"Gone Abie Gone"

Massive continuity errors

I don't mind the massive continuity errors that this episode introduces to the series. Even though it isn't really "continuity errors" so much as "ripping up the past continuity that has been established over many episodes and crapping on the remains." But you know, it's just a television show. I can let that kind of thing go. I'm sure many fans can't, and will give this episode a thumbs down just on that basis.

But what got me is, this is an entire episode about Grandpa Simpson in which Grandpa Simpson hardly ever appears. Abe is an off-screen character for most of the episode. How can someone be a secondary character in a story arc that is about them? It strikes the wrong note, and made the entire episode feel vaguely "off" to me. We learn much more about the jazz singer Rita LaFleur than we do Abe. I certainly don't feel closer to Abe than I did before. 
 
Another thing that I found vexing was the show's resolute determination not to discuss any of the potential fallout that would have occurred in an interracial relationship in the sixties. (I think the episode is set in the sixties. It's hard to say.) 
 
I think it's safe to say that, depending on when this episode was specifically set, while Abe and Rita were making out in the jazz club, somewhere in America cops were blasting non-violent black protestors with fire hoses and police dogs.
 
Let me lay some history on you: between 1964 and 1967, many states actually put laws on the books that banned interracial marriage. It wasn't until the 1967 Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia that banning interracial marriage was deemed unconstitutional, and the laws were overturned.
 
You may think "Well, that's a pretty heavy burden to put on an animated sitcom." But I see this kind of thing often: the whitewashing of American history. And I refuse to accept it. 
 
Whitewashing history does us all a disservice. Both the people watching the show now (who may or may not be aware of how hard it was to be a black person in the 1960s) and the people in the 60s who fought for change. It's not right to pretend like an interracial relationship would have been fine and unremarkable then, and frankly I expect better from The Simpsons. Maybe I shouldn't.
 
Oh, and also there was a sub-plot where Homer stored Lisa's college money at an online poker website, with predictable results. The end.

"Adventures in Baby Getting"

Yet another "Mom wants another baby" plot

The trope that "mom wants another baby and dad flies into a tizzy" is a well-worn staple of sitcoms. In fact, it's so common that I could have sworn The Simpsons had done it in the past. But I guess not. I guess I must have been thinking of the thousands of other "mom wants another baby" episodes. 

It even retreads fairly specific territory. Near the end, Homer and Marge decide that their last resort is the sperm bank where Homer secretly made hundreds of deposits over the years. This is also the last resort for Francine in the American Dad "mom wants another baby" episode. It's not the episode you want to invite comparisons to, either, because American Dad really pulled out all the stops. Just thinking about the cartoon mascots at the vasectomy lab makes me giggle.
 
This episode had some truly funny moments (as when Skinner describes the school as "a hurricane shelter with voting booths," or M. Night Shyamalan's Flop House.) It's just a pity that they were in the service of such a pedestrian plot. The voice talent really proved their chops in this episode, though; Dan Castellaneta's read on Homer's "An ON PURPOSE baby?" absolutely slays me. 

I also thought that the episode really missed out by not making a callback to the famous Canyonero. (It's a squirrel-smashin' deer-smackin' drivin' machine!) The whole thing starts when Marge has to shop for a new car; why not even mention the Canyonero? Never mind that the thin excuse for Marge's baby fever is that her new car won't fit a fourth child. A problem that the Canyonero (which smells like steak and seats thirty five) would not have.
 
You know what I would like to see some day? An "aging parent wants a new baby" episode where it's dad who wants a new child. It's always the mom who wants a new baby, the same way it's always mom who goes on strike, and mom who does all the nagging, and a thousand other sexist tropes embedded so deeply in our culture that I fear our ability to ever dig them out.
 
Anyway.
 
In the B plot, Lisa leads the boys on a merry chase after the mystery of her after-school disappearances. This plot had little intrigue for me, since I figured it out the instant I saw Lisa's dropped note. Maybe I spend too much time on font download websites, where oddball "uses all the letters" phrases are the norm. The AV Club review nailed it with the comment that this plot is "not any funnier than it sounds."
 

