Monty Burs, The Simpsons (Photo: Fox)

A new season of The Simpsons engenders a lot of different responses, lousy jokes at the show’s expense being the most prevalent. For being long past its prime. For being tired. The always-hilarious “Is that show still on?” (For the record, I’ve never seen a Twitter joke about The Simpsons funny enough to make the cut on even the weakest Simpsons episode, but that’s neither here nor there.) For me, however, the main reaction each year—from a critic’s and a fan’s standpoint—is hope.

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Considering the pedigree of the actors and writers involved in the show and the absurdly rich world that The Simpsons has created in its now 28 years on television, my philosophy going into each year is that there is simply no reason why The Simpsons can’t be good. There are glimmers each season, thoughtfully fresh and funny episodes clearly made by people who truly understand the show’s unique strengths and who find the sweet spot where freewheeling silliness and heart intersect. I’ll say it again going into season 28—there’s no reason The Simpsons can’t be great.

“Monty Burns’ Fleeing Circus” isn’t great. There are a number of solid gags that exist largely in isolation from a middling season premiere alternately cruel and cartoonish (or cartoonishly cruel). It’s tempting to call the episode especially disappointing as a season premiere, but, in the four years I’ve now been reviewing the show, The Simpsons has stumbled out of the gate, either overhyping a major let-down, or veering off into ill-advised conceptual disaster. No, what’s so discouraging here is that the episode is credited to Max Pross and Tom Gammill. If two sitcom legends who’ve both been intimately involved with the show since 1998 envision this as what The Simpsons should be, then it’s time to settle in for a long season.

The plot sees the shiny, abstract replacement for Springfield’s stolen Lard Lad statue accidentally laser-beaming much of the town once the sun hits its “massive convex reflective surface” (as Professor Frink warns, too late). Six months later, the town’s still a blasted shambles, and, despite Mayor Quimby’s assertion that “the time for mourning and blaming our mayors has passed,” the Simpsons take it upon themselves to approach Mr. Burns for help. After a funny reveal that he’s already trap-doored the family one floor down in his mansion, Burns agrees to revamp the Springfield Bowl concert venue as a symbolic gesture of renewal to the town he’s held in his bony death-grip for nigh on these many decades. Naturally, he’s got ulterior motives, as the Bowl was the site of little Monty’s greatest humiliation, when his pants fell down while he was performing there in 1913, and everyone (including Charles Chaplin, Babe Ruth, and, um, Itchy) saw his bottom. Hoping to exorcise the painful memory, he plans a show starring the town’s kids, with Lisa as his stage manager, largely thanks to her clipboard-unclasping skills. (“Young lady, if there’s one thing I know about show business, there are a lot of clipboards.”) Meanwhile, Homer takes advantage of Burns’ absence from the nuclear plant to lead the employees into some spring break shenanigans.

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Nothing wrong with the setup—many a great Simpsons episode has started with a sillier premise. I’ll cop to repetitiveness when I complain that, as has been the case in recent seasons, neither of these stories is given enough time to develop. I’ll also say that, if the show stops rushing through half-realized A- and B-stories, I’ll stop mentioning it. What’s so dispiriting here is how credited writers Gammill and Pross use the central premise as an excuse for some unprofitably ugly choices.

Take the death ray. Sure, it’s a death ray and all, but the episode mines the concept of a donut-mascot-focused murder-beam for jokes that are mean-spirited without being funny. The beam boils a lake, so we see not only a dying fish flop wheezing onto the land, but also the dog that snaps up the fish being obliterated by the returning beam, its guts and eyeballs splattering everywhere. Three guys waiting for laser-eye surgery have their eyeballs fortuitously fixed by the beam—but the eye doctor, seeing his business walk happily out the door, pulls out a pistol, cocks it, and presses it to his head. In Burns’ talent show, Comic Book Guy sneers that Terri and Sherri’s The Prestige-style water cabinet trick means that one twin escaped behind a curtain—but we see Sherri (or Terri) actually floating drowned and dead while her sister takes a bow. In their introductory silent film for the show, Burns and Smithers spot a bound damsel and, asserting they’re late, simply run her over, their old-timey car slathered in gore. (Sure, that one may be fictional within the world of the episode, but it’s still a laugh born of damsel-blood.) Both Kirk Van Houten’s arms are sliced off by the death ray, because amputating parts of Kirk is a go-to gag at this point, apparently. And, in the end, Ralph dies, too, smilingly doing a Porky Pig sign-off while the molten metal from the melting Lard Lad statue covers his face.

