Harry Shearer won't be leaving The Simpsons!

Good news, everyone! Oops, wrong Matt Groening show. The voice of Flanders, Mr. Burns, Smithers, and more will not be leaving The Simpsons after all. Last May, Harry Shearer made an announcement on Twitter which sure sounded like he was leaving the show. 
However, in between then and now, Shearer and the show's executives have been able to come to an agreement. Shearer and the other main cast members have just inked a deal that they will stay with the show through the next two seasons (27 and 28) with options for the following two seasons (29 and 30).

The Simpsons are divorcing (again)

This time, is it for good?
Surprising news this week: in the season premiere of the upcoming season 27 this fall, Homer and Marge will become legally separated. 
In the episode, Homer falls for a pharmacist, who will be voiced by guest star Lena Dunham, creator and star of the controversial HBO series "Girls." In the episode, Homer goes searching for a treatment for his narcolepsy, when he encounters the bewitching pharmacist.
Of course, technically the Simpsons were divorced for 12 years, due to a continuity error. And they have separated unofficially several times over the years (perhaps most prominently when Marge left Homer in the Simpsons movie).
Showrunner Al Jean also divulged that in the Halloween episode, Sideshow Bob will kill Bart. This is shaping up to be a heck of a season all around!

The Simpsons loses the voice of Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, and more

Harry Shearer is off the show
Over the weekend, TMZ reports that Harry Shearer will no longer be involved with The Simpsons. Shearer, who does the voice work for Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, Waylon Smithers, Kent Brockman, Dr. Hibbert, and more male characters on the show, had been involved in contract negotiations over the show's upcoming seasons.
Reportedly, Shearer was fine with the salary offer they had made, but he was having some issues with their agreement as to the rights for the back-end and merchandising. Which are substantial when it comes to The Simpsons, for sure, but was it really worth leaving the show over?
What will The Simpsons be like without Harry Shearer? Can he be persuaded to come back? Would the show's producers change their minds on Shearer's contracts? I'm not sure I would want to watch The Simpsons with someone else doing Mr. Burns' voice. How weird would that be? And yet, Shearer voiced too many high-profile characters to simply write them out or retire them, as has happened with previous actors.
Hard to say what's in store for The Simpsons after this, to be sure.

"Changing of the Guardians"

Flatter than a three-day-old glass of room temperature Coke


I frequently find myself defending The Simpsons, both online and off, against charges that the show has gotten lazy and tired and should be allowed to quietly die with dignity. But episodes like "Changing of the Guardians" make my task really hard. Because in every possible way, this episode is exactly what the haters are talking about. Not one single thing that a character does in this episode makes sense, either for the character or in the world at large. Everything happened for no other reason than because the script says it happens.
The premise is tired. The show has already answered its own question, and answered it better, years ago. ("Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily," the seventh season episode in which the kids are taken from Marge and Homer and given to the Flanders as foster children until Marge and Homer prove they are responsible parents. It originally aired in 1995, if you want to feel super old and cranky.)
Worse still, they don't really do anything with it. The concept seems to be as exhausting to the characters as it is to us. I'm not going to complain that it's not realistic that parents would go cruising the beach for strangers to act as adoptive parents in case both of the biological parents die. "Not realistic" is a silly complaint for an animated show. No, I'm complaining that it's boring and stupid. And even worse than that, it totally wastes Rashida Jones.
It's too bad, too, because there were some great moments in the beginning of the episode. As someone with a standing monthly appointment to play Settlers of Catan with a group of friends, I found the Simpsons' derisive treatment of the Settlers-like board game absolutely hilarious. Not to mention Bart's comment about how they can't play Twister because every time, his elbow touches Homer's junk. And while the sight gag about Moe drowning a sack of kittens struck an unnecessarily cruel note, the gag with the dog coughing up the frog that coughs up the spider (and then in reverse) made me laugh. 
Then Marge and Homer get stuck inside a bank façade, and it's all downhill from there.
More than any other recent episode, this one made me wish that the show would let the fanfic writers take a crack at it. Simpsons fanfic may not always be the greatest work in western literature, but at least the fanfic writers care about the show. I'm starting to wonder whether the actual paid staff writers do or not.

