This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons: Season 30 Episode 11
Abe Simpson is the babysitter of last resort at the beginning of The Simpsons Season 30, Episode 11, “Mad About the Toy.” But by the middle he needs to lie down. Grampa Simpson is already too tired for most things. He can barely stay awake long enough to finish an anecdote. Now The Simpsons are adding battle fatigue to the mix.
While Grampa is watching Bart, Lisa and Maggie so Marge and Homer can go out for a romantic evening, the kids try and find some way to kill the evening without strangling their grandfather in the middle of a radio play rebroadcast on the Geezer Channel. They can’t play Monopoly because Homer spent the all the money and hocked the top hat. They can’t play the game of Life because Abe already lost. But a box of old toys turns out to be a Pandora’s Box of mementos. Green plastic Army men trigger PTSDs in Grampa but since it’s not combat related, the VA insists on cash for any treatment.
Abe Simpson has led an exciting life, and he’d be the first to tell you about it. Of course, if Abe told it you might not be quite so excited to hear about his long ordeals due to the ordeal of listening to his twists and turns on the long road to communication. Why, I remember Grandpa telling us about all those years he spent as a night watchman at a cranberry silo. The way he told it was just as interesting as when he remembered barely missing Hitler himself with a javelin throw at the 1936 Olympics, hitting the man there to assassinate the future Führer instead. Or when his own attempt to whack Hitler at the Battle of the Bulge was thwarted by Monty Burns.
Abe distinguished himself in the European theater, helped by the fact he secretly liked killing strangers. But it was after the war Abe fought his real battles. Some were social, most were antisocial, but the worst were plastic. In “Mad About the Toy,” Abe gets spotted as a down and out soldier and gets recruited as a toy soldier model. For fifty bucks a sitting in a fledgling industry, Abe got in on the ground floor. He did it in a more innocent time, when Putty could be silly, and toys were fun and dangerous until they put an eye out. The job sounds like a fun life but it’s a maddening drudgery if you’re the model for a Jack in the Box. It’s even more maddening to discover Abe ran out on hundreds of millions of dollars in residual checks.
At first we think Grampa is finally going to get a paycheck. Homer even treats him nicely, promising to love him some day. He gets airlifted from an interview with Kent Brockman to appear on the far more prestigious show hosted by Lawrence O’Donnell, only to get himself banned not only from cable news appearances but also from using the letters N, B and C. It’s enough to get him noticed by the company that originally hired him, who fly him to New York for old time’s sake only to send him home on Shattered Dreams airlines because Abe fled his sessions before he had time to sign any contracts. Abe didn’t become senile over a long period of time. He had a gestation period that started at birth.
It seems Abe’s photographer was sweet on him, mistook friendliness for flirtation and stole a kiss. The photographer was let go because that’s what they did in the forties before gay people existed. To the tune of odd time signatured jazz in a flashback session we are transported to a magical time when ad agencies had bourbon dispensers and madmen admen slapped secretaries fannies and fired people for being gay.
Abe’s past has offered quite a few clues to a more fluid sexuality. He has had dreams where men fought duels at high noon over him. He spent some time in the 40s as a German cabaret singer, or at least in women’s clothing, “oh they had designers then.” Marge thought Abe was gay in the season 24 episode “Gorgeous Grampa,” but his feather boas and blonde wigs were just a costume for his wrestling character.
Abe is open to change in this episode in ways that are surprisingly unsurprising. Homer’s inflexible dad has always been a contradictory character. He is a card-carrying communist, an Elk, a Mason, and president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance for some reason. Abe hints at a wild youth filled with flirtations and experimentation, but his reactionary ways pushed his hippie wife out of his life and he raised his son in a repressed home, stuck in a past that only Abe remembers and barely at that. But in this episode he is willing to see if he did indeed miss out on some kind of happiness. The entire family travel to Texas, the reluctant home of Ted Cruz, where the photographer moved to live his life without lying about who he is.
The reunion goes very well. The photographer notes that Abe has aged well, like a fine onion, and is ready for a relationship. But it turns out the granite faced World War II veteran is as straight as Gomer Pyle, the gay pride of the Marines. This is a wonderfully subversive allusion. After 38 years together, Jim Nabors, the actor and singer who played Gomer Pyle, married his partner Stan Cadwallader in Seattle, one month after same-sex marriage became legal in Washington State.
Marge and Homer share some of their best moments of the episode outside of the Grampa arc at the beginning of the episode. Homer adlibs Al Bundy lines to the Frank Sinatra song “Love and Marriage,” while getting ready for their night out. He zips up Marge’s dress delicately, and the loving couple burn more calories than sex while Homer sucks in his gut long enough for Marge to clip it together. We also get an insight into their pillow talk. Homer teases Marge by telling her he mailed in the mortgage payment on time because he knows nothing turns her on more than basic competence. Forced to have the old man back at the old folks home by ten, they speed date their celebration. The high point is when they speed cruise through the Tunnel of Love.
The episode moves quickly with clever jokes, gags and asides to spare. We get several snatches of song parody, the reproductions of a past era, complete with period commentary, and even an aborted attempt to get Siri to commit existential suicide. Homer gets mistaken for a lunatic and is taken off for electroshock therapy, while Grampa is shown extremely graphic war photos without blinking and is determined to be completely sound mentally.
It is good to see Abe Simpson admit and fight his homosexual panic, even as it confirms his heterosexual proclivities. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and if Abe turned, like Marge’s sister Patty Bouvier, it could have been too drastic a wrinkle to add to the old character. With Patty, you could tell she was a lesbian from space long before she realized it herself. Abe’s reactionary crankiness is too strongly embedded in the viewers’ consciousness. The Simpsons‘ “Mad About the Toy” plays too far to the inside and tries to have it both ways. Like Grampa’s stories it takes a very circuitous road, but goes nowhere, besides Texas and New York. Grampa gets the last word, but like many of his never-ending asides, it is too much rant but not enough rave. That’s what they used to say back in his day before raves were raves and Molly was just what you called a girl who went out with a gangster.
“Mad About the Toy” was directed by Bob Oliver, and written by Michael Price.
The Simpsons stars Dan Castellaneta as Homer and Abe Simpson, Julie Kavner as Marge Simpson, Nancy Cartwright as Bart Simpson, Yeardley Smith as Lisa Simpson. Hank Azaria plays Kirk Van Houten, Chief Wiggum, Professor John I.Q. Nerdelbaum Frink Jr., and Moe. Harry Shearer is Seymour Skinner, Kent Brockman, C. Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers. Guest stars: Bill de Blasio as himself, Bryan Bott as Carl/Photographer and Lawrence O’Donnell as himself.
The Simpsons‘ “Mad About the Toy” aired Sunday, January 6 at 8:00 p.m. on Fox.
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Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.