After last week’s debacle, I’m pleasantly surprised this episode is as solid as it is. One awful episode might become infamous amongst a loyal fanbase; a whole string of awful episodes and you start hemorrhaging viewers. I don’t want to see that happen to The Simpsons, “Gorgeous Grampa” aside. Its content might be a bit of a departure from what we’ve come to expect, but even so the humor works quite well indeed.
Now, I try not read too much about upcoming episodes, so when the title of this one was released, I sighed the heavy sigh of a slightly resigned fat girl, because I was almost certain this would be yet another of the odious celebrity guest-centric episodes. I expected the Black Eyed Peas; I got Tina Fey instead. Worse surprises have happened.
This episode contains one of the winners from the Design a Couch Gag contest, and it’s a little strange. It’s this rough-pencilly, crayony sort of drawing with minimal animation. The Simpsons are all done as dectective-noir archetypes in the shadows before Maggie turns on the lights to reveal that all the menacing poses are actually benign. It’s not really funny, but it’s definitely creative. Also worth noting is this week’s chalkboard gag is actually a whiteboard gag with Bart apologizing for the destruction of the chalkboard. I’m sure many longtime viewers will cry foul, but I’d be okay with keeping the whiteboard permanently.
Homer shows up at Flanders’ early in the morning to borrow some sugar, which he then turns into an excuse to come have breakfast with him. Flanders’ hippie parents are in town, and Homer quickly makes friends. They are clearly a source of shame and annoyance to Flanders, though, who excuses himself for a power walk.
When he returns, he finds the house swimming in weed-smoke and Homer and the senior Flanders in the den, stoned as fuck and giggling at Sesame Street. Flanders is understandably annoyed when his parents and Homer start poking fun at his squareness and laughing at him. And Flanders snaps. He fires out and hits Homer right in the eye.
I don’t blame Flanders. I’m kinda surprised he doesn’t lose it with Homer more often. Sure, their love/hate neighbor thing is funny to us, but just imagine if you had a neighbor who treats you like Homer does Flanders. You’d hate the guy. Not to mention, I’ve been the only sober person in a room full of drunk or stoned people. It’s not fun, and can be incredibly frustrating when the other persons’ habits get in the way of them doing their share around the place.
Flanders feels guilty, and we get a somewhat unnecessary dream sequence where he falls into his own personal hell, which is full of all the things he hates. Most of these are quick gags and they’re funny enough, but at the center of his personal hell, Homer’s there. And Homer is a demon who says that all the atheists here worship Richard Dawkins, who is portrayed as a giant devil cooking a pot of Catholic saint stew.
I don’t really get the point of that joke. It’s not just because I’m an atheist myself, it’s because it doesn’t make sense to me within the context of the story. Flanders dreams about being in hell because he feels guilty for hitting Homer. What the fuck does Richard Dawkins have to do with that at all? It just doesn’t work thematically. Why isn’t Homer himself the center of his hell? Wouldn’t it make more sense for a guilt dream to have the wronged man be the tormentor of the guilty man?
But no, we get Dawkins because we had to have essentially the same joke from South Park‘s “Go God Go” two parter from like six years ago. Those two episodes aren’t great, but at least they were actually about atheism, whereas Dawkins clearly doesn’t belong here.
Anyway, Flanders thumbs through the Bible and settles on the “eye for an eye” thing. He spends the rest of the episode trying to get Homer to punch him in return and call it even. He even turns up at the power plant and demands that Homer hit him, and much to my shock, Homer refuses. Homer doesn’t hit Flanders. He wants to be the better man. Sure, he promptly throws being the better man in Flanders’ face, but even so it’s more humanity and decency than Homer’s been allowed to show in a long time.
Homer’s taunting gets to Flanders and again, he loses his temper and smacks Homer right in his stupid face.
Meanwhile, Lisa’s teacher is on leave for severe depression, and Skinner announces to the class they’re getting a permanent substitute teacher.
