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Johnny Unusual

Burger Kings

I love junk food. A few years ago, I found out I was pre-diabetic, went on a spartan diet and then gave myself a once-a-week cheat day. But lately I've been slipping. After losing 60 pounds and closely watching my wait, I'm terrified to look at the scale again. Maybe when things are less stressful. Maybe when I'm done with school. And I should stop letting things slip. But I think finding a really balanced diet can be challenging in our current food culture. I think we are more aware but are we doing better? And are society... AND CAPITALISM... giving us those chances?

In this episode, Burns has a fear of being unmourned after he dies and finding food he enjoys. He soon develops a love of burgers but they prove to be far too unhealthy for him. Smithers manages to create a solution; a new plant-based burger just as good as a regular burger. Burns opens a franchise and even Lisa is impressed with the final product. Burns becomes beloved by the town. Bart, meanwhile, is suspicious and convinces Lisa to help him take down Burns' restaurant, mostly out of loyalty to Krusty Burger. Lisa learns the plants used are all endangered and confronts Burns about it. Burns doesn't want to hear about it but starts to wonder if making doing this makes him a bad person. Meanwhile, Homer is the burger's spokesman who is only allowed to speak in chosen catchphrases or face a breach of contract but he wants to help Lisa so they concoct a plan to communicate the truth only with catchphrases. Burns is vilified again but he's happy, no longer burdened by a conscience.

Burger Kings is a watchable enough affair but while Rob Lazebnik's done some great episodes, this one feels like it's trying to a lot with very little landing. I think the problem is as a basic outline, there's something really interesting here but in practice, it doesn't hold together. It's not nearly as sloppy as a lot of episodes with this problem but I feel like it has a problem balancing it's big ideas about capitalism and moral consumption. What's more it uses some old ideas that are a bit played out; Burns decides he wants to be loved, Lisa wants for a hot second for Burns to change in a genuine way only for him to show even his good deeds are twisted.

I think there are episodes that really thread the needle of playing with a lot of ideas and fitting them together. And this one is very much about the evil's of capitalism so that helps in a big way to tie things together. But in the end, I just don't think it works sadly. Part of it is poor motivation; I don't know why Burns wants to be loved now. I don't know what Lisa hopes Burns can change to the point despite the only thing he did was release a product. I think it does a good job showing how Marge initially gets into trading but very little follow up on that in a way that feels substantive. Maybe this one needed to be one of the series hour-long episodes. Frankly there are a few of those that works even though in theory you are asking "why is THIS story the hour long one". Often it's less because "people are excited about Burns hanging out with a rapper" and more because there's enough narrative meat on the bone to really let it all play out.

I think the other problem is the wasted potential. There's a joke about how there are only two beloved billionaires in the world but I think that opens up the question; if Burns REALLY wants to be good, can he do that AND be a billionaire? Does he want to BE good or be seen as good. Because those are different. I like the idea that Homer unthinkingly sells his own freedom of speech but that only matters in the very last act. That seems like it has potential for social commentary AND wacky comedy that is unrealized. I think there's a lot of stuff here but while the ingredients are there, they are in bad proportions and I can't taste all of them. I also have a hard time believing Springfield would turn on Burns for making them eat an endangered species considering how the majority of the town is pretty apolitical environmentally unless it directly effects them. Maybe we'd have that reveal but the town would turn on him for a much pettier reason. Again this isn't a bad episode but seeing how it could have done a lot more, it's aftertaste is a little bitter (smiles smugly to self because of wordplay).

Johnny Unusual

Panic on the Streets of Springfield

I grew up in the 1990s, which, like all times, was a weird time. TV characters wouldn't stop complaining about "political correctness" on TV, the youth was depicted as jaded and when they were involved in activism, it was often weird and misguided. The Simpsons were no exception, to be certain. There was also a certain "coolness" in being bitter and sardonic, which I associate with programs like Daria or the comic book Ghost World. But re-reading Ghost World (and a lot of Daniel Clowes stuff hasn't held up, for various reasons), I do believe while he thinks his characters are cool and witty, they are also pretty sad, particularly when they begin to realize they may lack empathy for other people. I like to try to be witty but now it's much more important to me to be kind, because that's what we really need.

In this episode, Lisa becomes obsessed with Quilloughby, an 80s musician Lisa appreciates for his sardonic humour and activism. Lisa tries her own activism at school and when it backfires, she's humiliated. At home, Lisa is visited by Quilloughby as her imaginary friend, who helps her generate a powerful observation to wound Bart as he mocks her. Lisa creates her own identity around Quilloughby, saying clever but hurtful things and taking on a world weary attitude where she believes everyone else is awful. Marge is sick of it and decides to put a stop to it but Lisa sneaks out to see the real Quilloughby in concert, his first public appearance in decades. But Lisa begins to grow tired of her imaginary friend's relentless negativity and when she sees the real Quilloughby, he's aged terribly and has turned his back on everything that made Lisa fall for him in the first place. Lisa turns her back on Quilloughby, save for her memories of what she likes about him, and apologizes to Marge. Marge relates, also having gone through rebellious phases.

Panic on the Streets of Springfield was the rare Simpsons episode people seemed to be talking about when it aired, mostly because of it addressing the fact that Morrisey sucks. Quilloughby is an obvious parody of such and I get the feeling writer Tim Long, the guy who was really into shipping the students of Springfield Elementary a few years back, is a disillusioned fan. Likely by Morrisey but really this could be any number of artists who it turns out is actually a terrible person, either in a way that always was or in a way where they became the monster. This isn't a perfect episode, which I'll get to, but I think more often than not, this is actually a very strong episode about the idea of wrapping your identity up in a piece of culture that's meaningful to you and how that can backfire.

It actually goes with the a and b plots; there's a rather enjoyable b-plot where Homer is convinced he's a truck guy (with a pretty great button on it that seems like it's dovetailing into the main plot). I like how the leads really identify with something but while Lisa slowly sees the limitations of her new worldview, Homer... just doesn't get it. I think Lisa's story speaks to me, I've definitely gotten REALLY into a thing, only for that thing to turn out to suck in some capacity that left me really bummed. I think with said things, I can identify how good aspects are still a part of me but I don't have to accept them all, which is where Lisa lands and I think it is a well-structured episode.

But it does have some hiccups. Lisa having to face the nasty reality of the actual Quilloughby is a good idea that I think has some problems in the showing; it's a little sucky for the first part of the disillusionment to be "he's old and fat now". I'm cool with the idea of seeing the reality of aging take Lisa aback a bit, I think it's possible to have a certain visceral reaction to seeing something we imagined in one specific way being different but while it doesn't out and out make that part the joke, we are clearly supposed to see it as a "bad sign". When he starts ranting that reveals his shittiness, it doesn't quite land. Not because he isn't shitty but because his hate is so non-specific. And don't get me wrong, I understand why the choice was made; I think the creators didn't want to risk, even in presenting him as an absolute turd, for him to say anything specifically hateful in a way that can cause actual damage in the world. I think it can be a bit tricky and the episode doesn't quite thread that needle of giving us the feeling of hate without going to an unwise space. I don't begrudge the show for it but it has a little less power because of it. A smaller complaint is it makes "is Lisa acting like a teenager now" comment twice when I really feel like this obvious analogy either needed to be said once or not at all.

Oh, rare, a sixth paragraph. Anyway, this is a flawed episode but overall, I think it's one of the better Tim Long episodes. Tim Long feels like he wants to explore an older Bart and Lisa without inundating the show with more "imaginary future" episodes and in so doing, often has the characters dating and doing things that just feel wrong. But I actually think this is a better case of aging up Lisa socially in a way that is believable. You are more likely to be sullen and cynical as a teen but I see no reason it can't happen as an 8 year old and it makes sense for Lisa, who often does face a lot of disillusionment in the world. But in a way this is also about disillusioned about seeing disillusionment as a lifestyle and the heartache of people you may have romanticized as being only human, often in ways that can be heartbreaking. Panic on the Streets of Springfield I think is a mostly successful episode that speaks to me who sometimes, still, has a bad habit of getting so into a thing, that I can't always see the forest for the trees.

Other great jokes:

"Testosterone? But that's what fuels my punching and yelling. And my undeserved confidence. Now I'll never be an NFL quarterback/international superspy"

Again, the Homer hero fake out... it's been done but it's pretty effective here.

Other notes:
Kevin Michael Richardson finally gets to do the Dr. Hibbert chuckle. Not bad. Not a perfect approximation but it has the spirit.

Johnny Unusual

Mother and Child Reunion

I liked university but I think a lot of what I learned there wasn't really of much help professionally, more personally. That's not to say it wasn't important; many of the jobs I have I wouldn't have gotten without a university degree. But growing up, I was under the impression you had to go to higher education or you were... unfortunate in some ways. But I think there are a whole lot of reasons not to now and not going is not some terrible alternative but a conscious choice. There are other roads in this life and they are just as valid as spending ridiculous amounts of money on a degree you might not end up using.

In this episode, The Simpsons visit a magic shop where the owner uses tarot cards to tell the Simpsons future. Again. When Lisa is 17, she has her pick of colleges but finds she doesn't want to go to any of them. Marge is heartbroken and angry having spent so much time into helping her but Lisa is determined. Initially, she decides to work a regular job but it proves to be demeaning. When she encounters a kid she realizes can't read, she decides to open an after school program to help teach, which becomes a huge success. Eventually, Lisa's business grows and she ends up becoming the super-intendent. This, in turn, paves the way for her becoming governor and eventually the President of the United States. However, there is still friction between Marge and Lisa and Marge comes to appreciate Lisa's path while Lisa understands the sacrifices Marge made to get her to that point.

Mother and Child Reunion actually takes a premise I've REALLY wanted to see this show do; what if Lisa realizes... she doesn't have to go to college. There are other options in life, other paths. My take would be activism or the arts (something that can be taught in school but you don't need it to do it) might change her direction. This episode proposes a bit of a different theory; Lisa simply realizing there are reasons it's not the best option and maybe she needs time to herself. The problem I have with this episode, that I think is just fine, is that her reasoning comes a little too secondarily to the dramatic fallout. I think there are good reasons and Lisa lists some but I wish it was more directly related to the emotional core of the episode.

Another problem I have is the way the episode treats Marge. She's not great to Lisa this episode in a way that I think undermines her actual understandable frustration. She's pecking at her to go to college, is extremely unsupportive of her path and vocally admits she's projecting her desires onto Lisa. I'm not saying you can't do that with the character but it makes her both less sympathetic and empathetic and it hurts it a bit later on. Namely that the episode needs Lisa to be a bit forgiven for not appreciating Marge's sacrifice. This isn't as bad as, say, Lisa having to accept that Homer sucks like in Make Room For Lisa (a low point for both characters), and I think you can have Lisa appreciating Marge a bit more, but Marge should really accept that she wasn't making those sacrifices so Lisa can do what Marge wants. I think it's an episode with some good ideas but I think it really drops the ball in the emotional resolution.

Mother and Child Reunion is, like, the fourth imaginary episode this season. It is also the best of those four. But it's really only OK. It takes the premise I really wanted to see and I think it missed doing a lot with it but I'm glad it exists and as I said, I like the idea that Lisa gets to question what she's spent a lot of time working on. Sometimes our path takes us to unexpected places. And I think Marge's feelings of frustration are valid, having spent so much time trying to help Lisa gets what she wanted only for her to drop it at the 11th hours. But as noted her actual response to Lisa is shitty and I think writer J. Stewart Burns is less successful on the emotional path than on building a new path for Lisa, even if it takes her to where most writers see her in the future.

Other notes:
Nate fucking Silver? In 2021? Fuckin' why show?

Bart is done a disservice again but not nearly as bad as most future Bart stories. He too becomes a success but it's glossed over. I know it's not a Bart episode but I feel like the show never gave Bart a proper future except Supreme Court Bart and demolition company Bart. Barthood does OK, I guess. I feel like the show doesn't know what future Bart is and just makes him a big loser. I actually don't need him necessarily to be Supreme Court guy but I think I want the two Simpsons kids to be happy and fulfilled but in different ways that reflect who they are.

