In the end of “Orange Is The New Yellow,” The Simpsons’ 27th season finale, there’s a prison riot and a tornado. Marge is in the cooler because Martin’s overzealous mother spotted Bart playing—non-destructively even—in the park without parental supervision. The tornado sweeps up all the kids in town from that same park after Bart, fed up with the town parents’ half-assed over-parenting since Marge’ arrest, leads the kids there to play—because you never know with tornadoes. Homer, having broken into the prison dressed as a guard during a riot Marge is sort-of responsible for, reassures his wife that he and the kids do appreciate her, and that she doesn’t have to keep committing more crimes (she grabbed a guard’s gun) in order to stay in the slammer. They hug, a rainbow appears, and both the riot and the tornado are immediately forgotten. Sure, the kids are all stuck up in the branches of the same tree (except for Ralph, last seen contentedly ‘rassling with a bobcat in the tornado funnel), but everyone’s fine.

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Sometimes reviewing The Simpsons is a hard job.

Unlike last season’s finale, which, apart from a stellar but irrelevant-to-the-series couch gag, provided plenty to write about because it was so infuriatingly, dishearteningly lazy and tossed-off, “Orange Is The New Yellow” is… nondescript? Perfunctory? Fine? It’s fine. It’s got a laugh or two around the fringes. (Homer, panicked at Marge’s decision to stay on her “prison break” from the family, pleads that he can’t go to another school meeting because “everyone just asks questions about their own kids!”) There’s a satirical edge to the whole “overprotected children” angle that clearly engaged the writers room a bit (the episode is the first credited to Futurama vet Eric Horsted).

It’s odd that it’s Martin’s nondescript mother who brings down the heat, since that’s a prime Helen Lovejoy “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!” role, but the idea that Springfield’s justice system would overreact by pulling guns on Marge and sending her to prison is just plausible enough to be upsetting. (Everyone feel free to share your own tales of dangerous adult-free childhood mischief in the comments.) And there’s a reliable number of offbeat gags throughout to make this an unassumingly pleasant way to kill a half-hour. The extended riff—complete with improvised theme song—on the “plumb bob” contraption that Mr. Burns brings in to make sure his safety hazard-obscuring poster is straight, is the sort of purposefully slow burn comedy the show has mined for all-time huge laughs in the past. (See: rakes, Sideshow Bob and.)

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But is that what we’re looking for from The Simpsons at this point? It’s not for me. There’s nothing lazier, duller, or less useful than the oft-repeated complaint “It’s not as good as it used to be.” (Take it from a guy who also reviews Saturday Night Live.) Especially since The Simpsons is still capable of being a very good show. There’s the show’s characters and their world, the brilliant voice talent that have an unprecedented 27 full years now of knowledge and experience with said characters, a writers room full of talented people who have done outstanding work both in- and outside the series—and a healthy handful of episodes just from this season that you could find tucked into your DVD set of one of the “good seasons” and not blink.

So when an episode like this one fizzles out with a barely-there wheeze of half-developed storylines and thoroughly-explored character beats with nothing new or interesting to set them apart, it’s… fine. Except that it’s not fine—it’s baffling, and disheartening. I set out to review every episode of The Simpsons on its own merits, and—complaints that I talk about the show’s past too much aside for now—I think I do that well. (You try reviewing a 27-year-old series without providing a little context.) I’ve said this a lot, but it’s what I truly believe—there’s no reason why The Simpsons can’t be good, every single time out. When it’s… fine, it’s tough to find more to say about it.

Marge in prison meets some nondescript felon types, a gaggle of undeveloped extras whose lack of depth is especially disappointing since the episode’s title inevitably invites comparison to their complex and lived-in counterparts at Litchfield Penitentiary. Marge’s realization of her taken-for-granted status at home is one of her defining characteristics, but her stay in the hoosegow just ticks off the expected beats—she has time to exercise, garden, read, and go to bed at a reasonable (mandatory) hour—without doing anything new with them. The episode is cavalier about how easily Marge adapts to prison violence, with her shooting off that gun and all—but her calling her hair “Blue Thunder” as she uses it to take down a bullying convict is Marge at her most bad-assed. (Don’t mess with Marge’s James Patterson.)

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The family’s response to Marge’s incarceration turns into little more than an excuse for Homer and the kids to enjoy all the muffin baskets from Flanders and his NWA (“Neighbors With Appetizers”), although Lisa’s confession that mailing her permission slip to prison and having Marge mail it back is probably easier that just asking Homer to mail it is pretty funny. That the kids would break out of their leashes (Homer takes ten or so out at a time like a dog walker) makes sense, but the whole tornado crisis short-circuits any meaningful resolution of the whole conflict that was the impetus for the narrative in the first place.

The Simpsons is often at its worst when it shoots big, as in this season’s infuriatingly gimmicky “Marge and Homer actually break up but it was all a dream and also Hannah Horvath’s new tattoo” premiere. (Don’t get me started again.) So my disappointment in “Orange Is The New Yellow” isn’t based on the fact that it’s a lackluster Simpsons season finale. It’s more that it’s a lackluster episode of The Simpsons, period.

It’s fine.

Stray observations

  • “I’d lose the attitude, Sylvester Alone.”
  • “A mother at the park saw something she disapproved of and, luckily for your son, she overreacted.”
  • Judge: “It is not within the purview of this court to determine how fat and smelly you father is.” Homer: “Woo hoo!”
  • Lisa, watching the judge sentence Marge to prison: “This is Kafka-esque!” Judge: “I’ve got my eye on you.” Lisa: “Now it’s Orwellian!”
  • Marge is almost sprung because Homer never registered Bart’s birth certificate, meaning he’s not legally their son.
  • “I have to reexamine my entire life.” “Maybe you can start by not bringing your kids to a bar.”
  • Kent Brockman’s disappointment that Marge was being tried for “outrageous negligence” rather than “an outrageous negligee” gave me the biggest laugh of the episode.
  • Lisa’s plea to the returned Marge is sweet: “We’re not nuts or anything, but don’t let the refrigerator door block our view of you.”
  • Homer’s black and white fantasy of being a perfect Mad Men-era wife involves him (as the wife) being a secret alcoholic. In the tag (set in “Season 6”), husband-Marge is having an affair with Flanders. This means something.
  • Random gags: God and Jesus don’t like Homer, a bottle of Mr. Sparkle, and apparently the stuffed bear in Burns’ office is alive, and wears a hat when he clocks out for the day. Oh, and there’s a long Ikea couch gag. It’s fine.
  • Well that’s The Simpsons, season 27, everybody. Thank you for reading. For a show whose reviews here are constantly beset with “Who cares about The Simpsons any more anyway?” comments, there’s always a lively and informed group of you out there who still care enough to fight about (and maybe for) it. Here’s to next year, and here’s to hope. Seriously—thanks for reading.

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Episode grade: C+
Season Grade: B