“Oh no! You bet on yourself!”
Last week’s Simpsons Season 31 premiere wasn’t great, but it at least had guest star John Mulaney on hand to liven things up a bit. The effortless allure of being part of The Simpsons’ legacy continues to attract guests in “Go Big Or Go Homer,” the season’s second outing, although, like the character he plays, voice actor Michael Rapaport wears out his welcome a lot sooner.
As Mike Wegman, the 35-year-old intern whose lifelong misunderstanding of Homer’s role in the Springfieled Nuclear Power Plant’s many, many meltdowns, almost-meltdowns, and near extinction events has seen him look to Homer as a role model, Rapaport’s character is the sort of motormouthed bully who’s seized upon a handful of fetishized interests (New York sports teams, um, Homer), and formed an identity based on loudly berating anyone who doesn’t share them. At first, we’re conditioned to give this red-faced, basketball-shirted blowhard some slack, as he comes to Homer’s defense after a roomful of more age-appropriate young interns Homer has been demoted into shepherding mock him for his complete and utter lack of nuclear knowhow. Fair enough—Homer is dangerously, farcically unqualified, but there’s no reason for these “millenniums” (as Homer terms them) to call him “denser than Osmium 188.” I mean, that’s just low. I think. Not a science guy.
Still, the inexplicably and immediately loyal middle-aged intern peppers his putdowns with enough ad hominem insults to put anyone but Homer on alert, especially since Mike pivots immediately to a worshipful request for “Homer J. Simpsons” to become his “sensei.” Also, he doesn’t know his supposed hero’s name, which, again, red flag. But Homer, having already been primed for a self-esteem overcorrection by slights from Mr. Burns (who despoiled Lenny’s surprise birthday card with an “Eddie Bauer-big” signature despite not chipping in $5 to the party fund), and Smithers (who demotes Homer for taking advantage of Burns’ next-day medicated state, which leaves him prone to “bouts of uncontrollable decency”), is all too susceptible to his slavish new acolyte’s obsequious reverence. So it’s a mentor-mentee story to add to the long history of power plant employees (Karl, Mindy) who find Homer irresistible, for reasons known only to them.
The thing is, those other characters’ motivations, while cloudy, could be chalked up to the vagaries of the human heart. Mike’s just an idiot who couldn’t read numerous newspaper articles properly and who latched onto Homer as just another object of hero worship he can defend against those who think Homer (and he) is an insignificant nothing. And while Homer—for all his faults, and all the ways The Simpsons’ has let him drift into jerkass territory at times—isn’t an insignificant nothing. He’s dumb, prone to irrationality and snap pre-judgements, and occasionally the worst husband [father, employee, citizen, human] around, but he’s not, at heart, a dick. There’s as essential decency lurking deep, deep down in Homer J. Simpson that eventually pulls him back from the brink of whatever lunatic whim has sent him spiraling toward moral, financial, or actual physical disaster, a core of optimistic satire that the prototypical white (or, okay, yellow) American male will, when put to the test, ultimately, if begrudgingly, find his heart.
Mike Wegman is just a creep. And that’s okay, up to a point. Mike’s brand of flattering, blinkered, and abusive unconditional respect is the brink from which Homer, in the logic of the story, must eventually reject. But from a story standpoint, “Go Big Or Go Homer” gives Mike (and Micheal Rapaport) far too much rope before the inevitable comeuppance. Taking up inordinate screen time with his brand of “telling it like it is” assholery, Mike becomes a tiresome drag on an episode that actually has some otherwise decent storytelling instincts along the way.
