Going into tonight’s episode “You Don’t Have To Live Like A Referee,” there was a lot of potential comic ammo to go around. For one, it’s the Simpsons’ first trip back to Brazil since the infamous season 13 episode “Blame It On Lisa” which angered the Brazilian tourist board so badly that there was a lawsuit in the works. Throw in some of the old reliable Homer/Lisa relationship dynamic (ever the most dramatically evocative on the show), and all the pieces were there to assemble a memorable episode. That what eventually emerged was one of the most perfunctory of the season is genuinely a bummer.
Things start out well enough, with Principal Skinner’s ill-fated Lincoln-Douglas debate reenactment resulting in a riot that includes Abe Lincoln punching little kids in the face and an always-welcome angry visit from Superintendent Chalmers. I’m always a sucker for Skinner’s unfounded enthusiasm and initiative (Bart’s plaintive “End this madness!” at the assembly echoes the poor guy’s futility), and any time he gets together with Chalmers, I’m watching. The Superintendent’s exasperated, “I have seven other principals, and I have never yelled their names—not even once” continues the ongoing greatness of Springfield’s most unlikely comedy team.
As a setup, it’s promising, especially when Skinner’s quest for redemption leads him to don a sandwich costume and host an essay contest for Springfield Elementary’s finest (and Ralph, and Nelson) to expound upon their heroes. Lisa, picking Marie Curie, is upstaged by Martin picking the same scientist, forcing her to settle on Bart’s idea to make Homer her subject (even though her immediate memories of his achievements include only uninspiring images of sloth, gluttony, and underpants). So when Lisa’s able to summon up enough admirable details of Homer to edge her into a tie with Martin (meaning no one wins), it seems like the beginning of one of those Lisa/Homer relationship episodes that have been some of the show’s best.
Instead, Lisa’s speech, which goes online (behind a paywall, according to Chalmers) draws the attention of soccer’s governing body (she drew pretty heavily on Homer’s probity in red-carding her in season 18’s “Marge Gamer”) which asks Homer to referee the World Cup in Brazil. Now, I’m not going to go off on a rant here about how farfetched, improbable, or downright random this development is. (Okay, maybe I might.) Some of the best Simpsons episodes have dealt with the show’s ability and willingness to stretch the bounds of the traditional sitcom in order to indulge a comic premise (“Deep Space Homer” comes to mind). What’s so infuriating about the execution here is how perfunctory it all is. It’s all well and good to ignore the practicalities of the situation if its absurdity is the catalyst for a show’s worth of great jokes and/or touching character moments. Instead, the Lisa/Homer stuff is tossed off, the soccer satire has few teeth, and even the series return to Brazil comes to naught. As Lunchlady Doris once mused, “Well this is a whole lot of nothing.”
Lisa’s relationship with Homer has been one of the most enduring comic and dramatic aspects of The Simpsons from the start, with their repeating pattern of love and disillusionment marking many of the show’s dramatic high points. (Lisa refers back to “Lisa’s Pony” in her speech, but even as late as this season’s gimmicky “Homerland” premiere, the fraught connection between father and daughter can bring an episode surprising warmth and depth.) Here however, that relationship’s potential is squandered in order to get the World Cup plot underway. (Lisa’s abrupt pop in to tell Homer, “You’re the hero I always thought you could be, dad” is as by the numbers as it gets, although Yeardley Smith almost manages to salvage it with her emotional reading of “dad.” Almost.)
Which would be excusable if the World Cup plot were worth the elaborate setup. Instead, the show lays out a few expected and obvious beats for such a story (soccer players dive like crazy, soccer games have low scores, that “GOOOOOAAAL!” guy), all the while squandering (a double squander? That’s a red card) the Simpsons’ return to Brazil. In its overstuffed running time, the episode never commits to any one storyline, leaving everything sketched-in and desultory. The controversy over the first Brazil episode was not inconsiderable, less because of the abortive lawsuit than for the legitimately raised concerns over the episode’s lazy stereotyping and sloppy storytelling. This time, Marge takes the time to learn Portuguese (last time, the Brazilians were conflated carelessly with their Spanish-speaking neighbors), but otherwise, there’s little reference to the issue at all (apart from the enduringly inappropriate children’s programming). If a lesson was learned, it seems to be, “don’t do anything to piss anyone off whatsoever.”
Similarly, there’s no shortage of satirical points to be made about the World Cup’s choice of Brazil (where the city’s very real problems of poverty and crime are being brutally shoved behind the scenes for public relations purposes) and the futebol world’s ongoing bribery scandals but, unfortunately, that’s just not what The Simpsons does much any more.
- “Assembly today: The meaning of freedom. Attendance mandatory.”
- “What makes you a hero?” “I don’t eat as much as I did.”
- The couch gag, with the Simpsons running from the bulls in Pamplona and having the bulls turn out to be couches, was actually cleverly conceived.
- “Our next student, Lisa Simpson, who was last seen leaving in tears.” “Near tears.” “But not in them?”
- Lisa’s mike drop should have pushed her past Martin’s dumb Madame Curie report. Who’s with me?
- “Just for that attitude—turbulence.”
- According to Homer, Rio is “the naughtiest city since San Francisco turned all nerdy.” Ball’s in your court, San Francisco.
- “The Amazon! It’s just like I pictured it after seeing all those pictures online!”
- Referring back for comparison to an episode like “Deep Space Homer,” an outlandishly robust premise for Homer should at least take his legendary physical decrepitude into account. Here we get Homer (super-wedgied ref shorts notwithstanding) sprinting around soccer pitches like the athletes themselves. It all adds to the episode’s “so what?” factor.
- A joke at the expense of HBO’s lesser original programming (Hung, Bored To Death)… that includes Enlightened?!?! I should take a half-grade away just for that. But I’m a professional.
- “You don’t know the new me of the last few days at all.”
- You’ve gotta wonder if even this episode’s limp swipes at the World Cup would be allowed if Fox had this year’s World Cup and not ESPN. (Fox takes over in 2018.)