And when the jokes aren’t cruel, they’re tossed-off. It’s not paradoxical to call out a cartoon for being cartoonish if the consequence-free nature of the jokes communicates “who cares?” more than “anything can happen.” So when Homer’s party animal guidance sees his coworkers swimming in a pool of radioactive waste, someone smoking a nuclear rod like a joint (to Afroman’s “Because I Got High”), and Lenny apparently drinking a toxic waste cocktail, the show abandons its admittedly tenuous reality for lazy jokes—that, again, don’t even have the virtue of being funny. The same goes for the moment when, watching Rod and Todd’s squeaky-clean Smothers Brothers act, Ned sees both his deceased ex-wives appear in the empty seats next to him. Sure, it could be Ned’s imagination but, like all the deaths and radiation poisonings, it’s just chucked out there. A consequence-less reference passing as a joke, its lack of heart and care are equally sour.

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A great Simpsons episode finds a way to combine the show’s wacky elastic reality with genuine character stories. There’s a reason why “the good seasons” are so rightfully revered, as that’s just really damned difficult to pull off. There’s a reason why people are still heatedly debating whether “Homer’s Enemy” is one of the most conceptually brilliant things The Simpsons has ever done, or if its self-aware darkness signaled the beginning of the show’s ruination. There’s room for audaciousness, even cruelty, in The Simpsons’ comedy, if it’s earned. “Monty Burns’ Fleeing Circus” wears its breezy brutality and laziness like a sign reading “It’s just a cartoon.” But at its best, The Simpsons is a much better cartoon than this.

Stray observations

  • The season’s first guest couch gag comes from Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, who sings a Simpsonized version of the Adventure Time theme over an Adventure Time-d version of Springfield. It’s suitably adorable. (I’ll let those better versed in A.T. pull out the references.)
  • That being said, I’ll restate my objection that the overlong couch gags and end-tags (tonight, Homer tells Lisa a Biblical fable that feels especially tacked-on) are a regrettable feature of the last few years, in that they pull time from already-thin main stories. Homer’s B-story at the plant barely exists here (although it’s nice to see Zutroy is still around).
  • That’s Amy Schumer as Li’l Monty’s mom, a fact I didn’t realize until the end credits. It’s not that Schumer’s bad, it’s that her role, like much of the episode, has no substance.
  • The idea that Mr. Burns’ mom is sexually inappropriate might be why they brought the ever-audacious Schumer on to play the character, but all that creepy face-licking never comes to bear on Burns’ plot at all. Which is probably for the best.
  • Stay tuned to see if the city of Phoenix raises a New Orleans-style stink over Kent Brockman’s description of it as “the culture-less Mars-scape of the southwest.”
  • It’s a funny detail that Springfield’s typically confused hair-trigger rioting sees one half of the town angrily undoing the damage caused by the other, resulting in “zero dollars in damage,” according to Brockman.
  • The visual joke that Apu’s bjorn actually holds all eight babies stacked one in front of the other is a neat perspective gag.
  • Barney, on the new statue: “That doesn’t say donuts, it says management overthink!”
  • “Attention: an old man is prowling the school, looking for young children. Please perform for him.”
  • “And what part of what I’ve never told you don’t you understand?”
  • Every year, someone thinks it’s funny to have Burns make an unintentional double entendre, so let’s hope “Within days, half of America was cranking to my bottom” is it for season 28.

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