This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 33 Episode 13
The Celtic bagpipes which open The Simpsons Season 33 episode 13, “Boyz N the Highlands,” are jarring and misleading, much like Groundskeeper Willie. This is by design, because the journey the installment takes is one long sidetrack.
The main story concerns Springfield’s Troubled Truants: Bart Simpson, Nelson Muntz, Dolph Shapiro, and Martin Prince, who claims he volunteered the 18-hour detention trek for extra credit. Each of the young thugs are introduced by their case files. Bart was sentenced for his creative use of laundry detergent pods. The Highlands walk to Ankle Rock, or as Nelson puts it, “the death march to stay out of prison,” is juvenile delinquency aversion therapy, along the lines of “Scared Straight.” Springfield’s educational system is apparently loaded with them, including Inward Bound and Empathy Bootcamp. It is designed to build team-work and character, but is probably just a way to keep the kids off the streets for eighteen hours.
Martin distinguishes himself early, turtling himself on his own backpack. Bart immediately succumbs to peer pressure, no questions asked, and looks forward to one of the best days of his life. He is not the biggest dork in the desert, and he gets to join in on the bullying. It’s not exactly the “greatest of all treasures” that Willie promises, but it sets up the character arc. Bart and Martin have had this dance before, though not to “Blue Danube,” when they tutored each other on the rules of education versus the law of the schoolyard. Bart gives Martin very similar advice in this episode: “Stop being you.”
If Martin seems different this episode, it’s because he’s got something to hide. Much like the nerd in The Breakfast Club, he’s got more dangerous issues than the regular detention squad, and his potential for future criminality is more complex. He could grow up to be a Drugstore Cowboy. We’ve only ever been given glimpses of Martin’s inner neuroses before, and it’s mainly been in service to his obsessive scholarly observances. While Martin gets a full spectrum of new emotional coloring, his breakdown should have had a stronger and longer build. It occurs too abruptly, which may be a side effect of his pill regimen, but comes across as ad hoc. It could be an email exchange between his dual therapists.
The real Greatest Of All Treasures, turns out to be a sacrificial goat, in more ways than one. It gives Grey DeLisle, who voices Nelson, much more to do than “haw haw.” But it also sets up a copout conclusion. This isn’t to say ritualistic satanic offerings are the answer to Springfield’s most troublesome youth, but there are scarier things than film school. Although Dolph’s story about his cousin who now walks dogs for a living may keep a large part of the viewing audience awake for weeks.
Jules is far more frightening. The secondary story, about Lisa’s desire to be an only child for one weekend, is too forced. It is like playing chess on a Suffragette Monopoly board. Lisa’s demands are sweet, and completely reflect her, but she is set up as an annoyance. Marge does her best to keep up, following her daughter’s lead without offering much input. But Homer gets the best lines: “do I even have toenails?” and “I don’t know what these words mean, but,” are classics of character study. However, his biggest contribution is ignored. He’s happy to snap to Marge’s bongos during Lisa’s beat poetry phase (“a solitary tree in this one-child family”), but has committed to the scenario and we are robbed of his poetic injustice. For that, we get Lisa’s projectile vomiting.
All of the characters develop over the course of the installment. Much of these revelations have been explored before, but they are given greater depth. Martin’s defiance over learning he and Bart “have nothing in common and can never be friends,” allows him to assert himself. He confronts Bart, stabbing him with the label “coward,” and twisting the knife with “you’re not a rebel or a bad boy, you’re a follower.” Bart comes to fully appreciate how “psycho” can be better than cool.
Genius and madness are often linked, and Martin uses his intellect to pull off a crazy stunt to save the bullies, and his own reputation. He does it with flair, waltzing into his rescue to the triplets of Strauss’ public domain classic “Blue Danube.” It is both progressive and regressive. He’s done this in prior seasons, and Bart’s learned the same lessons. He allows someone else to shine, and grows as a kid. Luckily, this can be reversed in future episodes.
The Simpsons and their neighbors continue to have a complicated relationship with the great outdoors. In “Pixelated and Afraid,” Homer and Marge learned to work together to survive the elements in a chilling adventure. Tonight, Dolph and Nelson learn the dangers of sharing a hot tub in an AirBnB, and to trust in the devils they know. All that beautiful fake found footage might as well be run as a Facebook ad for essential oils for what the kids learn from it. Groundskeeper Willie is both the treacle cutting realist and tree-hugging educator in a dog suit. The treasure is the journey, he says, undercutting his usual surly malevolence. But Nelson’s takeaway is pure Simpsons, nature is garbage. Air BnBs rule. Bad kids ride in the van.
The Simpsons benefit from turning Bart and the secondary characters into a troupe. Each gets time to shine, the interactions become layered. With limited scenarios and no lords of these flies, the story is a mishmash of sources all with soft landings. The best redemption comes at the end, with a comically visual representation of how, in spite of all the good intentions, nothing at the Simpson house has changed at all. Lisa is more content, but Bart discovered new freedom from the wilds, and Homer may never scrape Snowball III off his face. “Boyz N the Highlands” skips the path less taken to reinforce the new direction, but loses footing along the way.