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.
"A Tree Grows In Springfield"
Simpsons did it! Wait...
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.