At first, I assumed that the story with Lisa’s substitute teacher, Ms. Cantwell, would be a retread of Season 2’s “Lisa’s Substitute.” Her entrance seemed to confirm my suspicions as Lisa watched through the window as Ms. Cantwell unloads teaching aids from her car and it’s clear she’s enthusiastic about education. I really, really didn’t want a rehash of such a sweet episode and a great performance from an uncredited Dustin Hoffman.
Maybe the writers were well aware of this, because they sure as hell wasted no time turning my expectations on their heads. Cantwell isn’t the inspirational Dead Poets Society teacher that Hoffman’s Mr. Bergstrom was. No, she takes a strong dislike to poor Lisa, and in fact she’s nothing more than a bully.
We’ve all had teachers that we just didn’t get along with, and maybe we’ve even had one or two that had a special loathing for us. It’s really interesting to see Lisa go through that, because it’s such an alien experience for her. She’s the good Simpson kid. She’s the straight-A student. She gets along better with the faculty than the students most days. Her teachers love her. She really doesn’t understand why Cantwell is just downright mean to her.
It’s a largely well-plotted story, with Lisa realizing that grown-ups can be bullies too, and just as spiteful and unfair as their pre-adolescent counterparts. Having tried and failed to get Cantwell removed by talking to Skinner, Homer agrees to forgive Flanders if he gets Mrs. Krabapple to unleash Bart on Cantwell. The sequence kind of plays Bart as a hell-child and he wreaks total havoc on Cantwell’s classroom. There’s a lot of good visual gags in this scene and some pretty strong dialogue as well.
The episode also earns some points for having the A and B plots actually dovetail together by the end of the episode. It’s much more satisfying than having these disparate threads that just kind of end on their own, and it ties the whole thing together.
Lisa offers to make the chaos end if only Cantwell agrees to like her. I get what they were going for here. I’m sure the idea was that Lisa would call off Bart if Cantwell would stop treating her unfairly. But the way it was worded made Lisa seem more than a little insane with the YOU HAVE TO LOVE ME angle. She sounds like someone who would keep college girls in a pit or something.
Anyway, Cantwell’s had enough and hightails it out of the classroom, but Lisa tracks her down and finally gets an explanation: Cantwell doesn’t like Lisa because she thinks she’s one of the pretty party-girl showoffs whose popularity she is bitterly jealous of. She further explains that you don’t always like everyone. Sometimes a person just rubs you the wrong way.
Lisa is overjoyed that Cantwell thought she was pretty. It’s pretty cute.
It’s a good lesson for Lisa to learn. Sometimes you will have to deal with people who just don’t like you, and you can’t browbeat them into changing their minds. On the other hand, not getting along with someone doesn’t give you the right to treat them like dirt for no good reason.
When I was younger, Lisa was my least favorite of the Simpson clan. Indeed, I still see her getting a lot of hate from fans. I find that as I’ve gotten older (yes at the ripe old age of 22 shut up) I’ve definitely come to appreciate her more. Sure, sometimes she gets on a moral high horse acts all preachy, but but I’ve grown to enjoy her as the good-hearted, intelligent kid who doesn’t really fit in with her own family.
“Black Eyed, Please” is home to much, much racier humor than series normally has. The MacFarlane shows have always been filthy, but The Simpsons has remained relatively family-friendly. Not here. Nope, we’ve got dirty bible passages, Homer getting high as shit with Flanders’ parents, fisting jokes, and what is very probably The Simpsons’ first cunt joke.
I’m not complaining about going down the road of dirtier jokes for an episode. They’re mostly pretty clever. They’re woven into the episode organically and avoid feeling gratuitous or forced, which is more than Family Guy can say sometimes.
“Black Eyed, Please” feels very close in spirit to the so-called Golden Years of the show. There’s no tacked-on backstory, no pop culture references for references’ sake, no over the top cataclysmic events. It’s exactly what I needed as a palate cleanser after last week’s embarrassment.
We get two well written stories focusing on personal dilemmas for the characters. Lisa and Homer get to act like real people with actual feelings for once. These are smaller, more tightly focused character stories than what we’ve usually been given for the past ten years, with an easy, confident sense of humor. If we had episodes like this consistently, The Simpsons just might make one hell of a comeback.