There’s nothing wrong with repetition on The Simpsons. Apart from having 26-plus years of backstory to adhere to, The Simpsons operates from the same base every episode. The dynamics of the Simpson clan are where we start each week, and continuity is far less important to the success of an episode than originality—not so much of plot, but of execution. Homer needs to learn to be a better person? Bart’s going to wreck up the place before discovering a core of humanity that pulls him back from further destruction? Lisa’s neglected? Marge realizes how stifling her chosen role is? All those stories can be told and retold dozens of times (and have indeed been) and still be the core of a great episode of TV, as long as the writers find a way to make the story feel alive.

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The problem with an episode like “Fland Canyon” is that it’s content to pluck parts from older episodes without doing anything new or interesting with them. That there are laughs here and there isn’t surprising—even on an off day, The Simpsons (and the Simpsons) form a reliable bedrock for comedy. In this flashback story of a heretofore unrevealed early shared vacation of the Simpson and Flanders families, however, there’s a combination of old gags indifferently told, new gags told coarsely and/or cruelly, and some off-model characterization (especially with regard to Ned) that comes off as deeply disposable Simpsons.

I like the framing device for the episode, Homer’s increasingly desperate attempts to get Maggie to go to sleep a unique glimpse into Homer being something like a real, and decent, dad. Sure, he goes out for fries during his car trip to try to lull Maggie to sleep, but he’s the one doing it, even singing his daughter a sweet little lullaby. (I loved Dan Castellanetta’s performance here, the montage of Homer singing the last word of the song while trying everything to put Maggie down was just right). We don’t see Homer being an everyday good parent and husband very often—he usually has to nearly obliterate the family to learn to be one—and the wraparound of him doing the little things around the house lends the episode a nice warmth. He’s still Homer, thankfully, referring to his daughters as “Little Marge” (Maggie) and “Big Maggie” (Lisa) the sort of weird mistakes a sleep-deprived Homer would make.

It’s more in the flashback that forms the bulk of the episode that things just feel thin. For one thing, the conception of Ned is far too snippy from the outset (especially since the main story takes place before two full years’ worth of Homer’s antagonism. In winning a trip to the Grand Canyon from Reverend Lovejoy, Ned is openly contemptuous of Homer, scolding him for slacking off in their church group’s trip to clean up Springfield’s Skid Row, and generally being dismissive. And while his exchange with Lovejoy (who pawns off the two-family trip on the Simpsons so he and Helen don’t have to hang with Ned) is a nifty little piece of deadpan (“I think the Lord would want you to take the Simpsons on this trip.” “Our Lord?”), it’s out of whack for the Flanders we know. Sure, he’ll get tick-diddly-icked off at Homer from time to time after an episode’s worth of Homer’s abuse and irresponsibility, but starting him out that way sets “Fland Canyon” off balance. And, similarly, Maude—happily alive in the past—snidely questions Marge’s parenting from the get-go. (The same goes for Marge loudly asking if Homer got Maggie to sleep, immediately waking her right back up, by the way.) The Flanders are a slow-burn people, the joke made of their Christian forbearance their main characteristic on the show. So when Ned criticizes the Catholic church in the Grand Canyon with a disdainful sniff about it being “a little popish,” stands up to Homer’s mockery of his mustache with a huffily rhyming “Don’t you rip on my lip strip,” and mocks Homer’s prodigious snoring to his kids, I kept thinking, “Not my Neddy.”

