[This is a review of The Simpsons season 28 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
The Simpsons has been around long enough now that with each new season comes more astonishment at the series' incredibly longevity than its ability to make the audience laugh or to skewer some aspect of American culture in one way or another. It seems like those days are long gone. The Simpsons' sense of humor has certainly changed over the decades, and as the show approaches its thirtieth season, the degree to which things have changed seem to be what stands out most about the series. Well, that and the show's couch gag, which has become its primary selling point on a week-to-week basis. This time, The Simpsons become the cast of Adventure Time, which, for fans of Adventure Time will likely be the highlight of the premiere.
In the first episode of the season, 'Monty Burns' Fleeing Circus', the town of Springfield is leveled after a focus grouped Lard Lad sign reflects the sun's rays and obliterates the town. For some reason, Monty Burns is the only person who can help finance the reconstruction of Springfield, and he only does so at the prodding of the Simpsons – six months after the fact. Little of what occurs before the episode's main plot kicks in makes any sense, and the episode doesn't do much to convince those watching that it has a solid story or interest in doing anything beyond a series of gags about a variety show that will help Mr. Burns put a shameful moment of his past behind him.
How Monty Burns' doomed 1913 appearance at a variety show connects with the rebuilding of Springfield or why a Lard Lad donut sign was turned into a doomsday laser is never made clear. It's almost as if The Simpsons is attempting to deliver the most abstract humor possible. The result is a season premiere filled with non-sequiturs the likes of which even this show hasn't seen in the past decade or so. From Chief Wiggum trying to remember the name of Rodin's 'The Thinker' by taking on the pose of the statue and repeatedly saying its title, to Kirk Van Houten appearing with both of his arms severed as a result of the Lard Lad Laser, there's no set up to any of the jokes and so the reaction to their delivery becomes one of shock or befuddlement. Twice the show alludes to the death of a character – once by suicide and another as one of the twins, Sherri and Terri, appears to have drowned during a magic trick – taking it to a strangely dark place that again doesn't seem to have any bearing on the story at hand.
It is in supplying a story that 'Monty Burns' Fleeing Circus' comes up short. The episode never focuses on a single element long enough for the viewer to get a sense of what's important and what the writers want the takeaway to be. While the A plot is concerned with Mr. Burns' handling of the variety show and seeking to rectify a horrible embarrassment from this past, the B plot has Homer and the rest of the workers at the nuclear power plant treating the boss's absence like spring break. There's a strange disconnect here, as the show has always had a fairly jokey relationship with horrible elements like nuclear waste, turning its irresponsible handling and lackadaisical disposal into satire on our desire to have things like reliable power without having to think about where it comes from or the hazards it might create. It's even baked into the opening credit sequence when Homer inadvertently takes home a uranium rod and then absentmindedly chucks it out the window.
But here there's no such joke: the workers are swimming in radioactive material, they're smoking it, and at one point it looks like Lenny is drinking it (unless its just a tall cool glass of Ecto-Cooler). Like previous seasons, the misuse of the material is never addressed directly, but there's also no point beyond its appearance other than a quick sight gag. Furthermore, the show goes so far beyond the extreme with the nuclear waste that there's no sense of consequence anyway. If characters can swim, smoke, and imbibe radioactive material then there's nothing to worry about – and therefore any joke about Homer being the solitary safety inspector also falls flat. Sure, The Simpsons is a cartoon that can bend the rules any time it wants, but if it throws all the rules out the window there's nothing of substance to attach any humor to and the show just becomes Family Guy.
The same is true of Mr. Burns' variety show. Without anything really at stake there's nothing to become invested in as far as Monty's involvement and Lisa being his little assistant. The arbitrary way in which Springfield was leveled and how other characters seemingly met a horrible end suggests that the reset button will simply be pushed at the end of the episode. As such it isn't terribly important within the larger context of the series that Mr. Burns has his show or whether or not it goes off without a hitch, but that doesn't change the need for the audience to feel a sense of importance in the plot.
A variety show is a great plot device for a show like The Simpsons. It affords the program ample opportunity to bring in as many characters as it wants for a quick laugh, one liner, sight gag or ill-timed Arnold Palmer joke. But there needs to be something more than that, it needs a foundation to make the jokes resonate and to give characters reason to participate other than it being something to do. As far as season openers go, 'Monty Burns' Fleeing Circus' only gets it half right.
The Simpsons continues next Sunday with ' Friends and Family' @8pm on FOX.