“Marge, after all my divorce-worthy statements and actions—many of which you don’t know about—how can you kick me out now that I’m sick?”

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These days, The Simpsons has a habit of trying to come out big in a new season, employing stunt casting or a supposed shocking plot development to generate ratings-worthy buzz. (Remember when Krusty’s father died in last year’s opener? Anyone?) “Every Man’s Dream” doubles down, bringing in guarantor of hashtags Lena Dunham as Candace, Homer’s new girlfriend. Yes, girlfriend. As the quote above states, Marge finally throws Homer out, only for Homer to take up with the millennial pharmacist who dispenses the medication for his just-diagnosed narcolepsy.

Just to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those things. The problem with this disastrously misguided season premiere is that the episode (credited to J. Stewart Burns) botches every one, exemplifying the current Simpsons lax and cynical tendencies before throwing the whole thing away with a series of handwaves so perfunctory as to render the entire episode not only thoroughly lousy, but completely inconsequential.

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When Homer’s latest near-meltdown at the nuclear plant is found to be the result of that narcolepsy, he’s prescribed a cocktail of medications, which he begrudgingly goes to pick up after unsuccessfully waving the “narcolepsy” prescription he’s been using to get out of even more responsibilities than usual around the house. When he can’t get the pills (because old people take a long time in line), he goes to Moe’s, and Marge demands they go to counseling—again. (They’ve been to every therapist in Springfield from A to Z, excepting the episode’s Dr. Zilowitz, played in nondescript fashion by Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham for some reason.) When Homer predictably half-asses (really barely-asses) the appointment, Marge follows the doctor’s advice to kick Homer out for a period of trial separation.

Okay. This could work. Some of the best Simpsons episodes have mined Marge and Homer’s relationship for truly memorable, affecting, and funny stories where the couple—individually or together—has walked right up to the edge of divorce. Marge and Jacques. Homer and Mindy. Homer taking a cue from the cautionary tale of Kirk Van Houten and his “Can I Borrow A Feeling” too little, too late gestures. The Simpsons at its best sees the Simpsons as an endlessly renewable resource, their Etch A Sketch reality allowing the show to explore some truly provocative family comedy even though—or because—everything will return to its starting positions by the next week. “Every Man’s Dream” takes up perhaps the most audacious idea of all in actually having Marge and Homer separate (and date other people!) and treats it as shallowly as possible in service of a publicity stunt. And then it makes a joke of the idea that viewers would even be invested in the whole enterprise in the first place.

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See, it was all a dream. Actually, it was four dreams. And the final dream was from a completely different show. First, Homer wakes in the midst of his mid-counseling daydream and promises Marge he’ll be the perfect husband for a month, then he wakes to realize that that was just a dream, and that Marge is, indeed, planning to marry her perfect, older boyfriend (who happens to be his girlfriend’s father, but we’ll get to that). Then Marge awakens to realize that she needs a definitive answer about her marriage from the therapist, only for that “concise, simple solution” to be cut off by the revelation that the whole thing is just a dream Dunham’s Girls character Hannah Horvath is having after getting a drunken Simpsons tattoo. So, essentially, we’re four levels and one entire series removed from anything in the episode actually happening or mattering in the slightest. Which, considering how “Every Man’s Dream” handles the characters, is for the best.

Compiling that list of previous relationship-in-trouble Simpsons episodes took no effort at all. They stick in the memory because they find an emotional truth in Marge and Homer’s predicament that resonates. They are also funny. Like so many latter-day Simpsons episodes, “Every Man’s Dream” isn’t going to stick in anyone’s memory, at least not for the right reasons. (If the “it was all Lena Dunham’s tattoo episode” doesn’t end up sharing space with “it was told by Moe’s bar rag episode,” then I don’t know my internet listicles.)

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Homer is lucky to have Marge after everything he’s done (you know, like that poker shack in the swamp), but he’s not wrong in being bewildered by Marge’s decision to toss him out here. Simpsons time is accelerated time, sure, but actions therein have to be motivated—Marge is tasked with introducing a contrivance, and the episode never recovers from it. Especially since not one member of the Simpsons family reacts in any way true to their characters when the family breaks up. Bart’s chipper realization that he can now blame all his problems on his broken home is glib, but sadly in keeping with how little investment the show seems to have in Bart’s emotional life these days. Lisa’s teary initial reaction benefits, as ever, from Yeardley Smith’s performance, but she, too, is soon on board with her new potential stepdad, and the swerve of her proclaiming everlasting love and loyalty to Homer before being immediately won over with new dad’s promise of pony shopping about as big a betrayal of who Lisa is as has ever been done. (“I’ll Skype you at Christmas,” is my least favorite Lisa line in memory.)