Credited to John Frink, the episode ditches the opening credits entirely and dives right into a single, unified A-story, something The Simpsons needs to do a lot more. So many latter-day Simpsons are both overstuffed with subplots and undercooked when it comes to resolving those plots or—even rarer—tying them together in the end, so focusing on Homer’s crisis of faith in himself and his battle against his own one-man band of toxic fandom is an interesting concept. But tying that journey—and for long stretches, turning it over—to Rapaport’s character’s bottomlessly unpleasant, cruel, and abusive ranting is deadening in practice. Even if you’re somehow a fan of the actor and podcaster’s signature style of “regular guy” bluster, hair-trigger hostility, and the occasional ethnic slur, misogynistic rant, abusive tirade, or ill-advised, paternalistic life advice for people of color (and some must be), Mike Wegman’s barely exaggerated version thereof tilts “Go Big Or Go Homer” way too far into his direction for way too long.
The worst example—and surest clue that at least some people behind the show think their guest is a real hoot—occurs when Mike and his pregnant wife come to the Simpsons’ house for dinner. Mike’s enthusiastic loser-dom is almost endearing at first, with him marveling over Marge’s homely home-cooked delights (“Hot carrots! Who thinks of that?”), but when Bart takes a customary potshot at Homer, Mike goes on an immediate attack so long, vituperative, and over-the-top mean against the 10-year-old son of his supposed hero that Bart bursts into an extended bout of weeping. (He’s still inconsolably crying in his room when Mike and his bride make their hasty exit.)
Now, that Homer has to contend with his own feelings of inadequacy warring with the protective slavering of his own personal attack dog makes for reasonable conflict. In bed that night, Homer responds to the furious Marge that at least the guy who just destroyed their son in front of his whole family looks up to him. (“All you guys ever did is love me,” Homer complains about Marge and the kids not respecting him as a “nuclear guy.”) But the episode really miscalculates by having Lisa, of all people, think that this crudely malicious stranger (who, like most guys called out for such things, hides behind an “I’m just bustin’ your clangers, kid” catchphrase non-apology) is a laugh riot as her brother goes off crying to his room. It’s another one of those intermittent betrayals of character that serves to turn a bad Simpsons take even worse. Lisa harbors the resentment all little sisters have against their older brothers (and Bart is a real doozy), but she’s also the moral heart of the show. Having her guffaw at this braying (adult) dick’s attack on Bart leaves Lisa (once again) looking like the writers’ tool to club those politically correct naysayers who can’t just relax and take a fuckin’ joke already. It’s gross.
In the end, it isn’t even Homer who really rejects Mike out of the story, but Fat Tony and his goons, who—having usuriously loaned Mike the cash for his one-slice-at-a-time pizza truck idea—show up to collect just as gambling junkie Mike’s all-or-nothing bet on Patriot League basketball goes down in predictable flames. (Sorry, Lehigh Mountain Hawks.) There’s a genuinely funny gag where the rapidly changing outcome of the game’s broadcast sees Tony ordering his guys to put their guns down, then up, then down, then up again. (I’m a sucker for a Simpsons joke that takes it’s time.) But ultimately, it’s Tony’s realization that Mike’s slice idea is actually quite tasty (if time-consuming) in practice that lures Mike out of Homer’s orbit. (Mike naturally incorporates his new partners’ illegal betting and weed concessions into his suddenly successful business model.) Earlier in the episode, when Mike and Homer pitched Mike’s idea to Burns, only for the no-longer doped-up Burns to peremptorily pull out a shotgun and seemingly murder Mike in cold blood (he got better), the shocking blackout gag was effective because putting such an unpalatable character out of his/our misery seemed like such a load off.
- Rapaport’s renowned loudmouth sports fandom (even if transplanted to Philly) was put to far better onscreen use in Big Fan.
- Mike’s pizza truck menu includes “hot carrots” and something called “a tribe called pesto.”
- Homer notes admiringly how many celebrities have blocked Mike on Twitter.
- One of Mike’s rants even busts out the appropriately hacky and insufferable “sizzlechest.”
- I did like the Mike’s brag that his pizza slices would be “all Jeters, not a Scott Brosius in the bunch!”
- Mike, as Homer pulls Burns’ buckshot out of his face: “Great, now my doctor says I can’t get shot in the face again!”
- I also liked how the benevolent Burns’ apology to Homer comes with not just the five bucks in question, but an inexplicable gift of a cricket on a string.