Of course, after the long break between this and my previous review, I wrote it the same day that Dan wrote a rather important review, so check that one out. It should be just below this one.
So tonight on one of the Fox affiliates that we get here, either Fox 5 (NY) or Fox 29 (Philly), they were airing the one episode of “The Simpsons”, titled “Trilogy of Error“. This episode is one of two uniquely structured episodes that I know of, in that it doesn’t just follow one set chronology/plot thread. I guess you could make a case that other “theme episodes” might count towards this, but I suppose the gimmick for these two is different in that it’s not taking the characters and putting them in situations outside of their realities.
The episode originally aired in April of 2001, (Season 12 for those of you who care about such things), amidst such “classics” as the one with Lisa and the Bully, the one where Homer starts a daycare; the one where Homer becomes Burns’ “Prank Monkey”; the one where the kids get snowed in at school (with some akwardly raunchy humor, and one of the ten worst endings ever, in fact, one which was very similar to another that aired that season in which Homer started a website and ended up on a hallucinogenic island like on “The Prisoner”); the one titled “Worst. Episode. Ever.“; and the actual worst episode ever, the one where Homer and Marge build a tennis court in their backyard to start the actual plot, at about 15 minutes into a 22-minute episode.
This episode, however, proved to be the strongest one not only of that season, but one of the best of the five seasons around it. The first third of the episode deals with Homer’s day, in which he meets Lisa’s Science Fair project, a grammar-correcting robot, after which he accidentally cuts off his thumb. He has various adventures attempting to get the thumb sewn back on, including a ride with Cletus, and an explosion at Dr. Nick’s. He’s eventually stranded, walking toward Shelbyville, when out of nowhere the head of Lisa’s robot falls out of the air in front of him. In the second segment, “Lisa’s Day”, Lisa struggles to get to school in time for the fair, since Marge has left to take Homer to the Doctor, and her bike is gone. She winds up at an exact replica of her school, but on the wrong end of town, eventually runs into Marge outside of Moe’s (where Homer’s been distracted while trying to get ice to put his thumb on), and the two speed away, only to almost hit Bart, as he comes out from under a man-hole cover. The third segment chronicles Bart’s day, as he and Milhouse (on Lisa’s bike) go in search of illegal fireworks underground and get tied up with the mob. Eventually all of these stories meet up, and Homer gets his thumb sewn back on by the mob doctor as Lisa’s science project. There are many overlaps in the three stories, with scenarios that have payoffs in earlier segments and setups in later segments, things deliberately left vague early on, so that they can be explained in later parts.
The thing that really makes this episode work though, is the pacing. Right from the start it’s going at a breakneck speed with no pauses for character moments or throwaway jokes that have nothing to do with the main story. The reason for this is that there’s so much plot going on, at the same time as the other characters stories, that it’s essential to get through each person in under 7 minutes, and therefore is more like three short interlocking episodes than one big one that’s all over the place. Granted they have done episodes with three specific separate segments (The bible/literary stories episodes, the Halloween episodes, and this year’s Christmas one), but in those cases it seemed like “Hey, I have a good idea. Let’s make Lisa into Johnny Appleseed”, without thinking through how they would actually fill the time with story instead of just a collection of forced “jokes”. Season 12 is a prime example of the lack of story structure that has plagued the show for the last five years (at least). The story ideas for the episodes in this season aren’t developed enough to fill the amount of time for an episode, so they think of two or more story ideas and figure out how to connect them together, and try to pass it off as one story, usually pretty transparently, and often self-referrentially. But this episode was different. It was well-structured and plotted, and the humor came from having unfortunate things happen to the characters, instead of them causing stupid things to happen. The ending, while a bit rushed, made a lot more sense than nearly all of the other episodes that season, including the infamous “SURF’S UP” ending from “The Great Money Caper“. The 17 fanboys at the Simpsons episode archive gave this episode an average of an A, and I’m inclined to do so as well.
This episode, while nowhere near perfect is probably one of the best, if not most memorable episodes to come out of the series after season 11 (we’re currently in 17). Its use of non-linear storytelling, while gimmicky, allows for a change in the tired Simpsons formula that seemed to be dragging it down that year, and the incredibly fast pace and detailed plot structure keep it from getting sillier than anything in season 7 or 8 or just filled with dumb jokes. Even when it’s not funny, it’s engaging, not annoying, and it never feels like a chore to sit through, which is rare these days. It is nowhere near as good as episodes from six years before or so, but not much is, and with over 250 episodes prior, it’s hard to keep coming up with fresh ideas, something this episode does quite well.