The Simpsons is, possibly, the most sophisticated show on TV.
Take a look at Series 25, Episode 20 (episode 550 in total), “Brick Like Me“. Homer, after enjoying playing with Lisa but then being rejected by her when she wants to spend time with older girls, wishes that he could play with her forever in a perfect world.
He then awakes in that world, where everything – himself and the family included – is made of Lego bricks. At first, everything seems perfect. Neither he nor Lisa nor Maggie will ever grow old; they can play forever; “where everything fits together and no-one gets hurt”.
Almost the whole episode is presented in the format of The Lego Movie – itself a surreal blend of movie-reference weirdness. As Homer observes when he awakes as a Lego figure, “It’s not selling out, it’s co-branding!”
But then Homer understands that he will have to work for Mr Burns forever; that he and Marge will never grow old together; and that the reason playing with your children is so passionately wonderful is because they later will grow up. He flees back to the “real” world to be reunited with his family.
The episode closes by panning out on the “real” Springfield to reveal that it, too, is made of Lego bricks; and as the camera pans further back, the globe, the solar system and the galaxy are revealed to be a jigsaw puzzle entitled “The Universe” for “Age 13 billion+” and comprising 10 to the power of 80 pieces, held in the Lego-like hands of what seems to be the supreme being.
The episode is crammed with references to other movies and series, from “Avatar” (when Bart pilots a giant mechanical warrior version of himself he has built out of “Star Wars”, “Batman”, “Hobbit” and “Sponge Bob” Lego sets) to “The Hunger Games” (which Lisa longs to see as it is rated 12+ – a sign of her growing up) and “The Lego Movie” itself – from which, as Lisa observes, the episode has borrowed key plot elements.
In fact, the episode seems to me based on the Frederik Pohl 1955 short story The Tunnel under the World, which begins with the memorable line: “On the morning of June 15th, Guy Burckhardt woke up screaming out of a dream.” That story spookily explores the horrors which can be unleashed by unfettered capitalism.
I’d like to think that was what the writer of Brick Like Me was getting at.
You can read the The Tunnel under the World on-line. Now I come to look at it again, I realise it’s what inspired The Matrix and The Truman Show. But darker than either, with exquisite twists. You’ll never forget Feckle Freezers or the Contro Chemical Plant (echoes of the nuclear plant in Springfield?).
Fact: Lego Simpsons figures went on sale the same year (2014) Brick Like Me was first shown.
Fact: Homer’s discovery that mortality makes life worth living is reminiscent of my own novel, Biotime, where the discovery of a substance that enables the richest people on earth to live for ever by consuming the lives of the poorest has destroyed creativity worldwide. Result: civilisation, such as it is, has been going backwards for decades.
NB: while we’re on The Simpsons, one of my favourite episodes is Homer the Heretic, dating back to 1992. The episode explores belief and religion, and includes Homer setting up his own religion tailored to his personal tastes.
When Homer is nearly burned in a fire, he is rescued by a firetruck filled with characters representing different faiths, driven by Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a devout Hindu, who stops the truck en route to the fire to allow an apparently endless series of ducks to cross the road. When Homer says that the fire was caused by God’s vengeance for him leaving the church, Lovejoy, the vicar, tells him God was working through the hearts of his friends. The episode finishes with God consoling Homer on the failure of his religion; and starting to tell Homer the meaning of life, only to be cut off by the credits.
Which I am confident is a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, whose foreword includes:
And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost for ever.
This is not her story.
But it is the story of that terrible stupid catastrophe and some of its consequences.
Don’t you love that existential stuff?
The Simpsons: For: thoughtful, sophisticated, funny, reliable and consistent for a show now in its 28th year.
Against: it may be that it’s been going ages and we’re all getting older, but it feels to me – as in the later stages of the wonderful Friends, which also tailed off a bit – as if the golden age of The Simpsons was years ago. So only 9/10.
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P.P.S. I have also reviewed the splendid Simpsons episode Trash of the Titans, from 1998.