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The Simpsons returns for its 31st season with John Mulaney, so that's something

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“They might have no opinion! I cant live with that!”

Well, here you go, Homer. “The Winter Of Our Monetized Content” has a few things going for it right out of the Season 31 gate. Clever title, as far as Simpsons title gags go. And John Mulaney is a fine get for the first guest star of the season. Apart from having the voice acting chops to spare at this point, his stand-up relies on a specificity of vocal style that makes for a memorable one-shot character in bespectacled hipster tech millionaire (billionaire?), the cleverly named Warburton Parker. The episode itself is standard mid-season Simpsons, free from the invariably forgettable “Look at us!” stunt plotting of a lot of recent Simpsons season premieres.

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As for the plots themselves, this premiere splits time between Homer and Bart, their traditional violent squabbling turning them into viral internet sensations, and Lisa, dragooned unfairly into Springfield Elementary’s new corporatized detention-industrial complex. (Headed up by go-to amoral corporate shill, Lindsey Naegle, naturally.) The Homer-Bart story gets the A-plot spot, thanks to a combination of screen time, Mulaney, and a handful of slightly better gags. Meanwhile, Lisa’s B-plot dangles, completely unconnected and given precious little time to do much with its potentially fruitful satire of the private prison industry, mass incarceration, and unionization themes it brings up in passing.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

Taken overall, “The Winter Of Our Monetized Content” is so lacking in commitment to the B-story not encompassed by the episode title that one simple tweak immediately suggests itself. It’s another case of the show (the episode is credited to Ryan Koh) spinning the wheel of premises twice instead of once and, in this case, letting the more promising one wither with lack of airtime.

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After all, Lisa’s been Springfield’s resident activist and fighter of injustice for three decades now, with a notable specialization in fighting the man on behalf of her unionizing brothers and sisters. The prospect of Lisa Simpson striking back (by leading a student strike of her detained peers) against a greedy, outsourced, and evil private detention company is clearly intriguing enough for Koh to include it—just not to follow through on the possibilities. Lisa the activist gets a bad rap as the driving force of an episode (and, in some indifferently written examples, deserves it), but the show raises all these issues as worthy of satirical potshots (Naegle works for Detention Solutions, “A Torture 500 company”), and then flushes the whole plot away without any resolution whatsoever. The kids, striking against being forced to toil making novelty license plates for the company’s profit (yes, there’s a “Bort” joke in there), are swiftly replaced by the school’s teachers, who prefer the sort of institutionalized slavery Ava DuVernay told us about to dealing with kids ever again. Plot dispensed with.

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As for the “those kids and their darned YouTube” slot on the plot wheel, Mulaney’s participation at least gives Homer and Bart an eccentrically worthy enabler/adversary. (“You’re right to dance in such a fashion,” pronounces Parker archly as Homer and Bart floss in unison at the prospect of viral fame.) As untroubled by Homer and Bart’s accidentally live-streamed bout of customarily choke-happy conflict resolution as the rest of Springfield, Parker smells money in the form of those sweet, sweet YouTube clicks. Pouncing on the opportunity to continue amassing wealth with the ease of a guy who’s seemingly never known adversity, he’s soon got Bart and Homer wearing father-son branded merch to stage sloppy, revenue-generating fights at selected regional chain eateries. (Like the beleaguered Utica Wild Thighs chicken joint.) Unfortunately, online fame is a fickle beast when its illusions are shattered, and a happy hug between the pair at their newfound joint success finds them milkshake-ducked into the YouTube nether-reaches.

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As usually happens when The Simpsons decides to take on those darn kids today, there’s a certain crotchety remove to the jokes at the expense of the influencers, tastemakers, un-boxers, and thinly disguised white supremacist skin care gurus Parker consults for Homer and Bart’s comeback. (The last of those, a Tomi Lahren-looking blonde, tells her followers they have to choose between “brown” and “skin color” when it comes to a base, easily the harshest joke of the episode.) And the denouement, with Homer and Bart rejecting Parker’s televised (and heavily armed) branded deathmatch with another, career-killing hug, is bouyed by Mulaney’s offhand disinterest in whether the two actually murder each other with their sponsor-themed medieval weaponry. Noting Bart’s net (Netflix) and trident (the gum) and Homer’s axe (the body spray) and spear (-mint, also the gum), Parker helpfully explains, “You get it Homer, the product things match the words.” There’s a genuinely sweet little capper when the resulting dud of a video gets its one and only like from an unsupervised Maggie. Sure, she then goes on to watch a deadly train wreck video with some 100 million views or so, but the first part was sweet, anyway.

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As an indicator, “The Winter Of Our Monetized Discontent” is a pleasantly forgettable exercise in blurred-together mid-season Simpsons. As I’ve opined before, and no doubt will until everyone is sick of hearing it again this season, there’s a good show—even a resurgent great show—lurking in the wealth of talent and history (and viewer loyalty) in The Simpsons. There are hints of that show peeping around the edges even of this first episode of the show’s 31st season, coming as it does some two decades after literally everyone could agree that The Simpsons was one of the best TV comedies ever made. There are ways to raise the show to that consensus classic again, so here’s to another season of hope and intermittent enjoyment.

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Stray observations

  • Homer is spurred to start his own online sports talk show by his peremptory “flushing” by perennial Simpsons sports shouter (and Stephen A. Smith clone) Anger Watkins. To be fair, Homer blurting out “John Stockton!” in Watkins’ endlessly recycled debate of the three greatest NBA players of all time is pretty flush-worthy.
  • Lisa’s story seems primed to turn her unlikely role as after-school jailbird into a Making A Murderer parody, but the show just forgets about it.
  • Lisa’s first voiceover summation of her detention classmates briefly turns into a Breakfast Club reference, before the show forgets about it.
  • Kent Brockman chuckles self-regardingly at his joke calling the strike-leading Lisa, “Norma Rasinets,” before offhandedly noting that the Pope was murdered.
  • Homer and Bart’s initial video goes viral to the strains of Bonnie Raitt’s “Something To Talk About,” which is not funny so much as it is testament to how few limits there are to The Simpsons’ licensing budget at this point.
  • Warburton Parker promises that, had he been in charge, that monkey smelling his own butt and then falling out of a tree would have been guaranteed an SNL Weekend Update slot on an episode hosted by “Ramy Malek or better.”
  • I liked the cheeky chyron work throughout the episode, with Homer’s extended laughing spree at his first sight of that monkey video shown lasting an hour and 45 minutes, and his and Bart’s first $5000 check seeing Homer teasing that he’s going to buy a boat. (Onscreen legend promises that the as yet unannounced November 3rd episode will be titled “Homer Buys A Boat.”)
  • Lisa, asked how she knows so much about unions, responds angrily, “Because our history books end in the 1930s.”
  • Netflix’s sponsorship comes with the banner, “Over-indulging writers’ passion.” Ha ha ha, good stuff . . . bring back Tuca & Bertie, Bojack Horseman, The Characters, and Lady Dynamite.
  • And we’re back for the A.V. Club’s coverage of Season 31 of The Simpsons. Join me, won’t you?
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About the author

Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.