The Simpsons: #1 fictional crossword

The Guardian pays homage to Springfield's Finest

 

You might not expect to see The Guardian talking about The Simpsons very often, and certainly not in the context of "Top 10 crosswords in fiction." But right there in the #1 spot, ahead of crosswords found in Inspector Morse, Martin Amis, and PG Wodehouse, The Simpsons tops them all.
 
The episode in question is the Season 20 episode "Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words," and when I initially watched it four years ago, I had no idea how intricate or deep this episode was. It was inspired by, and riffs off of, the fantastic documentary "Wordplay" which is about competitive Scrabble players. I had just watched "Wordplay" earlier that week, so I was able to appreciate it on that level.
 
But from a technical standpoint, this may be one of the most elaborate Simpsons episodes ever constructed. It features as guest stars Merl Reagle and Will Shortz, who are true rock stars in the world of crossword puzzles. But more than that; Reagle and Shortz also consulted on the puzzles in the episode itself.
 
When Lisa becomes obsessed with crossword puzzles (a natural hobby for our brainiac and smartier-pants-than-thou little Lisa), she enters the rabbit hole of crossword puzzlery. She begins to see crosswords everywhere, and we get a glimpse of life from her perspective, with words and tiles superimposed over Springfield, nested within her hopscotch grids, and so forth.
 
But the episode's crowning achievement may be the finished crossword puzzle that provides a secret clue, a message from Homer to Lisa. Oh and by the way, the crossword puzzle which appears in the episode was a real world crossword puzzle which appeared in the New York Times the day before, secret message and all.
 
For those Simpsons fans who were also crossword puzzle fanatics, this was no doubt a truly brain-melting experience. One fan said that seeing the crossword puzzle they had completed that very morning was "a little bit scary, actually. Like "did I eat mushrooms and forget about it" scary."
 
The experience was a dream come true for Will Shortz, who had been a passionate fan of Matt Groening's work ever since Life In Hell, and had been a Simpsons fan since its earliest days. No doubt Shortz's fandom helped inspire him to truly knock this one out of the park, pulling out all the stops to lay the groundwork for a truly outstanding episode.
 

Treehouse of Horror XXIII

For once, it aired BEFORE Halloween.

As a rule, I am positively predisposed toward the Treehouse of Horror episodes. For one thing, Halloween is my favorite holiday. And for another thing, the Treehouse episodes let the writers cut loose and take bizarre flights of fancy, which is always fun. Plus the structure means that no single story is going to drag out for very long and risk outwearing its welcome.

The first segment topically mocks the "end of the world" Mayan 2012 doom predictions. (Although, in a weird example of life imitating art, a guy really did eat cricket fajitas this week. P.S. he died.) 
 
Incidentally, this also kicked off a fun little expansion pack in The Simpsons Tapped Out iPad/iPhone game where you have to collect pieces of the Mayan statue and invoke a Mayan god who wanders around Springfield, and also Homer gets a fun Mayan outfit. I like this! The Tapped Out game is not particularly exciting as a rule, but it is relaxing in the way that a zen rock garden is relaxing.

In the first story proper, Lisa strong-arms Springfield into building its own Large Hadron Collider, and - just like everyone predicted - it creates a black hole. Lisa warns everyone not to feed it, Gremlins-style, but no one can resist the opportunity to get rid of their garbage, failures, and Ralph Wiggum. 
 
The second story starts out as a riff on Paranormal Activity, and ends up as a deal with the devil. (Recalling one of the finest Treehouse of Horror segments ever made, "The Devil and Homer Simpson," where Ned Flanders plays Satan and Homer can't stop eating his doughnut head.)
 
And in the final story, Bart goes back in time to the 70s. We get to see Bart inserted into vintage Simpsons visuals, which was done even more deftly than Family Guy's recent "travel back in time to the first episode" episode. It also has Marge follow what might have been her original destiny, which was to marry the rich yet obnoxious Artie Ziff. This one doesn't have much going for it, but it gives props to the show's hard-core fans, which is always nice.
 
One of the best parts of the episode might be the plethora of Homer Simpsons at the end. So many Homers, so little time! I recognized most of them, but some (like Goth Homer) seem to have been created just for the episode. (Unless I'm missing something?)
 
Overall, another fun Halloween romp.

"Moonshine River"

Disjointed and disconnected

What a dismaying choice for a season premiere. This episode touches briefly on several different themes and tropes, but fails to grapple with any of them in a meaningful way. The result feels more like five or six different partial episodes stitched together.

