“The Cad And The Hat” is the first credited Simpsons script from Ron Zimmerman, and, while bringing in new blood to the Simpsons’ writers room can be energizing, this episode betrays the series’ tone and internal rules to a distracting degree. Which might be interesting if it were bolder, or a lot funnier. As it is, the episode is dispiriting in how disposably it treats its world, while reaching for a pair of emotional epiphanies that fall flat in the execution.
The competing plots see Bart thoughtlessly tossing away Lisa’s beloved new sun hat (she calls it Sunny), and his guilt manifesting as a disgusting, goblin-like version of himself (voiced by returning guest Patton Oswalt.) At the same time, Homer discovers that he is a secret chess prodigy, a heretofore undiscovered talent traced back to his childhood, when his desire to impress his father instead led to their further estrangement. There’s nothing wrong with an episode having an A- and B-story, even though latter-day Simpsons repeatedly shows that the series isn’t nearly as adept at turning such a structure into a well realized whole as it used to be. But Zimmerman’s script traffics in glibness.
That’s especially disappointing, as the episode starts with a framing device that suggests a higher level of ambition. Lisa and Bart introduce the episode from the family couch, speaking directly to camera and telling us that the story we’re about to see is a parable about brother-sister bonding. (Bart makes faces and chides Lisa for the spoiler.) But, apart from the end tag, where we see Nelson and his mom break the fourth wall (Mrs. Muntz is apparently dating one of The Simpsons’ grips), “The Cad And The Hat” does nothing interesting with the conceit. The same goes for Oswalt’s spectral Guilt-Bart, who has shockingly few lines (and fewer memorable ones) for such a high-profile guest, and whose character is similarly under-exploited.
If this were established as a tale being told by two young children, then both Bart’s slimy doppelgänger and the large number of broad, reality-busting gags herein might be an interesting idea. Or at least one explicable as something other than the show exhibiting a depressing “anything goes” attitude toward its own rules. If Guilt-Bart is a figment of Bart’s imagination, then, fine. (Homer and Lisa are shown conversing with their own ghostly mind-monsters as well.) And being in Bart’s mind would go a long way toward explaining why the thing is so gross—apart from dripping slime all over everything, it swallows Bart and craps him out at one point, a gag where, as they say, your mileage may vary. (That Bart thinks the trip is cool makes enough character sense to allow it, barely.)
But, in trying to retrieve Lisa’s hat from the junkyard where he threw it, Bart sees Rod and Todd levitating a crushed automobile (Gil’s, naturally) with the power of their faith. (Flanders: “Boys, are you performing miracles?” Rod and Todd: “Jesus is performing them through us!”) Their noses also spontaneously start to bleed from their supernatural efforts. Bart discovers that his favorite soda can eat through car-metal like Xenomorph blood, and then we see it eat graphically through his stomach as well. Then, at the episode’s conclusion, Mr. Burns sees the Godzilla-sized nuclear monster Guilt-Bart turns into after falling into one of Springfield Nuclear’s cooling towers. The Simpsons plays loose with whatever laws of science govern Springfield at times, but these sorts of jokes are “cartoonish” without earning the right, dramatically or comedically. They’re just the sort of lazy eye-rollers that make longtime viewers feel like the show is the sort of throwaway hackwork its most strident and dullest critics claim it’s been for a long time.
