As the final act of “Mathlete’s Feat,” the final episode of the 26th season of The Simpsons went to commercial, I was genuinely pissed at how disjointed, lazy, and downright lousy this season finale was. In the episode, Springfield Elementary goes paperless, becomes a Waldorf School, and engages in two different math competitions against a snooty private school, ending with a wheezy last line from Groundskeeper Willie (promoted to mathlete teacher for under-imagined reasons we’ll get to) that the school’s triumph is a result of “lower standards.” That nothing about what’s come before informs that conclusion is bad enough in a bad, bad episode. But it’s what happens when the show returns from commercial that sums up everything that’s wrong with this episode, if not the current incarnation of the show itself.
A goddamned jug band number.
Nothing against anyone out there who practices the jug band arts, but, in an episode—a season finale, no less—where no fewer than three major potential storylines are introduced and tossed aside like so much shredded textbook paper, this last 30-second interlude has to count as one of the most perfunctory, “who gives a shit” moments in the show’s history. Am I making too much of this? Nope. Not when the episode is so desperate for development in any one of its neglected storylines or characters. Not when this last episode of the show’s first season of its second half-century is so tossed off. Honestly, that last, little shrug of a non-joke—completely unconnected to an episode screaming for some creative attention—feels like a deliberate provocation to anyone who still cares about The Simpsons. This episode sucked.
Let’s start at the top. Lisa’s mathlete team is trounced by those stuck up jerks from Waverly Hills (there’s a story), only for guest celebrity judges Gary, Benjamin, and Doug (the nerds first introduced way back in “Homer Goes To College”) to write a huge check to Springfield Elementary so the students can all have tablet computers (another potential story). Skinner screws things up after having Willie destroy every book (including teachers’ editions), essentially sending the school back to the stone age. Lisa, seeing Willie measuring the playing fields using an old Scottish stick-and-string technique, decides that Springfield Elementary should become a Waldorf School (hey—that’s a good idea for an episode), whereupon the students start “learning through doing,” thus getting really good at math (under Willie’s tutelage), and beating those Waverly snobs in a rematch when Bart solves the final math problem by matching the “m”-shaped diagram to the shape of Homer’s remaining hair.
Then cue the goddamned jug band.
We’ll get to how great the extended couch gag was, but its length, added to the goddamned jug band at the end, means there was a few minutes less to develop a meaningful story in the meat of the episode. So why are there three skeletal half-stories all clattering around in there? Why is Lisa’s logical leap from seeing Willie’s homespun techniques to demanding the school turn Waldorf so rushed and unexplained? Why is there no time at all spent on Lisa’s conversion from her lifelong mania for good grades and constant evaluation to a wholehearted desire to the joy of “getting our hands dirty and and learning through doing” (as far as the episode goes into the Waldorf philosophy)? Why is the new Springfield math team so much better under Willie’s guidance, since we see him teaching them precisely nothing about math except that chopping one worm in half gets you two worms and a simple area problem they would have known anyway? Why, if Lisa’s enthusiasm for the new teaching philosophy is the driving force of the episode, is it Bart who solves the final math question through completely unrelated Homer’s head-centric means? (And don’t get me started on the victory party, where the clear implication is that Lisa is drunk—on the show’s version of Mountain Dew, sure, but the joke is “drunk Lisa.”) Why, in an already too-short episode, are there two musical montages?
Why the goddamned jug band?
The Simpsons can be good. Not only on a week-by-week basis (where the show has shown some flashes this season), but, I’ve always maintained, as a going concern. The cast (with one, seemingly glaring exception) is in place, and stellar. The world of the show is as rich and developed a satirical and comic playground as any show has created, ever. And there is talent and experience in the writer’s room (and a whole world of talented comic writers weaned on The Simpsons who would no doubt like nothing better than to make their mark on Springfield, given an opportunity). An episode like “Mathlete’s Feat” puts lie to that idea, tossing out half-developed ideas (again, in a season finale), and calling it a day.
