The Simpsons is back! That’s season 29, people, and what better way to plant your flag as the longest-running scripted show in American history than by wowing the post-football viewing audience with a tightly-plotted, character-driven story that combines heart and absurdity in equal measure? Well, how about a limply unnecessary stunt episode that mixes tired Game Of Thrones gags and a shoehorned emotional journey of a character no one really cares about? Who’s with me?
But I kid The Simpsons. “The Serfsons” is, for what it is, a serviceable goof of an episode whose biggest flaw is its utter disposability, especially as a way to kick off the new season. The show has done a gimmick episode as a season premiere more than once, and they’re perhaps intended to snag viewers with a few unambitious pop culture references. Fair enough. “The Serfsons,” on its own, has a healthy handful of such things, as—dispensing with any framing device or rationale for the fanciful outing—The Simpson family is the downtrodden peasant Serfson family in sort of a Game Of Thrones, Lord Of The Rings, Dungeons & Dragons mashup extravaganza. The GOT jokes see Marge’s mother (her wonted gravel-voice trying poor Julie Kavner’s vocal cords more than ever) being bitten by an “ice walker” (who looks just like a white walker, and talks like a stereotypical Ike Turner with a crone fetish). This causes strife in the Serfson hovel while Marge and Homer argue about the virtues of spending what meager possessions they’ve got (even their gelatinous cube and a feudal version of Spider-Pig) in order to buy the miserable old woman a few extra days, in the form of one of those inconveniently expensive but narratively very convenient magical amulets.
Thankfully, Lisa has been secretly practicing magic, and transmutes Homer’s lucky lump of unwisely lickable lead into gold. Less fortuitously, King Quimby’s wizards (including the humorously businesslike Sorcerintendent Chalmers) find out about the spellcraft and show up to steal Lisa away to the king’s secret child-wizard sweatshop. (They are seen accidentally whipping up an all-smelling tower instead of the Sauron-like omniscient eye he wanted, but, with child slave-labor, you get what you pay for.) This sets up a big battle sequence, as Homer rallies his fellow serfs, lepers (including Gil, naturally), and assorted even smellier-than-usual Springfielders to overthrow the whole feudal system. (Some ents pop up to help and—this still being Springfield—are instead chopped down to make siege ladders.)
Again, there’s nothing wrong with a goof. Fellow Groening-verse series Futurama did its own D&D quest riff years ago and it was similarly... fine. Here, pulling in the ubiquitous Game Of Thrones fan crowd (Kingslayer Nikolaj Coster-Waldau pops up as Marge’s sleazy twin brother, still with incest on his mind), alongside the more hard-core geeks, dorks, and fantasy enthusiasts (like those traditionally the Simpsons’ writers room) seems a sensible marketing strategy. There are decent jokes of the “funny medieval sign variety.” I thought the Apple Store gag was solid—the signature chomped apple logo advertises a store that sells apples with a single bite taken out of them. (Banana Monarchy also made me smile.) There are fantasy references that play more like easter eggs for Comic Book Guy than actual jokes. (Stores named Hyborian Apparel and Victarion’s Secret, and Zelda potions complete with rupee price tags are there to be found, if that’s your thing.) And the idea of Bart (and his goblin pal Milhouse) sending a prank raven to Moe’s (“Milady Parts” is not in attendance) made me laugh, especially when Moe dutifully scribbles out a threat to drain all the prankster’s humours. (“Blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm!”)
The meat on the turkey leg here comes in two varieties. Unfortunately, the Marge and Mrs. Bouvier story is hampered by the fact that that relationship has never been particularly interesting in the real world. (Meaning the Springfield without fire dragons. You get it.) The idea that Mrs. B doesn’t really want to keep on living, and that Marge’s unexamined zeal to prolong her aged mother’s life has the kernel of a fruitful story to it. The Serfsons’ family dynamic—while it does shunt Marge into her unflattering nag role—does make for some rather pointed conflict, as Homer, resorting to Lisa’s dark arts to placate his angry wife, soothes the repentant Marge with the patiently condescending, “Don’t blame yourself honey. We’re all at fault for doing whatever it takes to make you happy.” The same goes for Marge’s final confrontation with her mother, when Mrs. Bouvier makes an affectingly earnest plea for her daughter to let her go, explaining, “Life is about moving on.” It’s sweet, but rushed, and would hit a lot harder if it weren’t jammed in amongst all the references and in-jokes, and, you know, if Mrs. Bouvier had ever been an interesting character in her own right.
