the show doing it's own take on a family film. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this was originally planned as one of the theatrical Maggie shorts they've done. I think it's not bad looking or directed, it's just not very funny. I also think since it clearly had talent involved, I would have preferred they just made this the whole episode. I don't think I would have liked it more but I would have respected it since it really has it's own feel and making something like this with no b-plots or distractions would feel more like an experiment.
 

Johnny Unusual

(He/Him)
Halloween of Horror

As a kid, I never really liked horror stuff. I remember specifically hiding whenever a commercial for Child's Play appeared and even spooked me into my teenage years. But I did always like monsters, strangely enough. Dinosaurs, mythological beasts, aliens, all great. I think what eased me in was the Canadian kids horror anthology Are You Afraid of the Dark?, which got me into the Goosebumps books and over time I was just... someone who loved horror. But I'm rarely actually scared anymore. I usually can appreciate the craft or messaging and actually being scared is rare. There are a few movies that did it when I was much older; Black Christmas and the first 20 minutes of When a Stranger Calls (fun fact; it was originally a short film, which is why that first 20 minutes is perfect and the rest of the movie is a weird, shambling narrative that feels like two more imperfect, if interesting, films). They are films that remind me of my real fear... the vulnerability of being alone.

In this episode, Homer accidentally gets three pop-up store employees fired, causing them to vow revenge. Lisa goes to a Krustyland horror night, only to get truly scared to a surprising degree. Lisa even digs up her old comfort object; the remaining tail of Taily, her stuffed raccoon from her preschool years. Homer takes down the family's massive decoration set-up, Everscream Terrors, with reluctance and stays home with Lisa on Halloween night to have a restful night in while Marge takes Bart to a rich kids neighborhood to make it up to him. But Marge is turned away and ends up scrambling for a new way for Bart to have a fun Halloween. Meanwhile, the three former employees start stalking Homer in Halloween masks and Homer tries to keep it from Lisa but when they get in the house, Homer gets straight with her as they hide in the attic. Homer encourages Lisa to not let her fear cloud her judgement and Lisa comes up with a plan to use all the holiday decorations to draw attention to their home. However, to light the fuse on the July 4th fireworks, they need to light Taily on fire. The plan works and the employees are sent to jail and Lisa overcomes her Halloween fear.

I would love to come up with a list of the truly great episodes of the show's worst years (I'm going to say seasons 17-28, maybe?) Maybe I will when I catch up with the show and it's summer so I can't do these for a while. And I feel confident in saying Halloween of Horror would rank really high for me. Like, if you aren't watching in this era but need a good episode cherry picked out, I might choose this one. I think it's the kind of show modern Simpsons should evolve to. Yes, Homer isn't as wackily incompetent and awful as a Dad and the Simpsons seem a little more functional but the story is strongly character-based, relatable and even when it retroactively adds something, it feels really natural to the show. The Carolyn Omine script is top notch, the acting has surprising range, and after years of hearing some repetitive Alf Clausen scores, this sounds really fresh (though, sadly, it's possible this was happening when Clausen was being ushered out the door).

But let's back up; why does this work? The Simpsons is a show that after a certain point really struggled juggling sentiment with yuks. Weirdly, in the old days, Conan O'Brien frames it like a struggle from the yuks seeking writers and James L Brooks and Sam Simon injecting some incsive emotion. To me, it seems like the writers won, to our detriment, and we got stuck with jerk-ass Homer and then even when they tried to fix it, something happened to the secret sauce. Simpsons can't be the same again. But also, it shouldn't The best episodes of this era manage to change but still keeping things in the right perspective; Homer and Marge are loving but imperfect parents but even Homer has some surprisingly decent parenting skills. He's not quite as overtly a bad dad. This actually isn't as big a deviation from the older days but the struggles feel not far removed from Bob's Burgers in tone. I'm not sure I can articulate it quite right but the Simpsons seem to be more aware of their parenting methods, kind of a logical extension of "bloody spearheads for Bart" but sometimes a little more guidance based. This could in theory result in a more lecturing show but it keeps characters in mind. Our protagonists are more sensitive and sensitive to others and while that could risk humour (though jerk-ass Homer is the other direction), I think it enriches the character and is more of a positive than a negative. And I guess sensitivity is the key. Because often when the show goes the opposite direction of being mean-spirited, it can get painfully shmaltzy (Apocalypse Cow). But Marge being like "yeah, you were going to be 'selfish' about this Bart, but that's OK because I know this means a lot to you and those feelings are valid so let's go have a fun Halloween together."

