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The Simpsons: “Them, Robot”

Illustration for article titled The Simpsons: “Them, Robot”
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Starting with a couch gag in which the Simpsons sit under a banner reading “America: Most Powerful Country In The World” from 1989 until 2010, when they replace it with “Too Big To Fail, We Hope,” this episode takes a mild swipe at the country’s current economic issues. While there are a number of good jokes in this installment, the satire is far too gentle, if not feeble, for its subject matter, and the episode is far too willing to bury the satire to further the plot. The plot itself seems recycled from aspects of earlier stories, although none of these elements have been presented in exactly this form before, and some of the gags have a certain offputting meanness to them. However, the episode offers enough good-natured humor to keep itself afloat.

In the first act, Homer struggles to stay sober through the weekend because of an upcoming company physical that equates alcohol with drug abuse. There are some decent jokes in this segment, with the best being Lenny getting high from licking a frog, mostly because of the satisfied noise that he makes, while the sight of Smithers as a white-suited Cab Calloway bandleader for the afternoon announcements is also funny. There are two setpieces that fall flat, one following a trail of destruction from Homer’s cry when he realizes that he cannot drink over the weekend, and one where everything that Homer touches in a breakfast place is filled with alcohol. While both ramp up the gags to an absurd conclusion, there’s a certain meanness to Gil being crushed that sucks the air out of the first, and the disconnect from reality in the second where people applaud a man spitting fiery cherries into their dessert is too weird to overcome.

On the satirical side, Homer and his co-workers at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant are meant to represent the American workforce in the central theme of this episode, but the show can’t make up its mind how to parody them. Homer is shown to be asleep at his desk, but the power outage he causes is laughed off by his family and co-workers. The employees celebrate passing their physical by going to elaborate lengths to alter their minds, including not just Lenny’s frog, but paint huffing and drinking snake venom. We never learn the results of Homer’s test, but Dr. Hibbert finds the guy in front of him to be full of gamma radiation poisoning, which is really too horrifying, especially when he collapses on the floor, to make his weak “Hulk smash” joke work. The combination of silly and serious that leads to the workforce being fired en masse reveals a tonal problem with the episode. Do they deserve to be fired? The episode wants to say no, but it also wants to give Burns a reason to fire them. While I am almost always a fan of nuance, in this case, the show seems less nuanced than unwilling to offend anyone.

The second act picks up with the entire workforce, save Homer, fired from the plant in favor of robots. Homer becomes increasingly bored with work until he figures out how to make the robots, who are all voiced by Brent Spiner, talk with him. Lenny get the best joke in this segment, too, with his literal world’s smallest violin. The worst is Homer’s aggressive joking with the robots that spills over into anger, which has too little payoff for all that setup. The economic satire in this section has Moe realizing that his bar is full of depressed unemployed people, which he finds so grim that he pours himself one of his own awful beers and winds up taking a shot at himself. None of this is too funny, really, and the satire is downplayed in this act in favor of the story of Homer’s boredom.

The satire seems about to take off in the third act, which starts with Marge and the kids walking through a sea of failing businesses in downtown Springfield, while Smithers tries out substitute teaching and Barney goes full monty at a strip club. However, after this nod to the economic theme, the act switches to Homer taking the robots out of the plant for a baseball game, which leads to him attempting to modify them with a power drill, which leads to them attempting to murder him. The satire of the failing town is the best part of the whole episode, while the segment with Homer and the robots is, sadly, rather predictable. If the writing staff had found a way to better integrate the main story with the satire, especially in this act, this episode would have been much better. As is, it cuts away from the most interesting part of the story, in favor of robot jokes, which seems like a cop-out.

In the last act, Homer leads the robots to Burns’ mansion, but they are saved at the last minute by the unemployed townspeople, whom Burns re-hires on the spot as temps. This is where the satire could really cut loose, but the story instead plays it too safe. Not only does Burns try to save Homer while saving himself, but he partially redeems himself by embracing his old workers over more robots. This makes sense only because The Simpsons needs to reboot before the next episode, but as a satire of the short-sighted business practices that helped keep unemployment high after the worst of the Great Recession, it is remarkably toothless where it counts.

Stray observations:

  • Homer: “Thank God it’s T.G.I.F.”
  • On the church: “We’ve run out of consoling phrases.”
  • The Atomical Fabmagical World of Monty Burns: Bow Down To Your Future.
  • The elementary class’s disappointment over not reading Death In Venice: delicious. The callback with the robots: also delicious.
  • Robot: “The designated hitter corrupts the purity of an otherwise elegant game. Illogical. Illogical.”
  • Burns: “Ah, the solarium. We’ll be safely cornered in this glass room with one door.”
  • Closing song: “Robot Parade” by They Might Be Giants. A big hit with my kids.
  • Dear Wikipedia people who will use gender-specific pronouns when quoting this article: I am a guy. Thank you for your concern.