“This fun pace is about to make me cry.”
Lisa frees a killer whale. Bart frees a gorilla. Homer buys a boat.
Bare story bones.
Nothing wrong with that. The Simpsons’ world is made up of outlandish situations rendered possible, sometimes even plausible, by animation and the show’s forgiving rules of reality. Some of the best episodes sound just as sparse in outline. Homer goes to space. Springfield gets a monorail. Lisa and Bart thwart a supervillain’s plot to drown Springfield.
What separates good Simpsons from bad or indifferent Simpsons, if the bones are the same high-concept blueprints, just rejiggered and reshuffled? What makes an episode like “Gorillas On The Mast” fade from the mind within seconds of the end credits when an episode like “In Marge We Trust” (with it’s similarly ferocious baboons), “Brother From The Same Planet” (aquarium shenanigans), or “Boy-Scoutz ’N The Hood” (Homer being a jackass on the water) slots into Simpsons lore and our collective memories as a benchmark of American comedy?
Care, maybe. Not just our lack of care about what transpires in “Gorillas On The Mast,” but the care lacking in the episode’s construction. I’ve gotten yelled at (by someone associated with The Simpsons who I respect more than anyone else associated with The Simpsons) for being dismissive of hard work. But I maintain that this isn’t that. Instead, it’s an attempt to—after literally an adult lifetime of watching The Simpsons—understand what is missing that removes so many Simpsons episodes from meaningful consideration, or even memory. So I’ll try, again.
Lisa cares. Bart doesn’t, but he’s vulnerable to unwanted epiphanies. Homer’s the apotheosis of sitcom fatherhood, his frustrated striving ever at war with the genre’s necessary sloth, selfishness, and intermittently but inevitably overcome foibles. There are other shades to every character in the show’s universe, but that doesn’t discount their value as types, or the show’s formerly, long-ago brilliance at grounding those types so insightfully and hilariously in specifics of human behavior that they became, improbably, profoundly human in themselves. Bare bones, draped in layers and layers of cartoon flesh, and stellar performance, and ambitious, daring creative silliness that didn’t so much transcend the sitcom (or cartoon) form as redefine it, forever.
There’s no reason that couldn’t still be the case. Blame age, or entrenched leadership, or creative exhaustion, or, maybe, being so deep inside the cocoon of lucrative success predicated on continuing and continuing and continuing. Lisa frees a whale. Bart frees an ape. Homer buys a boat. Or maybe swamp the plot around. Nobody will notice.
If the bones were at least hung with great gags, maybe that’d make “Gorillas On The Mast” stick out a bit. But there aren’t any. I suppose I smiled when a panicked Lenny, put on the spot about marriage by his girlfriend, hurls himself off the boat he’s been roped into co-owning by Homer, his fading “This is not a noooo!” echoing over the waves. Shrugs. I’m open to be reminded about other funny bits I missed. I’ll check the comments.
Look, looking backward is a sin all present-day Simpsons reviewers (and I may be one of the few left) are prone to. It’s an unfortunate occupational hazard, one that leaves us open to perhaps overrating episodes that sow some glimmer of the old fire, but more often leave us staring blankly at our computers, trying to think of something to say that hasn’t already been said of a show that is—by the most generous estimate—two decades past its undeniable and irreproachable prime.
But here, I’m left thinking about how Lisa’s untutored activism was once a source of mutual enlightenment, a shared journey of discovery where a little girl who loved animals learned that her all-or-nothing idealism left her looking foolish—without devaluing how noble and worthy her instincts are. I’m left remembering how Bart—here given a briskly forgettable (and soon-forgotten and misunderstood) lesson on altruism—has been genuinely touched by the sappy love for his little sister’s feelings that his li’l bastardly screams at him to ignore. And how Homer’s grand, foolhardy schemes have masked the lost and not-too-bright wannabe good father and husband he habitually isn’t, but occasionally rises to be.
Here, Lisa breaks into Springfield’s shoddy Aquatraz Water Park and breaks out star attraction orca Shame-U. And then Shame-U is gone, there are no consequences, and Lisa learns nothing. Bart seizes on the unaccustomed good feeling of impulsively freeing a penned-up wild creature and lets loose Lolo, the park’s low-rent Koko (who can only sign “friend,” “enemy,” “kill,” “vodka,” and “Seinfeld”), only to suffer no consequences, and learn nothing. Homer buys a deceptively crappy boat, dragoons half of Springfield into co-owning it to bail him out, sinks it, and learns nothing, the latter-day Simpsons C-story curse rendering everything he’s done thoroughly meaningless.
The Simpsons can still be good—even, on the rarest and most precious of occasions, great—but more often it’s this. Forgotten before it’s finished playing, a bright jumble of rehashed premises and perfunctory plot machinations, evaporating into the multicolored soup of an FXX rerun marathon. Skimming along the surface but never penetrating into the characters, counting on our knowledge of and affection for the series to ascribe some resonance to its actions that the episode itself doesn’t bother to establish on its own terms. On those terms, I give it a “C,” mainly beacuse “Gorillas On The Mast” can’t rouse me to give it anything else.
- Dr. Jane Goodall is on hand as herself, offering Lolo (real name Popo) sanctuary. Lisa encountering someone so in-line with her idea of a hero should be momentous, touching, and rife with comic possibilities. It isn’t.
- Willie comes along to help Lisa and Bart free Shame-U, for no reason whatsoever. There isn’t even a Free Willy joke.
- There’s a twice-referenced subplot about Abe and Homer always wanting a boat. It goes nowhere.
- Marge is first sort-of angry, then resigned about Homer buying a boat. She gets about three lines of dialogue, and the conflict goes—well, you know.