Scullyfied Simpsons: “Beyond Blunderdome” (Season 11, Episode 1)

 

Homer yelling at Mel Gibson in "Beyond Blunderdome"
Our hero – proclaiming his wife as property because Mel Gibson is at the front door. Were these writers trying to make him unlikable?

 

Movie tickets? That’s hardly worth destroying a car!” – Homer Simpson. To be fair, that is a fine piece of logic, that I’m sure will carry through the season.

Airdate: September 26th, 1999

Written By: Mike Scully

Plot: An electric car manufacturer entices potential buyers to test drive with possible gifts. Homer’s reward for test-driving (read, destroying) the car is two tickets to a test screening of Mel Gibson’s newest movie, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. While Marge (who is infatuated with Mel) loves the movie like most of the audience, Homer is much more critical. It’s Homer’s critique that gets through to Gibson, however, and the duo embark on a controversial edit of the film to amp up the action.

Review:

Wow! I’m actually impressed! I can tell from this episode alone that Season 11 is going to be haphazard. That takes a special kind of effort, writers, but you showed it! Good for you – enjoy my somewhat neurotic rant on this episode.

Yup, Season 11 starts off on a rather… less than satisfactory note with the aptly-titled “Beyond Blunderdome”. (They tried to make a punny, and they made a funny in ways they didn’t imagine.) So, what do we have here? Jerkass Homer? Homer getting a job? Zany schemes? Jerkass Homer getting a zany job? Well, you guess right if you got the latter, but there is one big issue with this episode that would damage it, even without the Mike Scully cliches.

It’s a love letter.

To Mel Gibson.

Yes, years before he exposed himself as a lunatic anti-Semite and sexist jackass, The Simpsons decided to make him a guest star in the Season 11 premiere. And by guest star, I mean guest star! As soon as Gibson’s name is brought up, Marge fawns over him, and Homer becomes jealous. Alright, I guess – they sort of overdo Homer’s insolence here, but that’s to be expected after Season 10. Gibson here is a director – this time of a Mr. Smith Goes To Washington remake. Fair enough.

But here’s where the episode falls apart. What the writers could’ve done is satirize Gibson, maybe giving him a major sense of ego, an overt perfectionist streak, show him as an intellectual against the populace or focus on his balance between the Id and the Superego, something like that. Instead, Gibson reads Homer’s rant against the remake, realizes that he was wrong to make a movie that doesn’t involve gun violence, and makes him an executive producer.

Oh, boy…

Well, Gibson is treated with the softest of gloves. I guess you could argue that he’s spineless, willing to cow-tail to the slightest criticism because he gets a lot of praise and craves criticism. However, all these lines about him “being too loved” and getting away with crimes of various degrees don’t have the same tinge of irony or depth that this show used to deliver. Consider the jokes about Michael Jackson in “Stark Raving Dad” – they managed to satirize and provide pathos to one of the greatest entertainers of all time before his public image imploded. Here, it’s just treating Gibson like a cool guy, willing to befriend this dork.

And I guess Gibson befriending an everyman like Homer would work… if Homer, again, was more sympathetic. Unfortunately, the writers crank him up to full-blown Jerkass mode here. Between being more egotistical than usual, treating his wife like a doormat, acting insolent at Mel Gibson seconds before sucking up to him, I buy him as an everyman as much as I buy the New York Jets as a well-organized football team. Any attempts to create pathos – using cinema as an escape from life – are immediately wiped out by the sheer callousness in his reasoning.

If you make your protagonist unsympathetic, either a) you’ve gotta make everybody dislike him, or b) you cede to a script that will be ravaged by fans and/or critics. And this hits B, as Mel Gibson actually takes him seriously. (Again, ignoring Gibson’s own fall from grace.)

Fortunately, there are people who think that Homer is a maniac, particularly after watching the edited version of the film, complete with stupid action scenes, horribly expository dialogue, and a madman that gets away with everything. Unfortunately, those people are the executives… who start a silly chase scene that ends with Homer and Mel escaping with their edit of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Hypocrisy, much? Said chase scene contains a central problem with many of these episodes so far – there’s little in the way of rationale as to why these characters do the things they do. The show is trying to get big laughs, motivation be damned. As a result, there’s little in the way of investment when Homer and Gibson decide to moon the executives to drive them away. (I am not making that up. Refer back to “Rosebud” to do that type of gag well.)

