After two straight episodes suggesting the enduring potential of The Simpsons, “The Yellow Badge Of Cowardge” is a return to late-career form right in time for the end of the show’s 25th season. Which is to say, it’s a middling episode, indifferently constructed, whose chief pleasures come from familiarity and a few decent lines. It’s not bad, it’s not good—it’s an acceptable half hour of television whose very adequacy damns it.
Reviewing this season of The Simpsons has been an exercise in conflict—evaluating each episode on its own terms versus putting that episode into the context of the show’s history. I’ve been (not unfairly) dinged for wanting it both ways, but, honestly, I haven’t found any way around it, even after 22 episodes. The Simpsons has a lot of talent and stocked up goodwill at its disposal—but it’s also got a lot of negative baggage as well. No episode can be judged on its own merits without taking all that history into account, but comparing the show as it is to what it was is a dull, reductive enterprise. It’s a no-win situation, especially when the show ends its season on such a nondescript note as here.
Framed like a Ken Burns documentary about Bart and Homer’s parallel adventures, the episode benefits from having Lisa narrate events over a simulacrum of an evocative, Burnsian piano score, but then allows the framing device peter out without resolution. Bart’s story, with him betraying pal Milhouse during Springfield Elementary’s field day, exists in isolation from Homer’s, where Homer tracks down the guy who’d masterminded the July Fourth fireworks of his childhood. In each, there are a few decent character bits, but neither becomes its own entity, and neither really connects with the other. Again—everything’s fine and pleasant and entirely forgettable. For the season finale of the first quarter-decade of one of the most influential television shows of all time, that’s just not going to cut it.
Getting Glenn Close back (if only for a few lines in flashback) as Homer’s deceased mother would be an event—if her presence in any way mattered in the scheme of things. Instead she’s wasted, with only the idea that little Homer is so attached to the idea of the fireworks display because it traditionally drowned out his parents’ incessant arguing having any dramatic resonance. (Yeardley Smith’s narration as Lisa really helps sell it.) The long and storied history of the Bart/Milhouse relationship has produced some affecting comedy, but here the whole thing is perfunctory and rushed. (Milhouse’s response to Bart’s “Remember Nothing” cake elicits a funny “Who am I to argue with icing,” though.) And Lisa, offscreen for all but one brief appearance, brings signature pathos to the idea that the three-legged race allows her the experience of being “tied to someone who wouldn’t talk to you all year.” These are the little moments I take away from most of latter-day Simpsons.
Sure, it’s unfair to compare these new episodes to the undeniable greatness that’s come before. But as has been seen in the briefest, most tantalizing glimpses this season, there’s no reason why The Simpsons can’t harness all its still-considerable assets and be as good as it ever was. (I genuinely believe this, for all my griping.) Unfortunately, this year has more often proved that if you don’t bring along your accumulated affection for the past to an indifferent episode of the present, there’s often not much there to enjoy.
- Adjudicating the egg toss, Skinner reasserts the well-meaning obtuseness that makes him so endearing. After being pelted with eggs from students who know full well what they’re up to: “We will do this until we get it right!”
- Also, after Skinner spouts the cliché that some students have had to overcome higher hurdles than others, guest star track and field legend Edwin Moses states, annoyed: “All hurdles are the same size!”
- Poor Milhouse, being dragged off by Nelson: “The best day of my life just turned into every other day of my life.”
- “Son, what happened to you in the dark place behind the school? Something good?”
- “Are you God?” “No, but I shoot rockets into his face.”
- “Rounding out the pack are all the kids we never see.”
- “This is an angry sleepover. I’m only doing it because it was on the books.”
- “Take it from me, the boy who lied throughout…”
- Thanks to all of you for reading along this season. The Simpsons will be back next year, so take the interim, as I will, strategizing how to talk about it.
- Season grade: B-