Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

“Yeah! I am the champion of this very bad idea!”

“Forgive And Regret” is the 636th episode of The Simpsons, making the show—as all ad copy dutifully and tortuously explains—“the longest-running primetime scripted show in TV history!” To the show’s credit, the episode itself makes only passing mention of the at-least numerically impressive feat, with the cold open seeing a once-again pistol-packing Maggie gunning down Gunsmoke’s Marshall Matt Dillon. Credited to Simpsons writing stalwart Bill Odenkirk, “Forgive And Regret,” instead, dedicates itself to telling a single story, once more revisiting the justifiably fraught (on both sides) father-son relationship between Abe and Homer Simpson.

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See, there was this lunchbox. Filled with Mona Simpsons’ transcendent dessert recipes complete with encouraging and loving messages to the lonely and Abe-harangued little Homer, the box is the big, Pulp-Fiction/Kiss Me Deadly symbolic repository of motherly love and unconditional acceptance whose abrupt absence was, according to the episode, the root cause of all of Homer’s subsequent lack of self-worth. Oh, and his weight issues, as the young Homer exclaims to his doting mother (voiced by the returning Glenn Close), “You just taught me food is love!” as he socks down Mona’s heavenly apple pie.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

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Said lunchbox was abruptly absent from little Homer’s life because, after Mona’s escape from the law (more on that in a minute), Abe tossed it and everything else that reminded him of his wife off of a convenient cliff, and lied to Homer that Mona took this symbol of motherly love along with her. Revealed on Abe’s supposed deathbed after a demolition derby heart attack scare, this deception forms the backbone of a story that aims admirably high, emotionally speaking. But, despite a fair handful of decent gags to go along with the heart, “Forgive And Regret” just can’t nail down the Mona-esque mix of sweet and savory like The Simpsons could do so effortlessly, say, 523 episodes ago.

For one thing, even the episode’s best jokes exist in isolation from any sense of internal comic reality. Storming in unified dudgeon into the Springfield Retirement Castle to give Abe the what-for, Lisa suggests giving him the silent treatment instead. After Homer mocks her suggestion, Lisa gives Homer the silent treatment, sending him into a freakout whose patiently drawn-out duration is always one of my favorite comic conceits. (“How long has it been, three months? I can’t even remember a time before this!”) But the episode has just spent a few solid minutes playing up how much in solidarity the family was (complete with Homer singing a Jim Croce parody—you know, for the kids!), so the interlude violates story logic. The same goes for Homer and Abe’s pre-revelation reactions to Abe’s demo derby episode, where they’re annoyed or solicitous of each other’s well-being, depending on the gag. All of this lunging for the joke undermines any sense of logical emotional buildup and payoff.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

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Which is a shame, as the narrative payoff sort of works. After, rappelling down the cliff in order to retrieve the lunchbox, Abe and the rescue-bent Homer discover that the box is empty. Stopping for a recuperative snack at a suspiciously placed diner, the family realizes that the apple pie they’re eating is, according to Abe and Homer, exactly as perfect as Mona’s, leading to the revelation that the wafting recipe cards had snowed down on the diner’s proprietress all those years ago. Homer even gets the payoff of the cards being tied up in a pretty ribbon right after he bemoans the fact that life doesn’t ever pay off with things all tied up in a ribbon. Still, why throw in a gratuitous instance of Marge being contemptuous of Lisa’s love of jazz right at the episode’s emotional denouement? But that’s a quibble compared to this late-run episode’s symptomatic crippling flaw.

Sure, juggling 636 episodes’-worth of continuity is not exactly conducive to fresh comedic storytelling, but if your episode hinges on a seemingly blithe rewriting of one of the most emotionally resonant episodes in the show’s history, it’s going to undermine whatever effect you’re going for. Abe’s real crime—already established and arguably even less forgivable—was telling a little boy that his mother was dead, largely in order to salve his own wounded ego. Here, Abe’s unforgivable selfishness in tossing that lunchbox over that cliff only means anything to Homer because, in this reality of his relationship with his mother, Mona took it when she abandoned him. That’s why Lisa’s outburst of uncharacteristic harshness at her grandfather lands so hard. “If this man had had those notes, his life would have been different!,” cries Lisa upon learning of Abe’s deed. “He would have had confidence! He would have had his mother with him!” As ever, Yeardley Smith can find what’s truly special about the innate decency that’s sometimes used as a “Lisa the killjoy” punchline, her use of “this man” striking at a more universal injustice than if she were just angry on behalf of her daddy.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

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But the moment—all the episode’s moments, really—is cheapened by how cheaply the show treats all the moments that came before. Homer’s life being defined by his mother’s absence (and his father’s often unfortunate presence) might be a too-neat bit of retconned psychology, but it was introduced so feelingly way back when that to yank us around now without so much as a flimsy explanation makes “Forgive And Regret” tough to forgive. Again, there’s nothing more tiresome than a continuity pedant, and a well-deployed emotional MacGuffin can still be devastatingly effective. But, here, Mona’s box of recipes and love notes to her son is built of hand-waved narrative contrivance that evokes a similar “who cares, really?” response. If the creators of The Simpsons don’t care to build upon its record-breaking history at this point in any meaningful way, then, indeed, it’s hard to care.

Stray observations

  • The opening quote refers to the throwaway gag about Homer pulling a Cool Hand Luke, but with Moe’s jug of horrifyingly antiquated pickled eggs. The joke that those things are reused, regurgitated, and occasionally serve as billiard balls is fine, but the animation gag of the eggs showing individually through Homer’s swollen belly is, forgive me, too cartoonish.
  • Bob’s Burgers did an escape room episode recently, too, although, you know, a funny one.
  • Squeaky Voiced Teen did have the one funny escape room joke, calling them “the latest attempt to get people to save a dying mall.”
  • The running joke about conveniently installed silence barriers throughout Springfield is solid stuff.
  • The whole demolition derby plot isn’t good for much despite a few funny names (Meth MacFarlane, the Volkswagon Thug). But having the typically bombastic, repetitive “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!”-style announcing mention that all proceeds go to stuttering research is solid, too.
  • The Simpsons’ continued crotchety defensiveness over accusations of racial insensitivity yells at critics to get off its lawn once again. The derby announcer tells attendees to leave their “overt racism” at home and promises a free soda to anyone who can “prove racism.”
  • In addition to the solid Jim Croce burn, a second music interlude riffs on “The Way We Were.” Who says you can’t be fresh after 636 episodes and 29 seasons!
  • The NCIS jokes (“My new favorite show—now in its 17th season!”) were fine. I liked Abe’s assertion that what makes America great is the “prompt investigation of in-house naval crimes!” Take that, NCIS, you whippersnapper.
  • Also: “A gun and a naval hat—nothing says naval crime more than that.”
  • “Mom left, but you were there. Frankly a little drunk, sometimes not there, but you were always there.”
  • Lisa, getting salty: “I never thought I’d say this word, but here it comes—coot!”
  • Next week: Onto the next 600-plus episodes!

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