When The Simpsons works well, it all seems so simple. Here’s a straightforward emotional story: Homer is a cad, Marge gets angry, Homer does crazy stuff to win her back. We’ve seen this before, more than any other single Simpsons plot type (except perhaps “Lisa doesn’t fit in with her peers”); it was even one of the driving forces of The Simpsons Movie. Of course, it’s popular/repeated because it works: It lets Homer be wacky-funny, Marge gets to be grumpy-funny, and it ends with the main character, Homer, demonstrating some growth. 23 seasons guarantees some level of repetition, so why not go with what works?
“The Spy Who Learned Me” works, and works well. The way Homer annoys Marge—by making horrible jokes during a terrible movie while being egged on by Lenny and Carl—is good fun. It allows the show to do two of the things it’s always been best at: horrible puns and movie parodies.
The old Simpsons favorite, the dumb action movie, gets the call this time, with Bryan Cranston voicing Stradivarius Cain, an American James Bond. They’re easy, cheap jokes, sure, but if “This year’s theme: evil in the age of social media. We have prepared three break-out rooms for small group discussions” doesn’t get a chuckle out of you, then you’ve attended a happily smaller number of conferences than I have.
Cain ends up coming to life for Homer after he gets a concussion at work, which lands him both a superb imaginary friend as well as eight weeks of paid time off. Instead of telling Marge and the rest of his family, Homer decides to keep the make-believe buddy a secret to spare their feelings during a trying time. I was expecting this empathy to be an effect of Homer’s concussion, but the show never makes that explicit. It does, however, lead to Cranston’s character manifesting as an imaginary friend for Homer, who tries to teach Homer how to be a good man for Marge, the Stradivarius Cain way: “I have bug-bombed the carrrr for milady.”
The secondary plot involves another old standard: Bart coping with Nelson’s bullying. This storyline veers towards “tired” more than “classic” at times, especially since it hinges on The Simpsons’ version of Super Size Me, a film that’s eight years old. But even that is tolerable, since the documentarian, voiced by Eric Idle, is charmingly British and has one of the best lines of the night: “If I don’t have some kind of nugget every five minutes, I’ll die.”
It also involves Lisa’s soft spot for Nelson, which hasn’t always been dealt with by the show, but takes a pleasant form here. As Nelson takes people’s lunch money, he comes to Lisa, and passes her by to head to her brother: “See if you can find out where my dolls are.” “You might not like the answer.” “I just want closure,” she says with some resignation, implying a pair of old relationships that have gotten just a little bit too comfortable. It makes very little sense with the characters’ age, but with the age of the show, it works for a laugh.
That’s largely how “The Spy Who Learned Me” works: discussing the structure makes it seem tired; thinking about the character dynamics makes it look redundant; but it’s just fun to watch. The Simpson family is all in fine form, and the jokes work much more often than not. That’s a success.