Homer’s weepy reaction to leaving 742 Evergreen Terrace gives way to a bitter joke, with him yelling “I pity you!” when he sees a happy groom in his “just married” car. And Marge takes up with her new beau almost immediately, leading to a drearily contrived double date, where she realizes that her boyfriend is the father of Homer’s girlfriend. Homer acts shocked when he wakes up in Candace’s bed (after they downed some prescription drug-enhanced Duffs), but, apart from feeling out of place with Candace’s hipster friends, his shame registers about as long as his abortive narcolepsy subplot. “I just committed the one drunken mistake I’ve never made! Well, Bart,” is as cheap a laugh as Lisa’s, and the episode is mighty blithe about the fact that Homer is sleeping with another woman. (”You’re pregnant? But I kept my shirt on!” finds the sweet spot of making Homer too dumb, creepy, and thoughtless all at once.)

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Julie Kavner comes though all this best, with her performance finding touches of Marge’s genuine pain and disappointment, script notwithstanding. It’s in her reading of lines like, “Homey, you have no idea what it’s like being married to you” that the barest hints of what a satisfying “Marge and Homer break up” episode might sound like. Marge’s blinkered self-defense process can be heartbreakingly funny, a delicate balance almost found in her increasingly desperate pleading to the therapist here. When she objects to the doctor’s metaphors, Marge’s “Does my marriage have to be something you can smell?” finds the perfect Marge balance of politeness and sensibleness, while her summation of her view of Homer, in Kavner’s delivery, manages to find some heart in the midst of it all. (“I know this marriage isn’t perfect, or even great, but now I even treasure the moments where it’s just so-so.”)

It’s often on Homer’s shoulders to carry the (overwhelmingly male) writers’ takes on marriage, and here, in addition to the sour dig at marriage in general noted previously, his response to the therapist’s proclamation to Marge (“Like all married women you’re sick of your husband. But sometimes you’re afraid of losing him”) smacks of a middle-aged writer putting glib married life clichés into Homer’s mouth. (“And like all married men, I didn’t hear that first thing and am overconfident of the second.”)

“But it was all just a dream (inside a dream inside a dream inside a dream from a fictional character),” one might counter, I suppose. Except that the episode certainly asks us to care about what’s happening before the four reveals obliterate it all from existence. (And the result is more or less indistinguishable from the actual current state of The Simpsons.) The “it’s all a dream” cliché is beyond tired, but it can still be effective (just last week, The Jim Gaffigan Show pulled out a decent It’s A Wonderful Life fakeout.) But the reason such stories work is because they remain true to the characters even as their stories are rewritten. “Every Man’s Dream” is just a series of bad jokes at the expense of the show’s characters, all in service of a cheap grab for momentary notoriety. And like all internet phenomena, it’ll be forgotten almost immediately. Which, again, is for the best.

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Stray observations

  • Dunham does fine here, lending Candace at least a specific sort of millennial-teasing self-absorption.
  • “I’m pretty fascinating myself. I’m an author.” “I thought you were a pharmacist.” “Tennessee Williams worked in a shoe factory.” “You were pretty quick with that fact.”
  • “I got you one of those beers you enjoy unironically.”
  • “I’m just floating this, but have you ever thought it’s a good thing that Marge dumped you? I mean, I’ve dated more girls than you.”
  • “Definitely don’t take these with alcohol.” “What if I’ve already been drinking and I don’t intend to stop?”
  • Homer and Candace go out on a date to a place with “Springfield’s best and Seattle’s worst coffee.”
  • In addition to Adam Driver turning up in animated form at the end, that’s the entire main cast of Girls playing Candace’s pals. Their round of baffled guesses about why Candace is dating Homer is pretty amusing. (“Is he paying your rent?” ”Is he giving a kidney to your mother?” “Is he your guest at a dinner for schmucks?” “Are you a Humpty Dumpty catcher?” “Is he good at sitting on suitcases that are too full?”) Candace’s response—that Homer reminds her of a childhood snowman that will never melt—might be intended as proof of her generation’s flighty nature, but it’s pretty thin considering how her relationship with Homer is presented as something he’d be willing to jeopardize his marriage for.
  • “I would love to get into snowman shape. I can’t even fit into my scarf anymore.”
  • “Oh I’ll do a lot more than a little more. I’ll do some!” That’s some prime Homer logic.
  • “A professional felt the best way for your father and me to work on our relationship was to give up on it.”
  • “Mr. Flanders, can I cry on your shoulder?” “Boys—get my tear dickey.”
  • This episode is so fundamentally flawed that more time isn’t what the main story needs necessarily, but “Every Man’s Dream” still devotes always precious running time to both a “tripping Homer” sequence and an Itchy And Scratchy cartoon.
  • The “Smithers, come up through my rear and grab me” joke might be the sort of line that Harry Shearer felt he’d had enough of.

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