The Simpson season 29 kicks off with a medieval fantasy, proving the show is now old enough it can to whatever the hell it wants.
At the start of its 29th season, The Simpsons has earned the right to experiment a little bit when it comes to the kinds of stories it wants to tell and how it wants to tell them. For one thing, at over 630 episodes, Springfield's least favorite family can't simply skate by on Bart's near sociopathic shenanigans or Homer's half-assed under-parenting. Well, it can, and it would be nice to see the show that will never die make a return to the sorts of stories that made it great, but for now, the prevailing thought within the show's writers' room seems to be that the same old story just doesn't cut it anymore. As such, the animated series that once had a remarkably deft and incredibly funny touch when it came to bringing a unique take to working middle-class life is now fully embracing its status as a primetime cartoon.
Season 29 kicks off with 'The Serfsons', which despite there being no real reason for it to take place in a medieval realm filled with all sorts of magical creatures, like goblins, trolls, dragons, an ever-proselytizing Aslan fresh in from Narnia, and a randy spoof on the Night King from Game of Thrones, sets its satirical sights on the ever-expanding gulf between the ruling class and those in feudal service to them. It's an unsubtle premise that revels in revisiting the idea that "life sucks and then you die," but that morose single-mindedness eventually becomes evidence of the consistency of the premiere's core ideas: life sucks and then you die and, maybe more importantly, any form of government – even when it's supposed to be an improvement – tends to cater only to the needs of the super-rich.
This isn't new territory for The Simpsons but it is something of a rare return to form – albeit in an outlandishly roundabout way. For one thing, 'The Serfsons' is a far more coherent premiere than season 28's 'Monty Burns' Fleeing Circus', which was such a jumbled mishmash of unfunny non-sequiturs you could be forgiven for confusing it with an episode of Family Guy. The jump to a medieval fantasy realm doesn't make much sense at first, but rather than simply affording the premiere with a weak excuse to bring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau on for a hasty and mostly unsuccessful joke about twincest, the out-of-left-field setting actually works in service to the episode's core idea. That idea can be summed up best with feudal Mr. Burns, aka Lord Montgomery, explaining to Homer that while he's been whipped while pushing a wheel for 20 years that's not connected to anything, "Your work does produce something very special: human misery – which, when collected, ground into a powder and snorted, gives rich people tiny wings that do nothing."
Homer's response: "So if you help me it reduces my suffering, which means less wing powder for my betters."
Though steady in its ideas, the premiere takes some pretty strange roads to get where it's going. The plot kicks off with Marge discovering that her mother was bitten by an Ice Walker and will soon die a frozen death if she doesn't get a magical amulet that costs 100 gold pieces. The Serfsons being who they are, that amount of coin presents something of a financial challenge, one even the strange talking gelatinous cube that lives with them doesn't have an easy answer for. The solution: a Lisa Ex Machina, who by virtue of possessing magic powers – i.e., intelligence – is able transform the lump of lead Homer enjoys licking into a chunk of gold (that he continues to lick). This saves grandma's life but it results in Lisa being kidnapped by the magic counsel, leading to Homer staging a revolt.
The succession of events drives 'The Serfsons' to stretch an already thin premise well past the breaking point, but it also allows for a solid jab at The Lord of the Rings when a group of Ent-like beings arrive to save the day, only to be turned into ladders to help the serfs storm the castle. That balance becomes more and more uneven as the episode reaches its conclusion. But despite a frozen old woman dying a dignified death by extinguishing a fire-breathing dragon, the premiere never really forgets what it's trying to say. A lot of that is because the show has no time for subtext, but lack of nuance aside, 'The Serfsons' earns points for consistency.
The Simpsons has been a shadow of its former self for the better part of two decades now, and while a lot of 'The Serfsons' still misses the mark, the premiere makes the most of a fantastical setting that would normally be reserved for a Treehouse of Horror short and not the start of a new season. It's an unconventional way to ring in nearly 30 seasons on the air, but at this point The Simpsons can probably get away with doing whatever the hell it wants.
The Simpsons continues next Sunday with 'Springfield Splendor' @8pm on FOX.