Parodies are often a gamble. You have to hope that the audience understands the reference, and enjoys the in-jokes and homages to other works. If not, you have to hope that the story or characters you’re referencing are solid enough to provide the backbone of an episode on their own, otherwise you are asking for a call-and-response that the audience doesn’t know how to answer.
This was the biggest problem with tonight’s episode of The Simpsons, “The Man in the Blue Flannel Pants.” The episode is essentially one long reference to AMC’s Mad Men, the award-winning drama about advertising executives in the 60’s. In this episode, Homer becomes the accounts manager for the power plant, wearing under the daily grind of glad-handing and schmoozing with the plant’s clients. The homage is replete with a guest appearance from Mad Men’s John Slattery as the outgoing account manager. Unfortunately, despite the fact that it has been on my list for some time, I have never seen Mad Men, and it made the episode feel a little threadbare to me.
It’s a shame, because the show has been on something of a roll lately. The last three episodes of The Simpsons have been some of the best work the show has done in some time. “Replaceable You” told two enjoyable stories with laughs to spare and made good use of its guest star, the inimitable Jane Lynch. “The Food Wife” balanced a pitch-perfect parody of modern-day foody culture with a down-to-earth family story about Marge feeling overshadowed by Homer. “The Book Job” gave us a hilarious send-up of the heist genre while casting a satirical eye toward tween lit at the same time. Each of these episodes involved a certain degree of parody and reference, and each of them worked quite well.
Which is why I’m loathe to punish “The Man in the Blue Flannel Pants” too harshly. Who is to say that I wouldn’t have enjoyed these prior episodes as much without being in on the reference? That said, I’m not sure the reference really works here. Even based on what little I’ve seen of Mad Men, I know that Homer Simpson is not Don Draper. Homer has his lows, and certainly has a dark side, but he has a supreme congeniality and zest for life that means, like many outfits on the Simpsons’ patriarch, the cynical executive motif doesn’t really fit.
The show has already done, “Homer gets promoted.” The show’s already done “Homer is worn out from work.” The show’s already done, “Homer has to choose between his job and his family.” I tend to avoid criticizing the modern era of the show too much for repetition – after twenty-three seasons you’re bound to cover some of the same territory – but this isn’t a new twist on an old tale. It’s a retread in the name of jamming the show into a particular mold, and no matter how well you lubricate the episode with 60’s era bourbon, it’s a poor match.
To wit, the show’s subplot, a fun little detour about Lisa opening Bart up to the world of literature, was the best thing about the episode. It was organic to the characters, with Lisa as the brainy mentor and Bart as the reluctant pupil who gets inadvertently caught up in his sister’s interests. Bart’s interlude reading “Little Women” to the bullies was a particular treat. This sideplot ended far too abruptly. The show could certainly have stood to flesh out this story more, particularly at the expense of a stodgy parody of another series.
As is the norm during Al Jean’s second tenure as show runner, this episode was not exactly bad, just dull. It had a few cute jokes like Moe curled up asleep on the bar having left a beer and a note for Homer, or Homer’s golfing with pets. It even had some fun lines like, “Simpson hasn’t exactly set the world on fire as safety inspector, though he’s come close a couple of times.” But the entire parody felt stretched thin against Homer’s usual gregariousness, and whole thing ended in a sitcom-esque cliché that would have made Mrs. Doubtfire blush.
Overall, this episode put Homer in a world to which he, and the show, were ill-suited. There’s plenty of comedic hay to be made from Mad Men, but this episode was far too grim and far too flat to really do either show justice. Parody is like a good cocktail, you have to have the right amount of each of the different ingredients so that they complement each other rather than clash. Tonight, the drink went down anything but smooth.