This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 33 Episode 20
The Simpsons celebrates Mother’s Day by giving America’s most representational mom a break in character. “Marge the Meanie” counts as a gift. The family dynamic is slightly ajar, but the episode has the timing of the best of the series’ offerings.
The premise is Marge has been hiding an improbable secret for years. She was a bad kid in school, and her pranks destroyed the life of her middle school principal. Cool. This not only bonds her with the prank-loving Bart, but allows Marge to let her hair up. It all begins at the Springfield Retirement Home, which sets the tone of the episode with old-style flair. Seniors tune their hearing aids directly on Abe, while the staff puts on “senior canceling headphones.” The sequence is overloaded with background nuggets which might get lost in the comic cacophony.
The differences between the Springfield Retirement and the Golden Exits Retirement homes makes for a clever mix of dialogue, song parody, competition, and visual gags, which all can make you laugh out loud. This is not one of those episodes where you say, oh, clever, and snort appreciatively a couple times. There are quite a few segments throughout which work on every level, and the Retirement Home Shuffleboard Trophy goes to one of The Simpsons’ patented ambulance exits.
The opening segment ends with just the right amount of suspense. Who could imagine Marge, the most accommodating and enabling character on the cartoon landscape, destroying someone’s life? As always, the second act is the strongest. We see a young Superintendent Chalmers find his first rhyme for “Skin-ner!!,” and get a taste of the educational system’s real views on anti-bullying rules. The animators go out of their way to make every possible connection between the bad girl Marge of old, and the Bart who earned his reputation as cartoon’s most influential bad boy. The parallels build the bond before the characters act on it.
It’s a little hard to believe Marge could have held back her prankster past for so long. Especially since her sisters knew about it, and it is uncharacteristic they would let Marge keep an embarrassing secret this long. The Simpsons have been on for 33 seasons, and the Bouvier sisters are not known to leave wounds festering. It doesn’t exactly break canon, but it’s enough of a stretch to cause Homer to leave the dinner table before he’s finished eating. Second segments are always the best because they are the creamy middle, something Homer cannot enjoy while he’s dining with Lisa.
“No outside peas,” Moe tells Homer in one of the most out-of-the-blue laws in the history of saloon keeping. The ribbing at Moe’s bar breaches a completely new topic on The Simpsons. It’s one thing for Bart to say Marge only got pregnant to prank Homer, it’s another thing to say Lisa just might not be his kid. Maybe, if Homer wasn’t so weak from his vegan diet, he might have made something of it.
Homer knows he’ll never be the World’s Greatest Dad, he can’t even remember if Lisa has a middle name, but the Simpson DNA has always been sacrosanct. The subplot of their bonding is a counterbalance to Marge and Bart’s shenanigans, but not as filling. While it is encouraging to see Homer learn vegetarians actually like food, it is more comforting to know he’s got an emergency sausage. It’s not enough to overcome the mother-son comedy duet.
The pranks provide a natural build to the suspense underlying the comedy, but each one detonates solidly. Comic Book Guy’s comeuppance is loaded with snide rejoinders and unintentional pathos. It is indeed sad to learn he was one credit short of finishing medical school, but this also subliminally informs the line about Ralph having too big a head to be so dim. The Superman/Uber Hombre copyright bit lands brilliantly unexpectedly, and the elusive Spider-Man issue alluded to is wish fulfillment at its most childlike.
The most fulfilling of the pranks also works as social commentary, but it is a spin on the “Shopping for Others” segment in John Waters’ Pecker. The specific items being run up contain imaginative buffoonery, including such gems as Stink Foot Insoles, Barely Helpful Herpes Ointment, and Garbage Mouth Bad Breath Neutralizing Suppositories.
The best aspect of the episode has nothing to do with plot. It is the ridiculous cutaways, and throwaways. Homer and Lisa are both allergic to all the stuff that’s in peanut butter besides peanuts, and yet, they are also allergic to peanuts. It bends irony. Conversations about the unobtainable inevitability of the new Avatar movie veer to why Mr. Burns is afraid of catching poverty by shopping with poor people. His prank jumps the shark, and not in a bad way. It also sets Bart up for a superbly subtle mixed-message show of family unity, fleeing a scene of a crime while showering the mother of all pranks with the utmost praise.
You might guess the ending just before it happens, but Chief Wiggum’s concerns about zombies and the Wilson family, and how many former Blue Man Group members die hilarious deaths, raise more questionable laughs than answers. The sweetness of the conclusion raises more peanut brittle than snakes, but the episode, as a whole, cuts out the majority of the treacle instantaneously. The credit sequence is brilliant. It’s basically the opening played backwards at high speed, rendering everything into a passing memory of things to come. It is almost frustrating.
“Marge the Meanie” is something to bring home to mother and still feel guilty about, with a wealth of one-liners to spare. Marge’s final apologies pull the entire fiasco together perfectly. It makes the subtle mockery of false apologies ring very true.