In the most recent episode of The Simpsons, entitled “The Blue and the Gray,” Marge takes the bold step of forgoing her usual hair dye and deciding to sport her natural gray hair color. I really enjoyed this main story. It was fresh and original without feeling forced or contrived. It’s hard to come up with a situation the Simpson family has not already dealt with, and Marge-centric episodes in particular tend to cover already well-trodden ground. Who would have thought that a pack of middle-aged male comedy writers would have a hard time coming up with interesting material about a wife and mother? That barb aside, this episode bucked the trend. The basic plotline of Marge deciding to embrace her self confidence by going gray soared. The central conflict of Marge balancing her commitment to being “empowering” against the town’s reaction, not to mention her concerns about whether Homer’s support for the new-do is genuine, carried this episode home.
Of course, my fellow Simpsons nerds and I have known since Season 5’s episode “Secrets of a Successful Marriage” that Marge has been as “gray as a mule since she was seventeen.” In that same vein, I have no doubt that this blip in continuity will be cause for much consternation for my fellow diehards, but I’m willing to overlook it. I am a firm believer in Matt Groening’s “waistband continuity” where the continuity can stretch to fit the joke. I did take some issue with the fact that they hand-waved the issue with the hairdresser that the fumes from the dye wipe Marge’s memory that she’s actually gray. It would be better just to play it off as though the hairdresser was keeping it from her, or just reframe it as Marge knowing about the dyeing all along, but choosing to stop. Still, that’s a quibble in what was otherwise a strong and unique storyline.
The B-Story involved Moe enlisting Homer as his wingman after attending a dating seminar the day after Valentine’s Day. I thought that this premise had a great deal of comedic promise, and the end result certainly held its own, but failed to really knock it out of the park. The dating seminar portion of the story in particular seemed poised for comedic goodness and failed to deliver. The exchange between Skinner and Chalmers went on far too long and the entire scene at the seminar felt pretty stagnant. The actual attempts at wingmanning, however, did lead to some fun jokes. The little “picture-in-picture” bits with Dr. Kissing-her’s advice were cute, as was Homer distracting the cute girl’s overweight friend with pizza-related banter. It also gave Lenny a some good lines like when Homer asked him if the doctors had removed the rebar from his head and Lenny responded, “they just sawed off the ends end painted over the nub” or when he offered a Homer a bottomless pitcher of beer and a “circumferenceless platter of nachos.” Moe’s part of the story kind of petered out at the end, but it served as nice vehicle for the conflict in the A-story, so I’m willing to let it slide.
The show tied the two stories together when Marge, increasingly insecure about her new look, discovers that Homer has become quite popular on the nightclub scene. She goes to confront him, only to find out that he’s only a good wingman for Moe because he knows that he has her waiting for him at home. I generally enjoyed not only how they resolved the A-Story, but how they built up to that resolution. Marge grew increasingly insecure about her new gray locks, thanks to the cutting but hilarious remarks from the various denizens of Springfield. Backhanded compliments like, “I hope I look half as good as you when I give up” and “Ma’am, is that really wise with what I presume is your heart condition?” were fantastic. The entire exercise was great fodder for comedy. It also led to my favorite gag of the night, when Patti and Selma told Marge that they had not gone gray themselves, but rather that their hair color was merely a product of a build up of ash and smoke. When they shook the soot out of their bouffants, they not only revealed their natural red-headed and blonde hair-colors, but the resulting billow of smoke was enough to crash a nearby airplane. I loved the choice of Patti and Selma as the final catalysts for Marge’s insecurity about Homer’s responses to her natural gray hair color.
If I have a complaint with the plot of this episode, it’s that it included an odd C-story about Bart’s response to his school friends making fun of him over his mom. Not only did the storyline just sort of pop in out of nowhere in the second act, but it disappeared just as quickly, only reinforcing a sense that it was mere filler. The new four-act structure for the show has definitely taken its toll on the pacing of new episodes, and this was no exception. The third act was incredibly short, which gave the audience a long stretch of commercials with minimal actual television, and it really disrupted the storytelling. I did enjoy the Catch-22 Milhouse found himself faced with in regard to whether Marge was hot, and we had some callbacks to older episodes including an appearance from J. Loren Pryor, the school’s psychiatrist and a bear who looked suspiciously like Mr. Burns’ teddy bear Bobo. Yet, on balance, this entire bit was too brief to be a real story, but too long to just be an extended gag, and the episode was worse off for it.