"A Test Before Trying"

The story wasn't the greatest, but I laughed a lot.

This was a middle-of-the-road episode that was livened up by having a steady stream of ancillary funny bits. The perfect sort of thing to round out the middle of a season, in other words. It didn't try too hard, but it also didn't seem to lose interest in itself the way many episodes have done recently.

In the main story, Springfield Elementary is at risk of being shut down as the worst school in the state, pending the results of a standardized test. It all comes down to Bart, whose test results could save the school. 
I thought this was the least interesting element of the episode. Which is a problem, given that it's the main plot. This kind of story has been done so often, and done better. I was reminded of the King of the Hill episode where Bobby's principal tries to save Tom Landry Middle School by putting Bobby and other students in the Special Ed class. In the end, it all comes down to Bobby's test results. 
Comparing these two episodes is an interesting lesson in how to build narrative tension (or not). I would argue that it hinges on two key elements that are missing from this Simpsons episode: Bobby's willingness to enter Special Ed, and the fact that he genuinely tries his hardest in school (but never does very well). Bart's arch demeanor, instead of building narrative tension, just makes you dislike him. The question of the episode becomes, "Is Bart REALLY such a brat that he would blow off this test?" And that's no kind of peg to hang an episode on.
Luckily, the rest of the episode was hilarious. Starting with the extended couch gag, which riffed on overly-dramatic action movie trailers. Homer's thing with the parking meter was odd but not interesting enough to serve as a main plot, meaning that it was perfectly deployed in its role as the B plot. 
I'm willing to forgive a lot of narrative flaws, because I laughed a lot during this episode. I laughed at the "dying" parking meter dribbling coins, and laughed doubly hard at the "EXPIRED" flag. The film strip, cut short before we could learn more about "Y, The Vowel That Goes Both Ways." The students that Bart had never seen before, and would never see again. Chicken Pete Pie (which showed up later in the background as the lunch room special of the day). And I even laughed at all the various shrimp-related electric kitchen appliances the Simpsons own. (And what is Moe planning to do with those mannequin heads, by the way?)

"Homer Goes To Prep School"

"Don't call me Mom!" "Sorry, Mrs. Simpson."

I wanted to like this episode. Boy, I really did. The premise was golden: Homer gets sucked into the world of doomsday preppers. It's timely, it has a lot of comedic potential, and it's oddball enough to be interesting in and of itself.

The episode had some great moments, don't get me wrong. As someone who spends a lot of time keeping tabs on the various paranoid conspiracy theorists of the world, I took a particular delight in the video that convinced Homer Simpson that the world was going to end. I'm not sure how many viewers will be able to appreciate the way that it hit all the right notes, while still being hilariously parodic ("17 YEAR CICADA CYCLE").
I can think of a lot of ways in which this episode would have worked better. But isn't that always the way? Monday morning quarterbacking. I hate it when people do it to me, and I'm sure the Simpsons crew hates it when random bloggers (like myself) do it to them. 
But still, I have to wonder: didn't anyone somewhere along the way propose that the preppers should be familiar characters from Springfield? Why go to all the trouble to create a prepper compound outside Springfield, only to populate it with the guest star's character (Tom Waits is a great choice for this episode by the way), Herman the one-armed man who's a tertiary character at best, and a bunch of (correct me if I'm wrong) characters we've never seen before, and will likely never see again. (Note: I can't remember if Cletus was in the prepper group or not, and my quick bit of Googling turns up nothing. I remember he was in the first act, calling sugar packets "mouse pillows," but I don't remember if he was there later or not.)
If I was going to rewrite this episode (in my feverish, sweaty nerdish dreams) I would have put the following characters in the prepper group:
  • Hans Moleman
  • Bumblebee Man
  • Ned Flanders
  • Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel
I think you will have to agree, looking over that list, that Damn I'm good. 
Ned would be prepared the way the Mormons are, but without the (in his words) blasphemy. Bumblebee Man would keep trying to cheer everyone up, and becoming increasingly annoying in the process. Hans Moleman would turn out to have been building an incredibly elaborate underground bunker all these years. And Cletus, with his decades of squirrel-skinning and moonshine-brewing experience, would be their undisputed leader.
How great would that be??? 
Anyway, this episode? I don't know. I guess it could have been worse.