Bart tries to reconnect with his past girlfriends. And the Simpsons go to New York. And the show cynically questions the nature of relationships. And Marge and Lisa discover that New York is super expensive. And Zooey Deschanel is the guest star. And there is a "Breakfast at Tiffany's" parody/tribute/thing. Not to mention the horrible disaster of Springfield's auto race happening on the same day as its bicycle race, in the opening segment which is typically disconnected from the story anyway, so it hardly counts, but I felt obliged to include it here.

The call-back to the famous Klav Khalash joke only makes it worse somehow. That episode was filled with both the madcap energy and the peculiar optimism that marked The Simpsons in its heyday. This episode feels sour by comparison. Homer says some pretty cynical things about marriage, even for Homer. And there is a joke that riffs on the destruction of the World Trade Center that frankly felt more befitting South Park or Family Guy: shows that trade on shock humor and saying the unspeakable. 
 
(Granted, the joke is "hidden" behind a buried reference. In order to get it, you have to remember Homer's infuriating experience with the World Trade Center in the previous New York episode. This only barely mitigates its sting, since who else is watching The Simpsons today except for the hardest of hard-core fans?)
 
The Simpsons go to New York in 2012, and what do they make fun of? Pickpockets. Shakespeare in the Park. High Prices. What DON'T they make fun of? The soda ban. Williamsburg hipsters. Gentrification. I'm not asking for the show to be hyper-topical. I'm just saying that this episode feels utterly generic and lazy. 
 
In a broader sense, why did the Simpsons have to go to New York at all? It shows a real paucity of imagination to send them back there, given that Bart's girlfriend could have run away to literally anywhere. The Simpsons could have gone to Bangalore, Seattle, Dallas, Akron… heck, they could have visited one of the other 38 American towns named Springfield.
 
I dislike Zooey Deschanel intensely, and I was prepared to hate her in this episode. To my surprise, Zooey wasn't the worst thing about it. And when Zooey Deschanel is not the worst thing about your episode, you know you're in trouble.
 

Lisa Simpson: Super(hateable)Star

It's a bold choice to make your main character so genuinely unlikable.

Last night's rerun of "Lisa Goes Gaga" gave me time to reflect on how daring this episode really was. The first time I watched it, I was too distracted by Lady Gaga to really focus on what was happening in the plot. On a second watching, Lisa Simpson proves to be much more hateable than you might expect for such a beloved television character.

The crux of the episode is that Lisa feels sorry for herself because she is so unpopular. When I say that, you probably imagine Lisa sniffling alone in her room. And you feel sorry for her, too. How can you not feel sorry for someone who is sad because everyone hates them?
 
I'll tell you how: by making their crimes genuinely unlikeable. 

This is a bold move for a show that is supposedly toothless. On any other sitcom (animated or live-action), the central character would be unpopular because they had the wrong haircut, or did something dumb. This would make them both relatable and sympathetic. Because most stories require that the main character be relatable and sympathetic.
 
A story with an unsympathetic central character is a dark and difficult story indeed. In fact, it makes me wonder if the writing staff had been kicking this idea around for ages, and decided to bolt Lady Gaga on top of it in order to make it more palatable (or at least distracting).
 
The episode begins with the school's annual awards show. Bart receives the "Most Popular" award. Then Lisa receives the "Least Popular" award. She slinks up to the stage to the hoots and jeers of her classmates. We feel bad for her.
 
But then Lisa responds by creating a sock puppet account on the fourth grade forums, and astro-turfing herself. The kids, seeing that someone is sticking up for Lisa (if clumsily), take her back in their good graces. When Lisa admits her misdeeds, the entire school is shocked and angered. 
 
And can you blame them?
 
That's the heart of this episode: seeing Lisa's misdeeds, you can't blame the other kids for not liking her. Lisa has done some iffy stuff in the past. But seeing what happens in this episode, you begin to suspect that she came by the "Least Popular" award honestly. I mean, what else had she done that year? 
 
In her constant quest for acceptance, Lisa has gone to some strange lengths. But certainly lashing out at Lady Gaga - who had been nothing but kind and helpful to her - is a new low.
 

