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Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

“Like a mirror, you see everything but understand nothing.”

“101 Mitigations,” like the courtroom showdown between Homer and Comic Book Guy* that forms the spine of the episode, raises the question of just how bad a guy is Homer J. Simpson. But both the episode and that court case fritter away an opportunity to do something meaningful with the character in a too-pat conclusion that hurriedly and unsatisfyingly lets Homer off the hook. Lionel Hutz may be gone, but his half-assed spirit lives on.

That question of Homer’s jerkiness has haunted the show for decades, spawning the unofficial monniker “Jerk-Ass Homer” by those who trace The Simpsons’ decline to the writers’ transformation of Homer from well-meaning dope to selfish, reckless, dangerously irresponsible ass. As with most discussions of this longest-running of sitcoms, the debate is colored by hindsight, bitterness, and the snap judgements of people who think that the phrase “Jerk-Ass Homer” is super-clever. Still, the appellation isn’t unwarranted in those intermittently growing number of episodes where Homer’s satirical embodiment of the slothful, willfully ignorant, self-centered American maleness crossed the line into distasteful boorishness for cheap laughs’ sake. And the Homer of “101 Mitigations” is, well, a real jerk-ass.

Dining out for free with the kids at the Gilded Truffle thanks to a misprinted coupon isn’t the problem—as far as the two-car, one-income, home-owning Simpsons have strayed from the show’s initial portrait of lower middle class American familyhood, we still root for them to stick it to the snooty. (The restaurant’s supercilious waiter attempts revenge by telling the family to exhale the restaurant’s rarified air before leaving, and Bart and Lisa’s gleeful belches in response only double down on the underdog triumph.) But, even as Homer gingerly tries to lecture the kids about not taking advantage of other people as a rule, he’s accidentally given the keys to a sea foam 1957 Cadillac Eldorado convertible and, shooing Bart, Lisa, and Maggie quietly inside, takes off.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

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That’s a jerk-ass move, especially since the ancient boat of a car has no seat belts, minimal safety features, and a working cigarette lighter. (Also a brodie knob, which the car’s real owner asserts is both unsafe and illegal in whatever state Springfield is in this week.) And that’s before we find out Homer’s taken the cherry antique through a cornfield, scratched the paint, drained the gas tank, and—as the car’s owner Comic Book Guy realizes in horror upon Homer’s return—shredded the mint condition Radioactive Man #1 that CBG, for some inexplicable reason, had rattling around loose inside the Caddy.

It’s all well over the line. For one thing, Homer tries to put up the ragtop while the car’s moving, almost Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-ing the machine (and his kids) into the sky. For another, we see his heedless littering destroying the 100 times more gas efficient Smart Car he passes, complete with its “Coexist” bumper sticker. But more than the specifics of the crime for which the irate Comic Book Guy has him charged with grand theft auto (“A lousy game but a magnificent law.”), Homer’s actions are the sort of hair-trigger destructive, mean-spirited shenanigans that—if left unexamined—would turn and episode of The Simpsons into Family Guy.

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And, at first, it looks like credited writers Rob LaZebnik, Brian Kelly, and Dan Vebber are up for some examination. Homer’s spree has him facing potential prison time, especially when Judge Snyder responds so sympathetically not to Homer’s Lisa-penned heart-tugging plea for mercy, but to Comic Book Guy’s more heartfelt appeal on behalf of not just his car (a gift from his late father), or his prized comic, but his dignity. Humanizing the misanthropic CBG is tricky stuff, since he’s still mainly used to pummel the ever-present childishly abusive gamergate manboy element of sci-fi/fantasy fandom. Lisa, warning Marge against appealing to CBG’s better nature, explains warily, “His favorite thing is Star Wars, and he hates Star Wars.”

