The Simpsons’ ties to a certain Ivy League school are deep and storied, with some two dozen Harvard alums serving turns in the show’s writer’s room. According to my research, there’s never been a Yalie on staff, although tonight’s credited writer, Jeff Westbrook, taught at Yale for a time—after graduating from Harvard. Put that many overeducated Harvard comedy types together, and there’s going to be some Yale-bashing, although the swipes at the university at New Haven are generally pretty chummy. Sure, repeat attempted murderer “Sideshow” Robert Underdunk Terwilliger went to Yale, but he’s at least as erudite as he is occasionally psychotic. And the series’ various glimpses of possible futures seem to suggest that Lisa Simpson will matriculate there in the future, and Lisa’s no dummy. (Although, at one point, it’s implied that Yale will be bought out by McDonald’s.)
Still, the most famous former Bulldog in Springfield is one C. Montgomery Burns (class of 1914), whose plutocratic venality and villainy (and intermittent cartoonish super-villainy) has long been the show’s stand-in for old boy network, old school assholery. But “Caper Chase” sees Monty returning to his alma mater in order to fund a new nuclear plant management major, only to find that his beloved New Haven haven of exclusionary secret societies, money manipulation, and brandy-and-cigars sexism has become one of those bastions of inclusivity that put the “liberal” in “liberal arts.” Even here, though, the Yale gags are generic college stuff, something of a disappointment, considering the intimacy Westbrook and the series have with the milieu. A sign welcomes visitors to “The Harvard of Connecticut,” which, okay, zing. And those damned a capella twits, the Whiffenpoofs, get taken down a few pegs, as Burns offers to endow a new library if the school has them killed. (An administrator laments that the venerable music group will simply respawn with another squadron of “smug jackasses in white gloves.” Zing again.)
But “Caper Chase” is just all over the place, with Burns’ return to Yale spurring him to open a for-profit, Trump-style university like those of fellow nuclear plant maven Bourbon Verlander (guest voice Jason Alexander). That plot seems prepared to morph into an inspirational tale of Homer becoming a Dead Poets Society-esque teacher (skinflint Burns staffs the school with plant workers), until Verlander swoops in to whisk Homer away to his super-secret Ex Machina-styled retreat, where he’s got a scheme going involving an army of Ava-looking robot students working to get government loans. Book in some time for a handful of guest-teacher guest stars (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Suze Orman, Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings, and screenplay guru Robert McKee as themselves), and a very rushed wrap-up where Homer has to short-circuit all the Yale-enrolled robot students before they can make Verlander all that sweet, sweet student aid, and you’ve got a frenetic episode that can’t decide what it wants to be.
An episode watching Monty Burns confront the changes that have occurred in his improbably extended life isn’t a bad idea, as Harry Shearer always navigates Burns’ railing and ranting in old-timey obscurities a delight. Here, he confides in Verlander that nuclear power is the wave of the future by citing defunct magazines and something called “Professor Noodle-Strudel And The Dove Soap March Of Comedy,” and seeks assurance from the Yale administrators that the school is still “where evil money can acquire a patina of virtue.” (It is.) But Westbrook’s script goes after collegiate “political correctness” as if he’s busting that well-worn satirical target wide open, with tired jokes about students actually caring about terms like “gender-normative,” “multiculturalism,” and “safe spaces.” (Several of Verlander’s professors were fired from their old jobs for referring to God as a he, and for celebrating Columbus Day.) The kicker that Westbrook has an outraged student announce that Burns’ plan would be “creating a place for violence to happen,” accompanied by the chyron “actual quote by a Yale student,” just comes off like Burns-esque grumpy old man grousing. The linguistic pretzel shapes well meaning people twist themselves into in pursuit of inclusivity isn’t off-limits for comedy. (Nothing is.) But the Yale subplot here—which culminates with Homer’s cardboard-box display of “robot-face” causing the too-accurately programmed robot students to blow their gaskets in explosive high dudgeon—peddles in glib dismissiveness.
The Homer plot, too, goes nowhere, as Lisa—horrified at the idea of higher education being demeaned by Burns’ fake school—inspires her dad to at least try to try. (As Bart once memorably put it.) There are seeds of a good story here, but they’re either squandered or rushed to market. That Lisa would be so affected by a phony college makes sense—Lisa’s dream that her brains will take her somewhere far, far away from dum-dum Springfield is one of her most touching defining traits. (Yeardley Smith makes Lisa’s plea, “If you make a joke out of it you are crushing my only hope!” strike a note of existential truth.) But, downing a glass of her parents’ dinner wine to steady her nerves, Lisa’s arc gets wasted on a queasy run of drunk-talk (the later joke about her being “one day sober” is cringe-worthy for its crassness), and a gift of Hollywood teacher movies to spur Homer on to at least minimum competence. And Homer’s classroom antics, which should be fertile ground, don’t amount to much before the whole Ex Machina plot throws him on another track entirely. Homer’s gone to college before, and both his motivations and his jokes were a lot more focused.
Verlander’s compound is even more rushed, largely thanks to the need for all the guest stars to get a few lines in. None of the four visitors makes much of an impression, as they basically do riffs on their public personas. (Orman yells financial advice, Jennings speaks in Jeopardy “question-first” manner, etc.) And say what you want about McKee’s bona fides as a creative writing teacher, but having him on hand pointing out screenwriting tips only serves to highlight what a cluttered episode “Caper Chase” is.
- Stan Lee makes a cameo in the X-Men couch gag, making fun of his penchant for cameos. It’s definitely a cameo, all right.
- Lisa, commenting on the unimpressive athleticism of the company’s beer league team: “It’s like watching maple syrup play softball.”
- Burns envisions himself living on as a brain in a shark body. I dunno, that robot body looked pretty cool.
- Poor Smithers has another sex fantasy about Monty Burns doing “the full monty,” but that a colony of bats flies out of Burns’ crotch at the performance’s climax raises a whole host of questions.
- That’s a long way to go for Moe’s “pedagogue/pedophile” joke.
- A couple of so-so callbacks, as Homer instructs his class not to get a radioactive rod stuck down their backs (“It happens to me, like, every week!”), and Verlander’s security system won’t recognize Homer’s 1989 voiceprint until he does a more Matthau-esque call for some frosty chocolate milkshakes.
- According to McKee, there are only five story types, including “black cop/white cop,” and “stop that wedding!”
- According to Homer, his Robin Williams-style “carpe diem” translates as the perhaps less-inspirational “fish for a dime.”
- “As Americans, it’s our duty to either stop evil billionaires or to elect them to the highest office in the land.” Zing.
- Among the few majors offered at Burns’ college are for elder care specialist, nighttime museum security, and “TV recapper.” You win this round, Westbrook. Zing.