To Cur With Love

*weeps shamelessly*

Ah, the Simpsons retcon. This has always been a show that played fast and loose with the facts and this episode is no exception OH WHO AM I KIDDING I BLUBBERED LIKE A BABY.

It's the elephant in the room. You can't talk about this episode without talking about how outrageously sad it is. And not even poignantly sad, like Lisa deciding to stop trying so hard, or Marge and Homer having marital difficulties. We're talking full on Spielbergian emotional manipulation. 
Merry Christmas?
I can't even summarize the plot without getting weepy. Homer gets wrapped up in a casual game which you would think would be a reference to The Simpsons: Tapped Out, but only in the most glancing sense. Engrossed in his tapping, he manages to lose the family dog. Everyone is heartbroken except Homer. When quizzed about his complete lack of caring, Grandpa Simpson finally explains that it's because Homer had his heart broken by a dog when he was a kid, and I guess he could never bring himself to love another dog again.
Maybe it's because I had a dog when I was a kid, and we basically grew up together, and then I had to put him to sleep when he was 18 and I was 25, and that was 15 years ago, and I still can't bring myself to think about getting a dog. Maybe it's because my cat is dying. Or maybe it's because I am a living breathing human being with thoughts and feelings. But when the episode peaked with Grandpa producing a picture of Homer's old dog sleeping on Homer's sweatshirt (thus proving that Homer's dog never did forget him, as Homer had believed), I completely lost it. 
I don't even remember what happened in the rest of the episode. I was watching it on broadcast television, so I couldn't pause it. It kept playing as I sat there like a sack of blubbering idiocy. I think there was another Mr. Burns short? I don't know. And then Bob's Burgers came on and I was like, "Yay… Sniffle?"
Many Simpsons fans will basically fall into a black hole trying to reconcile all the confusing "facts" that were added by this show. Like how the one-armed guy lost his arm, even though they told us a different story 20 years ago. Or how Chief Wiggum started out as a dog catcher, even though they told us a different story 20 years ago. Frankly I don't care. I'm putting this one on the same shelf as "Jurassic Bark," and I'm never watching it again.

"The Day The Earth Stood Cool"

"Here, have a bracelet made of a '70s educational film strip."

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein play an ultra-cool pair of hip parents with two sons, the elder of which (Bart's age) is named Tyrannosaur, and voiced by Patton Oswalt. Now I grant you, hipster bashing is not exactly a cutting-edge trend. (In fact, later that same night I caught a rerun of a hipster-bashing episode of King of the Hill which first aired in 2008.) But that doesn't make it any less funny when it's done right. 

This episode had the perfect combination of rapid-fire one liners ("Portland… I've heard of people being from there") plus a madcap energy that carried the plot along too fast for second-guessing some of its odder turns. (There's no time to question Marge's decision not to breast feed Maggie! Hurry - The Decemberists are about to play a hipster mostly-acoustic version of the Star Trek: TOS fight scene music!)
Aside from being entertaining, and changing up the show's dynamic in interesting ways, this episode also managed to get right at the heart of why hipsters are so hatable. Most hipster-bashing episodes rely on annoying catch phrases and the impenetrable-to-outsiders hipster culture. But The Simpsons knows that hipsters are hatable because they are mean-spirited to things that fall outside the Hipster Approved List (witness T. Rex's behavior towards Homer's gift), and they exhibit a patronizing sort of domineering behavior (Marge vs the self-righteous breast-feeders, and I can assure you, that incident was not too far from the truth). 
In other words, hipsters aren't just "cooler than thou," they're also not very nice people. And putting the Simpson family up against mean people who are also socially successful is a recipe for funny.
The clash between the Simpsons and the hipster army also highlights something that's easy to forget: the Simpsons are a blue-collar family. They can't even afford to buy a Mapple MyPad, and they certainly can't afford the hipster lifestyle. 
This episode could easily have failed. What really saves it is the relentlessly specific satire of hipsterdom. It's easy to make lazy jokes about hipsters, but in every single case, the writing team obviously pushed itself just a little farther. From the pitch perfect New York Times headline ("Under The Cooling Towers, A Trendy Oasis Beckons") to Marge's bewilderment upon first encountering The Onion, to Disco Stu strolling past in a Daft Punk helmet. The amazing bevy of little details is what really kicks this episode into the upper echelon for the last few seasons. 

