There’s no doubt that a trillion words have been written about The Simpsons (I checked, just to be sure), from the love letters of the early years to the anger and dismay as after season 10 the standard began to decline, leading to some episodes which are truly appalling and indeed upsetting as to how much they piss on the legacy of this once outstanding show. But less is written about how about three or four times a season there’s a decent episode, perhaps understandably as so many have given up on it, yet it proves there are still writers who care about the characters and try their best to create something enjoyable.
I almost gave up on the show last year after the episode which tackled the Apu issue which had come to light after Hari Kondabolu’s insightful documentary The Problem With Apu. The show’s lack of respect when tackling such a problematic situation upset me greatly, and it showed that they were not only out of touch but also quite insulting to those who realise that it is something that needs to be dealt with after all these years. I mean, when the man who provides Apu’s voice, Hank Azaria, says he knows that something needs to change you’d have thought the producers would have taken this on board. But no, that wasn’t the case at all.
Still, I’ve had a long long love affair with The Simpsons, it’s the show which changed the way I viewed comedy completely. I’d always been extremely fond of the genre but it was when it began airing that I realised just what could be done with the medium. At the time I was the only one of my friends who had Sky so many friends / vague associates would come over on a Sunday evening to watch it, and quite often we’d put it on again the moment it finished as it was so good. I’d video every episode and soon built up an enormous collection, and I truly couldn’t say how many hours I’ve spent watching the show over the years but I’ve no doubt it’s a ridiculous amount. So I thought I should at least give “Bart’s Not Dead”, the first episode of the thirtieth season, a shot. If only to see if they were at least trying to make a decent series any more, or whether it would be lazy gags and tired plot lines once again.
It starts off playing a dangerous game by showing a brief clip from each year of the series, counting down from season 29 to the first, and you really can tell how much better it once was even from a two second segment. But fortunately what comes after this is better than a lot of recent episodes, as it begins with Bart turning down a dare by Curly and co to pull the fire alarm at Lisa’s talent show as for once he doesn’t want to ruin the night for her. It’s a rare sweet moment in a show which often tries to be far too silly and surreal these days, as is Marge’s pride when she learns that Bart did such a thing, though inevitably Nelson, Curly and the other bullies make him regret his decision. As does Homer, and soon enough Bart’s on top of the Springfield Dam being dared to jump off it. One misjudged leap later and Bart’s in hospital, with his worried family around him.
Here’s where the main plot of the episode kicks in, as Marge is angry with him and wants to understand why he did such a thing. But rather than tell her that it was due to Homer claiming he always had to go through with dares, no matter how dangerous they are, he lies and pretends that he actually briefly died and went to heaven. Homer’s response – “Good work boy, you got us off the hook in the short term which is all that ever matters” provides a decent laugh, as does Bart’s description of Heaven, which includes the fact that “Jesus rides a rainbow horse…rainbow’s come out of his butt…And saying you brushed your teeth makes it true”.
Of course Lisa confronts him about his lies, but at this point he fails to care, and doesn’t even when a group of Christian movie producers turn up to meet him, wanting to make a film out of his experience of the afterlife. Cue Homer ending up writing the movie with Ned Flanders, casting a selection of famous types in it (including guest stars Gal Gadot, Pete Holmes and Emily Deschanel), and before you know it it’s released in to cinemas and becomes a big hit. But this is finally too much for Bart, especially after Lisa goads him about his fabrications once more, and so he confesses to Marge, who then tells the world the actual truth. Naturally they’re outraged, but Homer gives a big speech and says to blame him and not Bart, and provides the biggest laugh of the episode when he says “And let me just add this, is it possible any other religious beliefs are founded on myths?” only for Reverend Lovejoy to declare the meeting must end with “This interview is over, God created the world in seven days, see you later”.
Unfortunately there are missteps along the way. During the casting of the movie because Bones’ star Emily Deschanel briefly sounds like Marge Homer thinks she is her, even after asking her to do a variety of silly movements whilst talking to prove she isn’t. Everyone knows Homer’s never been the brightest but making him this idiotic is something I’ve never liked and they take it too far here. Also when Lisa continues to doubt Bart’s story she taunts him until Bart starts to feel guilty which leads to a dream where Bart’s in Heaven and confronted by Marge’s dead father, and then beaten up by Jesus. It’s all a bit naff and sadly not that funny, the idea of Jesus being annoyed with Bart could have been a great one, but they waste the premise here by going down the lazy slapstick route.
But there are great jokes present too, including a decent gag where Nelson teases Bart for having a dad (to which he petulantly replies “I do not”), along with a funny moment where he mocks Marge by uttering “Ha ha Bart’s mom wears a seatbelt”. There’s also a amusing segment concerning how much padding the actor playing Homer needs (“And I’m fat to begin with”), a cute joke where all of the christian film producers talk akin to Ned, and when Bart asks them “So you give all your profits back to the church?” their panicked reaction made me laugh hard. Also fun is the premier of the film where Marge is with Gal Gadot, who tells the press “In real life we don’t get along”, with Marge’s disgruntled reaction makes it an amusing bit. The parts of the film we see are also pretty whimsical, which includes a song “One More Chance” which is all rather sweet and lovely. As is Grandpa’s reaction to the film at the end – “Eh, not enough Bart”. Then right at the end of the episode there’s some nice satire from Kent Brockman which works really well.
No one will in the entire universe will be surprised to hear that it’s not up to the standard of the very best of The Simpsons, but it’s definitely one of the better episodes of recent years and writer Stephanie Gillis has created an episode which the show should be proud of. None of the characters are actively horrible, there’s some really strong jokes, and the plot is pretty decent – with any episode which doesn’t revolve around Homer and Marge’s marriage falling apart being something of a relief.
I’m not sure the series could ever return to the form of seasons 1 – 9 (or 2 – 8, or whatever your personal favourites are), almost every plot line imaginable has been done countless times over the years, the essential sweetness of the early years has been missing for a long long time now, and given the standard in general I wouldn’t be surprised if next week’s episode is a disappointment. But when they create one like this it shows that The Simpsons is still definitely worth checking out from time to time.