The Simpsons will always be one of my favorite TV shows. I grew up with it in its heyday. The jokes still hold up (if you’re on Twitter, I encourage you to follow @SimpsonsQOTD), and the show has firmly cemented its place in television history not just because of its longevity, but because it had an uncanny knack for timeless satire. The joke, “To alcohol! The cause of and solution to all of life’s problems,” will always work, and it needs to because unless you’re South Park or resort to shortcuts like Family Guy, animation can’t move fast enough to catch up with the present times. All of that being said, I haven’t watched a new episode of The Simpsons in a very long time because I feel the show’s quality has dramatically plummeted over the past 15 years. So what happens when a long-running show meets a long-running toy line like LEGO? An episode that’s constantly on the defensive and retreading familiar ground.
In the midst of a nightmare Homer (Dan Castellaneta) shouts “It’s not selling out! It’s co-branding! It’s co-branding!”, and then awakens to a world where everything is made out of LEGO. This doesn’t bother Homer or anyone else, and it’s an accepted reality where beer is made of plastic circles, and people can break apart and not die. Nothing bad ever happens, but as Homer starts having visions of his non-LEGO self, he struggles to understand why he’s in this LEGO reality. As he digs deeper, it appears to stem from building a playset Lisa (Yeardley Smith), which in turns built a stronger relationship between the father and daughter. Meanwhile, Bart (Nancy Cartwright) accidentally destroys the school and is forced to stifle his creativity in rebuilding it.
As an adult, it’s odd to see The Simpsons and LEGO combined since I loved both as a kid, and I even bought some of the new Simpsons minifigures (they don’t look like the ones in this episode). But the series and the toys have changed significantly over the years. LEGO still has a commitment to original sets, but there were no licensed properties when I was a kid. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and my inner-child is happy to have The Simpsons and LEGO together. But as an adult, I know that just because I liked both of these things when I was young, that doesn’t mean they work together twenty-five years later.
I’ll never hate The Simpsons, but “Brick Like Me” did nothing to change my opinion of the show’s current state. My theory for The Simpsons‘ decline is two-fold. First, I believe the show became too referential because when the original writers left they made room for people who grew up watching the show. They were living in an acclaimed world other people created and so the writing became timid and highly self-aware. Second, there was less and less to satirize. Trying to fill 22 episodes a year is tough, and it’s tougher when better episodes have been there before. That forces a show to rely more on current events that aren’t current (it takes six to eight months to animate an episode) and rehashing decades-old conflicts.
The central conflict in “Brick Like Me” is the changing relationship between Homer and Lisa, and this was done brilliantly in the episode “Lisa the Greek” where Lisa and Homer bonded over her ability to predict the outcome of football games. It’s funny, it’s got a lot of heart, and it premiered in 1992. “Brick Like Me” turns the relationship on its head a little bit with Homer trying to win over Lisa, but we’ve seen how they bond more than once (it was done again in the season 12 episode “HOMR” where Homer becomes smart), and it feels like an excuse to do an episode entirely in LEGO, which is a ratings gimmick.
And the show knows it’s a gimmick, which is why the first joke (the screener I had didn’t include the couch gag) is about “co-branding”. From there, the show constantly stops to poke fun at its own shortcomings like the sci-fi premise explained by Comic Book Guy (a posted sign reads “No Outside Realities”) and even a nod towards The LEGO Movie. Beyond that, there are a few funny jokes, but most fall flat like easy jabs at religion and The Hunger Games.
For me, the reason LEGO lives on and The Simpsons doesn’t is because toys don’t require stories. People were shocked The LEGO Movie was good because it had a really great story at the center (in addition to being funny, well-animated, etc). By comparison, The Simpsons has apparently run out of plotlines. The show continues because it can. It’s a product as much as LEGO, but The Simpsons used to have imagination and verve and insight and weirdness (the rake gag from “Cape Feare” gets me every time). That’s all gone now. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for The Simpsons, but “Brick Like Me” shows that its former glory has gone to pieces.
The Simpsons “Brick Like Me” airs Sunday night on FOX.