No one associates Homer Simpson with a strong work ethic, but at this point, the most impressive thing about The Simpsons is its diligence in carrying out the same job year after year. Tonight’s pair of episodes ends the series' 24th season, making it the longest-running American TV series with continuing characters outside of daytime soaps. In the second, “Dangers On A Train,” Homer saves a kiddie train from the scrapyard, repainting it and running it in circles in his front yard, and the show couldn’t be clearer in sending the message “We’re not going anywhere.”
I’ve been consistently critical of The Simpsons this past season, and the last two episodes do not represent a late rally. “Dangers On A Train” is notable for guest star Seth MacFarlane, the creator of fellow Fox show Family Guy and other animated series that emphasize quick cutaway gags over the slow-build comedy of The Simpsons at its peak. Family Guy’s influence can be seen in the moment during “Dangers On A Train” when Marge is watching Upton Rectory (a parody of Downton Abbey) and is informed that public TV airs the show thanks to “a sizable endowment from Hooters Restaurant and a generous grant from a man named Generous Grant.” Like so many jokes this season, this is the kind of thing smart-aleck viewers could easily come up with on their own, and there’s not much victory in the Simpsons scribes beating them to it.
More enjoyable in both of tonight’s episodes are the flourishes that come from the animators and writers who are clearly compelled to do something unexpected in the primetime slot that The Simpsons has been granted for as long as the show gets one-fifth the audience it did in the early 1990s.
In “The Saga Of Carl,” the something unexpected is a story set in Iceland (also visited in the 2010 episode “The Bob Next Door”). The episode starts with Homer, Moe, Lenny, and Carl winning the lottery, getting a not-so-grand $200,000 to be split four ways. Carl cashes the ticket and absconds with all the loot to the home of his adopted parents in Iceland; the rest of the guys angrily track him down. There are some labored puns (a restaurant called Yukki’s Grossfud, the guys driving a Fjord Fjiesta) and a repetition of Homer’s Ugly American act. (Addressing a crowd, he marvels, “You’ve managed to survive on a craphole island that looks like the moon and smells like rotten eggs!”) But there are also nicely drawn scenes with fjords, shallow volcanoes, the Northern Lights, and snow-dappled Nordic architecture. It’s not a very funny episode, but you get the sense that the animators enjoyed getting out of Springfield, and the score for the Iceland scenes, by indie rock group Sigur Ros, is at least a welcome change from the old-timey music that the show has been inexplicably fond of this season.
“Dangers On A Train” is more standard 2013 Simpsons fare, with another trip to the bottomless well of stories about Marge feeling neglected by Homer as their 10th anniversary nears. MacFarlane is the impossibly nice guy named Ben that she has a flirtation with, after meeting him on a dating website for married people wanting to screw around. (She thinks she’s ordering “snack cakes” for Homer from Dolly Madison, unaware she’s on the website Sassy Madison — a parody of this real-life thing.) Meanwhile, Homer is actually planning a grand gesture for his wife: fixing up the kiddie railroad at a mall that he and Marge rode on their first wedding anniversary. There’s no monorail-type disaster this time, and “Dangers On A Train” has one of the simpler and sweeter Homer-and-Marge reconciliations.
This is followed by a quick recap of the story, done with even cruder animation than the show had at its start—angular, spiky, and a little bit menacing. I don’t know whether this segment is more “We’re not going anywhere” bravado or just a fun way to pad out the episode. Either way, there’s no end game in sight for The Simpsons.
“The Saga Of Carl”: B-
“Dangers On A Train”: C+
Season Grade: C+
- As Ben, MacFarlane croons a few bars of “The Way You Look Tonight.” Homer is stuck singing “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” because, as he explains, it’s in the public domain.
- In “The Saga Of Carl,” Bart and Lisa’s obsession with an animated show called Ki-Ya Karate Monsters pays off when an exasperated Marge tries to distract them with a trip to the museum… only to find an exhibition called “The Science Of Ki-Ya Karate Monsters.” (I love her “Damn it!”) I’m sorry to report that my hometown of Boston is responsible for a similar “science” exhibition on Star Wars.
- Continuity: In “The Saga Of Carl,” Moe reveals that his draft beer is actually “just gasoline and hot dog water.” In “Dangers On A Train,” Homer invents a straw made out of a hot dog.
- Homer, rationalizing Marge’s long sessions on the computer: “Hey, those Yelp reviews don’t write themselves! Did you know that a well-placed one-star can destroy a mom-and-pop hardware in nothing flat?”
- Ben, lovesick over Marge: “Your Homer is the luckiest man on Earth!” Marge: “Well, he keeps falling down the cliff and living, so I guess that’s true.”
- More meta humor: Ben says of Upton Rectory, “Finally, a reason to watch TV on Sundays.”
- Homer wonders if his marriage “will last 25 years.” Bart looks into the camera and says, “Nothing should.”