“I’m not gay. I’m not anything yet.” Bart Simpson’s nerdly friend Martin said those words in a Season 16 episode and reminded us that the children of Springfield have had a surprisingly robust romantic life for a pack of eight-to-ten year olds. Very few cartoon characters age, and for most animated shows, that’s not much of a problem. But when the audience has been watching a show’s adventures for more than two decades and yet the characters technically haven’t aged a day, a certain disconnect develops.
That’s why it’s a little strange that the premise of The Simpsons Season 24 premiere, “Moonshine River,” is a wistful look back at Bart’s halcyon, prepubescent loves. We’ve seen the characters on The Simpsons have a sizable number of adventures and go through a healthy dose of character development in the 500+ episodes the show has aired so far. Yet the status quo is supposed to be roughly the same as when the series started.
Granted, the blink and you miss it cameos from Sarah Michelle Gellar (Gina from “The Wandering Juvie”), Natalie Portman (Darcy from “Little Big Girl”), Anne Hathaway (Jenny from “The Good, the Sad, and the Drugly”), and Sarah Silverman (Nikki from “Stealing First Base”) portend that this episode was not meant to be a particularly deep look back at Bart’s nascent yet prolific love life. But it’s still a bit odd to watch Bart reminisce about his collection of old flames as a wee fourth-grader.
Thankfully, the episode manages to achieve a measure of focus on this front, an increasing rarity in the series these days. Bart’s conclusion at the end of his little breakup retrospective is that maybe no girl could possibly like him. After asking his dad’s advice, he enlists The Simpson family on a trip to New York City to track down the one who actually did. That lady…er…girl is Mary from the Season 17 episode “Apocalypse Cow,” who’s voiced by Fox’s current It-Girl de jure, Zooey Deschanel.
Bart, with a typical well-meaning if boobish assist from Homer, is able to locate Mary. She’s been getting by on her own in The Big Apple, but she’s also been hiding from any Springfieldians. She’s worried that if her father, Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, finds out, she’ll be returned to his hillbilly home. Bart and Mary manage to have a few tender moments before Cletus predictably arrives to throw a wrench into the works. The mission then becomes to sneak Mary off before Cletus can steal her away back to Springfield.
Despite the oddity of having to resolve Bart’s status as an elementary school student with his well-worn collection of lost loves, I actually enjoyed the central conflict of the episode. The writers managed to wring some genuine pathos out of Bart’s pining, and his interactions with Mary were legitimately sweet, if a bit forced at times. Case in point, in the middle of the episode, Mary borrows a street musician’s guitar to play a song about Bart, and it felt like a pretty transparently shoe-horned attempt to give Zooey Deschanel, who moonlights for the band She & Him, a chance to show off her vocal chops. Otherwise, Bart sneaking Mary onto a train and telling her father, “She proves that girls can like me, and if I told you where she was headed, she wouldn’t,” was as surprisingly touching as it was trite.
The subplot for the episode involved Marge and Lisa attempting to enjoy New York City’s “high culture at low prices.” As a current denizen of Gotham, I probably appreciated the ensuing gags for more than they were worth, but the episode did an admirable job at sending up the city. From a gentle poke at The Naked Cowboy, to some good fun at the expense of subway riders, to a humorous if outdated reference to our mousey ancestor Fievel, I enjoyed the one-off bits about the city that never sleeps.
Much of this ground had been covered previously in “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson,” but believe it or not, that episode aired fifteen years ago, and there’s plenty more in New York City to laugh about. There was even an excellent callback to the Khlav Kalash guy, who has expanded from a pushcart to a 50,000 square foot empire! What’s more, this new visit to New York gave the show’s producers a chance to show off a part of the series that has not declined at all with age — the engaging designs of the animators. From a sweeping view of Times Square, to a quick overlook of Rockefeller Plaza, to a beautiful shot of the High Line, the episode was a visual feast and a great excuse to showcase the animators’ abilities.
