Modern Simpsons episodes are often both overstuffed and under-imagined, resulting in two indifferent, inadequately realized stories not so much parallel as co-existing. “Blazed And Confused” at least avoids that pitfall, with the story of Bart’s creepily bullying new teacher (voiced by returning guest star Willem Dafoe) linked dutifully to the Simpsons’ pilgrimage to the Burning Man-esque Blazing Guy Festival, where said Mr. Lassen is the gathering’s ceremonial effigy-lighter. But simply connecting the dots isn’t enough when there aren’t enough laughs or character beats to enliven the proceedings. At least we’ve got Milhouse.

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When Superintendent Chalmers convenes the (apparently) Annual Dance Of The Lemons, whereby every school trades its worst teacher (“and only the children suffer”), Bart ends up taught by the fearsome Lassen, a self-scarred, cat-punting, no-shit-taking martinet with no tolerance for shenanigans, monkeyshines, or tomfoolery, and who doesn’t hesitate to break out the hair clippers to humiliate Bart by making him look like Homer. (As one whose barely shaggy hair was once chopped off with paper scissors by a nun, I felt his pain.) The problem is that Lassen isn’t particularly interesting. Dafoe, for one of the all-time menacing character actors, has a soft, unassuming voice and, robbed of the live action Dafoe’s crazy eyes and unnerving physicality, his Lassen remains flat. I did like his riposte to Nelson’s claim that his mom can’t be fat because she works at the strip club “A Touch Of Class.” (“Son, there never was a ‘cl.’”) Poised as a Sideshow Bob-level future threat once Bart’s machinations at Blazing Guy ruin both his teaching and running naked and setting things on fire careers land him in prison guard blues, Lassen just isn’t a strong enough character. (Plus, Mr. Dafoe is pretty busy.)

The Blazing Guy jokes which host the bulk of the episode play as if the writers (Carolyn Omine and William Wright) are, well, middle aged Simpsons writers who watched a news story about Burning Man and thought it’d be fun to make fun of. There’s nothing in the portrayal of Blazing Guy that goes much beyond “look at the freaks in their funny costumes!” (the sight of Maggie sucking on a used hypodermic needle is particularly jarring), and its whole incorporation here is a lot of drum circling, signifying not much. Lisa’s appreciation for the “world of anarchic free expression,” while it makes sense, is abrupt—surely Lisa would be unnerved by much of the Blazing Guy irresponsibility—and the setting is never established as especially necessary.

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Part of the problem is that this is a Bart story. Gone are the days when Bart’s adventures carried much emotional weight—he’s ceded that function overwhelmingly to his little sister. Bart, as Zack Handlen succinctly put it last week, is a little shit, his conflicts best suited for comic relief and, as here, plot advancement. And while Lassen’s wholly inappropriate antagonism toward a 10-year-old is mean, Bart’s humiliation doesn’t register as feelingly as if it were anyone else in his family on the receiving end. When Bart, dousing the final night effigy in flame retardant, foils Lassen’s plan to murder him, there’s nothing wrong with what happens. It makes sense, both stories come together. It’s fine—but like most of the elements in “Blazed And Confused,” that’s all it is.

The animation during Marge’s trip (after accepting some ill-advised tea) is competent and nondescript. Unlike Homer’s insanity pepper-instigated hallucination in “El Viaje Misterioso De Nuestro Jomer,” (whose Johnny Cash-voiced trickster coyote makes a silent cameo here), Marge’s visions are perfunctory—sleeping bag into snake, Lisa into saxophone, etc. Earlier in the episode, Marge’s carefully cultivated denial of her unhappiness crumbles in the face of Homer’s typical inattention (he neglected to make the camping reservations they’d agreed upon a year ago), suggesting that such an interior journey would incorporate her buried resentments in the imagery somewhere. (“My biggest thing is that I dare to hope!”) Instead, her pupils just dilate and she spaces out to old Merrie Melodies bits and waits for Homer to carry her to safety. Their reunion is heartwarming enough—Marge and Homer reconciliations always are—but, like the rest of the episode, there’s nothing memorable about it.

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Stray observations:

  • It’s oddly disillusioning that Chalmers seems equally annoyed by all the principals in Springfield. At least Chalmers’ presentation was a Chalmskinn production.
  • Lassen: “Oh, a comedian, huh?” Nelson: “I’ve got a pretty solid ten minutes.”
  • Martin’s greatest fear about Lassen: “Is he stingy with the pumpkin stickers?”
  • Sign on the way to Blazing Guy: “Please do not shoot at signs. It makes us look like hicks.”
  • “Strip him of his nudity!”
  • “These kids are gonna ruin the ceremony! Too bad I’m just an illusion.”
  • Homer’s “Desert Arnaz” is a pretty funny burn.
  • As noted earlier—at least we’ve got Milhouse. One of the ancillary benefits of any Bart-centric story is the presence of his sidekick, who gets some classic Milhouse lines this time out. On seeing Bart’s remote control car and skeleton prank, his, “That’s kinda scary but it doesn’t make me pee my pants” is immediately and necessarily undercut by his thorough pants-wetting at Lassen’s entrance. He gets a brief moment of authority jabbing Nelson with Lassen’s insulting nickname (“Quiet, Smelson!”). And his climactic pronouncement, “I’m scared, Bart. And I’m never scared!,” is the sort of impeccably Milhousian lack of self-awareness that makes Milhouse Milhouse.

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