So close, this one.
“Grampy Can Ya Hear Me” does a lot of little things well while frittering away the overall episode in about six different narrative directions. The script, credited to Bill Odenkirk, is packed with well-observed little character touches and clever side gags, while never settling on one storyline long enough to form the satisfying whole the episode is always on the verge of becoming. Unlike a run-of-the-mill B-minus episode of modern day Simpsons, “Grampy Can Ya Hear Me” stings because of how, with a few adjustments, it could have been a genuinely solid one.
Watching (or reviewing) late-period Simpsons is an exercise in finding your pleasures where you can. In each season these days, there are a few lousy episodes, a layer of half-realized ones, and one or two on top that remind you of what the show was—and, I maintain, still can be. It’s also an exercise in spotting the same dispiriting elements in the Simpsons formula and gritting your teeth that the people behind the show keep doing the same damn things. No one who’s read these reviews over the past five years or so will be unfamiliar with the complaint that the show keeps squandering promising storylines by cramming two, three, or more plots into the same episode. Nothing is served by this. Emotional beats, if they land at all, rely on our residual affection and understanding. On their own, they are terribly thin. “Grampy Can Ya Hear Me,” though, is the most egregious offender in this column I can remember in a long while. Which is a bummer, since all of the plotlines herein are executed with enough wit and understanding of the characters to make me wish for more.
First, the title of the episode seems to indicate that Abe Simpson’s new hearing aids allowing him to hear how he’s slighted by family and strangers alike will be the A-story. The satirical elements of The Simpsons have always worked best when tied to the personal, and Abe’s position as stand-in for America’s inconvenient old people has anchored some especially affecting episodes over the years. And, sure, the inevitable string of “long-winded, tiresomely unpleasant, throwback prejudiced” old people jokes have been a big part of Abe’s appeal as a character as well. Even at its most heartfelt, a great Simpsons never loses sight of its characters’ less-palatable sides. Here, the idea that Abe learns how everyone in his life has used his disability as cover while they talk about what a drag he is works as well as it does because, well, Abe Simpson is a drag. It’s mean that the family uses group-yawns to murmur strategy about how to get Abe out of the way (and Marge and Lisa both come off a trifle meaner than they traditionally do), but, as impetus for the extended Simpson clan to come together to the end, this is a fine setup.
When the resolution comes, though, it’s in a fleeting bit of subterfuge (the family has worked up a loving script, knowing that Abe would be able to hear but not see them all reading their appointed praise) that’s tacked on to the end of a diffusely busy episode. There’s a Bart-Lisa plot where Lisa engages her li’l bastard brother to break into Springfield Elementary so she can change a test she realizes she’s messed up. That leads to the pair discovering that Skinner is living in the school’s boiler room. Skinner is living there because he’s discovered that his mother lied to him about getting a big marching band scholarship to Ohio State way back when. Which leads to a detour where Skinner goes to Ohio State’s campus to see about taking them up on their offer as a 40-ish man (no dice), while someone in the writers room gets to throw in a lot of very specific OSU reference gags. And if all that’s not enough, the episode uses the long-form opening credits, and has not one but two tags at the end of the episode. In the first, Skinner finally gets to watch Game Of Thrones after moving back in, having wheedled parental channel lock concessions from a semi-repentant Agnes. In the even less-connected second, we get what could be a lost Hans Moleman-centric segment from “22 Short Films About Springfield.”
So, yeah, Abe’s story doesn’t pay off. Neither does Bart and Lisa’s. Or Skinner’s. (Moleman is never going to get a happy ending.) And all that’s a pity, as each story has a healthy handful of jokes and moments to recommend it. Abe gets off some vintage Grandpa jabbering, interrupting the planetarium show the family reluctantly takes him to for his birthday to complain that the show can’t have started because he’s talking and that would be really annoying if the show had started. (The show has started.) Drowning his sorrows at the Veterans of Unpopular Wars hall, Abe’s typically rambling story is rendered in pantomime when the grumpy bartender turns his own hearing aids off. (We only hear the suitably Abe-esque conclusion, “...and that’s how I opened the orange!”) And there’s a genuinely funny and random joke where the lady working the sunglasses kiosk at the mall shoots her upended display to put it out of its misery when she knocks it over fleeing Abe.
Bart and Lisa’s test-altering adventure works mainly because Odenkirk, as is usually the case, grounds the shenanigans specifically in their characters. For all the outrageous adventures the Simpson kids get into, their stories are richest when the writers remember to let them be kids. So, sure, Bart enters the Simpson house in the night in full ninja garb preparing the old “python in Skinner’s mailbox” gag when Lisa asks him for his sneaky expertise. But Bart and Lisa banter at each other like brother and sister, which is awfully endearing. (Bart, after Lisa offers to do his homework if Bart helps her alter her test: “Sounds like you can’t even do your own homework.” Lisa: “Ouch.”) And the bit of teasing Bart throws his little sister’s way once they hear unexplained noises coming from the boiler room is just right, too, as the frightened Lisa looks for reassurance that Bart is making up his ghost story while Bart denies it, asking, “Am I that creative?”
Skinner and the kids, too, have their moments, as the interplay among the three partakes of the relaxed, prickly chemistry they’ve built up over the years. Lisa, interrupting Skinner’s marching band tale with the fun fact that the dot over a lower-case ‘i’ is called a tittle, gets Skinner’s affronted nerdy response, “Don’t you think I know that?” Bart, while not exactly helpful, does blurt out, upon seeing Skinner’s squalid accommodations, “But you have a house with 30 pizzas on the way!” And even Skinner’s trip to Ohio State has some good jokes (although I’m sure you Buckeyes out there will find references to the Oval, Brutus, and the Woody Hayes statue a fuller comedy experience).
It’s as if there’s some directive these days to stuff each episode with a minimum number of gags per minute that keeps shoehorning unrelated plots together before the clock runs out. (Something unlikely, since, as we all know, The Simpsons will just go on forever... and ever... and ever.) I’d watch a full episode about Abe coming to terms with discovering how people treat him, or of Lisa and Bart teaming up in unlikely solidarity, or even of Skinner’s battle with his mom over dreams of drum major stardom. We like these characters. Love them, even. Even these too-truncated segments spark our inherent affection enough to make us wish we got to spend more time with them.
- Marge overhears the very specific details of Bart and Lisa’s plan but accepts Lisa’s explanation with a very funny, chipper offscreen “I believe and trust you, goodnight!”
- Apparently, Lisa never shared the staff-liner chalkboard shortcut Nelson taught her back in “Lisa’s Date With Density.”
- Squeaky Voiced Teen warns Abe about fleeing the darkened planetarium, yelling, “Your pupils aren’t ready for Earth light!”
- Skinner, looking for any cue to tell his marching band story, seizes on Lisa’s distracted stretch. “Then why’d you stretch only one arm?” “It was the only arm that needed stretching.”
- When Abe comes over to the Simpson house, we hear just the end of Homer’s amusingly inexplicable breakfast table announcement, “So it’s for all these reasons I will not be seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate.”
- Lisa’s nightmare sees her being stripped of the presidency when her second-grade duplicity is discovered. Her opponent: one Kenny Hitler.
- The Ohio State administrator admits that his lowest point was the day he discovered the Big 10 had expanded to 14 schools. “We never even noticed until Northwestern pointed it out!”
- Barney, objecting to being called the town drunk: “I’m also the state drunk!”