"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Simpsons: Lost Verizon

The Simpsons kicked off their 20th season in style, with the Homer-and-Marge-centric episode, "Sex, Pies, and Idiot Scrapes". This episode, Bart proves that just because you don’t age doesn’t mean you’re not out of touch. When Bart misses out on an embarrassing Skinner situation because he’s the only kid without a cell phone, he goes on a cellular quest that leads the Simpson family all the way from the well-manicured greens of the Springfield Glen Country Club to the stone-carved steps of Machu Picchu.

Though “Lost Verizon” is a mostly solid episode, it feels like a missed opportunity for a show that garners more grumbles than acclaim these days. The first ten minutes sets up a premise that would have filled a full 22 minutes during the early seasons: Bart, wanting a cell phone, tries to earn some cash at a snooty country club. Not bad. The show has certainly done more in the past with flimsier ideas. I mean, Bart’s already worked at a burlesque house and a mob hangout—why not a country club? But like so many latter-season episodes, Bart’s desire for a phone is only a means to one ridiculous end after another.

After a short-lived career as freelance golf ball scavenger is squashed by “Greenskeeper” Willy, Bart lucks into a phone thanks to the temper of special guest star “Boston-comedian-turned-movie-star-turned-basic-cable-notable” Denis Leary, whose discarded cell phone Bart uses to make prank phone calls and do despicable things like spending all of Leary’s money on Yankees hats and Derek Jeter jerseys (the horror!).

But even Leary is only a stepping stone to the second act plot of Marge activating the phone’s GPS tracking chip so she and Homer can keep an eye on Bart. Even this vaguely coherent plot thread falls apart at the end, when everyone except Bart ends up in Peru for some reason.
Just because The Simpsons has covered so much narrative ground over the past two decades doesn’t mean the writers should give up on coming up with a single storyline for an episode. One of the reasons people abandoned the show is that it stopped making sense. A single episode might have half a dozen plot threads, each more disposable than the last, none of which had any effect on what happened the following week.

Here’s hoping “Lost Verizon” is just a hiccup on The Simpsons‘ return to Sunday night dominance. The main reason I hold out hope is that I laughed. I laughed a lot—at dumb stuff like Everybody Poops: The Movie and Marge getting collection notices for frozen peas, to smarter material like the owner of the Bergman-inspired Swedish bar Bart prank calls threatening him with “If I ever get my hands on you, I’ll show you the futility of human endeavor!” At the series’ lowest point a couple years back, I went through entire episodes without cracking a smile. That I’m laughing again means they must be doing something right. Now all they have to do is stop trying to hard.

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