“The Winter Of His Content” is the quintessential Simpsons episode for those seeking to argue the series’ late-run inconsequence. While there’s nothing less insightful than saying the show isn’t what it used to be, episodes like this are nothing but fuel for the argument—indifferent, lukewarm fuel.
Diving back into The Simpsons in order to review this season, I’ve gone into every episode with both the impartiality of a professional and the decidedly partial hope of the longtime fan. And while this hasn’t been a stellar season of television, neither has it been the lazy disaster the show’s detractors would have it be. But an episode like tonight’s is just the sort of indifferently constructed nonentity that makes the case that The Simpsons has simply run its course. Carelessly setting up two plots, executing neither effectively, and ending with a shrug, the episode isn’t terrible—it isn’t anything.
In discussing the episode’s parallel plots, I’d like to reiterate the argument that an episode of The Simpsons doesn’t need an A- and B-story. In the compressed sitcom timeframe, pulling both narratives off in any meaningful way is best left to weeks when the script and the jokes are especially strong—otherwise, the resulting show clinks hollow with the sound of unrealized potential. Tonight, we get two setups theoretically strong enough to fuel a pair of episodes and watch them both squeak out like the unsatisfying fart of an old man eating too much bran. And while that analogy was feeble and lazy, I’ll give myself the alibi that it’s inspired by the writing of the episode itself.
Story number one (introduced as the A-story, but then ignored) sees Homer bringing Grampa home to Evergreen Terrace after the Springfield Retirement Castle is declared unlivable. (“You promised me barely livable!” protests an incensed Homer.) Marge, seeing Jasper and the Old Jewish Man (hey, that’s what the Simpsons Wiki calls him) bereft of family, invites them to bunk at the house too, where the three make/are subjected to every old-person joke in the old joke book. Eating tons of bran and passing gas? Check. Taking lots of pills? Yup. Deaf, forgetful, eating absurdly early, can’t work computers, incessantly complaining? What do you think? The Simpsons has made a lot of quality mileage out of mocking the foibles of the elderly—along with literally every other aspect of American life—and it’s done so with wit, smarts, and unexpected verve. (And heart.) Here, everything just wheezes out like, well, I’ve already made that analogy. Especially when Homer is made to realize that he admires the octogenarian (“octogenosaurauses’”) lifestyle.
Reading the description of tonight’s episode, I was prepared to chide it for recycling the “Homer realizes life in a nursing home is pretty sweet” plotline from season nine’s “The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons,” so much so that I went back to watch the earlier show for comparison. I needn’t have bothered—as surprisingly brief as that B-plot was, it showed more insight (and laughs) than this similar setup did in twice the time. First, Homer’s turn from annoyed to admiring of the habits of his guest oldies takes place without any logical underpinnings. He goes right from furious that their constant defibrillating is raising his electric bill to realizing how great it is to eat early and go mallwalking. (Like Homer hasn’t ever eaten dinner at four in the afternoon before.) In his previous appreciation of elderly amenities, Homer’s character realized its greatest dream—being waited on hand, foot, and bedpan, rolling everywhere on cushy wheelchair wheels (instead of using his legs like a sucker), and essentially leading the sedentary lifestyle his inner Homer has been striving toward his entire life. (He’d have Marge feed him his potato chips in IV form if he could get away with it.) Here, he willingly pals up with three geezers he has never had a spare second for (including, you know, his father) just because they like to, um, complain a lot and eat early. The whole concept doesn’t land because no one bothers to make it make any sense for the character—and that’s before the show simply forgets about the plot entirely.
In the B-story (which morphs into the A-story when Homer’s fades away), Bart sticks up for Nelson when everyone realizes the bully wears his mom’s hand-me-down bloomers (with inappropriate slogans on them). Now, there’s no reason why a Simpsons plot can’t hinge on such a foundation (garment—sorry), but again I’m going to have to call the “lazy” card here. First, there’s no reason established why Bart would go to bat for Nelson. Nelson and Bart have, over the course of the series, circled each other with varying degrees of friendliness/enmity according to the needs of that week’s script, but the stated reason here (that Bart, too wears a parent’s old underpants) is both randomly inserted and illogical—Marge would never allow her kids to leave the house without clean underpants. She just wouldn’t. Regardless, it’s all just an excuse for Bart to get sucked into the bullies’ plan to attend a bully convention so the show can make a lot of gags about Walter Hill’s 1979 gang-on-the-run cult flick The Warriors.
Don’t get me wrong—I like The Warriors, which remains equal measures goofy and entertaining. But in this case, the homage raises several questions. One: Why, exactly? Sure it’s sort of fun to note the particular references (Tress MacNeille does a creditable impression of the late Lynne Thigpen’s unnamed DJ character, while Kevin Michael Richardson does the same for messianic gang leader Cyrus), and the bullies’ ordeal hits all the right plot points (they even sprung for some Joe Walsh). But there’s nothing inherently funny in the homage (the Capital City Goofball-led mascot gang the “Baseball Furries” is the one genuinely humorous touch) apart from playing spot the reference. I hate to bring up those who must not be named, but it’s the same “making reference to something the audience will recognize equals joke” approach to comedy that Epic Movie, Date Movie, etc. mavens Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg keep trotting out to the delight of the undiscriminating. It’s just not interesting here, nor worthy of the franchise.
Maybe something could have been done with either plot tonight if they’d been given more time to explore their comic possibilities (and if the script, credited to Kevin Curran, smacked of a little more effort), but as it is, each simply meanders along in unrewarding isolation before they literally smack together in the perfunctory ending, with Homer punching the David Patrick Kelly-esque bottle-clinking bully in the face. (“I’ve never really been in a fight!”) Even reading tonight’s one-sentence plot synopsis brought a classic episode flooding back to mind—I can’t imagine “The Winter Of His Content” being remembered beyond next week.
- I take my pleasures where I can find them: Even in a mediocre episode, this remains one of the most talented voice casts of all time. Hank Azaria’s smooth-talking inspector calling the nursing home “Codger Stadium” made me laugh out loud. So there’s that.
- Additionally, Azaria’s Old Jewish Man (again—that’s his name) is a singularly funny creation whenever he pops up. It’s just a funny voice, and his apology to the ghost that haunts him (“I’m sorry I wasn’t a very good ladder holder”) got me.
- “This counts as exercise? I’m barely moving and I’m smelling Cinnabons!”
- “You’re gay for the ground!” “You’re gay for homophobia!” “You just made me gay for tolerance.”
- In the Itchy & Scratchy Downton Abbey parody, the mice are aristocrats and the cats are servants. This means something.