An episode of low-key charms, “The War Of Art” exemplifies the fault of latter-day Simpsons in that it partakes of the structure of a classic episode—even correcting some of the present-day show’s most glaring faults—while at the same time providing little else than the echo of what once was. Never has a perfectly decent episode of TV been so disheartening.
The premise is solid enough and set up by a truly sweet and funny preamble, with Lisa pestering her parents for a pet of her own. It’s always nice when Lisa is allowed to still be an 8-year-old girl, and the way that the idea of a guinea pig becomes the only thing in the world that matters is right on the money, especially with Yeardley Smith continuing to give her all in the role. Much has been made of the cast’s perceived disinterest (a concern that, apart from noted Simpsons crank Harry Shearer, seems overstated), but Smith is just always invested in what Lisa cares about at any one time, and here, Lisa’s monomaniacal enthusiasm for the singularly uninspiring little critters comes across in charming, funny immediacy. The creativity of her pestering is all Lisa—leaving inventive little notes, forming elaborate collages, and, in my favorite touch, even winning over Carl and Lenny with t-shirts and guinea pigs facts. (“They jump straight up—it’s called popcorning!”) They’re just the sorts of ways that Lisa would use to win the day. Again, it’s always more satisfying when the show remembers that Lisa and Bart are little kids and not just mouthpieces for jokes written and delivered by middle aged adults, and Lisa’s inability to choose among the dozens of guinea pigs and her breathless “thank you thank you thank yous” once she gets her wish are just the right pitch. (Plus, it was funny, even sort of touching, that the rest of the family would stay overnight at a motel in order for Lisa to finally make up her mind—it’s also a nice touch when the show lets Marge and Homer be real parents for a change.)
It’s not really an episode about Lisa getting a guinea pig, of course (which is a relief, since guinea pigs don’t do anything), so the pig-plot is just a way to get the story rolling as little Pokey eats through the long-hanging living room sailboat painting, causing Homer and Marge to buy a landscape at the Van Houten’s yard sale that, once Kirk’s ugly chrome frame is removed, turns out to be a possible lost—and valuable—masterpiece. Part of the problem this season has been the overuse of barely connected A- and B-stories, neither of which are given time to develop, so this more unified plot is a definite improvement, with all of the rest of the episode given over to gags and character beats stemming off of that one driving comic conflict. So far, so good, especially as there are some really funny bits along the way. Homer’s extended “whoa” bit as he tries to come up with a reason for Marge not to tell the Van Houtens is genuinely funny (although the nonsensical appearance of the words in the clouds kills the joke). Marge reassuring Lisa that “Your pig-thing didn’t mean it” contains just the right trace of feigned mom-forbearance. And Homer’s comment that their financial situation—which could be alleviated by selling the painting and keeping all the money—is perpetually “one lost retainer away from the gutter,” again brings the Simpsons’ family realities nicely to the fore. Plus, the rock through the window gag is the funniest thing on the show, with a divided Springfield expressing both its displeasure and its approval by heaving note-wrapped stones through every pane of the bay window. Says Marge, bewildered, “We don’t even get this many Christmas cards.”
So far, so good, with Homer’s attempt to convince Marge to keep mum, the Van Houten’s inevitable discovery of the scheme, and the ensuing custody battle (and the re-separation of Kirk and Luanne) playing out with a refreshing logical progression. The end of the episode even manages to squeeze in a little heart, with Homer—discovering that the painting is actually a forgery—commissioning a picture that brings the Van Houtens back together.
It’s a nice story, with a generous amount of above-average jokes along the way. Milhouse’s also-ran status makes him the perfect foil for the wheelie gag—it first seems just a reality shattering bit with Homer, realizing Milhouse has told his parents about the painting, blowing Milhouse down the walkway, until the reveal that he’s wearing the wheeled sneakers that Homer bought him as part of the bribe to keep his mouth shut. And then it comes back as he’s wheeled silently away by his parents! Classic Milhouse. Even the missteps aren’t crippling—I’m not sold that Marge would be convinced by Homer’s argument that keeping all the money and never telling Kirk And Luanne is the right thing to do. (There’s some real tortured logic there to get around Marge’s scruples—Homer’s piranha/yeti comparison notwithstanding.) And the sudden appearance of Kirk’s stereotypical floozy ex to derail the auction (at the delightfully named “Gavelby’s”) is perfunctory and peppered with eye-rollingly bad wordplay (did she really call them “friends with bananafits”? Yeesh). But overall, “The War Of Art” clips along with businesslike assurance.
When Homer and Lisa take the ferry to the suspiciously accessible island where Kirk originally bought the painting, they come across its true creator, a boozy old forger voiced by Max Von Sydow, and the moment his twinkly gravitas is introduced, the episode’s fate is sealed. Van Sydow is exactly the sort of guest star you get when you want your episode of television to assume a resonance it may not have earned otherwise. I love Max, and, as he’s proved in roles from Ming the Merciless to Brewmeister Smith, Ingmar Bergman’s favorite actor can deliver a silly line with the lightest touch and greatest conviction in the world. His final summation about the worth of a piece of art is a lovely little speech—the way he intones “Beauty is beauty, whether it hangs on the walls of an art gallery or on a freshman’s wall at Cal State Fullerton” is the very definition of commitment—but it’s also largely irrelevant. Homer doesn’t need to understand the nature of art here. He needs to realize that being a selfish jerk is, well, selfish and jerky. And while he does commission the painter (“forger is such an ugly word—I’m an art forger”) to paint a loving picture of the Van Houtens and a replacement boat painting for Marge, his journey to the island is largely irrelevant as well. Look, if you get Max Von Sydow to give a wise sounding voiceover, it’s gonna sound wise—but that doesn’t make it so.
“The War Of Art” is like early Simpsons on an off day—pleasantly forgettable. Except that if the old show had a bad week, it was a safe bet that the next episode would be better. Now there’s the disheartening sense that an episode of quiet competence without any major missteps will have to suffice.
- I’m perfectly willing to concede that my recent in-depth study of a truly great season seven episode of The Simpsons may account for some of this pessimism. But then that’s sort of the point I’m making.
- As someone whose parents have always had an inexplicable fondness for guinea pigs, I can attest that those are very accurate guinea pig noises. And that guinea pigs are pretty pointless.
- Something tells me the whole guinea pig idea came into being when someone thought up the name of the guinea pig rescue shelter Cavy-at Emptor.
- According to the rescue-lady, afflictions guinea pigs are prone to: bumble foot, the slobbers.
- Marisol Espinoza is indeed the vice president of Peru.
- “Ah, kettle corn—the heroin of the farmers’ market.”
- That hideous jukebox picture better not still be there next week, continuity be damned.
- Homer’s signs of great art: nudity, holograms, something terrible happening to Jesus.
- No credits sequence, couch, or chalkboard gag tonight, presumably in deference to the extended history of the island’s beverage of choice, the caper-based Strupo. Is it worth the break from formula? Listening to Von Sydow’s recitation of phrases like “a palatable drink of last resort,” “wandering mouth,” and “the grey troll, angels urine, and brine of madness” (names for Strupo) makes me say yes.