This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 32 Episode 2
In order to stay relevant in the present, The Simpsons’ season 32, episode 2, moves back to the past. History has a way of repeating on itself, as does The Simpsons, and “I, Carumbus” is a cautionary tale, twice told, if you watch it again on demand. Just like the often-misinterpreted “Revelations” of The Bible was actually about Emperor Nero, the tale of Obesius and his son Bartigula, is a warning shrouded in the mystery of parable. Just like that guy Jesus used to do before his people started bad-mouthing the Saturnalia. An empire shall fall because of its own greed and ambition, Lisa explains.
It sometimes feels like The Simpsons have lived longer than the Roman Empire, and people are consistently calling for its fall. Even The Simpsons writers mock their longevity, and the god they sacrifice to, Fox Network, which grants them longer life. While Homer doesn’t quite jump the rhinoceros in this episode, many watching on their home Coliseums want to see him throw himself on his knife. That’s probably a little too much effort, so the series lets Michael Palin as the Springfield’s Museum Curator twist the dagger of ambition into the proceedings.
Before the period piece part of the episode begins, Marge wants to know if it would kill Homer to show a little ambition in his life. Normally, Marge is his biggest enabler and while she’s often had reason to push him up innumerable hills, she knows Homer is more apt to fall of the nearest cliff. But as Lady Majora, her Roman era namesake, she gets to be the Machiavellian mama MacBeth in this I, Claudius arc.
It all begins on the farm where Obeseus does the work of several farm animals, plowing fields. His father replaces Obeseus both as an agricultural implement and emotionally when he trades him into slavery for a real ox. The Simpsons spends a little time doing a parody of Spartacus, with Homer plowing the arena with the dead bodies of his gladiator opponents. They go a step further when the daughter of one of the Doctores Retiarii who trains the gladiators, played by Joe Mantegna’s Fat Tony persona, get pregnant by one of the fighters. All the gladiators rise in unison to proclaim “I had Sexicus” in a parody of the famous “I am Spartacus” scene. It is a rousing moment with a double entendre that misses its mark by about a discus throw.
It is telling, funny and completely in character for Obeseus to betray himself by thinking he was betrayed by his friends and Majora. It does seem, for a moment, the other gladiators might be bragging about having a go with the vestal not-so-virgin. By missing the point that his friends were trying to protect him, Homer’s entire persona, everything we know, love and forgive about him, is defined. He doesn’t screw his friends for this reason though. That’s entirely due to the influence of his new freedom to be enslaved by the ambitious daughter of a Roman businessman. It also helps that both Homer and Obesius’ legends are cast in the self-referential tales and prowess of Mr. Plow.
It sounds like a happy ending, but X years and II children later, Obesius finds himself in the whizz biz, fermenting human urine into ammonia. Here we get another history lesson from Springfield Elementary, which oddly enough is even more TMI than what we saw on HBO’s Rome. This is the same occupation which fortified the coffers of a young Marcus Tullius Cicero, who would later find his hands nailed to the Senate doors. We can only hope Obesius washed his as he follows his wife’s bidding to put himself up for a seat on the floor.
Even Senator Horse, a reference to a real-life satirical appointment made by Emperor Caligula, knows there are benches. The buildup and denial follow familiar Simpsons plot movement, and while the jokes land, and the story moves forward, the actual laughs should have come at a faster rate. This is fertile ground for the fast-pace verbal sparring the cast does so well, and it feels like it is thrown away too quickly.
A lot happens in the rising action. Obesius takes credit for his slaves’ innovations. He falls deeper into the Seduction of Mimi morass by stiffing his friends for upward motion. But his ultimate power move is helping the Emperor slip backwards on a knife so his son can rule. This is made more curious by the fact that the father, portrayed by Springfield’s Mayor Quimby, is much much younger than his son, played by Mr. Burns, who may very well have known actual Romans he’s so old. The actual punchline, “Et tu, pee guy?,” is clever but feels a bit stale because it’s such a Simpsons branded moment. The smaller detail of seeing El Bartius graffiti all over the someday-ruins is equally historic a gag, but works better.
It turns out Lady Majora’s big, stabby, go-getter husband is really not that different than his modern American counterpart. He’d much rather do a half-assed job, as is his right as an irate worker and disgruntled husband, than climb a sociopolitical ladder which may not hold his weight. Livia Drusilla, who Marge’s alter ego is based on, was indeed a poisoner, and was declared a god generations before her great, great, grandson Caligula declared himself one in a tyranny which begs contemporary comparison. Bartigula’s reign has the most relevant social commentary. He is a man-boy who rules by tantrum with an agenda forged on personal whim. Obeseus’ ignored warnings are as timely as the latest false news claim.
Those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it. Obeseus realizes he failed Rome, was a less than perfect father, was horrible to his friends and gives slave-owners a bad name. His ancient character has the most growth during the episode, but you wonder, how much he retains. When we flash to the present, the argument about attending any kind of corporate seminar is still unresolved, and the only lesson we learn comes from the curator himself. When will humanity ever learn to stop letting stupid people into museums? All historical points are missed, the same patterns are repeated, and The Simpsons have been at this for 32 seasons.
“Wrapping it up and soon,” sayeth the gods at the end. They are correct in that the world would be better off under the kind of multi-god system the Romans had. So they may also be portending the twilight of The Simpsons. There are always rumors going around declaring each season its last, but this may be a decree from on high. “When in Rome you do like the Romans do,” the closing credits sing. The Roman Empire fell. Obesius probably laughed. “I, Carumbus” is a worthy entry in the archive of historic retellings for The Simpsons. It doesn’t quite hit classic status, though, in spite of any implied Fat Tony intimidation.
It is one of the many episodes which will get funnier on repeated viewings. It won’t produce more laughs, but the references will seem more clever. There is a little too much respect and consideration for history’s follies than the majority of episodes like this. The Simpsons needs to find a new way to be sloppy and peripherally damaging. They need to fray the fabric of society again, like something you’d find in Santa’s Little Helper’s mouth. The soft Christian ribbing is heartening. Subtle subversion is fun, but there seems like there were missed opportunities for blatant evisceration. Homer couldn’t even see the entrails.