Johnny Unusual

The Man from G.R.A.M.P.A.

I love my dad but sometimes I realize there is a lot about him I don't know. There's a lot about everyone I don't know, I suppose, but I have access to my parents so I don't think it would be too hard to learn. Maybe someday soon, I need to sit down with them and hear their life story. Meanwhile, my folks are really into my sister's partner's mother's updates as she has been actually doing a family tree for the family (getting a lot of detail on my mother's side). I think there's a lot I need to find out.

In this episode, a spy suspects Abe Simpson of being a Russian agent. 50 years later, in the present, the spy, Terrence, now living in the retirement castle, thinks he is closing in on Abe. He decides to get to him through Homer, drinking with him, sharing his life story, and ingratiating himself to Homer. Eventually he tells Homer his suspicions, showing him trading canes with another old man and having an envelope placed in his pocket. Homer agrees to help Terrance catch Abe peacefully to give him leniency but in the end Homer can't betray his dad. Homer and Abe are both captured by Terrance who ties them up and places them in the trunk of a car. Abe explains that what Homer saw were misunderstandings (the cane was a mix up and the envelope contains medication smuggled from Canada) and it is revealed Terrance is actually delusional. Homer and Abe are saved by Marge, the police and Terrance's daughter. Abe sees Terrance struggling with a sense of failure and decides to lie and say he was a spy all along and he's been caught.

The Man from G.R.A,M.P.A. has a premise, Homer meets a spy, that sounds like pure "well, we are 32 seasons in, after all". But it actually doesn't play it as wacky and over the top as you might think. Rather than taking it's cues from James Bond, tonally it's taking more cues from John La Carre and the Third Man (which are both references). There are tales of regular people being caught way in over their heads in a spy thriller and this is of that ilk. What's more, it's clear writer Carolyn Omine is interested in exploring the idea that we might not be listen to our elders and are so caught up in our own lives, we really don't know who they are.

That said, this episode is only OK. It's not a particularly strong one but neither is it an embarrassment. It's just an OK episode with a theme the show has done before but it doesn't dig real deeply into. It's a Homer/Abe episode but I feel like we don't get much more insight into them than pretty much the last couple paragraphs I've been typing. Which is OK. Some episodes are more about the jokes than about themes and character. But the jokes here are simply passable, no real strong laughs. No cringey gags either, mind, but in the end, for an episode where the Simpsons gets to be a spy story, it's not terribly memorable.

It does have some strengths. British comedian and character actor Stephen Fry plays Terrance and does a pretty good job of it. There is a fun sense of style in some scenes but it also doesn't overplay that hand. And the episode clips along nicely. I wasn't bored or angered by it and it's a pretty easy watch. But in the end, there's not a lot too it and I think in the end, it's going to fade from memory. If it wanted to do more, I wish it did get a little bit more emotional in regards to Homer feeling like he has to turn on his dad but by comparison to much of this season, it's one of the better ones.

Johnny Unusual

The Last Barfighter

The 32nd season of the Simpsons has been a trip. Mostly, it's been a bad season of TV, to my disappointment, though there are some high points. At the same time, I feel like the Simpsons, while struggling with joke structure, story structure, WEIRD celebrity cameos (weirdly quasi-sycophantic to JJ Ahbrams, also NATE SILVER?) but it does want to make progress; it's trying to make it's jokes about LGBTQ people less weird but it also doesn't know how to approach it so it generally seems inoffensive but... not funny or about much? And it's recast a lot of characters with people related to their actual ethnic group. I like this both in principal but also there are actors who are really getting out there or have more to do within the show because of this. Kevin Michael Richardson has been a great addition to the cast and it's nice he gets to be Dr. Hibbert (yes, the chuckle is off but it's still pretty good and I'd rather have that than Harry Shearer playing a black man). I think the show took a big downturn this season but is actually stumbling towards self-betterment. Which I hope pays off in season 33.

BTW, @Purple reviewed the whole season a while back. Worth a read.

In this episode, Bart wins a crystal skull on a game in a Spanish language talk show and it turns out to be filled with tequila. Homer decides to steal it to share it with his friends in the bar and invites Moe to join. Initially, Moe is hesitant but decides to join his friends and gets so wasted, he spills everyone's secrets. Moe's friends are mad but it turns out there is a worse fate in store; Moe is part of a secret society of bartenders who, because of their exhausting jobs listening to everyone's problems, has a place where his own problems can be listened to. When Moe broke their cardinal rule, spilling secrets, Moe is expelled and his most loyal customers will be "cut off". It turns out being cut off means being injected with a serum that makes it impossible for them to drink booze anymore. Moe tries to save them but they all end up being unable to drink. However, three months later, ALL of Moe's regulars have turned their lives around and everything they complained about is fixed. They decide to visit Moe who know works at an omelet bar and feeling sorry for him, decide to be his customers again, even if that means only being able to drink water. The head of the secret society has seen the whole thing and is moved by the customer's loyalty and allows them to drink again... in Homer's case, whether he wants to or not.

When I saw this episode was heading into a parody of John Wick, I sighed a bit. The last episode took a high concept idea and actually grounded it a bit. This episode is much more over-the-top... and yet I actually think it is much more successful. Part of it is while it does spend some time being John Wick, I don't think it is so dedicated to parody to enter Mad Magazine 1-to-1 comparisons and uses it as a springboard for a fun adventure that also speaks to the characters' relationship with alcohol and each other. Keep in mind, it's not a terribly deep episode and is more like a lark but this is one of the more successful adventure-based episodes in a while.

I think it helps that it has a solid foundation. The story has a beginning, a middle and an end and it all connects and that seems like damning with faint praise but that's not one of the strong points of latter day Simpsons... but it does become a strong point when they achieve it. It reminds me why I want to spend time with these characters and the fun we can have in new scenarios. It's by turns cynical and sweet about the human condition where being a good friend ends up being rewarded with a chance to throw away everything you worked hard for to be able to drink and then pine away for those very things.

Yes, this is a very wacky Simpsons premise with a secret society and anti-booze serum and bartender assassins but it also has some very funny lines, good character work and is just a well-realized episode. This is also a Dan Vebber episode and not all of his episodes are hits, he actually has a pretty strong Simpsons track record, especially for latter day Simpsons. This is an episode that is also very lean, which is interesting. I feel like the Simpsons is known for using up time on stuff that goes nowhere (not always a complaint, I often like those first acts unrelated to the following) and it neither feels rushed nor does it feel lethargic. If anything, I'm hoping for more episodes like this in season 33. Hoping this is an omen for things to come.

Other great jokes:

"This is so fancy, I'm finally breaking out my commemorative Iran Contra shot glasses."

"There isn't much time but I'm still going to be cagey about it."

"Barney doesn't work here."
"Really? It seems like he would."
"Yeah, that would lead to some good stories all right."

"I haven't seen you guy since... you know..."
"Jeez, it would have to have been... the syringings."

Johnny Unusual

The Star of the Backstage

Season 33 begins here. And now I'm two seasons and a literal handful of episodes away from being caught up with a show I thought I quit long ago. There is something weirdly tantalizing about that prospect, especially considering how long it's taken me to get here; pretty much since Disney+ released the show in it's original aspect ratio. It's when I decided to reconnect and how I'm beyond what had even aired yet at that time. After the disappointment that was season 32, I'm hopeful for 33. People here who are brave/foolhardy enough not to quit tell me it gets better. And with season 32 kind of improving in the last stretch, let's see how things are looking beyond.

In this episode, The Simpsons attend the funeral for a theatrical director for Springfield High School where Marge was a stage manager. Feeling nostalgic, Marge is inspired to do a revival show of the play Y2K the Millennium Bug. The entire cast gets back together, including Sasha, who sings of making it big on Broadway. However, when they reconnect, Marge's vision of a happy stage family is upset when she realizes she was actually excluded from a lot, as the cast was not hanging out with the crew. Marge starts to get upset at and jealous of Sasha (not helped by the fact that she apparently held a rager at Marge's house that made her family go bankrupt) and does some digging to find that Sasha has made up her stories about being a big star. Marge reveals the truth but the rest of the cast, who like Sasha, see Marge as being petty and no longer want to do the show if Sasha isn't there. Homer and Marge have a heart to heart and Marge decides to apologize to Sasha and the group returns to put on the show. After the show, some younger theatre kids want to spend time with Marge and she feels included at last.

The Star of the Backstage is a full musical episode, something to which the Simpsons is no stranger to. But one key difference is most of the musical episodes I bring to mind are full on parodies of popular shows. Star of the Backstage, however, despite a visual reference to Wicked (there might more going on, I ain't never seen wicked), seems to be a wholly original musical episode. It's written by Elisabeth Keirnan Averick, her second episode in the series and the FAR superior one to "Hail to the Teeth", which sounds like the most made up title. Averick was a writer for the acclaimed comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, every episode of which was a full musical so it shouldn't be surprising she's successful in this one, complete with one of the series songwriters and the series choreographer.

The result is a pretty great episode. It's not perfect but there are no big glaring elements either. Probably the weakest part is Homer's musical number, which just didn't do a lot for me, lacking in humour or catchiness. Overall though is a strong character-based story and I think it does a good job of Marge being sympathetic and Marge being in the wrong. Yeah, she's right to be angry at Sasha (though that should extend to the whole original cast, which it never does) but it's clear that revealing her harmless lie is much more an act of pettiness. Marge is under a sort of illusion that it's her show and while her contributions are invaluable, she realizes it's not "her" family under her rules, its an ensemble effort. Not the deepest revelation but I think the series does a great job in making it feel fun and speaking to who we know Marge is as a person.

The strongest bits to me are the act two musical number where Sasha reminisces with friends and Marge realizes how out of the loop she's been. I think this shows where it helps to have someone with musical experience to know how to do plot reveal and tonal counterpoints in a musical, creating a hopeful, soaring song that is also where Marge is brought low without any of the other characters noticing, because they never really noticed her. There are a few good traditional jokes, but I think the strength is the musical storytelling. The Star of the Backstage isn't the show at it's strongest but it is a good episode and feels like it has the freshness that really becomes the show in it's advanced age.

Other notes:
Kristen Bell is making her second appearance as the singing voice of Marge.

Johnny Unusual

Bart's In Jail!

I've been scammed before. Smaller ways and thankfully ones that were not hard for me to undo, so I've been fortunate. I remember when I was living in Japan I got a Nigerian prince scam as an e-mail. I commented to my roommate "who falls for that" and he told me his family did. I wish I followed up on that and apologize but I don't think I did. I didn't jeer at him but I didn't try to undo the sting of my comment and I do regret that. People shouldn't be shamed for being scammed, anyone can be tricked. Rather than living a life on guard, I think it's more important to give comfort and care to those who need it, to create a more empathetic world.

In this episode, Grandpa is scammed out of $10,000 after getting a phone call claiming Bart is in jail and needs money to get out. Homer is horrified that he actually had an inheritance that was lost and begins belittling and mocking Grandpa for it. The other Simpsons all admit they've been scammed but Homer looks down on them until it is discovered Homer is deep into a pyramid scheme. Homer goes to the Retirement Castle to apologize when Grandpa gets another scam call. Lisa gets grandpa to keep them on the line and records the call, using the internet to filter through the background sounds and discover the location of the scammer. The Simpsons arrive only to discover it's not a single man, it's a call centre. The police arrive but arrest no one, merely breaking up the operation but not being able to finger anyone higher. Marge, the member of the family most focused on believing the good in people, is broken and in her rage knocks over a cabinet full of gift cards. The Simpsons decide to take them to make up for their losses and the Simpsons spend them at a restaurant, drowning their woes in food. Marge tries to resist using the currency of scam artists but eventually relents. The Simpsons all see a vision of the Norse trickster God Loki, who claims he wanted to see people like Marge falter in the face of trickery. On the way home, Marge meets a woman asking for $20 for gas that she'll return with Marge's address. Despite being dispirited, Marge decides she'd rather trust and be fooled than remain cynical or cold. A week later, she gets $20 and a thank you note in the mail... actually Grandpa, not wanting Marge to lose her faith in people.

