TV Review / Recap: Springfield Debates the Teaching of Uncomfortable History in an Unusually Political “The Simpsons”

As much as The Simpsons has skewered suburban American life over the past nearly-three-and-a-half decades, it has tended to stay largely apolitical in doing so. Even when a retired George H.W. Bush moved in across Evergreen Terrace from Our Favorite Family, or when aliens Kang and Kodos abducted and replaced Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, these political figures were mocked more for their mannerisms and foibles than for their policies.

That’s a big part of the reason why tonight’s new episode of The Simpsons, entitled “Hostile Kirk Place”– the 16th installment of the long-running animated sitcom’s 34th season– feels so different. It leans into political debate with an episode-long parody of the real-life controversy surrounding the teaching of uncomfortable truths (such as racism) in American public schools.

I’ll start of this review by saying that my absolute favorite part of “Hostile Kirk Place” was its couch gag, which features one of my all-time favorite creative people “Weird Al” Yankovic performing his accordion in the Simpson family living room, only to be turned down by Homer (voiced, as always, by Dan Castellaneta) when he politely asks to stay for dinner. After that, we get a Dr. Seussian intro to the episode’s actual story, which involves Springfield Elementary School being shut down for several weeks after a large canister of army surplus rations leaks the smell of rotten eggs into the building. While the kids around town are home-schooled, Milhouse’s father Kirk Van Houten (Hank Azaria) is infuriated by the idea that his ancestor is being (accurately) depicted as a failed former mayor who built a giant gazebo in the town square that collapsed due to shoddy planning and construction. Once Springfield Elementary reopens, Kirk storms the first school council meeting and demands that these events– which he calls “Critical Brace Theory” in this half-hour’s most groan-worthy pun– be stricken from the textbooks, a battle that he wins when Superintendent Chalmers (also Azaria) gives in to his demands. When Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith) bemoans the shameless whitewashing of Springfield’s history, her mother Marge (Julie Kavner) reassures her that her presence on the school board will keep Kirk in check.

This doesn’t quite work out, unfortunately, and within weeks Kirk has risen to near-despotic levels of power in the small town. Meanwhile, Homer launches a business selling electronic t-shirts that express people’s anger on all sides of the political spectrum, inspired by late-night television commercials in which Shaquille O’Neal successfully peddled suckers like Homer useless junk. Anyway, the narrative comes to a head as these seemingly disparate storylines collide when Kirk has the town build a new gazebo that is twice as large as the first one, which he still refuses to admit even existed. During the opening ceremony, Homer’s electronic shirts short-circuit and cause the gazebo to collapse once again. There are some really good gags here, like Homer remembering when he was two years old in 1986… or was he 30? But otherwise this whole thing felt pretty disjointed and more like the plot of a South Park episode that pits both sides against each other– I’m specifically thinking of the 2008 “About Last Night…” episode of that series which mocked the passionate that pitted passionate Obama supporters against rabid McCain voters. I think ultimately that The Simpsons works better when it keeps politics at an arm’s length or at the very least disguises it better under a sharper layer of satire. That’s not to say this episode wasn’t entertaining– it often was, and I always get a kick out of Kirk-focused outings– but as a whole it just didn’t congeal for me, and left me wishing it had leaned more in the direction of making funny jokes rather than trying to make a belabored, frequently too on-the-nose point.

New episodes of The Simpsons air Sunday evenings on FOX.