Welcome to the 24th season of The Simpsons, whose debut episode is now closer in time to the original Star Trek than it is to The New Normal. No one expects the show to be as good as it was in its peak seasons, so the challenge is to evaluate the new episodes as if “Marge Versus The Monorail” never existed.
As a longtime watcher who quietly erased The Simpsons from my DVR queue several seasons ago, I have three criteria that a new episode can meet to be deemed watchable: Is there a coherent story? Does the episode make good use of the town of Springfield, one of the greatest mythological communities in all of fiction? And does the episode offer a smart take on some current cultural or political fad? To be clear, a “yes” to just one of these questions would make the 508th or 509th episode worthwhile.
“Moonshine River” doesn’t qualify on any count. Fox apparently selected it as the season premiere because of its guest voices: Zooey Deschanel, Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Sarah Silverman, all playing former girlfriends of Bart. The episode meanders into a parody of High Fidelity, where Bart tries to figure out why he’s so unlucky at love by chasing down his previous girlfriends. When he finds Mary Spuckler (Deschanel) in New York, dressed like Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, we get a parody of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, complete with Mary’s dad, Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, showing up to drag his daughter home.
Naturally, Bart loses Mary all over again, and he apparently learns something about love and heartbreak, but “Moonshine River” never aims for the show’s affection toward its characters in the early seasons. Bart asks Homer how he and Marge stayed together for so long, and Homer tells his son to “Look in the mirror, unexpected miracle!” Another bit of Homer’s wisdom: “Love doesn’t exist except briefly between a man and a woman before marriage. After that, it’s just hanging out with someone who kind of hates you, but you can’t get it together to leave.” There have been cynical jokes like that since the beginning of The Simpsons, but here the sourness just hangs over the rest of the episode, with no rebuttal from Marge or anyone else.
So the story stinks. And Springfield’s singular quirkiness doesn’t save the episode. The first line of the 24th season is from the town’s leading TV reporter: “This is Kent Brockman at the first annual Springfield Grand Prix, which, like all of our showcase town events, is not only poorly planned (chuckles), it’s horribly executed!” As it turns out, the car race is taking place on the same street, at the same time, as a Tour de France-style bicycle race. And part of the street is closed off for repairs. The result is a series of fiery crashes and a gigantic ball of twisted metal in the town square. When Bart hears some frantic tapping coming from inside the wreckage, Chief Wiggum uses a taser to quiet whoever is still alive in there. Again, The Simpsons has always had some sick humor, but I don’t remember it being this consistently cruel and, worse, generic. There’s nothing uniquely Springfield about any of this, unlike Whacking Day or an Itchy and Scratchy parade or a feud with Shelbyville. It’s just subpar cartoon violence.
The best reason for The Simpsons to still exist is so it can satirize things that weren’t around when it started. You can’t say, “Boy, I wonder what The Simpsons would have done with this!” as long as it’s still on the air. Last season’s finale, “Lisa Goes Gaga,” is no classic, but it’s fine as a good-natured spoofing of guest voice Lady Gaga. “Moonshine River,” on the other hand, has a takeoff of the 1957 film Sweet Smell Of Success, in addition to the 1961 Tiffany’s. And its New York scenes are based on tired gags about pickpockets, scuzzy subway riders, and Shakespeare in the Park, with glimpses of Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Al Roker, and the Naked Cowboy. There’s a joke about Homer being too out of shape to climb the stairs to the High Line, but Times Square looks the same as it did 20 years ago. I was looking forward to seeing how Homer would befoul the new pedestrian park that replaced parts of Broadway.
Much like the cold openings on The Office, the “couch gags” that open The Simpsons are now consistently the most enjoyable part of the show. During the past couple of seasons, the extended opening scenes by guest animators Banksy and Bill Plympton were more talked-about than any episode itself. “Moonshine River” opens with a cute, 40-second cartoon depicting the Simpsons as butterflies menaced by a mallet-wielding Baby Gerald (a.k.a. the Unibrow Baby). The show’s continued ability to do vignettes rather than full stories gives me some hope for next week’s annual “Treehouse of Horror” episode.
- The screener for this episode ends with the announcement of a couch gag contest; the winning entry will have his or her idea animated and brought to the air. I don’t see anything on the show’s official website yet, but check thesimpsons.com to find out how you can write a terrific opening that you can then hope is attached to a decent episode.
- Mayor Quimby distracts the crowd from the tapping sound in the ball of wreckage by inviting everyone to tap their feet to the sounds of “Scab Calloway and His Non-Union Band.” This feels like a placeholder joke that’s been on reserve since 1990 and finally made it to air.
- Bart to Homer: “But you love New York, now that your least favorite buildings have been obliterated”—pause while we recall Homer’s misadventures at the World Trade Center in “The City of New York Versus Homer Simpson”—“old Penn Station and Shea Stadium!”
- Lisa produces an impromptu version of Romeo And Juliet in the park after its feuding cast—the Baldwin brothers and the Sheen/Estevez brothers—walk out.
- Cletus ordering a train ticket: “One on-getter for the clickety-clack, please.”