This is one of the strongest episodes in a while. Written by Nick Dahan, a long time assistant, this episode really does feel like the kind of episode I haven't seen in a while; one where the problem doesn't have an easy answer, instead focusing on the emotional side. It was producer's Matt Selman's idea not to have a "happy" ending and I think it works. Actually the episode's ending IS happy... but only on a spiritual level. Apparently, the original ending would have been the reveal Grandpa himself had been scamming in bits and bites over the years in cribbage and I think that would somewhat work showing scams are everywhere but I like not doing that because it doesn't make the scamming somehow karmic for grandpa, which would soften the blow. I think it needs to focus that good people can be taken BY their goodness, like wanting to help Bart when Grandpa thinks he's in dire straights.

And I think the fact that there is no catharsis of being the scammers is key to the success of the episode. I know when I'm bothered by a scammer and thinking about how they callously steal from others, I fantasize about turning the tables and put them on the receiving end of a scam. And apparently, there are people who have pride in their scamming in this world (apparently including a weird pocket in Africa that seems to do it with anti-authoritarian zeal. I wish I could remember the BBC podcast about it). But this episode sucks the joy out and our hope when the reveal is the scammers are all pathetic sadsacks who seem completely defeated, living on the fringes of economic society and surviving on minimum wage paid in gift cards. There's no win; the system is a multiheaded hydra and even with Lisa's amazing detective work, there's no beating it, just putting out a small fire.

The think the smart thing is most of this is a grandpa/Homer episode but in the end, it transitions seamlessly into being an episode about Marge. For the first couple acts, she's in the background trying to see the positive side and help with the family well-being and then finally can't say anything. It can be a risk to move focus late in the game but I think the building blocks are there and it hurts to see Marge not only lose her faith for a time but give in. Yes, she just eats a deep fried beak dipped in sauce (a cute play on "wetting your beak") but it's has a bigger significance to what Marge, the moral bedrock of the show, loses a little bit of her integrity. And even though it is a scam, I love that Grandpa uses scamming for good to allow her to regain her faith in people. It's a sweet little ending that is much more satisfying to me than just catching a bad guy. My only major complaint is the scene with Loki; it kind of underlines the theme of the episode too much and doesn't add a lot. The fantastical element doesn't bother me, just telling us stuff we kind of already knew. Still, worth it for a cameo from Bill Cipher and a surprising joke about Disney with some teeth. Baby teeth, but still.

Other great jokes:
"She had a phone call claiming punk rockers were going to cut my hair into a mohawk, which is a distinctive hairstyle--"
God, I love how square Skinner is that he thinks he needs to explain it.

"Dad, anyone can get scammed. Even me. I paid the bullies for wedgie insurance but the minute I got a wedgie, BAM, I was hit with a deductible; another wedgie. Then my rates went up."

I love that the two people Homer were able to rope into the pyramid scam he was roped into were Kirk and Gil. And somehow, way down the line, Michael Rappaport.

Other notes:

Apparently this version of Loki is visually inspired by the Rhinemaiden, as recommended by Neil Gaiman. Also, it's Alan Cumming, reprising his role of Loki from... um... Son of the Mask.

Johnny Unusual

Treehouse of Horror XXXII

Hey, a Halloween show near Halloween!

In this episode, five tales of terror. First, in a parody of Bambi, Bart, a dear, must escape a hunter, who is soon killed by Homer. Then, in a parody of Parasite, The Simpsons end up working in Reiner Wolfcastle's extravagant house, only to discover most of Springfield lives under it and is fighting for supremacy. Next, Homer disturbs the family treehouse, which goes on a rampage and creates an army of trees to wipe out mankind. Then in an homage to Edward Gorey, a catalogue of Bart's monthly bad deeds. And finally, in a parody of the Ring, a cursed TikTok video is killing anyone who watches it. Lisa learns the ghost responsible, Mopey Mary, killed herself after a cruel Valentine's Day prank and Lisa befriends the ghost by giving her a card. But soon the ghost grows tired of Lisa and decides to leave her.

After some strong episodes, The Simpsons still can't shake the curse of the Halloween special, once one of my all time favourites, as being one of the weakest of the season. I like this better than last years but it's still a rather weak affair. The Bambi short is... I feel even for the Halloween specials, this is a weird pull and more than that it's just not funny. My guess is they planned this one because they wanted to do more Disney spoofs maybe? Anyway, the Parasite one I feel like comes from the place with the most love for its source material, one of my favourite movies, but It has an uphill battle. After all, it's already a dark satire. I think writer John Frink takes the best and worst approaches to this one. The lesser one is just... pointing out the metaphor. I think the joke is supposed to be "the metaphor is obvious" but it just sounds like someone yelling "I get it!" The better choice is escalation; why not just have EVERYONE living under the house. It's broader, silly and actually does in a warped way still work in the metaphor. But mostly, this one doesn't work. Though it is my favourite of the stories.

The next one... I like the idea. I like the fact it's not beholden to be based on a specific story and is just a wacky "all the trees in Springfield rebel." That's not the worst idea in the world. But the problem is the episode really feels like the one were all the dolphins attacked Springfield and certainly does not improve on it. Also, it has a REALLY weird trans-joke. Weird because it's not transphobic (EDIT: Yes it is, whatever the intended goal) but I feel like Frink is saying "how do I do a joke that feels like an acknowledgement of trans people without it being mean to them" but having absolutely nothing to say with it. And it muddies the water that the joke is Audrey II identifies as a tree but for the dumb punchline calls himself a "transplant" but prior the trees said "you aren't a tree, you're a plant"... so this is a confusing set up punch. You clearly thought of the punchline first and completely botched it all around, Frink. It's such a sweaty joke and I think Frink wanted to do this from an ally position and instead it becomes a weird mix of nothing and I think unintentionally insulting if you bother to take the time to unravel the nonsense of it.

The Edward Gorey one leaves no impact really. The art style isn't bad but it's not a lot there. The last story is a middling one but despite the fact that I think the Parasite spoof is the best of a bad lot, I think the Ring parody has the best one-off gags. There are a few that make me laugh. In the end, though, though I like the concept of Lisa making a friend of the monster and the monster feeling kind of smothered. So I think despite having a bit less of a visual personality and not my favourite, I guess this one is the most successful. Anyway, I'm just happy I know next season has TWO really solid Halloween episodes.

Other great jokes:
"Wait, regardless of class, we can finally change everything for the better."
"That sounds great... unless it's socialism."
"Well, not exactly, but certain aspects..."

"I killed Jerry and Larry"
This is the first good Ralph line in a while. Simply because "wrong names" of characters people should know is always amusing to me.

"I like the old movies where the combing was implied."

"Can you kill off a Hershey bar for me? I think that's how I get one."

Other notes:
Why does the Bambi parody end with "Shipping Off to Boston"?

It's weird that Marge keeps complaining Homer is a bad provider in the Parasite parody in a way that doesn't feel like commentary but the commentary is "You fucking can't get ahead in the lower rungs of capitalism".

In terms of unexplained shit, why Burns is at the top of the building bothers me less than usual because the episode already put it's finger on the allegory.
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it's not transphobic
No, it's totally transphobic. It's a hell of a lot less mean-spirited than a lot of older things the Simpsons have done, and you are correct in calling it an incoherent mess, but aside from what you've already mentioned, "I identify as-" is basically a slur at this point no matter what comes next.

Johnny Unusual

No, it's totally transphobic. It's a hell of a lot less mean-spirited than a lot of older things the Simpsons have done, and you are correct in calling it an incoherent mess, but aside from what you've already mentioned, "I identify as-" is basically a slur at this point no matter what comes next.
Fair point and I was wrong.

Johnny Unusual

The Wayz We Were

I've never been in a relationship and sometimes I often wonder what is wrong with me because of that. What do I do wrong? Am I worthy of love? I know that I am and if anything, I am simply bad at putting myself out there and the fact that while I live in a city, I feel like it's already hard to create those opportunities. And because of my lack of experience, I feel like there's a lot I don't know about myself as a partner; I've been alone along time and I guess I value my space. Am I too self-involved? How good am I at sharing or listening. When I do the latter, often in my life it's professionally and I don't have to get into a really sticky situation I need to wade through. I hope I can find someone someday, or maybe learn about myself as a romantic partner but sometimes, my fear takes over.

In this episode, Evergreen Terrace is clogged with traffic thanks to an app redirecting traffic. The Simpsons call a neighborhood meeting but the neighbors feel the Simpsons are the biggest problem on the street. Deciding solving the traffic problem can win them over, Homer aims to end it. Meanwhile, Moe reconnects with Maya, his former girlfriend, in a traffic jam. The two rekindle their relationship but Moe becomes increasingly paranoid she'll leave him and that he doesn't deserve her anyway. Eventually, he hides from her at the Simpsons' treehouse until Homer impresses on him to propose. Moe does and despite his fears, Maya accepts. Meanwhile, Homer does solve the problem of the traffic with Frink's help and becomes a popular but finds it doesn't suit him.

The Wayz We Were is an episode that does two things very well but in every other respect is a frustratingly mediocre episode of television. I wanna start with the b-plot too (because I actually want to end with the positives, despite myself mostly being negative about the episode). The b-plot feels like it's sagging with the baggage of a story from 10 years ago; have constructed ideas that fizzle out with no actual resolution or conclusion. Homer finds he doesn't like his newfound popularity but it sort of ends with him not doing anything about it or that revelation leading to something bigger. I think maybe it was intended as a commentary that some of the actors love doing a good thing like making the Simpsons but are discomforted and exhausted by adulation. But there's no depth or cleverness to this half of it.

As for the A-story, it lacks a lot of real humour or cleverness. There's not a lot to Maya (despite Tress MacNeille's good voice acting), really, except for someone for Moe to love and fret about. I think in the history of the show getting characters married, I think Moe actually makes more sense than, say, Comic Book Guy. That's because Moe stories often end the same or similarly and this allows for a rare progress in his arc. But I also have a problem with him solving his own relationship anxiety by proposing. It feels like an easy fix I feel is probably unwise for people (especially so soon after re-entering a relationship) and while I think Moe can get married, I feel maybe the root is a lot of self-help he needs. I think the better part would be being honest about his anxiety and Moe and Maya grow closer because of Moe allowing himself to be vulnerable in front of her and working to get help for both himself and for her. As it is, it's a bit sappy in a way that doesn't quite work.

But I did have positive things to say. Maya's first episode is a fraught; it wants to continue it's "look, we don't mean any harm, anyone is fair game" approach that doesn't look good in the rearview when it both tries to have Maya be sympathetic but has some ill-considered little people gags. Now I do feel Maya has a bit more personality there, it's also just a more misguided episode. Here, Maya being a little person isn't a source of gags (EXCEPT a flashback to a previous gag) or part of the plot. She's a little person, she's in Moe's life, it's part of who she is but it isn't all of who she isn't. Which makes it a shame because despite that approach, there isn't a lot going on with her. The other half I like is it being an episode that digs into Moe's self-loathing a bit more, giving it a bit of weight. I do with they did more with it but I feel like Moe's sadness is more than a punchline here. So I think there are some strength to this episode that I like but they don't get to fully bloom and contrasted with the other weaknesses in the episode, it's really a shame a second pass didn't get to iron out the kinks and result in a stronger, deeper episode.

Johnny Unusual

Lisa's Belly

I work with children so I am always trying to be careful about what I say and how I say it. I try to avoid language that falls into certain gender or cultural norms that treats certain things as defaults and words that can be judgmental. But sometimes I feel like I've accidentally said or done something that is thoughtless and I wish I could go back and change it. I don't know what kind of effects these will have. Maybe none... but maybe it sets something in motion that will need time to heal.

