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Worldly Distractions: The Simpsons 25.16 - You Don't Have to Live Like a Referee


crazyforkate

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blog-simpsonsref.jpg 

simpsonsref

Well, with Call the Midwife and Girls gone, Sunday nights have become downright free! And for once, I approach an episode of The Simpsons from this decade in a good mood. I wonder how quickly this episode will kill it.

We get no real intro (just a clip of Muu-Muu Homer from that episode where he got really fat), going straight to the couch gag, where the Simpsons participate in The Running of the Bulls - er, Couches. They make it to their own couch, but one of the bull-couches knocks Homer off and takes his spot.

The students of Springfield Elementary are subjected to an excruciatingly dull "Living History" debate, in which actors portray Lincoln and Douglas. Some Lincoln-was-gay-not-really jokes ensue, which are actually a pretty clever poke at historical revision. "Sharing beds was a common practice", indeed.  Not surprisingly, the kids quickly revolt. The bullies soon have control of the gym, and the actors resort to playing Frankenstein. The school newspaper commemorates the ensuing carnage. There's a reference to "Lunchlady Dora". Wait, that's Lunchlady Doris? Are they trying to retcon casting a new actor even though Tress MacNeille has been playing her for like five years and Doris Grau has been dead for almost twenty?  Get your facts straight, guys.

Anyway, Chalmers is pissed off over the incident and decides to get the kids to fess up to starting the rebellion. He suggests they hold a contest to bring out the truth. (Please be Hunger Games, please be Hunger Games.) However, the school can't afford to give prizes. Going on the theme of "Heroes" - as in Sandwich, not incredibly catchy David Bowie song -  they get sponsorship for said contest from a Subway knock-off chain. "Ezra", the spokesperson, extols the benefits of healthy eating through mass-produced sandwiches.

Soon, hero fever sweeps through the school, and the kids clamor to present their favorite in the contest. The heroes vary wildly, from Lisa's Marie Curie to Ralph's Pixy Stix. However, Martin has chosen Curie as well. Sure that she will lose the contest, Lisa flees the auditorium in tears. Bart notices and tries to comfort her. He suggests that she change the topic to Homer, on the theory that anyone who presents a good portrait of Homer has to be a genius. As Martin triumphantly walks off the stage, Lisa desperately tries to think of some ideas. We get the aforementioned David Bowie song, played over a montage of Homer's many failures. However, Lisa proudly takes the stage and recites everything good that Homer has done over the past twenty-five seasons. Homer is taken aback. She wins the audience over, and winds up tying with Martin - which means the money goes back to the school, but the speeches get to go online.

His confidence boosted, Homer sings "Grade School Hero" all over the place. He tells Lisa how much he appreciates it, and asks how she came up with it. Lisa evades giving any details. Luckily, she is interrupted by a visit from a FIFA rep. He heard an anecdote about how Homer gave Lisa a red card while coaching her soccer team (in an episode which either never happened or escaped my memory - the past dozen seasons have kind of been a blur). Convinced that any referee who can call an offense on his own daughter must be fair, and plagued by an epidemic of fixed games, he has decided to ask Homer to ref the World Cup. Okay, I'll say it - flimsiest pretext for an episode ever, and boy, have there been a lot of those. I mean, seriously? One grade school presentation and he's at the top of the leagues?

Homer accepts, though they have to pause for a second as the executive is arrested for corruption and replaced. Heh, sounds like Russia. Soon enough, the Simpsons are going to Brazil! Again. Because that worked out so well last time. (On another note, can you believe that episode was twelve years ago? That's almost half the series.) At least this time Marge bothers to learn Portuguese, in contrast to Bart's learning Spanish before. In fact, I'm pretty sure that's a jab at the previous episode's reception. Her talking app annoys the entire flight crew anyway, so she's forced to shut it off after a tirade from the PA system about disrespectfully thinking she could learn the language in one flight.

Linguistic incidents aside, they arrive in Brazil and the games begin. There's a good gag about the entire nation of Luxembourg turning up to support their team while Snake robs them blind back home. Homer kicks off the "Human Foosball" game while the commentators joke about his weight and lack of experience. Nonetheless, everyone is impressed with his impartial judging and Homer is a success.

