This week’s episode of “The Simpsons” was a tribute to Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” though in typical series fashion it arrived there in a doggedly circuitous way that started with Homer getting everyone at work caught for stealing office supplies and, possibly due to that, beginning to wet his bed. Professor Frink happens to have invented a device that allows you to enter someone else’s dreams, and soon the family’s plugging in and diving into their various subconscious in search of the source of the problem.
Of the minute (well, relatively speaking) pop culture parodies are not a “Simpsons” strong point — the show’s never had “South Park”-style quick turnaround, and has always been better at stories grounded in its own universe that use references as jokes rather than as a focus (to call out at oldie but goodie, consider the “Planet of the Apes” musical back in the seventh season).
But “How I Wet Your Mother” actually makes good use of the film its saluting by having an emotional core — the late Mona J. Simpson, Homer’s mother, appeared as a memory in Homer’s dream-world equivalent to Limbo, or as he puts it, “the Disneyland of me.”
And that Limbo is great, an opportunity for “The Simpsons” to play around with surrealist takes on its own characters and universe (something it did most memorably in “The Mysterious Voyage of Our Homer” back in season eight, with Homer wandering off into the desert to hallucinate after eating Guatemalan insanity peppers).
It’s a skyline comprised of stacks of giant donuts and Duff beer cans. There’s a Moe’s Tavern (staffed by a Moe) on every corner. The Kwik-E-Mart is also oversized and done up like a factory belching rainbow-colored Squishees into a waste pool in the back. And to take Homer’s description (and “Inception”‘s seriousness) to its most ridiculous end, there’s a roller coaster that zips around and through a massive version of Homer’s head.
Despite the visuals, the most touching part of the episode was a reference to the series early days in one of the other dream worlds. “The Simpsons” is no longer in its prime (though this season has shown marked signs of improvement over some of the other recent years), but it has enjoyed such a long run that sometimes its easy to forget how far the show has come.
The first dream-within-a-dream finds the family back in their more jagged “Tracey Ullman Show” days, as they wait for family therapist B.F. Sherwood to see them. Homer demands a baloney sandwich, Bart makes faces at Lisa and everyone gets into a brawl. “The Simpsons” had its origins in being a straightforward goof on a dysfunctional family, and it has grown so much richer and stranger than that that it actually takes a glance back to its old days to remember just how much its changed. The show has become its own pop culture reference, and that scene in the therapist’s waiting room looks just as striking, in its own way, as a bobble-headed Apu offering to give you your change in bacon.