This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 32 Episode 19
The Simpsons Season 32, episode 19, ” Panic on the Streets of Springfield,” is one of the most pointed parodies the series has crafted in a while. It takes on pre-teen angst with the dry iced wit of an 80s anti-Brit-pop band. But it also follows a slow, sad slide into anguished irony.
I was looking for a laugh, then I found a laugh, and heaven knows I’m miserable now. My head hangs heavy with the pain of laughter. Not only does the episode strip Lisa of what appears to be perfectly suitable accompaniment for a life of lonely elitism, it also makes us all rethink Slapify. It may offer Millennial rock at Baby Boomer prices, but it teaches Lisa good taste is a curse.
The spiky haired, middle child is very picky about her music. After hating everything she hears, Slapify suggests music for people who hate everything, and the top artist is Quilloughby and his band The Snuffs. This is a stand-in for Morrissey, lead vocalist and lyricist for the Smiths, very thinly veiled behind a shroud of the Cure and Joy Division. The Snuffs’ shows have been called “A three-hour dance party in a freshly dug grave.” They made depression hummable for alienated teenagers in the 1980s. With hits like “How Late Is Then,” “What Difference Do I Make?” “Simon has a birthmark,” and “Everyone is horrid except me and possibly you,” they made parents wonder if their kids would ever get out of therapy.
The band’s sardonic brand of radical vegetarianism turned “The flesh that comes with cheese is proof of your moral disease” into an anthem. Lisa falls in love with “Hamburger Homicide,” and her descent is expertly choreographed. The lyrics are inspired sub-genre satire. “Every day I draw my bath and pray I will drown,” Quilloughby sings, and the audience gleefully wishes him the utmost success. The songs were co-written by the episode’s writer Tim Long, and Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords.
Benedict Cumberbatch is sublime as Quilloughby. He brings out the true ennui behind the lyrical content. He sees Springfield as very much like his own town, “dismal, and nothing good will ever come from it.” Cumberbatch and Yeardley Smith deliver devious comic chemistry. Ralph establishes the innate self-involved, exclusivity in the brightest kid in his class. “Lisa doesn’t like it when other people talk,” he notes. So, when Quilloughby dropkicks Ned Flanders’ pileous affectations into the pews with “facial hair is not a substitute for personality,” they bond like two Sideshow Bobs.
Lisa’s lines take on the bite of an eight-year-old, “Every day you wave your wand, but nothing magical happens,” she tells the Springfield Elementary School band conductor. This pleases the nihilistic phantasm, “I enjoyed that and I enjoy nothing,” but doesn’t play well with the administration. Skinner calls in Homer and Marge over concerns Lisa has become “poetically world-weary.” This is a very Simpsons kind of observation. It cuts to the quick with a finely skewered edge of self-awareness.
The principal’s seen this before, which means he’s had an opportunity to misjudge it in the past. Skinner recognizes Lisa’s black booties as an emo cry, which he blames the current popularity of music of the past. Music is an easy scapegoat on The Simpsons. “Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel,” Bart observed in the “Homerpalooza” episode from 1996.
Bart is having his own problems with Lisa’s new friend, though he is clueless, a perennial problem he usually skateboards around. Bart believes he’s “the drumstick in the chicken bucket” he calls his friends and therein lies his destruction. Nelson plays right into it: of course he stays up night thinking of how fresh Bart keeps those old tired pranks.
The school bully gets in quite a few good lines, which push the narrative. He dismisses the lunch special tacos’ meatless replacement because “mushrooms are chairs for frogs.” When he hears there are little pieces of bacon between the Shiitake, he almost tearfully exclaims “this taco had a mom.” This perfectly encapsulates Lisa’s dilemma. The entire school laughs as Lisa, even Miss Hoover, who has probably been waiting for this moment.
Dr. Hibbert is now voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson, who has been playing smaller roles since 2009. Tonight, the affable physician ladles out bad news to Homer. His sugar is up, and his testosterone is down. Homer now has to face harsh realities. Something he has historically run away from, usually shrieking. He will never get to be an NFL quarterback who is really an international superspy. Hibbert prescribes a drug, but Homer gets hooked on the commercial he has to sit through before listening to instructions. There are only two things the real men of Springfield believe can boost manliness: weapons and trucks, and guns don’t come with ultimate torque. The triple XL 550 won’t be found in any medical journals, but reading journals is one of the leading causes of lowered testosterone.
Marge is a different person this episode. She’s not out of character, and reacts wholly within the defined role, but she is uncharacteristically hard-lined. This is the first time she is not an enabler. She has zero tolerance for the triple XL 550. One of best visual sequences is when we see Marge banging her head against the wall in its infrared. Not only does she force Homer to accept she’s more a truck guy than he’ll ever be, spouting the definition of torque, but tells him she’s “dealing with an actual problem.” Marge also makes Lisa swallow her bitter pill in a very familiar way. One of the earliest episodes dealt with sadness and music, and the saddest kid in grade two fought for her right to sorrow then too.
Though Quilloughby is credited as the product of Lisa’s fractured psyche, he’s really more like Jojo Rabbit’s imaginary friend slumming on Evergreen Terrace. In his lifelong quest to disconnect with society, Morrissey went from the Socialist Red Wedge to the Great Replacement Theory. Watching Lisa lose her idealized relationship slowly dissemble actually softens the blow we should get from the reveal. She’d already begged Quilloughby “don’t ruin it,” so I won’t spoil the ending, but it would have been more devastating to have Winston Churchill surrender without warning.
I know there is nothing more tiresome than gratitude, but “Panic on the Streets of Springfield” appreciably defies expectations. The Simpsons is on a roll this season, mixing light comedy with deeper character developments. Arcs have sunk into darker areas, and the conclusions consistently temper the sweetness with subversive ambiguity. Tonight, Lisa learns she should listen to people, one out of five times, and her mother will always be waiting on the other end of her slammed door. Marge lets Homer keep truckin’. The episode is surprisingly warm, and almost depressingly funny.