I was all set to write a post about how The Simpsons is a broken show. It’s been on too long; every episode is redundant; it’s no longer capable of surprising me or making me care about anything that happens.
There were the early, awkward years. There were the Conan O’Brien years, where the show found its voice and perfectly balanced absurdity and heart.
There were the Mike Scully years, in which the show got weirder and weirder and eventually abandoned coherence entirely. These brought us episodes like the one where Homer goes on a missionary trip, and just when he’s about to fall into an inescapable stream of hot lava, the story is interrupted by Betty White soliciting money for the Fox network, and Bart calling in with a bogus pledge. Or the one where Homer wins a Pulitzer and is banished to a Prisoner-style secret island, where the family eventually joins him. Fans hated a lot of these at the time, but Scully’s philosophy in running the show seemed to be that the characters had run their course, no one cared anymore, and they would just push shit as far as they could.
In retrospect, I really like those years.
But the problem is, once you go there, you can’t come back.
The current phase of the show is the second reign of Al Jean, one of the show’s producers in its early years. Since Jean returned to take the reins from Scully, he’s tried to steer the show back toward character-based stories with heart. Which is an admirable goal, but once you’ve crossed all the lines that the show crossed in the Scully years, it’s really impossible to take any of this crap seriously. What Al Jean II has amounted to is a bunch of episodes in which Homer makes Marge mad, and then makes it up to her. She loves him and he can’t believe he’s so lucky. It’s gotten to the point where, when it happened on the season premiere, Marge even mentioned how it happens all the time. But fuck am I sick of it. If The Simpsons never did a Homer and Marge Fight episode again it would please me greatly. We’ve seen it a million times and it no longer tugs the heartstrings like it did in season three. Now there’s nothing more tiresome.
But this week’s episode totally surprised me. It was good, really good, and I laughed a lot. Homer throws a chicken pox party when Maggie gets the pox, and at the party, Milhouse’s parents get drunk and reconcile. As they toy with getting back together and reignite their sex lives, Milhouse feels neglected, so he and Bart set about doing a “reverse Parent Trap” to split them up again. Milhouse is so pathetic, and underused recently, that he’s very funny, and even though the plot involves Homer and Marge fighting again, it’s related to the Parent Trap scheming and the emphasis is on Bart, so I can forgive it.
Highlights: Lisa watches The OC, in which the characters decide to “score some jam at Knott’s Berry Farm”—a slow motion montage follows to that “California here we come” song, in which the characters go skipping with a guy in a Snoopy suit for a shot that’s held for a ridiculously long time, then ride the log ride with Snoopy, then get held up at the ATM by Snoopy. When their “reverse Parent Trap” fails, Milhouse proposes trying the plot from a different movie: Oklahoma! And we cut to a fantasy of Bart and Milhouse singing “The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends.”
It just goes to show, once or twice a season, The Simpsons can still surprise you.