In this episode, the kids get sick after a trip to a water park and have to take steroid medicines, resulting in Bart and Lisa putting on weight. At first, the kids don't mind but Marge makes an off-handed remark about Lisa being "chunky" that has a profound effect on her. Lisa feels crummy all day and the day gets worse when Marge takes Lisa shopping for clothes, which turns into a humiliating experience for her. Worse, Marge tries to use her words to make her feel better but the ones she choose make her feel even worse and results in Lisa having a tantrum at the store. When Homer realizes what happens, he tries to help but realizes Patty and Selma might be more suited and they teach her not to give a crap about what other people think. It begins to work but when Marge learns how she hurt Lisa, she tries to make it better, choosing the exact wrong sentiment. telling her once the steroids wear off, she'll be "normal" and "perfect" again. Their relationship is even more strained by Luanne Van Houten recommends a therapist. Going through hypno-therapy, Marge sees into Lisa's mind and the weight of her words while a trip into Lisa's mind shows them both Marge went through something similar in her childhood. The two understand each other and though the words don't leave their minds, their power wanes considerably.

This is the first and so far ONLY episode written by Juliet Kaufman and I hope we see more because this one is really strong. In fact, I think this is one of the most emotionally intelligent episodes written in quite a while. I feel like a while back it would have been easy for Lisa to be teased and bullied by the other girls in Lisa's class (seriously, are there any girls in Springfield Elementary who don't suck besides Lisa?). This is much smarter and takes the less obvious route about how parents can unintentionally hurt their children. Marge is not out of character here, she isn't an Agnes Skinner-esque torturer intentionally needling Lisa. The initial pain comes from one little thoughtless moment that has big repercussions. I think this is smart; it's the fear we can hurt our children in a moment we don't even recognize and therefore don't work on. And it's not outrageous, it's a down to Earth moment visualized in a very notably way as a giant boulder in the middle of Lisa's psyche.

Usually, I think resolutions of "let's travel into each other's subconscious" is a choice I don't like because it makes it a little too easy and on the nose, similar to the Loki scene a few episodes back. I actually think in this episode, however, it works for me because it is specifically a visualization of Marge seeing the weight of her actions. She tries to destroy the words she created but it turns out a word she casually tossed off is simply too powerful for her to dislodge from her mother's mind. Meanwhile, Lisa sees the problem as generational. In some episodes, this might absolve Marge but not here. Instead, it makes Marge understand how this can happen and both of them seeing that allows them to work through it together instead of "we were both wrong" or being wishy washy about it like the Lisa doesn't go to college episode.

I like when the show manages to show unexpected virtues of certain characters and I like using Homer, Patty and Selma to show people who try to help Lisa because they can just ignore it. I also think we see that while Lisa is empowered by this, it's easier said than done in the reality. After all, angry as she is, Lisa values her mother's words, even when they hurt her. I love that the words that strengthen the hurt are words Marge thinks are complimentary but really aren't. I think it's a flaw that works well for this character and also works against her greatest strength; her humanity and empathy. Marge is a creature of love and comfort and she will work to change when she knows she's done something wrong but I think she's a kind of person who can be oblivious in her good nature. Meanwhile, I think this is the only time we've seen a REAL temper tantrum from one of the kids in a way that feels real, not only in how humiliating it is but showing what seems to come from nowhere definitely comes from somewhere. I went into Lisa's Belly a little nervous based on the title; it could be an episode that tortures Lisa and a lot of those, like Make Room for Lisa, can get too nasty. Lisa's Belly gets real but it never feels like it's cruel, even in being about accidental cruelty. In fact, it's a very humane episode.

Other great jokes:
"It didn't happen that way. There was different music."

"Oh, hypnotism has come a long way since pocket watches. Now look into Dr. Mysterio's mesmer-iffic hypno-wheel."

Other notes:
I didn't even notice initially but Lisa and Marge's therapist has had a mastectomy, something the show never comments on. Now that's a good way to show representation; yes, we can have teachable moments but sometimes representation can also be "this kind of person exists in the world and we don't need to focus on it."

This is also a great use of a b-plot; it could have gone in the obvious direction of "double standards for men" and I think it is in there slightly, it becomes more about when you hang out with older kids, only later to find "you aren't really there yet, kid". Until the other shoe drops, the bonding between Bart and the bullies is good stuff.


I hear ya, Moe.

Johnny Unusual

A Serious Flanders

Television certainly has evolved since I was young. I feel like people used to be happy with checking in on some characters once a week, not really needing to see what happened the week before and it would be OK to miss the week after. Somewhere along the way, serialized TV, which was big with soaps, daytime or otherwise, sort of became the norm. There is still TV where continuity is only a minor part of it but even in sitcoms, there are arcs for characters and running storylines even going through series that do feel like old fashioned sitcoms, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine. TV storytelling also became better overtime and "peak TV" and the "New Golden Age" became a thing. Now there are still lots of flaws. A lot of the shows trying to be "bigger" end up with a lot of padding or are ridiculously self-important. But some shows are really good at balancing varying tones throughout.

In this two-part episode, Homer and Ned are outside when Ned stumbles onto a Pan-Am bag full of money. Ned decides to donate it in his grandfather's name, a gentle sheriff he admired, as he doesn't want to take too much pride. However, the Sheriff's name was also Ned Flanders and with it being a barely anonymous donation, Ned is celebrated by the townsfolk. Homer is jealous and claims Flanders is using the donation to buy the love of the townspeople. Marge is upset with Homer's jealous and sends him to sleep downstairs. Meanwhile, the money also catches the attention of a criminal debt collector named Kostos Becker. He reveals he has a debt from Springfield equal to the donation money and wants Flanders to pay him. Becker sends his two mercenaries to kidnap Flanders but due to losing the address and Homer's property covered in "property of Ned Flanders" stickers, they assume Homer is Ned and take him. When they realize they have the wrong guy, they call Ned with the order to get the money to save Homer's life, no cops. Ned starts lying and even sleeps with the orphanage director to get the money back to save Homer. Meanwhile, Marge ends up discovering what happened to Homer and while Homer ends up creating a scenario to turn the mercenaries on each other, Marge saves Homer from the burning building building his scenario set ablaze. As Homer is rescued, Flanders is shocked that the man he broke his own code to save is alive and everyone thinks he's a thief and an adulterer (as the orphanage director is Mel's wife in an open marriage). Becker then calls him to warn him he will come for him someday. At the same time, Homer, who focused on saving Flanders' money from a crashed car instead of him, is seen by Marge but everyone else perceives the situation as Homer is a hero who recovered the money. Three years later, Homer is still beloved by the town (including his children) and uses the cache to open his own business but his marriage with Marge is worse than ever. In fact, Homer has a secret; he's been secretly helping Flanders and his kids, who are now in hiding from Becker. Marge finds Homer and is amazed at his kindness in helping Flanders and telling no one but Becker follows Marge and tries to kill them. Becker tracks Flanders down and Flanders realizes Becker's accounting book is all that matters to him and uses it against him, resulting in Becker's death.

A Serious Flanders is a great episode of television, a loving parody of one of my favourite TV shows, Fargo. But I think Cesar Mazariegos script also avoids all the big pitfalls of all the loving parodies that don't work so well. 1) it is not just a speed run through the series or a series of references. 2) It does mock a lot of the tropes but it feels less lazy, only occasionally just pointing them out and actually uses them for fun (both comedy fun and a cool tone) rather than just pointing at them and going "ya'll notice that?" and 3) Even without knowing the series, this is a well-made and funny episode of TV. And a bit risky in some ways... to an extent. It's not in continuity but that's OK. My issues with that are minor and I will get to them.

But most importantly, I think A Serious Flanders uses the themes and tropes of Fargo to dig into these characters. On the surface, I think we've seen these themes on the Simpsons; Homer is too jealous or greedy, Flanders discovering the limits of his goodness. But I think mixing it up with the often bleak-with-a-ray-of-hope and off-kilter nature of Fargo is perfect. In fact, that's kind of how the Simpsons could be at times. After all, it's a show that is cynical about society but hopeful on the subject of people. I think it's easy to remember the darkness of Fargo but it usually ends with a few good people where despite the fact that their universe is cruel and injustice, humanity and empathy can have an effect and save our souls. And I think that's this show.

But more than that, Cesar also knows how to structure a Fargo. The many spinning plates that are the stories, creating a threatening villain (Brian Cox is perfect both as a funny parody of the verbose yet stoic Fargo villains and also as a rather effective villain on his own terms), setting things early in a scene that pay off later (like a filling bathtub at the beginning of a long scene that kills two villains). It's a well-written and directed parody of Golden Age shows but manages to be good on it's own terms because even though the scenarios are wild, this is still an episode very much about Homer's weakness and Flanders' limitations.

If I have some complaints, they are small; I feel like Flanders' journey has a great climax but once it's over you realize his emotional arc kind of petered out. Yeah, he learns his grandpa was corrupt (yeah, I didn't mention that in the recap. There wasn't an easy spot to slide it in.) but I feel like aside from learning about his weakness and getting to go home, we don't land on something satisfactory like Homer being a real hero in private and a fake hero in public. I feel like to be like Fargo, I think Flander's decency, despite everything, needs to come to the fore. The episode also turns out to be out of continuity, which I like OK, but I wish the episode had not made it so obvious; killing Rich Texan and even Disco Stu is a plausible shock. They are not necessary characters, as fun as they are. But as soon as you kill Burns, it's obvious this is out of continuity (they've already killed off Fat Tony. I bet he has a third cousin. Fet Tony? Because of fetishes?). The time jump is a far more elegant signifier that, instead of taking me out of the episode for a moment, let's me adjust as the new and definitely not-permanent status quo is set up. And lastly, Marge and Homer saying "OK bye" as Ned runs for his life would be a cute gag for a Halloween short but I feel doesn't work here. I might have been better to have Homer and Marge keep trying to help Ned in a climax and maybe a reminder even if he sinned, he's still a good enough man to have two good friends to have his back.

Overall though, these complaints barely take away from the strength of an episode that, yes, is standing on the shoulders of a TV giant, but in a way that's clever, funny and knowing that while we can mock the tropes, this is a dang good show. The guest cast is stacked with strong character actors from peak TV like Jessica Pare, Chris O'Dowd (apparently he has a Get Shorty tv series that went on for, like three seasons), Cristin Milioti (from Fargo season 2) and Brian Cox (The Fuck Off Man from King Lear But Fox News, I assume. I never saw it. Hear it's very good.) Cox is clearly having a tremendous amount of fun; yes, his character is another larger than life supermonster in the Coens/Fargo TV series mode but he also works well within the Simpsons universe, a genuine threat who gets some very good lines. When people say "Simpsons is good again" this is very much the kind of episode they mean, very focused on characters and manages to make character's we've known for 33 seasons feel fresh again.

Other great jokes:

"Out of respect for the dead, we made the whole thing up. The facts are presented as pretentiously as possible"

"I saw ya fell so I rushed over to laugh at ya and--"

"A do-gooder like you getting this money proves that karma is real, which sucks because now I can't club you over the head to take it."

"Ah, I love a pomegranate. It's juices remind me of the bloody profession I've chosen. No, it's not subtle."

"He's gone!"
"No I'm not. I started to hide but I can't find any good places."


"I hope you like HGTV. This one likes the Property Brothers. Giant charmless goons."

"Someone this weird has to be dangerous. He doesn't even look at his phone when he's bored."

"Ah, donut and a fried egg. You, stranger, are a man of circular tastes."

I love that in the first act, NOBODY remembers Disco Stu's name and call him "The Disco Guy" and then he's the most missed person after the time jump.

"Police describe the assailant as a grim metaphor for a universe without justice."

"It's a disciplined group, I'll give ya that."


Other notes:

Seriously, you can kill off Disco Stu. I don't even hate him. He just... he's fine to kill off.

Johnny Unusual

The Portrait of a Lackey on Fire

It's interesting to see how the Simpsons evolve characters for good and for ill. Ned Flanders went from friendly yuppie neighbor to religious saint to neocon creep (this one feels kind of real, actually). Edna Krabappel went from generic no-nonsense teacher to secretly horny teacher to flawed teacher who believes in helping her kids but sometimes is checked out and proud of being an openly sexual being. Apu... is pretty fucking thorny. I'm not going to unpack but I think a journey was had with some good intents but terrible results. You can have nuance and richness but he's still a stereotype at the end of the day. Smithers is also on an interesting journey. A traditional sycophant character, the push the trope to the point where he's in love with Burns but what began as a joke that looks less good in retrospect did evolve into an attempt to make a more complex (if not always consistent, particularly in his morality) portrayal. And this is the episode where he comes out to Burns.