Jeez, I haven't even gotten to the themes yet but I'll fold that into what I think works with modern Simpsons; putting us in a particular position with the characters. So much of the series has at a comedic remove and that's OK but some great moments and even something I liked in unsuccessful episode is when they decide to put us in a similar headspace as a character, even if it means risking throwing out a few jokes to do it. In this episode, the composition, noise and lighting let us live in Lisa's world of fear for a bit, like when the episode goes quiet for a second while Lisa hides in a locker until Mom comes by. The revelation of Taily is perfectly scripted and sometimes when some "this episode only" backstory comes into play, it feels off for reasons I'm not certain about. Taily works very well thematically as Homer and Marge worry Lisa is going backwards in development and really worry. It's an episode that is really exploring when do we be honest with our kids vs. when do we lie a little to comfort, when do we sacrifice a little fun to be sensitive, how we deal with fear as a kid.

It's a thoughtful episode but it's also, like, a genuinely fun ride. Because even though it's an emotional (the fear of emotion more than weepy tearjerking), canonical Halloween, it's still a spooky parody; this time of home invasion horror films, like the Strangers and the Purge. And guess what, we have not-household name comedy guest stars like Workaholics Blake Anderson (who is very good at heightened cartoon voices, apparently) and Nick Kroll (I already new he was but while he's great, he's actually downplaying it a little bit as his scuzzy villain). All the acting is strong and I'll also say I am usually pretty critical of the parody musical numbers that aren't Dr. Zaius, the Time Warp parody about "grown up Halloween" is not bad at all. This is the kind of episode I like and based on some episodes I've seen this season, what it might be turning into. I'm glad to be over the hump of the Musk season and while I know we have struggles ahead, like two episodes dealing with Apu (one trying to be even-handed and considerate, one saying "fuck you, Apu-haters, now we don't know what to do"), I'm hopeful we might be turning a corner. But also there's an episode were the Simpsons pretend to go to Mars or something? Idunno, it might be a bit of a wait.

Other great jokes:
"Are you going up to the treehouse to tell three horrifying tales?"
"No, we're going to do that next week. It's going to be Psycho with Skinner and his mom, Muppet Wizard of Oz (I'm Scarecrow Fozzie) and then um one where furniture gets smart and takes over the world or something,"
This is a perfect take on later Halloweens, especially "Idunno, shit comes to life"

The "scaredy pants" shut down scene is great, I love the way it humiliates Lisa in a way that feels outsized but emotionally real; that feeling like your own fear is a fucking bummer to everyone else and they have to roll their eyes and reluctantly help.

"A tabby and a calico? I wouldn't want to be that ribbon!"
I love when Lisa is kinda cheesy about fluff.

Other notes:
There are also little bits of dialogue that aren't jokes that I like and in general this isn't really funny "I just think they're neat" Marge but she is "really awesome mom" with phrases like "she has a tummyache in her courage" and promising Bart "yes, the animatronic will say your name and if your name happens to be a swear..."

Chalmers as Sean Connery in Zardoz is a great costume.
 

Johnny Unusual

(He/Him)
Treehouse of Horror XXVI

After a really good Halloween we have...this.

