A serviceably funny episode with some good lines and an appearance from a reliable guest star, “What To Expect When Bart’s Expecting” nonetheless reiterates that current Simpsons episodes have a ceiling for what they can accomplish—and that it’s lower than it used to be.
On one level, the problem is time. The series’ ever-growing obsession with extended couch gags, credit tags, and general foofaraw truncates the time available to craft a coherent, contained, and emotionally satisfying story. I’ve generally enjoyed the rotating roster of guest animators for the couch gags this year, and tonight’s from Michal Socha is one of the best. An expressionistic trip through the nightmarishly gloopy world of Homer’s innards, the short is clever, energetic, and simultaneously funny and disturbing. That all being said, its length lops off a few minutes from the main story, as does the much less satisfying end tag, a Duff beer commercial with the barest of connection to the rest of the episode. (The unwieldy concept of the new Duff seven-pack is pretty funny, however.) Throw in a long Les Misérables-style musical number and a particularly lame Modern Family gag, and that’s about five minutes out of 22 spent not letting the emotional core of the episode breathe.
And there is an emotional core to the episode alongside the voodoo pregnancy, horse sex, and mob kidnappings, with Bart and Homer having it out in pretty bald terms about their relationship. At his best as a character, Homer illustrates the exaggerated but trenchant concept of the damage that a father inevitably does to his kids, and the fear and guilt that go along with that. Sure, not every dad is going to be passed out in his underpants with rocks glued to his face when the school bus shows up in the morning, but every dad is going to screw up big time and have to cope with the fact that all his dumb stuff is going to affect these little human beings who don’t truly understand that he is just making it all up as best he can. Over the course of the series, Homer’s struggle between his own selfish, oafish nature and his genuine desire to do right by his family has produced some of the most affecting and insightful sitcom moments ever. So here, when Bart and Lisa file onto the bus with Homer—underpants-ed and rock-faced—calling after them, “Don’t be me!” it’s an echo of all those times that Homer’s had the realization that he might not be the best role model for his kids. Unfortunately, as with so many such attempts this season, the family dynamics come off as rushed and perfunctory against the clutter of ancillary ideas.
Too often of late, Simpsons episodes have seemed to lose their plots. It’s as if the writers (John Frink has sole credit here) are bored with telling stories about these characters and drift off chasing whatever gag seems funniest. That can work—to a point. But The Simpsons at its peak had a unity of jokes and character that hasn’t been in evidence for a long time. It’s tempting to attribute this to the fact that no show should last for 25 years, that after a quarter-century all the stories and emotion and discoveries have been wrung from the Simpsons. That they’re dry. That’d be a shame if it were true, but I don’t think it is—The Simpsons offers an elastic, rewritable template of the American family that is theoretically inexhaustible, especially considering the talent involved. So when Bart calls out Homer for being a bad role model as he does several times in “What To Expect When Bart’s Expecting” (“Maybe when I’ve got a dad who shows up in the morning with no shirt on and rocks on his face, it sets, I don’t know, a low bar”), it should land harder, drawing as it does from 25 years worth of resonance. The fact that the theme falls flat here stems from the aforementioned storytelling indifference.
That Bart might think he’s somehow gotten his art teacher pregnant through magic means is as silly a setup as it gets, but it could play into Bart’s childish understanding of such things if it were developed that way. (Continuity sniping on The Simpsons is exceptionally dull, but he’s had “the talk” before on the show, hasn’t he?) Instead, it’s all of a piece with the slapdash nature of the plotting—it’s just a clothesline to hang jokes on (and gets dropped pretty quickly). So when Homer and Bart are kidnapped by Fat Tony in order to have Bart work his magic on the mob boss’ prize racehorse, only the intended stud turns out to be gay, and then Homer and Bart bring Tony’s horse together with an obliging Clydesdale in the next stall to the strains of their Broadway love song, there’s no integration. It all speeds by, jokes piling up on top of one another. There are some good jokes speeding by (Fat Tony’s filly, Cheese Steak, is clever as hell), but the sum is less than the parts because they aren’t in service of anything but themselves.
- “The convenient now Duff seven-pack: There’s nothing symmetrical about flavor!”
- “Why are you doing this to me, booze? I drank every kind of you.”
- Moe’s instructional video is partly funded by a grant from Canal+.
- Skinner’s enthusiastic “Smock up!” perfectly encapsulates his world view.
- Milhouse knows how school works. “Art teachers don’t have a desk—they just throw their purse anywhere.”
- Man, Rainier Wolfcastle’s career really must be on the skids if he’s costarring with Smithers, Princess Kashmir, and Selma.
- Always nice to hear Joe Mantegna back in Springfield. His deadpan response to Homer’s onomatopoeic sex advice (“You sound like every doctor I’ve ever been to”) is classic Fat Tony.
- “It’ll be the last sunrise you ever see.” “Don’t over-promise, boss. It might be overcast.”
- Homer, responding to Bart’s embarrassment at his playing naked Frisbee golf. “I just did that because it was a series of funny words.”
- “That’s great really. Really glad were getting a baby with a face.”
- Nelson sells “Haw haw!” insurance. For a buck, it really does seem like a bargain.
- After Homer borrowed his spatula, Flanders explains, “We just forego flipped food.”