While the prevailing wisdom is that 26 years of The Simpsons is too long for a sitcom to maintain, I’ve always maintained that the essentially unchanging nature of the show means The Simpsons can go on being The Simpsons for as long as the voice cast holds out. Even in its beloved early seasons (say, until season nine or so), The Simpsons repeated stories, themes, and comic conflicts, but it didn’t matter because the show used its template of the American nuclear family to find new angles on universal situations. To quote Zack Handlen in his review of the season-seven episode “Marge Be Not Proud,” (which will become relevant itself in just a minute):

There’s a fundamental stasis to the core relationships of The Simpsons. Homer and Marge will always be married; Maggie will always be the baby; Lisa and Bart will always be in grade school; and so on. Bart’s never going to hit his teenage years, find drugs, maybe dabble around in punk for a while, date someone with lip-piercings, or lose his driver’s license. But this episode, however briefly, gives a sense of what it make be like for him to get older and break his mother’s heart, when he’s still young enough to feel that loss.

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The Simpsons, for all its intermittent stunt casting and wacky plots, is always rooted in this one, particular, strange-but-relatable family who, for all the times they gain or lose jobs, friends, hobbies, or improbable adventures, remain who they are. That’s what makes occasional episodes that purport to show what the Simpsons will be like in the future so unsettling—even when they’re not lousy episodes, they rob the characters of their infinite possibilities, and the show with them. As admittedly infrequent late-series examples show, there’s nothing wrong with the Simpsons learning a lesson they’ve already learned—as long as the writers apply themselves to making the emotional beats feel like they’re true to the characters.

“Peeping Mom,” unfortunately, shows what happens when the show dips back into the well without adequate reason. The main plot sees Marge at the end of her rope when confronted with the possibility that Bart, for all her efforts at parenting, might just be a bad kid. In “Marge Be Not Proud,” which turns on the same conceit, it’s Bart shoplifting a coveted video game cartridge (ask your dads, kids), an understandably kid-like action that sends Marge and Bart on parallel examinations of both their own expectations of each other, and how the mother-son bond can be tested—and reaffirmed—by mutual disappointment. While that episode remains a high-water mark for emotionally resonant Simpsons episodes, it doesn’t take anything away from a later installment like season 10’s “Bart The Mother.” In that episode, Bart once again does something so bad in Marge’s eyes (accidentally shooting a bird with Nelson’s BB gun) that he’s forced to face the very human fear that familial love isn’t a guarantee. This grounds “Bart The Mother” in a surprisingly effective emotional truth.

Returning to that theme, “Peeping Mom” just doesn’t go deep enough to be anything but an example of latter-day, scattershot Simpsons.

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For one thing, Bart’s past misdemeanors balloon into felony territory, as he’s accused of a town-wide bulldozer rampage. The Simpsons has gotten broader over the years, sure, but that’s not really the issue here. Bart’s a li’l bastard, but when his Dennis the Menace-style mischief shades into unmotivated, large-scale carnage, it’s harder to get emotionally invested in the story the episode then sets out to tell. It’d be one thing if the bulldozer conceit were the springboard for a lot of great gags, but that’s not the case here. Bart’s constant denials to Marge that he’s responsible for the rampage should set up an emotional tug-of-war—something Nancy Cartwright and Julie Kavner have mined for deeply affecting and funny conflict in the past—but here the central relationship never rises above the arbitrary nature of what Bart did. Unlike the shoplifting or the bird, there’s nothing of the kid in what Bart did—it’s just taken as read that Bart would do something dangerous, irresponsible, and destructive so the plot can get moving. And Bart’s change of heart at the end of the episode—he’s about to bulldoze the Springfield sign into just the word “FIE” (“Used to express disgust or outrage?” gasps a shocked Milhouse)—is as rushed as is Marge’s forgiveness. He sees the note Marge left on his lunch and confesses, she tries a Homer-style Bart-strangle, but settles into a hug. The end.