"A Tree Grows In Springfield"

Simpsons did it! Wait...

I'm not a genius or psychic by any stretch of the imagination. But I have been watching The Simpsons regularly for 23 years now, and you pick up a thing or two. That's my explanation for why, the instant I read the capsule description in the scheduling guide, I immediately knew what would turn out to be the origin of the mysterious appearance of the word "HOPE" on the tree in the Simpsons' back yard. 

This didn't give me a spoiler problem per se. It's not a freakin' Sherlock Holmes mystery or anything. I doubt anyone in the audience for a second believed that God had really done it. But the effect it had on me was one of "Everything has happened before, and will happen again." Ennui, the French call it. (This is me laughing en Francais: hon hon hon hon honnnnn.)
The episode opens with Homer's dream, which also kind of sent the message that "You may as well tune out now, because nothing about this scene matters." And it doesn't, and although the trippiness is admirably conceived and rendered, who cares? It's not funny enough to stand on its own, and it has even less to do with the rest of the episode than usual. Other people's dreams are dumb.
In the next sequence, we learn how despondent Homer is over the state of his life, his house, and his finances. Every day is the same old slog for Homer. Between this and the (far more brilliant) intro to the cruise ship episode, it's like the show is signaling to the audience how bored it is with its own existence. "Kill me," the script whispers between the lines. "I'm tired of being written."
Ugh. Where's the joie de vivre of "You don't make friends with salad?" I'm not one to harp over how much better it used to be, but seriously. This episode rips itself off, basically repeating the episode with Lisa's angel in the yard, except it's a tree.
The only thing that redeemed this episode were a few good scenes and chuckles. I loved Homer's loopy excitement at using his MyPad to try on various mustaches. And the discussion he and Marge have about the phrase "don't put all your eggs in one basket" recalls classic Seinfeld at its best. I was also charmed by Lisa buying the raffle ticket for her father, her only earnest wish being for something to cheer her father up. 

"Penny Wiseguys"

I have to admit, I'm starting to agree with the haters.

This is one of those mid-season episodes that just doesn't move me too much in one direction or the other. Steve Carell's character had a lot of potential as the accountant who is given the reins of a mob crew. But aside from making staff cutbacks, I didn't really feel like this went as far as it should have. Particularly given the extraordinary lengths to which Carell's character Michael Scott went, when confronted with the man that he thought was a mobster in an episode of The Office.

I mean, there's a lot of fun you could have with the idea of "an accountant becomes a mob boss." Maybe he decides that the clothing allowance is too high, so he mandates uniforms for all the mobsters. Maybe he outsources the protection racket to a call center in India. Maybe he crunches the numbers and discovers that they're losing money on interpersonal loans, and he shunts those resources into buying an Arby's franchise instead. 
I kind of feel like the writers picked the first thing that came to hand and ran it into the ground, instead of exploring some of the weird directions where you could take this plot.
Instead they left all the weirdness for the B plot, in which Lisa is diagnosed as anemic, and starts eating bugs. Never mind that you can get plenty of iron from figs, leafy greens like spinach, and beans. Never mind that! You and your logic! No, Lisa is going to eat bugs, and that's the end of that.
This plot reminded me of a failed, perhaps half-baked leftover from a Treehouse of Horror. It had some laughs, and plenty of squirms. And the bit with the corn maze at the end was hilarious. ("Just let me have this!") But overall it just didn't quite do it for me. 
I feel like, if Lisa Simpson is going to have a crisis over eating bugs, it's going to be because she recognizes that they are on the wrong side of the "charismatic megafauna" equation. A grasshopper is just as much a living animal as a panda, but because it's less cute, we think it might be okay for a vegetarian to eat it.
Lisa, I think, would totally get that. Maybe even start a campaign to improve the public image of grasshoppers and ants. Possibly make her own animated series starring a lovable grasshopper, or license a line of plush toys. 
Basically anything other than what happened, which is that she ate bugs and then she had a bad dream and she stopped eating bugs. Sigh.