The Simpsons (Screenshot: Fox)

I’ll say one thing for “Frink Gets Testy:” It’s unsatisfying in a different way than usual for latter-day Simpsons. Starting out with some truly fine gags and a setup worthy of a classic, high-concept Simpsons episode, it had me laughing—out loud, even—far more than any episode has in a while. And then the realization that it had gone into its third ad break with all its plot threads still hanging made me groan (although not out loud). There clearly just wasn’t enough time to pay off some promising and enjoyable storylines, and, indeed, the rushed conclusion perfunctorily wrapped them up, leaving me—and here’s the unusual part—wishing it were longer. (I could actually see this extended into a second feature film, if there were to be such a thing.)

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The Simpsons, by its nature, can do anything, no matter how outlandish, outrageous, or otherwise loopy. Build a monorail, take a job with a supervillain, go on the space shuttle (although not to Rigel 7, thanks), fight baboons, fight with starfish—it’s all in the writing. It’s how all the hijinx are made, not believable in our puny human sense, but plausible as an outgrowth of these characters and their weird, elastic world. “Frink Gets Testy” reminds me of a long-ago episode like “Bart’s Comet,” where, as former colleague David Sims said of that season six favorite’s apocalyptic events:

The episode hurtles from the vaguely implausible (Bart is somehow the first to detect a comet hurtling towards the earth) to the very implausible (Congress rejects evacuating Springfield because of a rider granting $30 million “to the perverted arts”) to the totally implausible (the comet is burned up and shrinks to the size of a Chihuahua’s head) without missing a beat and it’s just fine.

The Simpsons can fit all those elements and more into the reality it’s built up in three decades, the key being how they all emerge not as wacky (or sentimental) for their own sake, but in keeping with The Simpsons’ own internal (if deeply silly) inner logic. Here, the idea that Mr. Burns would be so freaked out by a broadcast of what’s clearly meant to be ludicrously unnerving 1981 Nostradamus documentary The Man Who Saw Tomorrow that he would commission both a space ark and a citywide test to determine who’s worthy to repopulate the universe is a thoroughly promising setup. (It also allows the show to bring in Maurice LaMarche to reprise his stellar Orson Welles, who lent his baritone gravitas to the narration of the original, thoroughly bananas movie.) All along the way, the first few acts of the episode had my ears perking up, as the evocative premise birthed line after funny line. There’s even a funny song for Frink, as he disabuses the self-satisfied Springfield MENSA members of their smugness at “a test we took well when we were six.”

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(Photo: Fox)

Frink’s a funny character when he’s in his element, and putting him in charge of a rigorous (or rigorous-seeming, as it turns out) eugenics program for the future of the human race is most definitely right in his wheelhouse. Bursting into MENSA headquarters, he blurts enthusiastically, “Being intelligent people, I am quite sure you will take this well!,” before laying out his plans for a more all-inclusive PVC (personal value quotient). There’s a refreshing love of quick sight gags through the episode (credited to Dan Vebber), with Frink’s announcement being met by a perfectly deployed series of smart person projectiles (a Rubik’s cube, a globe) from offscreen, coupled with some prime Frink gabbling. (With the pelting, and the bonking, an the compass sticking in his neck.) Hank Azaria makes a funny meal of Frink’s subsequent sing-talking musical pitch, which proclaims the value of emotional intelligence, artistry, sympathy, empathy, complex socialization, and plenty of other space ark-worthy qualities before Burns, buying in completely, asks the nicely silly question, “Anyone have a song in rebuttal?”

(Photo: Fox)

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No one does, so the entire town is set to work both taking a mandatory test (where, as Carl and Lenny demonstrate, the sheeplike populace is all to willing to turn over all their personal information to a “secret corporation” in exchange for the occasional drone-delivery), and building Burns’ ark. (Which looks not a little bit like the Planet Express ship from Futurama, where Vebber used to work) So, with stage one of the premise under construction at the same time, stage two introduces the concept of how this mass hysteria-induced project is going to affect the Simpsons. There, too, a few promising subplots split off, as Lisa becomes obsessed with the fact that that she’s revealed to be one point behind Ralph Wiggum on Frink’s scale, while Bart resides at the very bottom of the list, condemning him to be surely left behind to the terrifyingly vague Nostradamus’ prediction. That Lisa would get fixated on scoring only 475 on Frink’s 500-point scale (next to Ralph’s inexplicable 476) makes delightful sense.

