Homer becoming a hipster is a pretty obvious plot, especially when there’s already a whole TV series built around affectionately mocking the bowling-shirt set. In fact, “The Day The Earth Stood Cool” is essentially a crossover episode, with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein guesting as characters similar to the ones they usually play on IFC’s sketch comedy Portlandia, plus Patton Oswalt to provide further alt-comedy appeal. It’s one of the most disciplined Simpsons episodes ever, with no B-plots and nary a tangent, and it’s the most consistently funny so far this season.
Like many classic Simpsons episodes, “The Day The Earth Stood Cool” has Homer responsible for a force that threatens to engulf Springfield, in this case a cluster of grey clouds bringing irony, retro chic, and organic farming from the Pacific Northwest. It begins with Homer befriending Terrence (voiced by Armisen), the goateed operator of a food truck selling elaborately handmade doughnuts. Homer is particularly taken by the nesting-doll doughnuts, containing an infinite variety of empty calories. The choice of doughnuts instead of cupcakes is a nice way of putting a Springfield slant on the story from the beginning (and, by the way, enough with the cupcakes already, food truck operators of America).
In hopes that he’ll look cool by association, Homer encourages Terrence to move into a house next door, along with wife Emily (Brownstein), whose “graduate degree in mid-century kitsch” helps her to remodel, infant daughter Corduroy, and son T-Rex (Oswalt). Intimidated by the cool names, Homer introduces his own kids in introducing to the new neighbors: “This is Ice Cream, Bungee Jump, and um, Viral Video.”
In a flash, Homer is bringing Bart and Lisa along to rock concerts, roller derby nights, and a Korean gangster film festival. Lisa is enthralled: “At the Art Walk, we walked into a gallery, and it was just a guy crying. That was the art!” Marge, whose combination of kind-heartedness and fear of the unknown has been one of the more consistent characterizations over the 23 Simpsons years, is less pleased with Homer: “The kids are a mess! You brought them home exhausted and pretentious!”
But what really freaks out Marge is a human function even more basic than collecting kitsch. Emily and her fellow hipster moms are righteous breastfeeders, and they assume that baby formula user Marge is one of them. “Maggie’s already milked me today,” Marge demurs when Emily begins lunchtime for Corduroy. She certainly isn’t ready to join the “milk circle” of mothers at T-Rex’s birthday party (“Holy areolae!” is her reaction), and when she drops a bottle of formula, the other moms turn on her.
Completing the Simpsons’ pariah status among the hip crowd, Bart gets into a fight with T-Rex when the latter insults Homer. “You, sticking up for your old man?” Homer tearfully asks Bart. “You’ve never done that before.” (Well, not this season.)
Homer is through with his neighbors, but it’s too late: An article about Terrence and Emily’s house in Dwell magazine attracts a horde of Portlandia types to town. The great Springfield Tire Fire is extinguished to make room for a farmers’ market, Springfield Elementary becomes a charter school with Portland indie band the Decemberists as music teachers, and Moe’s is overrun with dudes holding cans of Duff Blue Ribbon beer. As he’s passed on the sidewalk by a top-hatted guy on a unicycle asking his smart phone where he can buy spats, Homer laments to Marge, “What happened to our town? Everyone wears clothes from the past and uses computers from the future.” This episode could have gone into the weeds with gentrification issues, such as rising home prices and disappearing blue-collar jobs, but Homer and Marge’s bewilderment at how quickly they become outsiders in their own community is enough to make the point that cool cities have their own class system.
Salvation comes from the New York Times travel section, which calls Springfield “America’s coolest city” in a story with a photo of jeans-wearing Mayor Quimby on a tightrope at the nuclear power plant and the headline: “Under the cooling towers, a trendy oasis beckons.” The official designation means that Springfield can no longer be truly cool, and the hipsters flee town.
It may be self-serving for a 23-year-old TV show, one that will probably never fall deep enough into obscurity to be rediscovered by the cultural elite, to make fun of people who embrace every new thing until it’s “played out.” But one measure of Springfield’s resonance as an authentic, and truly organic, place is that it’s still affecting to see it under threat, even the danger is hipsterism rather than a giant dome.
Indeed, “The Day The Earth Stood Cool” could have made for a sweetly ironic series finale. At least for people who still unironically care about The Simpsons.
- The Onion and the A.V. Club get referenced as hipster markers in this episode. Marge is fooled by the headline “Scientists Prove Cat Heaven Real, Human Heaven Not” when she finds a copy of the newspaper on Emily’s coffee table. (I prefer the headline “Cold Sore Reveals Superhero’s Identity.”) Not one to get punked twice, Marge then assumes that the A.V. Club reviews — giving The Graduate an F and The Wizard Of Oz a D+ — are also satiric: “These fake movie reviews are so mean, it’s hilarious.”
- Upon meeting his new friend, Homer can’t help but stare in awe at Terrence’s crotch: “Your belt is a seat belt!”
- Homer realizes that he’s not, in fact, cool: “Black-and-white films make me angry. I can’t pronounce ‘artist’s-anal’… No only do I like Van Halen, but I think they keep getting better.”
- Terrence defends Ned Flanders: “I like him. He talks in rhyme, and he owns a whimsical store in a failing mall. He’s like the dad in a Wes Anderson movie.” Homer has an all-purpose retort for indie culture buffs: “Shut up with your names!”
- If The Simpsons were in 3-D, this episode would have terrifying, in-your-face shots of an iPhone, Terrence and Emily wriggling their toe sneakers, and an advancing mob of women in the process of lifting their blouses.
- The tag seems to be an apology for not giving enough attention to steampunk in the rest of the episode. Mr. Burns hosts an informational film about artisanal nuclear energy, with “atoms split by hand” and a daily selection of “electricities” including Madagascar Dark and Kona Old Zappy.