Jan 16, 2017

Channel Surfing: The Simpsons - "The Great Phatsby"

Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
There is one popular nomenclature nowadays that gets associated with The Simpsons: they've already done everything. It becomes increasingly difficult to point out what they still can do to remain vital in 2017, but "The Great Phatsby" sought to explore that territory with an ambitious hour-long episode. While it is true in theory that this is new ground for the series (they haven't aired a two-parter in one season), it actually isn't all that new. Even casual fans will know about the summer cliffhanger episodes "Who Shot Mr. Burns?," which was a phenomenon for the series back in the mid-90's. By comparison, "The Great Phatsby" had only one other hook: it would feature key actors from Fox's hip hop soap opera Empire. With that said, it wasn't enough of a hook to warrant the hype.
As the title alludes to, the episode starts as a play on The Great Gatsby - specifically pulling references from the 2013 adaptation by Baz Luhrmann. With billionaire Mr. Burns in the role of the aged Gatsby role, it turns into a story of a music entrepreneur befriending him and stealing all of his money. Add in rap tracks by Snoop Dogg, Common, and RZA; and you got whatever this episode was. To call it ill-conceived would be a little true. It may have roots in The Great Gatsby parody, but it doesn't commit to it long term, instead turning to Empire's catty music battles that don't look well on an elderly white man character who is notoriously out of date. There's even needless subplots that get dropped or feel like unnecessary time filler - including Mr. Smithers' quest to get ice from Canada that involves references to The Revenant. Add in Homer in a track suit and you get another depressing example of The Simpsons trying to remain hip to a generation that has no need for America's favorite yellow family dropping slang and alluding to characters getting high with Snoop D-O-Double-G.
It isn't technically a terrible episode. There's enough jokes that make it a solid latter day episode. However, one must wonder how the writers cobbled together the various arcs in this episode and think that it would make for a great hour of TV. True, there was time for the plot to unfold at a more relaxed pace - a plus given how rushed certain later episodes feel. The tones were shifting constantly, jumping from a more serious story about Mr. Burns getting his revenge against a hip-hop mogul to Mr. Smithers comically getting sidetracked in the woods to a story involving Lisa and a new crush that disappears quickly. Alone, these are hallmarks for decent episodes. Together, it feels unfocused and only distracts from whatever the episode wanted to achieve.
Most specifically, it still feels bizarre that there is an episode involving Mr. Burns befriending someone from gangster culture. Even with their similarities of having endless funds, the show has constantly pitted these archetypes as nemeses. It feels wrong that Mr. Burns doesn't realize this and instead takes a youthful approach that seems out of character. True, it would be difficult to cram in Empire cast members if the plot didn't allow this, but it still came across as a desperate pandering to the guest stars, which hasn't favored well in the past (see: "Lisa Goes GaGa"). Had the episode focused around any other two characters, maybe this wouldn't be as problematic, especially in an age where uncool white people embracing rap is no longer a hilarious punchline. It's jarring and a bit uncomfortable. It was bad enough when Bart dropped a verse in "Pranksta Rap," but to have Mr. Burns do it (albeit in ways contradicting its own plot) feels wrong.
On one side, The Simpsons have shown that the show could do with more two parters. The ability to build on character is something that produced worthwhile results, in theory. With that said, it's a cheat to call this a "ground breaking" episode for the series when they did it almost 20 years ago, and with more cultural relevance. Here it just feels like the show is trying to catch up to the cultural relevance that the Fox network has achieved in the years since the show began getting flack. It isn't a terrible episode, but it's so poorly conceived and full of disconnected ideas that it's hard to find this living up to the standards of recent "big" episodes like "Clown in the Dumps," "Brick Like Me," or even "Halloween of Horror." It's fine, but "The Great Phatsby" definitely will remind people of why the show isn't what it used to be, for better or worse.

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