Fresh off a summer of Simpsonsmania, thanks to the phenomenally successful FXX marathon of every episode ever, The Simpsons returns for its 26th season with a nondescript, anti-climactic premiere whose overstuffed cameos and would-be big character death amount to little more than a disspiriting confirmation that its best days are, indeed, long gone.
Going into this season, the show is pitching hard for new viewers. There’s the much-hyped Family Guy crossover tonight (see the end of this review for my take), and a later one with Futurama (which might actually be palatable.) There are the usual, impressive array of guest stars in the offing, and tonight, as promised all summer, a character dies!
It’s Krusty’s father.
Hank Azaria teased that the returning character would be someone who’d won an Emmy on the show, and while Jackie Mason’s initial turn as Rabbi Hyman Krustofski was something of a big deal, he hasn’t been anything like a major part of the show, and his death here is, like his final word to his son, “eh.” For one thing, the 83-year-old Mason sounds tired throughout, exhibiting precious little of the snap the crotchety Krustofski brought in the past. For another, Krusty’s not a strong enough character to carry an episode—he’s a supporting character who needs the strong guiding hand of number one fan Bart to support an A-story. And while Bart does help Krusty find some closure over his father’s supposed disapproval by leading him to the services of the late Rabbi’s favorite, the jokey Rabbi Rudenstein (whose schtick is ripped off entirely from Krusty), there’s just not enough emotional investment in Krusty to drive an entire episode. (Especially a season premiere.) When an act break ends on Krusty bemoaning the sudden death of his dad by exclaiming, “He never lived to see me successful!,” there’s no emotional punch, and the show goes to commercial on an awkwardly flat beat. Perhaps Krusty’s voice is simply pitched too broad to sustain such a moment, but sustain it it does not.
Attempting to fill up the season opener “wow” factor, “Clown In The Dumps” ladles on the guest stars, to little effect. Apart from Mason, Kelsey Grammer gets one line as Sideshow Bob, David Hyde Pierce (as himself, not Sideshow Cecil) gets two (starring alongside Krusty’s monkey in a production of The Odd Couple), and comedians Jeff Ross and Sarah Silverman show up to roast Krusty, precipitating his crisis of comic confidence. (Thankfully, Carrot Top’s is only a wordless cameo.) None make much of an impression, with the roast material being particularly weak, despite Ross getting an extra minute to insult Krusty over the end credits. (I admit to a personal distaste for the whole Comedy Central celebrity roast culture, over which Ross rules. Still, those were lame jokes.)
There’s a rushed B-story, with Krusty’s grief over losing a father causing Lisa to obsess over Homer’s safety. And while Yeardley Smith, as ever, imbues Lisa’s little girl fear with affecting urgency, the whole plot puttered along in sketchy abruptness. (Smith’s horrified “Oh no!” upon being obscured by the enormous helping of potato salad on Homer’s plate is the sort of wrenching little touch that she does so well.) With several seasons’ worth of intense, latter-day Simpsons watching under my belt at this point, I reiterate that this inability to weave the A- and B-stories into a unified episode has become pretty glaring, and the series’ growing insistence on extended opening and closing gags only serves to exacerbate the problem. The meat of a contemporary Simpsons episode is too-often sandwiched between long couch gags and end credits gags. Even if those things are funny (tonight was one-for-two, which we’ll get to), it leaves the actual narrative with precious little time to establish itself. The resulting episodes often feel both thin and plot-heavy, a jumble of bits piled up to advance the story without time and space for the character beats to breathe.
Here, Lisa gets over her worries when her bubble wrap cocoon saves Homer from Otto’s reckless driving and Krusty finds peace in the idea that his dad thought he was funny after all. (“My father respected me but could never tell me! That’s Jewish Heaven.”) As a season premiere, “Clown In The Dumps” is not a good sign for the revitalization I still maintain The Simpsons is capable of. If rewatching years and years of great episodes this summer suggested anything, it’s that this world still has some juice left in it, and that this cast—loaded for bear with a quarter-century of experience in these characters—are uniquely positioned to produce a great show every week. Maybe next week.
On that couch gag:
From the great Don Hertzfeldt comes easily my favorite of the ongoing series of couch gags from famous animators. When Homer whacks the TV remote, he’s sent to “Septembar 36.4, 10,535,” where the Simpsons (or “Sampsans”) have mutated into gelatinous grotesqueries which seemingly retain only their broadest characteristics (and the ability to feel pain). Lisa’s innate need for self-expression has caused her mouth to grow, xenomorph-like, on a stalk and shout repeatedly, “I am Simpson!,” while Bart is just a shuddering blob choking out catchphrases. (His strangled “Don’t have cow man!” is chilling.) Marge is just an undifferentiated mass of hair and crazy eyes, urging all to “Hail to the lord of the dark moons!,” while Maggie is a ball of goo with a pacifier, ordering all to purchase “Sampsan” merchandise, including, “helmat, lasar hat, moon vest, ape spray, and mating gel.” Homer, floating tentacles and all, thinks back (via a jarring window effect) to when his family wasn’t this hallucinogenic nightmare (“All animals can scream!” exclaims Marge-blob) to past incarnations (which are still pretty trippy), when they could still, nonetheless, communicate with each other, culminating in a pair of barely recognizable Homer and Marge creatures saying “I will never forget you.” Squid Homer’s sad “doh” upon returning to his present is bizarrely heartbreaking. I know I complain about the length of these couch gags, but this is brilliant stuff, and hurts my brain as much as Hertzfeldt’s classic “Rejected.”