(Photo: Fox)

She at first sighs in relief that she’s high enough to satisfy that fact that, as she puts it, “all my self esteem comes from tests,” while still leaving a modicum of room for polishing and refining. So she starts annoyedly tailing Ralph, whose day, as expected, takes the form of enjoying the playground slide backward and eventually wandering blissfully through the high rigging of the Burns ark construction site. Along the way to that point, Vebber throws in some jokes I’d put up next to any of the show’s best. Lisa checks Ralph’s phone to find an automated menu from the Chief instructing callers to press one “if Ralph is stuck in something,” and two if “something is stuck in Ralph.” (Three is for Ralph, instructing him not to take apart the phone, as “Daddy is not in the phone.”) Seeing Ralph wandering, “Swee’Pea” or “Mr. Magoo”-style on the high steel, Wiggum reassures Lou that Ralph is fine, since he’s not a cartoon cat in this scenario. “Never be a cat in a cartoon, Lou. Never,” the Chief pronounces solemnly.

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(Photo: Fox)

On the other hand, Bart’s dilemma (about which he adopts his signature “who needs a stupid space ark anyway” defensive posture) turns out to be a red herring, as Homer’s atrocious penmanship on the test not only saw his entry being mistaken for Bart’s, but—at least partly—accounted for his position as the town’s dumbest dummy. First, there’s another great joke, where Marge’s angry demand that Frink check his data on Bart’s behalf hears Homer let out a peerlessly amazed, “Wow, Marge, you really love Bart!” (Dan Castellaneta, take a bow.) Then, after tweeting out his failure in order to get ahead of the story (Homer’s handwriting isn’t the only issue, certainly), there are some more funny gags as all of Springfield treats Homer with condescending concern in the following days. Attempting to see the new Noah Baumbach joint (Brooklyn Bound, starring, I’m spitballing here, Greta Gerwig), he’s instead steered into The Nut Job 3: The Squirreling. The Apple genius bar rejects him. The sarcastic clerk guy (his name’s Raphael, by the way) fleeces Homer for the dumb guy aquarium admissions package. (Never buy the splash insurance.) The dispirited Homer self-selects out of Mel’s Shakespeare in the park performance to see Sesame Street On Ice. Even his drinking buddies’ patronizing drives him out of Moe’s to the cross-street establishment “Shmoe’s.” “Hiya, Homer,” greets a suspiciously Moe-esque voice from inside.

(Screenshot: Fox)

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It’s around this point that it became clear that the episode wasn’t planning on paying any of these threads off as satisfyingly. The turn that Marge sets out to tutor Homer on his handwriting does lead to a lovely little montage, scored to some half-sincere swoony, inspirational music, of Homer working to improve, culminating in him leaving a trail of lovely but still Homer-like calligraphy notes for Marge to follow. (She is as lovely as a bowling ball right out of the ball-polisher.) But the whole penmanship thing is an unprofitable short-circuiting of the “who gets to go on the space ark” storyline, which itself is shunted off to single scene right before the end credits. Everyone turns on Burns just as his actual, functioning rocket(?) speeds off into space, leaving Smithers forlornly behind and the lone Burns being strangled by a robot servant. As stated, The Simpsons can accommodate the far-fetched as long as some rigor is applied. This is the sort of narrative shrug that makes a guy feel foolish for having gotten invested in the story in the first place.

Lisa’s story, too, comes to naught, albeit with Frink’s amusing confession that he’s bumping Lisa up ten points for “discovering huge flaws in my test without telling anyone.” Again, the promising setups for Lisa’s story, Homer’s story, Burns’ story, Marge’s fierce defense of Bart, the town’s (admittedly underdeveloped) doomsday mania—they all unfortunately get left behind by Burns’ too-hasty rocket trip.

Stray observations

  • Burns, freaked out by the doomsday doc, orders Smithers to “release the comforting hounds,” a pile of cuddly sheepdogs. (He’s still going to have them skinned, naturally.)
  • LaMarche’s Welles is always a hoot. I especially liked Burns’ heavenly dream sequence, where Welles confesses that he’s already way over-budget with that rainbow God asked him to direct. No worry—Welles is planning to cut costs by playing the color red himself.
  • Lisa is reading The Girl With The Rub-On Tattoo.
  • We can spot Frink’s back-flipping dance double hiding behind the couch during his musical number.
  • My biggest laugh came from Welles ominous pronouncement that Nostradamus had accurately predicted large wars in Europe, “similar to the large wars he’d seen in Europe.”
  • Marge and Homer do share a silent look of concern at the claim that Nostradamus’ doomsday will come after the election of the Antichrist as president.
  • “Silence, you thinkertons!” I’m also a sucker for old-timey Burns-isms.

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