Grampa needs some expensive medical treatment, so the family heads off to a foreign country whose very different economic system allows for inexpensive health care for all. Yes, the Simpsons are heading to Cuba! No, wait, that was last season. Okay, well, once there, the family finds that their new surroundings offer a wealth of cultural benefits that seem almost designed to fulfill needs and dreams each member (but one) didn’t even realize they had. Yes, the Simpsons are shipping up to Boston! Dammit, nope—that was season 28 as well. Man, it’s almost like the series is out of ideas, completely.
But I kid The Simpsons. Sort of.
Look, being the [deep breath] longest running, prime-time scripted series in TV history [exhale] means that the show has told a lot of stories. An ungodly, literally unprecedented number of stories. And, sure, plots have gotta come from somewhere, even, in this particular case, Denmark. That’s where the family takes Abe for a mysterious procedure he won’t divulge thanks to an overly generous insurance policy that kicks in when the house gets flooded. (And kicks poor old Gil out of his insurance salesman job.) Once there, everyone except Homer is bowled over by everything Denmark has to offer. Lisa gets art, culture, wind power, a blessedly singable national anthem that (as Marge says, “doesn’t mention war until the second verse”), and the joy of, finally, living in a “celsius country.” Bart digs that there are boobs on the billboards. Marge loves the cleanliness, politeness, and the clever efficiency of the apartment they’re subletting from a hunky Dane. (He claims he’s only a “Danish four,” but, again, it’s probably a metric thing.)
All of this isn’t terrible, as far as “the Simpsons take a trip” episodes go. For one thing, the episode looks great, with all the Danish settings and jokes at least feeling lived-in and authentic. (Having never been, I can only assume that some handsome coffee table books were at least consulted.) And the requisite “lookit those weird customs” jokes are at least mostly at the Simpsons’ expense as the representatives of an increasingly boorish and closed-minded America, at least until the necessary turn that resets the status quo. (“Foreigners are no longer welcome,” Homer snaps at their Danish pal when he talks of emigrating.) And some of the gags worked—their ultra-modern Danish apartment has a dishwasher TV and what can only be termed a Murphy fridge. And, coming across a traffic sign reading “Fart Kontrol” (translated as “speed check,” by their friend), Marge attempts to soft-pedal what the phrase means in her language, only for the guy to explain, “Yes, I know. I’m speaking to you in your language.” So far, so pleasantly forgettable.
But the rest of the episode is a mess of rushed plot developments (Lisa, Bart, and Marge turn on Denmark in record time), shoehorned heart (Homer and Abe bond over both the departed Mona and their shared history of crappy husbanding), and abandoned plot threads. (Lisa gets about 30 seconds of romantic reverie after bumping into the country’s skateboard-riding crown prince.) And the conflict between Marge and Homer mushrooms into marriage-threatening schism in even less time, as Homer gets caught reluctantly doing a Danish folk dance with the episode’s version of those sexually liberated Danish gals (voiced by Borgen and Westworld’s Sidse Babett Knudsen). After running off in shock, Marge gives Homer an immediate ultimatum about staying in Denmark, even though she appears to forgive him for his transgression almost immediately. The same goes for Homer’s episode-long American chauvinism, which waxes and wanes according to the needs of the moment.
These travelogue episodes tend to take over, the writers (this one’s credited to Rob LaZebnik) spending more energy on all the local color than on crafting a memorable story or some character comedy. It can be done—“Bart Vs. Australia” is the gold standard, naturally, but the Boston episode managed to strike a decent balance of character and Masshole jokes. (The family’s recent trip to Paris took a decent stab at it as well.) Here, however, nothing coheres because no one’s motivations are established with any care. And that matters. It’s weird that The Simpsons keeps going to this exact same well so often of late, sure. But the show’s reality can stretch to encompass anything from an amok theme park to a tender tale of mother-son disappointment and come back to cover the same narrative ground without feeling tired, or desperate. It can, but, here, it doesn’t.
Marge turns on Denmark not because of Homer’s abrupt dash from the airport with an apology, but because the toilet is in the shower and it’s dark all the time. (She’s been in Denmark long enough to have experienced both of those things—a number of times.) Lisa finds out that the Danes suffer from statistically higher heart disease, so she’s out. (Or rather, she’s still in, but concedes that no one cares about what she wants, a joke laughed off in disheartening callousness.) The episode forgets about Bart. Abe, it turns out, just wanted his “Mona” tattoo removed? Okay, whatever. At least the animation looked good.
- Since Hank Azaria’s nice guy Dane is subletting his apartment to the Simpsons, why the hell does he stick around to play guide? Where the hell is he staying? Who cares?
- Abe to Homer, trying to introduce his request for money: “I’ve always considered you a friend.”
- Homer, on socialism: “But all my radio loudmouths tell me to hate that!”
- Homer responds to Lisa’s factoid about polls showing the Danes to be the happiest people in the world by sneering about “having a poll for you right here,” and stuffing his hand out of sight under the table. Sure, he’s pulling out a piece of paper, but do we really need that fucking joke?
- Homer, after protesting that he can’t leave all his friends, envisions Carl, Lenny, Lard Lad, and the Simpsons’ couch.
- Homer, on Kronborg Castle: “Well, the castle’s okay, but the keep is, like, ‘eh.’”