Nevertheless, one of the things I enjoyed the most about this episode was how funny it was, and how many different sorts of great gags there were. “The Blue and the Gray” featured a bevy of clever references, excellent absurdist humor, and superb one-liners. There were cute gags like Homer finding himself tied to the bed in a “double snuggler’s hitch.” There were great quotes like Marge cooing to Homer, “you always mean to say the nicest things.” There was great physical humor like Homer springing in the action to stop the kids’ jaws from dropping at the sight of gray-haired Marge. There was even a fun reference where Homer tries to overcome his shock at his wife’s hair by picturing her as a bond girl, and looks back only to realize that he’s just imagining Judi Dench. There was even a contender for the title of “best exchange of the season.” At the end of the episode Lisa said, “as a feminist, nearly anything a woman does is empowering,” to which Homer replied, “as a man, when I create power, is it empowering?” Lisa responded, “no, it’s just oddly dehumanizing.”
This episode also featured a number of meta-jokes. Many shows, The Simpsons in particular, have found favor with these self-conscious gags where the writers draw attention to how the world of the show differs with reality. While this is nothing new for Our Favorite Family, (the several Fox-related jokes from The Simpsons’ glory years remain well-loved) it’s certainly stepped up in recent years. Still, Bart, Lisa, and even Maggie freaking out about the fact that they have no hairlines may have been the highlight of the episode. Bart’s “What are we?” and Lisa’s “I’m just going to draw a hairline on,” were both classic bits. There was also a subtle reference to the fact that wherever The Simpsons go, be it to movie theaters, museums, or even nightclubs, they seem to run into the same “Sarcastic Man.” In this instance, Marge ran into him twice, with the famed no-name pulling double duty as both valet and bouncer at Club Zipperless. There was even a third such gag featuring Lisa wondering what “Cousin Jessica” is up to and grabbing a gossip magazine featuring Jessica Simpson on the cover. Many long-running shows start to poke fun at their own conventions like this, and the staff of “The Simpsons” are assuredly experts at it.
Additionally, there were also a number of good Valentine’s Day jokes. We have seen an increase in the number of holiday-themed episodes of “The Simpsons” in recent years, and I would speculate that it’s because it gives the writers some easy territory for humor. Still, I can’t complain too much because it totally worked here. Background gags like Lard Lad holding up a large box of chocolate were fun, not to mention Crazy Cat Lady finding her romantic equal in the form of Crazy Dog Guy. It even gave us a nice joke about the ambiguous friendship between Lenny and Carl as they double date with each other’s sisters. I did think the kiss between Maggie as Cupid and Baby Gerald at the end was a little weird, but in general the Valentine’s Day jokes worked in a big way.
There were even a couple of quality cutaway gags. Moe’s hope that there was at least one woman out there for him, followed by a quick cut to the other side of the world where a suspiciously Moe-like woman was about to share in his penchant for suicide attempts, was dark but funny. Additionally, the zoom in on Homer’s head revealing a board room of executives debating how to respond to Marge’s new hairdo was great. I especially liked the follow up of the cacophony of D’ohs when his response went over poorly.
That said, not every joke was a winner. Marge’s criticism of AAA’s magazine was one of those “2% of people would even know or care enough to find that funny” jokes. I also wish they would just retire Gil as a character. He hasn’t been funny in nearly a decade. Also, while perhaps it’s a minor point, I have to say that after 477 episodes, they are just running out of ideas for good gags during the opening credits. “I will not make fun of Cupid’s dink,” is a chalkboard gag that’s barely cute, let alone funny. The couch gag featuring Barney coming off the bench for Homer had aspirations of being clever, but ultimately fell flat. Adding a new opening credits gag in the form of the “flyover” over the title card (in addition to the occasional billboard) only adds to the problem.
Overall, I thought this episode was an excellent showing from “The Simpsons.” Though the C-plot about Bart fizzled, and the B-plot sputtered and started a bit, the A-plot was both strong and original enough to make “The Blue and the Gray” stand out from the crowd. It had many different kinds of quality humor that kept me laughing and engaged the whole time. It’s one of the very best episodes of Season 22.