Yeardley Smith’s Lisa is an all-time great TV character, an archetypical wise woman in a den of fools, tragically fated to go unappreciated, yet maintaining both her dignity and her character integrity as a believable, touchingly vulnerable little girl. Lisa’s dissatisfaction with her school, her town, with the whole damned, jazz-unappreciating world has been at the root of some of the show’s best episodes ever. And a story that sees her reevaluating her academic goals and embracing a new outlook on learning? That’s the outline of a potentially brilliant episode, rich with comic potential and thoughtful character drama the likes of which the show has pulled off again, and again. Instead, we get this.
And a goddamned jug band.
- Homer, after hearing about the new school’s parents’ night: “Does the apostrophe come before or after the ‘s’ on parents?”
- “I feel like Beethoven when Charles Grodin finally accepted him as his dog.”
- Nelson, watching the show’s Game Of Thrones analogue: “Who knew they had nipples in castle time?”
- “You fool! Surge protectors are always power strips, but not vice-versa!” Always love the Skinner and Chalmers show.
- As much as the episode could have used those two-plus minutes to flesh out the main story, that couch gag was great, and not just because it momentarily ends our long Rick And Morty-less national nightmare (the show proper returns on July 26). While the Futurama crossover and the other crossover which shall not be named were underwhelmingly lackluster (the former) and crassly demeaning (so, so the latter), this one was energetic, smart, and darkly funny without being cruel. (Well, maybe to poor Flanders.) What Rick And Morty does so brilliantly is to find the humanity in the horror that is a chaotic universe (made more chaotic because of Rick’s consistent irresponsibility), and here Rick’s horror at killing the beloved Simpsons is as genuine as his half-assed, ultimately ill-fated attempt to fix the problem. Justin Roiland was just as genuinely thrilled that his insane animated world was being allowed to crash, literally, into The Simpsons’. Unlike the Futurama episode, this being a couch gag means no one has to worry about Simpsons continuity (such as it is) and can just enjoy the ride. Of course, Rick And Morty fans know that Rick’s handy portal gun might mean that our Simpsons are, in fact dead, and that next year’s family may be in another dimension entirely. (If this Harry Shearer re-casting rumor happens, that might also provide a palatable reason why fully a quarter of Springfield doesn’t sound quite right.)
- Speaking of Futurama, I spotted a Slurm machine and a brain slug on the planet where Morty goes to try to fix things. Again—portal gun. It’s fine.
- And speaking of the Harry Shearer announcement: No doubt, should things not be resolved for Shearer to return, I’ll have a lot to say about his leaving next season. (Apparently, enough of his voice work is in the can that any off-brand Flanders, Burns, Smithers, Jasper Beardsley, Dr. Hibbert, Lenny, and so on wouldn’t show up until the middle of the season.) I will say just this—in the last two seasons I’ve covered, there’s never been an instant where Shearer’s voice work wasn’t on-point and as outstanding as ever. Shearer’s disdain for latter-day Simpsons is well documented, but, as much as he grouses about the show not being what it used to be (a refrain as dull and unilluminating coming from him as it is from any internet commenter, or reviewer), Shearer never seemed to short-change any of the characters he’s helped create over the years. In just last week’s episode, his reading of Ned Flanders’ lament that Homer’s incessant bullying makes him look less of a man to his sons was as affecting a moment in that character’s life as I’ve seen. For all the warning signs from Shearer over the years, this was a shocking development—and a dismaying one. Whether Shearer’s been holding his nose doing this job for the last decade or more, his presence on The Simpsons has been vital, in both senses of that word. Snark away, but The Simpsons is capable of being a decent show, even a very good one on a good day. If he goes, The Simpsons will be less than it was, irrevocably.
- Well, that’s season 26 of The Simpsons, gang. Thank you all for reading and for commenting in a (mostly) constructive and intelligent fashion. See you in the fall.
Episode grade: D
Season grade: B-