First, a story.
Because the internet is a strange and wonderful and terrible place, I recently got yelled at by someone I respect (what I really mean is love) who called me out for a bad review of The Simpsons. I don’t know this person, nor this person me, but I have written glowingly about this person’s work on the show for, literally, years. I was accused of being flip and dismissive about the hard work that countless people do to bring an episode of The Simpsons to air, and I felt bad about that. Not about my review, which I maintain was fair, because the episode was a horribly written mess, but because I apparently gave to this person the impression that I took the task of reviewing one of the most influential and important—and my favorite—series of all time lightly. I don’t.
So here are all the complimentary things I have to say about “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” The show looks crisp, and vibrant, the show’s animation melding its cartoonish elements with a uniquely pleasing color palette to pop like no other show on TV. The title is a reference to one of the Beatles’ sludgiest and most un-commercial songs, a mesmerizingly plodding meditation on love and desire whose infamously abrupt ending feels like something breathtakingly catastrophic. There’s a title card at the end of the episode bidding a sad farewell to memorable one-time guest star, Luke Perry, which is very sweet.
I have nothing else to add.
What are we meant to get from this episode? I’m genuinely asking, as there is an almost complete lack of heart, narrative coherence, and—most damning of all—laughs. The whole sneering “Is this show still on?” chorus is something I reject, utterly, as the laziest and most contemptible element of Simpsons fandom, but I am, once more, asking what there is to like about this particular episode of The Simpsons. I genuinely don’t know. Here’s what I do not like.
The plot takes forever to get going, before going nowhere. Homer and Marge have to go to a drug conference. No, Homer and Marge have a bad babysitter problem. No, Marge and Homer crash a wedding expo. Sorry, Homer and Marge come home for some snuggling, only for Homer to drop Marge down the stairs, leaving him with a hernia and Marge with a sprained ankle. Homer’s pain pills make him hallucinate a little hernia gremlin pal (voiced by Wallace Shawn) who encourages Homer’s habitual sloth, while Marge takes up kite-surfing alongside her hunky physical trainer. Lisa seeks advice on saving her parents’ marriage from Shauna (said bad babysitter) and her boyfriend Jimbo, because she claims they’re the only couple she knows who like each other. (Even though Lisa is smart and capable, and Shauna and Jimbo threw a kegger in her house while she was supposed to be babysitting.) Homer independently decies to win Marge back, by kite-surfing. Homer and Marge kite-surf. Oh, and it turns out Marge’s trainer is actually a Russian spy.
So. What are we doing here?
Homer and Marge’s relationship troubles are a constant. Finding an excuse for Marge to question her marriage isn’t tough to do, all Homer things considered, so disparate levels of physical activity is as good as any. But there are no emotional stakes in Marge’s flirtation with kite-surfing, especially since beach-bod trainer Nigel (voiced by Hank Azaria in one of the least-realized accents he’s ever done) never presents anything like a Jacques-esque temptation. Homer’s own slothful bromance with the unfunny hernia goblin is even less entertaining. I love that Wallace Shawn exists, but their interactions aren’t amusing, or unnerving, or much of anything at all. Homer never seems truly out of control, leaving his little pal’s temptations superfluous and pointless. (Homer doesn’t need an imaginary friend to tell him to not exercise.)
Meanwhile, Lisa, Bart and Maggie flee their home in deference to bad babysitting, and are taken in by Flanders at one point, who feeds them coconut milk and disappears from the story completely. Patty and Selma tie a rope to the dozing Homer’s kiddie pool and tow it away with their car, and we never hear about it again. Lisa’s decision to seek out Shauna and Jimbo’s advice is beyond nonsensical, especially considering that neither character is given any redeeming qualities for Lisa to seek out. There’s a world of characters in Springfield, a 30-year-deep bench to bring into a story. But if there’s a case to be made that Jimbo Jones and Shauna Chalmers have some interesting or funny inner life to bring to the party, this episode doesn’t make it. Like the drug conference (where Skinner is made to snort the newest street drug for the parents’ edification), like the kite-surfing, like literally everything in this episode, Lisa’s arc is just one in a heap of details bereft of care, interest, or jokes. It happens. The story moves on. The end.
The relationship of Marge and Homer Simpson is, in its longevity and its satirical possibilities, an endlessly renewable resource. The Simpsons has earned its cultural ubiquity not just because of the essential, brilliant, unimpeachable comedy of its “good years,” but because it can still utilize its comic template of American family life to tell stories that ring with hilarious, universal themes. It can warp, and bend, and deform itself in the quest for a fully realized comic conflict, and then reset itself in order to do the same thing again. Its voice cast is, simply, the best in TV history, still capable of uncovering depths and nuances in performance—just as the show’s writers can—of characters we know as well as we know our three-dimensional, five-fingered friends and family. That intimate connection breeds hope that the show can be good each time it resets each week—and sometimes that hope is rewarded. Yes, even now. This episode is nothing. It barely exists. It’s a disconnected heap of shells of older plots and ideas and character beats without an original thought or gag to enliven a single one.