The Simpsons’ COVID Episode Combines Caterpillars and Rob Lowe

Springfield orders a maskless quarantine against an icky red menace in The Simpsons’ “The Very Hungry Caterpillars.”

THE SIMPSONS: When a plague of insects shuts down Springfield, the Simpsons face their greatest challenge yet...spending time in lockdown with each other in the "The Very Hungry Caterpillars" episode of THE SIMPSONS airing Sunday, May 7 (8:00-8:31 PM ET/PT) on FOX.
Photo: 20th Television

This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.

The Simpsons Season 34 Episode 20

It is pretty apocalyptic when the locusts are everywhere, but the real monster is Rob Lowe. The Simpsons takes on the next phase of the end times in “The Very Hungry Caterpillars,” with the least teachable moments.

The COVID parody is overt, overdue to the point of last week’s news, but not quite an old joke. This is a very good breakdown of the lockdown mentality without rancor. The episode doesn’t get too preachy by getting very preachy. Extremes are funny, and The Simpsons has no problem poking wounds. The horrific atmosphere is introduced by Professor Frink, standing in for another CDC head in the form of the expert for the Center for Disgusting Caterpillars.

Frink devised a surefire hierarchy to the threat to the local community. He rates the caterpillars on a scale of ickiness, and it really sets the emotional tone. Not only is this lockdown going to be claustrophobic and nasty, it’s going to leave an unpleasant trail, and barren brush. At points it feels like a “Treehouse of Horror” episode. It is a frightening prospect, besides having to imagine a world without Ranch dressing.

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To complete the underlying terrifying atmosphere, “The Very Hungry Caterpillars” treats us to exceptional visuals. As the bugs cover the windows, there is a constant state of vague and creepy movement, and one sequence which puts it into perspective – when Marge manages to rap a few bugs out of the way enough to see the sun, before they coalesce into one large blotch, cutting out all outside light. Seeing the Springfield sign covered in caterpillars is a red mark on an iconic structure, but watching Homer blow-torch his way over the Flanderses place feels ingenious.

Homer’s evil laugh puts it over the top, but it also is a great setup for the later break-in, which is done with Ned’s own bolt cutter. Not all of the visuals are horrific, of course. Note the headline on the Springfield Shopper. You can’t miss it: It’s got new larger fonts.

The lockdown doesn’t go well from Day One. Homer forgets a password, forcing Lisa and Bart to retreat to remote learning. Four distinct stories play out within the family. Maggie’s addiction to ranch dressing, and her increasingly insubordinate attitude toward her mother; Marge joining Homer in a raid of Ned’s holy relics; Bart and the gang de-humiliate Skinner, saving a childhood traumatized by street magicians, with modern tech; While Lisa falls down the rabbit hole of non-hookah smoking caterpillars, shrinking under pressure.

Lisa’s doomscrolling is indicative of a larger problem, this is two weeks in a row where she’s been at the fate of social media. On the other hand, it is fun to hear Lisa taking on all the accents, from Carnaby Street posh to Valley Girl, when she gets distracted by play (the Christmas came early cos Santa is dying bit is pure gold). It is a great moment of Lisa being a young girl, which we don’t get often enough. She is usually on the firing line of socially judicious salvos, and seeing her take an age-appropriate break is a relief. But the perfect dolls who were made to shop are not unaware of the crisis outside their mall with the working escalator. They waste no time melting down Malibu Kevin for protection, and Lisa can’t even stand up for the little guy.

Secondary characters get a mixed blessing of isolated moments. Milhouse’s dad, Kirk, is once again raging against a machine, in a case of redundant denial. It is kind of a shock to see Jimbo Jones’ room covered in Harry Styles posters. Ralph Wiggum has the best reaction of the evening, very concerned that Mr. Purple is going to lose his blankie, and seeing Skinner cry is a revealing element to his already-oppressed existence. The Springfield Elementary Principal is always on the verge of some kind of breakdown, whether he’s offering Superintendent Chalmers “steamed hams” or holding in his bile at his mother’s milking of his every minor flaw.

We feel for Principal Skinner, but Moe’s attempt to take out as many caterpillars with him as he burns the bar is the best bit by a secondary player. Moe’s problem is his own karma coming to bite him on the ass, and he is cursed with it because it is always devastatingly funny. Watering down the booze is so classic Moe, and yet so intelligent. Though I wonder if the pickled eggs might have been more flammable.

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We get a vague hint that Lowe’s cousin Pete isn’t all he appears to be, when he rolls his eyes at liverwurst sandwiches, which admittedly make Ned’s Armageddon Pickles and hard pretzels with the power to floor enemies look pretty good by comparison. It is great to see Ned go Old Testament on Homer, while waiting for the second coming with fire in his eyes, brimstone up his nose, and vengeance on his mind. The Flanders’ singalong, while waiting for the rapture, is a major highlight, as all music in The Simpsons catalog. Lyrics like “high-fiving Seraphim” because “Satan’s got a pitchfork and knows how to use it” are damnably funny.

Alf Clausen’s “The Land of Chocolate,” written for the 1991 episode “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk,” but used whenever imaginations run wild, is also magical. Whether Burns is dancing with Smithers in an abandoned Nuclear Plant, or post-lockdown neighbors imagine a world where all doomsday kitchens are all-you-can eat, it is a perennial. It might also have been played over Lisa’s takedown of her plastic Malibu shopping pals, as any optimism in a happily frightened society is a flight of fancy.

“The Very Hungry Caterpillars” is extremely funny, with a wonderful initial conclusion: move on and learn nothing. Though I really want to know which “sexy Bernice” Homer is talking about. But the obvious missing of the cocoons, and the biting butterflies give it that needed second punchline. The most effective comedy works in triplets, and I would watch “Breaking Bread” just because of the Heisenberg hat, or “Curb Your Agnosticism” for the choir.


4 out of 5