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Review: ‘The Simpsons’ Live Episode Stood Out For the Wrong Reasons

Review: 'The Simpsons' Live Episode Stood Out For the Wrong Reasons

“It only took 27 years to do what they could do in 1954.”
With that, Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith) introduced the first live television broadcast of an animated series. Homer, voiced by Emmy winner Dan Castellaneta, answered questions for three minutes as a wide array of James L. Brooks-created characters paraded across the screen (including Bender holding a sign campaigning for more “Futurama”). On the West Coast, Homer/Castellaneta got through four questions ranging from what he would do if Donald Trump becomes President (“I’m for Bernie Sanders. I love his chicken.”) to his favorite thong (“the Brazilian one”). Everyone’s favorite yellow father figure got through more on the East Coast feed, including his type of car (“a hybrid” of “old and terrible”) and who he’s endorsing for President (“Jeb Bush, assuming I’m not too late.”)

Yet intentional or not, Lisa’s line also noted the disconnect between where television was when “The Simpsons” began, where it is now and why “The Simpsons Live” didn’t really fit in with either. 

READ MORE: How Homer Will Make His Live Debut on ‘The Simpsons’

The first 19 minutes of the 22-minute episode introduced a premise primed for a live segment: Homer took up improv comedy. Even without further explanation, one can understand how “Simprovised” could work with an improvised ending. And really, it did. Sure, Homer’s blank stare and staged stuttering didn’t do much to sell the joke, but the sheer fascination of watching the motion capture process unfold in front of us — all of us; an entire nation of fans — more than made up for frozen imagery (and lame questions). 
What didn’t work was the actual episode surrounding it. While now is not the time to reflect on when “The Simpsons” transitioned from on-point satirical commentary to dated recreations of its former self, the live episode did serve as a reminder of just how isolated the series feels from the modern television landscape. In another world, on another network, with a little more flexibility and a touch more perspective, “The Simpsons Live” could’ve done more than just prove it could be done. It’s no longer good enough to watch and wonder, “How’d they do that?” especially when so much pre-publicity is focused on explaining just that. When “Grease: Live” wowed us, it wasn’t simply because we got to watch live as the cast and crew booked it between sets in a mad dash between elaborately choreographed dance numbers. The story held together, too.

Flash forward to a few months later, and the live ending for “Simprovised” didn’t actually provide any closure for the episode. After watching Homer struggle to overcome a fear of public speaking through improv, we were left wondering if it actually worked. Homer started cheating before his big set at the Fringe Festival, planting suggestions in the audience in order to come up with better jokes ahead of time, but Lisa called him out on it. In the moment of truth, he nearly betrayed his daughter’s need for moral guidance before bucking all expectations and…making up his own improv topic. While audiences may assume Homer conquered his fear by jovially speaking to a crowd, the confused expressions of Lisa and Moe gave little assurance everything turned out okay. It was the kind of ending that needed an extra three minutes to nail down.
Instead, we were given what many of us tuned in specifically to see. But we weren’t given any more than that. Throwing the “live” tag on an episode isn’t an excuse to abandon the core reason people have grown attached to TV. There’s still a story that needs to be told. How “The Simpsons” could forget that — a show that’s scheduled to break the record for most scripted episodes to air in primetime within the next two years — seems ludicrous. 
Broadcast television is obviously desperate for live viewers and this all-too-brief, all-too-disparate addition to the trend more than proved that. Whether it’s sporting events, event series, live musicals or live episodes, audiences will keep tuning in for the allure of the unpredictable, but we won’t keep doing it if too many continue to fail. “The Simpsons” has earned the right to do whatever it wants, and the mere fact it’s still trying to break new ground is admirable by itself. But would it have been that hard for Homer to wrap things up in the process?

“The Simpsons” airs its Season 27 finale Sunday, May 22 at 8pm. You can watch both the East and West coast versions of “Simprovised” on Hulu.

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