The hardest thing about writing late-run Simpsons reviews has been overcoming memories of the past and judging each new episode on its own terms. For the first 10 episodes of this 25th season, I’d like to think I’ve succeeded in doing that—lauding the good (a solid Principal Skinner performance here, a delightful drop-in from a guest director there), calling out the really, really bad (desecrating one of the most beautiful classic episodes for a callous throwaway gag), and generally avoiding the trope of “it ain’t as good as it used to be” (because there’s nothing duller in the world than that exact sentence). It’s been, if nothing else, a writing challenge against the ever-lurking specter of TV critic hackery.
But this one might have beaten me.
It’s not that “Specs And The City” (wherein Mr. Burns’s gift of Google Glass-style eyewear to his employees leads Homer to a surprising revelation about Marge), is a bad episode of The Simpsons, or even a bad episode of television. It’s that it’s so nondescript that it seems constructed according to the guidelines of a sample spec script template—it hits all the recognizable beats of a Simpsons episode without imbuing any of them with originality, personality, or, you know, laughs. There was one thing that annoyed me, a handful of moderately amusing lines, and then it was over. I keep having to go back to my notes to remember story details watched twice only minutes ago. Not a good sign.
Apparently, there are a great number of you out there who maintain that the “Mapple” episode of a few years ago was one of the worst Simpsons episodes ever. (I’ll concede that the “Mapple/Steve Mobbs” references were not the height of parodic imagination.) So the introduction of another easily identifiable, indifferently renamed high tech gadget (“Oogle Goggles”) may be cause for alarm, I suppose. The real trouble with this element, though, is that there’s so little done with it. Apart from setting the main plot in motion—in which Marge appropriates Homer’s pair and he then discovers she’s seeing a therapist to complain about him—the goggles are largely wasted as a source of comedy, insight, or satire. Sure, I suppose the fact that Mr. Burns is able to use them to spy on his employees is a reference to the multitude of security and privacy concerns people are expressing about the goggles’ real-world inspiration, but this episode (credited to Brian Kelley) takes only the feeblest swipes at how the ubiquity of such technology affects people’s lives. Also, whenever the show incorporates such a specific topical gimmick in an episode, you can practically feel its entertainment shelf-life counting down.
The Terminator-style pop-up facts they impart about everything Homer looks at are an old gag (Abed on Community, Homer himself—sans goggles—way back in season two), which wouldn’t be a problem if the references were funny. Instead, we learn that: Lenny has a lot of DUIs, Carl’s a genius, and Krustyburgers are mostly shredded newspapers and hamster bedding. Oh, and Mr. Burns has been dead since 1998. Not terrible jokes, but then again, hardly jokes—like much of this episode, they just sit there. In a mediocre latter-day Simpsons episode, I find myself registering jokes as such and then forgetting them immediately. (At times like these, I really understand the dispirited game of tag from “Team Homer”: “You’re it.” “Now you are the one who is it.” “Understood.”)
There’s a B-story as well, with Bart rebelling against having to give Nelson a valentine, which—let me consult my notes—he does, but only after composing a card that tells Nelson that he’s a bully and everyone’s afraid of him and he should be nicer. It’s as pedestrian as these things get, which only underscores the seeming laziness of the episode’s execution, again. In a great episode, the A- and B-stories either compliment each other thematically or are both just plain funny in isolation. This one practically had “insert B-story here” time-stamped on it. (The one good exchange: Nelson, sniffing the valentine: “This smells like fear.” Bart: “I rubbed it on Milhouse.”)
As to the main plot: It’s not important whether Homer (or Marge, Lisa, Bart, Barney, Moe, or anyone else in Springfield) has learned a particular episode’s lesson before in the past 25 years. The beauty of The Simpsons is that it allows its titular family to, individually or collectively, represent the archetypical foibles and dilemmas of the American family for an episode wherein a theme can be comically examined–only for things to snap back into something like their original shape, so the show can do it again the next week. Sure, there’s some carryover in character development, but that’s mostly in superficial plot elements (Lisa’s vegetarianism, for example), allowing the writers and performers the opportunity to attack the problem of, for this episode, Homer being a lazy, insensitive, selfish husband and father from a theoretically inexhaustible variety of angles. Those who gripe that “Homer already leaned not to be that way in episodes X,Y, & Z” are missing the point. Even in “the good years,” there was constant repetition of Homer realizing that he should be a better husband and father—the fact that he needs to relearn those lessons again and again is inherently Homer. That’s what makes him Homer—and that, I contend, is why he’s such an enduringly interesting and even touching character.
That all being said, this strength of Homer as character only applies if his individual story is told with insight, imagination, and on-target satire. Or, you know, if it’s just really funny. In tonight’s episode, Homer’s realization that Marge’s Wednesday good moods are the result of her weekly therapy appointments, resulting in happy-face cakes and plenty of snuggling, is fine for what it reveals about the Simpsons’ marriage—Marge needs a weekly relief valve to complain in order to remember why she’s in the marriage in the first place—but in execution, like the rest of the episode, it remains dramatically and comedically inert.
- Whether it was a network promo or an overly long lead-in to the episode proper, the Fox NFL Sunday Super Bowl shilling at the beginning added nothing to the show’s viewing experience, unless an animated Terry Bradshaw calling Homer “baldy” is your thing.
- Oh, and then the couch gag shilled for the Super Bowl even harder. Wait, what channel is the game on again?
- To brush up on Google Glass, I looked it up… on Bing! Unlike Fox, Dennis don’t play corporate synergy.
- Lisa’s on the sideline this episode, but it’s her questioning of the whole “everyone gets a valentine” tradition that spurred the one line that almost made me laugh, Marge’s “Lisa, what did I say about pointing out the meaninglessness of things?”
- Marge’s reference to the goggles as “bleep-bloop glasses” sounds like a Conan O’Brien line. Which is a compliment, of course.
- Homer pointing up to show Lenny the proper spelling of “Simpson” in the credits constantly rolling in the sky is the sort of reality-puncturing, self-referential gag that I hate most. It’s a reference for its own sake, takes us out of the story, and speaks to a lack of commitment to the show’s integrity.
- Homer, rating internet videos on a certain site: “Funny, funny, funny, die, funny but the guy died.”
- From the positioning, it appears that Homer is watching an instructional video on his Oogle Goggles about how to orally pleasure Marge while, as Marge puts it, “snuggling.” Look, I don’t want to think about these things any more than you people do…