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A well-written Simpsons gives the family a satisfying vacation for a change

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC
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“You’re mad about my awesome monkey party.”

The Simpsons have been, almost literally, everywhere. (Don’t believe me?) It’s such a go-to plot engine that we hardly even think anymore how a family—one of whose defining characteristics from the start has been lower-middle class scraping and scrimping—can afford all this globe-hopping misadventure. At its worst, this storytelling crutch is waved off so that the Simpsons—and The Simpsons—can make mildly xenophobic jokes at the expense of the locals. At its best, the inevitable clash of cultures becomes an escalatingly funny duel of national and cultural stereotypes, the Simpsons’ ugly Americanness clanging against the host destination’s matchingly ugly (fill-in-the-country)-ness.

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“Livin La Pura Vida” is one of the better recent excursions, though, credited writer Brian Kelley steering the family’s group vacation to the Van Houten’s favorite getaway spot in Costa Rica around the sub-genre’s worst pitfalls, while managing to tell a coherent story from beginning to end. There’s even something of a nifty little mystery in how the seemingly no-more well-off Van Houtens are able to afford their annual multi-family trip, and some above-average character work to address the usually ignored financial stress the Simpsons’ single-episode world traveling would cause.

When Marge picks up Bart from a poorly supervised playdate of energy drinks and Russian dashcam videos, she’s all a-tingle at the prospect of finally being invited to Costa Rica by Louann, Julie Kavner (in her biggest episode in a while) doing some amusingly nonchalant hemming and hawing before speeding home to pitch the idea to Homer, even doing a barrel roll out of the still-moving car in the driveway. That someone in the family is going to get a bee in their bonnet to do something abrupt and impractical is a given, but the episode actually takes care to delve not just into the roots of Marge’s sudden obsession, but the family’s finances, too.

Marge, showing Homer her Instagram feed of different daily laundry baskets, muses sadly about life passing her (and them) by, and of the loneliness their relative poverty sometimes brings about. Her lament, “I’ve always dreamed of being the sort of family other families would want to do things with,” smacks satisfyingly of the social striving that’s occasionally—and feelingly—marked the former Marge Bouvier, the loving wife and mother who, yet, vaguely remembers when she had dreams. As opposed to episodes where a character whim excuses a character betrayal, Marge’s willingness to forget about the money is motivated, and referenced in Homer’s un-ironic complaint, “I am sick of being he responsible one in this marriage.” Homer, always ready to chuck the family’s fortunes after an impulsive desire of his own, is shown to be, at first, taken aback that Marge wants something impractical for a change, grounding his objections with the stellar Simpsons line, in reference to the family’s tangled web of mortgages at this point, “I think the house is owned by the car.”

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Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

Lisa, too, is forced to confront the potential ramifications of the family’s pick-up-and-go lifestyle when she, having put down the book of Costa Rican tree frogs she was nerdily ogling, overhears Marge convincing Homer to go on the trip. There’s a nice little visual detail all episode of Lisa twisting one of her hair-points in little kid worry that partakes of a sort of universal experience of working class kids when they first discover that their parents might not know exactly what they’re doing. It doesn’t matter that Lisa has learned such lessons repeatedly before—The Simpsons can, and does, thrive when it utilizes its rewritable family comedy template to find new angles on old issues, and this works nicely. I especially appreciated the visual gag of Lisa seeing the family’s Costa Rica dinner spread only as disappearing dollar signs. It’s a handy visualization of how a child’s fears can expand to warp everything around them.

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Kelley also avoids a lot of the “lookie at them foreigners” jokes by centering most of the mockery on the suspiciously spendthrift Kirk, whose chummy patronizing of the mostly unseen local staff is portrayed as Kirk being a jerk. We hardly see anyone other than the Simpsons, Van Houtens, Hibberts, and Superintendant Chalmers and daughter Shauna while we’re there. (There’s no staff even when everyone goes on the de rigueur zip-lining adevtnure at episode’s end, despite my lovely wife’s assurance—having been on a startlingly similar Costa Rican package tour in her past—that you’re briefed super-heavily by the resort staff, since you can totally slice off your fingers if you don’t know what you’re doing. The more you know.) And the big twist, upon Bart helping Lisa sneak into the Van Houten’s room to look at Kirk’s ledger of just how much they’re spending, involves Lisa being horrified at her belief that Kirk has been paying for these vacations by smuggling out examples of the very real Costa Rica spheres (that are protected against just those sort of ugly American sticky fingers.)