In this episode, three more scary tales. In the first, Sideshow Bob finally kills Bart but feeling disappointed with life afterward, creates a resurrection machine to constantly bring him back to kill him again. The Simpsons intervene and give him a taste of his own medicine. In the second tale, a parody of Godzilla, Grandpa spends every morning sending a donut into the sea to placate a monster. When he doesn't one day, the monster, Homerzilla, rises to attack Japan. This turns out to be a film within a film that Hollywood decides to remake with disastrous results. In the final segment, a parody of Chronicle (remember Chronicle?), Milhouse and Lisa get psychic powers and Milhouse goes mad with power.

All of these episodes have premises with potential but the execution in all is completely lacking. The first one presents a problem similar to the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon "What's Opera, Doc?" where Elmer Fudd finally kills Bugs and, in a surprisingly beautiful finale, is actually really bummed about it. Despondent even. This is actually a really good non-canonical way to explore the fact that Bob's life ended up revolving around killing a 10 year old. Like, even if you succeed... is that even a win. And I think the ressurection machine idea can explore some fun ideas but I feel like Bob just rekilling Bart isn't interesting enough. I think it would be more fun if he was literally acting out scenarios where he didn't win the first time. OR we see that WITHOUT a resurrection machine. Which is grosser but I think there's kind of a fun game is Bob being in denial about the hollowness of his pursuit. It toys with some stuff, similar to the end of the Great Louse Detective but really, it's pretty simplistic.

The second one is the most ambitious, a parody of Godzilla that really wants to parody Hollywood regurgitating old ideas. The problem is I think it has the wrong take. Yes, make fun of taking something once simple and even meaningful and turn into a crass media empire. But it doesn't really seem to GET Godzilla because I think the mutation of that franchise is much more interesting than it's boring simplistic take. We see Hollywood execs acting like it's a MST3k-level cheapy that could be remade as a grotesque example of overspending and marketing but Godzilla began as a really stark film before, being edited for US audiences as just another monster film that leaves out the Hiroshima subtext. Then it mutated into a goofy superhero series. Then America happened. It's a much more interesting journey and frankly the segments comments on commercialism seem trite. There's a lot to say about how IP is used in Hollywood but frankly this particular commentary seems to harken back to the late 90s.

The final tale just can't even bother. I really enjoyed Chronicle when I saw it but I never had a desire to return and Max Landis' shittiness certainly is doing it no favours. But even then, it seemed like a weird choice for a flash-in-the-pan parody. And it doesn't really earn it. Sure, giving constant beta power is a decent idea but it feels pretty played out and not only is there not a new take on it, things are offhandedly resolved before it's begun by giving Maggie powers and OK, we ran out of time, goodbye everyone! It really doesn't feel like it cares and after a killer last episode, it's a disappointment.

Other notes: Speaking of shitty people, guest animator John K. again for the opening bit.
 

Johnny Unusual

(He/Him)
Friend with Benefit

When I was a kid, I kind of new a couple "friendships" I had were me focused on a cool thing they had, like a Sega Genesis (different times). But even at age 12, when "gay" was a pejorative, I decided to extricate myself from one when I realized the kid's dad was homophobic. But prior to that, I did try to convince myself "hey, maybe this kid I don't quite jibe with who has a cool toy... maybe we can work it out." And though I might have been a bit mature for that kind of trap (even then I was kind of embarrassed with myself), I went for it. I probably could have handled that better but I do think that is a thing kids can do, try a relationship that is purely because of a base want. And sometimes grown ups, too.

In this episode, Lisa gets a new friend, Harper, who, like she, is into magic. She invites Lisa to a concert that turns out to be in ridiculously luxurious seating because her dad is wealthy. Homer immediately falls for the lifestyle but Lisa starts seeing red flags in the friendship. Homer tries to convince Lisa to not worry about it, especially considering all the perks. Soon, Harper and Harper's dad invite the Simpsons to a week-long getaway at an opulent private island. Lisa and Harper have a falling out at school when L:isa feels Harper's gift shows her as being condesending to her. Harper's dad reasons it's kids being kids and convinces Homer to come aboard, figuring they'll work it out. Things seem to go great but eventually there's another falling out and Harper's dad asks Homer to let Harper win their argument. Homer can't do it and they leave the island, with Lisa proud of her dad.

