The Simpsons
Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

“It takes a lot of work to take the spirit and character out of a book.”

Irritating on several simultaneous levels, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” would be more bothersome if it were more memorable. It’s still pretty bothersome.

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We’ll get to the side issues presently, but, man, is this episode unfunny. Not in an offensive way, or even a disastrous way, but in its utter lack of jokes that reach for any laughs whatsoever. The script (credited to Simpsons and Futurama vet Jeff Westbrook) commits some of the signature latter-day Simpsons sins (again, we’ll get there), but, more than any other, it’s just comically inert. The story doesn’t drive forward, it lounges like Homer in a hammock and wobbles. There was one—and only one—joke that roused itself to at least cleverness, if not laughter. Homer, rattled behind the wheel by Bart’s Art Of War-inspired campaign of manipulation, rear-ends Wiggum’s cruiser. Producing a balloon, presumably for a sobriety test, Wiggum has Homer make a bunny, then hauls him off to provide the entertainment for Ralph’s birthday party.

That’s all I’ve got.

As for the rest.

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Why are present-day Simpsons writers averse to telling a main story? The best Simpsons episodes aren’t necessarily bereft of B- or even C-stories, but those subplots are either in service of the central narrative or are funny enough to exist as their own comic entities. Here once more, there is no A-story at all. Starting out as Marge’s campaign against the family’s screens addiction, the Simpsons head to a series of bookstores. Not a bad start, even if the inciting incident is Homer, Lisa, and Bart’s bleary-eyed binge of FXX’s Itchy & Scratchy marathon (we catch glimpses of episodes 10,432-10,433), the first and least infuriating of the episode’s self-aware meta-jokes. The Simpsons’ family dynamic is one of representational conflict, and Marge’s quixotic quest to yank her brood back from the singularity is as good a story engine as any. (Marge’s cry, “This is the last chance for this family to...” could be a Mad Libs-style template for past and future episodes aplenty.)

Finally settling on Springfield’s last remaining used book store (don’t inhale the particulate rat droppings), Lisa and Bart’s chosen books do make a natural branching point. And Bart’s pick being The Art Of War while Lisa winds up with Marge’s passive-aggressively selected beloved childhood favorite introduces opportunities. Bart is going to use Sun Tzu (voiced by Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang) to refine his li’l bastardy, while Marge and Lisa will either bond or clash (or first the latter, then the former) over Marge’s old school kid lit. These are not unpromising blueprints for an adventure-heavy B-plot in Bart’s case, and a mother-daughter relationship A-plot in Lisa’s. Or, hey, switch ’em up. Nearly three decades of storytelling has earned The Simpsons plenty of room to delve into different permutations of family drama, family comedy, sitcom plotting, social satire, straight-up farce, or even self-reflective navel-gazing, if that’s what’s up. Just pick a damned course and follow it.

Instead, here we are once more, an episode with two woefully underdeveloped plotlines that’s nonetheless loaded down with unrewarding comedic dead ends and some outright padding, in the form of the long opening credits, and two end credit tags that add nothing to the story. One of them is Ned Flanders doing a version of The Beverly Hillbillies theme on the banjo. Just going to leave that there. At least it’s not a jug band, I guess.

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The Simpsons
Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

Bart’s story does little with his newly acquired martial wisdom. He turns the tables on Nelson (who winds up burning to narratively forgettable death in the school incinerator), and pesters Homer into taking him to a convention for the unimaginatively named, blocky, world-building game Tunnelcraft. At the convention there’s an unprofitable cameo from Daniel Radcliffe as himself, Milhouse—presented as Bart’s loyal retainer to that point—ratting Bart out to Homer, and then Homer turning the tables on Bart by reading the same book and taking him to a silent movie festival with decoy new best friend Flanders. Homer’s counter-scheme works because... it needs to wrap things up, I suppose. There’s so little motivation here that even ditching that killer Hillbillies number in favor of 30 more seconds wouldn’t save it.

Marge and Lisa’s story is more of a bummer, because there’s more meat to the idea that Marge has to confront her formative favorite’s era-specific racism and cultural tone-deafness. It’s also home to the episode’s worst element, in how perfunctorily the show dismisses the high-profile controversy about a certain specific character. Any thoughtful long-running series will incorporate self-criticism into the weave of its extended narrative, and while the FXX marathon joke isn’t, you know, funny, it is at least mining the show’s own history for the joke. Lisa’s direct-to-camera speech solemnly explaining how changing sensibilities and the creators’ blind spots have left problematic artifacts in the form of a character whose cultural shtick has been the subject of increasingly vocal (and cinematic) opposition is another story. The Simpsons took on the issue before, in a more ambitious and extended recent storyline that, if not perfect, at least evinced a willingness to enter into the discussion in good faith. Here, Lisa’s speech ends on a closeup of a framed picture of Apu (in case anyone was still not getting it), but the boilerplate explanation and the fact that it’s wedged into a thoroughly forgettable and rushed storyline leaves sounding an awful lot like The Simpsons brushing past, asking an annoyed, “There, are you happy now?”

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Apart from that, there’s a great Marge-Lisa story about mothers and daughters, passing time, and the importance of imagination-capturing books to lonely, underappreciated little girls that gets brushed off just as abruptly. Lisa, brought to Springfield University by Marge for a scholarly unpacking of the book’s outdated morality (which Lisa would have loved!), is, instead, shunted off to the side with a quick bookworm joke. Marge is left to hear two tipsily rationalizing academics make tortuously sketchy excuses for the author’s bigotry (which, again, Lisa would have loved to tear apart). As in Marge’s anguished daydream earlier (where Rudyard Kipling’s pipe smoke emerges as a swastika), a potentially fruitful Marge-Lisa moment is discarded in favor of, well, nothing much at all.

Stray observations

  • The silent movies Homer and Bart wind up enjoying are clearly meant to be Harold Lloyd’s, which at least draws a connection to their shared love of dangerous slapstick.
  • Saying the word “Amazon” in an actual bookstore causes a customer’s Alexa to hijack the potential sale with an ominous, “Your mind is open to me.”
  • “Hmm, maybe wisdom isn’t so stupid after all.”

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