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC
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Such a scam might be the single improbable twist of a lesser latter-day Simpsons episode, but Kelley has another, better one up his sleeve. After Lisa gets called out by Kirk for sneaking into his room (and wrecking the surprise of some sphere-shaped salt-and-pepper shaker gifts), the Simpsons are shunned, and forced to fork over their share of the expenses before slinking off in shame. (Homer, in a funny little bit of business, has to lie down wrapped in a blanket after writing the sizable check.) For all of Marge’s “We’re not poor as long as we have each other” platitudes, the trip is a crippler, and the family’s inevitable, self-inflicted misfortune threatens to destroy whatever fleeting freedom and satisfaction Marge hoped to attain. Marge’s desire here eventually shows some darker colors, her desperate need for one perfect vacation selfie finally confessed as her wanting someone to be jealous of her for a change. That could be unsympathetic, but for how Marge’s sporadic bursts of self-pity spring from some very real and heartbreaking disappointments in her life of suburban housewifery. That Homer is downhearted at having failed comes across not as Marge being unreasonable or selfish, but more as one of Homer’s rare moments of clarity concerning just how crappy a life he’s provided for his wife.

And Homer has screwed things up. Sure, he went along with the expense, but he, immediately upon arriving, undid any potential goodwill by bonding in drunken sloth with Patty’s new girlfriend, Evelyn (voiced by Fortune Feimster). The other two travelers on the trip, much to Homer’s dismay, the new couple seems a decent match until Patty realizes that the beer-swilling, layabout Evelyn gets along so well with Homer because longtime Homer-hater Patty is essentially dating female Homer. Patty doesn’t get much in the way of dignity on the show, being usually merely one-half of a sister-in-law gag, but her truncated story here is an exception. Marge jokes that the dating apps won’t have Patty any more, so we’re given a nudge toward sympathy and stakes in her romance with the crude but not-that-awful Evelyn. And while it’s not given much time to breathe as a B-plot, their relationship manages to create the tiniest sense of weight, with Marge eventually convincing the crushed and fearful Patty that loving a Homer isn’t the very worst thing in the world.

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Luckily—and, more importantly for a late-stage Simpsons—there’s another twist that raises the stakes, and resolves the seeming financial doom awaiting the Simpsons, as Bart and Lisa discover the real scam the Van Houten’s have been pulling on their friends and neighbors over the years. Kirk’s ancestor (cracker maven Kirkademius Van Houten) founded the villa they’re staying at, so Kirk and Louann have been charging everyone for a vacation they themselves get for free. It’s more effort that we expect in solving the dilemma, frankly, and if we’ve been conditioned to expect less over the decades, it’s still a neatly constructed plot device. Credit where it’s due.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC
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So the Simpsons get their money back, the Van Hountens’ are left cleaning up after the army of surly monkeys Homer let into the villa, and Patty and the repentant Evelyn make up. Marge apologizes for her micro-managed moment-mongering, and even Homer is sort-of happy for Patty. A satisfactorily resolved Simpsons travel episode is a nice getaway.

Stray observations

  • Some funny little details around the margins tonight. I like how Bart, without making a big deal of it, takes liberal advantage all episode of Costa Rica’s liberal machete policies.
  • And Lisa, finally breaking down over her fears of the family having to live in their car, sobs to Marge, “The seats are so sticky, even though they’re cloth!”
  • Marge’s travel guide is from publishers The Lonely Island, their logo, two guys with globes covering their junk.
  • There’s a completely unsatisfying C-plot about Shauna Chalmers’ abortive long-distance romance with Jimbo Jones. Sorry, I can’t stand Shauna—I love Tress MacNeille as do all right-thinking people, but there’s something about Shauna’s voice.
  • According to Marge, Patty’s middle name is “Maleficent.”
  • This episode was rated TV-14. Because of the Patty-Evelyn storyline? I mean, there’s nothing else especially risqué going on. Lame, Fox.
  • Not to be that guy, but wasn’t it Louann’s father who let Kirk into the cracker business? Fired, blunder, etc.
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About the author

Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.