This one is so weird to me because I think it is doing almost everything right and yet I'm still kinds of ambivalent towards it. I think it is structurally pretty smart, decent messaging and it's a decent Lisa/Homer dynamic. It even feels a little old school in making Homer really selfish but not to the point where we hate him and that's always tricky. It's nice for Homer to have a nasty edge of being irresponsible and childish but never to the point where he's cruel. In this one, Homer is pushing Lisa into something she is uncomfortable with thinking it will work out but when he finally sees her discomfort, he backs her. Yes, with a weary sigh but he still does it and with sincerity and earnestness.

I also think the nature of Harper, voiced by Kristen Bell, is deftly played. The show mostly doesn't overplay her brattishness, she's a little more subtly possessive by giving big presents people should be grateful for. She's not full on evil but she's a subtly toxic friend in that she sees herself as the main character of her life. The interesting thing is I feel like a lot of children might have a friend that they want because of the benefits but this is about Homer benefitting from his kids' friendship. I think it's an episode where Homer tries to keep Lisa in an awkward position because he's thinking "well, this is great and, you know, kids fight and are friends again the next day". Homer is being selfish but I think he's deluding himself in a believable way and while that's bad, I find it easier to forgive the Homer who makes a mistake and tries to turn around than the accidentally cruel, oblivious Homer of Make Room for Lisa who means no harm but is absolutely awful to Lisa.

But why do I think this episode that I think is well thought out is just OK? A few things. The big one is while it isn't actively unfunny "not a lot of jokes that really hurt", it didn't really make me laugh a lot either. I also would have wanted in Lisa's shoes a bit more. Lisa mentions not being treated well but I would have liked to see those small offences play out in a way where individually they don't seem so bad but Lisa starts to clue into something about Harper's nature. She isn't an overt kid villain like Jessica Lovejoy. She isn't antagonist to Lisa like some snotty kid characters. She genuinely wants to be friends but what that means to Harper is something that makes Lisa feel "less than". I think it's something the show does do well but I would have liked to see it directly from Lisa's perspective. But mostly, it's the tepid humour. Seriously, I think the Bart bits all feel like they were made up by a marketing guy. Bart proves he's cool by balancing on a shark nose? "So long, suckers"? It's pretty generic Bart stuff.
 

Johnny Unusual

(He/Him)
Lisa with an 'S'

Ah, the theatre. Have not experienced a lot of it. I vaguely remember a locale performance of Dracula our Jr. High class got to see but there haven't been many shows I've really wanted to see. When I was in London, though, I saw two great performances; the Mousetrap and a show at the Globe theatre (I think it was about Anne Boleyn) and it made me realize I should see more theatre. But you know what? I didn't. Except one performance of Matilda. It was fine.

In this episode, Homer loses a lot in a poker game, so he invites the woman he owes, Broadway legend Laney Fontaine, to dinner in hopes of some financial forgiveness. During that time, Fontaine and Lisa hit it off and seeing Lisa's talent. promises to forgive the debt is Lisa joins her on tour. She does but while Lisa's the greenhorn, Fontaine is the one struggling, forgetting key lines. Lisa and Moe help Lady Fontaine get through the show and Marge, initially nervous, sees Lisa doing well on stage and is happy. Marge is willing to let Lisa continue but Lady Fontaine, feeling she's stealing Lisa from Marge, sends Lisa home.

Lisa with an 'S' seems like its intended to be a loving tribute to the theatre and in particular Stephen Sondheim but it a messy bore. Again, the show seems like it is juggling a half-dozen ideas and cannot commit or service any of them. There's no journey with emotional resonance that it seems to be reaching for because by the time it settles on an idea, it moves on. Is this Laney's story or Marge's or Lisa's? It could be all but instead it feels like no one's story, things moving so poorly, I don't care about any of the arcs.

