Given The Simpsons’ longstanding fondness for doing a self-contained first act that connects only tenuously with the main story—seriously, they were making fun of themselves for that at least as far back as season 12’s “Tennis The Menace,” which aired nearly 15 years ago—there’s no shortage of candidates for the story that travels farthest from beginning to end. But of all the great shaggy dog stories in the show’s long history, few can rival what we get in “The Trouble With Trillions,” which starts with Springfield celebrating New Year’s and ends with Homer, Mr. Burns, and Smithers on a raft, drifting in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. The episode is a good example of the show’s skill at comedic escalation, starting with some relatively—at least by the show’s standards—grounded riffing on the scourge of tax day and then moving into a cockeyed caper about Mr. Burns stealing a trillion dollars from the government, all in the form of a single Harry S Truman-approved bill.

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If there is a unifying theme here, it’s about the ever testy relationship between the federal government and its citizens, but putting it in those terms makes it sound way loftier than Ian Maxtone-Graham’s script makes it out to be. There’s plenty of criticism of the overreaching government here, but almost all of it comes from Mr. Burns, a megalomaniacal miser, and Homer, the world’s laziest, dumbest tax cheat—and laziest, dumbest everything at this point, honestly. (Oh, and let’s not forget Charlie, who gets an ultra-rare speaking role at the bar purely so that he can be immediately arrested for militia-related activities.) By using those particular characters as mouthpieces, “The Trouble With Trillions” goes out of its way to compromise and undercut every potential point it might care to make in the realm of social commentary, to the point that it actually feels weird to have Lisa, the show’s de facto voice of reason, briefly try to rage against the government using Homer as a tool of oppression.

The result, then, is an episode that is less a work of political satire than it is a parody of such satire. Maxtone-Graham and the rest of the writing staff appear aware that they don’t have any particularly deep or perceptive take on taxation and governmental intrusion. That’s a hypothesis probably supported by the fact that the trillion dollar bill plotline was a last-minute replacement for an abandoned story in which Homer claimed he was Native American to not have to pay taxes, which sounds like it would have been a really hard story to get right in terms of balancing satirical targets even before the staff did the modicum of research necessary to find out that Native Americans actually do pay taxes. In light of all that, it’s not surprising that this is a politically minded episode that takes the most superficial possible approach. And honestly, that’s probably all for the best, given the only real basic point the show needs to make is one that Krusty makes at the post office when asked why he left it until the deadline to file his returns: “Because I’m an idiot! Happy?” This episode isn’t really concerned with much beyond getting everyone involved, both in Springfield and in the audience, to admit the same, because taxes just tend to get everyone irrationally angry and strident, even allowing for legitimate government corruption.

That approach allows “The Trouble With Trillions” to work mostly as a character-driven episode, albeit one where likability is decidedly besides the point. Homer is well into his jerkass phase by this stage. His last-second tax return is so hideously thoughtless that the episode doesn’t even comment on it in the moment, instead waiting for Homer to leave to give Marge a moment of reflection on her wasted potential, prompting quizzical looks from Bart and Lisa. This is a Homer who gets instantly irate at the mention of his nemesis George H.W. Bush, swearing he would beat him up again given the chance. He’s prepared to take a suicide pill to avoid slight exercise. He generally shows no concern whatsoever about betraying his friends, though he does have a moment’s pause about deceiving the boss who hasn’t fired him even after all those meltdowns and that one China syndrome. Now, there’s nothing wrong with writing Homer in this way, but it does limit the ways in which the character can work in the episode. The audience isn’t likely to feel all that sorry for Homer being a tax cheat or even ending up marooned on that raft, both because he’s been such a jerk throughout and because none of it really seems to register as something Homer cares all that much about, give or take the one scene in which he reacts to the IRS agent’s inquiries like a bashful schoolboy. The viewer is unlikely to have much emotional reaction to what happens to Homer here, so that means the jokes have to be really, really funny for “The Trouble With Trillions” to work.

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On that score, it helps to turn so much of the episode over to Mr. Burns, whose hopelessly obsolete perspective on the world is always good for a laugh. He too is written as inordinately vicious, even by his standards, as he refuses to acknowledge Smithers’ latest round of loving toil and then tries everything he can think of to maim Homer into going away. The latter is considerably funnier, if only because Mr. Burns ends up being so pleasant about it all—he wants to harm Homer, but he’s so dumbstruck when his hounds don’t appear and the water doesn’t scald that he just sort of turns into a regular person. Any time the episode gives Mr. Burns space to lay out his fractured take on humanity is going to have some fun lines, especially when he’s ranting about do-nothing nuclear missiles and tomb polish for some unknown soldier. That Mr. Burns would adopt a faux-populist pose as a champion of the hard-working joes makes this feel, if not exactly current, then at least as resonant with today’s issues as those in 1998. (You could say the same about the surveillance aspect as well, if one were so inclined, though this is all far more coincidental than prophetic).

Very little of this feels new: Mr. Burns’ old-timey interest in Collier’s Magazine and his ignorance that Batista is no longer in power in Cuba are just the latest spins on longstanding joke types for his character. That’s pretty much inevitable when we’re talking about the ninth season of a show, and that need not necessarily be a bad thing. “The Trouble With Trillions” bets its success pretty much entirely on its ability to wring laughs out of its increasingly absurd scenario. I’ll admit that, when rewatching this for the review, this episode wasn’t quite as funny as I remembered it being, though that’s perhaps because I was more focused on the storytelling and character elements, which admittedly are a far sight weaker than the laughs alone. There are more than enough funny bits here—Chief Wiggum “saving” New Year’s and “keeping order” at the post office, Homer filling out his tax return, Harry S Truman backing up a drunken boast by printing a trillion-dollar bill, Mr. Burns ranting nonsensically about the meddling government, Lisa declaring they should just get dune buggies—for “The Trouble With Trillions” to work well as a solidly funny episode, albeit one with not much ambition beyond that.

Stray observations

  • The stuff with Fidel Castro is fine, but it does feel perhaps a trace too outlandish relative to the rest of the episode. It’s so ludicrous that it ends up feeling a bit weightless, which is a long way of saying that I didn’t find it quite as funny as I otherwise might have.
  • “I’m gonna write the best darn article… Oh, right.” Is it too late to reboot The Simpsons as a show about Homer Simpson, intrepid reporter for Collier’s Magazine? Because this is something I inexplicably want to see.
  • “Does anyone have a calculator?” “Myron!?” I will never get tired of seeing Kent Brockman get his comeuppance.
  • “Be on the lookout for a 1936 maroon Stutz Bearcat.” “Uh, that really was more of a burgundy.” Chief Wiggum is the secret MVP of this episode, and no mistake. He gets three lines, and they’re all gold.

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Next week: Rowan Kaiser takes a suitably hard-hitting look at the kid journalism on display in “Girly Edition.”