It must be terrible to write for The Simpsons. I mean, it’s obviously great to be associated with what is still unquestionably one of the greatest television shows in history. And writing a good latter-day Simpsons episode is the sort of cap-feather that a TV writer (who, let’s face it, probably grew up dreaming of working there) can wear proudly in their career going forward.
But, still, it must suck.
Working at a place where the constant, unoriginal (if increasingly accurate) criticism that your show’s glory days are long (and longer) past can’t be a joy. And the incessant harping of the public and, even worse, TV writer punks, can be understood as the source of the occasional resurfacing bouts of grumpy old man defensiveness on the show. But even worse is the knowledge that even your best work nowadays has to contend with the ghosts of Simpsons classics past. Those are some long, deep, and evocative shadows to toil in.
“Daddicus Finch” is credited to Executive Producer Al Jean, who’s been involved with The Simpsons in most every capacity since well back into the “good years,” and who—for all some TV critic punk’s suggestions that the show’s ability to recapture its old form again is being hampered from the top down—hasn’t got anything to prove. The fact that the episode takes a big swing at one of the hardest Simpsons stories there is—a Homer-Lisa relationship arc—is to his credit. There are countless warring theories about when The Simpsons became The Simpsons, when the show first exhibited the magic balance of wackiness and heart whose seeming effortlessness belied the toil of a legendary writers room working at the highest-ever level. For my entry into the fruitless debate, I take us back to “Lisa’s Substitute” (season 2, episode 19).
If you remember (and any Simpsons fan damned well should), it’s the one where Lisa’s awestruck crush on overqualified substitute teacher Mr. Bergstrom (Or Mr. Booger-strom, as he preemptively disarms his new class) finds Springfield’s premiere overachiever bereft at the thought that her choice of male role model has gone from the departing Bergstrom to her own deeply unimpressive dad. For all the lovely, wrenching Lisa moments in that episode (easily one of Yeardley Smith’s finest performances), the episode hinges on Marge, who, grasping the pivotal moment in Lisa’s development at hand in her daughter’s despair, explodes at her uncomprehending husband, “Homer, you’re not allowed to have hurt feelings right now. There’s a little girl upstairs who needs you. Her confidence in her father is shaken, and no little girl can be happy unless she has faith in her daddy.”
“Daddicus Finch” delves into that dynamic with admirable ambition—and can’t pull it off. The motivating factor is inadequate. (Lisa’s pain comes from disappointment at unsuccessfully playing a pork chop in the school play.) Marge’s involvement in forcing the Homer-Lisa relationship is, well, forced this time around. (And confused, as Marge first urges Homer to befriend Lisa, then urges him to let her down gently once she sees how their closeness is alienating Bart.) And the grafting of To Kill A Mockingbird onto the father-daughter story is signaled by the baffling and jarring choice to have Homer and Lisa watch the actual movie on their cartoon TV, the sight of the actual, black-and-white Gregory Peck and Mary Badham (who both get guest starring credits here) busting up the series’ reality in a way that just doesn’t work. I suppose that having Homer and Lisa watching an animated recreation of the 1962 movie version could make the device seem like a joke, but having “our” reality intrude on the story through the Simpsons’ TV is a major miscalculation. (The Simpsons has never successfully pulled that conceit off outside of a “Treehouse Of Horror,” and should really stop trying.)
Still, credit where it’s due, Jean does tackle the Homer-Lisa story in snatches that the degree of difficulty make genuinely affecting. As Lisa listens to an irate Homer lecturing a little girls’ clothing store about its over-sexualized apparel, she worshipfully transforms her dad into a natty, full-haired, trim, sonorous approximation of Peck’s Atticus Finch, Smith once more depicting her 8-year-old alter ego’s childlike hopefulness and need for a hero like the all-star she is. Lisa’s, “I love the way you just made me feel safer” touches on Marge’s long-ago analysis of the father-daughter dynamic without overdoing it. There’s a funny runner in the episode about Springfield’s beleaguered lone school counselor (a great role for guest J.K. Simmons) forced to dispense rapid-fire advice in 45-second increments that underscores the episode’s theme nicely. As gruff and harried as he is, the counselor yet appears to know exactly how simple—yet unhelpful—the underpinnings of his charges’ problems are. He diagnoses everything from Ralph’s bed-wetting, to Bart’s resentment, to even Marge’s worries about Lisa’s attachment to Homer. (“Its safe, it comes from a good place, and when it ends it’s another thing shell blame you for.”) It’s a fine way to understand how The Simpsons can continue to have its main characters run through the same conflicts over and over again, even after 600-plus episodes—knowing the reasons for things doesn’t make human behavior and pain any easier to navigate.
That’s why “Daddicus Finch”’s rushed and clumsy execution is so disappointing. Marge’s manipulations are all over the place, pushing Homer and Lisa together, then apart, all for tenuously sketched reasons that have more to do with wrapping up an ambitious story in time than in providing a satisfying conclusion. It’s a shame, really.
- There’s another future-predicting tag to the episode, something I’m never particularly fond of. It is a decent joke that Marge’s promise that Bart can have one thing he really wants involves a long, long lifetime of debate, before he returns to his initial wish to kick Homer in the butt.
- Homer, trying to prepare Lisa for To Kill A Mockingbird, tells her that, while that story takes place in a long-ago South, “the terrible racism you’re reading about is now everywhere.”
- Along those lines, Kent Brockman is seen interviewing three Trump supporters about their views, something that even they wish the media would stop doing. “Never!,” snaps Brockman.
- Simmons’ therapist, to Ralph: “I’ll deny this, but the next time you wet your bed have ’em spank you.”
- Professor Farnsworth is seen pushing a “Science of Futurama” display past in the background at the Springfield science museum, because breezy, lazy crossover jokes are funny to some people, I guess.
- Speaking of, at the end of the episode, Homer is wary of getting too close to Maggie, considering how his relationship with Lisa almost derailed. Maggie is shown, in subtitles, dispensing a long and eloquent prediction of how their necessarily fraught relationship will be just fine in the end—and Homer hears it? This isn’t Family Guy. Quit it.
- There’s a long joke that ends with Abe actually punching Bart in the face. Tonally, it’s completely wrong.
- Chalmers, threatening the long-winded rabbi that’s keeping the bat mitzvah that Bart targets from the rapidly cooling buffet: “Get to the punch line or your son flunks geometry.”
- Moe, confronting the Atticus-esque Homer alongside the mob angry over Bart’s shenanigans: “Don’t you try to disarm us with your genteel mannerisms of a bygone era, there.”
- The ballad of Moe Szyslak gets even more tragic, as he commisserates over Homer’s parental issues by confessing “My dad left right when I was most vulnerable—the day after my mom left. That was a tough week, there.”
- The episode is dedicated to Ricky Jay, who appeared as a murderous, card-flinging version of himself back in season 22.