Also, most of the Hollywood-centered jokes are just, well, silly references to remind us that we are in Hollywood. The time that could be spent for some level of character development is instead used to say “We’re in Hollywood! Look, Ellen DeGeneres lives here with her partner! The Dog from Fraiser is famous!” It’s all vapid, man. Even the attempts at satire that aren’t focused on the film itself are unmemorable because there’s no character interaction. It’s just pointing out stuff. Geddit? They’re doing a variation of Road Warrior?

I will, however, cede that this episode isn’t completely without merit.

A scene from "Beyond Blundedome" parodying "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington."
“All in favor… say die!”

For one – ignoring the meta hypocrisy for a second, I loved the Mr. Smith Goes To Washington remake – the edited version. It’s so gory and over the top that it goes straight back to being hilarious, complete with stupid one-liners et al. “All in favor, say die” is what you would expect from action movie schlock. It actually works as a satire of how many remakes and/or revivals seem to rely more on style and cliche rather than substance.

I mean, look at Trek 09. I’ll get to that movie soon enough, but while I don’t dislike it, it definitely is an action-oriented film, complete with a focus on the grand battle scenes. Compare to the original TOS films, which largely relied on character interactions with the action being secondary, and which (with the exception of V, and to a lesser extent I) are all quite good. That’s just an example, however.

Also, I will admit that the ending does very slightly lessen the antipathy I have towards this episode – not only is Homer threatened with a lawsuit (because he got himself an executive producer credit), but Mel Gibson throws him out after suggesting that they bury his career further. And the latter gets funnier in some ways given Mel Gibson’s disgrace.

But, in other ways, Gibson’s disgrace not only makes it worse, it shows the big problem that The Simpsons would have after its golden age. This episode was too afraid to confront the establishment it once skewered. In cozying up to it, it makes all attempts to skewer it that much less enjoyable. And it ages when that establishment is shown to have signs of rot – like Mel Gibson being exposed as a bigoted jackass.

Thus, the satire about Hollywood starts to fall a bit flat. That’s if it’s on top form. Which it’s not here.

There was so much wasted potential with Mel Gibson and his interactions. Maybe make him do something that has Marge question her devotion to the man. Make the conflict between Homer and Mel more consistent, and make it more than just a distraction from the zany car chases. Make the characters human, not vehicles for Jerkass Homer.

Yes, this episode aired 18 years ago, but still – consider this for future TV writers!

To put it simply, South Park handled Gibson better. And that had him as a banjo-playing fundamentalist who chased two kids with a tanker. What a rousing start to Season 11 this was! The problems that cropped up last season are out in full force with this episode. Here’s hoping the next episode’s at least somewhat better…

Tidbits:

  • I will admit that the Electaurus commercial at the start is a brilliant parody of arguably overdone commercials dedicated to preserving the environment… it’s all downhill from there, though.
  • To put it bluntly, this episode has one of my least favorite “fart jokes” in TV history. In a stab at the Electaurus not running on gas, Bart belches. Marge admonishes him… and take a lucky guess what happens next. (“Well, that shut me up.”) A fart joke has the potential to be funny (although it’s not my personal cup of tea), but not only was this an obvious joke, it was also handled in the most juvenile manner possible. When Star Trek V: The Final Frontier manages to outclass you there (“Bourbon and beans, an explosive combination!”), something is wrong.
  • I also dislike this implication that Marge and Homer’s relationship is basically dead. Between thinking of other people whilst intimate and Homer noting that the wedding ring is proof of ownership… yeesh. Their marriage has never been perfect for obvious reasons, but at least there was a genuine sense of love there before. One of my favorite episodes is “The Last Temptation of Homer” for that reason. Here, it just feels cruel in the wrong places.
  • Still, that swipe at Robert Downey Jr. having a shootout with the police… yeah, I laughed.
  • “We’ve already brought five Golden Globe awards.” Yeah, I laughed there, as well. Hey, “Three Gays of the Condo” beat “Jurassic Bark” at the Emmys. I smell a conspiracy.

Wrap-Up:

Zaniness Factor: 3.5. If I wanted to watch The Road Warrior, I’d throw on The Road Warrior.

Jerkass Homer Meter: 4. For acting like a jealous maniac, he gets to direct a movie with Mel Gibson. Relatable protagonist, that!

Favorite Scene: As I said, the edit of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington was hilarious.

Least Favorite Scene: Did I throw on Mad Max?

Score: 3.

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