This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 32 Episode 6
Without dipping into political waters, The Simpsons season 32, episode 6, “Podcast News,” rides the wave of fake news into a less likely swamp: True crime reporting, and the amateur sleuths who’ve gone pro broadcasting it. Not on broadcast stations, though, those are outdated, and rely on the painstaking drudgery of the finding of facts, which are terrible for ratings. The episode opens in a state of frantic paranoia, eschewing the couch gag entirely, which always bodes well.
It’s 2 a.m., time for Homer’s ham in the Springfield household, but unease is in every shadow. A wide-eyed Lisa is prowling the house looking terrified. “So many lies, so many lies,” she says, setting the tone for the entire episode. When Marge comments that Lisa looks tired, the girl adds to the suspense and confusion by revealing “Looks are deceiving. Nothing is as it seems.” These are all delicious clues, and while they seem to grow in the dire severity of Lisa’s situation, they are also like the string on a bow being drawn back on the arrow of a punchline. “Did they change climate change again,” Homer asks, but sadly, no, it’s still a horrid torrid zone of pain outside. Perfect for that 2 a.m. ham.
The Simpsons routinely open their episodes strong, but this is a particularly suspenseful one. Lisa compounds it by trying to confound her parents, which lets the show weigh in on ASMR. It works, the mere crinkle of paper sends Homer into a deep sleep. This also lets the audience know Lisa’s paranoia is coming from the internet, and not the usual suspect of social media. If that’s not enough, Marge notices the music coming out of Lisa’s buds is in a minor key. Marge’s connections of logic always come on a satisfyingly skewered path. Her conclusions may or may not be correct, but the journey through her thought process is always a worthy trek.
Lisa is exhibiting signs of true crime podcast addiction long before she confesses her need “to know who killed everybody.” The buildup is executed so well by the time she’s all murdered out, everyone watching is ready to go along for the ride-along. And with titles like “Murder Most Stabby” and “Killing Her Softly,” who could blame us? By morning, Marge is hooked. “We have much to discuss,” Lisa says, welcoming her to the genre’s dark web.
Marge and Lisa hysterically, on both senses of the word, capture the true crime obsession. Lines like “Drops of blood you can explain, but drops of brain?” and “How could a woman with four PhDs be so dumb?,” Simpsonized they may be, sound like the kinds of things people scream at their devices while watching these shows. Some people will look at a neck and wonder what ties goes on it, other people look at a neck and say I’d like to choke that.
Abe’s introduction is also a different twist on his usual character, and slightly unexpected. Homer is just finishing telling Bart about how lonely and boring grandpa is, when Abe proves him wrong. Most of the audience knows the tie on the doorknob is a sign against intruders before Homer and Bart are averting their eyes from octogenarian canoodling behind it but it is worth the payoff. “If the bolo is hanging, the dentures be clanging,” Abe’s explanation, is hackneyed but clever.
Morgan Fairchild is the perfect choice for Vivienne St. Charmaine, and the “Falcon Landing” title of the former superstar actress’ most famous show is a good play on Fairchild’s best-known nighttime soap. Vivienne, who is drawn to resemble Morgan, appears to really like Abe, and not just for his long and drawn out stories. She calls him her senile old sex machine, and says he’s so sweet he “should come with an insulin pump.” The episode also pokes at old people romance, suggesting a couples’ colonoscopy and a romantic dinner cruise make for a perfect evening. Lucky for the audience, it actually sets up an ideal scene for a crime which can pull the two narratives together.
Abe becomes the subject of a slew of podcasts after Vivienne disappears with a splash. This isn’t the first time the weight of the media has settled on a member of the Simpson family. “Homer Badman,” from season 6, culminated in a mock TV-crime reenactment show called “Homer Simpsons: Portrait of an Ass Grabber,” when all he wanted was the prized Gummy de Milo candy stuck on a young woman’s jeans. We believed him then, thousands didn’t, but he is, after all, the kind of guy who falls asleep at the sound of crinkled paper. Abe doesn’t even need that. It makes sense he’s so suggestible he’d believe other people’s testimony over his own memories, just like he believes Shampoo Shuttle is the future of hair care. That and because he’s forgotten most of his memories along with his hair.
Chief Wiggum delivers a great deadpan saying how rude it is that Abe won’t confess. But the line about Springfield Police force’s Hand Push Test registering the result as “No Such Test” is the subtle winner. Also, his theory positing to “catch a murderer, you have to set them free to murder again” is both ridiculous, and frightening.
It is sad the only reason we know Grandpa didn’t do the actual murder is because he doesn’t have that kind of follow through. Homer starts off with disbelief, but only because fathom Abe ever being a person of interest, never, not once. But after he thinks about it, Homer begins to think his father is “capable of doing anything up to and including murder.” The podcasts are insidious, and their influence comes in very subliminally. Their force is almost portrayed as an unseen enemy.
It is very funny how Abe is convinced of his own guilt by episode 9 of Kent Brockman’s podcast “Guilty Grandpa,” although in episode 6, he thought it might have been a hot-headed deckhand. But it feels good to know he was actually more of a dupe than a criminal. If he was a better criminal, he would have remembered his crime at least. It is also very poignant when Abe says how he believes Vivienne is going to be the last love of his life
The reason “Podcast News” works has less to do with The Simpsons staying up to date with entertainment technology and more with what they are tackling. They have been hit and miss with some of their political humor, as the show’s been walking its own landmine between what pushes boundaries and what hits the wrong buttons, but they are always spot on with social commentary.
The kinds of paranoia which are so addictive in the true crime genre hook people from both sides of the scale. Yes, there is always good evidence ignored, and bad cops to ignore it. And, yes, hosts like Tabitha Shingle (Christine Nangle) are so dry the audience is constantly parched for any wet, bloody detail. But the episode is also a cautionary tale.
The nightly reports from anchors like Kent Brockman are becoming yesterday’s news. We get this inadvertently from Yeardley Smith, who plays herself as the host of the podcast “Smalltown Dicks” and nowhere else. They are very self-conscious about using her, and get in some self-referential wordplay, but her concerns are valid. The podcasts can tout doubt with statements like “90-year-old people don’t just stop breathing,” or use Abe’s World War II heroics, as Johnny Flamethrower who said the fires were telling him who to burn, against him.
Of course, everyone loves DNA swabs, and spatter analysis, but every quickie podcast dramatization starring Stellan Skarsgård is at the cost of “painstakingly accumulated uncertainties.” And with that, out-of-touch news anchors like Kent Brockman can bid farewell to relevancy. The episode also gets in a dig at NPR, which they say means No Possible Revenue.
“Podcast News,” named for the comedy drama Broadcast News, is a good parody of the podcast craze. In spite of its similarity to “Bad Homer,” the episode is very current, a little tricky, and comes at us from a different kind of angle. The Simpsons have given us stories about Abe’s shady pasts. He’s been around almost longer than anyone but Monty Burns, so he has a lot more past to shade. It’s to his credit, Abe can bear the weight of the blame, especially at his age. The most frightening concept of the episode, however, is the level of personal information can be gleaned from colonoscopy technology. Filled with singularly funny one liners, “Podcast News” manages to keep a sense of tension throughout, and ends on a satisfying morally ambiguous note.