This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 32 Episode 1
In The Simpsons’ season 32 premiere, “Undercover Burns,” the needs of the many are outweighed by the wants of the one. It begins on “take your kids to work day” at the Springfield Nuclear plant and the offspring which managed to make it out of the workers’ radioactively damaged reproductive systems are being culled for slave labor like inmates at a for-profit prison. This of course leads to the most intrepid isotot, Lisa Simpson, to expose the labor abuses for what they are: just another day at the plant. But it also leads to C. Montgomery Burns realizing he is not quite the beloved despot he pays his yes-men to say he is.
The episode gets its title from CBS’s Undercover Boss, which premiered after Super Bowl XLIV in 2010. In that show, executives put on overalls and pass as workers who are so far below them they have no idea what they even look like. Burns is too well-known a face in town, so he underpays some of the most over-talented hacks to do a Robocop makeover and Stranger Things’ David Harbour for a voice. He comes out looking more like a Robo-lumberjack, but that’s okay to everyone but the lumberjill from last season and Mr. Smithers. Long after Burns’ most entrenched enabler has come out of all closets, The Simpsons continues to fan innuendo. Maybe it’s because Burns is staunchly willfully ignorant, maybe because there are only two things which work on Burns’ body, robotic or flesh, but probably because there are so many ways to spin it. What does Smithers know about a union of men, anyway? When Burns was a boy, men were a different breed. Of course, we also learn Burns hasn’t been a boy in a very long time in this episode. He’s a less-than-sprighty 156.
The older-than-old old man Burns gets the idea to go undercover as “Fred” at the nuclear power plant after reading the cave drawings on the men’s room stalls. He passes over the best bits of “there once was a lady from China” to get to the rhyme, which is North Carolina, an anticlimax in so many ways, and makes note of the crying cucumbers. These are all funnier for what they leave out, but what Burns dawdles over are the “for a good time don’t call numbers,” of which his is at the top. This is anchored by Lisa’s reaction to being in a men’s room, and seeing a tuna sandwich on the sink, which is a highlight of vocal angst and disgust. Everyone watching probably washed their hands during the commercial. Burns gets confirmation when checking out the ladies’ room and learning effigies can be burned.
Burns, of course, passes the workers tests to become part of the gang. They escape the hounds, share pickled “I want to say horse” eggs at Moe’s, and do karaoke, with Burns’ alter-ego putting in a surprising rendition of “The Spaniard who Blighted my Life.” The surprising thing being that the little-known 1930s novelty song is on the karaoke computer. As is his standard response, Homer and the guys at the plant take to Fred Kranepool famously, and almost immediately. As he’s done so many times in the past, Homer brings Fred completely into his life, you can see him in the smile on his face. And once again, Homer forsakes his family for the strangely charismatic stranger. Even when there’s a slow-roasted turkey breakfast waiting at home. Marge once again tries to explain a concept of cool which is decidedly uncool. Although Lisa agrees, with everything but this.
Underneath his cruel and narcissistic exterior, Burns just wants to be loved. Beneath that, he has a desire to be feared. But even further down, he only wants more of what he has, which is why he always reverts to his true being. Burns is the perennial lord of industry, and no matter how many amenities he may bring to the employee lounge, lounging is for quitters. And “quitters” is Burns’ and Smithers’ code word for workers who gave their lives for the company. Yes, they had a lot of alleged fun, the pair admit in a particularly effective office bit.
There is a certain sweetness and comfort in Smithers turning to Homer to set things right in the world of nuclear power. It affords Homer a kind of dignity which the other malcontents and Lennys don’t get. This of course is taken away by Burns moments later when he offers monkey-man Homer a banana. We get a glimpse into the depth of Homer’s soul when he asks why he’s always being compared to a gorilla. It leads to the best bit of the episode, the history of the worker, epically told by Homer.
The transformation from “Take your Kids to Work Day” into “Put Your Kids to Work Day” is a funny and frightening transition: the descending horse ride to the pits, the maintenance mines, the deflating bouncy castle, and especially the Disneyfied song, “you work for me or you get the lash. You won’t get dental health or cash,” we hear, and realizes it is a small world, after all. Another highlight so short you might miss is after Millhouse overhears Bart, who is sitting right next to him, say he’s been trying to get rid of the dud friend for days, but doesn’t know how to tell him. Millhouse calls his mom, who is enjoying the time away from her kid while getting an even tan, to tell her the sleepover ended two nights ago and she kicks her cell phone into a pool. You can see all the hope drain from Millhouse’s face on the cell phone as it sinks into the shallow deep.
The surprise ending before the coda is surrealistically jarring, and also carries a touch of déjà vu. We’ve seen this effect before, but unlike the “what” to which Homer asks Smithers moments after a revelatory moment, it hasn’t been played out yet. “Undercover Burns” makes for a fun and informative season premiere episode. Mr. Burns always delivers, except on any promises he’s made.