In this episode, Homer, who is forced to help train Burns attack puppies as a practice dummy, finds Smithers crying to himself after feeling rejected by Burns again. Homer tries to encourage him but Homer really manages to help Smithers when he finds him a new partner, fashion billionaire Michael de Graaf, who had come to pick up an attack puppy from Burns. Homer is filled with pride about his good deed and Smithers his head over heels. Michael and Waylon are the toast of the town and Michael promises to stay in Springfield and even open up a new clothing factory, promising to give everyone who needs one a job. Sure enough, the biggest losers in Springfield find work but when Homer and the kids tour the factory, Lisa points out it's a sweatshop and is both literally and figuratively insanely toxic. Homer is reluctant to reveal Michael's evil to Smithers, not wanting to break his heart but eventually he does. Smithers decides to ask Burns for advice (and in the process, comes out to Burns, though he still seems oblivious) and Burns suggests Smithers marry Michael, as his evil and therefore profits are far more than Burns could hope for. Meanwhile at the factory, the slipshod environment results in a super disaster to the environment and Smithers decides to confront Michael. After seeing him being an amoral monster and even being cruel to his puppy, Smithers splits with Michael and takes Michael's abandoned puppy as his own.

I remember seeing some good notices for this one when it came out and with the backstory of the father and son writing duo of Rob and Johnny LaZebnik, the latter of who is a gay TV writer. Smithers is certainly not the series worst example of LGBTQ representation but he never officially came out until season 27 (this feels wrong somehow but Google says that's what happened) but he is a character the show toyed doing more with but compared to other notable Simpsons characters, he doesn't get a lot of chances to grow. At least, not within good episodes. I feel like most of his range from "fine" to "sloppy" (and Homer the Smithers, which is great). I think the show definitely took aims at doing more and I think they've been half-successful; I think they did the job of continually making him a conflicted man, both loyal and in love with an evil man but also seems to have, to some extent, principles. I think even in the worse episode that remains consistent in the character and in his performance.

Still, this is one of the stronger Smithers episodes. It's one where he's not really pining for Burns anymore but he does need something. And like Flaming Moe, he struggles with a sense of self-worth, even if he knows intellectually he's a decent guy. Well, sort of. I'll get to that. But it's an episode where Smithers falls in love with a monster and when he objects to the idea that he would date one, his boyfriend is all "well, you HAVE a type." I think it is telling and shows Smither's having some strength and gumption to breaking it off with him. The metaphor is strongest, if REALLY on the nose, in the scene where Smithers projects himself onto a dog getting abused (who gets a little Smithers bowtie by the episode's end).

It's an episode that starts as a Smither's happy ending from the jump but because there aren't good billionaires, Smither's saucy new BF is a goddamned monster. Yes, the fast fashion commentary is heavy handed but I will also say it leads to a completely wild final act with what I can only assume is the parody of the mini-series Chernobyl but with fashion and glitter. I think while I like this episode, I guess I struggle a little bit because of something I think the show was always trying to get a handle on; Burns is evil but HOW evil is Smithers. He often is enabling Burns evil deeds but from time to time we see him redirect him and even object to him, as in Who Shot Mr. Burns. It's tricky because I think the Simpsons leads are often walking contradictions. Homer is the obvious example; the lazy jerk who is also a people person and dynamic entrepreneur. Why do I struggle with this with Smithers? I guess I feel he wouldn't immediately turn on Michael for being evil, I'd more likely see him as objecting when he can see the hurt of someone it bothers him to see hurt. He wouldn't give a shit about Homer Simpson in MOST cases but an innocent puppy? I definitely buy that being the final straw but I guess I feel like we haven't dug into what drives Smithers morality enough for me. Still, I do think this is a decent episode and I hope we see more of Smithers navigating love as an older gay man.

Other great jokes:
"hehehe, they dress so bad in Milwalkee... I assume."

*fishing for a witty rejoinder* "Do you like my top?"
"Yes, he seems very nice."

"Another guy lost an arm to the spaghetti strap slicer."

Other notes:
I like Burns gets obsessed with a jigsaw puzzle subplot where he first must decode the very concept of a puzzle.

Johnny Unusual

Mothers and Other Strangers

The Simpsons is a show that goes back to square one almost every episode. But sometimes an episode has a lasting impact. Krusty Gets Busted could have been a one-off but Sideshow Bob became, initially, a villain with surprising weight simply because unlike Burns, he was a guest star. Flashing back to the first time Marge and Homer met helped flesh out who they are as a couple and create some powerful touchstones. And Mother Simpson created a real interesting tragedy for the Simpson family, tied up in Groening's own history with counterculture. But while some continuity can be tossed to the wayside with ease, sometimes there's stuff you don't want to fuck with.

In this episode, Homer decides to call an online therapist about his mother issues. He flashes back to when he is a young teen and realizes his mother is still alive. He and Grandpa travel to Utah to find her, unaware they are being tracked by the FBI. Eventually they find Mona but she feels when she sees the feds and Homer assumes he's been abandoned again. We learn later she appeared for the birth of Bart, connecting with Homer.

Ugh, there are worse episodes but I feel like this is a pretty needless yawn of an episode. I'm one of those nerds who can get caught up in continuity and maybe I should be upset they retconned one of the series strongest episodes, draining it's weight in a way that makes... no sense. And I feel like I've dumped on Al Jean a lot; a lot of people put the end of the Golden Age down to Mike Scully allowing more meanspirited episodes to go through but I put a lot on Al Jean for leading to complete entropy in storytelling for a while. But I don't think he's necessarily a bad writer. But this episode is an "angry yawn"; I'd be more upset it I wasn't so bored. Having Homer learn Mona left when he's a teen is far less interesting than her actual first episode, where a character we've assumed is dead and only saw once before in flashback (with a different voice actor) has a surprisingly resonant backstory.

I'm glad the show manages to keep getting back Glenn Close, a fantastic actress who... really deserves better. It really has been diminishing returns for Mona, who is stuck in a Homer/Abe road episode (I feel like it's a spoof of something but I don't know what? Badlands, maybe?) that feels like it mentions bonding but it doesn't really demonstrate properly (frankly, the Skinner/Chalmers episode, though formulaic, is MUCH stronger in this respect). I feel like after killing off Mona, instead of letting her go away, they constantly have a need to flash back and dump more nonsense into her backstory. It's constantly about "Homer's bad childhood" but it doesn't really work anymore, frankly, because any emotion doesn't even look like crocodile tears, it looks like a plot point to drive an episode.

I really don't think they needed to do a retcon. I feel like it would have been easy to make an episode where Homer believes his mother is alive but ends with him being dissuaded. If you want Mona to visit baby Bart? Fine, do it when everyone is asleep. Heck, have her visit all the kids and the cat, too. Whatever. Again, I'm not mad they changed continuity. This is just... so easy to ignore. I think I'm upset that they Jean misses what made Richard Appel's script so effective and tries to write a bonding episode that neither works as a comedy nor emotionally. Instead, it's another nothing that feels like the show decided two good episodes need to be followed by a bad one. Which, granted, is a better track record than the decade previous, but still.

Johnny Unusual

A Made Maggie

The Simpsons is a series that has gone on long enough that it's going to repeat itself. Characters are going to learn the same lessons. The question isn't can you avoid going back but can you make it a different experience. You can just tilt the angle enough of an older story so it becomes about something else or someone else. There are a lot of "Homer is terribly greedy and it causes a rift between him and Marge" but there are nuances beyond the message of "don't be greedy" such as the varying forms greed can take or the more unexpected tolls. But not every episode can accomplish this.

In this episode, after a scare, Marge insists Maggie get baptized and Homer rushes to find a Godfather. After Fat Tony saves Homer and Maggie from a falling piano, Tony overhears Homer taking about a Godfather and forcefully volunteers for the job, leaving Homer little room to say no. Marge tries but Tony proves persuasive with gifts and promises to teach Maggie about religion and Marge eventually decides that the family probably won't see him often. In fact, Tony is pretty insistent in being a big part of Maggie's life and though Marge has concerns, Tony's gifts and perks push them aside. Tony, meanwhile, loves being in caretaker role and is even thinking of going legit for her but Tony's peers and underlings smell blood in the water and decide to strike at him. During the assassination attempt, the Simpsons are caught in the crossfire. Tony manages to stop his would-be assassin, Johnny Tightlips, but with Maggie watching, decides he doesn't want to spoil the child's innocence and shows mercy to Johnny and feeling he won't be able to change, rescinds his godfatherhood.

Elisabeth Kiernan Averick has written three episodes at this point; one I thought was a dud, one that was quite good and this. And this is an episode that doesn't really change the balance of the scales. A Made Maggie is a completely middle-of-the-road episode. There aren't a lot of really funny jokes but nothing completely flounders either. The weird part is, while I feel in my bones like I've seen this formula before of Tony entering the Simpsons lives to sway them with gifts so they allow someone to have an emotional connection with him, I'm not sure it actually has. There's the one with the bordello post office that comes close but that's more about Marge's sense of pride but there are definitely episodes where the Simpsons are swayed into an unwise decision by material temptations.

I think there are actually around the periphery are some fun ideas that don't fully bloom. I think this could have been a solid episode where Springfield's most powerful criminal actually gets an interesting arc. It could have handled Tony growing his empathy and how that affects work or the hypocrisy of a religious criminal or maybe even something as silly as a man taking on a caretaker role for reasons of pride rather than love. Fat Tony is more of a plot device. It's not that he's not a character and doesn't do funny things but there's a sense you read more plot convenience into his decisions than acting/reacting and changing. Yeah, he talks about giving it up but sometimes the Simpsons forgets to really give us a reason we can feel for a change and Fat Tony is just a charming villain with some temptation. I feel like the Simpsons own temptations are kind of basic and have been handled more smartly in other episodes where you could understand falling into that kind of trap. I don't feel a journey for the characters, just a series of wacky scenarios.

And that in itself is not bad. There's a lot of different ways to do art and character doesn't have to be paramount. But I guess this plot and joke driven episode has mostly fairly standard jokes and plot beats. Nothing offensive in it's unoriginality but lacking in being memorable. Fat Tony trying to go legit is so brief in the episode it barely registers. Some of the jokes elicit a chuckle or two but nothing that's going to stick. Joe Mantenga as usual is doing good work. And there's a surprisingly well-animated moment of Luigi being overwhelmed with terror of Fat Tony. But in the end, it's not much. It goes down easy but I feel like it won't be remembered at all.

Johnny Unusual

The Longest Marge

It's weird how I've kind of developed of love of sports except for watching sports itself. I was never much into sports much as a kid but I did enjoy playing the few times when I wasn't bad at it (I remember being an OK running back for a brief time when we played football in junior high). But while I admire athleticism, I like either playing sports with kids (WHERE I GET TO HAVE POWER OVER THEM) or watching movies or anime about sports. But there are people whose whole lives seem to revolve around sports, and that I can never relate to.

In this episode, The Springfield Atoms football team gets a new star player, Grayson Mathers, and his obnoxious self-glorifying dudebro attitude makes Mr. Burns decide to use him as a spokesman for his failing brandy company. Mr. Burns soon becomes enchanted with Mathers' attitude and becomes emotionally attached to him. But after nights of hard partying, Mathers blows his premiere game and becomes persona non-grata among the sports fans of town. Aside from Mr. Burns, only Marge seems to stand with him and decides to take him home to slow down and collect himself before playing again. Living with the Simpsons and under Marge's care, Mathers becomes a more caring and thoughtful person after a life-time of self-involvement and focusing only on football. Mr. Burns is shocked that someone who reflects his values rejects them and though his comeback game is impeccable, Burns is angry at losing his "bad boy". Burns and Marge start going at it over Mathers, who is so upset his surrogate parent figures are fighting he disappears. Before a sports awards ceremony, Marge is gifted a ticket to the show and arrives only to find Mr. Burns has too. They learn that Mathers is now married and is focused on his wife... who is clearly leading him into poor business decisions and what will likely be a costly divorce in her favour. Marge and Burns bond over how their fully grown man has grown up.

