The thing that makes The Simpsons endlessly renewable is its universality on a small scale. For all the giant magnifying glasses, monorails, meteors, and loch monsters that have cropped up over its 25 years, The Simpsons’ story engine is the American family. In even the most outlandish episodes, the show is rooted in the interrelationships among two parents and their 2.5 kids. The show’s world is designed to be elastic—stretch the reality as far as you want, it will always spring back to its original shape. It’s both an infinite resource and a curse.
Nothing can really change for the Simpson family. Sure, Lisa can go vegetarian and have that stick, since it doesn’t alter the fundamental central relationships. There can be callbacks (like Marge wearing Homer’s Tom Landry hat while masterminding her husband’s fantasy football team tonight), but by the end of an episode (or at least by the beginning of the next), things have to be back exactly where they were. At its best, The Simpsons uses that elastic reality to reexamine the same themes again and again—Homer can learn to be a better husband (or father, employee, role model, physical specimen, etc.) by the end of an episode, only to revert back to his original template (slothful, insensitive, ignorant American male) for the next, and it still makes sense. Homer’s journey in any good episode is funny and resonant because of the emotional realities involved, even if, the next time we see him, he has to learn the same lessons over again to drive the next plot. In fact, this infinite cycle is touching in its way, pointing out the futility of the Simpsons’ efforts even as it rewards them for trying. The show’s heart makes the struggle worthwhile, even if there’s never going to be any real progress because of the world the show’s set in.
So tonight, when it’s been determined that Homer’s journey is to become a better father by disciplining Bart, the fact that that same impulse has driven countless stories in the past is irrelevant. What matters is how successfully the show mines that relationship for insightful, funny new material. Unfortunately, while this episode’s details (a father-son bonding ocean voyage) are unique enough (although I’m remembering a certain rafting trip, and Ernest Borgnine), there’s not much new to say about the guys’ relationship.
Since the very first time Bart called his dad “Homer” (in the first episode, as I recall), the theme of Homer wanting his son’s respect has been a defining characteristic of their relationship, right alongside Homer’s inability to get the li’l bastard to behave. Here, his decision to start disciplining Bart, upon finding him watching red band trailers on the internet in a bedroom littered with half-eaten cereal bowls, is abrupt, but, again, consistently inconsistent. Some days, Homer gets a bee in his bonnet to do something to correct the course of the drifting ship that is his daily existence, as do we all. Taking his stand (or seat) over Bart’s refusal to eat his broccoli makes sense too, with Homer’s traditional half-assed parenting focusing irrationally on the one tiny detail in front of him. Nothing especially inventive happens during the daylong standoff, but there are some nice character touches throughout, like Lisa desperately hoping to avert the conflict by offering to eat the broccoli herself. (Yeardley Smith’s line reading affectingly underscores the lengths little kids will go to to keep the family peaceful.) And Homer’s response—ordering a cheerily compliant Marge to bring Lisa a sundae instead (“On it!”) is a great example of Homer-logic. There’s a nicely random visual gag, too, when Homer and Bart, rolling through Lisa’s unsuccessful compromise smoothies, appear with Santa’s Little Helper balancing on top of them at one point.
Marge’s final solution—to ship Homer and Bart off of the “Relation Ship,” a floating therapy schooner run by guest star Nick Offerman’s gruffly touchy-feely Captain Bowditch—is equally abrupt, especially since Marge has them kidnapped to do it. Homer was missing work, but that seems a little extreme, even if, as Bowditch explains, the proper term is being “Shanghaied.” Offerman’s a funny guy, and the idea of making his burly sailor as emotionally open as Ron Swanson is closed seems like a good idea. But Bowditch doesn’t have much of a personality, and the antics on the ship are benignly ordinary, occasional octopus attack or not. (I did appreciate his jauntily prosaic sea shanties, however.) Apu, Ned, Cletus, and some assorted sons are along for the ride, but don’t contribute much, either. In the end, Bart chokes down the broccoli he’s apparently been carrying with him for days to get Homer to trust his nautical instincts with the quick wrap-up, “Now can we please just respect each other!” Again, it’s not that the same lessons keep getting learned, it’s that they’re learned in perfunctory fashion.
One reason why so many later Simpsons emotional beats feel rushed is that the need for a B-story steals focus. I’d complain more about that this week if Marge’s ancillary tale weren’t filled with so many funny little touches. Knowing as much about fantasy football as I do, she’s put in charge of Homer’s team while he and Bart stare each other down over that broccoli. There’s no compelling reason for such a story—there’s not even much insider fantasy football in the plot—but there are some good jokes nonetheless. The whole thing is introduced in a brilliantly understated exchange:
Homer: “You’re gonna eat that broccoli.”
Bart: “No I’m not.”
Marge (entering): “I got you five kickers! It is called ‘football,’ right?”
Homer (to Bart): “You are definitely eating that broccoli.”
The rest of the fantasy football plot is mostly Marge being horrified at how much time (and meanness) the men of Springfield expend on the pastime, allowing for Julie Kavner to play to Marge’s comic strengths. Seeing Lenny’s IM that Homer’s team sucks, she’s aghast that “Lenny used the ‘uck’ word!” and her reference to the sport as “make-believe computer football” is perfect Marge. Along with Lisa, Patty, and Selma, Marge’s plot allows for some digs at the way guys interact. Lisa’s explanation of trash talk (“You know, how guys say mean things to their friends the way women say nice things to their enemies”), and Patty’s proclamation that “all men live in a sad world of profanity, boob jokes, and tired comedy references” (offered as Bumblebee Man, Duff Man, and others quote the “more cowbell” sketch) might not be the most trenchant satire, but, as the disgruntled musings of a group of women looking at a male world, it’s a sobering mirror nonetheless. (And don’t get Marge started on internet comments.)
- “I told you to clean your room and instead you’re watching chest videos!”
- Marge’s ineffectively passive-aggressive strategy for dealing with Bart is to “clean his room in the middle of the night and then, in the morning, thank him for cleaning his room.”
- The Project X-esque sequel Project Afterparty includes: rapper, dominatrix, machine gun-toting monkey, nerds thrown into guacamole, giant bong, female DJ with keg helmet, and, of course, “bikini acid.”
- “Your RB is worse than Arbys’” is a pretty solid burn. As Kent Brockman might chime in, “I’m gonna say ‘ouch’…for Arbys.”
- According to the sonorous NFL Films-style narrator, Marge’s victory over Moe, framed as a plucky outsider triumphing over a seasoned veteran, “proves conclusively that fantasy football is basically just luck.”
- “Brief nudity!”
- Homer gets scurvy after a day at sea.
- I liked Dan Castellaneta’s little pause in the line reading of Homer’s “I love being told what to do by someone who’s wise in the ways of the world…love it!” It underlined the questionable historical veracity of Homer’s statement while offering Homer the chance to be arch, which is always funny. It’s similar to his later line upon seeing the name of the “Relation Ship,” “Hey, it works two ways! Pretty good…pretty good.”