There’s nothing wrong with an outlandish Simpsons premise, and “The Marge-ian Chronicles” references one of the craziest, while appearing prepared to go that one one crazier. As it turns out, the episode’s promise of Marge and Lisa being shot into space (Mars, as it happens) is something of a bait-and-switch, a fact that leaves it in the mushy middle. Not daring enough to go for broke (and not hilarious enough to pull that off), it, instead, settles for a human story with a couple of lousy lessons.

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The outlandish premise I referred to is, naturally, “Deep Space Homer,” where the show (in the person of longtime producer David Mirkin, in one of his only writing credits on the series) actually sent Homer into space. In his Classic Simpsons review of the episode, Nathan Rabin quite rightly called it “one of the biggest, most outlandish and preposterous premises in the history of The Simpsons” (at east up to that point) but also rightly noted that the show pulled it off simply by being irresistibly funny. (Mirkin, oddly enough, went back to space last year, with his only other series writing credit. It did not go as well.) “The Marge-ian Chronicles” dances around the possibility of tossing Marge and Lisa up into space too, then backs away, then seems prepared to go for it, before the anticlimactic rug-pulling that the corporate-funded private space exploration concern Exploration Incorporated never had the knowhow to send people to Mars in the first place. (They were trying to beat those showoffs at the Pepperidge Farms-funded Space Colony.) But anti-climactic isn’t a problem in itself—not to put a practical face on things, but if they were going to send two main characters into space, they’d sure as hell do it before there were only five minutes left in the episode. Instead, the main problem is that the episode scuttles a potentially promising Marge-Lisa story with some lazy gender stereotyping, thanks to a tiresome whiff of Jerkass Homer.

While he’s not overtly cruel here (he doesn’t leave his father to die of kidney failure or anything) Homer’s entire arc here (apart from the amusing opening about stealing eggs from Flanders’ new chicken coop) is that he’s really good at manipulating Marge by pretending to listen to her problems and humoring her “crazy” ideas. As Marge and Lisa—at loggerheads over Lisa’s plan to train for the proposed 2026, one-way Mars mission—stew in their separate bedrooms, Homer and Bart (who’s learned Homer’s sage lessons) repeat the exact same platitudes in order to calm each of them down. Tossing the baseball around afterward, Bart exclaims admiringly, “That listening to women junk you taught me really works,” to which Homer replies, “The secret is in the nodding.” The end of the episode zaps to the future (or a possible future out of the now-numerous possible sci-fi Simpsons futures those behind the show keep asking us to care about) and sees Marge and Lisa having the exact same argument—this time about Lisa leaving the corporate-branded Mars colony for Venus—and the adult Lisa being similarly placated by a crude robot (“Nod-Bot”) who utters the same condescending platitudes, and for which Lisa is deeply grateful. Yuck.

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It’s a bummer in an otherwise serviceable episode, as there are some decent laughs along the way. The whole “stealing Flanders’ eggs” bit (it’s too brief and inconsequential to be called a B-story) has plenty of good stuff, with Homer and Bart discovering that the fresh, orange-yolked eggs they pilfer taste better than their regular store-bought eggs, thanks to the thrill of the heist. The show may have had to twist Harry Shearer’s arm to get him back this season, but he never fails to bring his A-game, and Flanders’ furious “Homer, I am going to enjoy finding it in my heart to forgive you for this!” is some prime Neddy. (Same goes for his resigned “Sure, sure, whatever works for you” upon being ordered to keep chasing Homer and Bart with the hose so the eggs will still taste great.) Homer’s jerk-assery toward Flanders (he also steals Ned’s bag of chips to test his “better when stolen” theory) stays funny thanks to the fact that Ned’s unwavering decency almost always makes Homer out to be the bad guy, rather than, as with Marge here, expecting us to think his hacky “women be crazy” wisdom is cute.

The training for Mars stuff is all right, with Marge discovering that her mothering skills translate well into the life of a spacefarer (at least in the simulated habitat the finalists are sent to inhabit). “Moms spend their whole lives obsessing over unlikely catastrophes,” is a very Marge way of looking at life, and her pride in keeping house (or “hab”) produces some funny lines, such as her dinnertime boast, “I rehydrated it with love… and recycled toilet water!” The mother-daughter conflict, summed up by Marge as “a series of near fatal emotional standoffs,” might emerge from the same oversimplified clichés as Homer’s take on women, but it at least in the episode it comes from a place of mutual rapprochement between Marge and Lisa (after it turns out their rocket ship was just an outer shell, thanks to Exploration Incorporated’s bluff-heavy business strategy).

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The Marge-Lisa dynamic can be a fruitful one, with the more adventurous and self-aware Lisa chafing at her mother’s more traditional view of herself, and Marge feeling stung at her precocious daughter’s often condescending view of her chosen housewife role. As Marge states, it can get nasty, with Lisa snapping tonight that her mother’s a “stay-at-hab space wife” and Marge countering that once she went to a rock concert, alone—in the rain (to Loverboy, no less). Their conflict deserves a better wrap-up than it gets here.

Stray observations

  • That’s The Best Show partners Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster as the impractically idealistic heads of Exploration Incorporated. When Harry Shearer was thought not to be coming back, Scharpling made a perhaps not-quite-serious pitch to take over his voices on the show.
  • “If chickens are known for any two things its bravery and intelligence.”
  • While Homer’s “Flanders has freshly pooped eggs!” is the right kind of ignorantly gross, Bart’s “If I could lay eggs like these, I’d never leave my bedroom” is the sort of sniggeringly smutty joke that the writers occasionally give him.
  • “Why do you always think about what you don’t have?” “Has anyone ever thought about what they do have?”
  • Homer is impressed with the Exploration Incorporated guys’ solution to his “eyeball explosion when you take off your space helmet” dilemma. (“You leave you helmet on.”)
  • The E.I. guys also reference the events of “Deep Space Homer,” asking him what he learned from his experience in space. (“Lessons, I guess.”)
  • Homer and Marge, laying down the law: “You are confined to this planet!” “And its moon…”
  • That’s a funny gag with the Mars simulator’s robotic arm getting cranky and throwing books at the scientists. “That’s two, Lorraine!”

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