The Simpsons is a television show that will forever be chasing its own shadow. I firmly believe that if your average viewer were to watch the episodes produced over the last five seasons or so, the general consensus would be that it’s generally a pretty good show. Unfortunately for showrunner Al Jean and the rest of the current Simpsons’ staff, their modern day output will always be measured against the seven or eight years when The Simpsons was one of the best shows on television, or to go one step further, if the good people at Time Magazine and your humble narrator are to be believed, the best show of all time. It can be a difficult task to live up to your own legacy.
Despite this challenge, Season 21 of The Simpsons produced a number of very good episodes, some of which even stack up pretty well against the episodes of the “Classic Era.” As has become customary, the latest season of The Simpsons consisted of a few big hits, a few big misses, and a large quantity of solidly enjoyable if unspectacular episodes in between. First and foremost, “O Brother, Where Bart Thou?” a tale of Bart’s quest for a younger brother, attained a level of quality that I did not believe the modern day Simpsons staff could reach anymore. Even with the proliferation of guest stars, usually a telltale sign of a weak episode, the story and the comedy fired on all cylinders the whole way through. It was touching, it was funny, it was well-constructed, and most of all it was entertaining from start to finish. Though Season 21’s hits managed to be a notch above those of prior recent seasons, this episode in particular stands apart as the best of the bunch.
Beyond just “O Brother, Where Bart Thou?” a number of other good episodes bolstered the overall quality of Season 21. The fans were treated to one of the best Treehouse of Horror episodes in five or even ten years. Between an homage to Hitchcock, a slanted parody of the current zombie/survivalist craze, and a brilliantly creative take on a Sweeny Todd-esque stage show, the show’s staff put together three stories that each maintained a separate tone, but complimented each other very nicely.
Outside of those special episodes, “Boy Meets Curl” gave us a fun lampooning of the hoopla surrounding the Olympics and a nice Homer and Marge story to boot. In this episode, the first couple of Springfield decide to take up curling and make it all the way to the Vancouver Olympics. In one of the funniest lines of the season, guest star Bob Costas witnessed a competitor get injured and blurted out, “This is the sort of bittersweet melodrama Olympic coverage feeds on. I admit it: We’re vampires who suck on shattered dreams.” It was a perfect skewering of his own work.
Finally, “Postcards from the Wedge” gave the audience an entertaining story that involved the entire family. Over Lisa’s protests, Bart pitted Homer and Marge against each other in an effort to avoid punishment, only to discover that without punishment, his pranks lost their thrill. There were lots of good laughs in the episode, particularly involving the humorous “Springfield of the Future” videos, and the story hit home as a nice, down-to-earth problem Bart created and eventually had to overcome. These episodes were all great, and could comfortable fit in with offerings from the early seasons.
Unfortunately, this season was not all good. There were definitely some clunkers to go along with Season 21’s successes. Chief among them, “The Devil Wears Nada” was an awful episode that tied into the downright disturbing Playboy spread of Marge Simpson. Not only was the humor weak, but the teased affair between Marge and Ned Flanders was just uncomfortable to watch. Their forced attempts at titillation failed miserably. For a much better take on Marge harboring an attraction to another man, see Season 1’s “Life on the Fast Lane.” In the mean time, avoid this episode like the plague.
Similarly, for an episode promoted with much fanfare as the 450th episode and as part of the celebration of 20 Years of The Simpsons, “Once Upon a Time in Springfield” was a dreadful outing for the series. The story focused on the network demanding a new character to debut on the Krusty the Clown show in order to appeal to female viewers. Of course that new character (voiced by Anne Hathaway) ends up hogging the spotlight much to Krusty’s dismay, only for him to discover that his new co-star has a longstanding crush on him. The story was disjointed and the pacing was all over the place. The entire half hour was nearly devoid of laughs, and it left a sour taste in my mouth for Fox and the show’s staff to have chosen such a terrible episode to mark such a significant milestone in the show’s history.
Finally, “The Bob Next Door” took what was a promising premise to a Sideshow Bob episode and completely ran it through the wringer until what was left was disfigured and nigh unwatchable. The Face Off-esque twist was not only disgusting, but made absolutely no sense even in the “waistband reality” of the show. The few good gags were ruined by this poorly plotted piece of claptrap that very well may have made me want to retch.