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That imposter syndrome is on display through the episode in other ways, as well. There’s an offhand cruelty running through “Fland Canyon” that sours the proceedings. Lenny sweeps up spent hypodermic needles on Skid Row and sticks himself, immediately becoming addicted to heroin and offering to sell all his stuff to Carl for five bucks. There are three deaths used as cheap punchlines—a random guy falls off a cliff, the families’ mule-riding guide falls off another, and the son of the surly waitress at the Grand Canyon diner dies in the electric chair (noted offhandedly by the guy’s mother when the restaurant’s lights dim). Other jokes aren’t cruel but cheap. No one loves a good “Homer taking a whiz” joke more than I do, but the long gag about Homer’s groaning relief in a park bathroom sees a bear try to get into the facilities, crossing its legs in cutesy discomfort. Bart, inexplicably suction-cupping himself under the glass observatory walkway, moons—and is mooned by—Homer. Homer and Bart have a poisonous desert creature fight (rattlesnake versus scorpions). And Bart claims that other kids have nightmares about him, leading to an insert of Milhouse screaming “I’m not your puppet, Bart!” while his head spins around, Exorcist-style. All casually tossed off and cartoonish in a way that this cartoon is, on better nights, better than. (And, speaking of animation—those scorpions Homer keeps getting covered with look especially tossed-off, while Harry Shearer’s Lenny sounds that way.)

The solution to the families’ crisis after getting lost without food (or a guide, whose death is never referenced again) has a few funny physical gags. (Homer, falling down a cliff, taunts those ever-present scorpions, saying “Is that all you can do, sting? Ahh, they’re pinching now!”) And his and Ned’s competing visions of the five-fingered God’s majesty are humorously instructive, as Ned’s God playfully forms the constellations, while Homer’s God blasts the stars into place with a shotgun. In the end, though, the Homer-Ned bonding thing has been done far better elsewhere, here seeing their rapprochement being wrapped up with one extended singalong on a raft of stolen food (to The Guess Who’s “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature”) and Ned’s abrupt final line “Sometimes I wish this Grand Canyon between us weren’t so large.” (Even the “Homer and Ned on a leaky rubber raft” thing is a pale shadow of a fondly recalled predecessor, with their easily resolved crisis here lacking that “Godspeed, little Doodle” magic.)

“Fland Canyon” isn’t terrible—there are some decent jokes hung on the story here and there. I liked the fact that the Springfield Postcard Museum (where Homer ultimately takes Flanders as a gesture of friendship) doesn’t sell postcards in its gift shop. But the episode is awfully flimsy stuff in addition to its other issues. Even considering we get the extended opening credits sequence and a healthy-sized couch gag (a cute Simpsons homage from Disney animator Eric Goldberg), “Fland Canyon” is still filled with slack sequences that play out too long (Homer saying goodbye to his unfortunate mule El Gordo, Homer and Flanders’ air-band jamming session, that whiz gag). The episode is too ramshackle a vehicle to take us anywhere original.

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Stray observations

  • The wiseass in me is disappointed the episode wasn’t truly awful. Potential taglines like “‘Suck, suck’ indeed” (said by Homer in response to Maggie’s signature mouth sounds) don’t get served up on a platter like that every day.
  • Homer sort of likes the majesty of the Grand Canyon, calling it, “the most beautiful thing we ever stole from the Indians.”
  • The joke that there’s a retreat of wasteful media types hogging the Canyon doesn’t amount to much, although there are a few funny attendant gags. “I said I wanted a Tom Cruise type, not Tom Cruise” made me laugh, as did the fact that Netflix’s opulent tent is shaped like the Taj Mahal, while NBC’s is especially ragged. (There’s also a network named Tragedy Central, which I would watch.)
  • “I’ve got another story about a little girl who gets lost in the woods, except it’s not about a little girl and it doesn’t take place in the woods.”
  • “Surprise, surprise—the guy who did the best job wins!”
  • Six-year-old Lisa, annoying the ill-fated guide: “Is this job fun?” “Not at the moment.” “Do you count as a grownup?” “Not to my parents.”
  • Flashback Lisa also wolfs down bacon, but it’s okay, since the episode reminds us, it took place when she was six. (“I had the arteries of a 20-year-old!”)
  • Homer, angrily checking his phone: “Hey, no bars!” “You mean on your phone?” “Oh, that too.”

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