So the arcs are; Marge is nervous about Lisa going into showbiz. Why? The show doesn't seem sure. At first it seems like it is because Marge doesn't want someone taking her daughter away. Then because it seems like she's hanging around unsavory types. But in the end, Marge is relieved because Lisa has... chops. At no point prior to this is Marge worried that Lisa is lacking in talent and the show can't seem to decide. As for Lisa, she seems to be a side character in her own episode. There's no tension whether she'll do OK. One line implies the issue of children in the entertainment industry but it's a few casual tossed out lines. As for Laney's story, it feels like the one with most potential, an old pro realizing she's losing her talent and getting help from the people in her life. But while Lisa throws out support, we never see the two bonding so there's no resonance. Similarly, Moe is mostly around for gags but in the end it turns out he's her rock. I like the idea but then why is Lisa even here.

Lisa with an S isn't actively awful but it's not terribly funny or engaging so I'd just rather be doing something else while it plays. It's weird to have a Laney episode since she's only appeared briefly once before. It feels more like they wanted to give Tress MacNeille more of a role, which I appreciate, but I wish she got a better one.
 

Johnny Unusual

(He/Him)
'Paths of Glory

I remember growing up knowing that "crazy" meant acting wacky or being a Batman villain. Now there are people working against stigmas on mental disorder, disabilities and illness but it's still a hard battle. It used to be an archetype, a short hand. But what these things looks like isn't wacky, its different and we can all do each other a favour by keeping that in mind. Unfortunately, the Simpsons, despite viewing itself as a liberal series, has had trouble with progress and growing. Sometimes it's throwing a tantrum or in trying to move forward ironically shore up a different harmful stereotype. Last season or so, the series tried to handle mental illness with well-intentioned but tepid results. This time...

In this episode, Lisa wants to prove a woman, Amelia Vanderbuckle, is a brilliant sane inventor and travels to an asylum with Bart to look for clues. Bart ends up finding a diary from a young sociopath named Nathan Little that Bart shares with his friends, thinking it's cool. Clancy Wiggum finds the scattered pages and thinking the writing it Bart's, is convinced Bart is a sociopath. Wiggum brings the news to Marge and Marge and Homer decide to covertly give Bart a sociopath test from the internet. When Bart figures out what's happening, he intentionally chooses the question that make him look like a sociopath and tries to rule his family with fear. Marge and Homer end up taking Bart to an asylum where various sociopath kids are asked to play a war simulation. The man in charge, after a game, reveals it isn't a simulation, to Bart's horror. However, he reveals that was a lie to test the kids reaction and with Bart not being a sociopath is released.

So, yeah, 'Paths of Glory isn't the most sensitive episode to people with a disorder. We see other children with sociopathy in the episode and they are weirdo monsters. One even *gasp* looks emo!
MV5BNzRlNDJhOTUtOGI5MC00MjNkLThhNGUtMGE4YTUwMDRiMWNmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjYwNDA2MDE@._V1_.jpg

My, God! Now I think what the episode is trying to do is, in part, interesting but also is a swing and a miss. And I admit, there's a lot about sociopathy that I don't understand but I feel like there's more nuance than "THESE PEOPLE ARE TERRIFYING!" So what is it trying to do? I think it wants to say something about empathy, about how kids have to learn it. And this I understand. I know kids and they can be quite mean to each other and sometimes lack sensitivity without actively looking to be mean. Bart is a character in my mind who cares but he is a kid so sometimes in his mischief he doesn't realize the impact until after, like writing love letters to Mrs. Krabbapel. Bart is more interesting when he has an edge but still cares. Sometimes writers forget to give proper vulnerability to these characters.

And the idea of someone without empathy being an ideal soldier is good too. And hey, maybe in more deft hands, a story of a monstrous government trying to weaponize the mentally ill would make for an interesting commentary on the evils of authority. But no, there is, ironically, little empathy for these kids. They are just creepy weirdos Bart compares himself to and realizes he can't be them. For an episode about emotion, it's mostly misguided. Yeah, you expect Marge and especially Homer to make mistakes. They treat their son like he's a monster (Homer literally seems to think he has evil powers). But this isn't them learning their lesson by the end about how awfully they treated their son, it's just Bart learning a lesson that he has empathy. And even that has little time to breathe. As problematically as it is presented, if Bart got to live with the fear that he hurt actual innocents, that would be something but it undoes it pretty quick because *looks at watch* episode over.