On that Family Guy episode:
While technically a Family Guy episode and therefore not my beat, I did watch the hour-long Simpsons/Family Guy crossover “The Simpsons Guy.” It was, as expected, peppered with more-or-less even-sided jokes about each show—Homer and Peter’s argument about their hometown beers allowing for the “rip off “ vs. “not as good as it used to be” labels to get aired out, and Brian explaining that the Griffins “probably aren’t allowed to say” what state Springfield is in. There was obvious effort put in on the animation front, with some depth of detail in the episode’s rendering of the Simpsons’ world and ambitious animation (especially during the protracted Homer/Peter “chicken fight” that concludes the Griffin’s ill-fated detour into town). As ever, the underplayed drollery of Brian and Stewie had some reliably amusing moments—Brian talking down to Santa’s Little Helper over his eating habits and slavish Stewie’s adoration of Bart were the sort of finely observed verbal comedy those characters can bring to the party. It was as competent a piece of corporate synergy as one could have hoped for. And I reject it completely.
When Stewie jumps in on Bart’s prank phone call to Moe’s with a gleeful, “Your sister’s been raped!” When Meg, seeking companionship from Lisa, shows her gratitude for Lisa’s kindness by capping off a litany of her personal grotesqueries by carving Lisa’s name bloodily into her arm. When Stewie tries to get in good with Bart by ball-gagging and torturing Nelson (and Principal Skinner, Apu, Jimbo, and Sideshow Bob). When Peter and Homer’s fight ends up offhandedly injuring children and culminates in a bloody, tooth-detaching climax. When, in its very existence, the episode allowed Family Guy’s sensibilities to seep into The Simpsons’ universe, I felt myself growing genuinely angry.
Look, The Simpsons isn’t what it used to be, and has lost some of its heart over its quarter-century. And there’s a place for deliberately provocative dark comedy predicated on intentional offensiveness (even if Family Guy remains a shoddy example of same). But the two shows are incompatible for one central reason—humanity. Family Guy can cross over with The Simpsons, or any other show for that matter (I nominate Brickleberry, simply so both series will be in one, easily avoidable place) and emerge essentially unchanged because none of the characters have any emotional stakes. Family Guy’s Quahog operates on an unending cycle of mean-spirited cruelty and intermittently amusing (and irrelevant) cutaway gags. So Meg can find the one person in Lisa who can reach through the tiresomely incessant abuse and ridicule she suffers—only to be pummeled back into self-loathing submission to her fate at episode’s end, because who cares? It’s only Meg—she’s fat, and gross, and unlovable, and isn’t it hilarious? For all its accumulating faults heading into its second 25 years (or however long), The Simpsons’ Springfield has room, amidst all the wackiness, for character, and heart, and growth. These shows have different styles of comedy, fine. But only one of them is diminished for having been associated with the other.
- According to a billboard in the opening, the bullies now accept Bitcoin.
- “Aw, nobody warned me this roast would treat me the same way as every roast I’ve seen and laughed at.”
- “How can they say I’m past my prime? Me—the voice of Ovaltine!”
- “I guess my gettin’ up days are over.”
- “Can you stop comforting me now?”
- “So Krusty, what brings you here? And don’t say clown car.”
- “C’mon, Milhouse—don’t pretend you’re asleep. This is the world we live in.”
- Harry Shearer continues to utilize his Kent Brockman delivery to satirize newscaster vapidity, this Perd Hapley-esque sequence benefitting immeasurably from Shearer’s cadence: ““What will Krusty do now? I suppose only time will tell, which I suppose is true for all news stories I guess. Well, until anyone realizes, I’m Kent Brockman, adding no new more useful information. And here’s another sentence. You can tell I’m winding it up because my voice is going up…and down…like this.”
- That’s Futurama alum Maurice Lamarche brought in to voice both Rodney Dangerfield and cultural critic Clyde Merriwether, who sounds suspiciously like Lamarche’s peerlessly snippy Orson Welles.
- A lot of Jewish jokes this episode, which makes sense, as Krusty’s two tours of “Jewish Heaven” are informed by Krusty’s imagination, and therefore hacky. But the gags themselves aren’t funny—there’s a “kosher pickle forest,” a store called “Oys ‘R’ Us” (“The whole store is a complaint department!”), and the Joe Lieberman Presidential Library. Oy, indeed. Nice to see the Marx Brothers enjoying the afterlife, though. And of course Rodney would be in the “super VIP section” with Jesus.
- According to Merriweather, Krusty is responsible for “the invention of the payment of alimony by dropping hot pennies from a helicopter.”