In the B-story, there’s a similar shorthand applied to a specific past plot—and, once again, it rings hollow because of how perfunctorily it’s set up and resolved. Flanders gets a new dog that prefers playing with Homer to Flanders’ “Christian doggy training.” (“This should be interesting,” eye-rolls Lisa.) When Homer’s cheerfully heedless favoritism to little Baz (short for Maher-shalal-hash-baz) alienates both Flanders and Santa’s Little Helper, it’s not a long stretch to see the echoes of Bart’s similar negligence in “The Canine Mutiny.” As ever, Homer’s thoughtless wounding of Flanders is a source of reliable laughs (“Who likes having their tummy scratched while Flanders is worried sick?”), and Homer’s final decision to give Baz back to Flanders is about as affecting as a rushed plotline can be. (Homer reassures Flanders that Baz only seems to like him best because the fun, silly Homer is just like another dog to Baz.) One of the benefits to having characters and actors so lived-in is that viewers will fill in the blanks on underdeveloped stories.

What saves each story, to the extent that that happens, is that the actors, as ever, treat their roles as if they were as well-developed as they used to be. The Marge-Bart dynamic has been fleshed out better elsewhere, but Cartwright and Kavner have some great back-and-forth throughout the episode, as Marge, determined to teach Bart a lesson, tails him incessantly through his day (and night). I especially like how annoyed Bart is when Marge trumps his comic book metaphor. (“Actually, Superman has a statue of his mother in the Fortress Of Solitude.” “Stop reading my comic books!”) The same goes for Marge’s encouraging, “Nice rowing, Bart! Good job!” even as she pursues the fleeing Bart across a lake. (“Stop caring about me!,” moans Bart.) Indeed, there are a decent amount of funny lines in “Peeping Mom”—if more care had gone into crafting the story around them, the episode would rate a lot higher.

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Stray observations:

  • The biblical name Maher-shalal-hash-baz translates roughly as “Hurry to the spoils!,” which sounds like the most appropriate puppy name ever, really.
  • “I’ve got you now—except for motive, means, and opportunity.” “You also have no evidence.” “That was implied.”
  • For those of us sometimes wishing for The Milhouse Show, there was some prime Milhouse tonight, in that everything he said made me laugh and wince in pain. While rewinding the spool of thread Marge used to track Bart, Milhouse says hapily, “I’m good at doing things so I can pretend there isn’t a fight going on.” Ouch. Also, Milhouse’s father hasn’t gotten him his last birthday or Christmas presents because, Milhouse says cheerfully, he’s saving up for a pack of apple tree seeds so he can build his son a killer treehouse. Double ouch.
  • In both the sequence of Ralph pushing Marge on the swings and Bart going limp in passive protest of Marge’s efforts to drag him home, it seemed like the episode was going for the sort of “not funny until it goes on way too long” joke the show has pulled off so brilliantly in the past. (See: Sideshow Bob, rakes.) But for those jokes to work, you have to commit to them—here, neither had the confidence to land.
  • “How can I explain something I know nothing about? I am not cable news.”
  • Marge is thwarted from following Bart in the car by Homer’s Post-it: “Threw carburetor at skunk—Homer.”
  • Milhouse, bailing on Bart’s plan to bulldoze the Springfield sign: “No offense, but I have a mother who still loves me.”
  • Lenny admires the Springfield fire department: “That’s why I wear suspenders and start little fires here and there.”
  • The one element of the episode that finds an unexpected sweet-spot is Homer’s attempt to make the ever-underappreciated Lisa feel better. As he comes to lie down next to her, both of them, mumbling in resentment, gradually let slip some genuinely sweet sentiments. Lisa goes from “…middle child… he checks in every two years like clockwork…” to “…he’s making an effort…if he offers me ice cream I’m gonna break…” While Homer’s “…Lisa never gets it… she’s great… my favorite child…” When they both burst out in a cheer at Homer’s offer of ice cream, it’s a sweet, joyous little moment, culminating with Lisa’s half-heard, “I’m gonna write a song!”
  • “I’m gonna give the dog away to Ho… Ho… Ho…” “To Santa?” “No—someone even fatter. [Sighs.] Boys, I’m sorry you had to hear that mild insult.”
  • “I can’t stand to see Flanders sad. Or happy. Pretty much can’t stand to see Flanders. But he’ll need something to cheer him up when his boys run away.”

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