OK, this is what I'm talking about. The Longest Marge isn't the best episode even of this era but it's very much what I want a modern Simpsons to be. It's got great jokes, some good character work (including the new character), there's some interesting thematic stuff going on under the hood, decent structure, well acted and well animated. This is a B-rank episode but it's a VERY STRONG B. And I know the Simpsons isn't a show that hits them all out of the park anymore, like so many strikers doing a 7-10 split during the 5th test but I do want them to have this as a kind of pace car; "try to be this good." I feel like we had hit that for a while and we might be hitting that again soon.

The interesting thing is how this actually utilizes a formula I've grown tired of; the Simpsons invite the new character of the week into their home and it has an effect on said character. But for an episode primarily about a new character, this is a pretty strong one. I think it helps that while I think the strongest element is it's a fairly funny episode, I think the episode is trying to say something about how fans can latch onto a star (or reject them) and how there might be a mutual element to that. Mathers proves by the end, yes he needs a good influence but clearly more than that he's extremely malleable and swayed no matter who he's with. I actually think that makes him open to some fun possibilities if they ever decided to bring him back but here it's more about sports attachment, I think (and because I'm not in the world of sports fandom, there might be some nuance to it going over my head).

But by the episode's end, I felt that while there is something the show wants to say, it's real strength isn't intellectual, it's just being a silly romp. Yes, they give Mathers a back story that speaks to the toxicity and absurdity of the sports industry but mostly I think it's an episode that's silly bolstered by the strength of the Marge character. I'm OK with her being mad at Homer but I think Marge is the secret best Simpsons character because she's kind of boring but incredibly sweet (if having some surprisingly hurtful blindspots, like in the really good Lisa's Belly). She both represents what I have learned to value, empathy and patience, but also there's a wonderful goofiness to how bizarrely square she is. The Longest Marge is written by Bryan Kelly, who has written more good latter day episodes than bad and that itself is an accomplishment and I think we ended up with a funny episode that was a pleasure to watched.

Other great jokes:

"Our next guest has achieved great things in life through hard work and being 6 foot 4."

I love that Springfield elementary library has a terrarium of Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

"Come home with me."
"I would but I was supposed to mix it up with some hockey players outside a sports bar later."
"I'll tell them you're sick."

"What did you major in?"
"They never told me."
"Oh. That means communications."

I won't go into detail but a lot of the awards categories are amusing.

Other notes:
Oh, John Mulaney's character is back.

Man, I swore I recognized Mathers' voice but at the episode's end, I've never heard of the guy. It's Beck Bennett, who is an SNL guy. Not familiar... then I looked further and realized he's Launchpad McQuack in the new series.

Johnny Unusual

Pixelated and Afraid

I am a creature of comfort. I like limiting my responsibilities to the essentials, I like only having to take care of myself (outside of work) and I like the conveniences of technology. I would also like romance but part of me worries. Now I feel it's never too late for romance but I imagine if I find someone there will be a gulf of experience between them and I and I worry about that, that I'm not mature and a bit of a mess. That I like to think about romance but I'm simply not a romantic person. But I do want to get to a space of comfort. Frankly, I'd probably just be happy to find someone to play games and watch movies with but I definitely am also down for more, sharing adventures together and such.

In this episode, Lisa and Bart worry Homer and Marge have gotten TOO comfortable in their marriage and have hit a rut. The kids talk them into going to a "no phones" romantic retreat but on the way, Homer and Marge crash their car and find themselves lost in the woods with no clothes, phone or car. While in the woods, Homer and Marge find the remnants of a small romance-themed hotel. Repurposing the remnants to build a new house, clothes and other things, Homer and Marge realize since everyone thinks they are at the retreat and are unreachable, no one will even realize they are lost for days. The two initially struggle with the elements and finding food but soon find a fish. Unfortunately, it attracts a hungry wolverine and the two face off against the fierce animal for their lives. After killing the wolverine. Homer and Marge find themselves in a romantic haze. The next day, Homer sees a park ranger but hesitates to call out, before he leaves. Homer and Marge follow his snowmobile tracks to the ranger station where they see beautiful sights but on the last length of the journey. they decide to take it slow and savour their time.

There are a few writers on the Simpsons I tend to beat up on in these forums. Lifers who have been with the show for a long time and when the golden age is over, they have far more misses than hits. More of a focus on a high concept than a place of here and now. The writer that springs to my mind instantly in this respect is John Frink. It's not that I think he's some terrible writer and, in fact, has written some good to even PRETTY DARN good latter day episodes (I understand being alone in this camp but I like Go Big or Go Homer) but I think the show has created a flow for itself towards some of it's lazier instincts and he's just followed it. But I think Pixelated and Afraid is him not only following the show as it gets better but delivering one of the strongest episodes of the season so far.

I think it avoids the pitfalls of repeating a lot of formula traps on the show and while it follows a variation on classic stories of characters rekindling a romance in extreme danger, it manages to feel fresh. It would have been easy for Homer or Marge to lie about the ranger to want to stay in paradise but the episode is less about one of them doing something awful and more having a brief failing the other one relates too; Homer hesitates to call out to the park ranger because he's distracted by his romantic home and Marge gets it but Homer doesn't lie about it. Similarly, it could be Marge trying to get Homer to be romantic but it really is about them being so comfortable (and very much on the same page about it, putting them against the kids), they've forgotten the vibrancy of their love. Amusingly, too comfortable Marge and Homer are kind of romantic (and I think the episode knows it) but in a comedically gross way that shows stagnation. I think it speaks to the theme that yes, this is a decent way to live but don't live that way exclusively. But the episode doesn't make everything TOO romantic immediately, really putting Marge and Homer through their paces and having them REALLY struggle to survive before they have time to re-fall in love.

There is a small but vocal contingent that knows the Simpsons has heroically pulled itself out of it's own rut while other people are asking "what the Hell are you talking about?" But it has and interestingly this is not only a strong episode but by likely accident feels like long time creators Frink and director Chris Clements making an episode that really feels vibrant and alive. I think the episode does a great job with the way it presents the romance; it doesn't get lost in schmaltz, but it allows for long moments with no comedy, where it is just the two being romantic. It's a hard balance to maintain, especially for this series that has such an established tone (which is why I think the show did fall into a big rut) but I think Frink and Clements do a killer job and the ending with Homer and Marge mixing their comfort phase with their romantic is a strong one. Pixelated and Afraid took me by complete surprise and it represents the show I want it to be now; human and giving us some unexpected places to take our favourite family.

Other great lines:
"We watch educational shows that teach real world skills such hauling crabs out of the Bering Sea."
"Do you kids know how to put a gaff hook out of a crabber's forearm?"
"They know nothing of the sort, Marge."

"Last week there was Cheerio powder at the bottom of the bag and I just threw it out."
"That powder sounds so good. Tell me about the powder again... slowly."

Other notes:
The use of the old romantic hotel seems a bit on the nose but I think it totally works and makes for a cool visual. I feel like someone on the animation team was having a blast designing it.
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Johnny Unusual

Boyz N the Highlands

I work with a lot of kids now and many of them struggle. Some of them are very hands on and express themselves with violence. It doesn't mean they're bad because I don't think any child is. In fact they are often relatively gentle one-on-one but struggle with group dynamics and stress. That's not to say they don't have agency and can't take a role in self control and in most cases, they have improved from where they were but being a child is hard and learning control is very difficult. It takes a lot of strength and that takes practice.

In this episode, Bart, Nelson, Dolph and Martin are all on a trek through the highlands of Springfield as part of a court ordered character-building exercise for recent misdeeds, though Martin claims his is for his own benefit. To become popular with Dolph and Nelson, Bart helps them pick on Martin. Along the way, Bart finds a pet goat, which they name Axel, and decides to take it with them, after Nelson convinces them it's part of a test. On the way, the quartet are attacked by cloaked figures in animal skull masks demanding the goat back but Bart refuses to give it up. After the four stumble on a boat with limited room, Bart decides to stay with the goat and Martin. The two travel but a tired and fed up Bart asks why he needs to be such a dork... and later Martin explodes at Bart, revealing he did commit a crime to be part of the trek and in fact, he's completely overwhelmed by demanding parents, struggles with ADHD and having to balance his various medications. He then tells Bart that while he tries to present as a rebel, he's just a coward trying to get the approval of the bigger boys. Martin takes Axel and Bart is alone and the next day he finds Martin, struggling without his medication. As Bart admits Martin was right about his cowardice, the duo find that Nelson and Dolph were kidnapped by the "satanists" who are in fact film students trying to create a found footage horror movie. When an elaborate prop threatens Dolph and Nelson for real, Martin uses his knowledge, allowing he and Bart to save them. Martin earns the respect of the bullies and decides to take with him a healthy sense of rebellion against his demanding parents.

Martin is an interesting character; while he hasn't had too much in the way of starring episode, he did figure prominently early on. And while certainly remembered by fans, I kind of put him in with Barney as a utility player who seemed less essential. For nerd stuff, Bart has Milhouse. For antagonism, Bart has his bullies. For a mix of both, Bart has Lisa. Martin has really become far less needed, though he's still around often in a reduced capacity. So I like that we have this fairly decent episode that feels like it's decided to do something a bit different with the character that's still in line with what has been established. Now we can see him as a gentle soul who has a lot of strain from a demanding homelife and I think that is interesting.

Structurally, it's actually an episode similar to the last one, though not quite as good. It's a little more formulaic in telling the classic "two different characters at odds learn about each other on a journey while clashing." And it's also an episode that says some things about Bart we have seen before; that he both is a bit of a rebel but also can be mislead when seeking approval. And Bart really gets to feel being called out in this one; I've seen it done before and a few times done better but I maintain this is a pretty strong Bart episode that gets that he isn't a "bad kid" but it's what we do that matters and if he choses to stand by while someone is hurting, he's choosing something bad. I think it's an episode that emotionally works and I think it's sense of place adds to the sense of loss (not the grieving kind but the sense of being wayward) that Bart is feeling.

I do want to say that Grey DeLisle, who has taken over the role of Martin for a few years, finally gets to go all out with it, playing sides we've seen before but with real emotional oomph the character rarely gets. Grey is a cartoon vet and does a fantastic approximation of Russi Taylor's portrayal. I always feel bad when a new voice actor has to replace the old; comparisons are unavoidable and it is hard to match someone whose had the role for nearly 30 years. Grey is a wonderful talent and I'm glad she is able to make Martin come alive and I hope she gets more chances to explore the character more in later episodes. Overall, Boyz N the Highlands is an episode that doesn't reinvent the wheel but it makes a strong case that the show isn't being phoned in and it is learning to shake off it's worst tendencies in favour of a better show.

Other great jokes:
"I'm allowed to change my mind. I CONTAIN MULTITUDES, DINGUS!"

"You're late for your violin lesson. By the way, you play that now."

Other notes:
Lisa's story is kind of cute too, with her trying to have a 24 hour only child experience and overindulging physically and emotionally.

Johnny Unusual

You Won't Believe What This Episode is About -- Act Three Will Shock You!

One of my recurring nightmares is me being responsible for something awful, usually by negligence. Being responsible for a loved one being hurt or aiding in some form of abuse. I can be a careless person at times and I worry that maybe I'll do something dangerous and hurtful. You don't need to be willfully evil to do evil and you might not recognize it until after the fact. And there's the question of what does it take to do the right thing and correct your path.

