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The Simpsons

The Simpsons is an animated comedy about a family in the fictional town of Springfield. The family is made up of selfish father Homer, fretting mother Marge, precocious daughter Lisa, rebellious son Bart and silent daughter Maggie. FOX 1989-???


Episode 17 - Them, Robot

24 March 2012

Credit FOX

Synopsis: Mr Burns announces the annual company physical and Homer tries to go a weekend without drinking. When the results come in Burns is displeased at the high insurance costs he has to pay. Smithers points out that robot employees are now ready to deploy. So everyone at the plant loses their job except for Homer. He is lonely and bored though and begins tampering with his new co-workers circuitry.

The Good: You may remember way back in "Last Exit to Springfield" (417) Mr Burns tries briefly to use robots instead of employees (as they are on strike over the dental plan). As always happens on The Simpsons, the robots were soon chasing Burns and Smithers down a hall way. This episode took that familiar idea and made it reality. The premise is full of potential and I did enjoy Homer figuring out how to re-programme them so he could play baseball.

The Bad: However I thought the story was wasted and the humour was awful. At least once a month someone challenges me not to take TV so seriously and I always have to think of new ways to argue my case. So before I talk about all the logic holes in this episode let me just say this: this episode saw Homer and his robots go through a number of silly scenarios that I didn't like. But could I see a situation where I would have enjoyed the humour even if the plot holes had remained? Yes.

One of my issues with the modern Simpsons episodes is that they serve no purpose. There was no attempt here to actually satirise employment conditions or the dependence of Springfield on one business. We didn't get a robot's perspective on humanity either despite Brent Spiner (Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) voicing the chief robot. Data's role on Star Trek was to facilitate stories about humanity. Could these robots have made jokes about how silly we people are? Again yes. But none of that happened. Instead we got loads of bad jokes which often undercut either their own punch lines of the story being told. If you are going to write a crazy story then why not go for broke and try to be wildly funny instead of cracking the same old lame mish mash?

For example Mr Burns introduces the robot employees as "The future masters of the human race." Why would he say that? Does he believe they will take over the world? Does he think that would be good? What if he was enslaved? The idea that they would take over could be funny but if you just state it with no context then how is that a joke?

Then Homer comes to complain about the human employees all being fired. His livelihood is massively affected by this and he is naturally angry and upset. I guess it might be funny if in the midst of his anger he wanted to also compliment the new kitchen microwave and suggest a nice leaving party. I guess. But by having Homer break mid-rant to mention things he isn't mad about doesn't make a lot of sense. It's not how a real person behaves and so feels too naked an attempt to make a joke where one couldn't reasonably exist.

Homer of course ends up being the one token human kept on at the plant. So he tries to crack a joke to his new robot co-workers. Getting no response from them he begins to shout himself hoarse trying to get a reaction. Again yes maybe Homer is so dumb as to think a robot would respond to a joke but it felt needlessly blunt. Lenny and Carl are mad at Homer and the world for losing their jobs and Lenny makes a joke about playing the world's smallest violin for Homer's gripes. Except it isn't a joke, no, he actually has the world's smallest violin and needs to sell it to make money. Umm, yes. That was just a terrible idea for an exaggeration joke no matter the context. The exaggerations continued to pile up with Barney wandering the streets naked on his way to stripping and a pointless flashback showing Moe being stepped on by an elephant (that's why he's so ugly you see).

Homer is so keen to talk to someone that he begins meddling with the robots so that they will talk to him. One does and through chatting to him Homer lures them all to a baseball field so he can bat all afternoon. The robots don't want Milhouse to join in because he is weak (again such a lame gag). Homer ends up in the nearby road trying to take a catch and almost gets run over. The chief robot saves his life and explains that protecting human life is their prime directive. Any sentiment that might come from that is instantly smashed to pieces when dumb Homer stays in the road forcing a dozen robots to run into the road one after the other to save him. At the funeral we get a few puns (axels to axels, rust to rust) and no sentiment at all. With no hint of satire the Simpson family all treat the robots like useless hunks of metal and discuss what uses their deceased shells could now make.

It wouldn't be The Simpsons without the final act where Homer again tampers with the remaining robots' circuitry and they try to kill him. Flanders randomly points out what is about to happen and Homer uses gum to sew up part of his scalp that gets cut off. It's all so flippant and lacking in focus as Homer rushes to Mr Burns house and they prepare to die together. Then the former employees all arrive to save the day and win their jobs back.

I should also mention that the opening five minutes were dedicated to Homer trying not to drink during the weekend and failing. It was essentially a list of brunch foods, that's about it.

Best Joke:  At Moe's Homer complains loudly about how dull the Power Plant is now that he is the only employee: "I'm miserable there. I'm all alone and when there's some problem due to human error guess who gets blamed?"

The Bottom Line:  As I've made clear I think the humour throughout this episode was awful. The problem is that the writers didn't approach the story with a purpose. It's clear from the jokes they came up with that they were just working things out as they went along. There were scenes with Springfield suffering from economic depression and there were scenes with Homer randomly messing around with robots. Neither story was told well and neither dominated the other in a way that made sense. So the jokes we got were just a random collection based on whatever list of ideas the team came up with. The great Simpsons episodes (like the aforementioned 'Last Exit') all had a story to tell and the jokes flowed from that. I can't believe so many paid professionals can't see what seems so glaringly obvious.



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