There’s a structural problem nibbling away at the core of The Simpsons. Being new to this beat, I can’t state for sure that it’s unique to this season, but, in most of the episodes this year, there’s been an inordinate amount of time spent on pre- and post-credits gags. And while the justly celebrated Guillermo del Toro opening to this year’s “Treehouse Of Horror” was as worthy (or moreso) as the three stories contained therein, the pedestrian nature of these ancillary bookends has done little more than creep into each episode’s running time at the expense of the main stories. Tonight, for example, fully three-plus minutes of the episode’s half-hour (minus commercials) running time is spent on a Thanksgiving-themed pilgrim opening (with a random Chitty Chitty Bang Bang gag) and a series of cheerleader-bashing product bits at the end. Even if these bits were funny in themselves (they’re not), they’re the sort of disconnected, “throw stuff at the audience and see if it sticks” doodling that seems the mark of a writer’s room insecure in its ability to craft a coherent episode—or one that’s getting bored with that task altogether.
Take tonight’s episode, where Homer, sneaking out late to play poker with the fellas, ends up stranded in the elevator and having to deliver a very pregnant woman’s baby. Preparing for this review (and yes, I do do that), I thought about possible angles: When having to confront the stark reality of handling a strange woman’s nether regions, would the show engage with the fact that Homer is a fully functioning, sexual human being with experiences in this area, or would it rely on the "Homer as infantile dunderhead" for the jokes? Would the show’s remarkably elastic reality allow fresh insight into a threadbare sitcom situation? (Although I must confess to having trouble coming up with many recent “baby unexpectedly delivered in X” examples other than Community’s—which was reliably hilarious.) And how would The Simpsons make use of a celebrated guest voice (Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss)? Would her undeniable talents mesh with show’s formula (see: Dustin Hoffman, Glenn Close, Albert Brooks, John Waters, Johnny Cash, Leonard Nimoy), or, according to the mysterious alchemy of Simpsons voice-over work, fade into the background? (I’m looking at you, Meryl Streep, Lisa Kudrow, and Jack Lemmon.) I was loaded for bear—but as it turned out, I needn’t have bothered.
Homer delivers the baby before the opening credits are done rolling, with ne’er a nod to characterization and only a lame penis gag to show for it. (“It’s a dude! And he’s uncut—very Euro.”) Moss’ character is given nothing to do that one of the regular voice cast couldn’t have done just as well. And the episode quickly gives Homer the laziest of comedic conflicts, as he begins to lavish attention on elevator baby (named baby Homer, or “Hoju”), which makes Marge and his actual family jealous. Because, well, that’s what the script tells them all to do. Look, at this point, The Simpsons (and the Simpsons) are going to be whatever the writers of particular episode want them to be. That’s part of the inherent strength (and I maintain it is still a strength) of the show. By refocusing every conceivable sitcom trope through the show’s variable lens, the show’s writers have been able to discover new comedic constellations in the same old stories. That the show is able to snap back into its readymade shape in time for the next episode is an infinite gift—as long as each episode is grounded in the established emotional truth of the characters. If not, the gags spin out into random, generic territory—and The Simpsons becomes far less than what it can be. (See: Family Guy.)
And so here Marge gets jealous of the time Homer spends with Hoju. Because that’s what a sitcom wife would do. And Homer becomes fixated on Hoju. Because the script demands it. And the week-old Hoju, on a trip to the zoo with his not-siblings, tries to kill Maggie (even giving an evil little wave goodbye) because, um, why? (We already have the unibrow baby for that.) In its truncated running time, this episode allows for little in the way of character development or insight, instead using unsatisfying shorthand to move the plot along. It’s dramatically sketchy, yet still makes room for some character drift. Homer’s aside: “This simulation has been brought to you by your brain, a subsidiary of your penis” is simply not in Homer’s voice—it’s a hacky sentiment put into Homer’s mouth by writers with an inadequate grasp—or more likely care—of the character’s integrity. The same goes for the Mr. Roper-worthy moment when Marge fumingly overhears Homer innocently entreating Hoju to “roll over on your tummy, just like Homer taught you—and then tell me what a cow says.” Except that Homer is saying those words in as suggestive a manner as possible—because the smutty joke wouldn’t work otherwise. It’s just depressing.
In the end, there’s no payoff to this storyline at all, except that Maggie seems to forgive Homer for neglecting her in favor of his new elevator family. (Her apparently customary daydream that Flanders is her dad changes to Homer while they hug.) It’s the sort of sweet emotional payoff a good Simpsons episode pulls off after building the story on a solid character foundation along the way. Maybe next week it'll be better.
- The B-story (with Lisa attempting to rally the local football team’s cheerleaders to unionize) is as nondescript as it gets, although it’s nice to see Lisa’s commitment to union politics is as strong as ever. However, I have to give credit where it’s due—I laughed out loud as hard as I ever have at The Simpsons twice along the way. Milhouse (taking Lisa to the game): “These seats are so close you can hear the players swear!” Player (offscreen): “I’ll kick your ass, Milhouse!”
- And later (after Lisa has been brought down onto the field to cheer): Milhouse: “I can’t believe I’m dating a cheerleader!” Lisa (offscreen): “No you’re not!” Player (offscreen): “You’re dead, Milhouse!”
- The same goes for the double reveal of the guy who was standing in the elevator the whole time the Homer was delivering the baby: (“Lobby please.” “And the funny thing is, I’m a doctor.”) All four of the gags have the loony inventiveness of a classic Simpsons episode. (I’m firm, but I’m fair.)
- That being said, I’m calling sexist on the whole cheerleader plot, which is used for little more than “dumb broad” jokes (the cheerleaders) and “ugly broad” jokes (the replacement cheerleaders). The whole end-credit montage (some of which was illegible, running as it did behind a screenful of rushing credits) was nothing more than a string of “cheerleaders are so stupid” gags. Again—depressing.