When FX unveiled Simpsons World to a group of critics—myself included—back in July, it was an incredible moment as a Simpsons fan. There were a lot of Simpsons fans in that room, and the site so embodied our relationship with the series that I swear I almost forgot how to breathe.

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The site/app has yet to reach its full potential as outlined that day, but I share this story because in the context of this review it seems a little strange. Despite being emotionally overwhelmed by Simpsons World, I haven’t watched The Simpsons regularly in a decade, and come to tonight’s episode with limited context for what exactly “modern” Simpsons looks like. Am I really a fan of The Simpsons if I no longer watch the show? Must we delineate between “Classic Simpsons” and “Modern Simpsons” fans, or do the characters they share unite us together as one?

You’re not here for existential questions, I realize this, but I wanted to give you a sense of my perspective before diving into “Covercraft.” The episode opens with Moe and the heretofore unseen King Toot (Will Forte) battling it out over a dumpster: the closure of the latter’s store leads Homer and Lisa to a knock-off Guitar Center, where Homer gets talked into a bass guitar, after which he forms Dad band Covercraft—any similarity to hovercraft is unintentional—with Reverend Lovejoy, Dr. Hibbert, Kirk Van Houten, and Apu. When fictional band Sungazer discovers Apu’s version of their hit “Hoping For A Dream” online, they ask him to replace their dead lead singer, leading Covercraft to dissolve as Homer’s envy of Apu’s new life takes over.

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As I wrote out this summary, it was hard not to connect the episode to a “classic” episode that remains burned into my emmory. “Covercraft” follows a similar outline to “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” an episode that also features Homer and Apu ending up in a band together. Whereas that episode used the career trajectory of The Beatles as a reference point for The Be Sharps’ rise and fall, here the show relies on the story of Journey’s efforts to replace Steve Perry with Arnel Pineda, a singer from the Phillipines that Journey guitarist Neal Schon found on YouTube and plucked from obscurity to become the band’s lead singer. It was the subject of Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, a 2012 documentary by Ramona S. Diaz, and was clearly on the writers’ minds as they explored what could have happened to Pineda’s old band when he hit the big time.

It’s a good reference point for structuring an episode around, although “Covercraft” struggles from a need to blow through the band’s entire narrative in the span of a single episode. One of the benefits of “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” was that it was told through flashbacks, with Homer narrating us through key moments in their history. Told in the present tense, the episode—written by Matt Selman—has to go from zero to 60, taking Homer from someone who has never picked up a bass guitar to someone who is in a reasonably successful cover band. Those two leaps are handled through two montages: the first is of Homer annoying everyone in his life by doing nothing but playing his bass guitar, and the second is of Covercraft gaining local notoriety at an increasingly absurd collection of gigs (don’t worry, the list is below).

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The montages serve their respective functions: while it’s hard to buy Homer being able to learn how to play bass quite so easily, the montage creates the catalyst for Marge’s frustration and the idea hatched with her fellow wives to limit the number of homes impacted by their husbands’ extramarital jamming. In the second case, the episode needs the band to become successful enough to get noticed, and the montage creates a passage of time to justify Homer sharing high fives with Fat Tony in the town square.

The problem is that these montage also swallow any opportunity for character stories tied to these plot developments. The best example of this is right before the first montage, when the Simpsons family meets in the garage to discuss Homer’s new hobby. Lisa expresses her excitement that there’s another musician in the family, and it raises the possibility that she will become a thread within the episode’s storyline as her father explores his musical aspirations while dismissing it as “easy.” But it’s just a joke: Lisa is part of many later scenes in the episode, but she has no perspective, serving only as a vessel for what an individual scene demands of her. She’s there to be corrected about the meanings of jealousy and envy, just as Bart’s there to be lectured on the genius of post-Peter Gabriel Genesis; in both cases, however, neither character has any motivation of their own, despite the fact that Lisa would—as her initial reaction suggests—naturally be connected to this major life development.