The other slyly funny theme running through the episode is Homer’s slavish (one might say “Trump-ish”) defense of the very unjust system that holds him down. Fleeing into a blindly patriotic rage against any of Lisa’s “anti-feudalist” tirades, Homer (seen groveling before the haughty horse of Rainer Wolfcastle’s knight character even after the thing smashes through the Serfsons’ hovel wall) is every blinkered “working class” (even if he doesn’t get paid) stiff who buys into the ruling class’ patriotic propaganda. Also, while Homer’s explanation, “It’s the only system we know, we have no choice about it, and therefore it’s the best,” of his allegiance to the (city)-state doesn’t specifically bring up race, the episode (credited to Brian Kelley) throws in hints that there are some suspiciously convenient scapegoats in this society, too. On the city walls, the heads on spikes include Rabbi Krustufsky and what appears to be the one-off Mexican character voiced by Edward James Olmos from a few seasons ago. Other heads include Maude and Ned, Seymour and Agnes, Cletus, Troy McClure, the Blue-haired Lawyer, and Frank Grimes but, considering the sneaky “head on a spike” controversy that Game Of Thrones snuck in there a while back, it seems like the show is doing something similar.
Overall, “The Serfsons” doesn’t really do much wrong. As ratings-grabbing stunt episodes go, it’s amusing enough, but it’s also entirely inessential.
- For a magical world, the color palette is relentlessly grey and tiresome to look at here.
- I liked Hank Azaria’s take on the Serfsons’ pet gelatinous cube who doesn’t mean any harm but, if the (now-skeletal) cat take a nap on top of it, that’s not the cube’s problem.
- Lisa is still Lisa, charmingly interrupting her rant against the wealthy by griping that they get to pose for portraits with unicorns, even though unicorns only like nice people, and she’s the nice one.
- Marge, counseling her mother on loneliness: “Don’t worry, everybody’s somebody’s weird fetish.”
- Krusty—the king’s jester, natch’—is diagnosed by Barber Hibbert with VD, in the form of (here we go) “genital smurfs.” (Called “snurfs” thanks to Fox legal.) Thankfully, we never see them, although they do toss their little white caps in the air, and out of Krusty’s tights, at one point.
- Aslan is a pain in everyone’s ass, E.B. White’s crypto-Christian fantasy themes turning the noble lion into the kingdom’s version of a Jehovah’s Witness.
- Bart, hearing Homer’s tales of heaven (“The Fields of Bliss”), complete with endless field-frolicking and ribbon-waving, is unimpressed, eventually introducing the concept of atheism to all the various denizens of the city.
- Homer, attempting to get on board with Marge’s plan to save her mother: “As crones go, she’s tops...”
- “I dated a shape-shifter once. I thought I could keep him from changing. I was wrong.”
- Chalmers, responding to Bart’s assumption that he, too, can do magic: “Just grab a stick and say a funny word. Not insulting to us at all.” Even in a fantasy world, Chalmers has still got it.
- “I am not an ogre. My father married and ogre after my mother was eaten by a different ogre.”
- Yes, I had to look up Wizard Frink’s joke about palantír. I am suitably ashamed.
- Marge cooks up some Hobbits, consulting a recipe for “P. Jackson’s overstuffed Hobbit.” You get it.
- George R. R. Martin is seen wearing a sandwich board reading “The end is not nigh. I’ll tell you when it’s nigh.” He writes really slowly, you guys.
- Bart is pretty callous about killing his army of goblin Milhouses by playing flail tetherball.
- Homer asks Mr. Burns (or “Lord Montgomery” here) for a raise—or, indeed, any salary. Rebuffed, he’s shocked to learn that the giant wheel he’s been helping turn for 20 years is actually a meaningless ruse, as the elites’ real wealth comes in the form of human misery—which is a pink powder that, when snorted, gives rich people tiny vestigial wings that don’t do anything. Homer’s nodding acceptance (“So if you help me it reduces my suffering, which means less wing powder for my betters”) is about as funny and trenchant little stab at capitalist exploitation as you’ll see on TV.
- And we’re back for another season of A.V. Club Simpsons coverage, everyone. Welcome back! The new Kinja comments work just fine—for better or for worse.