This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons: Season 30 Episode 2
The Simpsons are taking on the almost-current state of reality TV, again on season 30 episode 2, “Heartbreak Hotel.” The family has been conned into this game before, sometimes willingly giving themselves over to conscious anachronism and sometimes dragged there to get out of a country, or arrest, where the camera was really a body-cam and the director actually a local cop. The Amazing Place, or “the place show” as Homer calls it, is Marge’s favorite competition series. She’s taped all the episodes, strung together the outtakes and even bought the terrible home game the family never played.
In the episode “Bart vs. Lisa vs. the Third Grade,” Homer admits he hates reality shows. Marge points out that he once believed they were “the greatest thing that ever happened to us.” Homer realizes that he’s grown, but Marge hasn’t. In “Heartbreak Hotel,” she is still probably repressing her old wife swap escapade with Klang and Kudos on their interstellar reality programming. While Homer still clings to the notion that the only reason the Dippin Dens chewing tobacco parlor wasn’t a hit was because the proprietors he invested with were not ready for all the spitting, Marge is ready for a snarling close-up.
“I’m crying and no one’s even filming me,” Marge bemoans after she and Homer are eliminated in the first round. This sentiment goes to the core of reality television itself, and the generations glued to it. There really is no point in crying alone anymore, the social fabric makes a better handkerchief and the louder the blow, the better the ratings. This is also why, when Bart and Lisa show up at the audition tent to pitch their mommy’s obsessive compulsive fanaticism, the producers are so excited. “Married kids?” one of the showrunners begs, knowing how Honey Boo Boo plays in the sticks. No, different weirdoes, Bart says, with Lisa piling on the pathos of her mother’s plight to put her plight on TV.
Marge reveals herself a dreaded newbie when she loses the Suitcase Stowaway challenge. Before submitting previous audition tapes, she knew the show inside out. She studied every flaw made by every contestant during every season, and still she falls for the first trick out of the box. But she is far more valuable to the production after she and Homer are disqualified. So valuable, they get locked away like buried treasures in the airport hotel, because even a slip of the lip during a call to their kids can cost them a million dollars, or if they were residents of Georgia, the death penalty. Reality Shows thrive on the reveal and Chief Wiggum has already revealed quite enough for one episode.
Marge has trouble adjusting to hotel living because she doesn’t think she deserves valuables. Homer dives right in like he was made for it, which he, and most of us, is and are. Even the store where you buy your sundries is awesome to Homer, who is otherwise too distracted by the room service, booze, all-you-can-stomach appetizers and endless TV he is forced to endure.
The high point of the episode is the “Heartbreak Hotel” parody. Homer sings the praises of foamy pillows, breakfast bagels and a pool where “no lifeguard can see us if we die,” and marvels that the “toilet’s got a phone, yeah, don’t know why.” He convinces Marge to sit back and relax, and soon enough she’s in the weight room revisiting old squats while Homer discovers he can still sit on a yoga ball and drink cucumber water.
The idyllic idealism of hedonistic hotel living comes to a screechy halt when Marge discovers it was Homer who blew the first challenge, not her, and she is actually surprised enough to be angry. Of course Homer spoils it. He loves chocolate, how could it ever be out of place? It belongs everywhere for exactly the possibility it should be eaten while looking for it. Sometimes it seems they are two very different people.
Marge’s flight into her competitor Nick’s (“I thought his name was what’s-his-name,” Homer corrects) arms, or actually legs, is very uncharacteristic for the usually staid woman in pearls. She’s turned down the richest and most powerful men in Springfield to stay faithful to Homer but in the time it takes to say “no time for the old in-out-in-out, love,” she’s ready to run a three-legged race. She drops her overstuffed husband like dead weight for the dreaded Dead Weight Drop portion of the game, where the final challenge is the Mango Tango. Marge is so overconfident she is gloating that she won without her useless husband she forgets to salt the rims of a glass. Things she takes most for granted get her into and further into the problems in the episode. Marge’s universe is inverted by her ego.
The episode is a tour de farce for Marge, who reveals her innermost fears while failing at the very things she prides herself on. She is even barred from vacuuming at the hotel she is banished to by maids who get paid for that kind of work. Julie Kavner’s Marge Simpson provides the best and worst America has to offer when it comes to mothering. She can glaze a ham until it glows in the dark. But in the episode, her final defeat is she screws up a recipe, which so unlike her. Marge is also the biggest enabler on television. It is gratifying to see her waddling in her own banality, throwing up her hands at the indifferent gods of reality programming.
The show-within-the-show plays the sexual innuendo off some very impressive animation. The characters lose none of their animated form in the false extra dimension of reality TV. The voice acting gets satirically stylized, which works but is a little creepy, probably what they intended. Marge has the greatest arc of the evening, while Homer gets the best reward.
Simpsons fans are so used to Homer being the chaotic faction, even more so than the boy, on the show we forget how much it pays out to his long-suffering, wine-sneaking, over-zealously middle of the road wife. Every time he screws up, she gets the sympathy. Marge doesn’t always counterpunch her way out of situations like Audrey Meadows had to do to make Jackie Gleason less abusive on The Honeymooners. She always gave as good as she got, which told more about the environment than spousal abuse. Marge denies problems like she denies herself joy.
“Pity, is this how you feel all the time,” Homer asks after finally tanning himself in the arm glow of the unexpectedly wonderful feeling. “I suppose so,” Marge admits. “I just never let myself enjoy it.” This is a big step in both self-awareness and self-consciousness for Mrs. Simpson, whose sisters let it all hang out for the kids while keeping discipline as extended babysitters.
Public humiliation is the best humiliation. The Simpson family may have bad memories when it comes to their own public appearances, but they thrive on the repressed anguish that comes from being under the microscope. The premise was fresh in showing us how hotel living could be the answer to all life’s problems. “Heartbreak Hotel” offers a diverse entry into the season, which is still underwhelming.
“Heartbreak Hotel” was written by Renee Ridgeley and Matt Selman, and directed by Steven Dean Moore.
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 and Moe. Harry Shearer is Seymour Skinner, Kent Brockman, C. Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers. Guest star: Rhys Darby as Reality Show Host.
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.
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