After having a childhood revelation about Abe last week, Homer has another here. Again, which isn’t a problem in itself. A Simpsons episode can reveal anything at all about one of its characters as long as the writing can carry the weight. The Simpsons rewrites itself each week. Some things stick, some things are never spoken of again. But as long as the week’s plot device resonates with the characters as we know and love them, then that’s part of the series’ enduring charm. Here, there’s nothing character-violating about Homer’s chess mastery, but, like the Bart-Lisa conflict, it’s awfully under-imagined. There are some funny jokes throughout—Homer’s confident misnaming of the chess pieces is a genuine, Homer-esque laugh. (In Homer’s mind, they are: the king, Mrs. King, the lightbulb baby, the mini-ashtray, slitface, and Dr. Horse.) But introducing a deep-seated paternal issue, having Homer recognize it, and then confront his father all whooshes by with no time for any emotional beat to land. Length isn’t the problem. (Although the show’s modern-day compulsion to squeeze potentially promising plots into a seven-minute B-story continues to baffle.) It’s that the writing isn’t sharp enough to squeeze the intended heart out of the truncated storyline. When Homer, resigning the big chess match against Abe in the present day, exclaims, “Dad, it seems I love you!,” it’s sweet and funny enough to make you wish their story had been given more time to develop.
The same goes for Lisa and Bart’s redemption arc. Here, too, there are some decent lines. Bart’s resentment of Lisa’s hat-based happiness comes when his temporary “Bad To The Bone” tattoo immediately washes off in the ocean, causing him to complain, “It said water-resistant! It resisted nothing!” And when Bart exclaims “But I’m bad to the bone,” the passing Dolph deadpans, “I see no proof of that.” But Bart and Lisa’s relationship is just as streamlined as Homer and Abe’s. The few little character moments that worked were Bart, having rescued the (much worse for wear) hat, rushes up the stairs, yelling excitedly, “Lisa! Stupid Lisa! I’ve got something to show you!,” and Lisa’s refusal to accept Bart’s apology, where she encourages him to forget her and start over with Maggie. (“She likes raisins, Bart.”) Otherwise, apart from some above-average animation (in Lisa’s nighttime search for Sunny, especially), their story never pays off like a big Simpsons reconciliation can, and has.
- That’s actually Norwegian chess grandmaster Magnus Carlsen that Marge gets to Skype in some advice to Homer throughout the episode. The episode makes fine use of his Scandinavian humorlessness, Carlsen admitting that he cannot play Stratego because he’s afraid of the bomb turning up, and offering guidance “with all the emotion a Norwegian can muster.” (It’s not a lot.)
- Homer, when Carlsen introduces himself (in English): “I can speak Norwegian!”
- Magnus is also Carl’s cousin, apparently. (Although their last names are spelled differently.)
- Lisa: “You always think ladders go down.” Homer: “You can go down a ladder!” Marge: “Oh, not this again.”
- Marge continues to have very little to do this season. I did like her odd little confession to Homer, “Sometimes when I sweep, I make little sweeping noises with my mouth.”
- Lisa scorns Marge’s comparison of her love for Sunny to Madeline’s love of her trademark hat, crying, “She only wore that because it was part of her uniform! Ask Pepito!”
- Lisa’s love for that hat isn’t developed, although her looking through hat mug shots at the police station is a funny idea.
- Trying to make thing up to Lisa, Bart brings her a series of presents, including “cruelty-free saxophone reeds.” (Slogan: “From wood that fell off.”)
- Moe, on Homer’s “idiot savant” chess talent: “You’re like a smoking monkey or a urinal cake with an ad on it. Don’t tell me you’re not flattered by those analogies.”
- Jasper calling Homer “Blobby Fischer” made me laugh.
- The couch gag sees Homer breaking the fourth wall to invade other animated worlds in search of the Simpsons’ ever-present boat picture. It gives the show a chance to stick it to South Park (“a third-grade shoebox diorama”), Robot Chicken (Seth Green’s nerd character bought the painting as geek memorabilia), and those darned California Raisins. (Man, someone sure has it in for those raisins. They must work there or something.)
- Not to compare “The Cad And The Hat” to the “good years” or anything, but I always hear Lisa’s heartfelt plea to Bart’s conscience from “Bart Vs. Thanksgiving” whenever the series mines their relationship for a story. “The only reason to apologize is if you look deep down inside yourself, and you find a spot, something you wish wasn’t there because you feel bad you hurt your sister’s feelings.” Excuse me, I think there’s something in my eye.