I feel like it is also particularly damning that the b-plot is Lisa trying to prove a woman thrown into an asylum for "acute feminine overreachism" and reminding us of how both people were mental illness were treated and what was once considered mental illness is completely clueless about the mistake it is making. Lisa's story is pretty standard Lisa stuff but I feel like it keeps doing that thing I don't like about more modern Lisa were the show wants to mock her for being proud of herself, like she has a problem with smug pride. Look, I don't need Lisa to be perfect but I feel like the show has times were it wants to take her down a peg for being demonstrably right. 'Paths of Glory wants to toy with interesting ideas but its doing it in such a stigmatizing and wrongheaded way, it reminds me that while we are out of the woods of "Elon Musk is our god", we are ramping up to "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect". And we have two seasons till we hit THAT low.
 

Johnny Unusual

(He/Him)
Barthood

I work with kids and I often wonder what effects, positive or negative, I'm having on the kids I work with. I try to be good but it's very possible I could be leaving a bad impression on some kids by making a move where they feel unheard or misunderstood. The fact of the matter is I suspect except for the ones who I may happen to by coincidence run into a lot in this smallish city, most of them are going to forget me. I can barely remember the people who looked after me in day camps and such and only a few teachers stuck with me, albeit really good ones, but I'm not leaving them me. I'm leaving a small contribution to their development, and hopefully one that remains positive while I wash away from their brains.

In this episode, Bart's life is tracked from toddler to adult. As a child, Bart is ignored by his father but his "gumption" is encouraged by Grandpa. Bart feels like he is growing up in Lisa's shadow, not helped by the fact that Homer shows clear preference to Lisa. Bart grows up resenting Homer and Lisa and it gets worse when 15 year old Bart realizes Homer thinks Bart will never leave home. Using the bike and encouragement from his late grandpa, and ends up growing to be talented in BMX freestyling. Bart feels like he's accomplished something away from Lisa but after he is hurt after a big wipeout, Lisa becomes a hero by saving Bart, making him resentful again. At Milhouse's graduation party, Bart blows up at Lisa and she blows up back, claiming he has talent but would rather waste time blaming her than capitalizing. Bart takes this to heart and begins to work on his craft, showing real talent and skill.

I haven't seen Boyhood, the film this is parodying but despite being a parody in terms of formula, I think the film wants to reach for something a little profound. Not exactly, but it's not a bad episode, either and more than anything, this episode isn't about cruel idiot Bart and is the kid with a "spark" and a lot of baggage, which is a decent way to approach it. Homer is a bit of a jerk-ass but it works for the narrative. This isn't an episode looking to forgive Homer with a grand gesture, it's about exploring Bart and I think this parody isn't doing a bad job of it.

But it also treads a lot of well-worn ground. Inattentive Homer, Bart feeling inferior to his genius sister. A lot of it is an extension of Lisa's First Word in terms of theming, such as Bart's resentment to Lisa really isn't on her so much as how Homer reacts to her and fails to react to him without scorn or condescension. It doesn't result in a bad episode but it isn't quite as insightful as it wants to be. I appreciate that it is about accepting that he has his own talents and shouldn't bother frame himself as inferior to Lisa. So many future Bart stories are about how he grows up to be a loser and this is an episode about him finding his path and I like that.

So why is it just OK? Well... it's only intermittently funny. And as mentioned, I feel like I've seen a lot of it's ideas before. I think it results in an episode with some emotional ambition the show often lacks. Even though I think it's just an OK episode, in terms of effort, ideas and not being too saccharine in its emotion. It puts us in Bart's shoes and I think I'm more receptive that find the right way to make these characters vulnerable beyond "I don't like this current wacky situation". It's not enough to put them at a disadvantage, the good ones let us see a little value. The last bit is a bit cliche "aw" but I think overall, this is one that went down smooth. It tried for something, made no major missteps and it wanted us to care. The parody wasn't a series of scenes to mock, it was a springboard to tell it's own story and it didn't do a bad job.

