Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

“Road rage is actually home rage that I bring onto the highway.”

Look, I’m just going to admit at the outset that the premise of “Baby You Can’t Drive My Car” invites a lot of car metaphors, and that I’m not going to be able to resist all of them. I’m only human, here, people, but I’ll try to control myself.

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No promises.

Credited to Simpsons vet Rob LaZebnik, the episode benefits from the writer’s signature commitment to finding an emotional core for his stories. An episode of The Simpsons can be about anything—a great episode of The Simpsons doesn’t forget to tether the anything goes spirit of the show to the characters. Here, the inciting incident is twofold, as Homer gets fired for crashing his car into Mr. Burns office during a morning chicken nugget mishap before hiring on to CarGo, the new high-tech self-driving car company that Mayor Quimby lured to town with the promise of “8 to 12 jobs.” (“Eat our rust, Toledo!,” Quimby gloats.) In true Simpsons monorail fashion, it’s all too good to be true, naturally, as the San Francisco techies at CarGo use free food, a fun work environment, and the promise of free hands-free driving to everyone in Springfield to mask their true intention of data-mining the living crap out of everyone in town. (Not DataGrab.net!,” cries a horrified Homer upon learning that CarGo’s business model is based solely on sponsored data-grabbing.)

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There’s a fair amount of, lets call it “echoing” going on in “Baby You Can’t Drive My Car.” CarGo’s too-good-to-be-true campus and benefits feel a lot like those of the Globex Corporation. And if the data-miners here aren’t interested in blowing up bridges or taking over the Eastern seaboard, their amoral money-grubbing deceitfulness emerges as something even more realistically sinister. Hopping shows, CarGo’s sneaky user agreement manipulations sound an awful lot like those of Parks And Recreation’s Gryzzl, whose promised largesse came attached to some similarly Trojan Horse-esque legalese. Still, LaZebnik manages to make the issue feel uniquely personal here, thanks to how he paints its effect of Marge and Homer’s relationship.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

After Homer is fired (this time), he engages in his wonted unemployment strategy of moping, whining, and bingeing Korean soap operas. (And growing a poorly rendered beard. Honestly, he looks like Popeye guest-starring on Family Guy.) When Marge starts listing all the reasons why Homer’s inaction and lack of ambition are unacceptable (this time), he zones her out, leaving the sour foretaste of some of The Simpsons’ occasional lapses into “women, amirite?” laziness. But the script actually finds a way to elevate the conflict somewhat, as Homer, being picked up from CarGo’s luxurious car hangar after a blissful day of being driven around by a robot car while he makes ships in bottles and texts to his heart’s content, finds that he and Marge make a great team when it comes to getting CarGo’s hard-working team of computer nerds (including Doug, Gary, and Benjamin) to relax. Seeing the value (via a foosball table spy cam) of their drones actually taking advantage of all the recreational amenities on campus, the two execs in charge hire Marge to work alongside Homer to raise morale and productivity with ice rink office chair hockey and lemon squares. (Well, rhombuses. Nerds.)

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Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

Homer and Marge have been thrown together in a work environment before. So have Marge and Burns, whose past episode of Burns’ workplace sexual harassment is referenced once he and Smithers join forces with the Simpsons in order to shut down CarGo to save the suddenly worker-depleted nuclear plant. (Burns claims he’s sworn off the “perils of sexual attraction in the workplace,” much to Smithers’ annoyance.) Again, The Simpsons’ longevity means that most combinations of players and conflicts are going to recur. The trick is to ground each new permutation in character. (If you can toss in a little nod to continuity, it’s appreciated at this point, but far less necessary.) So, here, it’s genuinely refreshing to see Marge and Homer finding that their unexpected partnership makes for a rejuvenating closeness. Meanwhile, Burns’ mercenary alliance with Homer (who he’d just fired) makes sense, too, with his gleeful “For the first time ever, I’m the lesser of two evils” striking a note of camaraderie that’s almost human.

All of this makes me wish “Baby You Can’t Drive My Car” were funnier, or that its conflict—when it comes—were better drawn. There are some really good jokes in there. Homer resolutely not getting the concept of a driverless car is some classic Homer-think, as he gamely ventures that, while there’s no steering wheel, there surely is a joystick, or something “like a turning wheel—for steering.” There’s a joke about the nerds grooving happily to a nonsensically bland A.I.-written Christmas carol that’s pitch-perfectly creepy. And Homer’s secretly eavesdropping car responds to Homer and Marge’s blithe conversation with some hilarious comic timing. (“I could eat a horse” sees the car bringing them to a Krusty Burger, while Homer’s “Holy crap!” brings them to the church.)

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Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

But that can’t carry the episode over some dull stretches, including not one but two unfunny tags at the end of the episode. That’s especially a bummer, since the script wisely eliminates any B-story in favor of telling one coherent story from beginning to end. (Tracy Morgan is also brought in for a pointless five-second cameo at the end. Apart from not being given anything funny to do, if anyone would have any insight into traffic safety, it’d be Morgan.)

As for Marge and Homer’s story, the plot seems to cast them into antagonism without much logic. Homer is the one who gets up in arms about the data-mining, while Marge, swept up in all the good their joint venture is having on their marriage, at first decides that a company secretly stealing every scrap of Spiringfielders’ personal information is an insignificant price to pay. “I can’t be the ethical one!,” protests Homer at one point, and, well, he’s got a point. It’s sweet to see Marge and Homer dancing a graceful waltz in a virtual reality ballroom, and Marge’s anguished excuse that “we were having so much fun!” is pretty heartbreaking when you think about it. But the conflict just doesn’t land, and when Marge (horrified that CarGo plans to extend the listening-in to the cars’ key fob—even in the powder room) finally decides to help Smithers, Burns, and Homer’s sabotage, it’s too thin a motivation.

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Still, an episode like this one feels like LaZebnik and the writers room is making adjustments, steering The Simpsons incrementally back in the right direction. And that’s one measly car metaphor.

Stray observations

  • Moe buys up some strategic keywords to drive traffic to the bar, including, nefariously, “Bill W.”
  • Apart from Homer’s disastrous beard, the episode looks very good. The crisp colors and backgrounds pop, and there’s an upside-down visual gag in Homer’s opening car crash that’s executed perfectly.
  • An exec tells Homer he could write a novel while his car does the driving if he wants, to which Homer sneers, “In today’s publishing environment?”
  • Another extols the virtues of Homer and Marge distracting the workers in order that they “forget they may want or have families.”
  • After Smithers touts CarGo’s enlightened LGBT policies, Burns scoffs, “What’s that, last goof-off buffoons, and . . . transgender?” Switcheroo.

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