There was a lot of hype going into The Simpsons LEGO episode and, honestly, I was a little worried. It felt like such a gimmick — like another nail in this show's long-descending coffin. Then, last week, the trailer for the episode debuted, and it seemed to suggest something much more interesting and weird. The episode, "Brick Like Me," premiered last night and thankfully my later suspicions were correct: It was great! Available on HuluPlus, the basic story was that Homer was imagining a LEGO universe because Lisa bailed on going to a LEGO competition with him. Here are our three thoughts on why it really worked.
"It's not selling out. It's co-branding."
Those are Homer's first words in the episode. It is just one of the few times the characters acknowledge what is happening, including a clever wink to the fact that episode had echoes of The LEGO Movie. Which, considering that this is The Simpsons, shouldn't come as a surprise. The Simpsons have been post-modernly winking at pop culture since Mitch Hurwitz was still breaking Golden Girls episodes. So, sure, the main plot is based on the idea that LEGOs are the only fun thing a dad could do with his kids, but it doesn't feel cheap because the show is also calling out the potential grossness of it all.
It was touching.
The episode's heart also helped it not feel cheap. The show made a smart decision by building it around a Homer and Lisa story. Over the course of The Simpsons' run, Homer-Lisa episodes tend to be the sweetest. (See: "Lisa the Greek" and "HOMR.") Unlike Homer and Marge, where conflict tends to stem from Homer being an ass, Homer and Lisa's conflict comes from a desire yet inability to understand one another. "Brick Like Me" was especially successful because Lisa was the bad guy, hurting her dad by choosing her friends over him. It's not the most unique sitcom plot, but the framing device and the reality-jumping storytelling made it really pop.
It felt like Community, in the way that Community, at its best, feels like The Simpsons.
It's hard not to see the similarities between "Brick Like Me" and the recent Community episode "G.I. Jeff." Both episodes feature the protagonist hiding in an animated reality (in the case of The Simpsons, a differently animated reality) because they are in denial of what is happening in the "real" world (in Community, it was Jeff turning 40). At first, the way The Simpsons used a high concept to get at an emotional point felt like what Community does at its best. That was until I remembered that's because Community at its best feels like classic Simpsons.
"Cape Fear," "You Only Move Twice," "Rosebud," "Bart of Darkness," "Homer's Barbershop Quartet," the best "Treehouse of Horror" sketches, and, hell, like 100 other examples: The Simpsons pioneered this sort of mix. And though last night's episode doesn’t necessarily belong in that echelon, it was a joy to see the show feel a little bit like its old self. This is the show's 25th season; staleness is inevitable. But a good concept — one that the writers really dig into — can knock the show off its rhythm a little and free it up to feel fresh again.
Regardless of the conventional wisdom, in its later seasons, The Simpsons is not unwatchable. It's just a lot more hit or miss. Last night was a hit.