This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 33 Episode 12
After 33 seasons, and now 12 episodes, The Simpsons is an institution in TV comedy. It was once the new brat, spray-painting its tag all over the Springfield at the heart of every American state. Now the series is the elder states-drawing. The kind on the comfortable couch, dust-busting dad-cheese from burp clouds. The long-running Sunday night cartoon family has been accused of slowing down with age, retreading old plots, and cleaning up its act while smoothing the animation. “Pixelated and Afraid” steers straight into the rut, with a completely sweet episode fraught with well-drawn terrors.
The episode discards cynicism for a completely different tone than The Simpsons normally offers. There aren’t as many big laughs, but “Pixelated and Afraid” makes up for it with dire situations. One of the funniest lines comes in response to the event which veers Homer and Marge into unknown territory. Driving on an icy road, they hit a patch and begin to swerve. Homer turns into the skid. He turns out of it. In horrified anguish he finally breaks down and asks what the skid wants. This is a metaphor everyone can identify with on any number of levels. The skid only wants to mess with the driver, and when Homer loses control, the series is allowed to careen into new territory.
The resigned exclamation also conveys the desperation which comes from finding where to get lost. Marge only goes on the trip because she thinks her husband wants to, and Homer “never wants to go anywhere.” Lisa notices the spark has gone out on her parents’ romance while watching an old black and white motion picture classic. But while Clark Gable may drink to everything, her parents are not Nick and Moira. Homer and Marge couldn’t conjure the minimum required enthusiasm of a prescription drug commercial ad between them, no matter how many throw-blankets they prop to stand upright.
Lisa’s initial declaration to fix her parents’ marriage is a minor irritant, with Bart speaking for the audience. But the flashforward to introducing future dates to Captain Underpants during a “21 Days in a Swamp” marathon makes even the intervention worthwhile. There is nothing more frightening than couch love.
Each segment ends with an effective cliffhanger, and the suspense is very clearly and consistently drawn. The red eyes in the darkness come just as Marge and Homer believe they’ve found some kind of safety. The solutions come a little too quickly, as do the romantic allegories. The shelter the Simpsons create is in the ruins of an old honeymoon retreat, where heart-shaped hot-tubs not only warm the heart, but make for a good place for controlled fire.
Homer and Marge are always in sync during the episode. After reading about the keto-based diet and sunset hikes which start at sunrise, they immediately and unanimously bail on the Saffron Center, and accidently create one of their own. This is expected, but the surprise is how well Homer and Marge work as a couple. They survive in the wilderness without arguments, or internal power struggles, there are no nods to the late Lina Wertmüller even as the couple are swept away into isolation and a fight for survival.
Some of this development is almost un-Homer-like. He is a little too competent in the wild. You get the idea he may have taken that crayon out of his nose again. He has the capacity to understand Marge has all the real solutions, and still finds a way to go a step further, by making sure she has matching rugs on her feet at the end of the episode. What Bart and Lisa see, when they look at Homer and Marge toss diaper bags into taco bins, is a couple who have given up. The wolverine scene proves it was all an exercise, like the “wax on, wax off,” lessons in Karate Kid.
By the time Homer learns “there’s a difference between hunger and not being full,” even their stomachs growl in conversation rather than argument. Through it all Marge offers nothing but comfort, and unabashed support. She is the first to make shelter from the rapids, and the one who drags Homer to the safety of the log. She is the first to recognize the situation, offer solutions, and keep up morale. Even as their outlook turns to doom, they never explore gloom. Then the character development is fast-forwarded. Initially, they were complaining about having to give up TV and phones for a week. They now make due with even less. “Tell me again about the Cheerios powder,” Homer says at one point, and we can tell the men from the mice. As characters, we’ve always known the Simpsons could adjust downwardly, but we still feel the growth when Marge exclaims she wants to have fresh caught fish every birthday after finally conquering their first hunger.
This episode also shows how far The Simpsons have progressed. At least on the evolutionary scale. When the Simpson family got lost in the wilds in “The Call of the Simpsons” from season 1, Homer was mistakenly identified as sasquatch in the local papers. The couple suffer no indignities in this installment. When their clothes get burned in the fire, their overhead search is so tastefully shot, even Homer’s nipples are pixelated beyond offense. Marge’s exclamation of “watch my thingy,” is classic comedy, but also classy.
By the end of this episode, Homer does represent the “king of nature, destroyer of the planet, and inventor of Earth Day.” The writers still incorporate the most subtle of commentary, in the harshest environment. It might be the melting fiberglass talking, but “Pixelated and Afraid” is a worthwhile entry in the Simpson family saga. It is even visually distinct and breaks as much ground as glass. Marge and Homer carry the episode solidifying their relationship with each other, and The Simpsons can show how much a rut has to offer.