In this episode, Homer leaves the dog in the car with the windows up but an unfortunate happenstance causes the windows to close and everyone thinks Homer is a bad dog owner. Soon, he's persona non grata in town and in an attempt to make an apology, which he takes back when the town tries to shame him further, he ends up punching Reverend Lovejoy out a window. Soon, he's a viral villain and though they know he meant no harm, even his family is avoiding him. At the end of his rope, Homer is approached by Theo, who runs "The Institute", designed to rehabilitate the reputations of those who ruined it. Homer and the group does good deeds but society isn't biting it and Theo suggests a radical method to win back the people's love; by destroying all evidence of their misdeeds from the internet. But to do so, Homer and the crew need to infiltrate the company Chumnet and wipe it out from their servers. Homer is the only one to make it to the end of the mission but discovers the real purpose... to also erase the evidence of the wrongdoings of the rich and powerful. Homer foregoes his mission and instead reads an apology to the world, that accepts it.
This is one I was worried about going in. I was vaguely aware of it before going in and was afraid this was going to have a wrongheaded approach. After all, the Simpsons itself at one point realized it had something to apologize for and fucked that up very badly, offering a shrug rather than a solution and really missing the point. Is there a "both sides" approach to this? To an extent. What I was worried was the show was going to attack "cancel culture" and on the surface it seems that way. But I also think there are rage cycles and sometimes the rage actually doesn't match the crime that brought it on. Does this land... not quite. Especially since the message in the end is supposed to be about taking responsibility rather than trying a tricky way to avoid it. That's a good message but my primary problem isn't that it's deeply wrongheaded. It's more that I feel a lot of the decisions end up muddying the waters.

And I get it. This is an episode that is trying to thread needles. I think it wants to put us in a place where Homer faces real public ire and be in the wrong but not so much that we the audience can't forgive him. I think it wants to scrutinize how the public reacts without forgiving people who do act like assholes in public. I think it is an episode that has some ambition to say that the path isn't easy... but then Homer wins back love with an apology that we don't hear. And I think that reminds me why while there's fun in the episode, the messaging falls apart for me. It can be "hard" to apologize but isn't that just the first step? Don't we need to do something beyond that. Fighting for redemption is hard and I think despite the fact that TV and movies are all about it, it can be really hard to do.

I think it also hurts that Homer's who problem is a "misunderstanding" and I think it needed something where Homer really did make a bad call, one where people would understandably turn on him. Then he would have to do actions that aren't part of a publicity tour but extend beyond "I'm sorry". I think the show is trying to get there but I think in practice, it doesn't shape out like that. It also brings to mind Bojack Horseman, a show about a lead who does far worse and tries to be very careful not to make things too easy and really focuses on the weight and fallout of his actions and how both hard and important it is to try to be better. But that show had seasons to work on it and this one really only has a half hour and I think it really is a bigger and headier topic than the show was able to do without making it reductive like "cancel culture bad" (which thankfully I don't think the episode is saying) and "people are online rageaholics now" (which is much more interesting but without the right nuance looks a little too close to "cancel culture bad" and not giving people credit for having genuine, understandable and very human reactions of anger towards abuse), This episode isn't nearly the trainwreck is could have been but it is also a jumble. I appreciate what it's reaching for but I feel like things end a little too easily for Homer and that maybe something pointing that making up for something puts Homer on a road rather than simply "everything's back to normal."

Other great jokes:

Homer not being able to say "anonymity" is great, a very Season 1-3 style joke. It works less well when it becomes a runner, though.

"Well, I never."
"Why do I always meet people who never?"

"Is this some kind of prank when those youtubers chased me with real machetes?"

It goes on a bit long but I like inversion of the trope of "this is really more of a Shelbyville idea" except not only does Homer and the crew not bite but they are thankful for Theo's honesty and that they won't take that risk, thank you.

I'm embarrassed for laughing at this one because the structure of clickbait headlines is super played out but frankly servers in brackets really makes this stupid joke work for me.
Other notes:
Hey, Kumail is in this one. And despite my issues with it, he is killing it.

The one guy who keeps saying he's "pissed o" feels like one of those South Park gags that apparently killed in the writers room because they won't fucking stop it on the show.

Johnny Unusual

Bart the Cool Kid

I've come to the conclusion; the less cool I am, the cooler I am. I've never been cool and while I have daydreamed of having a badass moment, I have since grown to see empathy and understanding as the coolest thing. And I've rarely felt cooler than when I'm teaching, particularly when someone sees me as someone you can trust with wisdom and will take time to squat down, walk with a weird gait and proclaim "I'm the goblin" as I chase 3-4 year olds around. Being a preschool educator makes me realize cool is a vague, arbitrary idea but being cared for and being able to awe kids by throwing a hula hoop so it rolls back to you is the best.

In this episode, Bart wants a pair of new sneakers released by nepo-baby Internet star Orion Hughes and Homer ends up buying some knock-offs. Bart tries to return the shoes but ends up humiliated by Homer's deception and his failed attempt to save his ass, which goes viral on the Internet. Bart tells Homer he never saw him as cool and Homer takes it hard. Meanwhile, Orion Hughes arrives to apologize about how he was humiliated in his store, offering him a closet full of his fashion line. Bart and Orion actually hit it off and become such good friends that they decide to collaborate on a sneaker design together while after getting a shirt dirty, Homer decides to throw on one of the shirts from his closet and Homer's old mentee Mike Weigman tells him he actually looks cool. Homer starts to feel cool and decides to share the feeling with all of his friends and pretty much every middle aged man in town. Soon, all the middle aged men are shopping for Orion's clothes and Orion fears the big release of Bart's shoe will be the death knell of his company is the olds show up. Bart tries to convince Homer to stop them but Homer won't budge, finally feeling cool. Bart calls Marge for help and before Homer and his buds arrive at the premiere, Marge convinces Homer that he's happier being comfortable in his own skin rather than being stylish. Homer convinces the other men to leave the premiere and Bart is thankful, feeling that his decision to help him was cool.

Bart the Cool Kid is not a mess like some latter day Simpsons. Structurally, it's built on a solid foundation. But I do have a few problems. I feel like while there's technically a resolution to Orion's arc it doesn't resolve with his and Bart's relationship that act two was building up or his own. I guess it's not necessary but I feel like a lot of time was put into this character bonding with Bart that it would lead to something. I get that this is a Bart/Homer story primarily, but they do spend most of it in their own adventures that are coming together and I feel like it's not the only one that needs to be resolved. I think if I thought Orion was going to be around more this would be closer to a character introduction but clearly the Weeknd is not going to be a recurring guest. Prove me wrong, show, you've had weirder ones. Like Werner Herzog just keeps showing up.

The other issue is simply I feel like this is primarily a retread of Homerpalooza but... Jesus, about 25 years later? I mean, at that point, I can hardly blame them for trying again two generations later and it's less "exploring the same topic" than "coming to the same conclusion" that being cool is appealing but there are a lot of things that trump it. Of course, Homerpalooza also had much clearer stakes: Homer having to choose his life over his reputation. Here reputation is key but it's the reputation of a new character. I think the show could have strongly attached that more to Bart seeing him in Orion due to his own public humiliation or seeing the frustration of having an actual "cool" dad but I feel like while WE can make those connections, the episode doesn't on an emotional or engagement level.

Despite two paragraphs of seeing fault, though, It was OK. I just faults were the most interesting parts to discuss. While it isn't the freshest episode, it's a completely solid one with some fun jokes about middle age finding youth fashion. And I like that Bart and Homer are still very much themselves but we also see how their empathy moves the plot; Bart makes a Hollywood phony friend in a genuine way and Homer causes the problem by, ironically, wanting to allow people like him to feel cool. Unlike the connections I made earlier, I feel like writer Ryan Koh doesn't put too fine a point on it and it just feels a little more organic to what the characters are going through. Overall, Bart the Cool Kid (which is a misleading title. I feel like "Homer the Cool Kid" works better.) is a decent episode of the show and is showing that season 33 is a noted improvement.

Other great jokes:
"My daddy took the cat to the cat doctor and when he came home he turned into these shoes."
This is one of the better Ralph moments in a while.

"Dear Leader Announces Wheat Quotas Exceeded Yet Again!"

"Son, I got you this apology card. The duck on the front seems to think what I did was quackers and maybe he's right."

"A hobo was murdered at a rave and Homer's going undercover to find the killer."
I'd watch this episode.

"Just because they RSVP'd doesn't mean their actually coming."
"Wrong! My generation shows up to things."

"You said if I ever needed you, you'd come. This is that call."
"Okie dokie. Want me to grab you some mini-carrots and hummus?"
This is an old joke but I think it works because while it doesn't overplay it, Marge is completely out of step with Bart's tone.

Octopus Prime

This one really got caught in my craw because, like... when has Bart ever cared about sneakers? Or fashion in general? It doesn't even feel like a "For the duration of this episode, this is a thing" kind of thing.

Johnny Unusual

This one really got caught in my craw because, like... when has Bart ever cared about sneakers? Or fashion in general? It doesn't even feel like a "For the duration of this episode, this is a thing" kind of thing.
I buy it because in the episode he cares about being popular and he just gets into a thing that he thinks will make him popular.

Johnny Unusual

Pretty Whittle Liar

I was fortunate to grow up in a home that values intellectualism and learning and experiencing the world. As a kid, I would pour through the National Geographics and one of my favourite thing to do was open a random page in the dictionary and read some words (often more to come up with ideas for superhero names, which I think was often the approach to X-Men comics in the 90s). But I know there are people who often lived in communities that had different values and some would come into intellectualism through different means and feel a rift between them and their loved ones. But we can still love each other all the same.

In this episode, Brandine proves to be the most insightful member of Marge's book club and word goes around town that she's secretly smart. When word gets to Cletus, he feels betrayed and Brandine leaves to live with the Simpsons for a while. Lisa and Brandine bond over it being difficult to be intelligent and Homer and Cletus bond over the fact that the women in their lives could do better/haven't been honest respectively. Eventually, Brandine decides she misses her family and is willing to stop engaging intellectually but when she arrives, Cletus reveals he's supportive of her now and will join her at the library. Meanwhile, Lisa meets a group of secret smart kids but decides she'd rather be openly intelligent.

I don't think any of the Spuckler episodes I've seen have been good and this episode has not dissuaded me. It's not bad, really, and compared to a lot of the times it deals with the Spucklers, it feels less classist. Yes, there are some hillbilly jokes and it is about Cletus being non-intellectual but it feels like it is less actively punching down. Don't get me wrong, I'm not that interested in defending this one but this one note character who became the catchall for the lowest class rural types has never been particularly kind. This is one of the better ones because it's less about "duh duh" stupid and more about the frustration of being an intellectual in a non or anti intellectual community.

The problem is, I think it takes a potentially interesting idea and only does the most obvious stuff. I actually do think that Cletus has a reason to be upset; that his wife simply did not want to share a big part of herself with him. I'm not saying it's right, we are entitled to some secrets and sides we don't share with others but it's understandable. But Cletus more upset JUST that she's smart and doing smart stuff, which is less interesting. Similarly, I do think there is a lot of potential of the frustration of feeling like an outsider in your own community, particularly one that might have different values, but no one knowing that or accepting it when they know. But I really think the episode by Joel H. Cohen goes in some more uninspired directions when looking at it. I actually think there's potential for a rather good Cletus/Brandine episode in here but this one made me pretty bored.

Speaking of, Lisa's b-plot is also one that just doesn't ring true. This is, again, more in execution than idea. There are lots of great episodes where Lisa's intelligence sets her apart. But the secret smart kids club, Lisa bumping up against the kids and the faculty, it's all stuff I've seen done better before. I think it doesn't help my opinion of this one that her big moment for showing she's brave in her intelligence is to correct someone for word usage. So Skinner says bemused instead of amused. Why are you making this your big moment? Don't make Lisa's heroic moment about language pedantry. And look, I don't like that people seem unaware that nonplussed is used incorrectly on the regular now but language is a living thing and now the worse version is codified by the dictionary as "informal". Seriously, give Lisa better hills to die on.


the room is full of ghosts
The use of the old romantic hotel seems a bit on the nose but I think it totally works and makes for a cool visual. I feel like someone on the animation team was having a blast designing it.
I think it's based on a real place in the Catskills.

Johnny Unusual

The Sound of Bleeding Gums

Over the course of the series, we have had to say goodbye to a lot of great actors. Phil Hartman was a powerful weapon in the Golden Age who sadly only got one episode as co-lead (the wonderful A Fish Called Selma). Marcia Wallace passed, forcing the show to retiring what was originally a minor Bart antagonist who became a very empathetic, proud and lonely woman. And Ron Taylor passed 7 years after his last portrayal of Bleeding Gums Murphy, the bluesman who inspired Lisa to use her sadness as fuel for her art. That said, the show has not always the best with dealing with those passings, often trying hard but not being successful. The last episode dealing with Bleeding Gums was kind of a nothing and frankly, I didn't have much confidence the series could do better.

