“Fatzcarraldo” sees all of Springfield’s fast-food joints go healthy, leading to Homer rediscovering the train-car chili dog place he remembers from his childhood. Except it’s also about Lisa being upset that Springfield Elementary’s school radio station is shutting down; Patty and Selma moving in with the Simpsons after getting fired from the DMV; Homer’s revelation that he bonded with the owner of the chili-dog stand because his parents used to dump him there while they went to marriage counseling; and some other odds and ends of plot. There’s a maddening lack of storytelling discipline, and it’s a shame, since there are a handful of really good jokes along the way.
The episode, credited to Michael Price, aims for the heart, but lacks the focus to hit it. Homer, mysteriously drawn to Deuce’s Caboose Chili Dogs in “Seldom-Seen County,” bonds with the crusty 97-year-old owner for reasons he can’t quite recall. At least until Grandpa reminds Homer that the younger Deuce used to give him free chili dogs and call him H-Dog when young Homer waited out Abe and Mona’s fruitless attempts to save their marriage at a nearby counselor’s office. Flashing back to how Deuce’s kindness (and, as he puts it later, “steamed tubes filled with chicken asses”) were his only refuge from fear and loneliness, Homer has the breakthrough that that’s when he started eating his emotions. Fair enough. Sure, The Simpsons’ elastic reality makes groundbreaking revelations like these a matter of course, so we can forgive that we’ve never heard of Deuce before, and likely won’t again. (A shame, since the always-dependable Kevin Michael Richardson should be upgraded to regular supporting cast by this point.)
The problem is that, to get at the heart of the story, “Fatzcarraldo” hand-waves a lot of stuff that actually does matter. If you’re going to bring back Mona Simpson (and get Glenn Close to record a line for you), then do justice to the character, not violence. On the car ride to the therapist, Abe’s cruel to little Homer, and Mona is silent about the abuse, a far cry from the loving Mona that was so important in Homer’s life. (Mona’s and Abe’s respective ages seem off, too, for what it’s worth.) Mona might have abandoned her son (after an unfortunate bit of light terrorism), but her love for Homer formed the backbone of one of the series’ best episodes. Having her peevishly ignore him in her one brief appearance here is just sour and lazy.
Not to pick on that one (mis)characterization, Homer’s emotional journey here just doesn’t land. Deuce is, in Richardson’s uniquely lived-in performance, a character with potential, and his reunion with Homer isn’t bad, as far as things go. Sure, it’s crowded into a slapdash action sequence. (Homer steals the improbably mobile caboose-taurant before accidentally sending it into a river, thanks to the help of Comic Book Guy and some nameless overweight chili-dog aficionados.) But Dan Castellaneta and Richardson manage to squeeze some real emotion out of the contrivance, Deuce’s admission that he does remember little Homer and that he valued their friendship as much as Homer did being a sweet little capper to their rushed story (which takes the time for a silly, extended hot-dog musical number). But Homer’s reminiscences and discovery of his food issues are left hanging like, well, a caboose-themed chili dog restaurant dangling from a bridge. (His line, “Eating is to me what drinking is to me,” has a sadly comic poetry to it.)
Along the way, though, “Fatzcarraldo” is a moderately effective gag delivery machine. The setup for Homer’s fast food flight is a disastrously over-budget DMV awards show (“The Surlies”) that sees Homer getting off some hilariously bad heckling. He just yells “Heckle!” at one point. And there’s always a liberating humor to Homer’s relieved wiseass-ery whenever he’s irresponsibly fleeing something. Running past Lisa, he responds to her complaint that he’ll miss out on the gift bags by letting fly an extended over-explanation of why that’s not a big deal. (It’s just a car wash coupon, and if you say you forgot it, the lady at the car wash will just give you one out of the drawer.) And Homer’s response to Lisa’s statement that his taking her on a crazy police chase to resolve his childhood trauma is likely causing Lisa very similar childhood trauma has iron-clad Homer logic: “That’s a problem for grown-up Lisa.” As is his defiant shout to the pursuing police helicopter, “I have no end game!”
Lisa’s participation in Homer’s desperate final act—he steals the closed-down restaurant after Krusty buys it—is largely unmotivated by anything but circumstance. Lisa, bummed out about the radio station, is brought to the caboose for a cheer-up chili dog. She’s a vegetarian, but it’s the gesture that counts. When Homer goes on the lam, Lisa’s with him, and that’s that. Like Homer’s story, though, Lisa’s truncated radio adventure has some very funny ideas tossed here and there. I’m a sucker for competent, driven Lisa, and her hard-boiled investigative report of Springfield Elementary’s criminal element sees her rattling off a fine list of supposed detention nicknames, like Prankatraz, The Skinner Sheraton, Spitball Alley, The Bully-Pen, 3:11-Worth, Little Devil’s Island, and Dead Man Chalking. And her in-depth interview with school bully Nelson gets him to reveal the origins of his signature, mocking “Haw-Haw!” (“I guess I wanted to make a dope feel like a dingus.”) Lisa also introduces Nelson as “the legendary Nurple Purpler,” which made me laugh out loud. But, in a cluttered episode, this half-realized B-story combines with a half-realized A-story to make not much of an impression at all.
- Homer: “Chewie, we’re home. ‘Chewie’ is what I call my mouth.” Deuce: “I really don’t care what you call your mouth.”
- Abe, on why Homer doesn’t remember Deuce: “Well, you were young then, and you’re stupid now.”
- Milhouse, on the effects of Nelson’s haw-haw: “The first one isn’t bad, but the second one is devastating.”
- Speaking of clutter: Homer makes an elaborate dominoes game out of pizza boxes at the nuclear plant, Mr. Burns mocks up a fake “guess how many buttons” contest to clear out the plant so he and Smithers can hide some bodies, a lot of time is spent on Krusty’s clown car full of lawyers, and an even longer time is spent on a static gag about Comic Book Guy and the rest pulling the caboose up a very, very long hill.
- Oh, and while Krusty Burger’s healthy transformation is explained by an Asian buyout, the whole “Springfield eats healthy” subplot is just dropped. There’s one funny joke, however, where Homer’s horror at the changed over “Tofu Bell” and “Kentucky Steamed Soybeans” is capped off when he screeches, horrified, past an Arby’s.
- Unlike what was perhaps feared from the rap-themed, super-sized episode last time, we actually do get a little bit of rapping Homer here. It’s pretty innocuous.
- Another Homer heckle: “Stop forcing banter!”
- Kent Brockman’s live coverage of Homer’s chase sees him admitting, “Basically, I’m just watching it like the rest of you.”
- The episode is dedicated to Simpsons animator Sooan Kim, who died in January.