At the end of tonight’s episode, Homer—having bonded with his dad thanks to Abe’s former military sort-of friends holding Homer at gunpoint—takes the steak he promised as a gesture of his love and purees, boils, and then transforms it into a vapor via the e-cigarettes Bart became briefly addicted to while pursuing Milhouse’s Dutch cousin Annika. The insubstantial steak-vapor Grampa exhales is the perfect metaphor for this overstuffed mishmash of an episode—a brief hit of the memory of pleasure, completely forgettable as soon as its enjoyed.

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The biggest sin of “Let’s Go Fly A Coot” is that it never trusts any single story to carry the episode. Watching the first act, I was convinced that the promo materials had listed the wrong broadcast order, so long and convoluted is the introduction of the main plot. (Homer, seeing the absurdly expensive lengths Springfield parents are going to for their kids’ birthday parties, sets out to sabotage the bouncy castle, piñata, and party clown industry.) That could be an episode, especially since it’s capped off with a disproportionately extended riff on the harangue Ned Beatty’s network executive gives Peter Finch in Network. (Here, he’s the CEO of “big birthday.”) I like a good Network joke as much as the next guy, and the obscurity of the bit should tickle my movie geek soul, but there aren’t any jokes in it that aren’t simply part of the reference. And this is all in service to a setup for the real plot, which doesn’t even begin until after the first commercial break, when Homer—desperate to avoid his kids being denied all birthday merriment for the rest of their lives—agrees to set up Rod Flanders’ upcoming party at the Springfield flight museum.

That’s where a B-52 of old-timers land to entertain the kids with tales of bombing other people, only to recognize both former lackey Abe (he swept the desert turtles off the test pilots’ runway), and Homer’s lack of respect for his dad. That could be a story, too—the Simpsons’ ongoing comic examination of intergenerational family dynamics has made good thematic use of the treatment of the elderly, and Homer and Abe’s tumultuous relationship has provided some memorable moments. Only, the intimidating tactics of Hank Azaria’s still-spry former flyboy give way to yet two more branching plots.

One—the one at least tangentially connected to the Homer-Abe story—sees Grampa spinning another tale of his military exploits, this time stealing an experimental jet in order to impress the local diner waitress, who turns out in the end to be—Mona Simpson. (The credits say Glenn Close came back to reprise the role, but she gets about three lines, doesn’t look like Mona in any incarnation we’ve seen, and makes zero impression.) The twist is a real bummer of a return for a character who’s provided some deeply affecting moments in Simpsons’ history. If the flashback stuff were funnier, that’d be something, but, apart from lines like, “It’s the 1950s—everything is a deathtrap!,” the entire excursion to the past is as perfunctory as it is pointless. Homer bonds with his dad because the “greatest generation” teaches his “worst generation” the meaning of respect via gun threat, making time along the way for a long, unfunny, and obvious parody of The Expendables movies (The Exhaustibles 3: Arthritis Will Unite Us) and a “Grampa has to pee” joke.

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Meanwhile in what must count for the C-story (B-minus story? D-story?), Bart falls for Milhouse’s visiting teenaged Van Houten cousin Annika, voiced by Game Of Thrones’ and Black Book’s Carice van Houten. Going into this one, I thought, “Huh—that last name thing sure is a coincidence. Wonder what they’ll do with that?” Which is about as much interest as Annika brings to the episode in her rushed plot about disaffectedly introducing the smitten Bart to vaping. Again—Bart falling for an older girl who brings along some bad habits? That could be an episode. Here, however, apart from some belabored jokes about the unregulated marketing of the fad nicotine delivery system to kids, there’s no substance to this story, and van Houten doesn’t create an impression at all. She’s just a snotty, manipulative kid whose European contempt for all things American is merely a series of poses in search of a character. (Her appreciation for America’s “unmilled wind” was the only laugh line.) The fact that Bart seems to miss the point of Grampa’s lesson about the futility of grand romantic gestures, only to tell off the Dutch Van Houten at the airport is similarly, one good twist in a rushed, inconsequential subplot. Again—could’ve made an interesting episode.

There are ghosts of any number of potentially fruitful stories all through “Let’s Go Fly A Coot,” none of which the writers (it’s credited to Jeff Westbrook) develop beyond their most basic, cursory outlines. Even if the episode were stacked floor-to-ceiling with great jokes and character moments, this would still be a rushed, frenetic 22 minutes. As it is, it’s as forgettable and poorly constructed as any Simpsons in the last few seasons.

Stray observations:

  • Abe’s conflicting stories of military service is handwaved away, so I’ll do the same here.
  • The same goes for the dull joke that Homer’s sabotage of the birthday party industry means, as Marge says to Bart and Lisa, “you’re gonna stay your current ages for the rest of your lives.” This is me—waving my hand over that joke.
  • Hank Azaria’s had many more memorable characters over the years, but his vet here has one great line: “In the Air Force, when we showed up late people died. When we showed up on time, other people died.”
  • I did appreciate that Danny Trejo has apparently joined the faux-Expendables franchise alongside Rainier Wolfcastle.
  • And while Homer’s movie-length litany of every dystopian future movie was shoehorned in there, it was still pretty funny. Plus—Chappie burn.
  • Rod, thanking Homer for his party: “I love you, mean neighbor!”
  • Yes, those are real Dutch games listed in the subhead. I will say, sjoelbak looks much more fun.
  • While spijkerpoep is accurately portrayed (and hilariously named considering what it is), I could have done without Bart thanking Annika for introducing him to “a whole new world of butt games.”
  • Very little Lisa this week, but I like both her ability to guess every detail of Grampa’s flashback (“Hey! Who’s tellin’ this story?”), and her resigned disgust at knowing her question about planes and ships being named after women would have a deeply sexist joke answer.
  • Was sure that the whole “van Houten”/“Van Houten” thing was going to come up and bite me, so I consulted my friend Dutch Dennis for insight. (I’m not being cute—he’s Dutch and his name is Dennis.) “Hey, Dennis—is there a reason for capitalizing/not capitalizing the “Van” in Dutch names?” “Dennis, you wouldn’t capitalize ‘van’ in Dutch last names. It means ‘of/from’ as in, ‘Carice who is from Houten.’” “So every American family who capitalizes their Van is doing it wrong? Like Milhouse’s family?” “Yup.” So there you have it—another strike against poor Milhouse, straight from the Dutch Dennis.
  • According to Dutch Dennis, Annika’s parting words at the airport are, “‘That they can all go to hell, and that she’s sick of those two little boys.’ She was mumbling though.” Everyone should have a Dutch Dennis on standby.

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