In this episode, Lisa is horrified to learn that Bleeding Gums music is being reappropriated for a catchy lotto commercial that is stuck in everyone's head. Lisa decides to fight back with a protest but during a televised debate, it comes to light Bleeding Gums has a son, Monk. Lisa goes to meet Monk and learns he was born deaf. His father was hoping he would get a cochlear implant that would allow him to use a hearing aid but he could never afford it. When Monk learns how his father's music is being used, it turns out he was never paid for the use of the music. After some investigating, it turns out Gums was tricked into signing away all his music and even worse, it was later souled off to a huge consortium, making retrieval very difficult. Worse, Monk decides he would have felt better not knowing any of this. Lisa feels bad, then decides that to apology for treating Monk like a cause more than a fully realized person. Monk accepts her apology and reveal's he's getting the implant... by finishing 9th in the lottery. Monk gets the implant and can finally hear his father's music.

The Sound of Bleeding Gums is mostly a really good episode of the Simpsons, far better than I was anticipating. Often Lisa/jazz episodes often fall flat for me and the last episode that dealt with Bleeding Gums wasn't that great. But the Sound of Bleeding Gums is an episode with good jokes, strong messaging and a decent arc for Lisa where she does do something wrong it never feels like the show is doing a weird smug dunk on her that it seemed to be doing for a while. Here her flaw is understandable; she's fighting for a cause but in doing so, she fails to see the person she's "fighting for" as more than his cause, despite his earlier warnings. I think the message isn't subtle itself but the situation is a little more nuanced.

This is writer Loni Steele Sosthand's first written episode of the series and based it on her own experience of having a deaf brother and a music loving father. It is an episode that has a deft hand with it's representation, all of it's deaf characters played by deaf actors, which is hardly surprising at this point but it is a big deal this is the first time had deaf actors in the series. I also think it allows for characters to be flawed. Homer spends the episode giving bad advice, not being specifically admonished for it but I feel like sometimes when that happens, it makes Homer too unlikable and even though it's bad stuff like "give up on your dreams", this doesn't feel like jerkass or gaslighting Homer, just a dude who loves his daughter with a bad worldview. It's a needle the show often finds hard to thread in later seasons but it works here.

There are some stuff I have mixed feelings about, though. I'm not opposed to recasting Ron Taylor and Kevin Michael Richardson does a good job but there are very few characters recast following an actor death (a notable one is Grey Delisle/Griffin with Sherri, Terri and Martin) but I feel this was very much Ron Taylor's character. I'm glad they aren't using archive footage or AI, especially since the theme of the episode is being disgusted with digging up the dead but as good as he is, it feels to have Kevin in the driver's seat. Another moment that sat uncomfortably was the Driving Miss Daisy/Bagger Vance reference. Yes, the point was to dunk on the film's poorly aged/never good take on race relations but it did feel weird to have the black character positively compare himself to those films, even if it can be explained as Lisa's imagination. And yeah, it does mirror Lisa's own mistake of seeing Monk as a cause before seeing him as a person but it still feels weird. Overall, though, this is a strong episode. More a message episode than a strongly funny one, but as it goes, it is a story mostly well told and with heart.

Other great jokes:

"As Jesus said. 'you got to play to win'."
"He never said that."
"After he turned water into wine, he said a lot of stuff he didn't remember in the morning."

"I was forming an unlikely friendship."
"Me too. Against how many odds?"

Other notes:
It's weird to do a "Kent wants to win the lottery joke" but no lampshading that he did and got mega rich from it.

Johnny Unusual

My Octopus and a Teacher

I only have a little more than a half semester left in my ECE course. Frankly, I'll be happy to be done with studying. But it is interesting to see what teaching is now and how things are approached. Particularly how ideas of "problem kids" is being replaced by the idea of "challenging behaviours". The issue of behaviour that isn't just simple defiance but not knowing how or when to stop. That self-control is still being learned and really isn't as important (yet) as self-regulation. When the Simpsons started, a lot of the portrayal of teachers and students is based on the writer's own feelings from their youths but I think how the world is seeing and experiencing it is changing for the better.

In this episode, Lisa makes a documentary about an octopus that ends with it being eaten by a predator... but in fact, Lisa saved it and it is living in their house. Meanwhile, a new teacher comes to school, Ms. Peyton, and is loved by the staff and the students. Bart, however, can't seem to help himself acting weird and destructive around her, even more than usual. Ms. Peyton wants to teach Bart but his behaviour is a real challenge for her but she's determined with Homer and Marge's help to find out his issues. Homer comes to Bart suspecting he knows, suggesting he has a crush. Bart reveals that in fact he knows her from an embarrassing incident where he blew up at her but she doesn't recognize him from that time. Bart is simply embarrassed and ashamed of how he treats her and on Homer's advice goes to explain the situation to her. But when Bart sees that Ms. Peyton has a husband, he freaks out and realizes he DOES have a crush. During a big diorama show Mr. Peyton created helped the children create, Bart tries not to freak out but inadvertently frees Lisa's octopus and accidentally causes havoc, destroying it utterly. Ms. Peyton is heartbroken and Bart goes to explain everything. She understands and explains his feelings are just a sign of him loving himself more and that she will stay as his teacher.

My Octopus and a Teacher is an episode I was prepared not to be into. It had the pretty generic logline of Bart falls in love with his teacher and a parody of a documentary I never saw and was quite recent. Watching it though, I was surprised that Carolyn Omine's script really feels like it was consulted with educational professionals. Peyton is a character who mostly knows how to deal with challenging children but like most teachers, she can be frustrated and exhausted when struggling to solve that mystery. If anything, the only error in representing a "good" modern teacher is when she talks to Homer and Marge, she says "I'll" get to the bottom of the mystery, rather than "we". That might seem like a small difference but this episode shows that this character really does take effort to use just the right wording (and often backtracks in an awkward manner when she says something she's afraid is wrong). While I'm not THAT great a teacher, trying to use patience and empathy to deal with kids who have challenging behaviours is definitely something I relate to, as is having to keep up appearances while challenged for the sake of the children (which isn't to say you can't show weakness but you never want to make a child think they are responsible if you are having a hard time).

I would say my response to this episode, despite it's strengths, which I think are notable, is that it is almost an episode more interesting than hilarious. I never fails and in fact I think it succeeds in so much but it's an episode I get more of from an intellectual level than an entertainment level. I think it is really interesting that it is trying to reframe Bart a bit; nothing he does is prank or mischief-based this episode, it is all impulsive. Past episodes have implied some of his challenging behaviours come from ADHD but this is an episode more than others where all of Bart's behaviours look impulsive, rather than a plan. It's trying to understand the spark as we understand a lot of sparks now. It fits in more with a common reality that I firsthand see. And I'm conflicted; I'm glad this is being represented and in a way that's empathetic to someone like Bart. But also, there's very little trace of what I like about pranking Bart; the sense of a healthy anti-authoritarianism and ingenuity (interestingly, while a lot of the kids I look after don't do "pranks" that often, I find many who have challenging behaviours are often really good problem solvers in other areas, creating fun projects for themselves with Lego and cardboard). Of course, that's just who Bart is for this episode. The Simpsons characterizations are always a bit elastic without feeling like character betrayal (even when some of them I like far less) so we will see that other Bart I like but it is weird to see a Bart who is well portrayed but feels different than usual to me.

So overall, I wish it was funnier but I think it makes up for it in trying new things and doing it well. And it really did feel truthful to me. I don't work in a public school but there are definitely similarities to what I do and learn about education. I think this is a well-written, well-directed and well-acted episode. Ms. Peyton is set up to be a new recurring and Kerry Washington is doing a good job yet I feel like while the functionalities of the character are in place and the acting is good, this isn't a character who really sticks yet. And I think that's while this is a sweet, human character, I think simply she needs to get more usage out of her to see where she fits within the larger tapestry of the show, especially this late in the show's game. I will say Lisa's subplot is easily the weaker aspect, despite lovingly fluid octopus animation. It's a more generic "Lisa decides to return the animal to nature and... something about honesty?" This actually might have need to be it's own episode if it wanted something like Lisa deciding if she'd want to follow the documentarian code or abandon it on moral grounds. It's a good dilemma for an episode, after all. Overall, I would put this as a mid-tier episode as a whole but one that very much spoke directly to my experiences and did it with wisdom and car.

Other great jokes:
Yes, no teacher in the last 60 years would have used a "dunce cap" but for the sake of a stupid gag I like that Peyton, in her quest to find the right approach to Bart used both a "dunce cap" and "genius pants".

Johnny Unusual

Girls Just Shauna Have Fun

Working with kids, there are often relationships that are complicated for educators. I'm not talking problematic, more... give and take. There are children who wind each other up but these can also be the same kids who are often alone except for each other, so we want to support those friendships. But because of their own issues, sometimes it means mediating disputes. Sometimes people you care about will let you down or hurt you. It doesn't mean they aren't friends but kids often have a lot of growing up to do and in the meantime stumble as friends while learning empathy.

In this episode, Lisa is invited to join the Springfield High School Marching Band while their saxophonist's toe heals. There, Lisa finds perpetual indifferent mean girl Shauna and discovers Shauna is a passionate drummer. Despite her cynical exterior, the two become genuine friends and begin jamming together. Lisa inspires Shauna to try out as the Band's main drumming and eventually wows everyone, including handsome jock Trevor. Shauna is invited to Trevor's party with the stipulation everyone needs to bring a beer to get in. Meanwhile, Homer and Chalmers grow as friends when Chalmers introduces Homer to craft brewing and eventually has Homer brew his own ale. So Shauna sneaks out a cart, but due to a mistake, Trevor and his friends end up leaving with Homer and Chalmers' entire supply. At the party, Lisa is abandoned by Shauna who is with Trevor while Homer and Chalmers discover to their horror that their own brew is being sucked up by kids. Chalmers and Homer are about to be arrested when it is revealed Homer forgot the yeast, which resulted in a non-alcoholic drink. Meanwhile, Lisa tells Shauna she feels betrayed and she doesn't want to see her again. However, when Shauna comes over to babysit, the two make up as Shauna feels appreciation to Lisa for giving her confidence.

There are characters who I wonder if they really have the power to carry a whole episode and I never would have pegged Shauna as a character the series would try it with. But all things considered, it is a pretty solid episode and I think it speaks to good character work to bring these characters in a way that it believable and where despite her final act failing, Shauna is a fairly rich character. She's still very much the obnoxious, cynical teen she's always been but the episode is also working with little tidbits the show has been working on, like having Gary Chalmers as her exhausted dad, trying his gentle best to figure out his daughter only for her to snark at him again. At the same time, despite her protests, her bond with Lisa is genuine and it is a really sweet relationship. Marge worries that she's a bad influence but often it is more complicated than that.

I've seen situation where there's a "bad influence" problem and often it is more an... influence problem. That some kids can set each other off in terms of challenging behaviour but also there can be benefits, which make dealing with the relations tricky; we want to separate the bad or frustrating parts but keep the good because that good tends to be very good for those kids. A lot of the Lisa friendships are more about kids who are perfect for Lisa in most ways or are revealed to be kind of awful. I feel like while Shauna is a lot to deal with, this is a much more grounded and it's more about having a very flawed friend and Lisa having to see that. It's a good character piece and has a few laughs.

I feel like while the show isn't intentionally planting big storytelling seeds for later, as it is a generally non-serialized show, I feel like the Simpsons has also been working on Chalmers a bit more, creating more detail to make him a more well-rounded character. He's had his own weird little journey from straight man to a guy with who struggles with his daughter and it feels like we will see more episodes about that in the future. But for now, this is a decent episode. I wouldn't put it among the best of it's era but it is doing some strong character work and represents the kind of quality I hope becomes consistent within the show.

Other great jokes:

"She's a real b-word. The b stands for Brenda. She's a girl I know and she's a total bitch."


Other notes:

The Simpsons knows what adults watch cartoons.