The Simpsons (Photo: Fox)

Recap-bot says: “The Simpsons... suffers from... season 29 fatigue...”

Pegging an episode of The Simpsons directly to a specific pop cultural target requires a whole lot more imagination to pull off than “Haw-Haw Land” can muster. The title, bringing in Nelson’s catchphrase, is at the top of the cleverness heap here, seeing as how the school bully and one-time Lisa Simpson paramour forms one point in the episode’s La La Land love triangle. But if you’re going to do a parody of a lavish Hollywood musical love story (and, as the episode tag jokes, accidental momentary Oscar winner), you have to bring a lot more to the enterprise than is on display.

As a rule, the less specific The Simpsons is to whatever piece of pop culture it takes on the better. Sheer, loopy imagination goes a long way, especially if the gags spin off from the source material into their own, self-contained conceit. Still, a Simpsons-ized La La Land could work, considering the show’s long history of musical moments, and placing Lisa at the center of this particular, jazz-flavored story seems a fine fit for such an endeavor. But, apart from the traffic jam opening musical number, there’s nothing musically memorable about “Haw-Haw Land” at all, instead grafting the aforementioned love triangle onto the premise. It’s particularly unfair to Lisa, who—in the episode’s rushed and unfulfilling treatment of her—is buffeted by warring affections that leave her at the whim of plot.

(Photo: Fox)

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Dragging the family along to the local STEM conference (cue limp “pothead Otto is disappointed by signage” joke), Lisa’s ears prick up at the sound of a snatch of piano noodling. (Why set up a jazz-themed episode at a science fair? For the “Bart gets into chemistry” B-plot we’ll get to, natch’.) Voiced by guest star Ed Sheeran (he’s fine), the cocky, handsome Brendan Beiderbecke channels Ryan Gosling’s prickly, sort-of smackable charm from La La Land, alternately encouraging Lisa’s artistic ambitions and patronizingly pushing her with tough love mansplaining. (You’re so cute when you’re wrong—Now channel that rage!”)

(Photo: Fox)

As smart as she is, Lisa’s fallen for the wrong guy for the wrong reasons before, so there’s a logic to the talented-and-knows-it charmer Brendan doing an end-run around her good sense and principles. And the fact that another of Lisa’s romantic mistakes, in the form of one Nelson Muntz, arises to complicate matters is promising in its own way, should the episode have committed to exploring the way that love can make even the most grounded and wise among us act like total ding-dongs. But “Haw-Haw Land” never does commit—not to its movie parody, to its musical aspects, or, most damagingly, to Lisa.

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Instead, she’s reduced to a plot device in her own episode, as Brendan and the effortfully crooning Nelson vie for her favor, leaving Lisa unconvincingly torn between two boys not interesting enough to be worthy. It’s not the concept but the execution that’s at fault here—Lisa’s initial “date with density” saw her channeling her deeply inappropriate attraction to bad boy Nelson into a thoughtfully heartfelt portrayal of a smart girl discovering the pitfalls of romance. (I did laugh here that Nelson can’t keep himself from mocking the object of his song, “My Funny Valentine.”) Here, though, that previous sort-of relationship isn’t much addressed, with Nelson and the inadequately sketched Brendan rising and falling in Lisa’s estimation solely at the necessities of the plot.

(Photo: Fox)

It doesn’t help that Bart’s B-Story, as moderately amusing as his newfound and concerning interest in dangerous chemistry is, shoehorns another whole episode’s-worth of plot into “Haw-Haw Land.” Existing in isolation from both the musical and romantic plots, it serves neither, and its rehash of the “Marge loses faith in Bart” theme is far too weighty for such a slight story. That Bart is blamed for spiking the teachers’ vodka with sulphuric acid (and costing Chalmers the tip of his tongue) is, well, okay that makes sense. But Bart’s whole arc here whips by, with Marge’s associated emotional journey hanging on for its life. The Marge-Bart relationship is the inspiration for one of the most emotionally satisfying “family” episodes of The Simpsons ever, another near-classic, and even a middling more recent one that at least gave over an entire episode to the characters. Here, if we didn’t already care about the Marge and Bart’s relationship, this whirlwind tour through it wouldn’t register at all.

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“Haw-Haw Land” is similarly rushed and unsatisfying all around. The movie parody just drifts away once the film-specific opening number fades out. Apart from that passable opening, there’s less musical effort put into the songs than any old Simpsons with a singing component. Lisa’s heartbreak when Brendan is whisked away from Springfield Elementary (because he lives just outside the school district) for the perfunctory wrap-up is as offhand as is her epiphany that she doesn’t need a guy to be happy. Nelson bows out because “no woman is worth learning music,” a better, more character-based joke than poor Lisa gets in what should have been her own showcase.

Stray observations

  • Considering how this La La Land riff came off, I’m not sure I’m ready for The Simpsons to actually do a Moonlight episode.
  • Despite how their relationship started, it seems that Frink and his Ex-Machina-esque girlfriend-bot are making it work.
  • Even the sign gags were secondhand this episode. “Give a hoot, read a book!,” the talent show sign warning parents that the doors are locked—that’s some sign-gag coasting.
  • Seeing Nelson and his goons approaching the ice cream shop, Lisa urges the anxious Brendan to just give back their cones. “No way, it was really hard to scoop!,” cries the Squeaky Voiced Teen.
  • The few other things that made me laugh: Smithers’ reluctant portrayal of mustachioed nuclear safety expert, Mr. Noodlestrudel; Wiggum calling Bart “Screwy Pasteur;” Wiggum explaining to Lou that helping Homer up to Bart’s treehouse with the department cherry-picker is “fat man courtesy.”
  • Throwaway gag to be disregarded: Bumblebee Man is actually two guys in a costume?

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