Still, the guy has had his grudging moments of humanity, and, here, his anger isn’t swept away as a joke or just another comic casualty of that kooky Homer’s whimsy. He’s hurt, and he should be. Sure, sending a father of three to the slammer isn’t something we’re primed to root for, but the episode edges right up to actually allowing Homer to receive some real-world comeuppance. (The family worriedly watches the reality show When Soft Men Do Hard Time as they ponder how to get Homer out of this one in the two week’s before his sentencing.)

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Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

And the episode, interestingly, allows Lisa’s signature clever plan (one of those “sentencing mitigation” videos that, apparently, the writers found out are a thing) to go nowhere. Snyder isn’t buying Lisa’s Final Cut Pro, babies-and-dogs opus after Comic Book Guy makes his case with an unexpectedly affecting (boom-box-aided) plea for justice. Even the inspiration from an episode-derailing but fun sample video that Lisa shows Homer and Marge can’t steal the win, despite Mr. Burns having enlisted Guillermo del Toro (voicing himself) to helm a typically fanciful film about why even monsters deserve love, too. “He stripped away the darkness and found beauty at the core,” pronounces Lisa in admiration. If only “101 Mitigations” were up to the same task.

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Instead, the rushed ending sees Homer rushing around to replace CBG’s copy of Radioactive Man. (There’s a long, long gag where Bart explains, through extended whispers, how much the first edition goes for. I’m a sucker for such things.) Even then, there’s the chance for the episode to pull out a more resonant conclusion, as Comic Book Guy holds onto his resentment and rejects the easy resolution. Again, the theme of a petty man’s innate dignity is something the episode keeps feinting toward and backing away from, though. Spotting the dispirited Homer’s vintage Welcome Back Kotter keychain (cue Dan Castellaneta getting to dust off his Gabe Kaplan impression), CBG asks Homer how much the tchotchke means to him. When Homer—remembering that (at least this week) it was the one thing Abe ever gave him—admits that it means very much to him, indeed, CBG picks up a handy replica Mjölnir and smashes the thing to smithereens.

Here, too, there’s the seed of a good idea. For Homer to finally understand the pain his wacky weekly nonsense causes to another person could be a loaded moment, dramatically. But the episode fudges it. The brisk running time—truncated more by del Toro’s time-consuming but attention-grabbing cameo—leaves Homer and CBG’s rapprochement hanging unsatisfactorily, pawned off on the joke that Homer regards CBG’s invitation to Comic-Con as barely preferable to prison. The Simpsons has room for its characters’ signature misbehaviors to be deconstructed in a meaningful way. It’s a shame “101 Mitigations” doesn’t.

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Stray observations

  • *I’m using Comic Book Guy throughout, as the one-time revelation of the actual name of Springfield’s grumpiest retailer remains, at least in Matt Groening’s mind, non-canonical. (It’s Jeff Albertson.)
  • In deference to the Comic Book Guy storyline, occasional Simpsons scorer and Dark Knight movie music maven Hans Zimmer co-wrote tonight’s bombastically moody closing theme.
  • I was tempted to bump the grade up a bit on ambition alone, however unrealized. But it’s also just not very funny.
  • Marge apparently liked del Toro’s “fish-snuggling movie.”
  • Lisa joining in on the burping fun is neat—I like when the show lets Lisa loosen up and remember she’s a little kid every once in a while. I question, however, her bewitchment by the Caddy’s opulent, gas-guzzling obsolescence, which seems more like aging writers projecting themselves onto her.
  • Homer concludes his speech to the judge by promising to live in the spirit of what America does best—“build cars 60 years ago!”
  • I never like it when the show incorporates live-action into the show’s animated palette. Cute ducks, though.
  • Moe, approached for a testimonial video by Homer: “What is it you’re lookin’ for, words? Like, human words?”
  • Radioactive Man #1 once went for a pricey but still manageable $100. Considering Simpsons comic logic and time plasticity, one assumes Bart gave Homer a quite astronomical sum, which Homer is still able to spend without too much trouble.

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