Side note here - the animation in this episode has greatly evolved since 2002, partly due to technology, but also most likely a desire to portray Brazil more realistically. Rio is a lot more urban, there's a great use of shadow and the people seem much less stereotyped, both in appearance and dialogue. It looks wonderful - and it's honestly pretty interesting to see what happens when the Simpsons crew are bending over backwards to please their audience. Like they ever did that in Canada's appearances. This is what happens when you never make a fuss about anything, fellow hosers.

Anyway, Marge stumbles through her Portuguese pronunciation (I'm learning it myself and can attest that it is hard) while all of Brazil scoffs. Homer steps out to get some air and meets a successful-looking man, who offers him a suitcase full of money. He turns it down, but the briber is patient - it will happen eventually. Even if they have to be a little underhanded...

So the games continue, and the bribery continues. Homer steadfastly refuses, which is very impressive considering his general moral weakness. It gets to the point where the stadium even installs a "Bribe Cam". Still, the cheaters make no progress.

In our first official callback to the last Brazil episode, we have an appearance from the beloved inappropriate children's TV program "Teleboobies". Bart watches, and thinks Krusty could learn a few things. Homer comes in, exhausted, and tallies up the day's bribe count. Meanwhile, Marge continues to attempt her fractured Portuguese, receiving only frustration in return. (I'd believe it. "Point at stuff" has gotten me much further here than my paltry Russian.) She gets scolded by the guy behind her in line, who points out that most ATMs have an English option anyway, then makes fun of her for spending $7.99 on an app. I concur, especially since DuoLingo exists!

Homer asks the hotel staff to take away his bribes (which, bizarrely, includes Spiderpig). He tells Bart that he wants to keep being a hero like Lisa belives, seeing it as a sign of strength. Bart fiendishly reveals that he was Lisa's second choice. Dejected, Homer leaves to commit a variety of sins.

While he's out getting wasted, the cheaters catch up with him and ask him once again to fix the match. Broken, he agrees. The day of the final arrives. Springfieldians watch soccer for about the third time in their lives, while competing German and Brazilian fans throw accusations of "Nazi" and "Nazi-harborer" at each other. The briber instructs Homer on how to fix the game. Lisa overhears and begs him not to go through with it. He snipes at her about being her second choice and heads out to besmirch the noble game.

The match goes slowly, as football tends to do. Homer gets his first decision when he has to consider whether to call a bogus penalty on an apparently dead player. However, he sees Lisa looking at him from the stands, and does the right thing. Germany wins, Homer is praised for his strength of character, and Lisa smiles. As Homer leaves the stadium, however, the crooked game fixers show up with guns. He prepares to die "The American way - in a foreign country wearing short pants." However, Marge runs in begging for mercy. They give her one minute to plead with them. In excellent Portuguese, she delivers an impassioned speech for Homer's life.

Her language skills impress the crook so much that he wants to hire her to teach his son Hebrew for his Bar Mitzvah - but he's still going to kill Homer first. Marge pleads again, as a mother, saying that surely he has a mother. It turns out he does. She was a bit character who sat next to Lisa on the plane down. When her TV malfunctioned, Lisa generously offered to switch seats, and the man's mother considers this a debt to be repaid. Homer is let go. Meanwhile, the "dead player" is revealed to have been faking everything when he rises from his grave.

A tag scene features the Simpsons on an Amazon cruise. Unfortunately, Krusty is tearing it down to build another installment in his ubiquitous fast food franchise. So it goes.

I was pleasantly surprised by this episode's sophisticated handling of Brazil, though I think that is mostly a reaction to the crude "Blame it on Lisa" a dozen years back. However, it was definitely an improvement both visually and in terms of story. The conceit of Homer being a referee was incredibly random and a poor premise indeed, but at the heart of the main conflict was one of the most fruitful relationships of the show - the always-complicated, always-loving bond between Homer and Lisa. It was this connection, mined endlessly over the years but still effective, that provided the episode with much-needed heart. In between, some good gags about Marge's language learning, a couple of football asides and some well-placed observations on tourism gave the episode some decent laughs. If they could have cut out the somewhat meandering first act, it would have been much better - but for what they gave us, I enjoyed it.

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