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I don’t know if there was a particular point where The Simpsons stopped doing B-stories, or whether this is just a case where they chose to place all their energy into the A-story, but the linearity of the episode ends up a missed opportunity. The story resolves as well as it can: Homer’s envy leads him to revenge on Apu when Stargazer’s tour stops in Springfield, but he discovers that his friend is actually miserable, allowing them to reunite and get arrested poisoning the real, money-grubbing band. It’s not a bad Homer story as far as Homer stories go, and I appreciated the opportunity to see some of Apu’s world—the octuplets, Sanjay—used in this context, but by the time it reaches its conclusion you realize that it has done nothing else. Whereas the best Simpsons stories are those that touch and reflect on multiple characters, here everyone but Homer and to a lesser extent Apu are floating around in search of a purpose.

“Covercraft” ends with a lengthy Sammy Hagar riff, in which the singer—playing himself, and thematically linked to the episode by his own role as a replacement—opines on an insane, homicidal bender that’s landed him in jail with Homer, Apu, Moe, and King Toot. On the one hand, the scene ties the episode together, linking the opening scenes and the ensuing storyline; on the other hand, the scene doesn’t feel like it’s about anything, the end of the episode landing without any real impact. There are funny moments throughout “Covercraft”—I particularly liked the Jenga fakeout leading to the bookshelf falling on Milhouse—but the episode ultimately feels empty, lacking the kind of substantive character development that could have stemmed from this concept but was not explored by the way the episode chose to work through the narrative.

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And as a “Simpsons fan” who doesn’t watch the modern iteration of the series, it was difficult to see “Covercraft” without thinking of the episodes it evokes. In the case of “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” the characters never acknowledge the connection outright, although a photo from The Be Sharps’ performance at the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial is in Apu’s dressing room before the Sungazer show. Meanwhile, Kirk Van Houten’s musical career is a key part of The Simpsons’ musical legacy, but only a throwaway joke where Kirk lobbies to replace Apu as the band’s singer even comes close to addressing “A Milhouse Divided” and “Can I Borrow A Feeling?” outright. But those episodes haven’t just resonated because of the songs involved, or—in the case of “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet”—due to their take on real life musical narratives. Rather, they’ve resonated because they used the music and the narratives to tell resonant character stories, something that—based on “Covercraft”—modern Simpsons is less interested in exploring.

Stray observations:

  • The catchy “Hoping For A Dream”—written by Matt Selman and Matthew Sweet, who performed it with the Heavy Young Heathens—passes the test of sounding like a Journey-style “hard-driving rock,” so much so it’s possible you—yes, you!—got to this page Googling to see if it was a real song.
  • “Lisa, how many times have I told you to bow down to our corporate overlords?”—I’d actually be curious what the answer to this hypothetical question is. It’s been 26 seasons.
  • “And that’s the terrifying tale of how the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche”—It is unconscionable of Homer to haunt young Lisa with such horrors. Next thing you know he’s going to scare her half to death with tales of Gary Bettman’s attempt to turn mid-size warm weather climates into hockey markets.
  • The full list of Covercraft Gigs following their Cabbage Festival debut: The Sauerkraut Festival, The Policeman’s Ball, Sideshow Mel’s 45th birthday, The Kimchi Festival, A Don’t Text and Drive Event, The Purple Cabbage Festival, and The Savoy Cabbage Festival. I wonder how they decided on Savoy as the funniest cabbage name.
  • “That sounds nothing like terrible, terrible world music!”—Homer, marveling at how his racist assumptions about Apu proved untrue.
  • Sungazer’s latest tour: “Last Final Hell Re-Freezes Over Ultimate Goodbye For Serious This Time Never Again Part Two of ??? Tour.”
  • Couch Gag: The family walks into the family room on their cell phones, bump into each other and fall down, and keep texting/tweeting as though nothing happened.
  • “What kind of erotic asphyxiation?”
  • “My mind is full of ideas for great songs I could write…down the names of and then cover.”
  • Bart, after Kent Brockman notes Apu was the punchline in a game show sketch on Saturday Night Live: “What’s a game show?”
  • Is this a bad place to admit that I know almost no Peter Gabriel-era Genesis songs? On that subject, per Selman on Twitter, the show tried to license “Invisible Touch” but the band refused due to the episode’s comparison of the two eras.
  • Dennis will be back for the series’ next new episode—thanks for putting up with this insufferable lapsed Simpsons viewer returning to reminisce about the good ol’ times with onions on our belts.

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