Simpsons Season 24 premieres September 30

It's a five-star show! Literally.

The new season of The Simpsons starts soon, on the same premiere night as several other Animation Domination shows. September 30 is going to be a big night for prime time animation fans! Fox will be airing new episodes of The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad. (Bob's Burgers premieres this Sunday, September 23. The Cleveland Show won't return until October 7.)

The season premiere, titled "Moonshine River," will be chock full of guest stars, with appearances by Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway, Zooey Deschanel, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sarah Silverman. The episode revolves around Bart's past romantic entanglements. 
 
Each of the guest stars in the premiere will be playing one of Bart's five girlfriends (past, present, or future). Gellar and Silverman will both be revisiting their roles as Bart's ex-girlfriends. (Gellar played Gina Vendetti in the Season 15 episode "The Wandering Juvie." Silverman played Nicki McKenna in the Season 21 episode "Stealing First Base.")
 
In the premiere's B plot, Marge and Lisa try to find affordable cultural entertainment in New York. (Did you know that New York is expensive? Of course you did, but I guess now The Simpsons will be making a whole lot of jokes about it.)

This roster of guest stars for the rest of the season is similarly impressive, to say the least. 
 
In an episode titled "Black-Eyed, Please," Tina Fey will play a substitute teacher named Ms. Cantwell, who dislikes and bullies Lisa Simpson. As a "mean girl teacher," Fey's character even gives Ralph an A, while only granting Lisa a B, even though Ralph misspells his own name on his paper. Ouch!
 
In an episode titled "Pulpit Friction," Edward Norton will play "the most lovable minister in the world." He becomes so popular that he edges out Reverend Lovejoy, who loses his job and becomes a hot tub salesman. (I have a strange yet powerful dislike for Reverend Lovejoy. I will chortle with glee to see him dethroned.)
 
If you thought Lady Gaga on The Simpsons was big news, just wait! Super-mega pop star Justin Bieber will be playing himself in an upcoming episode titled "The Fabulous Faker Boy." Something about a talent show. 
 
EW notes that, at a mere 18 years old, Justin Bieber is actually younger than the show, which debuted six years before Bieber was born. I also suspect that the reference in the episode's title (to a 1989 movie) is also far older than either Bieber or most of his fans.

The Simpsons: Tapped Out returns for iPad/iPhone

If you're a Simpsons fan with a Mapple MyPad, you'll want to check it out!

About a year ago, FOX released a Simpsons themed freemium iPad/iPhone game. It was so popular that it crushed the gameplay servers, and they were forced to withdraw it until they could bring things back up to speed. Apparently they have decided that the time is now, because during last night's Animation Domination block, they aired at least one ad for the game. (Possibly just the one, given its popularity - I certainly did not see others, but I was watching inattentively.)

I immediately downloaded it and started playing during the next re-run. I have been eagerly awaiting the return of the game, because I heard that it is pretty fun. 
 
Like Farmville, The Sims Social, or a million other such games, The Simpsons: Tapped Out is one of those "click and wait" deals. You tell someone to do something, then come back later to reap the rewards. The longer the action, the more rewards. And like the other games in its genre, you can pay real world money to make things happen faster.

My first frustration was with the tutorial. Granted, the game has a lot of different gameplay aspects, and I appreciate being walked through the basics. (That's more than a lot of games give you!) But this tutorial literally lasted half an hour. That's 30 minutes of me reading speech bubbles and then clicking where it told me to click. 
 
This experience was tedious in the extreme, and it took me a while to shake it off. Part of the problem is that you spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for words to appear in the speech bubbles. I'm a fast reader; this frustrated me.
 
Once we got going, I was pleasantly surprised by the graphics. You basically earn money to place businesses, houses, and characters on your lots. Each of the buildings is lovingly detailed, with some really nice flourishes. For example, in an upstairs room of the Simpsons' home (I believe it's Homer and Marge's bedroom) an open window allows a pair of pink curtains to flutter in the breeze. Overall, the game's visual aesthetic is gorgeous, crisp, and perfectly Simpsons-ian.
 
As for the gameplay, you either enjoy this kind of game or you don't. I'm a little burned out on the "click and wait" genre, but at another time I would absolutely find myself obsessed. If you are a Simpsons fan with an iPad or iPhone, you will definitely want to check this out!

