After a nearly month-long hiatus (congratulations to my Red Sox, by the way), I was looking to this third Simpsons episode to set the tone for season 25. The first episode was something of an attention-grabbing stunt (although a pretty good one), and the second, this year’s “Treehouse Of Horror,” was another. Now that all the splashy gimmick episodes and reviewer-delighting World Series action are past, we get to the season proper, and the chance to intuit what sort of experience we’re in for. Unfortunately, on the basis of “Four Regrettings And A Funeral,” things don’t look too rosy in Springfield.
Spurred on by the tragic death of one Chip Davis, who the church message board proclaims, “Springfield’s most beloved character that you never saw,” four parishioners (Homer, Mr. Burns, Kent Brockman, and Marge) ruminate on their single greatest regret. Introducing a one-off character for this kind of joke isn’t an unprecedented idea, but the episode does exactly nothing with it apart from using it as a pretext to launch four parallel storylines which ultimately come together, although not because of the poor Chip. After the opening credits, his function dispensed with, the Chipper doesn’t factor again.
That wouldn’t be a problem (although it is the sort of flimsy device mediocre writing depends on) if those four stories were compelling. However, each, necessarily streamlined for time, never works up enough momentum to generate interest on its own. Homer sold his Apple stock for a fancy bowling ball. Mr. Burns lost his one true love when she realized how much of a selfish dick he was. Kent Brockman didn’t follow guest star Rachel Maddow to cable years ago, being content, as she puts it, “suckling the dual teats of infotainment and celebri-fawning.” And Marge? Um, looking for a way to blame herself for Bart’s bad behavior, she fixes on the fact that she listened to KISS while pregnant. (While I’d probably buy an album of Julie Kavner singing KISS covers, that joke goes decidedly nowhere.) I’d call the structure moderately ambitious nonetheless if these disparate storylines all wove together at the end, except that fully half of them don’t. When Bart pulls a Danny Deckchair with some balloons and a laundry basket, Homer’s beloved bowling ball saves the day, and Kent rediscovers his love of small-town human interest stories by reporting on the rescue. So far, so good. But Marge just continues to fret over her KISS theory, and Mr. Burns, ladling out soup to homeless people to pay homage to his dead lady love, is completely unintegrated with the rest of the episode. With the title (and premise) of “Four Regrettings And A Funeral,” it seems incumbent on the writing to have the funeral and the regrets pay off of each other somehow. Instead of, as here, limply coexisting in virtual isolation.
It’s conceivable that an episode with a shoddy structure could be salvaged by some great individual jokes, but there's no such luck on that front, either. The callbacks and in-jokes engender nods of recognition but nothing like laughter. Krusty’s the one who started the infamous Springfield Tire fire? Makes sense. Joe Namath is back for a one-line cameo? Sure—I remember when he was on the show that one time. There’s just no snap to the jokes, if indeed they constitute jokes and not mere references.
The same goes for the flabby, toothless attempts at satire. When Kent Brockman, attempting to make up for having never dared leave Springfield for the big time, applies for a gig at Fox News, the one joke is that they change the chyron under a disgraced Republican to say he’s a Democrat. And while there are suspicious incidents of such party re-branding on Fox’s resume, the dig barely rates in the “bite the hand that feeds you” annals. It doesn’t smack of timidity (The Simpsons has gone after their corporate parent with vigor before—I still salute their chutzpah for the gag Fox News logo “Not racist, but #1 with racists”), but it's just too obvious. The episode-long Apple runner is even muddier, with a minor Siri dig sandwiched between effusive praise of the computer giant’s ubiquity and success. The self-referential apology flashed on-screen late in the episode (“This is the last time we suck up to Apple, we’re not even getting paid for this”) throws a lampshade on the odd practice (maybe the writers are just angling for free laptops), but that just serves to illuminate how unfocused the joke is. Burns’ deceased long-lost love crumbles to dust when he kisses her goodbye—there’s both a flippancy and unreality to it that’s disheartening. And don’t get me started on Homer’s “Heavy blue balls are the future” line or [shudder] the “Milhouse’s nose is Bart’s penis” gag.
Speaking of focus, The Simpsons has been criticized in its twilight for allowing cheap pop culture and/or random self-referential gags to draw attention from its character elements, and, watching the show intently for the first time in a few years, I have to join the chorus. Marge’s prenatal fixation with KISS seems to exist merely to set up Homer’s response to Marge telling him to act like Gene Simmons (“Overstay my welcome for 30 years?”) I mean, Homer’s not wrong, but he’s also violating the logic of the show for the sake of a pedestrian pop culture reference—Homer’s in the past, making a joke that won’t be relevant until the present. It’s all a contrived setup for an unexceptional zinger, and it takes the viewer out of the flow of the narrative. In other words, it’s a Family Guy joke, and that’s not what The Simpsons does at its best. The lifeblood of The Simpsons has always been, well, the Simpsons. And while the show’s elastic reality allows for more fantastical, plot-driven episodes (which are indeed some of the series’ best), when character is indifferently written or overshadowed by lame gags, the show abandons its greatest resource—and becomes as forgettable as its detractors claim.
- A long Lord Of The Rings cold open continues the trend of elaborate couch gags. It’s detailed and all, but nowhere near as memorable as Guillermo Del Toro’s epic from the “Treehouse Of Horror” episode.
- “I’ll tell you after this break.” [Rachel Maddow leaves and immediately returns with a cup of tea.] That’s a well-timed joke.
- “We’ll have all-new regrets tonight at 11, after an all-new bottle of scotch.”
- Burns, learning from his private eye that his former love has become a nun: “Married to Jesus, eh? Does he beat her?” “Jesus? Nope, he’s a real Eagle Scout, that one.”
- Getting ready to disrobe, Burns asks room service for “a Chinese changing screen.” I remain a sucker for old-timey Mr. Burns jokes.
- All the Apple-centrism might be traced to credited writer Marc Wilmore, who also wrote the very Apple-y “Mypods And Broomsticks.” He’s really earned that laptop by this point.
- While “technical problems” prevented Fox from running the stellar Mrs. Krabappel episode “Bart The Lover” (substituting the above-average “The Ned-liest Catch” in its place), the chalkboard gag, with Bart writing a single “We’ll really miss you Mrs. K,” really got to me. Invaluable comic support on two of the best sitcoms of all time? That’s a television legacy. Rest in peace, Marcia Wallace.