Which is to say, there were some great episodes and some horrible episodes, and that in the end they tended to more or less balance each other out. In between those highlights and lowlights, there were a number of fairly good episodes like “Pranks and Greens” “Rednecks and Broomsticks” and “Million Dollar Maybe.” Season 21 received record viewership for certain individual episodes, but on average, the ratings for the show have declined. Though it’s been predicted for years, if not decades at this point, the show may be nearing its end. Which brings us to the season premiere for the 22nd season of The Simspons.
Note: the rest of this review contains spoilers.
The main plot of the episode focused on Lisa going to Arts Camp and struggling to embrace her newfound creativity when she returns to her humdrum life in Springfield. The B-story involved Homer and Bart accompanying Krusty as he is put on trial at The Hague and must show that he has made one significant contribution to Western Culture. There’s a bit of intersection between the two stories, but by and large they play out independently of each other. After 450+ episodes, there are only so many stories to tell, and I thought the main story worked much better than the more outlandish B-story.
I must admit, I did not have high hopes for this episode. Many of the advertisements promoting it noted with excitement that the episode would feature members of the cast of “Glee.” I also have to admit that I have not seen a great deal of “Glee” so I am not in a great position to judge the show. However, I did see a clip featuring the school’s football team doing the Single Ladies dance in the middle of a game, and I quickly realized this was not the show for me. Thankfully, the cast members’ roles in the episode were minimal, and they were pleasantly unobtrusive while on screen.
Even in the absence of a Glee-dominated episode, there were a number of other celebrity guests who came to Springfield. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” fame guest starred as the counselors at the Arts Camp Lisa attends. Though I have not seen nearly as much of “Flight of the Conchords” as I ought, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen of the duo, and they were a tremendous part of this episode. Their “Art in the City” song in particular was boatloads of fun. Any Simpsons episode that features an “artistic cow” is already scoring points in my book. As they are wont to do, the FotC boys put together a number of songs that were both humorous and catchy. Their main song of the episode also featured Stephen Hawking, who not only contributed to the lyrics with “A Brief History of Rhyme,” but made his third guest appearance on the show. I believe after two more he can trade in his punch card for a free sandwich. The episode also featured an appearance by Ira Glass, who did a perfect send up of his spectacular series, This American Life.
Again, I loved Bret and Jermaine’s presence on the show, and it gave the main plot a lighter atmosphere despite the semi-dark tone of story. Lisa was at her best, idealistic without becoming too jaded, and acting as a full and equal partner in the comedy. By contrast, the B-story was a bit weak. Krusty is just not a very funny character anymore, and the jokes based around him just hit the same note over and over again. The resolution to his story was a little bit clever and at least in character, and his brief part of the main story had its charm. Nevertheless, by and large Krusty’s role in the episode felt tacked on, without much going for it, especially in the shadow of Lisa’s more compelling plot.
Both storylines suffered from being reference smorgasbords at times. This phenomenon can likely be chalked up to the writers throwing out a fair number of recognizable pop culture references in the hopes of attracting the casual viewers to the premiere. Still, the episode could have benefited from a more soft-handed approach.
I did enjoy the vast majority of the gags in the episode, and I think there were a number of laughs to be had. Maggie’s cigar-like enjoyment of a new pacifier (teether’s choice!) had me chuckling. Mr. Largo’s “My Country Tis of Thee” rewrite was a dark dark joke, but it worked in context. There were some nice one-liners like Homer’s response to the Nobel Prize being, “I’d kill for that!” and Lisa’s “Don’t ever turn two.” There were even a couple of good sign gags like “International Court of Justice – Formerly International House of Pancakes.” The Conchords also brought a lot of their style of humor with them to the show, and I certainly enjoy it, but it’s a different flavor than your usual Simpsons jokes, so your mileage may vary. Aside from Homer’s extended laughing, there was nothing that made me cringe, and a there was great deal that tickled my funny bone.
Overall, I liked this episode. I think it will fall into the “good but not great” category which will encompass most of the episodes in a given Simpsons season these days. Again, episodes like these are massively outmatched in comparison to the golden years of the show, but they’re still a nice and enjoyable way to spend a half hour on a Sunday evening. You can bet I will be back and watching again next week.