USPS Simpsons stamps debacle

USPS made a billion stamps, but only 318 million sold.

Bloomberg News is reporting that the USPS was stuck with a whopping 682 million Simpsons postage stamps that went unsold. Evidently the USPS grossly misjudged how much the American public wanted to buy Simpsons stamps, and printed up twice as many Simpsons stamps as they did Elvis Presley stamps. 

Unfortunately they only sold 318 million Simpsons stamps out of the print run of a staggering 1 billion stamps, thus losing $1.2 million on the deal.
 
The Elvis Presley stamps were pitched as a collectible, and I know a lot of people who bought a lot of them. Of course, so many of them were printed that they will probably never be valuable. Now you come along with a print run of Simpsons stamps that is twice as large as the Elvis print run, and I guess it should not be a surprise that collectors did not buy them up in droves. 
 
When it comes to something like the Simpsons, quixotically the less you make of something, the more people will want to buy it. The USPS went the opposite way with that rule, and look where it got them.

The Simpsons stamps were produced in 2009 and 2010, before the Forever Stamp went into effect. Thus, the stamps are marked with their 44 cent value. This means that they were only useful until postage rates increased. The USPS is defending itself by saying that now that everything is a Forever Stamp, this kind of thing shouldn't happen anymore. Since theoretically they can just keep selling the stamps until they are all gone, regardless of how long it takes.
 
The larger problem, of course, is that the USPS is circling the drain. They posted a loss of $5.2 billion in the third quarter, and will likely post losses for the year of $15 billion. And as many people point out, if they do such a bad job of judging the market's interest in Simpsons stamps, what else are they screwing up on a colossal scale?
 
Sadly, Simpsons memorabilia as a whole is pretty much worthless. With few exceptions, most Simpsons collectibles are anything but. The proliferation of Simpsons items - from postage stamps to bed sheets - and the overwhelming volume of Simpsons stuff virtually guarantees that it will not appreciate over the years. Fox's backwards approach to merchandising is an excellent example of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Which is a pity, really, because some of it - like the Simpsons action figures - were pretty great in and of themselves. 

"Lisa Goes Gaga"

Marge, you naughty thing!

OK, so, this episode was completely insane. As a Lady Gaga fan, I was pretty excited when I heard that she would be the guest star for the season finale. I expected that she would show up on stage, perform a number, maybe give the kids a pat on the head. That's how most guest stars work; they rarely stick around very long in the episode.
Instead, we got an episode that was literally ABOUT Lady Gaga. I can't think of any other episodes that have been ABOUT their guest stars in this way, although the "Michael Jackson is actually an insane, doughy, bald white guy" episode comes close. 

It also mashes together Lady Gaga and Lisa Simpson in a way I would not have expected. Lisa is a smart kid, a feminist, out of touch with pop culture, and a staunch vegetarian. But the episode didn't leverage a single one of those traits. How can you have someone stand in the Simpsons' foyer literally covered in meat, without even a passing comment by vegetarian Lisa? I don't know, but they did it.

I also felt that Lisa was serving as a stalking horse for the show itself. In this episode, Lisa - who the episode agrees is kind and smart and musically talented - is hated by everyone. She even receives a "Least Popular" award at school. Later we find that someone has been sticking up for Lisa on the fourth graders' message board. But it turns out to be Lisa herself, using various sock puppets in a craven attempt to sway public opinion.
 
I like Lisa, personally, but I like her partly because she is a problematic character. The best comment on Lisa being "Springfield's answer to the question no one asked." Would a know-it-all really turn to astroturfing to rehabilitate her name? Lisa has gone to extraordinary lengths in the past to be popular. I would have liked to see how much farther she would go.
 
But we didn't, but we did get some great Lady Gaga outfits and moments (I loved the hummingbird budget). And also, hello! Lady Gaga kissed Marge in the kitchen, and it turned Marge on! What a naughty housewife! For me at least, that was one of the most unexpected moments in the show's entire 23-year run. 
 
If the ending was a bit too hasty and pat, well, that's OK. I only have one real beef with this episode, and that's that the framing device of the narrator's voice-over never had its payoff. I suspect it's something that had to be cut for time, but still: pretty bad form, there.
 

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