The Simpsons go to Paris! Wait, have they been to Paris before? [Checking.] Nope—just Bart*. All the way back in season one, when he was pawned off on the French as an exile/exchange student and fell into the clutches of a pair of rural ruffians named Ugolin and Cesar who, in a welcome and very belated return, turn out to be the ones who tasked Homer with smuggling an endangered Amazon Blue Constrictor snake into the country.
Sounds like a suitably silly setup for a Simpson family trip to the City of Light, and “To Courier With Love” succeeds for the most part by sticking with the ordinary extraordinariness of how the Simpsons live their lives. “There’s something truly amazing about you dad, everything’s an adventure,” says Lisa admiringly after, in the episode’s adventure before the adventure proper, Homer discovers a rare and valuable old three-wheel car under a tarp in the Simpsons garage. And the embrace of the improbable silliness that kicks off the story is sometimes exactly the right frame of mind to go into The Simpsons, something episode writer Bill Odenkirk understands well. Yes, there’s no logical reason why there’d be an original Morgan automobile sitting in the garage, but, as the motor to get the story going, Odenkirk breezes past it in favor of the sights and sounds of Homer delightedly squeezing himself into the toylike still-operational vehicle and zipping around Springfield singing “Chubby guy in a tiny car,” harmonizing with his friends at Moe’s, and then filling the thing up with Moe’s beer when it runs dry. Sometimes, it’s fun to get caught up in Homer’s weird world and its improbable luck—when he returns home with a paper sack filled with Morgan era-appropriate presents (a Raggedy Ann and a single orange) for his kids, he’s bringing back a taste of his adventures with him. Lisa appreciates Homer then, and so do we.
And so does Odenkirk, who mostly refrains from getting too self-referential about the Simpsons’ past and keeps Homer’s stupid choices on the more innocently good-hearted side of idiocy. Sure, he takes on a shady courier job that sees him transporting an actual snake on an actual plane, but he does so because that jerk Jay Leno (who saw news footage of Homer’s joyride) takes back the wad of cash he bought the car with once he discovers that there are cool new cars like Toyotas that don’t break down every half hour. Odenkirk nicely seeds in both the reason Leno would know about the car and why he can’t give the car back (the cops impounded it once they saw Homer didn’t own it). Little details, but the nods toward responsible storytelling are appreciated.
In fact, the weakest parts of “To Courier With Love” are when Odenkirk (in his first credited screenplay since last season’s similarly unassuming and funny “Super Franchise Me”) steps away from the simple pleasures of, say, watching Homer’s inability to stop saying “Polo!” when the pursuing Cesar and Ugolin call out “Marco!,” to have a worried Marge list off the many, many places the Simpsons have despoiled in their travels. (She mentions “outer space,” a dispiriting callback to my least favorite episode in about a decade. Which, don’t get me started.) Similarly, Futurama vet Odenkirk crams in a deeply ill-advised and offensive visual gag about Bart fishing for literally two-dimensionally thin runway models with a hot dog on a string. (Perhaps confessing to the Futurama absurdity of the gag—even there, it’d still be too cruel—a conspicuously 30th century suction tube comes out of nowhere and whisks the paper-thin models out of the episode entirely.)
It’s less laudatory than appreciative to list all the things I’m glad Odenkirk didn’t put into the episode, but, with a story set in Paris, there’s a lot fewer French stereotype jokes than expected. Sure, Lisa gets served wine, the police dogs are adorable, hind-leg-walking poodles, there’s the opposite of a cruelty-free menu, and there’s some talk of bidets. But the Parisians here aren’t any snottier than their Springfield counterparts would have been (the Wiggum-esque policeman who suspects the Simpsons of hiding that snake in their hotel room even apologizes, not realizing the thing is hidden happily in Marge’s hair). And there are some lovely, well-rendered scenes where Marge and Homer and Lisa (Bart’s busy model-pranking) take in the sights of the city and are genuinely moved by its beauty. Admiring the gargoyles adorning the Notre Dame Cathedral, Homer’s “That’s from back when religion knew how to scare the crap out of you” is a funny line, but he’s actually appreciating the sight, and the episode’s use here of Camille Saint-Saëns’ swirling “The Aquarium” (pretty much cinematic shorthand for being awed by beauty) only underscores the point. Paris has its weirdoes and ruffians like Springfield does, and the Simpsons run afoul of them as they should. But the episode steers away from the hackiest “ugly Americans in France jokes,” and later, Marge and Homer’s sightseeing trip (including an appropriately speckled transformation in the city’s pointillism district) is both silly and sweet.
That combination carries over from Homer’s whole motivation for the trip in the first place, as his adventure with the car typically leaves Marge behind to be the responsible one. There’s the beginning of a stupid “Marge the stick-in-the-mud” plot when the back of Homer’s to-do list has a caricature of Marge saying “Nag, nag, nag” on it. But Homer, coming back from his trip around town, sees how deeply Marge is hurt, with Julie Kavner making Marge’s weeping breakdown, “Your life is full of fun surprises. My life sucks!” shockingly affecting. Homer gets it (“Uh oh, tissues”) and sets out—in stupid ways, as it should be—to actually do something wonderful for Marge. And he succeeds in the end, after some goofy, moderately dangerous, definitely illegal, and pretty damned entertaining ways. I’ll take that from a modern Simpsons any day.
*Fine. It has been pointed out that the Simpsons have been in Paris before. It was in the lost years where I was not watching the show. Nonetheless, I have been fired for that blunder, etc.
- I’m always a sucker for Homer’s inexplicable knowledge of abstruse facts. This week, he defends his possession of the Morgan with an application of the legal principal of trover.
- Also, seeing a statue of Napoleon: “This is my Battle of Essling, unless Napoleon had a more famous defeat I’m not aware of.” I mean, there is one, but Homer still gets points.
- Yes, the Morgan three-seater’s a real thing. (Apparently car nut Leno helped out with some of the details.)
- Say what you want about Leno (last guesting back in season 9) but the visual joke of him in the background marveling at his new Toyota’s remote-opened trunk was hilarious.
- Cesar and Ugolin make for funny antagonists, their inability to stop getting sidetracked repeatedly costing them their prey of Homer and Lisa. Lamenting their failure to keep an eye on the Simpsons, one of them admits, “It’s not that hard.”
- “Your hands smell like steering wheel.”
- I’m always happy to see Springfield’s ubiquitous, sarcastic sales guy (here travel agent and shifty snake courier go-between). Hank Azaria’s characterization just always works to liven things up, here—in a bigger role than usual—confessing that his furious typing is on a keyboard not hooked up to anything, and letting slip that his client may or may not be the Mafia. (It totally is.) Also, his name is apparently Raphael, which I never knew before looking him up just now.
- Some Paris visual gags: Lisa’s dressed as Madeline, the house from Up crashes into the kid from The Red Balloon.
- “It’s time for me to do what I do best—prolong this marriage!”
- Homer, promising not to look inside the briefcase he’s transporting, Transporter-style: “For Marge I will make the supreme sacrifice of not doing something.”
- “Hey buddy, I didn’t start doing this yesterday. I started doing it right now.”
- Grandpa’s left a sheaf of urgent messages. One reads, “The cat is eating my toast.”
- “You’ll be a snake that lives in Paris. The children’s book practically writes itself!”