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The Simpsons: "Luca$"

“Judging on its own merits” doesn’t do The Simpsons any favors

It’s not a new complaint that reviewers (i.e., me) spend too much time comparing these latter day Simpsons episodes to the “good old days” and don’t judge them on their own merits. But while this reviewer is willing to cop to that charge, along with a myriad other sins, I would counter that in a lot of new Simpsons, evaluating the thing itself without allowing for the show’s historical groundwork to supply character resonance and comedic context doesn’t do the show any favors. “Luca$” coasts along, to the extent that it does, on a few funny lines from characters we’ve come to like and some sketched-in character beats from some characters we’ve come to love. On its own, it’s a very pedestrian half hour of television.

The more successful aspect of the episode, surprisingly, is the B-plot, with Bart lying to keep Springfield’s “one criminal in town” Snake from being caught by Chief Wiggum. Never my favorite character (he might squeak into the top 25), Snake is best as a quick-hitter, showing up to move a plot or drop some incongruous fact about himself (there’s some contention over whether he’s an alumnus of Princeton or Middlebury). Here, his light-fingered gratitude to Bart, whom he showers with stolen luxury items, provides most of the episode’s good lines—when Bart’s li’l bastard persona gets to run free for a while, it can be reliably amusing. Rebuffing Wiggam’s bribe offer with “You can’t buy me with a candy bar that has coconut,” and his response to seeing Snake holed up in his treehouse, “I can’t have cops sniffing around here—some of them might be girls,” strikes just the right balance of Bart’s felonious and childish natures. Plus, this plot gives us a treasure trove of great Milhouse lines, as he becomes more and more suspicious of Bart’s newfound wealth. Sure, it echoes his classic questioning of Bart’s lies in the past (“Then why did I have the bowl, Bart? Why did I have the bowl?”), but Milhouse’s similar suspicion about one of Bart’s new acquisitions (“Where the gift receipt? Where’s the package of desiccants that say do not eat?”) is classic Milhouse. (And his reminiscence about seeing his dad smoking on the balcony of a Holiday Inn—“He looked like he missed something. Maybe me!”—is the sort of classic Milhouse that makes me all sad inside.)

The main plot, with Lisa becoming sort-of smitten with a would-be competitive eater (guest star Zach Galifianakis) is where the whole “don’t compare the show to its past” thing really falls apart. Here, what emotional response there is to the fact that Marge, worrying that Lisa will end up married to a glutinous layabout (like she did) and Homer’s resulting hurt feelings come from our stored up affection for these characters and not from the episode itself. Like many episodes this year, “Luca$” is too overcrowded to tell the heart of the story effectively. It’s not that stories about Homer feeling defensive and heartbroken when confronted with his family’s unspoken dissatisfaction with his failings as a husband and father have been told before—it’s that, without those past stories doing most of the dramatic heavy lifting for it, “Luca$” is very thin, indeed.

There’s no (pardon me, Lisa) meat to the not-really-a-love-story between Lisa and Luca$ (pronounced “Lucadollar”). Lisa’s purported crush seems more like plot convenience than puppy love—combined with genuine concern that the inept overeater might choke himself to death if she’s not there to Heimlich him every ten minutes. Similarly, Homer’s pain at Marge’s seeming criticism would be more affecting if it were given more time to breathe—and some fresh insight into his character (or Marge’s, or anyone’s).

Instead, there’s a truly distasteful subplot about Homer following Marge’s advice to take Lisa out to dinner in order to show her that he’s a good dad, which devolves into a series of incest jokes. It is kind of adorable how Homer’s nervousness over calling his daughter up for a “date” plays out like every high school boy’s similar sweaty-palmed disaster. (“Hi, Lisa? I know your brother…”), but the appearance of Springfield’s resident yokel Cletus to make the subtext inescapable text is just sour and gross. That tone-deafness plays out on the “date” itself where Marge, suddenly desperate to interrupt the dinner with Lisa that she herself insisted upon minutes before, shows up in a pretty dress, only for Homer to accuse her of being jealous. Of her husband being on a date with her daughter. And lest I be accused of reading too much into this, Homer’s line is, “Marge please control you jealousy, this is your daughter.” Sure, that could be read as Homer being dumb old Homer, but if he doesn’t actually think that that response is on the table, then where is the joke?

Again, the resolution to the central plot is, by turns, lazy, gross, and inadequately developed. If The Simpsons is to be judged on its own merits, without referring to its past glories, fine—based solely on this episode, this isn’t a show I’d tune in to every week.

Stray observations:

  • Just dumb luck that this episode’s being reviewed by the same guy that reviewed the It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia episode from last season where Frank also gets trapped in an identical piece of playground equipment. And that the Sunny episode did so much more with it.
  • Snake’s name seems to be established here as “Albert Knickerbocker Aloysius Snake.”
  • The opening saw the Simpsons rendered as if it were the game Minecraft. I do not play Minecraft. There did not seem to be a joke in it for anyone not familiar with Minecraft—which is sort of a failure, isn’t it?
  • Galifianakis gets credit for not just playing himself—his Luca$ (later Pounducadollar) sounds so completely un-Zach-like that I wouldn’t have recognized him if I didn’t know he was the guest star. Unfortunately, his character isn’t particularly well-drawn or funny, coming off like a poor man’s Gene Belcher. (Gene would be a great competitive eater, by the way.)
  • “The correct term is ‘gurgitating.’”
  • “Then that makes me the Jackie Robinson of the sport and you the racist Phillies manger.”  “Stop comparing me to Ben Chapman.” I don’t know why Marge would make this reference, but Chapman was a prick, so I’ll allow it.
  • Patty and Selma’s string of insults about Luca$—“Justin Blobber,” “your future ton in law”—aren’t their best, but their self-satisfied “God bless us” afterward is pretty great.
  • Marge’s purple dress is a callback to a reality show crossover I could not possibly care less about.
  • Marge’s plan comes from a freelance writer for Dissatisfied Wife magazine. “Never trust a freelancer,” is the lesson here. Hey…

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