Unfortunately, the B-story about New York’s sights and sounds ended on a fairly weak note. Marge and Lisa attend Shakespeare in the Park, only to find that the performance has been cancelled. Instead of giving up and going home, Lisa implausibly enlists the audience to put on “Romeo and Juliet” themselves. The setting did include a couple of good bits, like a barker selling “Cuckold Horns” and “Yorick Skulls,” but overall it was a petering finish to a storyline that was largely just an excuse for a gag-fest anyway. A notable flaw was that the reason for the production’s close was that the Baldwins and the Sheens, who were playing the Montagues and the Capulets, were feuding. It felt like too much of a cheap Hollywood barb to make much comedic hay.
In the same vein, the humor of the episode hit more than it missed, but still had more than a few clunkers. There were some surprisingly dark gags in the episode, like Chief Wiggum tasering the tapping ball of wreckage or Bart imploring Homer to return to New York now that his “least favorite buildings have been obliterated…Old Penn Station and Shea Stadium.” There were also a handful of fun one-liners like, “Daddy just covers things with hay and says they’re done,” and “Just once I’d like your father to be on a jumbotron for something good.” There were even some delightfully absurd bits like Old Mel Wellbottom, Moe two-timing his blow up dolls, and Al Roker buying back his own autograph.
But there were a good number of pretty uninspired gags as well. Homer’s expression of his “unfiltered feelings by drunk dialing” could have been a decent if unspectacular one-liner, but acting it out not once but twice pulled the joke further than it could stretch. Cletus’s son Dubya hopping into the trunk of a car only for it roll into a lake was stupid, pointless, and unfunny. What’s more, the scene that referenced The Sweet Smell of Success ran far too long with too little payoff, particularly for a bit based on a film that came out long before most of the show’s viewers were born. Though if you borrow from something in black and white, it’s an homage, right?
All-in-all, The Simpsons kicked off their 24th season with a quality episode, albeit one that isn’t going to set the world on fire. It had a focused and sweet main story, a b-plot that gave the audience some good gags if not an engaging tale, a fair amount of good humor, and guest stars that added to the proceedings instead of detracting from them. It may be a little weird to have an elementary school student revisit his old romances, but in “Moonshine River,” The Simpsons built on their prior successes, rather than just rehashing them, and set the stage for a good season to come.
Odds and Ends:
- I take it that Meryl Streep couldn’t make it to the proceedings, but her character, Jessica Lovejoy from “Bart’s Girlfriend,” appears in a photograph in the episode.
- The opening credit bits weren’t groundbreaking, but still amusing. An appearance from Arnie Pie in the Sky, McBain Capital, and Bart wearing white after labor day were all cute touches.
- The butterfly couch gag was also a fun reference to The Simpsons’ short that preceded the horrible Ice Age sequel this summer.
- It seems like almost every Simpsons episode these days starts off with a premise that’s a weak excuse to shoot off a number of quick gags. That premise is then largely if not completely forgotten as the meat of the episode begins. This one was no exception, featuring the simultaneous runnings of the “Springfield Grand Prix” and the “Tour de Springfield.” I did, however, enjoy the cat and yarn bit, so I suppose you take the good with the bad.
- Milhouse has slowly reverted from being the annoying, predictable joke machine the writers turned him into during the show’s darker days, and instead has now become an endearing sad-sack whose crush on Lisa is adorable instead of pathetic. It’s a welcome transition.
- As is his declaration that he and Lisa are on a “true love superdate!”
- Say what you will about latter-day Simpsons, but the wordplay is still pretty fun. I offer you exhibits A, B, and C: “Porta del Barto” “Bard to Death” and Cletus’s statement that “If that aint aren’t the isn’t.”
- As someone who suffered through a lackluster performance of “Mama Mia,” I took particular pleasure in the jab against it via “Papa Pia – The Story Continues Because Abba Has More Songs.”
- Similarly, I actually enjoy the drum circles in Central Park, but “Faster mon, more annoying” cracked me up.
- The show is apparently having a contest seeking fans to submit ideas for couch gags. It’s mildly brave for a show that started in 1989 to try keep up with the social nature of today’s media, but it does seem like a bit of a stunt as well. Particularly with last season’s “Will they or won’t they?” with Ned Flanders and Edna Krabappel still fresh in our minds.