It’s hard to credit those who claim that The Simpsons has run out of stories to tell when it seems that every other modern episode is overstuffed with under-baked plots. (Overstuffed & Under-Baked—The Modern Simpsons Cookbook.) Especially when, as in tonight’s “Paths Of Glory,” the two plots could both be the basis for separate, tasty episodes with a little more time to cook. (Okay, enough with the kitchen metaphors, but you get the point.)
Like all such episodes, there are kernels of a good episode in the mix. (Okay, now I’m done.) Lisa discovers a hitherto-unsung feminist scientist hero of Springfield? Perfect. Bart is misdiagnosed as a sociopath due to circumstantial evidence (and his usual li’l bastardy)? That could work, too. The episode’s lack of cohesion is even more disappointing, as a good Bart and Lisa team-up story seems to be brewing at first, with Bart helping Lisa break into the abandoned Springfield Home For The Criminally Different in search of proof that long-derided 19th-century inventor Amelia Vanderbuckle (outstanding name, by the way) wasn’t the crackpot her diagnosis of “acute feminine overreaching” labeled her as.
Instead, once Lisa finds Amelia’s wax cylinder testimonial that she’s hidden her groundbreaking invention somewhere in town, and Bart purloins the disturbing diary of former patient Nathan Little, the siblings split up, thus splitting the episode right down the middle as well. There have been some great Bart-Lisa stories over the years (Alasdair Wilkins even reviewed a solid example in this week’s Classic Simpsons review), so it’s a shame that, apart from Bart idly filling Lisa’s Malibu Stacy with her ant farm and tricking her into crawling through a sewer pipe when the home’s door is unlocked, the two never get to showcase their particular brand of sibling antagonism/loyalty until the episode’s abrupt ending.
A word on the rather odd pedigree of “Paths Of Glory.” It’s the first ever Simpsons credit from screenwriter Michael Ferris, who has had a long and, let’s call it interesting career. He wrote or shares credit for the likes of The Net, The Game, two of the lesser Terminators, the Halle Berry Catwoman, and the Bruce Campbell sci-fi flick Mindwarp (that one might just be for me). I’ve long advocated that The Simpsons would benefit from some new blood in the writer’s room, outside voices well-steeped in the show’s history and characters who have something new to say. And while Ferris’ script here isn’t especially successful, it’s hardly a total loss. The Lisa story is clearly the work of someone who appreciates Lisa’s unending struggle to right Springfield’s myriad wrongs (against women, science, reason, fairness, sound energy policy—the list goes on). And Ferris’ sci-fi background serves to envision Amelia’s ahead of its time yet era-specific invention: a punchcard computer that prints out results woven on a loom. And his Bart story, too, is both smart and pretty bold, as he and the other, genuinely troubled kids at the institute he’s packed off to are recruited by the military to unfeelingly man killer drones via video games. (That would actually make a decent plot for the second Simpsons feature, should it ever happen. Albert Brooks’ Russ Cargill would be behind it, naturally.)
The main problem is that neither story has much to recommend it outside their premises and some funny details. (I like how the military guy is so preoccupied with the kids thinking he’s cool, exclaiming, “I expected more of a reaction. I waited outside the door and everything.”) But Lisa disappears for too long before her story kicks back in, with questionable help from Willie (in drag to help infiltrate the Vanderbuckle historical site, now Springfield’s version of a Hooters), and Milhouse, being Milhouse. (Lisa marvels, not for the first time, ”It’s amazing how you can both charm and disgust me at the same time.”) And Bart’s story is hamstrung emotionally by a critical flaw—since Bart knows he’s only been faking being a true sociopath (and not just a li’l bastard), his resentment at Homer and Marge’s decision to have him sent away has no emotional core to it, no matter what the heartstring-tugging score might suggest in passing.
Again, the bummer here is that there are enough clever, thoughtful details in these half-stories that, given time to breathe and develop, they both could have been much more compelling episodes of The Simpsons. As it is here, ”Paths Of Glory” goes out of its way to call attention to the slapdash way the episode is constructed, with all the Simpson family coming in for a big group hug, each rotely rattling off the reasons why they’re so grateful to be back together. Like that hug, the episode itself ends in a big, sloppy heap of unearned sentiment.
- Even visionary Amelia Vanderbuckle was of her time, expressing future hope that her invention will be unearthed “when some liberated young woman has the permission of her husband to find it.”
- Marge, confronted with the sociopathic journal entries Chief Wiggum incorrectly assumes are Bart’s: “Well I’ve never seen Bart write in cursive, so I’m a little proud of that, but…”
- When the two plots check in with each other, Lisa asks Homer if she can call Bart at the institution. Homer replies sadly, “You can call his guard, Chico. He picks up sometimes.”
- Someone at The Simpsons ponied up for “Crazy Train.”
- Ralph is freaked out by Bart’s reading of Nathan Little’s diary, if his confession to his father, “sour juice came out of my front-tail” is any indication. Sometimes Ralph’s infantile weirdness is hilarious, but it’s a matter of pitch—this just seems creepy.
- “Your son is dead… inside.” Chief Wiggum, delivering bad news ineptly since 1993.
- Homer, trying to spin the fact that Bart’s results on the sociopath test concludes he’s dangerous: “Well, Bart just got his first 100 per cent on a test…”
- Another weird little joke I liked—Marge and Homer trick Bart into a bouncy castle before driving him to the institute in it. The parking lot there is filled with bouncy castles.
- Bouncy castles or no, all those genuinely troubled, heavily medicated kids at the institution are passed off as a callous joke. Some more time to develop them might have helped with that, too.
- Barney, underwhelmed by the start of Lisa’s presentation of Amelia’s invention: “Even an extraordinary loom is the most boring thing I can think of.”
- Even in her triumph, Lisa can’t win, her attempts to show off Amelia’s now museum-housed invention no match for “The Science Of Thor” exhibit.
- The episode sets up Lisa’s scientific interest by showing her ill-fated entry in the town’s alternative energy automobile derby. Her solar-powered car loses when the Duff blimp blocks the sun, prompting a chorus of strangely specific insults about her having to settle for an education from Bates College. As a Mainer (and a graduate of Bowdoin—disdainful sniff), I can confirm that Bates is a fine school and a worthy Division III basketball power. Maine is also very cold in the winter. (Now Colby, on the other hand…)