“Changing Of The Guardians” is three mini Simpsons episodes: a comic portrayal of a natural disaster, a well-worn sitcom story with cameos from lots of recurring characters, and a brief tale in which our favorite family is threatened by the Guest Voice Of The Week.
The Guest Voice, by the way, is Rashida Jones. As promised by Fox, Danny DeVito does return as Homer’s brother Herb—but only as a two-line voice-mail message. (“Hi, you’ve reached Herb Powell. I’m poor again.”) Maybe this is supposed to be a meta joke about DeVito phoning in his performance. It’s kind of obnoxious to take any of the spotlight from Jones, but after so many years as Ann Perkins on Parks And Recreation, she must be used to being an unheralded utility player.
The natural disaster in this episode is a tornado, which mercifully saves the Simpsons from playing a Settlers Of Catan-type board game that even Lisa finds dull and pointless. The twister snatches the family dog, so Homer and Marge chase after it with the help of Lenny and Carl. They catch up to the tornado but are almost killed when the façade of a bank falls from the sky and traps them in a revolving door.
This brings us to the heart of the episode, as Homer and Marge decide they must choose guardians for Bart, Lisa, and Maggie in case they become orphans. This is a familiar live-action sitcom plot, involving a lot of hurt feelings as parents unnecessarily tell friends and relatives that they’re not being picked. Homer and Marge rule out Grampa, “tiger mothers” Patty and Selma, Milhouse’s bickering parents, and Cletus and Brandine Spuckler—the last two because any living thing that wanders into their shed ends up in the stew pot. (Is that Ned Flanders in there? That would be the only good reason why he’s not considered. Well, that and Homer’s disdain for the Jeebus stuff.)
Oddly, this sound judgment works against Homer and Marge. When word gets out they they’re looking for guardians, they become reverse magnets, causing everyone in Springfield to scatter whenever they approach. (There are some nice overhead shots of this scientific principle in action.) Dr. and Mrs. Hibbert hide by jumping down a manhole on the street. Almost everyone else, understandably afraid of becoming Red Shirts for a Simpsons sight gag, simply run away.
You’d think there would be time for Bart and Lisa to have fantasy sequences of being adopted by some of the show's familiar characters (or for them to have nightmares about dealing with Bart), but instead, the whole family goes on a road trip in search of total strangers to serve as guardians. It’s hard to accept that Marge would go along with this, or that Lisa would be so passive about her future. Those two characters lose their usual spark for the rest of the episode, and it doesn’t help that the random pair selected as guardians—an environmental lawyer voiced by Jones and a professional surfer—are rich and attractive but oh-so-colorless. (Sorry, Rashida!)
In the last three minutes of “Changing Of The Guardians,” Bart, Lisa, and Maggie are more or less kidnapped by the guardians, Homer and Marge wonder if the kids are better off in their new home but then race to get them back, and the kids declare that they’re rather be with their real parents, flaws and all. Everything is so rushed that none of this feels sad or tense or heartwarming or funny. Yet this episode finds time for Homer, Lenny, and Carl to engage in a contest to see who can hold a note the longest, and for Homer and Marge to stand in that damn revolving door for some dumb business about Chief Wiggum’s inability to rescue them. I don’t want to be cruel, but there are a lot of jokes here that should have been tossed into the ocean with Moe’s squirming sack of kittens.
- Upon seeing the storm, Lisa cries, “Twister!” Bart’s response: “No! Whenever we play that, my elbow touches Dad’s junk.”
- I think insecure Homer works better than the douchebag Homer who’s been popping up lately: “What women really want is a guy who’s confident enough to go completely downhill after a marriage and she’ll still love him.” Irresponsible Homer is consistent, though: “Those kids are ours. Because we made them. By accident.”
- Scratch another one off your list. Marge: “The kids could end up wards of the state!” Homer: “Connecticut?!” Marge: “No, our state.”
- Bart has a good grasp of the situation: “You’re trying to find a couple of saps to take us when Dad has a coronary in the middle of the night, rolls over, and crushes Mom.”
- Homer has discovered a way to mainline doughnuts. No wonder why Marge wants nothing to do with people with Mid-Atlantic accents: “That’s where they film The Wire!”
- When I thought Danny DeVito was going to have a bigger role, it struck me that during its extremely long run, The Simpsons (to its credit) has rarely used distant family members as plot devices, in contrast to live-action sitcoms that often drag in aunts, uncles, cousins, and the like to become house guests for one episode before disappearing forever. This episode wasn’t an exception to the rule after all.