This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 32 Episode 20
While the Minor Arcana didn’t foretell a major disaster, The Simpsons Season 32 episode 20, ” Mother and Child Reunion,” is a letdown they should have seen coming. The audience sure did. We’ve seen all these scenarios before, and done better.
Very much like most Mothers’ Day gifts, the box doesn’t live up to the wrapping, which have been set high for this season. We all know Lisa is going to be president someday. The Simpsons were right about Trump, and they’ve put Lisa in the White House several times. It is inevitable, and inalienable, which in this case means neither Kodos nor Kang can do anything about it. But it is just as much preordained as Lisa going to college. This is Marge’s dream, Homer’s economic nightmare, an abstract concept best left ignored to Bart, and an emoji to Maggie.
The Amazing Herzog’s magic shop is exciting. They’ve got all the love potions, not just Number 9, and probably the most comprehensive titles of Theremin music in Springfield. Penn gives the shop four stars, while Teller gives enthusiastically silent assent, in endorsements. The spirits are always present, and the future is past the unused Keurig coffee machine. The shop owner is New German Cinema director Werner Herzog. He made Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) but hey, even dwarfs started small. He is headlining at the open mic at Springfield’s hippest comedy club after he finishes practicing his cartomancy on Lisa.
The tarot deck, and its interpretations are amusing. Homer draws The Hungover Man, Bart goes from Sly Fox to Teacher’s Pet. But Herzog is also Amazing at other forms of prestidigitation. His son hasn’t forgiven him since he made his mother disappear, and he conjures Homer and Bart’s names from the dark scrawl on the Styrofoam of their Starbucks coffee cups. He invokes the spirit of Rodney Dangerfield before the precognitive process, but gets no respect. When Homer asks about the future of The Ghostbusters franchise, the best Herzog can say is “The Gay Ghostbusters is fantastic.”
The schism between Marge and Lisa is predicted through the cards Queen of Clean and Roller Eyes, and the Wind card blows a bad air on college admissions. Herzog sees a dystopian future for college. Lisa confirms by noting the university experience hasn’t been the same since Netflix bought Yale. It also appears Bob Jones College and Harvard are both rated on par with Google University. Homer concludes the diagnosis by commenting that “Lisa’s not-going-to-college is the most money I ever earned.”
Grandpa has gained a lot of mileage in the future and can really ladle out the guilt and the pressure. Lisa is the only remaining hope of the Simpson family. Even as she denies it, we see she’s won the local Lifetime Achievement Award, a once in a lifetime achievement, two times in a row. And she was only 13 and 14 at the time. This is a giggle and a half when you think about it.
It is also clever how Lisa gets the money for her independent after-school program, Knowledge Minus College, through premeditated workers comp. That scene also provides a fun visual of the incident. The trajectory skewers through Lisa, the teacher, educating her students on what stereotypes they are, and how they find her lameness riveting. The payoff comes when Chief Wiggum has to be taught math so he can shake Lisa down more efficiently, though I may be reading too much into it.
We still don’t know what state Springfield is in. When the announcement comes over that Lisa wins the Governor’s race, the state is mumbled into incoherence. Still, President Lisa is surprisingly transparent. “I don’t have a life,” she promises. “You’re all I’ve got. I will serve you.” The presidential mom translator works on a Simpsons level. It employs the show’s inner logic. The translator may be too good at her job, though because it turns too mushy too quickly, though the subliminal suggestion she throws in at the end works to cut it a little. They also slip in a cunning presidential concession gag. George Stephanopoulos and Nate Silver put in cameos as themselves.
Poor Millhouse springs a surprise prom-posal on Lisa. It gets more pathetic when the actual proposal is delivered by Millhouse’s dad who croons it in his most cough-syrup-raspy Frank Sinatra imitation, liberally borrowed from a name-checked Seth MacFarlane. Millhouse almost gets a pity yes, but Bart proves to be quite the hero in this episode. He peels out over Millhouse’s poignant inadequacy, and chills President Lisa Simpson out when she’s on the edge with popularity. Bart’s future is also very similar to some of his previous White House visits in future-set episodes. On one visit, he asked Lisa to “legalize it.” Now he’s the CEO of a cannabis dispensary chain, and owner of three NBA teams. It’s almost the same joke, but he was funnier when he wasn’t successful.
The funniest bits are the backgrounds. As the family drives through future Springfield, we see billboards like “Blockbuster, we’re back,” Moe’s Oxygen has replaced his tavern, and robots of all kinds are busy doing work just behind the action. A quiz on the teen magazine Lisa is reading asks the age-old question: “Is your mother a dictator or a fascist?” One of the protest signs outside Lisa’s inaugural address reads “Pardon Sideshow Bob.” A dazzling, and impromptu, Front Lawn presidential fireworks display opens with congratulations from Russia, includes a Duff’s beer end and ends with “The U.S. government brought to you by Disney” rockets bursting in air.
Even the most Hallmark of holiday episodes have been well served the past two seasons on The Simpsons. The Mother’s Day installment should have been a great moment for Marge. She is, after all, America’s most representative mother. Her idea of Lisa’s future is proven, admittedly in the alternative world of a tarot reading, to be worthless. Julie Kavner performs a classic tirade tonight. When all Marge can do is “go downstairs and yell into the dryer,” you can cut the passive aggression with a butter knife.
Marge’s most revealing line is “How dare you live the life I wish I’d led.” It is part of an overall recalibration of her entire life, which includes all the dreams she threw away, the lunches she made, the baths, the visits to colleges Lisa will never go to. But the overall conflict between mother and daughter moves too far into lame leg-dragging, and hobbles the thrust of the jokes. They don’t bite. It stays a little too sweet even though the entire arc is set on an argument. There is no peril and only fake tension. Maybe this is because the presumptive premise is on a Tarot card reading, but that should only embolden the rift. This is non-canon, and the creative team does better when they go bigger in speculative comedy.
“Mother and Child Reunion” is a retreaded tire which should have been left to cook longer at Springfield’s burning tire yard. This is a shame because The Simpsons have been doing well breathing new life into old premises this season. There are good lines, and great visual passing-tone gags, but overall, it comes up short. It is too straightforwardly structured, comically, with little subversion. Maybe they shouldn’t let Marge feel this far of the loop. It breaks the balance and feels uneven. I might even skip the Amazing Herzog at that comedy club.