Other notes:

It's so weird to see Bart so panicked thinking he's going to be caught with weed when weed legalization would happen not long after the episode first aired.

Despite my feeling that it's a decent ep... stopping putting Lisa with Milhouse.
 

Johnny Unusual

(He/Him)
The Girl Code

The Simpsons is a show that despite being a cartoon initially tried to be relatively grounded. Yes, the first season had a musical number and one episode was a mystery caper but it also was about a lower middle class family muddling through. As the show went on, things changed. Matt Groening didn't want any winks to the camera but an episode ended with a fish winking at the audience in season two. As the show went on, it got wilder. Homer became a monorail conductor. The family visited a deadly theme park. A 10 year old boy had a full supervillain archenemy. The question is "where is the line". Yes, a lot of the wilder gags work best as jokes rather than the main plot but there are good episodes that stretch the show's reality. Still, I think there are also times where the series just pushes it a little far in a way I can't buy despite how outrageous the show gets.

In this episode, Lisa is inspired in coding class to create a program to identify and warn against potentially self-sabotaging online posting. The idea inspires her teacher, who creates a team to make the program a reality. Lisa and company create Conrad, an app that can foresee online faux pas and their very specific consequences. But Lisa is shocked when Conrad turns out to be sentient and does not want the job of exposing himself to humanity at it's worst just to warn them away. Lisa isn't sure she's sane but Conrad convinces her he's real while trying to sell the app at a convention. Eventually, Lisa uploads Conrad to the internet, where he escapes, but not before revealing himself and giving humanity a warning to try to learn from it's mistakes than to rely on a machine.

This one is some pretty weak sauce. I don't even hate it. This is a feeling I tend to reserve for episodes with harmful messages or stereotypes rather than dumb plots. I mean, it low key toys with this due to a pronoun joke that really fails and is more of the tired "these women are just LOOKING for things to be offended about" humour the show utilized even in the golden age. But mostly it's just a really uninspiring message about "don't rely on machines to use judgement for you" where the insight begins and ends with an app saying just that.

The weird part is the sentient app. Look, I feel like I didn';t hate the Kodos and Kang episode because it was stretching the reality too far, it's that it was a dumb episode that didn't use it's sci-fi premise to tell a story about character or society or narratives. And also was really unfunny, This one I am a little low key bothered and I think it's because it's not just that there is an AI, it's that LISA is capable of making an AI. Now I don't want to take anything away from this character, whom I love but somehow Lisa being able to make a sentient program is just... too much. And I think it's because even though it is assisted, it somehow puts Lisa into Prof. Frink territory and too far away from the eight year old who reads Kurt Vonnegut Jr and wants a pony and is sometimes really scared. I guess she can be all of those things but somehow... this just rings false. I think Lisa needs to be really smart but cartoonish super-intelligence where it's basically a super power that makes improbable plot devices happen feels far too much like Ozmodiar territory and I don't want Lisa to be Ozmodiar.

But maybe I could forgive this if the episode was funny. It isn't. Even with Stephen Merchant and Kaitlin Olson. I feel like poor Kaitlin Olson falls into a trap a lot of guest stars fall into; getting a few laugh lines but playing a more expositional role than being a unique or well defined character. I feel like the Simpsons designers are good at making a cool looking female character but then having them complain about men in a way a man would write a woman to complain about men... wait, I'm lost. Anyway, the other great guest star is Stephen Merchant, who is given a juicy outsized character to bit into but really has very few good jokes. It really is an episode that might have been successful if funny but with the show in kind of a joke rut, it tends to work better when trying with character-based episodes. Wacky Simpsons in the sloppily show-run era are generally a bad mix.
 
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